Friday, April 8, 2016

Constitutional Convention Pros and Cons

I've written about my vague desire for a NYS Constitutional Convention, and I appreciated the opportunity to hear the pros and cons from expert Hank Dullea and our assemblywoman, Barbara Lifton, at last night's TC Dems Issues Committee Forum. It wasn't really a debate so much as a presentation of opinions, followed by questions from the audience. And it left me no less eager to move forward with a convention. My general impression, which I shared with the group, was that the Pro side showed pessimism about the legislature mixed with optimism about the People, whereas the Con side showed the opposite.

Lifton presented what she billed as the "progressive" concerns about a convention, which boil down to 1) we don't know who will control the convention, 2) a lot of good things could be changed or destroyed, from labor rights to aid to the needy to the Forever Wild designation to state pensions, and 3) corporate interests could take over (see point 1). She used the constitution's promise of a "sound basic education" as an example of what might be damaged, saying that the CFE court decision that pledged adequate funding could be made null and void with a removal of that clause.

Leaving aside the dreadful history of the CFE decision, which umpteen years later is crawling toward a level of adequacy, I find it hard to imagine that NYS would get rid of publicly funded schooling through a constitutional change. That would make us the only state to do so. What I would like to see is a better definition of sound and basic, plus clauses that expand adequacy to include sustainability, equity, and predictability. Why couldn't we do something like that?

Dullea pointed out that a constitutional convention has never led to the wholesale reversals of laws. Most conventions have taken a few big-ticket issues and woven them into the constitution. Problems that he considers worth solving via a convention include Pay to Play lobbying, the role of incumbency (including, perhaps, term limits), full time v. part time legislation, campaign finance reform, gerrymandering, and whether we need a bicameral legislature in the first place.

Of course, Lifton is right to suggest that it really matters who the delegates are. If they are all assemblypeople and senators, they certainly will have no will to tackle most of the problems above. Why would they?

The confidence of the voters in NYS government is eighth from the bottom of all 50 states. A good 53 percent of citizens think that corruption is very serious. Lifton believes that the legislature is addressing this. Dullea does not.

Lifton pointed to low voter turnout as being a red flag in terms of getting ordinary people to run as delegates to a convention. I think low voter turnout is a red flag about the voters' confidence in their votes' meaning, something we might address through meaningful reform. She also pointed out how very difficult it will be to educate voters about what they vote on as it comes out of the convention, and there I agree with her. It will be hard, and it should be part of the delegates' job to educate their public, because we cannot count on the media to help. Social media makes this possible, and there should be other methods to use as well. Right now, most people bypass resolutions to amend the constitution when they appear on the ballot, because nobody has a clue what they are or what they might mean. That's a problem for which I blame everyone from the legislature to the media to the good government groups that should be doing a better job of explaining things to the voters.

I guess what it comes down to for me is this: NYS government is widely reviled. Nobody outside NYS government trusts NYS government to clean up its act. Occasional amendments are not going to do the trick. It has been 50+ years since the last convention (which failed). What's the worst that could happen? If we are progressive, we welcome reform. That's kind of the point. And the way we reform NYS government, since 1777, is through the process of a constitutional convention.

Want to learn more about the pro side of the issue, complete with a reform agenda? Visit the Rockefeller Institute webpage. We have about 18 months to figure out how we will vote.

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