"Constitutional Convention" Idea Gains Steam in Albany

Could re-draw district lines

Friday, Sep 4, 2009  |  Updated 5:10 PM EDT
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"Constitutional Convention" Idea Gains Steam in Albany

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ALBANY --  A Republican's proposal to hold a "people's constitutional convention" to overhaul New York state government gained a critical co-sponsor Friday.

Assemblyman Mark Schroeder, an Erie County Democrat, is the first majority member to sign onto the campaign started by Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, a Finger Lakes Republican.

Kolb proposed the constitutional convention to consider sweeping changes to the state's budget process, limits on spending, property tax caps, term limits, and a nonpartisan way to redraw legislative districts that critics say have long been engineered to protect incumbents. He has a half-dozen Republicans on board, although the bill hasn't yet been introduced.

His plan would prohibit politicians, lobbyists and members of special interests groups from being delegates. Instead, New York residents would run for seats in what could be a five-month convention at a legislator's base pay of $79,500 a year.

"I feel we are beyond reform in this state," Schroeder said. "I think the time has come now that people want anybody but us, really, to figure this out."

Kolb proposed the convention last month following a series of political gridlock and scandal. Comptroller Alan Hevesi was convicted of using staff for personal purposes and resigned; Gov. Eliot Spitzer resigned amid a prostitution investigation; and several lawmakers and staffers were arrested on allegations of sexual misconduct, bribery, and using their public positions for private profit
In the name of reform, Schroeder has introduced a bill to change the process for redrawing legislative district lines after the 2010 census.

Critics for decades have said the majority parties in the Senate and the Assembly have drawn the lines in contorted fashion to load the districts with party voters to ultimately protect party incumbents.

Schroeder's bill would create an independent panel and forbid the use of political affiliation, previous election results, the addresses of incumbents, or any demographic information other than population to draw the lines.

Kolb welcomed Schroeder's support of his bill.

"We want this to be a nonpartisan effort so it's not a Republican idea, not a Democratic idea," he said. "It's everybody's idea ... not a ploy against one party that is in power."

A convention could cost $12 million to $15 million and, based on the last one in 1967, take 22 weeks. The cost includes the salaries of delegates and staff, travel and lodging, building costs and printing expenses.

Early criticism from lawmakers warned about the cost during the state's fiscal crisis.

But Kolb said Friday, "I think if you ask taxpayers if it's worth $15 million to finally get change, I think taxpayers would say it's well worth the investment."

The Legislature could vote on the proposal as early as this month, to put the question to voters in November. Otherwise, the Legislature could act after Jan. 1 and put the question to voters on the November 2010 ballot.

If approved by voters, nonpartisan, special elections would then be held. Voters would choose three delegates from each of the 62 state Senate Districts and 15 statewide delegates. A district candidate would have to get 1,000 signatures to get on a ballot.

Satewide candidates would need 10,000 signatures.

If delegates are elected in November 2010, the convention could begin at the Capitol in April of 2011.

Kolb is circulating an Internet petition for a constitutional convention, and plans to tour newspaper editorial boards this fall.

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