Dr. Gerald Benjamin of the Benjamin Center recently contributed to a spirited discussion with City & State, on how and why New York’s all-Democratic legislature and executive appointed commissions on public financing of elections, congestion pricing for commuters to/from New York City, and legislative pay.
Benjamin characterized these commissions as legislators shirking responsibility and accountability to voters, “And not even requiring legislative action on specifics.” He dubbed these bodies “unconstitutional delegations of legislative authority. ” Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, also sided with Benjamin, saying, “We call them lawmakers for a reason – they make laws. The normal legislative process should take precedence over commissions/panels. Most other states – like Texas and California – have active committees, where legislation is shaped and developed out in the open, with input from many different stakeholders, including members of the public at official hearings and committee meetings. We need a real process with hearings and public input, that ultimately delivers well crafted bills.”
This discussion is lively and is worth a read at City & State. Above all, the key question revolves around accountability. We elect representatives to hear from experts, but also to weigh policy in the open, as Lerner points out. Are commissions allowing your recently re-elected or just-elected senator or assembly member to pretend they’re acting, when they’re actually avoiding hard choices?
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
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?
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
Aging Infrastructure is Driving Up Costs in the Hudson Valley
New York State has some of the oldest water and sewer networks in the country. But unlike roads and bridges, where we see the direct effects of what that means (like an axle-smashing pothole that causes accidents and lawsuits), leaking pipes are underground. We know that sometimes the water coming out of our faucets can be rusty or brown, that water main breaks can unexpectedly disrupt our commutes or errands, and that our water bills may have slowly increased through the years. But despite these impacts on our daily lives, we rarely recognize the connection to our aging infrastructure.
Or, as is the case in Flint, Michigan, and Newburgh, New York, we only know there’s a dire problem after the fact, when the water turns out to be poisonous.
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.
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
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.
ON LOCAL GOVERNMENT: Exploring Municipal Charters and Reform
A public educational forum presented by KingstonCitizens.org
Moderated by Co-Founder Rebecca Martin
This event will be filmed.
Thursday, July 13th, 2017
5:30pm – 7:30pm
Kingston Public Library
55 Franklin Street
Kingston, NY 12401
With very special guests:
DR. GERALD BENJAMIN
Associate Vice President for Regional Engagement
SUNY at New Paltz
JENNIFER SCHWARTZ BERKY
Ulster County Legislature and
Hone Street Strategic
A municipal charter is the “basic document that defines the organization, powers, functions and essential procedures of the city government. It is comparable to the Constitution of the United States or a state’s constitution. The charter is, therefore, the most important legal document of any city”
Join KingstonCitizens.org as we explore the function of a Municipal or City Charter’: What are they? Why do communities adopt or revise them? What are the basic forms of government under Charters, and more.
A question and answer period will follow.