Philip Terrie’s commentary is the third of three essays about the vote coming this November on whether New York State will hold a Constitutional Convention. The first commentaries, by Christopher Bopst and Peter Galie, can be found here.
In the American political climate of 2017, is it really a good idea for people to insist that they can accurately predict the future? Peter Galie and Christopher Bopst appear to think it is. They claim that a constitutional convention (concon) will not diminish the authority of the provision in our current constitution – Article 14, Section 1 – stipulating that the state Forest Preserve be “forever kept as wild forest lands.” Their argument advances the case one hears circulating all around the state these days, as we gear up for the vote in November, 2017, when New Yorkers will vote yes or no on this simple question: “Shall there be a convention to revise the constitution and amend the same?” If this passes, delegate elections will he held in 2018, and the concon will sit in 2019. A vote on a new constitution would probably be held in November, 2019.
Along with a committee of the New York Bar Association, the League of Women Voters, and other prominent organizations, Galie and Bopst, duly noting both the culture of corruption in Albany and the labyrinthine and antiquated nature of much of what we have now, ask us to approve a concon and seek to convince those of us who have spent a good part of our lives defending the forever-wild provision that nothing bad can happen. Count me as unconvinced.
If a concon is called, we will vote to approve or reject a new constitution two and a half years from now. In the spring of 2014, who thought that Donald Trump could possibly be elected President of the United States? A few people obviously did, but conspicuously absent from the believers were the political scientists and good-government types who confidently tell us now what a New York concon will or will not do. Way back then, they consistently told us, a Trump presidency would never happen. Now they are saying that Article 14 is safe from any depredations at a concon. Why am I not assured?
Consider this: who would have believed a few years ago that labor-friendly Michigan, home of the United Auto Workers, would ever be a so-called “right to work” state”? These are strange times politically, and well-applied money can buy judges, laws, and politicians. It can also buy delegates to a concon.
If a concon is approved, delegates will be elected according to an already established and legally unchallengeable formula: three from each senate district and fifteen state wide. New York has 63 senate districts; they are big, with multiple media markets; a successful campaign for those seeking to be delegates will cost a lot of money. In 2014, the last year for which I could find numbers, over $60 million was spent on NY senate races. And bear in mind that many of the senate races that year were not seriously contested.
If we have a concon, huge sums of money will be spent by wealthy individuals, PACs, and corporations, many from out of state, to get sympathetic delegates elected. This will not be a people’s convention. It will be populated by political insiders, lobbyists, and current legislators and judges, just as previous concons have been. These are the same people who run Albany right now.
I have heard advocates of a concon dismiss as wild paranoia the idea that it could be brokered by the Koch brothers. When I look around this country and see what special interests and their money can do to subvert the public good, I don’t think it is the least paranoid to at least acknowledge the genuine possibility that a New York concon could be considerably less benign than Galie and Bopst so confidently predict.
What about the Forest Preserve? What about their argument that it is so revered, so historically enshrined, that no concon would ever dare diminish it?
For well over a century, ever since this provision was written into our constitution in 1894, New York’s natural-resources bureaucracy has resisted its strictures. It has proposed and implemented developments that significantly violated the forever-wild mandate. Beginning with state campsites developed after World War I, the state has frequently tried to get around forever wild. State officials wanted to construct a bobsled run on state land in 1930; after the great blowdown of 1950, they argued for the introduction of commercial logging; they built barns for horses in Cold River Country in the late 1960s; they have recently laid out wide, road-like snowmobile trails in roadless areas in the Forest Preserve.
Taken one at a time, these may not seem all that threatening, but they must be understood as a consistent, relentless pattern, one that has manifested itself with particular vigor in the administration of Governor Andrew Cuomo. The Governor’s office, ostensibly with the Governor’s approval, wants to develop part of the Boreas Ponds tract for people who don’t want to backpack or carry their own food. They’re proposing some sort of lodging and dining arrangement that would bring the perverse activity known as “glamping” into the Forest Preserve. Is that “forever wild”? Or is that a brazen attempt to redefine the purpose of the Forest Preserve?
The Governor appears to find the current constitutional provision to be a limit on his inclination to turn the Forest Preserve into a source of income for local businesses. He will undoubtedly be the most powerful figure at a concon, whether he sits as a delegate or operates behind the scenes. Will he demand that the historic protections now inscribed in Article 14 be “clarified” in such a way as to permit the century-old dream of diverting the management of the Forest Preserve away from preserving wilderness to promoting economic development?
At every concon since 1894, special interests have tried to modify Article 14. At first it was to permit logging on state land; later it was to change the wording of that provision to broaden the authority of the state to develop the Forest Preserve for non-wilderness recreation. As Galie and Bobst admit, the 1967 concon did exactly that. The Froessel amendment, which significantly expanded the legal power of the state to develop the Forest Preserve, was approved at that concon. The only reason it’s not now part of our constitution is that the 1967 concon also would have facilitated state support for parochial schools, and the people objected, voting down the entire document.
As Galie and Bopst have argued elsewhere, most notably in their book New York’s Broken Constitution, there is much that needs changing in the document that underlies all of our state’s governance. The judiciary, the budgeting process, the rules determining how the boundaries of legislative districts are drawn– these and so much more are desperately in need of reform. But it is disingenuous and unrealistic to insist with such casual confidence that the Forest Preserve would be off bounds, that a concon could not possibly whittle away at the monumental provision that has protected our Forest Preserve so well for so long.
Philip Terrie also wrote about the risks of a constitutional convention in the March/April issue of the Adirondack Explorer newsmagazine.
Photo: Article 14, Section 1 New York State Constitution Forever Wild clause.