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Editorial: New York needs a constitutional convention

The last time New Yorkers were required to consider holding a constitutional convention, they demurred. That was in 1997 and, according to the state’s 20-year schedule, voters will again be asked this November if they want to convene such a gathering to make changes to the state’s foundational document. They should vote to do so.

It is true that there are risks in holding such a convention. Delegates could be beholden to officeholders who want to manipulate the state to their advantage. The upstate/downstate split could be exacerbated, especially if the downstate power center dominates the proceedings.

Those were the arguments that arose in 1997, as well, and likely in 1977, too, when a convention was also rejected. But there is a different dynamic in 2017, one that compels serious consideration of the benefits that such a convention might produce.

Foremost among them is the issue of ethics. Albany has none. It’s a playground for extortionists, thieves and other crooks, among them a former governor, a former state comptroller, a former Assembly speaker and a former leader of the State Senate. The place is crawling with miscreants who think their positions of public trust amount to a license to raid the public cupboard or otherwise indulge a dangerous sense of entitlement.

Since the most recent of those convictions, Albany has done precious little to improve its standard of ethics. Its practice is to stick a toe into the waters of ethics reform, declare a great victory and then get back to the business of robbing the public. It won’t change on its own. A constitutional convention could force that issue.

Among the matters it could consider are limits on campaign contributions, abolishing the preposterous “LLC loophole” that allows virtually unlimited political donations by businesses, and further restricting outside income by legislators.

A constitutional convention could do away with the sleazy way that political bosses control judicial elections, deciding who will ascend to the bench. It could add balance to the state Taylor Law, which governs labor issues and tilts too far toward unions and away from taxpayers.

Of course, possibilities such as those are what cause some interests to oppose a constitutional convention. A spokesman for the Democratic-controlled Assembly, which opposes a convention, openly worried about “the potential to roll back important worker protections and other rights.” His counterpart in the Republican-controlled Senate fretted about the possibility that “radical New York City interests could seized control of the process … and cause irreparable damage to our state government.”

But there is another aspect to government resistance to a constitutional convention: Legislators like Albany as it is. They understand its crooked ways and know how to make maximum use of them, within or without the bounds of the law. Their fears need to be taken with several grains of salt.

That is not to deny that a convention could open the door to mischief. The possibilities for capricious maneuvers are a real concern that would need to be addressed. Questions to consider include who can be a delegate to such a convention, the rules of procedure and the way in which the public is required to vote on the results: Would there be a vote on each proposal, or on an all-or-nothing package of reforms?

These are serious questions, but they hover over this undeniable fact: New York is a damaged and corrupt state that will not fix itself. Any hope for improvement must come from voters. This fall, they will have a chance to force the issues that Albany prefers to ignore.

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