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FOR A BETTER CONSTITUTION, NEW YORK NEEDS A DEBATE ABOUT WHO AND WHAT WE CAN BE

New York State's Constitution enshrines our values and gives legal expression to our vision of ourselves and our government. It's our fundamental source of guidance for elected officials, it sets forth the process of government, and reflects our democracy's vision of itself, our responsibilities, our rights and our community.

It deals with our commitment to the mentally ill, to educating our children, and to protecting our wilderness. It creates our cities, counties, towns and villages. It has served well for over 60 years, since its last revision at the constitutional convention of 1938.

But it has gaps. Society has evolved as we approach the end of the 20th century, and New York's Constitution is silent on issues of daily concern and verbose on issues long past their importance.

The constitution lacks a guarantee of right to privacy; it lacks any definition of corporate responsibility; it fails to protect citizens against persistent patterns of discrimination. It is silent on the structure and mission of higher education. It fails to limit unwise debt practices. It fails to limit special-interest impacts on elections. It speaks not at all to the rights of children.

Yet as we approach the November decision by the people of the state on whether to call a constitutional convention, a strange convergence is developing. The debate about the convention has been marked by anger and frustration by some proponents of a convention and by fear and timidity on the parts of some who oppose it.

Some proponents, in the face of what they perceive as Albany gridlock, speak out of anger, repeating that Albany is broken and needs fixing. They don't go any further, however, and are silent about what a convention ought to do. They seek a "yes" vote on the grounds that something ought to happen but do not offer their vision for our state.

On the other side, some of the convention's opponents fear that valuable parts of the constitution would be endangered by a runaway convention. Their fear of a bad outcome is so great that they would forgo the real possibility of an improved constitution to guide New York.

Neither position -- the anger nor the fear -- comes close to advancing the interests of our people.

Support for a convention ought not to be presented as punishment for perceived Albany gridlock. It ought to be a call for a conversation about democracy, an opportunity to renegotiate the relationship between the government and the people, a positive vision of ourselves and our communities.

Opposition to a convention should not come from fear. The people of New York are as decent and intelligent as they have ever been. Their compassion, concern and activism remain. Remember, any constitutional changes proposed by the convention would have to be ratified by statewide referendum. The people will, in the end, determine the contents of their constitution. They can be trusted to be thoughtful and intelligent.

I think a convention ought to be called. I think a democratic conversation about our state and our community ought to begin.

But I feel obligated, and believe all proponents should be obliged, to state clearly what I think a convention ought to do.

I have crafted an Agenda for Constitutional Reform. It deals with problems of Albany gridlock, the rights of children, a right to privacy, the need for corporate responsibility, an end to back-door borrowing and many other needed changes. I welcome the support it has gained and invite the public to request copies from my office.

But the point of my agenda is to begin a civil conversation about the way our state should look.

While those who believe as I do hope that people will support our initiatives, we are more concerned that a wide variety of ideas and principles emerge for discussion.

I urge others who call for a convention to offer their own agendas so that we can begin to discuss our common or competing visions of society and government.

The convention will help restore power to average citizens, modernize our government and improve our communities. Anger is not enough. Fear is not enough. A substantive, visionary conversation about New York can yield a constitution that will serve us well another 60 years.

RICHARD L. BRODSKY, D-Westchester County, is chairman of the Assembly Committee on Environmental Conservation.
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