ALBANY — Bills that would prohibit elected officials from controlling a constitutional convention have been blocked in the State Legislature, records and interviews show.
Failure to advance the bills means that a key argument of opponents of a constitutional convention remains alive: That elected officials could hijack the panel from private citizens and block meaningful reform. Voters will decide Nov. 7 whether to hold a constitutional convention.
“It’s a Catch-22,” said Peter Galie, professor emeritus of political science at Canisius College, who blogs on the issue for the Rockefeller Institute of Government. The catch is that it’s the elected legislators who have blocked a ban on elected legislators serving as delegates.
The constitution requires a question to automatically be placed on the ballot every 20 years for voters to decide whether to hold a constitutional convention, or “con-con.” Advertising blitzes in 1997 and 1977 by opponents of conventions then warned that elected officials would cement the status quo. Both referendums were rejected.
Three bills, most sponsored by minority party legislators, would ban elected officials from serving as delegates and another would prohibit an elected official from double-dipping by also collecting a delegate paycheck. They were stopped in committee months ago, shortly after they were introduced, records show.
“It’s a classic Albany move: Complain that the constitutional convention will be controlled by insiders, but for 20 years do nothing to change it,” said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group, which doesn’t support or oppose a convention.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who supported a constitutional convention to clean up Albany as a candidate in 2010, has said he believes a convention is a good idea, “but you have to elect delegates who are not currently elected officials.” He blamed the legislature for failing to change the selection process.
Good-government advocates in the Committee for a Constitutional Convention blame Cuomo. “This is a case where he is trying to have it both ways,” said Dick Dadey of the Citizens Union, a good-government group. “If he was concerned about this process, he should have been out front years ago, and he wasn’t.”
Gali also noted concerns that barring legislators would be legally problematic because it would target a specific group and could require a separate constitutional amendment.
But Michael Fraser, spokesman for Assembly Republican leader Brian Kolb (R-Canandaigua) who introduced one of the bills, said, “We don’t see a problem. Not only do we feel it’s constitutional, it’s also essential to an effective convention and ensuring the people’s interests are properly represented.”
Fraser said their bill avoids the constitutional conflict by not limiting who can be a delegate, but requiring elected officials to vacate their elected office when they join the convention.
“It never came up in committee that it wasn’t constitutional,” said Assemb. Sandra Galef (D-Westchester) of her bill to ban elected state officials. “There just wasn’t any interest. It’s sad.”
The Senate’s Republican majority said its opposition to advancing the bills is simple: “We oppose a constitutional convention, period,” said Scott Reif, spokesman for Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport). The GOP majority argues that the convention would cost millions of dollars that could be spent on schools and infrastructure, and that special interests from New York City could control the agenda at the expense of Long Island and upstate.
Assembly Democratic majority spokeswoman Kerri Biche said the bills lacked support to advance in that chamber. Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) opposes a convention because he said wealthy special interests could erode civil rights and workplace rights and protections.
“All of the competing forces of the status quo don’t want this to happen in both houses,” said Kolb, the Assembly’s minority leader and the only legislative leader who supports a constitutional convention.
The bill was “held for consideration” in June after it passed 11-5 in the Election Law Committee. The bill wasn’t introduced in the Senate.