When you go to your voting booth this November, you will be asked this question: “Shall there be a convention to revise the [state] constitution and amend the same.” Under our state constitution, every twenty years the citizens of New York are asked whether or not they wish to convene a constitutional convention. If the majority of the voters answer no, as they did in 1997, no convention is held. If the majority vote yes, convention delegates are elected, three from each of the sixty-three Senate districts, as well as fifteen statewide at-large delegates. These delegates are elected in the 2018 general election.
The selected delegates convene in Albany from April to September 2019 to determine what amendments should be made to the state constitution. These delegates can propose a much wider range of modifications, including a full replacement of the constitution. The delegates can include, and often are, sitting members of the legislature and political party leaders. In fact, judges and legislators who serve as delegates receive a double salary while they serve as delegates.
The delegates can decide whether the voters in November 2019 have the opportunity to vote on each amendment proposal individually or whether they are offered a package of proposed amendments which can only be voted up or down by the voters. In the latter case, voters might be faced by a package of government reform proposals but also an amendment(s) that could weaken the strong protections for the Adirondack and Catskill Forest Preserve embodied in Article XIV, the ”forever wild” clause. This scenario actually occurred at the last constitutional convention in 1967 when voters rejected the whole package.
After much discussion over three meetings, the Adirondack Mountain Club Board of Directors voted to oppose the holding of a constitutional convention in 2019. ADK joined other environmental organizations such as the Adirondack Council and the statewide Environmental Advocates of New York in opposing it. The primary reason for our decision was that changes could be proposed to Article XIV without ADK and its allies being able to debate and oppose these changes inside the convention. Recently, there have been controversies over the future management of the Forest Preserve that might surface inside the convention.
A lawsuit pending in the courts regards the number of trees that can be constitutionally cut by the state to create a parkwide network of higher-speed, tractor-groomed snowmobile trails. This question could be taken up in the convention. Some local government leaders have expressed a desire to allow all-terrain vehicle use on snowmobile trails, anticipating that lower snowfall amounts and more frequent thaws could make the Adirondacks much less suitable for snowmobiling. This proposal could be successfully opposed by ADK and others in the legislature but it could stand a much better chance in a convention.
Finally, I have written recently about Governor Cuomo’s glamping proposal for lodging and dining “hut to hut” structures, yurts, or large platform tents on the Forest Preserve operated by the state. An attorney general has already questioned the constitutionality of such a proposal, but this issue could be advanced by means of a constitutional convention.
ADK and other Adirondack and Catskill advocacy groups can better safeguard the legal protections afforded by Article XIV when constitutional amendments are raised the traditional way: passage of individual amendments by two separately elected state legislatures followed by a referendum by all the citizens of New York. This is a much more transparent process and ADK members and staff have a full opportunity to support or oppose Article XIV amendment proposals with cogent and well-reasoned arguments in the open legislative process.
See you on the trails.