By Bob Confer, 10/25/21
Editor’s note: This is the second in a four-part series looking at the statewide proposals on November’s ballots.
Last week’s column looked at proposal 1 which is a convoluted mess that asks five different questions in the form of one. Proposal 2 is more straightforward. It comes at you with this: The proposed amendment to Article 1 of the New York Constitution would establish the right of each person to clean air and water and a healthful environment. Shall the proposed amendment be approved?
That’s a simple enough inquiry. But to some, it may seem like an unusual ask because, for the most part, the state’s Constitution and the great majority of proposals delivered to us through the years have dealt with the government’s domain – what it specifically can do and how it is done, more or less the background operations of state government.
Throwing a proposal out there that in a way could define, if not expand, the role of government and also impose responsibilities upon the private sector and citizens is unusual but in no way is it unique.
Our state Constitution, much like the Constitution of the United States of America, has its own Bill of Rights (which is the aforementioned Article 1). These are rights and obligations that government, and the people, must recognize and protect, things that must be identified and appreciated outside the realm of the government’s inner and outer workings.
Article 1 has expanded, and even shrunk, quite a few times throughout the Empire State’s history. It now contains 15 items, things that you would expect in a Bill of Rights (like trial by jury and the freedoms of worship and speech) and others that you probably wouldn’t (such as a right to bingo, betting on horse races, divorce, and workers’ compensation).
So, given that scope that’s considerably wider than that of our federal amendments, this question about the environment isn’t much of a stretch.
Philosophically, many people would agree with the premise that we all deserve a clean environment.
That carries special meaning where I live, in Niagara County, with our lands, waterways, and air tainted by decades, if not two centuries, of abuse. There are the legacies of the Love Canal and Manhattan Project, for example, and fish so laden with poisons that few, and sometimes none, should be eaten, even though we possess some of the best freshwater angling in the whole world. Plus, there are the pockets within communities across the region that have incredibly high cancer rates and prevalence of other illnesses that speak to something in the water or soil rather than some random unlucky coincidence.
It would be nice to ensure that future generations of New Yorkers (man and beast alike) aren’t subjected to such abuses and outcomes. We here are blessed with some of the finest natural wonders in Creation – the Great Lakes; Niagara Falls; the Adirondack, Allegany and Catskill Mountains; the Finger Lakes. They need to be protected and preserved, not spoiled or irreparably harmed, and the damage already done to them needs to be reversed.
Practically, though, this proposal could pose a different story to some voters.
That’s because this question arises: What exactly will this simple amendment do to society and the economy?
Depending on how extreme a person, legislator, or judge could go, the brevity of the language of the right leaves much for interpretation. Could it become criminal to heat your home with firewood? Could the State, without regress, decide that any manufacturer is unclean and demand their closure or exit from the state? What will local governments have to instate to ensure their operations, homes, and businesses are “clean”? Is it possible that agricultural pesticides and fertilizer use will be squashed?
Under this amendment’s power, it wouldn’t be out of the question that the rest of the state begins to gradually mirror how the Adirondacks are run, where the Adirondack Park Agency oversees and micromanages every nuance of progress, deciding who can put docks in the water and how, what trees can be removed, and what first responders deserve to put up emergency communication towers. Sure, it has preserved the Park, but is that hard approach feasible – environmentally, socially, and economically — elsewhere?
So, there you go.
There are two sides to every story.
And, there are two sides to this proposal….two very distinct sides with entirely different possible outcomes.
Your choice at the polls should be based on what your individual vision is for the future of New York and your children and grandchildren. Never tread lightly when deciding an inclusion or exclusion to the Bill of Rights; it mean so much in so many different ways, for so long.