By Jon Campbell, Gannett Albany Bureau
ALBANY - When voters head to the polls Tuesday, the front of the ballot will feature an array of local races, from the mayor's contest in cities like Rochester and Binghamton to county-wide elections in Westchester and Rockland.
For those voters who flip to the back of the ballot, six opportunities to change the New York State Constitution await them.
While much of the focus prior to Election Day remains on the candidates, it's the proposed amendments that will be on every New Yorker's ballot Tuesday.
This year, the highest-profile amendment is the first one listed. Proposal No. 1 would allow up to seven casinos across the state, though a separate law passed by the state Legislature this year would limit the first four to the Catskills, the Southern Tier and the Capital Region.
Other proposals would lift the mandatory retirement age for certain state judges to 80, authorize land swaps in the Adirondacks, extend an exemption for local sewer debts and correct an issue with civil-service exams for disabled veterans.
In at least 58 of the state's 62 counties, the ballot proposals will be printed on the back of the ballot.
How many voters will find their way there? Not many, according to Gerald Benjamin, a noted constitutional scholar and dean of SUNY New Paltz's Center for Research, Regional Education & Outreach.
In 2003, three million people statewide cast a ballot on Election Day. Of those, just 1.6 million cast a vote on a proposal to extend an exemption for local debt from sewer construction, which is up for another 10-year extension this year. The remaining 1.4 million were left blank.
Based on his research, Benjamin estimates anywhere from 1.6 million to 3 million people will vote on the ballot proposals this year, a fraction of the 11.5 million registered voters statewide.
"Guys like me say, 'Trust the people. Let's put out a Constitution that makes sense,'" Benjamin said. "And yet, if the people don't come out and vote, it's kind of scary. Who are you trusting?"
Here's a look at the proposals on this year's ballot:
Proposal No. 1
"The proposed amendment to section 9 of article 1 of the Constitution would allow the Legislature to authorize up to seven casinos in New York State for the legislated purposes of promoting job growth, increasing aid to schools, and permitting local governments to lower property taxes through revenues generated. Shall the amendment be approved?"
The first ballot referendum this year has garnered by far the most attention: A proposal to allow up to seven private, non-Indian casinos in New York state.
The language of the referendum doesn't stop there. It touts the potential for "promoting job growth, increasing aid to schools and permitting local governments to lower property taxes through revenues generated."
The ballot wording -- which was OK'd by the state Board of Elections -- has been criticized by casino opponents and good-government groups, who say it was concocted in such a way to garner "yes" votes. It was also the subject of an unsuccessful lawsuit.
The amendment is being backed by a group called New York Jobs Now, a coalition of race track casino owners, business groups and labor organizations who have raised more than $3 million to fund direct mail and advertisements.
The state's casino expansion has the potential to increase tax dollars for the state, with Gov. Andrew Cuomo's budget office projecting $430 million in annual increased revenue, largely from a tax on slot machines. That money would be split among the state, local governments and the education system.
The budget office's estimate, however, includes revenue from three new pacts with Native American tribes.
Opposition has come from conservative groups and think tanks along with some Democratic lawmakers, who say casino gambling feasts on the poor and isn't sustainable for economic development.
"The main reasons casinos don't contribute to economic growth is they don't produce anything," Stephen Shafer, chairperson of the Coalition Against Gambling in New York, said at a forum this month. "The only thing that happens in casinos is people lose their money."
Proposal No. 2
The proposed amendment to section 6 of article 5 of the Constitution would entitle a veteran who has received civil service credit for a civil service appointment or promotion and subsequently is certified as disabled to additional civil service credit at a subsequent appointment or promotion. Shall the proposed amendment be approved?
Workers take the state's Civil Service Exam when they're hoping to break into state employment or are looking for a promotion.
Currently, the state Constitution gives veterans an extra five points on the exam for an original appointment, while disabled veterans get 10 points. For promotions, a veteran gets 2 1/2 points and a disabled vet gets five.
But a veteran can only claim extra credit once, which has prevented certain service members who weren't classified as disabled until after they claimed credit from receiving the full 10 points.
The second proposed amendment would change that. It has support from the state Civil Service Employees Association and the state's Veterans of Foreign Wars, while no one has lined up to oppose it, according to the League of Women Voters.
"Basically what it does is remove a loophole in the Civil Service Law that penalizes disabled veterans who are largely in this position because there's very often a lag in how long it takes to be designated as disabled," said Stephen Madarasz, a CSEA spokesman.
Proposal No. 3
"The proposed amendment to Article 8, section 5 of the Constitution would extend for ten years, until January 1, 2024, the authority of counties, cities, towns, and villages to exclude from their constitutional debt limits indebtedness contracted for the construction or reconstruction of sewage facilities. Shall the proposed amendment be approved?"
Since 1963, New York voters have been asked every 10 years to allow counties and local governments to borrow money for sewage-system repairs and construction without having it count against their constitutional debt limit.
This year, the extension will be put to a vote for the sixth time.
In 2008, the state estimated New York's wastewater infrastructure would need $36.2 billion in repairs, replacements and updates over the next 20 years.
"It's particularly important for smaller local governments, where a single sewer-improvement project without this exclusion would put them right up against the constitutional debt limit," said Peter Baynes, executive director of the state Conference of Mayors.
The extension has garnered opposition from the state Conservative Party, which said it isn't right to exempt any debt from the limit.
Proposal Nos. 4 and 5
(4) The proposed amendment to section 1 of article 14 of the Constitution would authorize the Legislature to settle longstanding disputes between the State and private entities over ownership of certain parcels of land in the town of Long Lake, Hamilton County. In exchange for giving up its claim to disputed parcels, the State would get land to be incorporated into the forest preserve that would benefit the forest preserve more than the disputed parcels currently do. Shall the proposed amendment be approved?
(5) The proposed amendment to section 1 of article 14 of the Constitution would authorize the Legislature to convey forest preserve land located in the town of Lewis, Essex County, to NYCO Minerals, a private company that plans on expanding an existing mine that adjoins the forest preserve land. In exchange, NYCO Minerals would give the State at least the same amount of land of at least the same value, with a minimum assessed value of $1 million, to be added to the forest preserve. When NYCO Minerals finishes mining, it would restore the condition of the land and return it to the forest preserve. Shall the proposed amendment be approved?
The fourth and fifth ballot proposals both have to do with land in the Adirondack Forest Preserve in northern New York, which is protected by the constitution.
Proposal No. 4 would offer a settlement to land disputes that have carried on for more than 100 years in an area of Hamilton County known as Township 40. In part due to poor record-keeping and surveying in the mid-to-late 1800s, both the state and private homeowners and entities have laid claim to 216 parcels of land totaling 1,034 acres around Raquette Lake.
The competing claims have played out in court rooms with no real resolution. The proposed settlement allows the private entities to opt in at a cost of $2,000 plus the assessed value of their parcel of land in exchange for the state dropping its claim, while also having the option of giving some of their land to the forest preserve to lessen their costs.
Proposal No. 5 would allow the state to transfer 200 acres to NYCO Minerals, a company that mines a mineral called wollastonite, which is found in car brakes, paints and certain plastics.
In exchange, the company would give the state at least the same amount of land -- with a minimum value of $1 million -- to enter into the forest preserve. When NYCO finishes mining the 200 acres, it would be required to restore the land and transfer it back to the state.
The company's current mine in Essex County has about two years of wollastonite left, according to spokesman John Brodt. Approving the amendment would allow the company to continue mining and preserve jobs in the region for another decade, he said.
The proposal has been opposed by some major environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club's Atlantic Chapter, who say it runs counter to the constitution's intent to keep the Adirondacks "forever wild."
Proposal No. 6
The proposed amendment to the Constitution, amending sections 2 and 25 of article 6, would increase the maximum age until which certain state judges may serve as follows: (a) a Justice of the Supreme Court would be eligible for five additional two-year terms after the present retirement age of 70, instead of the three such terms currently authorized; and (b) a Judge of the Court of Appeals who reaches the age of 70 while in office would be permitted to remain in service on the Court for up to 10 years beyond the present retirement age of 70 in order to complete the term to which that Judge was appointed. Shall the proposed amendment be approved?
The final ballot proposal would increase the mandatory retirement age for certain state judges.
If approved, state Supreme Court justices would be able to continue serving until 80 if they are certified by an independent health professional every two years after they turn 70. Currently, those judges are able to serve until 76 if they get a certification.
For the state's highest court -- the Court of Appeals -- each judge would be able to finish out the remainder of their 14-year-term if it extends past their 70th birthday. But they wouldn't be able to serve past 80.
As it stands, Court of Appeals judges must retire at 70.
"Judges get to the bench later in life. They hit their peak later in life," said current Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, who is among the amendment's major boosters. "It is so counterproductive to make judges at the height of their powers leave the bench and have in effect a constitutional assumption of senility."
Lippman, 68, could stand to benefit from the amendment should it pass. If not, he would be forced to retire in 2015.
The proposal is opposed by Citizens Union, a good-government group based in New York, which questioned why it doesn't apply to all state judges.
"Citizens Union believes there is no principled reason for raising the retirement age for only two groups of judges -- judges of the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court -- and not having the same apply to the majority of the state's judges," the group wrote.