hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


Editorial October 2017



In vote on convention, choose hope over fear


The past few years have surely proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that the path to cleaning up corruption and dysfunction in Albany will not be found among the politicians who dwell there.
Even the shock of having the leaders of New York’s state Senate and Assembly criminally charged and convicted within a few months of each last year other produced little more than vague talk of reform.

And why would we expect otherwise? For a state legislator in New York, the wrath of voters is pretty far down the list of concerns.

Our lawmakers in Albany are elected in gerrymandered districts and owe their first allegiance to political parties, which tightly control the election process to keep the participation of outsiders – both candidates and voters – to a minimum. So scandals and all, New York legislators still have an overall re-election rate that rivals that of the old Soviet Politburo. The system is beyond broken.

If legislators won’t act to clean up their own house, who’ll force the issue?
Surely no one is looking to Andrew Cuomo, the governor who shut down the Moreland Commission and who was the sworn champion of nonpartisan redistricting before he threw it under the bus.

And unlike Massachusetts and many other states, New York has no provision allowing citizens to bypass the Legislature by putting political reforms or other issues directly on the ballot.
There is one glimmer of hope, though. On Nov. 7, the state’s voters will be asked whether they wish to call a constitutional convention.

As our cover story this month explains, the state constitution requires this question to be asked of voters every 20 years. The voters haven’t said yes since the 1930s, but this time could be different.

A Yes vote has been endorsed by the state bar association, the League of Women Voters, a couple of lesser-known good-government groups, and an array of lawyers, academics and elder statesmen.

A No vote is being urged by labor unions of every type, political parties and a strange-bedfellows coalition of all manner of interest groups that are accustomed to navigating Albany’s corridors of power: pro-life, pro-choice, gun rights, gay rights, environmentalists and the Farm Bureau.
The No coalition is bigger, broader and better funded, but it’s also fundamentally committed to preserving the status quo.

If voters say yes to a convention, New Yorkers will elect convention delegates next November – three delegates from each state Senate district, plus 15 more elected statewide -- and the convention would begin in April 2019.

It’s true that would-be delegates will have to navigate the same arcane ballot-access rules that the political parties now use to keep outsiders out, and many of the candidates likely will be drawn from the same talent pool that spawns our state legislators. But with 204 delegates in all, there’s at least a chance for some acts of redemption.

A constitutional convention is likely to be a chaotic affair, but that’s no reason to buy into the No side’s claims about opening Pandora’s box. On this point, there’s one important thing to remember: Whatever constitutional changes a convention proposes will be presented to voters in 2019. If the changes are bad, voters can reject them.

If the goal is to transform New York’s state government into a functional, responsive democracy, the potential upside of a Yes vote on Nov. 7 is huge. A No vote guarantees 20 more years of the same old Albany.

October 2017 Mark Wilson editorial cartoon


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