Partisan gerrymandering — incumbents drawing legislative districts to keep control of legislative bodies — destroys democracy by assuring that majorities don’t rule. It has been described as elected officials choosing their voters, instead of their voters choosing their representatives.
At the national, state and local levels our governments are made undemocratic by gerrymandering; despite widespread protest, those in power in both major parties keep doing it so that they can stay in power. Repeated efforts to get the U.S. Supreme Court to undo this practice have failed, though surely it is unconstitutional.
What most people in Ulster County may not know is that we are among the handful of places in the country that doesn’t have this problem. That’s because our county charter gives us a process for neutral non-partisan legislative redistricting. And it has worked. The districts for the current, closely divided county legislature were drawn through this non-partisan process. But in doing this the first time around we found out that there were some flaws in our design, and we needed to take further steps to be sure that it was more inclusive and effective while remaining non-partisan.
Under the leadership of County Executive Michael Hein, a commission headed by Kingston attorney Rod Futerfas was formed to work on this. Continue reading
Calling a state constitutional convention is New York’s long established method for fundamental, systematic governmental reform. Yet in a period of pandemic corruption and enormous anger at government, with demands for change from all across the political spectrum, New Yorkers rejected the convention option by a margin of 5-1 this past November. In essence, if 2016 was a year of great demand for change, the regret set in quickly afterward, and 2017 became a year, at least in New York, of holding fast to a system that people perceived to be less frightening than yet more change.
Peter Galie and Gerald Benjamin, co-authors with Christopher Bopst of New York’s Broken Constitution, and strong convention advocates, sat down a few weeks after the election for a post mortem. The reasons for the crushing defeat of the convention question, they thought, were both structural and political. Most voters didn’t even know there is a state constitution; they don’t distinguish between it and the revered national document, which most of them certainly don’t want to be touched in an era in which basic rights are threatened. New York has no initiative process; referenda are limited in use and unfamiliar to many as a way of making decisions. The wording of the convention question, mandated in the constitution for use every twenty years, requires that everything be on the table if a convention is called.
This scares those who have constitutionally guaranteed benefits or favored policies that they don’t want to risk.
A Constitutional Convention Could Radically Reduce Gerrymandering, and Give Your Vote the Punch it Was Designed to Have
While the Benjamin Center at SUNY New Paltz is strictly non-partisan, in one sense its founder, Dr. Gerald Benjamin, is biased—in favor of democracy.
Benjamin says that while the New York State constitution is in need of a serious makeover, the state legislature has shown it won’t do this. Fortunately, however, revision and/or amendment can be achieved in another way. Benjamin explains that the NY State constitution stipulates that every 20 years voters have the right to call a convention to “take the temperature of their government.” Benjamin, who recently debated the merits of a constitutional convention at Siena College and then followed up that debate on Capital Tonight, has multiple insights into why we need the convention as a corrective for failures in state government, especially to reduce the blocking power of entrenched incumbents in Albany.
“We have a representative democracy, not a direct democracy. But we do have this direct democratic mechanism of review—that’s what the convention referendum question is. We get to say, ‘Hmmm, how are my representatives doing?’ I think if you asked most people they’d say, ‘Not very well.’ We have a failure on many levels, from the way laws are made to the failure of our institutions to adapt processes. That’s really no wonder: We haven’t revised the basics of how our government is structured in three quarters of a century.”
Gerald Benjamin, SUNY New Paltz, and Thomas Gais, Rockefeller Institute of Government
Republican Congressmen John Faso wants the federal government to require that New York State assume all of the nonfederal share of Medicaid costs incurred outside of New York City. He conditioned his support for the previous, failed efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare on inclusion of this requirement in the federal law; the Graham-Cassidy bill is said to include the requirement. New York City and the counties now pick up 13 percent of the total state tab ($58.8 billion in Fiscal Year (FY) 2015). The cost for New York City is $5.2 billion. The total at stake for counties outside the city is $2.3 billion. Not chump change.
The proposal outraged Governor Andrew Cuomo. He called it a “political Ponzi scheme,” evidence that the congressman violated “his oath of office to represent the interest of the people of the state of New York.…”
Neither Cuomo’s rage nor the failed GOP takedown of Obamacare has deterred Faso. He has vowed to find another path to force full state assumption of the nonfederal share of Medicaid costs in upstate New York. Indeed, the Sturm und Drang of zero-sum national partisan politics aside, the congressman’s idea may be good public policy, or at least a start towards good policy. But there remain a number of big, unanswered questions. If full state assumption is good for counties outside New York City, why not also for the city itself? Should the national government be dictating the financial relationships a state has with its local governments? And if so, why just for New York?
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.