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AFRAID LAWMAKERS WOULD RUN A CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION? ACTUALLY, THEY WON'T HAVE TIME

Forget the date on the top of this page. It's Nov. 5, 1997.

Yesterday was Election Day. As foreshadowed by the polls, the voters have approved a constitutional convention. Next year those voters will again pull levers in an election about the convention -- this time to elect delegates. The convention, as the State Constitution mandates, will then convene in the Capitol the first Tuesday in April of the following year, 1999.

Or can all that actually take place?

Provided the voters take the first step and set events in motion, most of it can be achieved in good order. But there will be a problem with the convention meeting place.

As history discloses, all earlier conventions have met in the spacious Assembly chamber. But in 1999 that is not likely to occur, or to occur more than symbolically. For it is highly unlikely that the Assembly could conclude its business and adjourn by the first Tuesday in April. It has been decades since anything of the kind has happened. New York legislative sessions don't wrap up now until the Fourth of July or even later.

The last three-month legislative session took place in a rush 30 years ago to make room for the 1967 constitutional convention. But even in that era of short legislative sessions, the senators and assemblymen struggled for 21 hours to wrap up business by April 1 -- and barely hit their target. The convention began on April 3.

And that leads to another, more important conclusion. The new habit of six-month State Legislature sessions logically precludes legislators in 1999 from doubling as convention delegates, as they did in 1967.

The convention can go on at the same time the Legislature is still working its way through its session. Even though it is supposed to convene in Albany, it wouldn't have to stay there. The delegates could meet their mandated constitutional starting date by organizing and selecting leaders in early April, symbolically convening in the Assembly chamber on April 7, and then adjourning and moving -- either within Albany or to another city or cities.

Add to the overlapping sessions the widely separated venues, and, as a practical matter, legislators would be unable to serve in both bodies no matter how idealistic or reform-minded they may be.

Because of constitutional and practical limitations, state constitutional conventions in the past have lasted six months -- from April through September, enabling the delegates to clear proposed amendments by late September for ballot printing for the November referendum.

Whether the 1999 convention decides to move to a site within Albany or to another city, it seems clear that the era has ended of state legislators doubling -- as they often have in the past -- as delegates. Both positions are expensive to achieve, and they are demanding and time-consuming. Neither deserves to impinge on or to compete against the other.

Whether their motives are public-spirited or self-serving, therefore, state legislators would be cheating themselves and the citizens if they claimed to be able to serve both bodies concurrently.

What are the chances that the Assembly would voluntarily complete its session and relinquish its quarters by late March 1999 to accommodate the convention? Even amid the best of intentions, legislative issues these days are vastly too complex and thorny to be arbitrarily encapsulated within such a restricted time period. Constricting sessions from six months to three would set off serious legislative disruptions with the State Senate. But even if the miraculous happened, it would be practically impossible for state legislators to move between the two bodies and represent the citizens fully and responsibly as delegates.

Those legislators who have aspired to reform New York State government from within must at last gamely admit defeat. Over many decades, reform has not happened within the Legislature. Not only are state budgets chronically late, but the two houses of the Legislature are frequently deadlocked. Their election districts are gerrymandered. Ballot access is severely fettered, election campaigns are interminable and campaign contributions by special interests rule absolutely.

The legislators should voluntarily step aside as candidates next year for convention delegate positions. They should allow less partisan citizens to stand tall in a new forum where reform is possible because it truly springs from the grass roots.

And if the public interest won't motivate them to do so, maybe this time pure practicality will.

A State Legislature aide and speechwriter from 1966 to 1982, MITCHELL KAIDY also served on the staff of the 1967 State Constitutional Convention's committee on natural resources and agriculture.
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