As the November elections creep up, candidates are vying to raise money and get your attention. In many of the most pivotal races, the result is practically a certainty, with numerous solid Democratic congressional districts mainly in the New York City metro area and a few solidly Republican ones in the rest of the state.

Gov. Kathy Hochul

On the gubernatorial front, incumbent Gov. Kathy Hochul has, by all predictions, the race in the bag, with Republican nominee Lee Zeldin having a tough uphill climb to even be competitive. State legislative races are more of the same, with a handful being truly competitive. Beyond the door-knocking and baby-kissing candidates, there are several ballot initiatives for voters to consider. Epicenter’s Felipe De La Hoz explains.

New York is one of some two-thirds of states that have this type of direct democracy, where citizens vote on specific items to be added to state law or the constitution; it doesn’t go as far as, say, California, where campaigners can even trigger recall elections by gathering enough signatures, but New York has had a long history of putting legislative questions directly in front of voters (we covered the last batch before last year’s election).

Goals to advance equity

This time around is particularly interesting because three of the questions are NYC-specific, and were developed jointly as part of an initiative by former Mayor Bill de Blasio, who created something called the Racial Justice Commission (RJC). Made up of various NYC officials, experts, and community and union organizers, the RJC had the mandate to develop proposals to amend the city charter — basically the city’s own constitution – to “root out systemic racism across New York City,” as de Blasio put it at the time.

That characteristic de Blasio bluster set the bar very high, though consequently two of the ultimate proposals are largely conceptual. The first would add a preamble to the city charter, including a “statement of values” including commitments to promote justice by remedying past harms. The second would create a citywide office of racial equity helmed by a chief equity officer that would “advance racial equity and coordinate the city’s racial equity planning process,” as well as a commission on racial equity, which would get input from city agencies to jointly develop so-called racial equity plans every two years, both for the city as a whole and for each agency.

In a nutshell, these plans would be intended to coordinate across the whole of municipal government to establish proposals and goals to advance equity. If that sounds a little nebulous, it is, but thankfully there are some concrete solutions, including developing specific data standards to pinpoint the wellbeing of particular racial or ethnic communities. The commission suggests some potential areas of change, including promoting equitable hiring for the city’s workforce and limiting the way in which criminal background checks can be used.

“The true cost of living”

The last citywide proposal is the most specific, requiring the city to take a measure of the so-called “true cost of living.” The idea behind this is that we don’t have a full grasp of what it costs to live in a way that meets all of a New Yorkers’ basic needs, including food, rent, medical care, clothing, a phone plan, and other necessary costs, without any type of assistance. The ballot initiative by itself doesn’t then compel anything to be done with this measure, but it’s hard to find fault with the idea of having additional crucial data with which to make decisions.

$$ for environmental mitigation and resiliency projects 

There will be a fourth ballot initiative that’s statewide, and this one is untethered to the social justice mission of the other three (at least in terms of its development). This one would authorize the state government to issue bonds worth $4.2 billion in order to fund certain environmental mitigation and resiliency projects. The ballot proposal doesn’t specifically list the projects that would be funded, but does split them up into four categories: “restoration and flood risk reduction (at least $1,100,000,000); open space land conservation and recreation (up to $650,000,000); climate change mitigation (up to $1,500,000,000); and water quality improvement and resilient infrastructure (at least $650,000,000).”

In practice, this might look like building flood gates and sea walls, restoring and building natural climate barriers like parks, improving waste management systems, and buying electric official vehicles. Sharp-eyed readers will notice that this is the second environment-related ballot proposal in as many years, with last year’s asking voters to amend the state constitution to add an inherent right to “clean air and water, and a healthful environment.”

That one ultimately passed, though in practice it has been more like a statement of principles than actionable legislation. A couple lawsuits have been filed under it, but some lawyers have questioned whether it really creates ample avenues for change. This environmental measure is much more concrete, to the point that it contains specific dollar figures for spending on environmental projects. If passed, it could be like New York’s own mini version of the Inflation Reduction Act, the mammoth federal legislation recently enacted to, among other things, help the country transition toward greater renewable energy usage.

In any case, these aren’t throwaway questions, and New Yorkers should be both aware of them and participate in the ballot referendums. That means flipping your ballots over to see the questions on the back. They’re easy to overlook in the scramble of candidates seeking your vote, but they’re very important to the future of New York state and NYC in particular.

Felipe De La Hoz is an immigration-focused journalist who has written investigative and analytic articles, explainers, essays, and columns for the New Republic, The Washington Post, New York Mag, Slate,...

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