This November’s election may be an offyear, 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.