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Hold constitutional convention in 2012

Together with millions of my fellow New Yorkers, I wish Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo well as he begins the difficult task of charting a new course for our state.

Since he is fully aware of the problems in Albany, there is little need to cite the litany of ill-advised legislative and regulatory initiatives, coupled with periods of inertia, that have brought us to this time and place.

However, allow me to share a study by Economics Freedom Index that reveals why the public's mood is one of frustration and anger. In its 2009 report, the index measured regulatory and fiscal obstacles imposed on residents in each state in the United States and ranked New York residents the least free of these obstacles, placing our state at a dismal 50th on the list.

For too many years, New Yorkers have listened to a siren's song emanating from the State Capitol -- "this legislation will create economic development" -- while the terrible trilogy of high taxes, more spending and excessive regulations runs as a raging river, pushing New Yorkers out of state.

Many officials ignore the basic tenet underlining the term "economic development." Funding appropriated for any program that does not train people, develop skills, create jobs, produce products or provide a service is not economic development.

The upstate cities of Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Utica, together with other communities, combat fiscal crises while the people face the specter of growing unemployment with economic instability.

A brief look back in time will shed light on present-day circumstances. For decades, Buffalo was recognized for its strong industrial base with many vital companies, such as Bethlehem Steel, which employed 20,000 workers. Over time, many companies became victims to less costly foreign imports or off-shore innovative technology.

There was never sufficient state government assistance for Buffalo and, as a result, a mass migration of 100,000 people occurred in the 1970s. This drain has continued with a 7.5 percent decline in population in the last 10 years.

Rochester, headquarters to important white-collar companies such as Eastman Kodak and, for a time, Xerox has found it increasingly difficult to attract new companies. Fewer jobs eventually results in fewer people, and currently Rochester's home vacancy rate is at 15 percent.

Syracuse was home to Carrier and Niagara Mohawk Power Corporations, while Utica had General Electric, with 8,000 workers, and Lockheed Martin. Once productive centers of commerce, they lost relevancy in a fast-changing global economy. The Central New York area also had a large skilled work force, which evaporated as one plant after another closed. For Utica, the ever weakening job market and other economic factors resulted in a loss of 33,000 people from 1970 to 2009, according to the latest figures from the U.S. Census Bureau.

New Yorkers have shown great patience as we floundered on the rocks of plant closings, lost jobs, high energy costs, brain drain and economic instability. Unfortunately, our state government, once the law giver to the rest of the country, is still laboring under archaic, cumbersome procedures practiced by some elected officials full of self-aggrandizement and parochial interests. Political expediency is the order of the day, laced with stale tax-and-spend legislation, and the imposition of gimmickry assessments. Getting elected and keeping one's seat seem to be the primary concern, rather than focusing on one goal: reinstating New York's fiscal integrity.

Cuomo's vow to "re-engage the people of New York" is laudable and there is a vehicle to achieve that goal while reforming state government in a visible and transparent way: Call for a state constitutional convention and give the people a chance to conduct the people's business.

In the past, arguments have been made in opposition to a convention. In fact, the public rejected the propositions of the last convention -- held 44 years ago in 1967 -- and rejected the opportunity to convene one in 1977 and 1997. But now the public has changed its mind, according to the results of a Quinnipiac and Siena College poll finding 64 percent of New Yorkers support a constitutional convention.

The next convention is scheduled for 2017 -- much too far off for a state in deep trouble. However, there may be help in the form of a bill currently in the State Legislature, by Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, calling for a convention in 2012.

Some will argue the estimated cost of $50 million associated with delegate election, compensation, staffing facilities and presenting proposals to voters is too costly. It is a substantial sum indeed, but it pales in comparison to the billions of dollars to be saved by modernizing the Byzantine methods of our state government.

With the governor's admirable desire to "mobilize the people" now in the minds of the public, why not consider, as a first step, amending the New York State Constitution so that it becomes a true People's Constitutional Convention? Legislate out elected officials and lobbyists serving as delegates to the convention, thus finally ending the highly questionable practice of double dipping, and deal a blow to special interests, regionalism and political considerations.

Cuomo should give people the opportunity to assist him in replacing the flickering candle of state government dysfunction with the brilliant light of reasoned, responsive government -- a model for other states to emulate far into the future.


Jerry V. Livadas, of Syracuse, is the former deputy secretary of state for New York.

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