Lines are being drawn and sides are being picked as New Yorkers prepare for one of the more intriguing “off year” elections in recent memory with three ballot initiatives, including the contentious Constitutional Convention, going before voters in November.
Voters will be met with more than just their local election choices this fall; there will be three statewide questions on the ballot with far reaching implications in the areas of land use, ethics and rewriting the state Constitution.
THE ADIRONDACK AND CATSKILL LAND BANK
A piece of the omnibus bill passed by the Legislature during the extraordinary session called by Gov. Andrew Cuomo last week creates a land bank that allows municipalities in the Adirondack and Catskill Parks to swap land in order to complete routine maintenance and infrastructure upgrades.
On January 1, 1895, as a product of the 1894 Constitutional Convention, it was declared that “The lands of the state, now owned or hereafter acquired, constituting the forest preserve as now fixed by law, shall be forever kept as wild forest lands. They shall not be leased, sold or exchanged, or be taken by any corporation, public or private, nor shall the timber thereon be sold, removed or destroyed. Nothing herein contained shall prevent the state from constructing, completing and maintaining any highway heretofore specifically authorized by constitutional amendment.”
In other words, that roads could be maintained but would require the approval of the entire state electorate, through constitutional amendment, to execute even basic projects that require use of lands that fall under state preserve control. This proved to be burdensome red tape for some of the 100-plus townships located within the state’s vast forest preserve lands.
Under the revision of Article XIV of the state Constitution, the state will set aside 250 acres for municipalities to use for road repairs, bridge repairs, power lines and other basic infrastructure projects deemed “public safety concerns”. Projects will require a sponsor and public comment as well as proving that “no viable alternative exists” for completion of the project without the use of the preserve land.
Having passed the Legislature in two concurrent sessions, the amendment will now go to voters on the 2017 ballot.
FORFEITURE OF PENSIONS
According to the watchdog group Citizens Union, between 2000 and 2015, more than 30 legislators have been removed from, or left office because of ethical issues and criminal charges they were facing. The scope of these scandals reached all the way to the Governor’s Office with federal corruption charges being brought against one of the governor’s former aides as well as the president of SUNY Polytechnic and a lobbyist, in a bid-rigging scheme involving contract awards for the SUNY Polytechnic and the Buffalo Billion program.
It’s no secret in the capital that the people of New York state view ethics as a major problem in state government and this ballot question will be an opportunity for the voters to make their voices heard, regardless of the Legislature’s reticence to act on the issue of corruption in meaningful ways.
In 2015, Sheldon Silver, the highest ranking member of the Assembly was convicted of seven criminal counts including fraud, extortion and money laundering. Four months later, Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos was caught up in a similar racket which led to his conviction on charges of conspiracy, wire fraud, extortion and soliciting bribes.
In the two legislative sessions since, the Legislature has failed to move any truly meaningful legislation to address ethics reform.
In a March 2017 Quinnipiac poll, 78 percent of people surveyed said that elected state officials convicted of a felony should lose their pensions.
The proposed amendment would vest the courts with the power to revoke, in part or in whole, the pension of appointees, confirmed or otherwise, and elected officials, who have been convicted of a felony “that has a direct and actual relationship to the performance of the public officer’s duties.”
It would also clarify the language defining what exactly the meaning of “public official” to include all of the following:
- A person filling an elected office within New York;
- A person holding an office that is filled by appointment by the New York Governor, whether or not that appointment has to be confirmed by the Senate;
- A county, city, town, or village manager or administrator, or equivalent position;
- The head of any state or local government department, division, board, commission, bureau, public benefit corporation, or public authority in New York who is vested with authority, direction, and control over that entity;
- The chief fiscal officer or treasurer of a municipal corporation or political subdivision in New York;
- A judge or justice of the Unified Court System; and
- A legislative, executive, or judicial employee who directly assists in the formulation of legislation, rules, regulations, policy, or judicial decision-making and who is designated by law as a policy-maker.
THE CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION
The ballot question making the most waves is the once-per-generation question of the Constitutional Convention. Should we convene one; who should represent the people of New York state during the process; and what issues should we address are all questions that interest groups are currently debating and spinning.
Coalitions have formed on both sides of the debate with a very curious roster landing on the anti-convention side. An ideologically diverse group, uniting organizations not normally seen sharing a press release, is acting to protect the system they created over the last half a century through the time and resources invested in the legislature through lobbying and campaign contributions.
The pro-ConCon faction seems to be mobilizing to simply inform the electorate, betting heavy on the idea that, with people’s existing mistrust in government, that telling people that this is a rare opportunity to bypass the Legislature entirely will be enough to sway civic-minded New Yorkers to vote “yes.”
A May 2017 Siena Research poll indicated that, while 67 percent of the electorate had heard “nothing at all” about the ConCon, 62 percent of voters support the idea of holding one.
Since a convention is only offered to the public every 20 years, the particulars of how it actually works are understandably foreign to most.
The process occurs in three steps. First, in November of this year, the question will appear on all ballots across New York state, should we convene a convention?
If New Yorkers vote “no,” the issue will fade into obscurity for the next two decades and the status quo remains.
Should voters say “yes” to the ballot question, they trigger a multi-year process of organizing a convention and amending, or completely re-writing the state Constitution.
The delegates that would dictate the terms of the convention would be elected, three per Senate district and 15 at-large delegates from across the state, during the 2018 election cycle. This particular point is a snag for the anti-ConCon contingent, with no certainty of the process involved until after the delegates set the rules, it’s difficult to predict what exact issues will even be pursued at the convention, let alone the economic and political impacts that dramatically shifting the way business as usual is done in Albany would truly be.
After electing delegates, the convention would be held in April of 2019. This is where delegates present, debate, and adopt new amendments that will be the new laws of New York state, granted they pass one final hurdle.
In the final year of the process, all amendments passed at the convention would be sent to the voters for ratification. Here there is another point of controversy — either one question allowing for the ratification of all the measures carried by the convention, or individual questions pertaining to specific amendments, can be voted up or down by the people of New York state, depending on how the leadership of the convention, chosen by the delegates, decides to present it.
In 1967, even after having spent the money to elect delegates, who are paid the same salary as legislators, and hold a convention, the delegates made the decision to present the changes for ratification in a single ballot question. Public perception was that the convention’s leadership was hoping to use the popular measures adopted at the convention to carry the unpopular ones. The public chose not to ratify the changes, despite the large expenses of holding a convention.
The State Board of Elections is waiting for the Attorney General’s Office to finalize the language for abstract, or plain-language explanation, of the just-passed land bank measure, that will appear on the ballot on November 7, 2017.
The ballot questions will be made available in their entirety online once they are complete. The two questions that have been finalized can be found here.