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Experts discuss state referendum on Constitution at LIA forum

Evan Davis, an attorney at Cleary Gottlieb, speaks

Evan Davis, an attorney at Cleary Gottlieb, speaks during a special executive breakfast on the new Constitutional Convention that may occur in the state at the Long Island Association in Melville Tuesday, June 6, 2017. Photo Credit: Barry Sloan

Residents in November will vote on a statewide referendum to hold a convention to make changes to the New York state Constitution, but a panel of experts in Melville on Tuesday were split on whether the process could get muddled in party politics and dark money.

The state Constitution mandates that every 20 years voters get the opportunity to cast ballots on holding a convention. If voters support the convention, residents will vote in November 2018 on a slate of 189 delegates — three from each of 63 state Senate districts — and 15 at-large statewide delegates.

The convention would occur in Albany on April 2, 2019. Residents would then vote in November 2019 on any amendments offered at the convention.

Evan Davis, manager of the Committee for a Constitutional Convention, said the event acts as a “safety valve” if the legislature ignores the will of the people. State lawmakers and labor unions all oppose a convention.

For example, Davis said convention delegates could create a commission to sanction lawmakers for official misconduct; more fairly disburse state education funds; and prevent judges from being chosen by political party bosses.

“If the public votes for a convention it’s because the public wants change,” said Davis at a forum hosted by the Long Island Association, the region’s largest business group.

Jeff Wice, an affiliate at the Nelson Rockefeller Institute of Government in Manhattan, said the convention should focus on same-day voter registration, improved access to absentee voting and depoliticizing the once-per-decade redistricting process.

But former Assemb. Arthur “Jerry” Kremer said state lawmakers have made 200 changes to the state Constitution in the past century, including recently allowing casino gambling, and are capable of addressing major issues in Albany.

Kremer argues that the convention will be a “bonanza for lobbyists” with special interest money, from labor unions to conservative groups, targeting key local issues, such as improving access to charter schools or ending the state tax cap.

“It’s not the right time. It’s not the right place,” he said. “The risks are too high. And I truly think there is no need for a constitutional convention.”

Anthony Figliola, vice president of Empire Government Strategies, agrees and argues that “politics drives constitutional conventions.” He said delegates will likely be hand-picked party leaders, rather than grass-roots activists.

“It gives you another bite of the apple for anything not accomplished in the regular legislative session,” said Figliola, the author of a book on constitutional conventions.

Davis says even if the convention is politics-as-usual, the state’s problems are too significant for voters to ignore a chance to secure major reform.

“Is there a risk they don’t do enough?” asked Davis. “Sure. But it’s worth a try that it will lead to a debate . . . that can really strengthen our state.”

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