Why New York Should Have a Constitutional Convention, But Still Needs the Feds

 Not exactly what we had in mind (newamsterdamny.org)

Not exactly what we had in mind (newamsterdamny.org)

Since the election of Donald Trump, a lot has been made about the need for more localism.  With the federal government either locked in partisan paralysis or actively cutting back on services, there is a compelling argument for letting states run their own affairs – after all, states are the great laboratories of democracy.  However, we can look at the recent talk of holding a Constitutional Convention in New York to see why this argument is ultimately flawed.

There are two main reasons that localism can’t help improve how our cities/states are governed. First, our society has evolved into a highly complex, integrated national and global environment where the actions of distant players have local consequences.  We need a strong, active federal government to manage the needs of loosely connected people and places.  Despite what many would argue as too many onerous regulations from the federal government (on things like environmental policy), the larger trend over the last 40 years is the retreat of federal policy (on financial policy as one example), which has produced some of the greatest inequality in our country’s history.

Second, this assumes that states are functional enough to handle more responsibility, which is, sadly, not at all clear.  Part of this goes back to the first reason. Our economy and society are too complex and integrated for state-level governments to be able to address all of their citizens’ concerns. Even well run states can be left behind as the economy and demographics shift. But part of it is bad governance.  New York State is a prime example.

I’ve written a lot about the flaws within New York State’s governance (and though I’ve been highly critical of Governor Cuomo, most of those flaws are structural and not his fault per se.)  The quirks of history and geography have put a mostly rural state together with the country’s greatest city.  It has also separated commuters across three states that have more in common with each other than their other fellow citizens.  These issues are beyond the reach of a (state) Constitutional Convention, but show the limits to what a state can address.

However, here is a brief list of what could and should be fixed in New York.  These changes, along with many others certainly, could improve on the quality of governance in the state, but the larger point is to demonstrate that they still couldn’t address the larger trends that pose current and future problems for the state.

1.     One Full-Time Legislature

Many states have a two-body legislative system with part-time legislators based on logic from the US Constitution intended to spread out political power across regions and classes. The idea of the citizen-legislator has romantic undertones, but in practice it means you get an unprofessional class of elected officials who are ripe with conflicts of interest.  

The increasing nationalization of all politics and flooding of out-of-state money into local elections further undermines this quaint notion.  Post-election, lobbyist groups like ALEC often write legislation word-for-word in many states and provide funds and perks for many elected officials all to eager to lighten their load.

The "Three Men in A Room" Era of New York politics has been the opposite. Not only have two of those three people ended up in jail, but also the system made a mockery of both bodies of representation.  The dynamics of New York politics dictate that downstate voting power dominates the Democrat-led Assembly and downstate financial power dominates the Republican-led Senate. This unholy alliance works because we have too many weak legislators.

Paying professional politicians and staff to govern our state through one representative house would produce better outcomes with more transparency.  Singapore has shown how paying comparable private-sector salaries can improve the efficiency and efficacy of government.  We get what we pay for, and I’d rather pay fewer people more to do a better job. 

2.     Home Rule

Localism as it is described in many circles calls for cities to control more of their destinies in the Trump Age. That belies the fact that they can’t.  The US Constitution does not mention cities at all and empowers states exclusively outside of the federal level.  This means that a city like NYC doesn’t control its own transportation, taxation, or even education. 

The honest truth is that NYC is special (obviously I have fully embraced my NYC-centric worldview) and needs to run its own affairs.  It’s one of the world’s premiere cities and needs to have autonomy to run its own affairs to complete with global cities like London or Hong Kong.  That it can’t manage its sprawling obligations and opportunities as easily as Paris or London can costs NYC, New York, and the US. 

Some ideas have been floated for the Convention about returning limited home rule to NYC or as radical as creating autonomous regions (see the picture above) or even succession.  If there was some compromise that cut out a special designation for the 5 boroughs given its unique nature, but would still guarantee some upstate financial exchange - that might just work. But if such a scenario that could benefit both the city and the rest of the state (and the rest of its cities) even exists remains to be seen. And I for one don't want to create a scenario where one region suffers because the other separates.

Furthermore, it’s unlikely that upstate communities would want to surrender access to NYC tax dollars. More importantly, it’s unlikely that upstate politicians would want to surrender access to downstate political money, which would evaporate if upstate influence wasn’t needed.  And no governor, certainly not the current one, would want to surrender the power, and access to the spotlight, that NYC provides. 

3.     Debt Service

Technically, this is more about transparency, but how the state borrows money is in need of a major overhaul.  Right now the Constitution says that voters must approve any state borrowing over a certain amount but that hasn’t happened in decades.  This is because most state borrowing comes through sub-state authorities and agencies that are explicitly exempt from voter referendums. 

Many elected officials, including at one time Governor Cuomo, have criticized this “back-door” borrowing but when push comes to shove, it is a very convenient tool to get projects funded, so the practice continues.   At $300b, New York has the second highest state debt in the country (although, it has been on sound footing for several years.) 

It should be said that debt is not a bad thing for a state to have, especially when it is borrowing for infrastructure and public services that have long-term benefits. The problem is less the outright number or the state’s current ability to fund its debt service and more the ability to determine priorities. The assumption is that most voters won’t know enough or care enough about the state borrowing for a new bridge and might vote it down with enough protest.  This is unfortunately true in some cases. 

However, this is myopic.  The larger truth is that New York, like most states, gives money away for terrible projects all the time without facing voters’ wrath.  The city and state gave close to $500m to Yankee Stadium, without a “yes” from voters.  The Governor gave billions of dollars to upstate, without a “yes” from voters.  Just two weeks ago, it was announced that Aetna, the publicly traded insurance giant, will receive $34m in city/state money to move 250 jobs to Chelsea. Without having to justify expenses to voters, the state has wasted billions and will continue to. 

This all while expansion of public education, transportation, and pension funding all suffer.  It’s always the big-ticket items that get political pushback, but too many little things get through the cracks. This happens because the state thinks voters are ignorant and lazy when in reality they are ignored and misinformed.  Only by changing the way we control our taxes will that change.

There are a lot of other issues that could be addressed in a Convention and there are risks that silly ideas or even bad ones will get traction or distract the process.  These potential issues don’t outweigh the need to reboot the state of New York.  It is entirely healthy for citizens to revisit the organizing documents of its government. I hope that we do this fall. But it’s clear to me that without stronger federal action, cities and states can’t fend for themselves no matter how well run they are.