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Time for Change in State Government

Louis Grumet

The machinery of New York State's government has broken down and is badly in need of repair.

To be fair, New York is not the only state with such problems. California, for instance, is plagued by initiative and reform issues gone wild, leading to a lack of accountability by legislators. In New York, we have a tradition of incumbency gone wild.

A vast majority of our legislators are regularly reelected and, yet, some of the most important positions of our current statewide elected offices—the governor, the comptroller, one United States senator—are all appointees.

The debacle that occurred this summer following the political power play in Albany only reinforces the need for a constitutional convention.

Then we have the vacancy in the lieutenant governor's office, which apparently can't be filled until the next election. The situation is not only bizarre, it's also embarrassing and detrimental to the way government runs. The natural succession process has been broken, with no statewide elected official to succeed the governor if the need arises. Moreover, the state senate is without a tiebreaking vote when it is deadlocked—which it was earlier this summer, when the majority hinged on the flipping of a senator or two from one party's caucus to the other and back again.

Those officials who have been elected to their current office enjoy such an incumbency advantage that many have not faced a serious electoral challenge in years. Given this seeming state of unaccountability, it's easy to see the disconnect between the will of the electorate and the performance of public service. This breakdown becomes more and more apparent every day.

Calling for a Constitutional Convention

That's why I want to add my voice to that of former Democratic Governor Mario Cuomo and former Republican New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, both of whom believe the time has come to consider the underlying concepts of how we govern ourselves.

The time has come for a constitutional convention to amend and rewrite the document that governs New York State.

The New York State Constitution, first adopted in 1777, has become a voluminous and, frankly, byzantine document over the years. It has been amended to solve specific problems with provisions that better belong in statute. As Newsday eloquently noted in a June editorial, the state constitution includes such items as the size of ski trails and railroad crossings, but it fails to adequately address the succession of state leadership.

New York State has a provision requiring a referendum every 20 years that asks whether there should be a constitutional convention. In 1997, voters overwhelmingly rejected the call. The last constitutional convention was held in 1967, and its product was rejected by the voters. The next opportunity for a convention won't come until 2017.

The last time a new constitution was actually adopted was in 1938, and the resulting laws now govern this state. The only way to convene a constitutional convention is through legislation. Don't you think enough has happened in the last 71 years to warrant such a call? Do we really need to wait another eight years?

The debacle that occurred this summer following the political power play in Albany only reinforces the need for a constitutional convention. It's the only way to bridge the ever-widening gap between the electorate and the elected, and the only way to restore credibility to a badly damaged state government.

The public is looking for—and deserves—accountability and transparency. In a survey conducted in August by the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, 75% of the respondents said they believe that the New York State government is dysfunctional, and 64% support having a constitutional convention.

If there is a convention, it should reconsider the current two-house system of state government and explore the idea of a unicameral, or single-chamber, legislature. It should also develop clear procedures that would fill vacancies in statewide offices through new elections rather than appointments. A constitutional convention should consider the composition of local government, the tax structure, and the design of legislative district lines.

And if there is a constitutional convention, the delegates should be composed of individuals elected by the people, not chosen by current legislators.

New York needs to stand up—now, not in 2017—and pass legislation that would call for a constitutional convention. It's the only way for our leaders to restore their credibility.

Louis Grumet. Publisher. The CPA Journal Executive Director, NYSSCPA, lgrumet@nysscpa.org.

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