The BenCen Blog

Informing Public Discourse in the Hudson Valley and Across the State

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

When Politicians are Appointed, Rather than Elected, We the People Don’t Get to Choose

Filling vacancies when a politician steps down is a hot topic today. Witness the mess in Virginia. Closer to home in Ulster County, we likewise are facing a controversy, albeit of a smaller scale. Ulster County Executive Michael Hein recently announced that he will shortly resign to become the commissioner of the New York State Office of Temporary Disability Assistance. This will create a vacancy in the county’s top elected executive position for the first time since we adopted our charter in 2006. So we find ourselves learning now about how we must fill the vacancy. And some of us are not happy.

Ulster County Democratic Committee Chairman Frank Cardinale and his Republican counterpart, Roger Rascoe, have asked that governor Andrew Cuomo intervene in the process. More on that, shortly.

The bigger picture is that we miss the significance of this kind of issue because our governmental system is so decentralized. There are more than 500,000 elected offices in the United States.  After looking at some demographics and mortality tables, I reached a rough estimate that about 3,000 incumbents will die in office this year. And that does not count those who will resign, or get sick and can’t work, or move away, or are removed for cause. Nor does it consider offices that must be filled because no one runs for them. In total, that’s likely several thousand more. So we need to think hard about what is at stake.

When I worked on the question of filling vacancies in elective office for the New York City Charter Commission in the 1980s, I learned of the mix governmental and political considerations embedded in this process: continuity in governance; legitimacy of representative government; and political career advancement. Unfortunately, too often the latter priority overwhelmed the other two more noble goals, and careers in “elected” office were regularly launched and advanced by appointment. Continue reading

The Mess of New York Lawmaker Pay

This post originally ran as an opinion column in the Gotham Gazette and has been re-posted here with the publisher’s permission.

New Yorkers have been upset by state legislators’ compensation for more than 200 years. At the 1821 constitutional convention, Ezekiel Bacon, a former member of the Assembly and of Congress, called the pay issue “…a hobby horse of ambitious demagogues and peddling politicians, that caused the great questions that affected the vital interest of the state too often to be overlooked.” The current debate is nothing new. We’ve never liked how much legislators are paid. We’ve never liked how the matter is decided.

At first the decision was left to the Legislature and the Governor (who was then far less powerful than today). Public distress at the members’ generosity to themselves led to the specification of a $3 per diem rate ($56.28 in today’s money) in the state constitution by the convention of 1821. This made the pay alterable only by constitutional amendment, which required public ratification after passage in two successive legislative sessions or adoption by a following convention. The Governor, with no role in the amending process, was denied formal involvement. The people—always skeptical, sometimes hostile—were left with a decisive voice.

No constitutional convention held after 1821 during the period that legislative pay was still constitutionally specified—in 1846, 1867, 1894, 1915, and 1938—succeeded in increasing it. Some delegates, like the publisher Horace Greeley in 1867, thought public service was sufficiently rewarded by a legislator’s “consciousness of honorable usefulness” and the “gratitude’ of other citizens. If provided at all, those who held this view believed, pay for legislators should be sufficient only to cover expenses. At later conventions most delegates, many of whom had been or were senators or Assembly members, voiced support for better compensation for legislators, but failed to act on the matter because of the  expense, or because of fear that public hostility to a pay increase would lead to overall defeat of their work at the polls. Indeed, the constitution proposed in 1915, the only one offered by a convention that included a pay increase for legislators, was rejected by the public at referendum.

In the hundred years between 1846 and the end of World War II, voters did approve two amendments offered by the Legislature providing for members’ pay increases. The first of these, passed in 1874 and supported by both Democratic Governor John T. Hoffman and Republican Governor John Adams Dix, increased legislators’ annual compensation to $1,500 ($33,030 in current dollars) from the maximum of $3 day for 100 days ($8,318 in current dollars) set by the 1846 convention. This was the first specification of legislative pay as an annual salary, not as a per diem for what was then still universally regarded as part-time work. In 1911 voters defeated an amendment calling for a salary increase to $2,500. This increase ($35,966 in current dollars) was finally passed in 1927 as part of a broad package of reforms championed by Democratic Governor Alfred E. Smith.

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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

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