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Elected Officials and Social Media Use: Should There be Rules?

Social Media can make government better, more accessible, more transparent, more accountable, all good things. But when elected officials decide that government social media accounts are theirs to use as they please, we may be in very different territory. Sheriff Paul Van Blarcum reminded us of that this week.

In 2015 the Benjamin Center studied how local governments in the Mid-Hudson region use their websites and social media. We found that nearly 97 percent of the towns, villages, and cities of the region had some digital presence. At the time of the study 60 percent of local governments had a Facebook presence, but barely one fifth were on Twitter. (This was in the sleepy pre-Trump era of Twitter.) In general, we found that the more open governments are with constituents, the more they engender trust.

Even though our study was conducted barely two years ago, it came against a very different societal backdrop. President Obama was behind the push for government at all levels to communicate electronically with the goal of increasing trust and accountability. These days cities like Kingston and Poughkeepsie maintain fairly active Twitter accounts and post frequently. This seems appropriate: In our fast-paced era, when even Facebook seems too onerous to peruse, governments that can blast quick info to constituents (especially missives that can be read on a phone) are reaching people quickly and simply.

But what happens to the trust that openness engenders when the public official steps out of his or her governance role, and uses official social media platforms to advance personal views, or agendas?

Once Donald Trump pardoned Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Arizona, sheriffs around the country have felt emboldened to use social media to express their own views, sometimes using government platforms as their bullhorn. The latest but hardly the most inflammatory missive came this past weekend when Ulster County Sheriff Paul Van Blarcum used both Facebook and Twitter to tell citizens to boycott the NFL because, he argued, players taking a knee during the national anthem were being unpatriotic.

This isn’t nearly as disturbing as sheriffs in Oklahoma trying to thwart criminal justice reform through use of official social media communications.  Continue reading

Why Republicans Fear a NYS Constitutional Convention

By Michael Frank

There are more than 150 groups that are in opposition to the proposed ballot amendment for the constitutional convention. Pro-choice groups and anti-abortion rights groups. Pro-union groups and anti-union groups. Pro-gun rights groups and gun control groups. The common thread? Political power. The only logical reason these folks don’t want a New York State Constitutional Convention – a Con Con – is that they presently enjoy a toehold in Albany that they very much like. Upset the system and they have to reestablish a network and grapple with a new order where they may not have as much juice, and the last thing interest groups like is change, because it means that the power has shifted away from their control.

You know what that’s called? Democracy.

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Lawn Signs Lie: A Constitutional Convention Will Not Threaten Teacher Pensions

The biggest threat to democracy these days isn’t the faltering executive branch of the United States government. Rather, Gerald Benjamin, founder of the Benjamin Center at SUNY New Paltz, echoes Franklin Roosevelt and says the biggest threat is fear. Fear of losing rights rather than understanding, as he puts it, “We’re living in a moment of great civic engagement. It’s been sparked by Trump and it means people are alive to both the threat to their rights and to the possibility of what can be done.”

And these two poles — fear of what could be lost as well as the possibility of what could be gained — are playing out on the state level in New York State politics this year as the debate over the constitutional convention turns on a single issue: pensions.

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If You Want Diverse Representation, Vote for a Constitutional Convention

The last time New York held a constitutional convention abortion was illegal.

That was 1967. And despite the passage of 50 years the now legal practice is still under threat. The most recent action by the Trump Administration will, ironically, make it more common for women to need abortions (by making it harder to obtain birth control).

What’s changed since 1967, despite Trump’s actions, is that by an increasing majority Americans would like abortion to remain safe and legal.

This is even more the case in New York State. A recent Quinnipiac poll  found that New Yorkers favor a state constitutional amendment to legalize abortion by a margin of 68-27 percent.

Slam dunk, right? NYS Legislature should take this up immediately.

This right isn’t enshrined in New York’s constitution, because there has been no move to amend the sprawling document to this end. The amendment process requires two consecutively elected legislatures to vote in favor, and then the change must be voted on in a general election. While the majority of statewide constituents favor such an amendment, the NYS Senate is far more conservative than the state’s voters, making sure that abortion rights will not soon be written into the constitution.

But there’s another pathway to protect a woman’s right to choose, as well as the rights that every person of every race and religion is protected, and that LGBTQ rights are protected, even as federal efforts are actively underway to undermine them both by employers and in the military.

It’s called a constitutional convention and New Yorkers get the right to vote in favor of holding one every 20 years.

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Achieving Excellence: Schools Can Do More By Sharing With Each Other

Increasing Educational Opportunity — and Possibly Property Values — with a New School Model

Public education, like all public assets, is under tremendous fiscal pressure. Slashed school district budgets often lead to schools cutting courses. That can mean anything from not teaching the latest computer science to stinting on the range of languages offered. And if you cannot afford to send your child to private instructors or tutors for these subjects, your kid will be behind the curve vs. children who attend schools that do offer more variety. In New York’s Ulster County, enrollment has fallen in the past half decade and the county’s students have grown poorer, as well as more ethnically diverse. All of these factors put financial pressure on the schools, especially as they seek to give their students the leg up they need to compete in an economy that’s shifted toward white collar service work.

But Charles V. Khoury, District Superintendent of Ulster Board of Cooperative Education Services (BOCES), who wrote a recent Discussion Brief for the Benjamin Center on solutions to this problem, says he has an idea for maintaining and even increasing the quality and variety of classes for all students in Ulster County. It’s called the Quasi-Magnet Model. Unlike, say, New York City, which uses magnet schools that focus on core subjects like science (and only teaches those classes to students of that particular school), a quasi-magnet system silos areas of specialization—a school within a school—then shares those classes across all districts within the county. Khoury says Ulster County’s eight school districts (or other school districts facing similar challenges) should work together to determine areas where each district could specialize—and then open those opportunities to all students in the county.

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Pot isn’t the Problem. Opioid Addiction Is. Medical Marijuana is Saving Lives and Money.

By Michael Frank

At a time when the Attorney General of the United States wants to harden prosecution of pot use in the United States, even in states that have legalized medical marijuana, it’s reasonable to ask: at what cost?

That’s part of the focus of a recent Benjamin Center Discussion Brief  by Dr. Eve Waltermaurer, Senior Research Scientist for the Benjamin Center and a PhD epidemiologist. Waltermaurer looked at the history of categorizing pot as a gateway drug, as the Attorney General continues to do, despite significant evidence to the contrary. In fact as the brief points out, there’s just as much efficacy to the idea that tobacco is a gateway drug to alcohol use, and in 2016 the National Institute on Drug Addiction announced it could not conclude that pot use led to the use of harder drugs.

Lacking scientific evidence, however, has never stood in the way of politicians wanting to grandstand about getting tough on crime.

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The Pros and Cons of Tech in the Classroom

By Michael Frank

The Second Annual SUNY Smart Schools Summit at SUNY New Paltz Highlights Everything from 3D Printing to Virtual Reality, but also Raises Thorny Privacy Concerns

For the second year in a row, the School of Education at the State University of New York at New Paltz, has convened an Ed Tech Summit on campus. It was led by Michael Rosenberg, Dean of the School of Education at SUNY New Paltz, Amy Perry-DelCorvo, CEO/Executive Director, The New York State Association for Computers and Technologies in Education (NYSCATE), and Kiersten Greene, Assistant Professor of Literacy at SUNY New Paltz, who teaches pre- and in-service K-12 educators how to teach reading, writing, and multi-modal text production.

But what exactly is “Ed Tech”? And why did SUNY New Paltz need to create a summit around it?   Continue reading

Every 20 Years New Yorkers Get to Vote to Fix Albany

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.”

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Paying for Medicaid: A Good Idea Whose Time Has Not Yet Come

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.[1] 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.[2] The total at stake for counties outside the city is $2.3 billion.[3]  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?

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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

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