ALBANY – New York voters on Tuesday overwhelmingly rejected a constitutional convention, opposing a chance to open the state’s highest governing document to its first large-scale rewrite since 1938.
With 46 percent of precincts reporting, more than 74 percent of ballots counted were against the convention, with the opposition boosted by a $3 million campaign from labor unions that feared a convention could lead to a rolling back of collective bargaining rights and pension benefits.
The constitutional convention question was one of three proposals to appear on every ballot in New York, where voters were also faced with a slate of local races, including mayoral contests in New York City, Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Binghamton.
Voters also approved a measure allowing judges to strip elected officials and top appointees of their pension benefits if the official is convicted of a felony directly related to their job
As of 10:10 p.m., 63 percent of voters cast their ballots in favor of the pension-stripping measure, according to unofficial results from the state Board of Elections.
A proposal to create a forest land bank to streamline infrastructure projects in the Adirondacks and Catskills remained too close to call.
Question No. 1: Constitutional Convention
Voters were asked a short, simple question: "Shall there be a convention to revise the Constitution and amend the same?"
New Yorkers resoundingly voted "no," according to the state Board of Elections' unofficial results.
With 38 percent of precincts in, just 18 percent of voters supported a convention compared to the 73 percent voting against it.
If it would have been approved, the state would have kickstarted a multi-year process to convene a constitutional convention, where 204 delegates would have gathered in Albany and debate ways to reshape New York's 60,000-word constitution.
Now, the constitutional convention question won't be back on New York ballots until 2037.
Labor unions had been vocal opponents of a convention, pooling together more than $3 million to fund a campaign urging voters to vote "no".
The campaign -- led by a union-funded group known as New Yorkers Against Corruption -- included television and radio advertisements, large amounts of lawn signs placed throughout the state, robocalls and communications with union members. The unions feared delegates at a convention could propose rolling back worker protections and pension rights for public employees.
"Our coalition galvanized voters across a broad ideological spectrum to rise up and oppose a corrupt process that would enrich Albany’s political class while leaving the rest of us behind," New Yorkers Against Corruption said in a statement. "Voters ultimately agreed that the con con was just a con – a costly process full of risks and unknowns."
If voters had backed a convention, potential delegates would have run for office next year with the convention to begin in 2019. Voters would have had final say; Each of the convention's proposals would have had to have been approved by a statewide vote.
Among those who supported a convention were former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman and Democratic donor Bill Samuels, who put more than $300,000 toward his campaign supporting a "yes" vote. Supporters said it was an opportunity to push for reform in New York, from reshaping the state's court system to advancing rights for clean air and water.
In a statement, Samuels said the vote was a "triumph for all of the enemies of reform in New York."
"As for the groups that spent so many millions of dollars pushing for a NO vote, the burden now falls upon them to prove that they can actually bring about positive change in Albany through the legislative process and to demonstrate the capacity not just to scare New Yorkers, but to empower them," he said.
Question No. 2: Pension forfeiture
In 2011, New York lawmakers approved a law allowing judges to strip corrupt elected officials of their pension benefits if the official is convicted of a felony.
But that law only applies to those who were elected after 2011. For it to apply to all elected officials and top appointees, Question No. 2 needed to be approved.
The proposal alters the state constitution, which currently says that pension benefits cannot be diminished after an employee enters public service. The change will apply to elected or appointed officials convicted of a felony directly related to their job.
Ultimately, it would be up to a judge to decide whether to strip or diminish their pension.
The amendment applies to crimes committed after Jan. 1, 2018.
At least 14 former state lawmakers convicted of a felony currently collect a state pension, according to records from the state Comptroller's Office.
Question 3: Adirondack and Catskill land bank
New York's constitution contains a "Forever Wild" provision that protects the Adirondack and Catskill forest preserves, keeping them "forever wild as forest lands" while preventing the sale of the land and protecting against tree felling.
As it stands, the only way around that -- for, say, the construction of a new road or bridge -- is by approving a constitutional amendment for a specific project.
The proposal would change that, allowing Adirondack and Catskill towns and villages to undertake infrastructure problems that improve the health and safety of their town with state approval.
As of 10 p.m., the ballot proposal was too close to call, with 44 percent of voters supporting it and 44 percent opposed.
The state, meanwhile, would have to purchase 250 acres of forest land for a land bank to offset any land lost in the infrastructure projects.
The proposal had wide support from environmental groups across the state and Adirondack boosters, who say it will make it easier to repair roads and bridges and install the type of infrastructure needed to expand broadband Internet access.
Some oil and natural-gas interests raised concerns about a provision that exempts fossil fuel pipelines from being included. For a new oil or gas pipeline, a project-specific constitutional amendment would still be needed if the proper state and federal approvals weren't in place by June 2016.