Author: Gerald Benjamin

A Congressional Town Hall in a Purple District

The political climate is begging for protest. But what we really need are actual conversations.

On August 31st, Congressman John Faso, in his first term in New York’s 19th District, held his first public town hall with constituents at the Esopus Town Hall in northeastern Ulster County, nearly seven months after he first took office. During ordinary political times this would be a non-event, as riveting as cable T.V. coverage of your town board’s meeting. But these are not ordinary political times. NY’s 19th is a rare district; it is actually competitive. Faso won with 54 percent of the vote in 2016. Now, in the wake of Donald Trump’s abysmal performance as president, eight potential challengers have lined up, seeking to take on the freshman congressman in 2018.

Many Republicans in Congress across the country have been heavily criticized for not holding open town hall meetings to discuss the house majority policy agenda, Donald Trump’s offensive language, behavior and views, or the controversial initiatives of the Trump administration in health care, federal budget cuts, immigration, tax policy and other policy areas. In response, Republicans argued that these meetings were not venues for serious civil exchange, but opportunities for abusive confrontation by organized opposition on the left. Continue reading

Winning the Battle, Losing the War: How Sales Tax Renewal Thwarts Constitutional Home Rule

This post, written by Dr. Gerald Benjamin, was originally published on the Rockefeller Institute of Government’s blog.  It is reposted here with permission, click here for the full text.

On March 27, 2017, the Ulster County legislature unanimously passed Resolution 97 authorizing its chairman “… to request the New York State Legislature to commence the process of extending the Ulster County additional sales tax rate of one percent … for at least the twenty-four month period commencing December 1, 2017.” At stake: estimated annual revenue of $23.8 million for the county, $3.2 million for the city of Kingston, and $835,000 for the county’s towns. For the county and the city, these are big numbers. The potential loss of this revenue if the additional taxing authority were not extended would leave a gaping hole in annual operating budgets.

The county’s request was forwarded to eight state legislators with some part of Ulster County in their districts: Senators George A. Amedore, John J. Bonacic, William J. Larkin, Jr., and James L. Seward; and Assemblypersons Kevin A. Cahill, Brian D. Miller, Peter D. Lopez, and Frank K. Skartados. In response, Senator Amadore introduced a bill (S5568) on April 13, 2017, and Assembly Cahill introduced a companion bill (A7409) on April 25, 2017, as requested, to extend additional sales tax collection authority for another two years.

Shortly thereafter, the Ulster County Legislature in Kingston passed a second resolution (Resolution 222) specifically requesting enactment of the Senate and Assembly bills. The county legislature is closely divided politically, but again sponsorship was bipartisan, and the vote was unanimous. County Executive Michael Hein signed off immediately, and the results were sent to both state legislative houses the next day.

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New York Could Well Hit the Jackpot with Sports Betting

This OpEd, written by Gerald Benjamin, was originally published by the Albany Times Union. Full text here

New Jersey has, against all odds, gotten the U.S. Supreme Court to agree to consider overturning the federal ban on sports betting. If the court does so, some think that allowing sports betting in New York still will require another amendment to the state constitution’s already eviscerated gambling prohibition. But this is not so.

Dramatic incidents of past corruption and fears of the effects of rigged outcomes on sports’ popularity and profitability led in 1992 to a federal ban on sports betting, based upon the national power to regulate interstate commerce. Professional leagues and collegiate associations and conferences were fully supportive. To avoid disrupting the status quo, when the bill was passed exceptions were allowed not only for Nevada — then and still the national sports betting mecca — but also Delaware, Oregon, and Montana, which had in place limited sports-related betting before 1991. (Oregon and Delaware have since forgone their sports–linked lotteries). Another provision envisioned an exception for New Jersey, but that state failed to act to take advantage of it.

As other states legalized casinos and Atlantic City faced intensified competition, New Jersey leaders had a change of heart. In a 2011 referendum, two-thirds of New Jersey voters supported a repeal of the state’s constitutional ban on sports betting in casinos and at racetracks. The next year, sports betting was decriminalized in New Jersey, and two years later authorizing legislation to permit it was passed. But suits by the major sports leagues and the National Collegiate Athletic Association blocked implementation.

Strong college-level support for a sports betting ban persists, but heads of the major professional leagues are rethinking the matter. Big money is at stake for increasingly strapped state governments. Estimates are notoriously problematic, but in New York City alone tens of billions of dollars are thought be illegally wagered annually on sporting events.

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What’s a Constitutional Convention Cost? We Can’t Afford to Not Hold One

This post, written by Gerald Benjamin, was originally published by the Gotham Gazette. It is reposted here with permission, click here for the full text.

When asked what a state constitutional convention might cost if called by voters in 2017, I said at a State Bar Association panel event that I had applied the Bureau of Labor Statistics CPI inflator to what I then thought was the 1967 convention’s cost and got $47 million. Casey Seiler of the Albany Times Union was there. He did not hear or realize that I had adjusted for inflation, so he used the $47 million figure as the cost of the 1967 convention. This led others to then adjust for inflation based on that number, leading to the proliferation of a faulty projected cost of $350 million, immediately seized upon by convention opponents. (Seiler later published a correction.)

The Public Employees Federation wrote: “Experts estimate a constitutional convention would cost hundreds of millions of dollars.” Senator Majority Leader John Flanagan used it as evidence that a convention would be outrageously expensive, with no “guarantee” of any positive result. The wildly wrong number repeatedly popped up in media outlets all over the state. Even after shown the error of their ways in debates, opponents were loath to give up this ‘alternative fact.’ All of this was chronicled by Bill Mahoney as an urban legend in Politico New York.

Since then a leading convention advocate, Chris Bopst, went back to the state comptroller’s actual spending records. He found that between 1967 and 1971 a total of $7,580,885 was spent on preparing for and conducting the last constitutional convention. Of this, $527,051 ($3,977,673 in 2017 dollars) was for a preparatory commission. We haven’t had one of those this time; the Legislature killed it. This leaves $7,053,834, spent over a total of four years. In 2017 dollars this is $51,448,160, not far off (8.6%) from my original more-or-less shot in the dark of $47 million.

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Excerpts of Gerald Benjamin’s 06/08/17 Public Comment on RUPCO’s Landmark Place/Alms House/300 Flatbush Ave Project

The Alms House in Kingston is a handsome building. It is a testimonial to the city’s compassion, its commitment to the poor and to the idea of inclusion and community. It is very special that the proposed repurposing of the building sustains its use in accord with a redefined but still strongly identifiable social mission. Too many such buildings have been demolished or allowed to fall into disarray in our county – e.g. The Ulster County Poorhouse in New Paltz – diminishing our connection to our historic legacy. This wonderful city hall in which we meet today manifest’s Kingston’s understanding of the value of preserving its great architecture as working spaces, experienced and employed. You need to act again in accord with those values.

The social purpose of the proposed use of the Alms House – a building I know well from its time as a home for county offices – is essential and extraordinarily challenging. The need – still largely unmet – for affordable housing in our county and especially in Kingston is well documented in several studies, cited on the RUPCO website and confirmed by work we are doing in our research center at SUNY New Paltz now. The excessive proportion of income renters must spend for housing draws resources from other essential daily family needs – like food and clothing – diminishing their quality of life and opportunities for their children.  Continue reading

Trust Democracy to Restore Democracy

There will be a statewide referendum question on the ballot this fall – required every 20 years – asking New Yorkers whether we should call a state constitutional convention. Our Jacksonian forbearers, the 19th century leaders who provided us with this regular opportunity to review the fundamentals of our governance, proceeded with a profound faith in democracy. Theirs was a very American – a very New York – belief in the possibility for progress and improvement.

The decision to provide this opportunity was realized in practice. During the 19th century conventions were routinely called once in a generation – in 1801, 1821, 1846, 1867, and 1894 – to revise, renew, and reform the way New York State was governed. From any single value perspective, the results were not pristine, but each time a convention convened our forbearers were, in some measure, affirmed in their faith in democracy.

In the 20th century we had 3 conventions: in 1915 and 1938 called by the people, and 1967, called by the legislature. All did, or proposed, some good things. But then we stopped. The half century since our last convention is the longest without such a gathering in New York State history.

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Three Proposals That Assure Independent Oversight by Elected County Comptrollers

Proposed budgets in 2016 two upstate counties, Ulster and Onondaga, delivered bad news to comptrollers, county elected officials charged with fiscal oversight.  In Ulster, County Executive Michael Hein sought a 22% cut (from $890,000 to $695,000) in Comptroller Elliot Auerbach’s budget. Meanwhile, in Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney took $479,000 (27%) out of Comptroller’s Bob Antonacci’s budget. Were these decisions political payback that reveal a need for structural changes in county government, or simply tough-minded management?

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