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Effort To Publicize NY's Next Constitutional Convention Begins

(AP Photo/Mike Groll)

In 2017, New Yorkers will get a chance to vote on whether to hold a convention to change the state’s constitution.It's still two years away, but groups advocating for an informed vote on the issue say it’s not too early to start getting the word out.

A constitutional convention has the potential to make big changes to New York’s government. Delegates could decide to switch to a unicameral (single chamber) legislature, or require that lawmakers be full time. They could also tighten what critics say are lax campaign contribution laws.

And the delegates could also address social issues, like gay marriage, abortion laws, or even gun control.

The State University’s Rockefeller Institute of Government is neutral on whether to hold a convention, but the Institute’s Deputy Director, Bob Bullock, said he wants the public to be informed when they do go into the voting booth.

“It’s an opportunity for us, as we go into the 21st Century, to take a look at this document and ask ourselves, 'is this document as relevant as it needs to be?'” Bullock said.

New York State Bar Association President David Miranda said his group has formed a committee to take a fresh look at the state’s constitution, which has not been overhauled in nearly 80 years. Miranda says the group will be a microcosm of the state’s political make up.

“We have people on both sides of the fence, we have Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals,” Miranda said.

The Bar Association is also one of the groups, which include the League of Women Voters, that is not currently endorsing that a convention be held.

The fear of unpredictable action on social issues helped defeat the last proposed constitutional convention, in 1997. A number of government reform groups decided, in the end, to oppose holding a convention.

Bullock said those worries should not necessarily be a hindrance to holding a convention. He said the state has a long progressive tradition, with leaders like Teddy Roosevelt, Al Smith, and FDR.

The last constitutional convention, in 1967, resulted in a number of recommendations, but they were rejected by voters, who have the final say in the process.

The last time the constitution was significantly changed was in the 1930’s, in the midst of the Great Depression.

Bullock said people are also, like then, discontent with state government, as New York goes through a wave of corruption.

“Trust in government has eroded dramatically,” he said.

Miranda said now might be the time to at least examine how well the document, which is seven times longer than the federal constitution, holds up.

“Things are different now,” Miranda said. “Maybe it’s time to take a look at it.”

A recent poll by Siena College found that, when New Yorkers were told about the constitutional convention, 69 percent were in favor of it.

Governor Cuomo is so far the only politician to endorse having a constitutional convention. It was part of the governor’s 2010 election platform, and a spokesman said Cuomo still backs the idea.

Karen has covered state government and politics for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 New York and Connecticut stations, since 1990. She is also a regular contributor to the statewide public television program about New York State government, New York Now. She appears on the reporter’s roundtable segment, and interviews newsmakers.