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PAC pushes for constitutional convention to overhaul Albany

Longtime Democratic campaign donor and good-government advocate Bill

Longtime Democratic campaign donor and good-government advocate Bill Samuels, seen here on Jan. 7, 2013, has created a political action committee to push for a constitutional convention that could radically change how Albany operates. Photo Credit: AP / Mike Groll

ALBANY

A longtime Democratic campaign donor and good-government advocate has created a political action committee with $500,000 to push for a constitutional convention in which the public could radically change how Albany operates.

“Today I call on Gov. [Andrew M.] Cuomo to tell the people of New York without any equivocation whether he supports a yes or a no vote on the Constitutional Convention referendum this Election Day,” said Bill Samuels, a major campaign contributor for decades who created an advocacy group to hold a constitutional convention next year.

Samuels said Cuomo’s role is critical as voters decide on the November ballot whether to hold a constitutional convention next year. Such a convention through delegates elected by the public could make constitutional changes, including reducing the Legislature one house by eliminating the Senate or Assembly, establishing term limits that are popular in polls but avoided in Albany, and creating more ethics and spending measures.

“Historically across the states, gubernatorial leadership is crucial to increasing the prospect of successfully calling of a constitutional convention,” said Gerald Benjamin, political science professor at the State University of New York at New Paltz.

In 2010, Cuomo as a candidate for governor said in his campaign book that “a constitutional convention offers voters the opportunity to achieve lasting reform in Albany.”

Cuomo “supports a convention in theory, but wants to find a real way to wrest it out of the hands of insiders,” Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi said Thursday.

“You have to find a way where the delegates do not wind up being the same legislators who you are trying to change the rules on,” Cuomo told the New York Daily News editorial board in February. “I have not heard a plan that does that . . . The way it will work is you’ll probably elect assemblymen and senators as delegates. And the unions will probably fund the campaigns. And you may make the situation worse, not better.”

Samuels said his PAC seeks to fight what he expects will be millions spent by politically influential labor unions against a constitutional convention that could curb state spending.

Earlier this week, the Independent Democratic Conference that shares power in the Senate with the Republican majority, flanked by labor leaders, said it opposed a constitutional convention. The IDC warned the convention could do “tremendous damage” from repealing constitutionally protected pensions for public workers and repealing prevailing wage laws that require even nonunion contractors with the state to pay union wages and benefits.

Azzopardi said Thursday that Cuomo still wants to create a commission to help frame the convention.

“Gov. Cuomo objects to the delegate-selection process, but over the 6 1⁄2 years he has spent in office, he has not made the slightest attempt to pressure the Legislature to amend the process and he continues to do nothing,” said Samuels, who endorsed Cuomo in his 2014 re-election campaign.

Azzopardi said he had no comment on “Samuels, or his crackpot pontifications.”

Under the constitution, New Yorkers get to choose whether to have a constitutional convention every 20 years through an automatic ballot question in a general election.

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