Keeler: Reexamine New York's constitution

Elihu Root presided over New York's Constitutional Convention

Elihu Root presided over New York's Constitutional Convention in Albany in 1915. (Credit: AP Photo/)

Bob Keeler

Portrait of Newsday editorial board member Bob Keeler Bob Keeler

Bob Keeler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.

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In any conversation about the need to fix New York, the phrase "constitutional amendment" quickly emerges.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo wants to legalize casino gambling. Sorry, that would take a constitutional amendment.

Local governments worried about soaring pension costs might like to reduce their pension obligations to current employees. Sorry, you need a constitutional amendment.

Good-government groups are appalled by the misshapen, self-preserving districts that legislators draw during reapportionment. They'd love to give that role to a nonpartisan commission. Tough. It very likely needs a constitutional amendment.

Getting one of those isn't easy. First, the State Senate and the Assembly have to pass the proposed amendment. Then, after an election, the new legislature has to pass it again. Finally, it has to go on the ballot and win the approval of a majority of the state's voters.

Still, individual amendments do get discussed. In contrast, you seldom hear the phrase "constitutional convention." Yet our constitution is a mess. It prescribes the width of ski trails, for example, but not how to appoint or elect a new lieutenant governor if a midterm vacancy occurs.

But for many, a convention just seems too scary.

The fear is that, in a convention, everything is up for grabs. State employee unions dread the removal of the protection for pensions. Environmental groups fear that the provision protecting our precious wild forests might be weakened.

The constitution itself provides a mechanism for automatically submitting to the voters every 20 years this referendum question: "Shall there be a convention to revise the constitution and amend the same?"

That broad language just adds to the fear: It seems to imply that anything goes. But even to change the language of that question, you'd need -- that's right -- a constitutional amendment.

The last time it was on the ballot, in 1997, almost two-thirds of voters said no. The next time it appears will be 2017. Getting the voters to say yes won't be easy. Those who have rights enshrined in the constitution are better organized than those, like me, who'd like to see the whole document undergo a thorough review.

New York's constitution, six times as long as the U.S. Constitution, is overdue for review. We don't have to wait until 2017. Lawmakers could put on the ballot a question asking voters to approve calling a convention.

"It would require legislative action, and the legislature is presumptively opposed," said Gerald Benjamin, a constitutional expert at SUNY New Paltz and a leader of a new entity called Citizens' Committee for an Effective Constitution. Its aim is to fix the constitution's dysfunction-inducing parts. "There's such a great range of constitutional issues," Benjamin said, "but the constitution remains arcane and distant."

The committee has set up a website, effectiveny.org, that does a great job of explaining it. It includes an analysis by Benjamin -- and by Henrik Dullea, author of a book on the last constitutional convention -- describing how different New York would be now if voters had approved the constitution offered by that 1967 convention.

For example, there would be a five-member commission to draw electoral districts for the State Legislature and the House of Representatives, chaired by a Court of Appeals appointee. Legislators could not be members of the commission. And gerrymandering for any purpose would be prohibited. Preferable to our current redistricting mess, no?

That's just one of many ways we'd be better off. So we need to ignore the conventional wisdom that a convention is dangerous. Inertia is worse.

Bob Keeler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.