A CONSTITUTIONAL QUESTION / Time to Remake the Empire State

By Richard Brodsky and Ron Silver. Assemb. Richard Brodsky (D-Elmsford) chairs the Assembly Committee on Environmental Conservation. Ron Silver is president of Actors Equity.
Newsday, 10-09-1997

[Note: This editorial was written by Brodsky and Silver in support of a November 1997 ballot measure in New York State to hold a constitutional convention for possible redrafting of the state's constitution, so that it could include issues not addressed in the current constitution. Voters in New York decided against the convention. Maybe next time...]

NEW YORK STATE'S constitution enshrines our values and gives legal expression to our vision of ourselves and our government. It sets forth the process of governance and gives elected officials fundamental guidance.

The state constitution deals with our commitment to the mentally ill, to educating our children and to protecting our wilderness. It creates our cities, counties, towns and villages. Since its last revision at the constitutional convention of 1938, our constitution has served us well. But it has serious gaps. New York's constitution is silent on issues of daily concern and verbose on issues long past their importance.

The constitution lacks a right to privacy. It doesn't define corporate responsibility. It fails to protect citizens against persistent patterns of discrimination. It is silent on the mission of higher education. It doesn't limit unwise debt practices. It doesn't restrict special interests' impact on elections. It speaks not at all to the rights of children.

Yet as we approach the November ballot decision on whether to call a constitutional convention, a strange convergence is developing. The debate about the convention referendum has been marked by anger and frustration by some proponents of a convention, and fear and timidity by some who oppose it. Some proponents, in the face of what they perceive as Albany gridlock, insist that Albany is broken and needs fixing.

They don't go any further, however, and don't say what a convention ought to do. Nor do they offer their vision of our state's future. On the other side, some opponents of the convention fear that it would endanger valuable parts of the constitution. They dread a bad outcome so much that they would forego the real possibility of a new, improved constitution.

Neither position comes close to advancing the interests of New Yorkers.

Support for a convention ought not to be presented as punishment for perceived Albany gridlock. It ought to be a call for a conversation about democracy, an opportunity to renegotiate the contract between the government and the people.

Opposition to a convention should not come from fear. Remember, any constitutional changes proposed by the convention would have to be ratified by a majority of the voters in a statewide referendum. The people will, in the end, determine the contents of their constitution. They can be trusted to be thoughtful and intelligent. As the debate swings between anger on one side and fear on the other, it becomes more important to state clearly what a convention ought to do. We crafted an Agenda for Constitutional Reform. It deals with problems of Albany gridlock, the rights of children, a right to privacy, the need for corporate responsibility, an end to back-door borrowing and many other needed changes.

Others who call for a convention should offer their own agenda so that New Yorkers can begin to discuss our common or competing views of society and government. The convention could help restore power to average citizens, to modernize our government and improve our communities. Anger is not enough. Fear is not enough. New York needs a vision of what our state could be to create a constitution that will last another 60 years.

Richard Brodsky, Ron Silver, A CONSTITUTIONAL QUESTION / Time to Remake the Empire State., 10-09-1997, pp A57.

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