By Mike De Socio
It’s not often that voters get a shot at immediate results. But that’s exactly the opportunity New Yorkers will have this fall, as a proposal to amend the state constitution faces its final hurdle.
The proposed “Green Amendment” would guarantee clean air and water as a legal right in New York. It passed the New York State Legislature in 2019 and 2021; if a simple majority of voters approve the measure on Nov. 2, it will become enshrined in the state constitution in January.
“If you want a right to clean air and clean water, proposal two is instant gratification. Vote yes, you get it,” said Peter Iwanowicz, executive director of Environmental Advocates NY.
Iwanowicz said many New Yorkers may be surprised to learn they don’t already have this right. His organization set out to change that in 2016, following in the footsteps of a handful of other states that have enshrined environmental rights constitutionally: Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Montana, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island.
Adding clean air and water to New York’s state bill of rights, Iwanowicz said, could influence many decisions at the state and local levels. Regulators would be required to consider clear air and water rights when approving new development projects, for example. Iwanowicz said this could help prevent pollution and environmental damage before it happens, rather than waiting to clean it up after the fact.
“Adding environmental rights into our constitution is to inject more proactive decision-making,” Iwanowicz said.
The amendment is broadly popular among the public, with 80 percent of voters supporting the measure in a recent Siena College poll. But not all lawmakers in the Adirondacks feel the same way.
Some Republican lawmakers have cited concerns that the amendment would lead to a flood of litigation. Sen. Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, and Sen. Jim Tedisco, R,C-Glenville, have voted against the bill, and worry that because the bill does not define “clean” air and water, ambiguity could lead to confusion and distrust.
In a recent debate, Melvin Norris, senior director of government affairs for the Business Council of New York, expressed similar concerns.
“While the underlying intent is laudable, if enacted as is, the proposed amendment would undoubtedly flood courts with litigation and bring all manner of economic development to a halt,” Norris wrote.
Iwanowicz sees these arguments as little more than “scare tactics.”
“If you’re not poisoning air or water, this amendment really shouldn’t be a problem for you,” he said.
New York voters will have the final say on the November ballot, alongside local elections and a number of other proposals. It will be framed as a “yes or no” question, essentially asking: “Shall we add this language to our constitution?” It will appear as the second proposal on the back of the ballot.
“It’s really important to flip that ballot over,” Iwanowicz said.