Every 20 Years New Yorkers Get to Vote to Fix Albany
A Constitutional Convention Could Radically Reduce Gerrymandering, and Give Your Vote the Punch it Was Designed to Have
While the Benjamin Center at SUNY New Paltz is strictly non-partisan, in one sense its founder, Dr. Gerald Benjamin, is biased—in favor of democracy.
Benjamin says that while the New York State constitution is in need of a serious makeover, the state legislature has shown it won’t do this. Fortunately, however, revision and/or amendment can be achieved in another way. Benjamin explains that the NY State constitution stipulates that every 20 years voters have the right to call a convention to “take the temperature of their government.” Benjamin, who recently debated the merits of a constitutional convention at Siena College and then followed up that debate on Capital Tonight, has multiple insights into why we need the convention as a corrective for failures in state government, especially to reduce the blocking power of entrenched incumbents in Albany.
“We have a representative democracy, not a direct democracy. But we do have this direct democratic mechanism of review—that’s what the convention referendum question is. We get to say, ‘Hmmm, how are my representatives doing?’ I think if you asked most people they’d say, ‘Not very well.’ We have a failure on many levels, from the way laws are made to the failure of our institutions to adapt processes. That’s really no wonder: We haven’t revised the basics of how our government is structured in three quarters of a century.”
WHY A CONVENTION COULD UNDO GRIDLOCK
As for how the convention actually works, the mechanism is fairly simple. First, there’s a vote on November 7th. If this year voters decide in favor (the measure will be on the reverse side of all NY State ballots, and blanks do not count), a year from now in November 2018 all registered voters across the state will get to vote for three delegates from their own state senate district. A convention will be held the next year, with its work put up for final voter approval.
Senate districts are designed by Republicans for their benefit, but lately have been returning a democrat majority. That’s key, says Benjamin, who explains that we’re living in a state that’s less Republican and more ethnically diverse and liberal than in the past. Voters will therefore likely elect convention delegates that are far more diverse than ever before.
Benjamin says also that a constitutional convention could specifically diminish the power of entrenched incumbent legislators through multiple mechanisms, such as term limiting Assembly and Senate seats so members’ interest is less about holding onto power and more about the business of government.
Benjamin says if district lines aren’t drawn strictly to protect incumbents, as they are now (even after adoption of a 2014 “reform” that actually allows representatives to reject any efforts to draw lines in ways that don’t produce safe seats), there will be more interparty competition. Choices of legislators would fall less to primaries and therefore politics would be less polarized. Polarization at the primary stage reduces the likelihood that representatives will actually negotiate with the opposite party once they’re in power.
FOLLOW THE MONEY
“We live in an era when the fiscal powers of the governor are far too extreme. You hear legislators constantly saying they’re trying to get the attention of the governor. Well why? Because he controls the money and that’s not representative democracy.” Another source of executive power is the unintended use of the “message of necessity.” This provision was written so that a governor could—in an emergency—get the legislature to pass laws without the required three day waiting period. But this mechanism is now used whenever the governor wants to drive his agenda.
“Go back to the 1920s and the legislature actually had the power to represent their constituents in this state. They don’t anymore, because they have little say in spending.” Benjamin says that because the governor draws up a budget and essentially forces the hand of the legislative bodies to either approve it or look inept by stalling on it, their ability to work on behalf of the people has eroded to the point where only a constitutional fix could change the balance of power.
BUSTING THE CULTURE OF CORRUPTION
Benjamin says people like Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos would be less susceptible to corrupting forces if the constitution was re-written to make influence pedaling more difficult.
One way: Emulate New York City’s public financing election laws statewide. Less private money in politics tends to make legislators rely more on broad support among voters and cuts down on the need for backroom deal-making once officeholders get elected. “Corruption arises when people stop feeling accountable. There’s a risk-benefit calculus. ‘I’ll get caught if I do this; I won’t get caught if I’m entrenched.’”
Benjamin explains that the corruption culture in Albany is a clear symptom of myriad broken mechanisms. “It’s a sign that you need to change the terms under which people are elected and why they’re drawn to the office in the first place. If you change the rules you draw people who are predisposed to follow standards rather than violate them.”
Above all, Benjamin says that the reason a constitutional convention is necessary is that systems that were created by government as solutions to ongoing problems also fall prey to unintended consequences. Governor Nelson Rockefeller created public authorities to finance bankrupt transit systems that were faltering in metro NY City. These now are in trouble and unresponsive to local government, something the public does not understand. Public authorities that don’t answer to voters not only fail to act in their favor, they can also be abused a la Chris Christie’s administration scandals with the Port Authority. “The public authority solution from the 1960s no longer fits the problems at hand,” Benjamin says, again because the voters no longer have a say over the money involved, even though they’re deeply impacted by broken transit systems. “If you don’t open up the processes for repair they become more vulnerable to abuse, and that much harder to fix.”
Part of an ongoing series on the issues surrounding the constitutional convention ballot question.