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The Ballot Questions

by Gotham Gazette Staff, Nov 07, 2005
 
For more details on these ballot questions -- essays arguing pro and con, transcripts of debates -- click on The Fine Print on the Ballot.

When New Yorkers go to the polls on November 8th, many will be surprised to find that — in addition to being able to choosing the city’s mayor --- they can vote on four ballot questions – two statewide and two for New York City alone. Here is a quick rundown of the measures:

Question 1: Amending the State Budget Process

This measure would amend the state constitution and would enact several pieces of legislation, already approved by the legislature, concerning the way the statewide budget is formed. It calls for the creation of a contingency budget, which would automatically go into effect if the governor and the legislature do not agree on a budget by the beginning of the fiscal year. That contingency budget – based on the previous year’s budget – would provide the basis of the new budget. Under this scenario, legislatures would have greater power to shape the budget than they do now and than they would if they agreed to a budget earlier in the year -- without the contingency budget. Other provisions of the ballot measure would establish an Independent Budget Office whose members are appointed by the legislature, and move certain items onto the general budget that are currently funded independently. (Read an overview by the Rockefeller Institute in .PDF format)

Proponents (in .PDF format) say the amendment will bring accountability and transparency to the state's budget process. The specter of a contingency budget, they say, will encourage on-time budgets, while shifting some power from the governor to the legislature would bring New York into line with most other states.

Opponents argue that, because lawmakers will have more power over the budget once the contingency budget is in effect, there is an incentive for them to stall. After the beginning of the fiscal year, critics say, the governor would have practically no power over the legislature, which they think will lead to irresponsible spending.

Question 2: Transportation Bond Act

This state measure establishes a $2.9 billion transportation bond issue – in other words, it calls for New York State to borrow $2.9 billion for various transportation projects. Voter rejected a similar measure in 2000. Half would go to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to help fund the construction of such mammoth projects as the Second Avenue subway, extension of the Long Island Rail Road to Grand Central Station and new buses and cars for subway and commuter rail lines. The rest would go toward road and bridge projects around the state including some in the city.

Governor George Pataki and Mayor Michael Bloomberg back the measure, as do a range of organizations including the Straphangers Campaign, which argues the MTA needs money, and the New York Building Congress, which sees such borrowing as a necessary investment in the future. Opponents, such as the Citizens Budget Commission (in .PDF format), argue that the state is already burdened with too much debt, while E.J. McMahon, director of the Empire Center for New York State Policy within the Manhattan Institute, has argued the measure includes too many ”amenities” along with essential projects.

Question 3: Establishing an Ethics Code for Hearing Officers (in .PDF format)

This measure would amend the City Charter by having the mayor establish a code of ethics for administrative hearing officers, who resolve citizen complaints and adjudicate a range of non-criminal matters, such as parking tickets, noise complaints and building code violations.

The lack of a code of conduct governing hearings is “a matter of special concern” because many people who appear before them do not have lawyers and are not familiar with city rules, Ettina Plevan, president of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York, 2005 told (in .PDF format) the charter revision commission in March.

The measure has attracted little attention. Assemblymember Richard Gottfried has said he opposes it because it would shift power from the City Council to the mayor. Others question why such an arcane matter should go before voters. ''Charter revision commissions should be used to meet serious challenges to the city's constitution, not to advance the mayor's politics,'' said Council Speaker Gifford Miller, who backed a measure on class size that was kept off the ballot because of Questions 3 and 4.

But Ester Fuchs, the Bloomberg adviser who heads the charter panel, said in July that an ethics code for administrative judges and hearing officers merits a referendum because of the gravity of the issue.

Question 4: Adding Financial Management Requirements (in .PDF format) to the City Charter

Under this measure, the city would be required to balance its budget by generally accepted accounting principles and ensure that the annual audit of the city's accounts also follows such principles. The city would have to create a four-year financial plan, as well as keep a minimum general reserve of $100 million. It would also be restricted in its use of short-term debt.

The city is already compelled to do these things by the Financial Control Board, which is set to lose much of its power in 2008.

Proponents of the measure say that the charter revisions would guarantee that the city would continue to act responsibly after the board's expiration.

Those arguing against the revisions say that they do not adequately replace the board's requirements. Without a specific, independent entity to assess whether the city is fulfilling its responsibilities, they argue, there is no way to keep city officials honest.  


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