NY voters to decide 6 constitutional amendments

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (Nov. 28, 2012) Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (Nov. 28, 2012) Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

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ALBANY -- New Yorkers next month will have their say on six proposed constitutional amendments touching on issues big and small, from a massive expansion of gambling to a change in the way civil-service exams are scored.

Land swaps in the Adirondack Park, local sewer-system finances and the mandatory retirement age for judges also will be found on the right side of the ballot on Nov. 5. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and state legislators signed off on all the proposed amendments, but voters must approve for any to take effect.

By far the most controversial measure asks residents to amend the state constitution to allow up to seven non-Indian-run casinos. If passed, it would be the largest, one-time expansion of casinos ever in the state.

Casino expansion was the chief economic development strategy Cuomo advanced in the 2013 legislative session. He notes that New York already has gambling venues -- five Indian-run casinos and nine "racinos," which are horse racing tracks with video slot machines -- so the voters wouldn't be ushering in something new if they approve the referendum.

His administration says casinos would bring in $430 million annually to state coffers. The first phase of development would limit casinos to four upstate sites for the first seven years. Afterward, downstate sites could be proposed.

"This legislation is a major step forward in our efforts to both capitalize on this economic development and tourism potential and end the trend of letting neighboring states with legalized gaming take revenue that" could go to New York, Cuomo said when lawmakers agreed to put the proposal on the ballot.

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Opponents say that casinos merely shift spending around rather than generate new revenue -- that other entertainment options and local merchants will lose business if people are spending their discretionary money on casinos. They also say casinos prey on gambling addicts and that the state already spends too little on treatment.

"This is regressive public policy and takes from the have-nots," said David Blankenhorn of the Institute for American Values, a casino opponent.

The wording of the referendum is also under fire. Rather than generic phrasing, the referendum promises voters that casinos will increase jobs, lower taxes and help school finances. State Conservative Party chairman Michael Long has called the wording a "hoax."

Long Island will get two facilities offering video slot machines regardless of the fate of the referendum. As part of a compromise to get the casino legislation passed, Nassau and Suffolk counties each got rights to build a facility featuring up to 1,000 slot machines apiece.

Notably, if the referendum fails, the legislation dictates that the state will launch four more video-slots parlors -- including an additional one in Nassau.

ADIRONDACK SWAPS

Two proposals are on the ballot. In one, NYCO Minerals would give 1,500 acres it owns to the state for the right to expand its wollastonite (used in ceramics, paints and metal products) mine by 200 acres.

NYCO says its existing wollastonite vein in Lewis, Essex County, is almost tapped out. By extending 200 acres, it can continue mining the mineral for another decade -- and preserve about 100 jobs in an area where high-paying manufacturing jobs are scarce.

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Two leading Adirondack environmental groups back the swap: the Adirondack Council and the Adirondack Mountain Club. Contrary to some environmentalists' claims, the Adirondack Council said the 200 acres NYCO wants to use isn't "old-growth" forest.

A group called Protect the Adirondacks opposes it, saying it's unprecedented.

The second proposal would put to rest a century-old dispute over public and private land titles in Long Lake in the heart of the park. Landowners in an area known as Township 40 would provide funding for the state to acquire areas along the Marion River in exchange for clear land titles.

AGE OF JUDGES

The proposed amendment asks voters whether to increase the mandatory retirement age for judges from 70 to 80.

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The New York City Bar Association backs the change, but the New York State Bar Association has abstained.

Cuomo told the cable news channel NY1 that he opposes the amendment.

The state's chief administrative judge says raising the age would keep experienced judges on the job and help alleviate courtroom backlogs. Judge Gail Prudenti also says the current limit doesn't reflect increases in expected life span.

"The mandatory retirement age of 70 was fixed in the [state] constitution 144 years ago in 1869," Prudenti said. "People are living longer and more-productive lives now."

SEWER-SYSTEM FINANCING

This proposal would extend for another 10 years an amendment that allows municipalities to exclude costs to finance sewer systems from their constitutional debt limits. If not approved, the exemption would expire in 2014.

CIVIL SERVICE CREDIT

This would give disabled veterans additional civil service credit after they have been appointed to a civil service position.

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