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‘Green Amendment’ passes Senate; Stec says it’s too vague

Constitution change to guarantee rights to clean water and air moves to Assembly, where Simpson will vote yes

(Enterprise photos — Aaron Cerbone)

On Tuesday Dan Stec and 13 other Republican state senators voted against a constitutional amendment known as the “Green Amendment,” which would guarantee New Yorkers the right to clean air, clean water and a healthy environment if the Assembly and voters agree. Stec said the language of the bill was too vague and could lead to lawsuits and distrust.

The amendment passed the Senate 48 to 14. North Country Sens. Patty Ritchie, R-Watertown, and Joseph Griffo, R-Rome, also voted against the amendment.

“I’m all for clean air and clean water. Who isn’t?” Stec, R-Queensbury, said on the Senate floor Tuesday. “But in the face of ambiguity you will have distrust, you will have lawsuits, you will have costs, and I’m trying to avoid that.”

The legislation is a constitutional amendment adding language to Article 1 of the New York State Constitution guaranteeing residents “a right to clean air and water, and a healthful environment.”

A constitutional amendment must pass both houses of the Legislature — the Senate and Assembly — in two consecutive sessions. It first passed both houses in the 2019-20 session.

The amendment will be voted on in the Democrat-controlled Assembly and, if passed, will be voted on by New Yorkers in the November 2021 election.

Assemblyman Matthew Simpson, R-Horicon, said he will vote in support of the amendment when it comes before the Assembly next week, adding that he voted in support of it in the Assembly environmental committee Tuesday.

Assemblyman Billy Jones, R-Plattsburgh, voted in support of the amendment in 2019. He was not available for comment by press time Tuesday on how he will vote next week.

The amendment dictates that the environment and its relationship with the citizenry be considered in all government decision making.

Stec said he voted against the legislation because he would like it to be more detailed and cautious.

“Certainly no one in this room is opposed to the goal and the aspiration in achieving clean air, clean water and a healthful environment,” Stec said. “However, we are a legislature. If nothing else, we’ve learned in the last few weeks: Words matter. We need to be very cautious and careful in our language.”

Stec said the bill should focus on passing law, not goals. He said a law must be understandable, enforceable and measurable.

During a discussion session Stec asked bill sponsor Sen. Robert Jackson if the words “clean” and “healthful,” which appear in the bill, are defined by the legislation. Jackson said the legislation is an affirmation of the human right, but is not defined in the amendment or constitution. Jackson said if these words need to be defined, they will be by advocates, courts and people in the future who are impacted by the legislation. He said other language in other legislation has been later defined by courts. He said he hopes this definition is not needed.

Stec said it is normal that between first and second passage of a constitutional amendment that enabling legislation will be passed to further define ambiguous language. He asked if there is such legislation currently in existence. Jackson said there was none that he knew of.

Stec, an Adirondack 46er and son of a forest ranger, is the top-ranking Republican on the Senate Environmental Conservation Committee, but this amendment went through the Judiciary and Rules committees instead.

Environmental groups lauded the Senate for passing the bill, calling it the “Environmental Bill of Rights.”

“We thank the Senate for taking the lead to protect and respect the right to clean air and water for all people equally,” Adirondack Mountain Club Executive Director Michael Barrett said in a press release. “The Green Amendment ensures that environmental impacts will be considered early in the process of government decision-making when prevention of pollution, degradation and harm is most possible.”

“It also creates a powerful tool for combating environmental racism and rebalancing the inequities communities of color and low-income communities face from disproportionate exposure to pollution and other environment-harming practices,” Environmental Advocates NY Spokesperson Max Oppen wrote in a press release. “Forty-three states have some form of expression of environmental values in their constitutions; but only Montana and Pennsylvania have recognized protecting environmental rights as an inalienable right, putting environmental rights on par with other political and civil liberties. New York would be the third.”

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