Monday, October 16, 2017

2017 Ballot Propositions – Don’t Forget To Turn Over Your Ballot on Nov. 7!

There are three propositions on this year New York State ballot. You’ll find them on the back of your paper ballot, so don’t forget to turn your ballot over before and vote on them before you hand it in to be scanned on Election Day.

New York State does not provide a path for citizen initiatives, unlike some other states (California is the best known-example of this). However, the New York Constitution does provide for an automatic ballot referral for a constitutional convention (the "ConCon") question at 20-year intervals, with one in 2017. Prop 1 this year is the referendum on that.

There is a non-ConCon method to amend the constitution, however. All other ballot measures must be referred by the New York State Legislature. A majority vote is required in two successive sessions of the legislature in order to qualify a constitutional amendment for the statewide ballot. Prop 2 and Prop 3 met that requirement this year.

Let’s take a closer look at each of them, saving Prop 1, the Constitutional Convention (“ConCon”) question, for last.

New York Proposal 2, the Pension Forfeiture for Convicted Officials Amendment, would amend the NYS Constitution by authorizing judges to reduce or revoke the public pension of a public officer convicted of a felony related to his or her official duties. A YES vote will pass Prop 2 and a NO vote will oppose it.

If you think state officials who violate state ethics laws or abuse their positions for personal gain, are caught and convicted should not get a state pension, this is the Prop for you.

New York Proposal 3, the Forest Preserve Land Bank Amendment, would          
1. create a 250-acre land bank, which would allow local governments to request state Forest Preserve land for qualifying projects in exchange for the state adding 250 new acres to the preserve; and
2. allow bike paths, sewer lines, and utility lines within the width of highways on preserve land.
A YES vote passes the amendment; a NO vote denies it.

Creating the 250-acre land bank would allow municipalities (towns, villages, counties) inside the Adirondack Park to be able to do away with the current requirement for local road, bridge, telecommunications, and water and sewer projects to be put up on a state-wide ballot in order to gain the easements necessary to do this work. The Park would not lose any land, because Prop 3 requires the State to buy an additional 250 acres in exchange for the land bank.

It is important to note that Prop 3 prohibits the construction of a new intrastate gas or oil pipeline that did not receive necessary state and local permits and approvals by June 1, 2016. So passing Prop 3 will not open up the Park to destructive heavy industry development.

Both environmental and pro-development groups are backing passage of Prop 3.

Now we come to Prop 1, the once every 20 year question so see if the voters agree it is time to hold a Constitutional Convention in New York State – the so-called ConCon Prop. A bit of history: New Yorkers have voted on 12 constitutional convention questions during the 239 years between 1777 and 2016. In 2017, citizens are voting on it for the 13th time.

For example, the 1894 ConCon enacted the Forever Wild clause, creating the Adirondack Park to protect state forest tracts. The 1938 convention brought new state responsibilities regarding social welfare and established labor protections for public projects.

The last time a ConCon was called for (by the state legislature in that case) was in 1967, but ultimately those proposed changes were rejected by the voters.

Convening a ConCon is a three-year, multi-step process:
  • November 7, 2017: Public votes on whether to hold constitutional convention.
  • November 6, 2018: Delegates elected if public votes for convention.
  • April 2, 2019: Start of convention.
  • November 5, 2019: Public votes on proposed changes to constitution.

If a convention is approved, in the second year (2018) voters will elect three delegates from each of the state’s sixty-three Senate districts and fifteen at-large delegates for a total of 204. While elected by the people, the ConCon delegates are in a sense an extra set of legislators charged with tinkering with the basic governmental document of the state. Keep in mind that fully one third of the people who ran for the state Assembly and Senate in 2016 were unopposed, then ask yourself who will come forward and have the name recognition to get elected as delegates in 2018, a state-wide election year for both state houses.

If the ConCon is called and delegates are seated, they have a few months to work on changes to the state’s constitution before bringing those changes back to voters. They can decide to either bring all the amendments up on one ballot – aye or nay in one vote – or bring them up for individual votes separately on the ballot in 2019. It is solely their call which method they decide to use. On more than one occasion, the work of the entire ConCon has been scrapped because one proposal sent all the others down in flames in a single ballot vote on all.

One of the concerns about holding a ConCon is the cost. The 1967 convention, which was called for by the state legislature in the middle of the regular ConCon cycle, cost about $15 million. Fifty years later, if there is one thing we have learned, it is that the cost of anything never goes down when it involves people and government.

Comptroller Tom DiNapoli estimated a constitutional convention could cost the state at least $50 million — a figure he said was a “conservative” estimate. Speaking with reporters at a news conference in his office, DiNapoli said the convention would have to spend money on pay for delegates and staff and their pension credits. DiNapoli [like much of the state’s political leadership] is opposed to holding one. “Our conservative estimate based on ’67 number is $50 million,” he said, referencing the 1967 convention, the last time one was held to consider revising the state constitution. “I think it could be a lot higher than that. I’d rather see that money put to other issues. I’d rather see our attention focused on other issues.”

And speaking of money, a lot of it has already been spent on both sides of the question, trying to influence voters to vote yes or no on this year’s ballot. If that is any indication, the spending in 2019 to influence the delegates will go through the roof. And thanks to Citizens United v. FEC (2010), corporations are “people” too, for a first time with a ConCon. 

The campaigns for and against a constitutional convention may be only every 20 years, but spending by supporters and foes this year is on par with expenditures in a hotly contested election. Top pro and con convention forces have spent more than $1 million combined this year, according to filings with the state Board of Elections. Additional spending is expected before voters head to the polls on Election Day to cast ballots on whether to hold a constitutional convention, which would take place in 2019.

Those opposing a ConCon worry about what might be lost – labor rights, pensions, environmental protections, etc. They are a diverse group of people and organizations not usually associated with each other on policy matters.

Those in favor of a ConCon all seem to have the same hope that goodness and mercy will prevail and all of the thorny issues the legislature has been unable or willing to address can be resolved by rewriting the state constitution. Strangely enough, many of these folks are from the political class and ought to know better. Hope, as the US Army is wont to say, is not a plan.

In the end, the decision is in the hands of the voters on Election Day to determine the fate of all three of these Proposals. Educate yourself about the details of each, think about how passage or failure would affect you, and don’t forget to turn your ballot over on November 7 and make your choices known.

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