Thursday, September 14, 2017

‘Explorer’ Editorial: Consider a Convention for New York


This November’s election may be an off-year, but it’s an important one for New Yorkers. The ballot will include the question of whether to hold a convention to make changes to the New York State Constitution, a chance that comes along once every twenty years.

New York State residents with ties to the Adirondacks should be conflicted: on the one hand, their state constitution is in desperate need of revision — punctuated by a string of corruption convictions against state leaders in recent years. The changes needed to fix this problem aren’t likely to come from lawmakers themselves through constitutional amendment.

But while taking back control of our constitution seems a desirable goal, opening the potential for harm to Article 14, which includes the forever-wild clause protecting the Forest Preserve in the Adirondacks and Catskills, is a proposition scarier to some than politicians lining their pockets with public money.

Still, isn’t it worth considering this opportunity to make badly needed reform while actually strengthening laws to protect the environment?

Fears that a constitutional convention would put Article 14 in jeopardy are rooted in the fact that we don’t trust the system to do right by us. Yet by fighting against a constitutional convention we’re giving up the chance to change the system.

Article 14 was actually a product of the New York State Constitutional Convention of 1894. It’s been targeted for change over the years from commercial interests, such as logging, a proposal to build lodging on state land (defeated in 1932), and a long battle over building dams and reservoirs for hydroelectric power (also defeated).

To be clear, the Adirondack Explorer wants a strong Article 14 to continue to give us preserved forests unlike any other. And many believe the forever-wild clause is so beloved that voters would never approve changes to diminish it.

In fact, a constitutional convention could be an opportunity to make even stronger safeguards that would ensure New Yorkers the right to clean water and air and a healthy environment. The Environmental Bill of Rights passed the Assembly this spring but has not yet passed the Republican-led Senate. This could be taken up as part of the constitutional convention.

Think of the influence environmental groups could have — statewide — if they came together to get delegates into the convention to put on the table an Environmental Bill of Rights.

And if the process does try to diminish Article 14, it is still up to voters to accept or reject the constitutional change. The Explorer would do its part to guard against approving any such changes.

We also know the constitutional amendment process can work in some instances. A resolution, once introduced by legislative members, must be approved by both the Senate and Assembly in two concurrent sessions of separately elected legislatures. Then the amendment is put before the voters during a general election. If approved, the amendment becomes part of the constitution.

Adirondack environment groups recently have had success moving two amendments to Article 14 through this process.

But more difficult political topics might never even be introduced.

Unlike any of the national parks, the Adirondack Park is made up of protected lands and communities of people living amid them. We value that. Those communities could benefit from constitutional provisions that could:

■ Address the ethics problems in New York State.
■ Distribute education money so it isn’t based on political clout. This would allow for a fairer distribution to communities in the Adirondacks with less influence than, say, Westchester County.
■ Strengthen civil-rights protections. Right now the provision is written to address race and religion only, leaving out women’s and LGBT rights.
■ Make it easier to vote. New York doesn’t allow early voting, limits circumstances in which people can vote by mail, and requires registration eleven months in advance of a primary. Consequently, New York is in the bottom five states for voter turnout. Fewer people at the polls allows for control by party activists.
■ Make it more difficult for Albany to impose costly rules on local municipalities without careful study and public hearings.

One big, broadly held fear of holding a convention is that the divisive political climate in the country and voter anger could lead to unpredictable results, perhaps undermining any number of valued parts of the constitution.

Another concern is the fairness of the delegate-selection process, that the process to elect delegates is subject to the same big-money special interests that influence general elections. Each Senate district elects three delegates. That would be twelve delegates from the North County, which has four districts. Fifteen more are selected statewide. In all there would be 204 delgates.

Evan Davis, manager of A Committee for a Constitutional Convention, suggests three people running on a ballot for “change” could team up, splitting the work to get the thousand votes needed to get on the ballot and sharing the cost of campaigning. And he says big money from outside New York is more likely to be spent on 2018 congressional mid-terms, not on New York’s constitution.

“If people really wanted to use [the convention],” says Jim Malatras, president of the Rockefeller Institute of Government, “they’d get actively engaged now to be participants in the process.”

Yes, there is risk. But we believe the potential to strengthen environmental laws — and others — outweighs the fear of losing what we have.

This editorial appeared in the most recent issue of the Adirondack Explorer and does not represent the opinion of the Adirondack Almanack. Subscribe here to the Adirondack Explorer’s print edition or app.

Photo: Little Green is just one of the hundreds of ponds in the Adirondacks protected by Article 14. Photo by Johnathan Esper.

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Tracy Ormsbee is the publisher of the Adirondack Explorer. When she’s not working – and it’s not black fly season – you can find her outdoors hiking, running, paddle boarding or reading a book on an Adirondack chair somewhere.

11 Responses

  1. Raymond Marsh says:

    Change is not always good Be careful what you wish for, Look at the poor excuse of a president we have.

  2. ScottyB says:

    Is it true that article 14 came from a constitutional convention? Or was it created in an amendment vote like we do today?

  3. Ron Turbide says:

    Vote ‘NO’ on the constitutional convention ballot in November. In my opinion, the risks are too great to allow a convention in today’s political climate to take place.

  4. James Bullard says:

    “The changes needed to fix this problem aren’t likely to come from lawmakers themselves through constitutional amendment.”

    True, but the people who will run for and get elected to the con-con are primarily those same people, some of whom would like to do things like weaken Article XIV and allow the state budget to tap the NYS Retirement Fund for “loans” to the state budget, a prospect that has public employees worried.

    “If” we got a convention that did exactly what the author suggests and none of the bad things they might do, that would be great. OTOH if the convention is controlled by the same crowd that currently runs the government (likely) then they will (also likely) propose a constitution that isn’t an improvement for the majority, the voters will vote it down and all the money spent on the convention will be wasted. Or like the NYCO amendment, it will be sold to the voters as something it isn’t (how many will actually read it VS believing whatever the official PR tells them about it?) and it will pass.

    The real solution to the corruption is to stop voting for corrupt politicians. If you aren’t satisfied with your representative, run for office or at least vote for a challenger whom you are convinced that you can trust.

  5. Jay says:

    I wish everyone could be as happy as I am that Trump is my president.

  6. Douglas Tichenor says:

    Most north country townships contain a large amount of Taxable State Owned Land. This is fully taxable by law, for town, county, and school taxes, in the State constitution. In some municipalities 30% or more of the taxable value of the town is State Owned land. In the past, legislators from the greater metropolitan areas have tried to freeze taxes on this land, or delete them altogether. I fesr the convention might give leverage to a thrust to delete this provision, thereby adding stress to towns already to the maximum of their budget capabilities.

  7. Given the current political climate in Albany, coupled with this Administration’s penchant to change longstanding interpretations of various laws and policies intended to protect the Adirondacks, I fear we stand to more to lose more than gain from a constitutional convention.

  8. Catherine Wagner says:

    There is a huge amount of money out there – the Koch brothers will likely see what they can do to tilt the convention and the later vote by pouring in money into ads etc. Unless you want the kind of result we ended up with at the EPA as a result of the last election this is a bad time for a convention. Yes, I want to see same day voter registration and things like that but am not willing to put the whole ballgame at risk.

  9. Frequently Asked Questions: New York State Constitutional Convention » says:

    […] Adirondack Explorer […]

  10. Polarizer says:

    The way I see it, the term “timber” in Article XIV is vague and undefined leading to confusion and endless expensive litigation. Not to mention paralysis. Nobody knows (conclusively & definitively) what “timber” actually means so there are various interpretations used. Some groups might think that a sapling or any part of a growing tree is considered “timber” and others may see “timber” as harvest-able tree’s that are of sufficient size to be used as lumber in building products, wood pulp, and other applications. All sizes in between are potential interpretations and up for debate. So nobody knows what the limits are and how to manage the wild forest. Is the term “timber” to be applied to a single tree or is it a “stand of tree’s”? Is “timber” a live tree or even a tree that has been felled by a weather event? Did the original framers of Article XIV really want it established that not a single tree within the forest preserves EVER be taken down … for any reason, or harvested off the forest floor in any state of being? If so why did they not define it more clearly? Regardless of my personal opinion of what “timber” means, it would be preferable to rigorously define and clarify it. Written words are a difficult vehicle for communication … to convey meaning … unambiguous meaning … for ALL to understand. It is possible to go to some length and effort to improve the communication result, not easy but possible. I don’t know if a Con Con is required or if that can be done via another means but clarification of this term would enable all of us in NYS to live together with less confusion and conflict.