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How Candidates Get Away With Above-The-Limit Contributions From Rich Donors
August 4th, 2006

What can wealthy and influential New Yorkers do when they have contributed the maximum $50,100 to a statewide candidate this year? They can create a “limited liabiltiy company” or LLCand help pump more money to their favorite candidates campaign coffers.

The NYTimes reported on the unscrupulously common way for candidates (and donors) to subvert the already weak state campaign finance laws by creatingthese companies –business entities that are relatively easy to establish (requiring about 1 to 4 hours)that giveowners, well, limited liability as well asenormous flexibility. Additionally, here in New York, according to the State Board of Elections contributions made bythese companiesare treated in a similar fashion to individualdonations (carrying the maximum total contribution of $150,000 in a calendar year) instead of corporations that may contribute up to a total of only $5,000 yearly. (Individuals may also contribute through a limited liability company.)

One way to plug this gaping hole in the state campaign finance law is to introduce public financing on a statewide level. During the 2005-2006 session, the Assembly majority passed a comprehensive campaign finance reform Act, A0004-b, which reduces contribution limits, closes various campaign finance loopholes and provides optional public financing of statewide and legislative offices.This measure died in the Senate, while Senate minority member Liz Krueger introduced such legislation (S.1668) which never made it out ofthe Elections Committee. Despite the inherent inaction of the the Legislature, the newly elected governor in 2007 should take the lead on reform and introduce meaningful improvements to the state campaign finance laws.

By on August 4, 2006, 4:21 pm
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Session Ends in a Flurry of Disappointment
June 30th, 2006

Despite advocates’ hopes to continue the 2005 drumbeat of reform in 2006, the state legislature wrapped up its sessionon June 23,without addressing key issues that would increase accountability of those elected to public office and government transparency. The Record Online summed up this sessions legislative efforts, but also noted the blatant inaction on issues such as campaign finance reform, strengthening of ethics laws and improving the way district lines are currently drawn.

Earlier this year, good government groups and their members convened the 2006 Reform New York Lobby Dayin Albany advocating for these issues, in addition to calling for legislative rules reform and increasing transparency in the budgeting process.

The only significant legislative measure taken was the last minute introduction and passage of Assembly bill, A.11900-b, a one-house ethics reform bill that restricts honoraria, strengthens the states gift ban, addresses the revolving door practice of former legislative employees and creates ethics training for public officials and lobbyist. The bill did not have a Senate counterpart, and will have to be reintroduced next year in the new legislative session.

The Assembly will also be holding hearings this summer on redistricting reform while the Senate has yet to take action on this important issue.

By on June 30, 2006, 3:05 pm
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Budget Blues
April 17th, 2006

Instead of enjoying the legislative recess this week, the leaders in both the Assembly and the Senate are singing the budget blues. The State Legislature, which passed its second on-time budget by April 1st, now must respond to the 202 budget vetoes issued by Governor Pataki. To complicate matters, as the NY Times reports, the governor has also claimed a supervetothat cannot be overridden, whichis whatoccurred in 2003, to everybody’s embarrassment.

The complete list of vetoes range along the political spectrum with cuts to Medicaid, the MTA, Legal Aid, college tuition assistance programs (TAP) and elimination to a property tax rebate championed by fellow Republicans in the Senate. The cuts total a savings of nearlythree billion dollars, but may instigate a political showdown between the executive and legislative branch;which might have to beadjudicated in court.

In 2004, the Court of Appeals ruled with Governor Pataki to prevent the legislature from altering the language of the governors proposed budgets. As the New York Sun reported, this decision protects the Governors budgetary powers under the State Constitution while limiting legislative authority to amend, reject or approve of each item of spending proposed by the executive budget. Under this premise, the Governor claims that the changes the Legislature made in the current budget was unconstitutional and therefore the $1.4 billion in tax cuts and additional spending should be overturned.

By on April 17, 2006, 7:00 am
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Want to know what your State Legislators thinks about middle class issues? Google them!
March 15th, 2006

Today, the Drum Major Institute (DMI) released a comprehensive scorecard, ranking state legislators on issues such as increasing the minimum wage, funding for higher education, predatory lending for homebuyers and other issues that are central to those in the middle class. Individual Assembly members and State Senators were graded on their performance based on a slew of legislation introduced from 2001 to 2005, and collectively based on majority/minority performance in the Assembly and Senate.

Overall, the Drum Major Institute, which is non-partisan but comes from a particular political perspective,gave the Assembly Democrats excellent marks (an A-) for their support of the middle classwhile both the Assembly Republicansand the Senate Democrats were given a B. The Senate Republicans earned the worst marks, averaging a C, with half of its members receiving failing grades.

At the head of the class were ten legislators who earned perfect marks, including current Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer (formerly of the Assembly) who also spoke at the press conference earlier today.

A particularly innovative feature of this scorecard is the ability for anyone to access the grades of their respective state legislator by simply typing the members name into a Google search. The search results also provide a link to the full report and an opportunity to view the individual votes on the specific legislations.

By pioneering such a feature, DMI not only took what could have been an obscure report mainstream, but also provides access to more New Yorkers and sheds light on important decisions made in Albany.

By on March 15, 2006, 6:03 pm
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Feds Sue New York Over Voting Matters
March 1st, 2006

Today the Department of Justice finally made good on its claim to sue New York over non-compliance with the federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA). The U.S. Newswire reported that the suit was filed against the State Board of Elections in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York in Albany. Currently, the state has missed the deadlines in both drafting voting system standards and creating a statewide voter registration database. Additionally, the state has not satisfied the HAVA requirements of providing fully accessible voting systems for disabled voters.

New York is the first and the only state so far to be sued over non-compliance with HAVA.

By on March 1, 2006, 4:16 pm
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Picturing The Right Voting Machines
February 20th, 2006

Its been over a month since the Department of Justice threatened to sue New York over non-compliance with the federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA) – which we reported in a previous post. With the feds breathing down the neck of the State Board of Elections, they are beginning to address the two key areas to comply with HAVA: the statewide registration database and the certification and procurement of new voting machines.

Currently, the State Board of Elections is planning to transplant the Washington State bottom up model for the statewide database, which would allow counties to keep and maintain their own local databases but also require them to upload to a centralized State maintained record.

In terms of certification of voting systems, the State Board has issued a revised draft of voting machine regulations with the public comment period ending on February 24.

At a recent meeting with good government groups, members of the State Board suggested that it would be challenging to certify, purchase, test and deliver voting systems in time for the first federal elections in 2006 (as mandated by HAVA). Instead they have devised a Plan B that would satisfy the minimum requirements to become compliant, which in New York translates to making all poll sites accessible to the disability community since our current lever machines are not.

The two interim plans being discussed for minimum compliance are 1) to supplement all poll sites with a ballot marking machine (such as the Automark) where paper ballots are fed into a machine that would read and fill in the bubbles for the voter. These ballots would then be counted centrally at the Board of Elections office to preserve the confidentiality of each vote.

And 2) to institute Vermonts Vote-by-Phone system, which allows disable voters to vote at polling sites by using designated phones to call an automated phone bank that would record their votes.

Another potential option the State Board of Elections is debating is to grant interim certification to touch screen direct recording electronic machines (DREs), a voting system that performs much like an ATM and is also accessible by the disability community.

Each of these plans would bring New Yorks antiquated voting systems into compliance with federal legislation and counties would still have until 2007 to replace the current lever machines as mandated by state legislation.

Since the Department of Justice is burdened with the task of enforcement, it is up to the State Board to ensure the implementation of HAVA does not compromise our election system in order to expedite the process. With only seven more months until the primaries, the State sure has a long way to go. But since elections are the primary vehicle for voters to voice their opinion on government, the State Board must ensure public confidence in this process. In order to do that, the transition to new voting systems must be transparent, and the machines themselves must be secure, accessible and easily operated by all poll workers and voters alike. Despite the pressure from the federal level, the critical goal must be to get it right the first time around. After all, we have had our current lever machines for over 40 years, who knows how long well have to live with the next system.

By on February 20, 2006, 7:15 am
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Failing To Meet Deadlines On Voting Machines
January 23rd, 2006

Today is the state deadline for public comments on the proposed guidelines for buying new voting machines in New York. The state government seems big on enforcing deadlines like this one for the public, but not so good at meeting their own deadlines. The New York State Board of Elections is already 23 days late in meeting a federal deadline — so late, in fact, that the United States Department of Justice actually sent a letter both to Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and the State Board of Elections threatening to sue them for non-compliance with the Help America Vote Act.

In the letter, the feds also knock the state for missing the January 1st deadline to create a statewide voter database, and for examples of the state’s “lack of progress” in meeting forthcoming deadlines.For example,New York is supposed to have at least one voting machine in each polling site that is accessible to the disabled by the first federal election this year in September.

Thanks to the state’s delays, New York City has just seven months to select and purchase a new voting machine for each of the 1,300 poll sites in the city, train over 35,000 pollworker to use it and educate 4.3 million voters that it exists.

To complicate things further,the ballot will be particularly crowded this year, not just for Congressional races, but also stateraces for governor, attorney general, and all 212 seats of the state legislature.

By on January 23, 2006, 7:55 am
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Gotham Gazette is published by Citizens Union Foundation and is made possible by support from the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Altman Foundation,the Fund for the City of New York and donors to Citizens Union Foundation. Please consider supporting Citizens Union Foundation's public education programs. Critical early support to Gotham Gazette was provided by the Charles H. Revson Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

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