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J.H. Snider's Blog

Governor Cuomo Conspicuously Omits New York’s Upcoming Concon Referendum in his State of the State Address

by | Jan 17, 2017

“We still have an electoral system that protects the prerogatives of politicians at the expense of voters.”

–Andrew Cuomo, State of the State Address in New York City, January 9, 2017

This year during his annual State of the State address/roadshow and in his accompanying 383-page  State of the State report,  Governor Cuomo didn’t mention the Nov. 7, 2017 referendum on whether to call a state constitutional convention.  How should we interpret this conspicuous omission?

When Governor Cuomo ran for office, he included calling a state constitutional convention as a key enabler of his democratic reform agenda.  Without one, much of the rest of his democratic reform agenda wouldn’t be able to overcome legislative opposition.  In his 2016 State of the State, he started to fulfill his campaign promise by calling on the Legislature to provide $1 million for a commission to help prepare a convention reform agenda prior to the Nov. 7, 2017 referendum.

Anyone who has been following the Governor closely on this issue knows that since taking office his support for calling a convention has been lukewarm at best.  It’s one thing to campaign for an aggressive democratic reform agenda.  This is as controversial as motherhood and apple pie.  It’s an entirely different matter once in office to do the same when there is a political cost to doing so.  Just think of all those incumbent members of Congress who run for Congress by running against it.

The Legislature hates the idea of convening a convention and so do many of the most powerful special interest groups in New York, some of which are important allies of the Governor.  It’s no surprise, then, that he didn’t push for his proposed $1 million preparatory commission—a drop in the bucket in the context of New York’s overall budget, and something he could have gotten if it were a priority.  By proposing the commission, he provided himself with political cover if he doesn’t fulfill his campaign pledge, as not getting the commission funded can now be blamed on the Legislature.

On the other hand, the ethics package in his proposal arguably has significant implications for calling a convention, as calling one can be viewed as a sword of Damocles hanging over the Legislature if it doesn’t deliver up a decent amount of ethics reform.   If the Legislature doesn’t deliver meaningful ethics reform during this session, as it hasn’t when Cuomo proposed similar reforms in the past, Cuomo will have bolstered the perception that the Legislature is incapable of reforming itself.

Whether that’s Cuomo’s intention or not cannot be known without being able to read his mind.  But regardless of his intention, it’s an inevitable consequence of the democratic reform agenda he is pushing.  Most likely, ethics reform legislation will be passed that muddies the water.  That is, regardless of what the Legislature passes, it will claim it not only can but has reformed itself.

It was always unlikely that Cuomo would become a strong public opponent for calling a state constitutional convention.  Given his dad’s and his own previous strong support for convening one, it would be too much of a flip flop.  But it has also now become increasingly likely that he won’t be a strong supporter either; most likely, essentially standing on the sidelines.  If so, that would be a big loss for the yes campaign.  In the face of inevitable legislative and allied special interest opposition to calling a convention, strong gubernatorial support has generally been essential to a successful yes campaign.

–The Governor’s State of the State website can be found here.