A new, well-financed and bipartisan group promises to provide New Yorkers the key to overhaul Albany’s politics and spending that touch their lives every day.
The key to the admittedly dull idea is to change the state’s constitution, which is the law of the land that can be more powerful than any governor or legislative leader.
The organizers of the group called Citizens’ Committee for an Effective Constitution say it’s a key many elected officials over 45 years — most of whom ran as “reformers” — and the special interests who fund them don’t want New Yorkers to know about.
“We need to change the underlying culture,” Bill Samuels told The Associated Press in announcing the effort. Samuels, a businessman, is also founder of the nonpartisan New Roosevelt Foundation, which will fund the Citizens’ Committee. “It is possible for real movement, not just press releases.”
The movement is enlisting an eclectic mix including academics, good-government groups, community organizations, law schools and their students, rank-and-file lawmakers, Tea Party Republicans, Occupy Wall Street protesters and other New Yorkers.
The idea is to create a true “new New York,” a slogan revived every few election cycles, to carry real change past temporary political fixes and splashy headlines.
For example, the Budget Reform Act requires public hearings, public debates, and strict deadlines relating to adoption of the state’s spending plan. It was passed in 2007, and has been ignored ever since. It’s been replaced by increasingly secretive deals struck by governors, two legislative leaders and lobbyists, and a rushed vote by rank-and-file lawmakers without enough time to read the massive bills.
Ignoring the constitution provides far greater power to elected officials and their party bosses. The results are perennial issues including ethics, gambling and campaign finance reform that could have been settled decades ago.
Constitutional changes would have avoided months of debate and negotiations provided more time for government to work on things like creating jobs, lowering taxes and improving education, the way many other states have done. Instead, Albany under both parties dredges up the same issues while collecting campaign contributions that flow each time these topics surface.
At the heart of Citizens Committee for an Effective Constitution is a website (http://effectiveny.org), which is live this week and open and free to the public. It includes icons to easily explore the constitution, provide clearly labeled pro and con arguments by scholars and experts, shows what others states do, and cites past constitutional amendments. There’s even a “call an expert” function.
They say the resources vetted by independent experts could have headed off many of today’s biggest issues, such as:
— The failure to enact an independent commission to redraw election district lines that traditionally consolidate power for majorities;
— Whether to expand casino gambling;
— Whether the Senate should add a 63rd seat at a cost of up to $1 million that could bolster the Republicans’ slim majority;
— Whether to curb the governor’s extraordinary power to change law and policy in budget bills;
— Whether there should be a state spending cap; and,
— Whether local taxpayers should foot billions of dollars in Medicaid costs when most states don’t.
All are constitutional issues that could be settled for decades, yet all are perennial topics.
The committee says change can come from grassroots effort to change specific parts of the constitution or an effort to convene a constitutional convention where the whole document is up for debate.
The last convention was in 1967. New York voters, under heavy advertising pressure by special interests, ultimately rejected the recommendations. There been no systematic overhaul of the New York State Constitution since 1938, while other states embraced term limits and other measures.
History shows the concern. New York was a colonial government long before there was a U.S. Constitution, steeped in power for leaders who were limited only by the state constitution — if New Yorkers use it.
“State government had plenary powers (for officials) directly inherited from the sovereign king, so the constitution is especially important in limiting state government because otherwise state government can do whatever comes into its head,” said Gerald Benjamin, a political scientist at the State University of New York at New Paltz and part of the committee.
The new effort seeks strength through divergent views.
Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, a Canandaigua Republican and member of the committee, calls it “a coalition of opposites … We really want a diverse range of views.”
“I’m a Democrat and I want a strong Republican Party,” said Samuels, who briefly ran for lieutenant governor in 2010 and will fund the new committee with $300,000 this year. “We want to go back to the old days when there was respect for each other … if we talk, we’ll make a lot more progress together.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Michael Gormley is the Albany Capitol editor for The Associated Press and has covered New York politics for the AP for more than 10 years.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.