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Another Voice: Constitutional convention is needed to reshape state

By Peter Galie and Christopher Bopst

A recent Another Voice called a state constitutional convention a “$335 million-plus workforce development initiative for the politically connected.” Its claim that a convention would be expensive and would accomplish nothing relies on “alternative facts.”

The claim that the 1967 convention cost $45 million ($335 million in today’s dollars) is inaccurate. Henrik Dullea, the leading scholar on that convention, tagged its price at $15 million ($108 million today). Although $108 million is significant, it represents less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the governor’s 2018 budget. For the opportunity to transform our state, $108 million seems a good investment.

Our study of New York’s constitutional history indicates nearly every major right – communal or individual – offered in the state constitution was added by constitutional conventions, not legislative amendments, including:

The state’s Bill of Rights; environmental protections (the “forever wild” clause preserving state forest lands in the Adirondacks); the Education Article, which has been interpreted to provide the right to a sound basic education; the requirement that the state provide aid and care for its needy; provisions encouraging the state and municipalities to provide low-income housing for vulnerable residents; and a labor bill of rights.

Would these provisions have been adopted without resort to constitutional conventions? Maybe, but we wouldn’t bet our future on it.

The column argues that the constitution has been “successfully amended” by the Legislature more than 200 times. Like car repairs, more amendments aren’t necessarily better.

Case in point, the Legislature has failed to adopt amendments that would: (1) eliminate out-of-control debt (voters rejected a proposed amendment that critics said would worsen the debt situation); (2) adopt institutional controls to eliminate the “pay to play” culture in Albany that contributed to convictions of both legislative leaders; (3) restructure a court system that studies show costs the state a needless $500 million annually in inefficiencies; (4) address in a meaningful way tensions between state and local governments; (5) reform an education financing system that is a “political football;” or (6) bring the state’s finance, education and conservation policies into the 21st century. Successfully amended? Hardly.

Does anyone seriously believe the Legislature, in the next 20 years, will undertake the needed reform it has failed to achieve during the last 40?

New Yorkers can take pride in their constitutional tradition. Conventions have played a significant role in shaping that tradition. On Nov. 7, we have an opportunity to continue to shape our destiny by looking beyond the Legislature for reform and calling the state’s 10th constitutional convention. We must not let fear replace the hope that has sustained a tradition that has made us the Empire State.

Peter Galie and Christopher Bopst are co-authors of “The New York Constitution” and co-editors with Gerald Benjamin of “New York’s Broken Constitution: The Crisis in Government and the Path to Renewed Greatness.”

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