Column: More on the table than just elections

The New York State Legislature has proposed six constitutional amendments that will appear on the Nov. 5 ballot. Though often ignored in relation to election for office holders because voters often do not cast ballots for topics they have not studied, the amendment changes do have lasting impact.Mayor-Marvin

Like most state constitutions, New York’s provisions tend to be more detailed than its federal counterpart and therefore amended more often. There have been 220 amendments to the current Constitution since 1895. Because constitutions protect fundamental rights and define core governmental structures, they are logically harder to amend than ordinary laws.

To change the New York State Constitution, both chambers of the Legislature in successive legislative sessions must approve the proposed amendment by a simple majority vote. It is then referred to the state attorney general who is required to provide a written opinion as to how the proposed amendment language meshes with other provisions of the constitution. If, after a general statewide vote approves the amendment by a simple majority vote, it becomes part of the Constitution on Jan. 1. The governor has no formal role in this process.

The first amendment, allowing an expansion of casino gambling has dwarfed all others in attention and a great fall off in votes is expected on the other issues. In addition to the five casinos run by Indian tribes and the nine state-run racinos, the proposed amendment would add a maximum of seven full-scale casinos most located north of Albany. Proponents of the amendment believe casinos will provide tourism, good jobs, increase revenue currently lost to Connecticut and New Jersey and the constitutional provision that limits the growth to seven will curb their proliferation. Opponents argue that, expanding casino gambling increases gambling addiction and has harmful effects on the casino communities including increased crime.

Note: In a very interesting divergence, the casino amendment is the only one with one-sided positive wording stating that approval will be, “promoting job growth, increased aid to schools and permitting local governments to lower property taxes.” This is a clear departure from the non-judgmental bone dry language always employed in proposed amendments.  How this passed muster with the ultimate arbiter, the state Board of Elections, remains a mystery.

Amendment two would allow veterans who were disabled in combat to get more points when competing for jobs within the Civil Service system. Because it alters the Civil
Service Law, the change has to come via a constitutional amendment. Those in favor of the change argue that the amendment would not only increase employment opportunities for disabl-ed veterans, but would also put their training and experience to work for state and local governments. Currently, there is no expressed opposition to this change.

Amendment three would allow local governments to exceed their long-term debt limits if the money is used for sewage improvements. This exemption began in 1963 and has been extended every 10 years since. The genesis of the 1963 amendment, was to encourage municipalities to participate in a then-new state sewer construction plan without impairing the financing of other needed capital improvements. Since pollution concerns continue as well as the need to constantly maintain and upgrade sewage treatment systems, this amendment appears to be universally non-controversial.

The next two amendments address land within the Adirondack parks. The New York State Constitution via the “Forever Wild” clause forbids the lease, sale, exchange or taking of forest preserve land without a constitutional change.

Amendment four settles a century’s old private-public dispute over 200 parcels near Raguette Lake. Proponents of the amendment believe it will finally settle a longstanding and costly dispute and in the end, in a land trade, will actually add significantly to the Adirondack Preserve.  Opponents believe such disputes should be resolved via the judicial system and not a constitutional change, setting a very poor precedent for this type of dispute resolution going forward.

The fifth proposed amendment would authorize a land swap with a private company, NYCO Minerals of Willsboro, to expand its current wollastonite mine—a mineral used in paints, plastics and auto parts. The current mine has only three to four years of material remaining. In exchange for mining on adjoining property, which would extend company operations by eight to 10 years, upon completion the land would be donated back to the state. Proponents argue the measure would preserve jobs in a very depressed area and eventually leave New York with more preserved parkland. Opponents fear that a dangerous precedent will be set as a constitutional revision is undertaken for private gain and not a clear public purpose. They also argue that alternatives on NYCO’s current private property are viable.

The final proposed amendment would increase to 80 from 70, the maximum age Supreme Court and Appeals Court justices could stay on the bench. Proponents believe that the services of experienced, dedicated judges are being lost to a retirement matrix that does not reflect current life expectancies.  Opponents argue conversely that the current retirement rule encourages fresh ideas, healthy turnover and diversity.

Net-net, the more umbrella issue is whether the above issues are truly worthy of statewide constitutional amendment versus less expensive ways of adjudication or change.