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CUT THROUGH ALBANY'S CHOKE HOLD TO GIVE THE CONSTITUTION A REAL REWRITE

A state constitutional convention -- and only a state constitutional convention -- will look at New York's basic charter of state government as a single whole. And only such a grass-roots convention can recommend to the people for their final judgment a modern constitution shaped by independently elected delegates.

That's because the only other route to changing New York's constitution is controlled by entrenched state lawmakers, of both political parties, who like things as they are.

These are the same Albany insiders who for the last 13 years have proved incapable, whether money was scarce or plentiful, of enacting a state budget on time.

Without a convention, any constitutional change rests in the hands of insiders. They are the gatekeepers. Amendments come piecemeal, one or two at a time.

So only the convention that voters this Election Day will be asked to call can propose reforms of state government that will fit together, one provision with another, as a unified and single governing charter.

There is plenty of work for confident, informed and independent delegates to do on the Constitution. New York lags behind other states in modernizing its basic government charter.

New York's present constitution runs on for more than 50,000 words. Fattened with obsolete and inconsistent provisions, it is trivialized by gratuitous detail and disordered by unrelated changes added year after year.

A constitution is, or should be, a basic framework of broad principles of government, not just another regular statute dotted with detail. Surely New York's no longer requires instructions on running bingo games, financing "railroad crossings at grade" or building "necessary drains, ditches and dikes" when draining swamps. Regular laws can cover such specifics.

If New York's bulky constitution were gleaned and reduced by half, it would still be longer than those of more than 30 states. Connecticut's is under 10,000 words; Illinois's, under 14,000.

Even more serious work for delegates touches such substantive realms of policy as Albany's chaotic fiscal affairs, the jumbled state courts, inadequate incentives to promote more consolidation and sharing among local governments, and refinements for the State Legislature.

New York's chief judge, Judith Kaye, drafted a constitutional amendment earlier this year to unscramble and unify New York's nine -- yes, nine -- separate courts. They create a maze, she says, that the average citizen "needs a road map to navigate through." But not much has happened to her valuable ideas in Albany since. Constitutional convention delegates could, with reforms, profoundly enhance New York's dispensation of justice.

Or take another snarled maze -- governing New York's chaotic practice of budgets and borrowing. Albany's late budgets and slick fiscal gimmicks are signs of big trouble. Equally troubling is the state's depressed credit rating, which raises borrowing expenses.

The rules of finance should be streamlined. That would not only help Albany and state government. It would also repair the archaic rules that prevent local governments and school districts from delivering their services more efficiently.

Indeed, a convention should carve out fresh incentives to encourage more shared services, consolidation and other regional approaches and combinations among this state's 57 counties, 62 cities, 932 towns, 557 villages and 5,000 special-purpose districts and authorities. Local governments need more discretion to act together in their own citizens' best interests.

Then there's New York's big, expensive legislature. It's nearly twice the size (211 members to 120) as that of more populous California. Years ago, New York had a smaller Senate. The convention should consider trimming the Senate's 61 seats by a third, expanding each district to differentiate Senate constituencies from those of the more numerous Assembly and doubling Senate terms to four years. The result: More diverse representation at less cost.

In a direct conflict of self-interest, too, New York state lawmakers now determine the boundaries of legislature districts, including their own. Progressive states have avoided this inequity by establishing independent commissions to draw district boundaries. When disputes arise, they are appealed not to state lawmakers but to the courts for resolution. Why not New York?

There is, then, plenty of work to challenge a New York constitutional convention, especially if its delegates represent a strong voice of independently elected people from outside the established Albany power structure. Insiders have monopolized state government for too long. A convention will open a window to Albany for wider representation.

But remember: There's not even a remote chance of that happening unless New Yorkers seize the opportunity and vote this fall to call a convention in 1999. Tomorrow: Trust the people's judgment.

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