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Gov. Cuomo Has Reservations About A Constitutional Convention

Philip Kamrass / Office of N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo
N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo discusses the concluded legislative session in the Red Room of the Capitol in Albany in June.

Add Governor 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 legislature failed to approve the money, and this year, the governor did not include the plan in his spending proposal.

Cuomo now says he has concerns about backing a convention, without ensuring that the delegates are independent and not simply controlled by the state 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. Over 100 groups ranging from unions, environmental organizations, to pro-gun groups and the state’s conservative party, all fear that some rights already in the state’s constitution might be taken away. They range from the forever wild provision for the Adirondack Park, workers’ rights, and rights to own weapons.

Several government reform groups 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, says an overhaul of the state’s constitution is decades overdue.

“Our constitution in New York was primarily written in 1894 and 1938,” said Samuels, who said no black people or women were delegates.

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 says while opponents have the monetary advantage to run a campaign to discourage a yes vote, his group hopes to make headway using social media as a back channel to win support for the event.

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

“To run scared is that last thing you should do. If a bully threatens you, you’ve got to kick them right back in the…right away,” 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 says 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, 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 past 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 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.