Blair Horner: The Campaign Season Begins

Sep 4, 2017

Not only does Labor Day herald the beginning of the football season, it also kicks off the final quarter of New York’s election campaigns.  And while the focus of this year’s elections is on local offices, there are three ballot questions that impact the state’s constitution.

Since New York does not have a process for citizens to directly change the constitution, the only ways that the constitution can be changed is either by an amendment approved by two successive legislatures and then put to voters for approval, or through a constitutional convention at which elected delegates develop changes to submit to voters for approval.

The three questions will likely appear on the back side of this year’s paper ballot.  The questions each have a number, one, two or three.  In reverse order, here are the questions being put to voters.

Question 3 is a proposal to amend the state constitution to allow for the creation of a 250-acre land bank to be used in the Adirondack Park.  If approved, the land bank would allow local governments to request the use of the land in the Adirondack forest preserve for projects in exchange for the state acquiring 250 acres to be designated for the Park.

The reason that this question is on the ballot is that the Adirondack Park forest preserve is protected under the “Forever Wild” clause of the New York State Constitution.  As a result, the Park is protected as wild forest land, thus prohibiting the lease, sale, exchange, or taking of any forest preserve land.

Question 3 would allow counties and townships of certain regions that have no viable alternative to using forest preserve land to address specific public health and safety concerns.  In order to offset such uses, the proposal requires that the state obtain another 250 acres of land that will be added to the forest preserve, subject to legislative approval. The proposed amendment also will allow bicycle trails and certain public utility lines to be located within the width of specified highways that cross the forest preserve while minimizing removal of trees and vegetation.

Question 2 amends the constitution to allow judges to reduce or revoke the state pension of a public officer convicted of corruption, defined as a felony conviction stemming from a corrupt act that occurred during his or her official duties.

Under current law, public officials can put their pension at risk if they are convicted of corruption and they took office after 2010.  Under New York’s state constitution, public pensions cannot be altered once the individual is in the system.  Changes can only be made for future public employees.

Question 2 would make a constitutional change that would allow for the reduction or removal of a public pension from a public official who was in the system prior to 2010.

Question 1 may be the question which, if approved, could have the biggest impact on the future of the state.  Question 1 is the proposal for voters to decide whether they want to convene a constitutional convention.

Under the state constitution, every twenty years voters have the opportunity to decide if they want to convene a convention at which the current constitution could be re-written.  If voters approved the creation of a convention, then delegates would be elected the following year.  Those delegates could rewrite the constitution in any way it wanted.  The changes proposed by the delegates would then be forwarded to voters in the following election to decide whether they want to approve the changes.

All three questions will be on the ballot this Election Day, November 7, 2017.  In order to be registered to vote in time for the election, New Yorkers would need to be registered no later than October 13th – which is also the deadline for changing a political party to vote in the 2018 primary elections.

Off year elections are usually marked by low voter turnouts. Many voters are simply disinterested in voting on candidates for local offices.  But this year is different, there are two proposals to change the state constitution and a once-in-two-decades chance to vote on whether to convene a convention to alter the blueprint for government in New York.

The election season is in its fourth quarter, now is the time for voters to get ready for the final drive.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors.They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.