Had Enough? Time to Fix Albany Mess

New York Times, June 20, 1997
NEW YORK -- You may not always think so, because numbskulls are hardly in short supply, but there are a lot of very smart people in New York City. Proof of a sort came this week when the 1997 MacArthur Fellowships were announced.

Each year, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation of Chicago distributes several million dollars among 20 to 30 Americans for no better reason than that they are world-class brains, people who push the envelope in their fields. Not for nothing are the awards often called "genius grants."

Of this year's 23 winners, 4 were from New York. Even this nongenius could tell right away that that 17 percent share was disproportionately high for a city that has less than 3 percent of the U.S. population. Nor was this year exceptional.

A MacArthur analysis of its 457 fellows from 1981 to 1995 showed that 93, or 20 percent, lived in New York state, with most coming from this city. Only California had more grant recipients; barely, with 95. Keep in mind that California has 32 million people compared with New York's 18 million.

Let's not fool ourselves. Geographical happenstance is an important factor. Regardless of where they are born, creative people tend to flock to cities, and this country's largest magnets are university centers on either coast, New York included.

Still, the point is that this is a town with no shortage of mega-brains. That being the case, it gives rise to a question:

If we're so smart, how come we cannot devise a state government that works better than the existing dysfunctional system of late budgets, closed-door negotiations and legislators who seem unable to walk and chew on more than one issue at the same time?

That question looms larger than ever now that the melodrama over rent regulations has put Albany's shortcomings so harshly in the spotlight.

The answer is that of course we have the smarts to come up with something more efficient. And this year we have the means to put that brainpower to work: a statewide referendum on the November ballot that will ask New Yorkers if a convention should be held in 1999 to amend or even totally rewrite the 220-year-old state Constitution.

The Constitution requires that voters be asked every 20 years if they want to hold a constitutional convention, known to lovers of shorthand as a con-con. Usually, they say no. The last con-con was held in 1967, but not at the voters' instigation. When the elaborate document that emerged was put before them, they shot it right down. There has been no dramatic reworking of the state Constitution since 1938.

But consider the opportunity that now exists.

If you think that an issue like New York City's rent regulations should be settled by people living in the five boroughs and not in Rensselaer County, then a convention is perhaps the best way to overhaul the system so the city gets the home rule it deserves and sorely lacks. That alone would make the effort worthwhile, some feel, although many other matters could be taken up, from the eternal Senate-Assembly gridlock to Albany's moribund legislative committees.

"It's the last and best chance in modern New York to get a political system that works," said Prof. Gerald Benjamin, a political scientist at the New Paltz campus of the State University.

Former Gov. Mario Cuomo gives it almost a biblical dimension. "It's as though somebody said: Look, Moses did a pretty good job, but maybe you think we need some more rules, or fewer rules," he said.

Even some who are undecided about a con-con have pet issues they would put before it. "No decision of any consequence in the Legislature is done in front of the public," said Eric Lane, a Hofstra University law professor. Writing recently in City Journal, a publication of the Manhattan Institute, he likened legislative sessions to "a meeting of the Supreme Soviet."

Right now, the odds against a convention are long. The voters said no in the last referendum, in 1977, and this year does not look different, despite the widespread disenchantment with Albany. Legislative leaders oppose the idea, and the governor shows no enthusiasm. And a broad array of interest groups -- conservatives, advocates for the poor, environmentalists -- share a fear that any constitutional change may be bad for them.

Even so, this is the best opportunity in a long time to put New York's brains to work. Not that a single genius grant went to a politician. Or to a newspaper pundit, for that matter.