In a New York Times story last week about the state constitutional convention question on this year's ballot, esteemed Albany watchdog Blair Horner summed up the issue as boiling down to "fear vs. hope."
The "fear" side comes from a wide array of groups, such as the New York Rifle & Pistol Association and a host of labor unions, saying a convention could lead to the elimination of precious rights and protections that New Yorkers now enjoy.
The "hope" comes from supporters saying a convention could lead to badly needed reforms in how state government functions, reforms that could never become reality due to the Legislature's reluctance to alter the status quo.
"Fear vs. hope" is certainly at play in this constitutional convention question, but we think there's a more important battle upon which voters should concentrate: reality vs. delusion.
We agree that in theory, a state constitutional convention is a great alternative to relying on the Legislature and governor to get New Yorkers some crucial reforms, particularly in the area of government ethics. That's why we supported Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb's efforts to get a "people's" constitutional convention question on the ballot in 2010.
But key parameters that Kolb was espousing back then — notably keeping legislators and lobbyists out as conventional delegates — are not in play with this mandatory 2017 ballot question (New York is required to post the convention question on ballots every 20 years). This convention would be filled with delegates who are elected based on state Senate district lines, so legislators, lobbyists, big donors and other politically connected people would have the heavy advantage in winning those seats.
That would result in a convention that operates much like the dysfunctional and corrupt machine that we've had in the Capitol for decades.
Supporters of a convention sometimes respond to this claim by pointing to the fact that any changes proposed by the convention must still be approved the voters, so what is there to lose?
How about more than $100 million?
Running a convention is costly, just like running a state legislative session. Why should New Yorkers pay twice to watch a couple of hundred politically connected people argue and likely come up with no viable solutions?
Perhaps the best case for voting "no" on this convention can be found on the ballot right next to the question about the constitution. We already have a process in place for amending the constitution, and this year, there's a pair of amendment proposals, including one that strips criminally convicted lawmakers of public pensions.
Our expectation is that voters will overwhelmingly back the pension measure, as they should. It will be an example of how relentless public pressure can result in needed constitutional change. And we won't have to spend $100 million-plus to get it done.
The Citizen Editorial Board includes publisher Rob Forcey, managing editor Mike Dowd and executive editor Jeremy Boyer.