The BenCen Blog

Informing Public Discourse in the Hudson Valley and Across the State

Category: New York State politics (page 1 of 4)

Six Things You Need to Know About New York’s Blue Wave 

Dr. Gerald Benjamin of the Benjamin Center has written or edited more than  a dozen books on the workings of New York State government and politics. In light of historic changes in the balance of power in New York State on Tuesday, it seemed all-too-obvious to get Benjamin’s quick take on what has happened and what it means for New York’s voters. 

Next Wednesday, November 15th, Benjamin will co-lead a conversation at the State Academy for Public Administration in Albany on this topic. But ahead of that event here’s Benjamin’s framing.

The Most Important, Least-Discussed “Win” for Democrats

Benjamin said the statewide majority in the Senate, retention of the Governorship by Cuomo, and the firm grip on the Assembly is a precursor to retaining control of all three branches in 2020 and controlling redistricting. “We had a constitutional amendment to mitigate partisanship and redistricting. But the final say remains with legislators.” Consequently, he said, we can be sure that Democratic control will be cemented in both houses, and congressional districts will be redesigned to favor them. 

However, speaking on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show Wednesday, Senators Michael Gianaris and Liz Krueger said they’re not happy with the redistricting amendment. “It was really nothing more than an awful political outcome,” Gianaris said. “The Republicans made sure that they ingrained an unfair process in the state Constitution.” Kreuger pointed out that, given the state’s party alignment, Democrats would still secure their majorities without the level of gerrymandering that exists today. “You can do redistricting independently and fairly and you’re still going to end up with more Democratic Senate seats because the gerrymandering has been so unfair for so many decades.” 

How many decades? 

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The Benjamin Center Update

An ongoing look at our research, events, and news coverage by and about our scholarship.

Calendar

November 6th
The Benjamin Center’s associate director, K.T. Tobin, will be a guest of Radio Kingston talking about Sam Sinyangwe’s studies of police violence against African American communities. This will be ahead of Sinyangwe’s visit to the SUNY New Paltz campus (see next listing). Tobin will be on air at 4:30 PM and you can stream the station live on your computer or phone. 

November 8th
Sam Sinyangwe will be a guest of the Benjamin Center for an event at SUNY New Paltz at the Lecture Center at 6 PM. Sinyangwe is a data scientist who works with communities of color to fight systemic racism through cutting-edge policies and strategies. He connected with fellow activists DeRay Mckesson, Johnetta Elzie and Brittany Packnett following the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and together they founded Mapping Police Violence, a data-driven effort to quantify the impact of police violence in communities. Sinyangwe is also a co-founder of Campaign Zero, a platform for advancing reform proposals to end police violence. Along with writer Clint Smith, he also hosts “Pod Save the People,” one of the most popular news and politics podcasts in the U.S. This event is free and open to the public; click for more information.

November 14
After his series about the City of Poughkeepsie’s failure to follow its own plans for a successful economic, social, and business environment, and its unfair tax lien system that puts homeowners at risk of losing equity in properties seized by the city, the Benjamin Center’s senior research associate, Joshua Simons, will be part of a panel discussing a land banking system. The event, Understanding Poughkeepsie’s Tax Lien System and Opportunities for Land Banking, will include guests, Tarik Abdelazim, Associate Director of National Technical Assistance, Center for Community Progress, Jennifer Holmes, Assistant Counsel, NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and Madeline Fletcher, Executive Director, Newburgh Community Land Bank. It will be held at the Mid-Hudson Heritage Center, 317 Main St., Poughkeepsie, from 5:45 to 8:00 PM; click for more information.

BenCen in the News

City & State: Why Cuomo never had to debate Molinaro
Bloomberg: Molinaro has no Chance
White Plains Daily Voice: Westchester to use Benjamin Center Guidelines to save County Tax Dollars
The New York Post: New York School Testing’s Epic Failure
Gotham Gazette: The Attorney General’s Real Job
Wild Earth: Hopeful Signs for Kids Learning from Structured Outdoor Play

Your Most Important Vote this November is Hidden on the Second Page of the Ballot

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

As the Supreme Court Swings Right, Where is the Pendulum on Women’s Equity in New York? There’s Good News and Bad News

Despite the #metoo movement, the nation continues with a president who has been accused repeatedly as a sexual offender and now a just confirmed Supreme Court judge also so accused. Add Kavanaugh to Thomas and now one-third of the six men on our highest court have been accused of sexual misconduct. This generally leaves women in the United States with a lot to fear. We in New York have been told that state law can potentially protect us if national protections disappear. Is this so?

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The Attorney General’s Actual Job

When you vote today for New York Attorney General, ask yourself: What’s their actual job?

Based on the campaigning by candidates in the Democratic primary it’s clear they think voters value independence from the executive, so that they can end corruption in Albany.

While all the candidates for the post have campaigned on acting as the state’s chief prosecutor, there’s no such description in the state constitution. There are some limited statutory powers that support the prosecutorial role. Eliot Spitzer, for example, rediscovered the attorney general’s extensive powers under the Martin Act, passed in 1921 to counter rampant securities fraud. Because New York is an international financial capital, the state’s AG is uniquely situated to be a major player in policing the national economy. Here’s one place where independence does count. Spitzer’s aggressive pursuit of abuses by big Wall Street brokerage houses and investment banks, followed by Andrew Cuomo’s and Eric Schneiderman’s after him, made the New York attorney general a nationally important figure.

But what about promising to crack down on corruption in Albany? Read the candidates’ campaign literature and you find that all say that once in office they’ll fight for constitutional and legal changes that would give them that latitude.  Right. How is that going to fly? Will the Legislature and the Executive easily yield to this oversight?

The attorney general’s actual bread and butter is anything but independent criminal investigation. The main job is chief lawyer, representing the executive branch of state government in court and advising state agencies on legal matters.

This requires coordination with not independence from the governor. The AG’s office has in the past declined to act on the executive’s behalf, but should it, and if so when and why? (You can read more about the history of the AG in our post on the Gotham Gazette.)

Also know that when you vote today, you may be voting for our next governor.  Despite the fact that Spitzer had to resign in disgrace and Schneiderman’s own sexual abuse scandal cost him the AG job, it has become the track to the executive.

You’re also voting for a check on the White House.

Because Donald Trump is a New Yorker the AG can directly investigate Trump for his pre-presidential personal and professional financial practices. One result is the current lawsuit seeking the dissolution of the Trump Foundation for persistent illegal practices over at least a decade. Further, it’s widely assumed that whoever emerges from the Democratic primary will not only win the statewide office in November (Democrats hold a nearly two-to-one majority in the electorate), they’ll go after Trump directly. Zephr Teachout has campaigned openly on suing Trump on violations of the U.S constitution’s emoluments clause. And while she didn’t have standing in her pursuit of this angle when she brought emoluments charges in 2017, as AG she or whoever else wins the office would presumably have standing as the representative of all New Yorkers.

So this office is incredibly powerful and relatively unique because it’s a state office with federal reach. Just know that whoever wins may have more power to impact corruption on Wall Street and in Washington than in Albany.

What You are Voting on in Tomorrow’s School Budget & Board Elections

Tomorrow, people across New York State will head to the polls. On the ballot? The election of school board members to govern local public school districts. And – very importantly – there will also be the chance to vote “yes” or “no” on the only budget directly put before the electorate, the one to support K12 public schools.

Think about this as you’re “pulling that lever”: the local share of school budgets, the part paid for by your property taxes, has been increasing over time because the state has been paying proportionally less towards the general fund, effectively pushing off a greater portion of the tab to you and your property tax paying neighbors.

Overall, too, we’re still under-funding our schools, with an impact that falls more heavily on schools in poorer districts where there are fewer local resources. Here is the trend over time in local, state, and federal funding, as a percentage of total revenue, for our Ulster County school districts:

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Failing the Test

by Fred Smith, retired administrative analyst with the New York City public school system, with Robin Jacobowitz, Director of Education Projects at the Benjamin Center

It’s that time of year again.

This week, approximately 1.2 million children in grades 3-8 sat for the annual New York State tests in English Language Arts (ELA). Math exams will be given in early May.

The State Education Department (SED) has been testing students in reading and math for decades. But in 2013, SED began administration of Common Core-aligned tests. In 2011, NCS Pearson, Inc. was awarded a five-year contract to develop these exams. Pearson received $38.8 million for its work.

From the outset, some parents and educators questioned the value and impact of Common Core-based testing. Parents and teaching professionals were concerned about the ambiguity and inappropriateness of the questions, the length of the assessment, the frustrating experiences English Language Learners and students with disabilities had with the exams, and the lack of transparency that thwarted scrutiny of the testing program. There was particular concern about the developmental appropriateness of the reading passages and items used to assess eight- and nine-year-old students in grades 3 and 4.

Initially, these complaints were dismissed by officials as unfounded, the scattered griping of overprotective parents or a sign of low expectations for children. But eventually the Education Department made some adjustments in its program – it shortened tests by one or two questions, removed time limits and, this year, testing will take place over four days instead of six.

Still, after several years of implementation, it is fair to investigate the quality of this ongoing program, which targets more than one million students each year and costs taxpayers millions of dollars. Student performance on these instruments is widely reported and commented on. We need to flip the accountability question and now ask, “How did the tests perform?”  Continue reading

The Tangled Web of Administering Veterans’ Benefits in New York 

In 2014 the State of New York sent 6,347 soldiers into the U.S. military, widely considered the best trained, best organized armed force on the planet. 

Unfortunately a recent study by the Benjamin Center’s Dr. Gerald Benjamin and Timothy Toomey, both veterans themselves, found that New York state’s own organization serving our veterans once they return from service is disorganized and dysfunctional. And among the findings of the recent discussion brief, are that although service members are required to receive lengthy separation counseling, where they also learn of multiple support systems that include state and federal networks ranging from health care to education, employment, and financial and legal benefits, all too frequently these new veterans get fire-hosed with information. 

As one analyst noted:

… [M]embers of today’s military have many resources at their fingertips when they separate, but it’s often incredibly overwhelming. Transitioning service members are trying to change careers, and may be moving themselves and families across the country, all while doing their day jobs up until terminal leave. Many service members may still be trying to figure out exactly what they want to do.

It’s not just that veterans may not hear of benefits they’re qualified for, either. Toomey and Benjamin’s research shows that veterans may be victims of fraud as a result of getting conflicting information, or they may over-pay when they’re entitled to benefits. For instance, in New York state law requires that localities offer veterans partial exemption from property taxes; there are specially focused programs for veterans with service-related disabilities, and for those who have gotten caught up in the criminal justice system.

The problem goes beyond information overload, however. Too frequently New York’s State Division of Veteran Affairs overlaps county entities, and the agencies are either at cross purposes or frequently not in communication with each other, or literally feuding over turf instead of working in unison. Rarely are these layers of bureaucracy in touch with each other, working from the same databases, or even aware that they’re offering similar services to the same constituent base.

A further problem is that there’s a fundamental lack of accountability Continue reading

The Supreme Court and Gerrymandering: What about New York?

 

The Supreme Court may be on the verge of enacting a standard to block (or at least limit) partisan gerrymandering for state legislatures. There’s just one problem: This “uniform” standard simply does not work for New York State. Or perhaps more ironic, the Supreme Court may choose not to adopt the standard for determining fairness in districting in the Wisconsin case before it now because it is not universal, because it doesn’t work for at least one state, our very gerrymandered Empire state.

New York State has a centuries-long tradition of partisan gerrymandering for its legislature. The 1894 Constitutional Convention cemented a redistricting process for the state’s Senate and Assembly that the great Democratic Governor Al Smith later said made the legislature “constitutionally Republican.” It was not until the U.S. Supreme Court one-person-one-vote decisions of the mid-1960s, 75 years later, that the door was open to a period of Democratic control of the Assembly; that dominance became firm in the famous Watergate election of 1974, and was entrenched in the decennial redistricting following the 1980 census. Meanwhile the Senate remained in GOP hands. And since then, until recently, largely as a result of bipartisan gerrymandering achieved by the collaboration (collusion?) of the partisan majorities in the two houses, New York has had divided control of its legislature, with the Democrats dominant in the Assembly and the Republicans in the Senate. 

A complex state constitutional amendment “reforming” the redistricting process in New York was adopted in November of 2014. There remains a good deal of skepticism, however, about its value in blocking gerrymandering, because it leaves the final word on district design with the Legislature. We will see its impact after 2020. 

Interestingly, even if Senate Democrats manage to patch up their differences, gain a majority and keep it through the redistricting following the 2020 census, it is likely that partisan gerrymandering will persist. Even the most reform minded members in a new Democratic Senate majority are likely to think “now it’s our turn.”

That is, unless the U.S. Supreme Court decides to change the rules. Until now, it has been reluctant. The court acknowledged in Davis v. Bandemer in 1986 that a partisan gerrymander might be so egregious that it would have to step in, but has as yet not found a case in which it was willing to do so. In addition to a reluctance to enter the “political thicket” the court has been concerned about identifying a clear, straightforward useable standard for fairness in districting that might be applied without generating massive amounts of litigation. See Vieth v. Jubelirer (2004).

Very good measures of districting bias devised by political scientists have as yet not found favor with the Supreme Court. Perhaps this is because Chief Justice John Roberts is not the only one on the high bench who regards political science as “sociological gobbledygook.” Yet Justice Kennedy, the swing vote, Continue reading

What We Lost When We Vetoed a Constitutional Convention

 

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.

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