ALBANY – Registered voters will have two chances Tuesday to change the state’s constitution, and another to approve or deny $2 billion in borrowing. They just have to remember to flip their ballots first.
At least 4 million people are expected to cast a vote in New York on Tuesday, but far fewer will actually weigh in on three proposals that will appear on the back of every ballot statewide.
In 2013 — a low-turnout year with no statewide races — a total of 3.3 million people cast a ballot in New York. Of those, about 2.8 million voted on the first ballot proposal that year, a high-profile amendment to allow up to seven private casinos.
By the time voters got to the third proposal last year, just 2.4 million ballots weighed in.
This year, voters will be asked to decide three issues, though none rise to the profile of the casino amendment last year. But their impact remains great: the proposals will decide how the state draws its legislative districts and whether it will borrow to fund technology upgrades in schools.
The first proposal traces its roots to 2012, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Legislature struck a deal on a set of congressional and state legislative district lines for the next decade.
Cuomo approved the district lines that year despite protests from some minority-party lawmakers and good-government groups who alleged they were drawn by the Senate’s Republican and Assembly’s Democratic leaders in a way that strengthened their hold on power.
In return for Cuomo’s approval, the Legislature passed a constitutional amendment that would change how the lines are drawn in the future. As it stands, the majority parties are essentially permitted to draw their own districts once a decade through a committee they control.
If approved by voters, a new commission would be created to draw the lines every 10 years based on updated Census figures. The panel would have 10 members: Two each appointed by the Senate’s majority and minority leaders, two each from the Assembly’s majority and minority leaders, and the remaining two picked by the other eight appointees.
That panel would be required to hold public hearings across the state before drawing districts that would be subject to approval from the Legislature. If the Legislature twice rejects the proposed lines, legislative leaders would be permitted to alter the proposed districts and vote again.
The proposed amendment has split good-government groups, who have long decried the state’s redistricting process. Both the New York Public Interest Research Group and Common Cause/NY oppose the proposal, while Citizens Union and the League of Women Voters support it.
Supporters say the proposal will lessen the influence of lawmakers on the process and help fight gerrymandering.
“Albany is broken and New Yorkers now have the opportunity to fix this rigged system and hold legislators accountable,” Dick Dadey, Citizens Union executive director, said in a statement.
Opponents say the new commission won’t be an improvement over the current system, and note that lawmakers will re-enter the process if they twice rejected the panel’s lines.
“If this passes, this is guaranteeing that no real reform will happen over the next two decades,” said Bill Mahoney, NYPIRG’s research director.
The second ballot proposal deals with the massive amounts of paper used each year by the Legislature to print bills and place them on lawmakers’ desks.
Under the current state constitution, a bill can’t become a law unless it has been printed and placed on all 213 lawmakers’ desks at least three days before it’s put to a vote. With state budget bills totaling thousands of pages and thousands of bills introduced each year, the amount of paper used piles up quickly.
Proposal 2 would alter the constitution to allow the bill to be deemed “printed” if it’s provided to lawmakers electronically.
Assemblyman James Tedisco, R-Glenville, Schenectady County, pushed lawmakers to support the amendment, at one point climbing atop a large recycling cart filled with reams of printed bills as a way to demonstrate the mass of paper used.
“You’re going to save forest land,” Tedisco said Friday. “You’re going to save money.”
There’s been little opposition to the amendment, which was sponsored in the Legislature by Assemblywoman Sandra Galef, D-Ossining, Westchester County. Lawmakers would still be able to print the bills, if they choose.
Only one member of the Legislature voted against it in 2013: Assemblywoman Shelley Mayer, D-Yonkers, who said she was wary of making it easier for lawmakers to vote on bills without reading them.
“I was sending a signal that I think it’s so important that we read the bill,” Mayer said. “I don’t have a big objection, and I’m not making a big public thing about it. I just want to continue to renew the importance of actually having an opportunity to read and encourage the reading of bills.”
Both the Senate and Assembly spend between $300,000 and $400,000 over a two-year session printing bills, according to their spokespeople.
The third proposal would authorize a $2 billion bond act that would fund technology upgrades in schools and refurbishing or acquiring space for pre-kindergarten programs.
If approved, the state would borrow the money and make it available to school districts who submit a plan to implement the money to purchase equipment upgrades, improve broadband Internet access or make other technological improvements, including to school-security equipment.
Purchasing or refurbishing facilities to house expanding pre-kindergarten programs or replace trailer classrooms — which are largely found in New York City — are also approved costs.
The proposal has its critics, including E.J. McMahon, president of the Empire Center, a fiscally conservative think tank.
McMahon said it is unwise to issue bonds to purchase high-tech equipment that will become obsolete with new technological advances, often within a period of a few years.
“It’s as if the state had gone out and proposed a bond issue 50 years ago to buy overhead projectors and film-strip machines,” McMahon said.
Supporters of the bond act include Cuomo, who has touted it in an advertisement for his re-election campaign, and the New York State United Teachers Union, which has spent $200,000 on television ads urging a “yes” vote. The state School Boards Association, however, has remained neutral on the issue.
“The bond act would provide money to school districts to purchase educational technology and expand high-speed broadband or wireless Internet, which would be especially helpful in high-needs and rural school districts,” NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn said.
© 2014 Gannett News Service