A call for reform

Earlier this week, I attended an information session hosted by Commerce Chenango. For roughly an hour, a group of local business people, elected officials and I listened to Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb talk about the need for reform of our state government.

On this point, I wholeheartedly agree with the esteemed assemblyman. We see examples all around us of the inefficiencies and ineffectiveness of our state government. Some would even call it dysfunctional. Despite the worst recession – or depression, call it what you like – in the better part of a century, our Governor-by-default crafted a budget which seemed destined to drive our economy and our state even further into the hole. And as evidenced by the mid-year budget crisis and Paterson’s recent decision to freeze spending – he accomplished just that.

Despite preaching budget cuts last year, he increased spending. And piled even more taxes and fees on the backs of New York’s already overburdened taxpayers. $10 billion in new spending, and $8.5 million in new taxes and fees. What has it gotten us? A multi-billion dollar mid-year deficit, and the promise of more of the same to come.

As Kolb said Tuesday, “There is small solace in saying ‘I told you so.’”

It’s almost like Paterson is playing chicken with businesses and property owners. I have to wonder, is he trying to see just how high taxes can be raised before he drives everybody out?

But of course it doesn’t do any good to just gripe. The question is, what are we going to do about? There has to be change if we want our state to be viable in the long run. Because I’m assuming we’d all rather see the Empire State grow and prosper rather than go the way of Ancient Rome.

The multi-billion dollar question is how on earth do you bring reform to an institution so entrenched in its ways that the only way real change can occur is in the face of crisis?

Kolb’s answer to this question, which has garnered support in both the state Assembly and Senate, is to convene a constitutional convention. Now, this proposition will appear automatically on the ballot for voter approval in 2017, but Kolb is trying to “move the question,” to borrow a term from Robert’s Rules of Order. He is proposing to put the matter to voters in 2010.

What exactly is a constitutional convention? It is where delegates, which are elected by the people, meet to discuss whether or not changes should be made to the documents which define how our state government operates and even how it is structured. Their recommendations to revise and or amend the state’s constitution are then put before voters for approval before the changes are enacted.

According to Kolb, the last time New Yorkers voted to convene a such a body was in 1967. In that instance, after months of deliberation, the proposals drawn up by delegates were rejected by voters.

The last time the proposition appeared on the ballot, in 1997, it was voted down.

Actually, Kolb’s exact words on the matter were that it “went down in flames.” But still he is undeterred. Citing numerous examples of why taking this admittedly risky step is necessary to effect positive change at the state’s highest levels, he is making the rounds to encourage support for the movement he calls the “People’s Convention to Reform NY.”

He says that through the legislation he has introduced addresses many of the problems which have hindered the process in the past.

For those who are concerned that delegates to the convention would be the “usual suspects” – namely elected officials, party big-wigs and special interest groups – Kolb explains that the election of delegates would not be a “political” election with candidates running under the banner of one political party or another. Anyone holding an existing office would have to give up that office in order to become a delegate. Lobbyists, too, would be required to give up their high-paying careers, at least for the duration of time the temporary body convenes. (Which, according to Kolb would likely last between 4 to 12 months.)

The minority leader explained that each of New York’s 62 Senate districts would have three delegates to the convention. That’s basically three representatives for every 295,000 people, give or take. There would also be 15 at-large delegates. Prospective delegates would have to get a certain number of signatures to be included in first a run-off, the top finishers would then appear on the November ballot.

There are costs involved, as well. Kolb estimates that the convention could cost New York anywhere from $10 to $15 million. All 201 delegates would be paid for their time, not to mention staff and expenses.

“In the scope of a $132 billion budget ... I’d spend that in a heartbeat,” Kolb said.

And in the end, as evidenced 42 years ago, their efforts could be for naught if the voters weren’t in favor of the changes they recommended.

There is also a risk involved that the convention would forgo making change to the state’s political structure and focus instead on social issues and special interests. In that respect, according to Assemblyman Pete Lopez (who does wholeheartedly support Kolb’s legislation) it’s a bit like opening up Pandora’s Box. But the fact remains that there could be unintended consequences.

While I support Kolb’s stance in theory – because I do genuinely believe that we need to reform our state government – I do have a few concerns.

For one, I worry that there is no guarantee that the process would actually yield results. Heck, there isn’t even a guarantee that the legislation will make it the floor of both houses for a vote, because no matter how many supporters the legislation has, there is still a chance it could get bogged down in committee. On the other hand, that’s just one more example of why we need to change how things are done in Albany.

There is also the fact that, while Kolb estimates the convention with convene for anywhere from four months to a year, there is no set time limit for the temporary body. So, it’s not like they have to make their recommendations by a certain date.

I also have concerns regarding the way delegates will be selected. Because of how the state’s senatorial districts are demarcated, there is a distinct possibility that a county like Chenango could end up with no direct representation at the constitutional convention. (I have to give credit to Jennifer Tavares for also voicing this concern.)

I guess it is safe to say that I’m undecided on Kolb’s proposition. But while I’m not ready to give it my seal of approval, neither do I have an alternative solution to propose. So I will consider the matter carefully. I figure I’ve got until next November to make up my mind. And so do you.

To learn more about the People’s Convention to Reform NY, visit www.reformny.org.

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