State constitutional convention is a bad idea – By George J. Marlin

The following appears in the February 24, 2010 issue of the Long Island Business News:

In recent months prominent members of New York’s political establishment have been clamoring for a state constitutional convention. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Rick Lazio (the presumptive Republican nominee for governor) and numerous others insist that only a major overhaul of our state charter will cure our fiscal ills and end Albany’s dysfunctional governing process.

Frankly, I believe holding a convention is a bad idea because it could easily become a field day for New York’s special interest groups who will dominate the machinery to elect delegates.

If history is a guide, it is fair to conjecture that a constitutional convention will not be dominated by elected delegates who are civic-minded citizens, frustrated tax payers or constitutional scholars. At the last gathering held in 1967, 91 percent of the delegates were local pols or union officials. All the officers of that convention were members of the state Legislature.

Some pundits argue that in these difficult financial times the dynamics of the convention could be different because municipal and health care unions, leftist groups like ACORN and their political arm, the Working Families Party, will be on the defensive, fearing the possible loss of constitutionally protected government-employee pension guarantees.

This uncertainty, in my judgment, will not cower but energize ACORN and its allies to run convention delegates in every senatorial district as well as a full slate of at-large candidates and to spend whatever it takes to elect a majority.

A convention controlled by these forces could draft a new constitution that would eliminate various safeguards that protect the rights of citizens and radically change the relationship between tax payers and their state government and local municipalities.

Unlike the U.S. Constitution, which is relatively brief, New York’s Constitution is filled with minutiae and runs 65,000 words. There are lengthy and ponderous sections on state finances, local finances, local governments, corporations, bank charters, education, social welfare, public employees, housing and taxation.

Here are a few constitutional changes that an out-of-control convention could prescribe:

  • Elimination of the Executive Budget Amendment, which gives the governor the responsibility for drafting the budget.
  • Elimination of the governor’s line item veto.
  • Elimination of voter approval of state general obligation debt.
  • Elimination of restrictions on indebtedness of local governments.
  • Elimination of restrictions on use of proceeds from state and local government bond issues.
  • Elimination of limitations on amounts to be raised by real estate taxes for local purposes.
  • Expanded power of the state government by restricting home rule powers and repealing the local government Bill of Rights.
  • Expanded pension rights and perks for public employees.

Such constitutional revisions would create a state leviathan whose arms would reach into every home to pick the last dollar out of every citizen’s pocket. Cowardly Albany legislators dancing to the tune of big-government leeches would strip county and local governments of their autonomy, turning them into nothing more than administrative pawns of the state. Albany would control every aspect of local government – schools, libraries, firehouses – and bureaucrats, not taxpayers, would dictate spending and policies.

New Yorkers have exercised their power “to revise the Constitution and amend the same” sparingly. In the past century they have approved only three conventions and overwhelmingly rejected the proposed revisions twice. They are smart enough to realize that Albany’s inability to govern is not the Constitution’s fault but that of an incompetent governor and corrupt legislators who have driven the state to the edge of the fiscal abyss. The current Constitution may not be perfect but New Yorkers know the alternatives could have devastating impacts on their fiscal, economic and social well-being.

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