Running for State Legislature? Good. Now Take This Pledge.


On every ballot throughout New York state in November 2017 will be a question asking voters whether we should have a constitutional convention to deal with the mess that has become government in Albany. The referendum is mandated to appear for consideration every 20 years as a way to bring about the reforms we, the people, might want but our elected officials might not.

Whether you are for or against such a constitutional convention in our state – each side has legitimate reasons for their position on this issue – a relevant criticism of such a forum is that no regulation exists prohibiting sitting elected officials running for and serving as delegates to the convention.

There are two main reasons critics of the convention will correctly and repeatedly remind us that the “politician-as-delegate” premise is a bad one. First, delegates are paid for their service. This would allow individuals for whom we already reserve healthy skepticism to “double-dip” from the taxpayer trough. Second, we would be sending politicians who already have the power on any given day to bring about the reforms New Yorkers would seek to a convention designed to do what they already couldn’t. Why would we, in essence, create a duplicate forum for inaction in a convention when we already have one in our Legislature?

But in 1967 that is exactly what New Yorkers did. In that year’s constitutional convention, the most recent such assemblage held in our state, a full 20 percent of the delegates were either sitting judges or sitting members of the Legislature.

A report issued by the New York City Bar Association Task Force on the Constitutional Convention in 1997 – the last year the referendum was on the ballot – recommended a solution to the dual-payment question. “We strongly urge constitutional amendment and new legislation to eliminate dual public salaries for sitting public officials who serve as delegates.” Despite the strength of the commission’s urging, neither amendment nor statutory remedies were enacted.

One way to avoid sitting politicians from hijacking a convention to protect their own interests in lieu of ours beginning next year is to ask them to sign a pledge while they campaign for office this year. The pledge would simply state that if successful in a 2016 race for the New York state Legislature, the candidate promises to not seek a delegate position if voters approve a convention during their term.

Whether a candidate makes this promise or refuses could be one required ingredient of how we talk about the 2016 state Senate and Assembly races and would help jump start an important conversation about the constitutional convention that we will be inevitably having next year.

A brief search for the definition of the word “pledge” reminds us that it is a “solemn promise or undertaking.” To many, this kind of vow is our word and our commitment. We can only hope, whether they decide to take the delegate pledge or not, it means the same thing to our politicians.

James Coll is an adjunct professor of American and Constitutional history at Hofstra University and the founder of ChangeNYS.org, a not-for-profit organization formed to promote civic education and political reform in our state.

 

ORIGINAL ARTICLE PUBLISHED ON NYSLANT.COM

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