Newsday, May 2, 2017
Con-con at bat
The most contentious item on the November ballot could very well be the question of whether New York should hold a constitutional convention in 2019. A convention provides an opportunity to revise the state constitution, and that prospect has its risks and rewards.
Voters must be asked every 20 years, and in 1997 they said no.
A con-con, as it’s known in political circles, is not on the average voter’s radar yet. But the inside players are already gearing up. The Long Island Association is hosting a con-con panel on June 6 with four speakers, two from each side, including attorney Evan Davis, manager of the Committee for a Constitutional Convention, and lobbyist and former state Assemb. Arthur “Jerry” Kremer, whose stance is reflected in the title of his recent paperback, “Patronage, Waste and Favoritism: A Dark History of Constitutional Conventions.”
LIA president Kevin Law, whose organization supports a convention, said the goal is “to educate people; there are some pros and some cons.” He said the LIA’s board will decide at its meeting later in June how engaged to get on the issue.
Some good-government types support a convention to achieve ethics and voting reforms the State Legislature has been unwilling to make. Labor unions, especially teachers unions, are against a convention because they say it could result in changes in pensions and the right to unionize.
In the face of battling constituencies, watch to see what position state lawmakers take, if they take one at all. As Law said, “Some elected officials are trying to pretend it’s not going to be on the ballot this year.”
Village Voice, March 23, 2017
If You Want To Fix Albany, Dare To Dream Of A Constitutional Convention
THURSDAY, MARCH 23, 2017 AT 2 P.M.
BY ROSS BARKAN
Even the political creatures sunk deepest in Albany’s muck probably know how badly it all stinks. The system incentivizes noxious behavior and concentrates power in the hands of the very few at the expense of the many. Reforming it has been, to put it charitably, a Sisyphean task.
This fall, regular people will have a chance to blow the whole thing up and start over. Voters in November will decide whether New York holds a Constitutional Convention, a rare opportunity to update the state’s retrograde constitution. A referendum on a potential Con Con, as it’s known in political circles, is held only once every 20 years. There hasn’t been a convention called since 1967.
Why so long ago? Because elected officials, labor unions and various power brokers have long been opposed to a convention, successfully fighting at the ballot box to keep one from occurring again. The last convention was unsuccessful anyway. All changes made at a Con Con must be approved by voters and the limited tweaks of that year were all eventually shot down.
Once more, Con Con has many powerful enemies. Since opening up the State Constitution could mean, in theory, nullifying the state’s pension obligations, the major labor unions and their most sympathetic political allies, like Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, are vociferously against the idea. Governor Andrew Cuomo has been noncommittal, while the Republican minority leader of the Assembly, Brian Kolb, has joined good government groups in calling for a Con Con. The Independent Democratic Conference, a coalition of eight breakaway Democrats, is opposed to a convention, as is Republican Majority Leader John Flanagan; the leader of the mainline Senate Democrats, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, hasn’t voiced an opinion, though her deputy, Senator Mike Gianaris, told the progressive reformer and fundraiser Bill Samuels that he would supporta convention.
"The arguments for a Con Con are far more compelling and should be heeded by anyone who wants to see New York become a fairer and saner place. A constitutional convention could enact many reforms that a recalcitrant legislature would ordinarily kill without much debate: Term limits could be imposed on lawmakers. Outdated voter registration rules could be changed. Home rule could be strengthened, freeing New York City from the shackles of Albany to protect tenants from the real estate lobby. A truly independent redistricting commission could end gerrymandering for good. All kinds of ethics reform would be on the table, including barring lawmakers from earning outside income.
For Democrats opposed to a convention, the fear is that conservative forces could co-opt it and turn New York into Mississippi. The delegate selection process gives them pause: if a Con Con is approved, three delegates from each of the state’s 63 Senate districts will be elected in 2018, setting up a 2019 convention. Republicans, with tacit approval from Cuomo, gerrymandered Senate districts in 2012, so progressives would have a slight disadvantage at the start.
But the fear-mongering from the left overshadows the fact that Flanagan, the GOP majority leader, is also against Con Con. His opposition is far more grounded in reality: New York is an overwhelmingly Democratic state and the grassroots energy, especially in the wake of Donald Trump’s election, is entirely with the left. Were delegates able to somehow pass a right-wing constitutional amendment, it would still need to be approved by voters statewide. Democrats could easily shoot it down.
Any great hope for change or fear of disaster should of course be tempered. Since 1894, conventions have only yielded six amendments in total, according to an analysis by former Assemblyman Arthur “Jerry” Kremer. Elected officials and lobbyists, along with political outsiders, can serve as delegates, possibly mucking up the opportunity to do profound good. Advocates must understand that going in.
But the status quo is insufficient and a Con Con is clearly worth the risks and costs, given how slowly Cuomo and state lawmakers have moved to introduce concrete reforms to New York’s sclerotic democracy. Not trying is the Albany way—and that’s maybe the greatest con of all.
New York Daily News, February 24, 2017
N.Y's democracy Needs an overhaul by Evan Davis
The growing prevalence of alternative facts in the nation’s capital is spreading to New York’s state capital, where they are being used to scare the public into passing up their right to a constitutional convention this year.
Albany Times Union, February 4, 2017
Commentary: A path to ethics reforms By Evan A. Davis
Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently proposed an important step in ethics reform for state government officials — a constitutional amendment to restrict outside employment. Such reforms are regularly killed by the Legislature, but fortunately every 20 years the public can choose to hold a constitutional convention, where amendments can be made without the approval of the Legislature. This year is one of those years.
In November, the constitutional convention will be on the ballot, and that's an opportunity to bring ethics and other reforms to Albany. It will be vehemently opposed by Legislative leaders and the special interests that control Albany. Why would they want the people to get in the way of their business?
The state constitution currently says nothing about ethics in government. Ethics rules and their enforcement are up to the Legislature and governor under the normal legislative process. But that has not worked.
In recent years, we've seen leaders of both houses of the Legislature convicted of corruption charges, and a former senior member of the executive branch and a former SUNY Polytechnic Institute president indicted, among others, on corruption charges.
With the Legislature unwilling to put in place a meaningful deterrent, it is time for the people to take charge at a constitutional convention. Ethics is as fundamental as other matters addressed in the constitution.
Corruption is theft from and betrayal of the people, and ethics, which is based on avoiding conduct that creates a strong appearance of corruption, is an essential defense against corruption. Because quid pro quo corruption is easy to hide and hard to prove, barring conduct that strongly suggests corruption is critical.
If we look at the ethics laws that are now in place, their weaknesses are obvious. You could even say that they have been designed to fail.
The lack of clarity in the state Code of Ethics, for example, has produced the accepted practice of not imposing sanctions for violations of two of the code's most important provisions involving undue influence and breach of trust.
Even for those provisions that have sanctions, the enforcement mechanism is weak. The recently enacted ethics enforcement mechanism, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, is set up so that the political appointees who run it can block investigations embarrassing to their political party or to the legislative leaders of that political party.
Three of the 14 members can block an investigation. The appointees of the Assembly speaker or Senate majority leader alone can block an investigation.
Moreover, because there is no firewall barring communications between the commissioners and their appointing authorities, and because a potential subject of investigation gets notice before a full investigation is started, it is widely perceived that the political leaders who appoint the commissioners can call the shots to block investigations.
An ethics article in the state constitution could change all this. First, it should create a powerful and effective state ethics commission. Unlike JCOPE, it could have the power to impose sanctions for any violation of the state Code of Ethics and not just make recommendations. It could be empowered to enact its own procedural rules consistent with due process, rather than the rules put in place by the Legislature to stop investigations. Its members should include people who have never been enrolled in either major political party, and the chair should be appointed by the Chief Judge.
Second, the ethics article should deal with both of the two major sources of conflict of interest in Albany — outside employment and large campaign contributions. Outside employment should be severely restricted in both the legislative and executive branches. Doing so would not only reduce conflicts of interest but help prevent breaches of the public trust where bribes and kickbacks are hidden as legal fees or other business dealings.
Campaign contributions are currently big enough to make an officeholder beholden to a contributor. It would, therefore, make sense to give the state ethics commission jurisdiction at least over the setting of campaign contribution limits and possibly over the enforcement of these limits as well
Treating campaign contribution limits as an ethical subject will help to sustain them under the "compelling state interest" test of the First Amendment. The state has a compelling interest in ethical government.
Of course, the principal evil of large campaign contributions is to bias government in favor of the interests of the wealthy. Public matching of small donations is needed to counteract that evil and should be clearly authorized by the constitution as spending in the public interest and not a gift.
Will a constitutional convention achieve these reforms? It will, if the voters elect delegates pledged to achieve them. Without a constitutional convention, corruption in Albany will just continue to be a fact of life.
Politico, January 25, 2017
Committee Formed to Support Constitutional Convention Vote
Watertown Daily Times, January 7, 2017
The People's Chance to Improve Albany by Evan Davis
Fifteen New York State Newspapers, January 4, 2017
A State Constitutional Convention is a Real Opportunity for Change by Peter J. Galie and Christopher Bobst
State of Politics, January 23, 2017
The Push to Add an Environmental Amendment to the Constitution Continues