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Cuomo has reservations about a constitutional convention


Add Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s name to the list of state politicians wary of holding a constitutional convention. Voters get to decide this November whether New York should hold the event.

Cuomo initially supported holding a constitutional convention. He wanted to reform the delegate selection process and even included $1 million in his 2016 budget proposal to lay the groundwork for the event.

But the state Legislature failed to approve the money, and this year, the governor did not include the plan in his spending proposal.

Cuomo now said he has concerns about backing a convention without ensuring that the delegates are independent and not simply controlled by the Legislature.

“I said the convention is a good idea and it’s a way to get reform, but you have to elect delegates who are not currently elected officials,” Cuomo said.

But since Cuomo and lawmakers failed to change the delegate selection process, voters would have to say yes or no to a convention before knowing exactly how the delegates would be chosen. The governor denies that he did not work hard enough to win changes.

“We’ve talked about it, but nothing has come of it,” Cuomo said. “There’s no desire to do it.”

Cuomo stopped short, though, of saying he’s against holding the constitutional convention.

Cuomo is not the only one with reservations. More than 100 groups — from unions and environmental organizations to pro-gun groups and the state’s Conservative Party — all fear that some rights in the state’s constitution might be taken away, including the “forever wild” provision for Adirondack Park, workers’ rights and rights to own weapons.

Several government reform groups, however, back holding the event and say it’s worth the risk to get real change that can’t be achieved through more traditional means.

Bill Samuels with Effective New York said an overhaul of the state’s constitution is decades overdue.

“Our constitution in New York was primarily written in 1894 and 1938,” said Samuels.

Voters approved the constitutional changes made in the 1938 convention, the last time the event was successful. In 1967, a convention was held, but voters ultimately rejected the proposed revisions.

Samuels said while opponents have the monetary advantage to run a campaign to discourage a yes vote, his group hopes to use social media as a back channel to win support for the event.

He said no one should be afraid of holding a convention.

“To run scared is the last thing you should do. If a bully threatens you, you’ve got to kick them right back,” Samuels said. “We have to be courageous.”

A recent poll found New Yorkers support the concept but say they haven’t heard much about it.

Samuels said the state constitution could potentially be amended to improve voter access, curb big money in politics and address corruption at the State Capitol.

There is another, more incremental method for changing the state’s constitution. It involves proposing a single amendment, winning approval of the measure by two consecutively elected state legislatures and then winning the OK of voters. That method is preferred by the state’s majority party legislative leaders.

Senate Leader John Flanagan spoke about it this spring.

“We have a mechanism, in my opinion, already in place,” Flanagan said in May. “And I’m comfortable with the way that works.”

Successful single constitutional amendments include expanding casino gambling and changing the redistricting process to draw legislative districts. This fall, voters will decide whether judges can deny state pensions to lawmakers convicted of felonies.

If voters ultimately reject the constitutional convention in November, they won’t have another chance to hold one for 20 more years.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.