Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/1610 Wed, 18 Oct 2017 20:16:59 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) 10 Bold or Bizarre Proposals for a New York Constitutional Convention http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6967:10-bold-or-bizarre-proposals-for-a-new-york-constitutional-convention http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6967:10-bold-or-bizarre-proposals-for-a-new-york-constitutional-convention voting constitutional convention


When New York voters head to the polls on November 7, Election Day, printed on their ballots will be the question, “Shall there be a convention to revise the constitution and amend the same?”

A "yes" vote would trigger a state constitutional convention process that could lead to major changes to the New York constitution.

While the first New York Constitution dates back to 1777, the version used today was adopted in 1894, with significant modifications made following the 1938 constitutional convention. Of those in support of a convention, some simply want New Yorkers to have the chance to debate key aspects of the antiquated, 52,500-word document, while others have clear policy agendas, like government ethics reform. There are many more mainstream ideas being discussed, but also a variety of more radical proposals that could be on the table if a convention were to be called.

The debate over whether to support a “yes” vote for a convention largely revolves around the potential to enact long-sought policy measures lawmakers seems unwilling to implement versus fears that hard-earned protections could be dismantled.

Advocates of various political affiliations see the constitutional convention as an opportunity to push for changes to redistricting, campaign finance, and term-limits for legislators -- not to mention a comprehensive rewrite of the at-times illegible constitution document that has many vestigial pieces.

At the same time, many labor unions and leading lawmakers are voicing their opposition to a convention. Of Albany’s five legislative conference leaders, only Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb has consistently backed a convention. Governor Andrew Cuomo has said he supports holding a convention, Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he does not.

Due to the democratic nature of a convention, people from all over the state and across the political spectrum frustrated by a lack of movement on their priorities in Albany are seizing on the opportunity to promote their causes, and are considering running their own delegates -- representatives will be elected in 2018 if a convention is approved this November.

Often, proposed constitutional amendments are framed in terms of “rights,” as in the right to clean air, the right to clean water, the right to hunt or farm, the right to equal treatment, the right to have a pension, and so on. Also being introduced, though, are some more unorthodox, even seemingly outlandish constitutional changes, like legalizing recreational marijuana, a dramatic restructuring of the state Legislature, or the splitting up of New York State.

Organizations (and individuals) pining for a convention are not necessarily powerful or well-funded -- anyone with internet access can start a political action committee -- and more radical proposals would be likely be countered at a convention by moderates with other priorities or competing interests.

The multi-phase process is also designed to prevent the convention from being hijacked by a single fringe agenda. If a majority of voters say “yes” to the convention question, which appears on the ballot once every 20 years, the following Election Day, New Yorkers elect delegates to an Albany convention, who would then be charged with crafting amendments to improve and streamline the constitution. The final, key step would be that any proposed constitutional changes coming out of a convention go to voter referendum the following year.

As a result, New Yorkers should not fear the exchange of ideas that a ConCon would allow, according to SUNY New Paltz Professor Gerald Benjamin, a constitutional scholar and longtime convention proponent.

“There’s no common agenda for a constitutional convention. Lots of people support a right to clean water, for example, and some other people think it would lead to excessive litigation. My view is that a convention cannot and will not produce radical solutions,” Benjamin said. “There are going to be 10,000 proposals, and each will be deliberated.”

A recent Siena College poll found that a strong majority of New Yorkers, 62 percent, from across the political spectrum support holding a constitution convention, a once-in-a-generation opportunity to modernize the lengthy, outdated New York State document that is the foundation of state law. Two-thirds of Democrats, 55 percent of Republicans, and 59 percent of independents polled said they support a ConCon.

But the same study found that New Yorkers are mostly uninformed about a convention; only 13 percent have heard a “great deal” or “some” about it. The disparity between the two sets of poll responses may indicate voter frustration with their state government, which has been home to a seemingly endless torrent of corruption scandals.

At the same time, powerful labor unions are spending big money to convince voters to reject the convention in November. While support of a ConCon remains strong, even among union families, according to the latest poll, labor organizations like the United Federation of Teachers and SEIU-1199 have already launched campaigns to sway New Yorkers towards a “no” vote.

“Support for ConCon has remained consistently strong over the last couple of years,” said Siena College pollster Steven Greenberg, in releasing the latest poll. “But the question remains, will that support stay strong as voters hear more about ConCon, particularly as we move into the fall and various interest groups start spending money to educate voters – both in support and opposition – about ConCon? Only time will tell.

In the meantime, we've compiled a round-up of 10 of the more intriguing proposals that have emerged ahead of the upcoming referendum, ranging from bold to bizarre.

1. Reforming the Court System
While the New York State Bar Association has not taken a position on a constitutional convention, in February, the NYSBA issued a report highlighting how an overhaul of the state constitution could go a long way towards streamlining the state’s notoriously complicated court system. A constitutional rewrite could simplify everyday legal processes related child custody, traffic tickets, business disputes, and more.

"The potential to simplify the state's court system, promote access to justice and reduce unnecessary costs and inefficiencies make the issue of court consolidation one that is ripe for consideration at a constitutional convention, should voters choose to hold one," the report says.

2. Home Rule
The constitution’s “home rule” statute, which dates back to 1963, says that anything not explicitly stated as purview of cities in the state constitution is placed in the authority of the state. Many issues impacting New York City fall into this grey area, including mayoral control of New York City schools and city speed limits. Cities are left disempowered and at the mercy of the state on many issues affecting local constituents. Local leaders, like the mayor of New York City, are then reliant on votes from far-off legislators related to especially parochial matters.

One proposal, laid out by Effective NY, a liberal think tank, would change the wording of the statute to grant cities power unless specifically restricted by the constitution (like the United States Constitution’s ninth amendment, which grants states any powers not explicitly granted the federal government). Other states, like New Jersey and New Mexico, already have provisions defaulting control to municipalities.

3. Unicameral Legislature
Does New York State really need two legislative houses? Some point to gridlock in Albany as a byproduct of the fact that New York has two legislative houses that often pass conflicting measures.

Nebraska is currently the only state that has a unicameral Legislature, or a Legislature with one house.

In 1962, the Supreme Court “one man, one vote” ruling required districts in both legislative chambers in state houses to be divided by population rather than geographic districts. The decision led to redistricting, which allowed Democrats to retake the state Assembly, although legally-dubious gerrymandering has allowed Republicans to retain control of the Senate, though currently by a sliver of politicking that is beyond district lines.

According to Professor Benjamin, of SUNY New Paltz, there is no rationale for bicameralism now that both houses are selected by the same formula.

“The idea there is that bicameralism suggests that there are different bases of representation. The Senate is a territorial and the House is population-based representation. Before 1960, you could have two different bases, but now it’s no longer defensible,” said Benjamin.

While some argue bicameralism is necessary to give Republicans a voice in the legislative process, Benjamin says GOP lawmakers should compete for the majority.

Some who are interested in unicameralism take a different view. Last year, Assemblymember Mark Johns, a Rochester Republican, proposed legislation to eliminate the Assembly and instead increase the numbers of Senators from 63 to 75, though the bill never made it to the floor and no companion bill has been presented in the Senate.

4. Make Lawmaking Unpaid
In the past two years, already waning public trust in the state Legislature was shattered following the convictions of both legislative leaders on public corruption charges. In order to restore that trust, one lawmaker is exploring ways to get money out of politics completely.

Legislation introduced earlier this year by Republican Assemblymember David DiPietro, whose district includes Erie and Wyoming counties, would make the Legislature unpaid -- volunteer positions with an even lighter part-time schedule than lawmakers currently are required.

“If we remove pay from the equation, only those entirely interested in serving the public would consider running for office,” DiPietro wrote in his legislative column in February. “This action would save the state millions of dollars, and bring about a new era of citizen leadership. Holding this position is an honor and one that should be respected. This isn’t a full-time position and there’s no need to make it one. This is a part-time position in which you serve the people and you should be serving them with a clear conscience.”

While no groups have specifically proposed this as a potential ConCon agenda item, a constitutional amendment would be required.

5. Special Prosecutor for Certain Police-Involved Deaths
Governor Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order appointing Attorney General Eric Schneiderman a special prosecutor for unarmed civilian deaths involving police officers in 2014, and though he has renewed the executive order since, there has been no movement in the Legislature on a bill to make a permanent special prosecutor.

While civil rights organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union have not taken a position on the upcoming convention referendum, should the public vote to hold a convention, this would be one plank advocacy groups might push to enshrine in constitutional law.

6. Single-payer Healthcare
Federal efforts to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act have renewed the discussion around New York having its own comprehensive healthcare system.

“The New York Health program,” authored by Assemblymember Richard Gottfried, who chairs the Assembly Committee on Health, would provide comprehensive, universal health coverage for every New Yorker, and has passed the Assembly three years in a row. A similar bill has been sponsored by 30 Senate Democrats, a number which is likely to rise to 31 now that the seat of Senator-turned-City Council Member Bill Perkins has been filled, but without the requisite 32 votes in the 63-seat chamber, it is unlikely to pass any time soon.

Effective NY argues for a constitutional amendment that grants New Yorkers the right to health care, enabling a single-payer system.

7. Limit Messages of Necessity
Messages of Necessity, which allow the Governor and Legislature to override the otherwise-required three-day aging period for any piece of legislation, are often misused in Albany. Major legislation, including the recently-passed $153 billion state budget, are pushed through with little scrutiny from lawmakers, the media, and the public.

According to one proposal put forward by Effective NY, the constitution would be amended to require a two-thirds vote in the House and Senate in order to enable a Message of Necessity.

8. Pensions for All
More than half of private sector employees in New York State do not have access to a retirement savings plan through work. This spring, Obama-era rules allowing state- and city-based retirement savings programs were rejected by the Republican-controlled Congress. Both New York City and the State had been exploring the possibility of creating a publicly-backed private-sector retirement-savings program, but those possibilities appear scuttled, or at least on hold.

A constitutional convention could be the best way to compel the state to guarantee a retirement program for all working New Yorkers. Samuels of Effective NY, who is committed to spending significant money for a “yes” vote on the ConCon question, has been advocating for a private sector retirement savings program for years.

9. Legalizing Marijuana
Could New York become the next state to fully legalize medical and recreational marijuana? The legal cannabis movement is spreading across the United States, with eight states now allowing recreational use of the drug.

New York State recently created a medical marijuana program, but only for a short list of 10 health conditions, and it may only be consumed in specific forms. However, due to highly restrictive zoning requirements that prevent access and the limited number of patients that qualify, marijuana dispensaries are struggling, according to the Buffalo News.

There is also a criminal justice reform element to legalizing marijuana, as countless have been arrested and jailed for minor, non-violent drug offenses. While Gov. Cuomo unsuccessfully advocated for decriminalization laws in 2012, the governor and the Senate have consistently opposed legalizing recreational use.

Jerome W. Dewald, who founded the PAC Restrict & Regulate in NY State 2019 (RRNY), says he has talked to marijuana industry leaders about utilizing the constitutional convention to advocate for full adult-use cannabis legalization in 2019.

“It’s commonly accepted that our legislature is the most corrupt in the nation. New York is important [for marijuana legalization] and there is no viable mechanism to get our agenda in New York besides for a constitutional convention,” said Dewald.

10. Upstate Secession
On the more extreme end of the spectrum are the Upstate New York secessionists. Ever since Vermont successfully broke away from New York in 1791, there have been secession movements in the state, though they have mostly remained on the fringe.

The Divide NYS Caucus is a coalition of New Yorkers who are unhappy with state policy they feel is unfairly dictated by New York City lawmakers. The Assembly is controlled by Democrats, many of them from the city, while Republicans -- many of them from Long Island and upstate -- currently cling to the majority in the Senate thanks to partnerships with breakaway Democrats. In 2015, the secession movement gained steam, when upstate New Yorkers -- mostly conservatives upset over issues like the gun control Safe Act of 2013 and Cuomo’s 2014 hydrofracking ban -- organized a protest in the Southern Tier. Now the caucus is seizing on the potential for a convention as a way to drum up more support.

The group proposes dividing the state into two or three autonomous regions, separating upstate from New York City, and possibly segregating Suffolk and Nassau counties as well. Each region would have its own Governor and regional legislators, who would serve six weeks out of the year at the state Legislature, according to Divide New York Caucus Inc. Chair John Bergener.

“The state government under the proposal would have about the same powers of the Queen of England,” said Bergener. “We are required to have an administrator and a Legislature, but we are not required to give them power.”

While the consensus from constitutional experts is that secession is implausible and potentially damaging to upstate’s economy, which relies heavily on New York City tax revenue, a recent bill sponsored by Assemblymember Stephen Hawley (Western New York), and co-signed by eight of his colleagues in the Assembly GOP, calls for a referendum on whether to separate New York City from the rest of the state.

Related legislation introduced in the Assembly and Senate aims to increase power to the counties, allowing them to supersede state law, or exempt regions outside New York City from certain provisions of the SAFE Act.

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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10 Bold or Bizarre Proposals for a New York Constitutional Convention Thu, 01 Jun 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Constitutional Convention Absent from Cuomo’s 2017 Agenda http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6720:constitutional-convention-absent-from-cuomo-s-2017-agenda http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6720:constitutional-convention-absent-from-cuomo-s-2017-agenda cuomo budget address cameras

Gov. Cuomo (photo: Governor's Office)


Though he has expressed support in the past for a “yes” vote for a constitutional convention on this year’s ballot, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s newly revealed 2017 agenda and 2017-2018 budget provide no indication that such support continues.

Last year, Cuomo backed a constitutional convention in his lone State of the State speech, which was combined with a budget presentation, and he included $1 million in his spending proposal for a preparatory commission. Yet, this year, the issue is notably absent from Cuomo’s $152.3 billion executive budget, unveiled Tuesday, as well as his 149-proposal, 380-page policy book, which was released last week in conjunction with an unconventional, six-speech State of the State tour.

While a spokesperson for the governor told Gotham Gazette that Cuomo still supports a constitutional convention, he made no mention of it during any of his speeches or his budget presentation. In his 2016 speech, Cuomo said, “a constitutional convention that is properly held – with independent, non-elected official delegates – could make real change and re-engage the public.”

On November 7, 2017 – Election Day – New Yorkers who go to the polls will have a ballot question of whether the state should hold a constitutional convention. A majority “yes” vote would lead to a convention that could streamline or significantly modify New York State’s outdated constitutional document and propose changes on issues like campaign finance, redistricting, voter registration, term limits, home rule, and much more. New Yorkers get to vote on whether to hold a constitutional convention once every 20 years.

In his three-day State of the State tour, Cuomo visited cities across New York, touting a populist message aimed at the middle class, delivering his policy agenda directly “to the people” rather than to the state Legislature, as is Albany tradition. At one appearance just before the State of the State tour, he was accompanied by Senator Bernie Sanders – a progressive icon whose 2016 presidential run helped fuel a populist movement – to announce a plan for making city and state colleges tuition-free for middle class New Yorkers.

Yet, Cuomo’s agenda contains nothing on the upcoming constitutional convention vote – just 10 months away – which is a rare opportunity for the public participate in a process that could potentially curb the power of big money in politics. An opportunity for the people to “take their government back” at a time when state government has been plagued by corruption scandals.

Powerful interests -- particularly environmental and labor groups who are fearful that a convention could put at risk environmental protections and public employee pensions -- are already lining up in opposition, as they did in 1997, when the Con Con question was defeated in a landslide.

Meanwhile, legislators have little motivation to implement these reforms, since it is the status quo that effectively put them in office. The $1 million Cuomo proposed last year for a preparatory commission did not make it into the adopted fiscal 2016-2017 budget, likely because of legislative opposition from Assembly Democrats. Such a commission would make process recommendations and examine key issues to be addressed in a constitutional convention, including how delegates are selected and running the convention itself.

Cuomo’s father, former Governor Mario Cuomo, was forced to use an executive order to create a Con Con commission and last year the governor’s office expressed interest in going the executive order route after the money was not included in the budget. None has been announced.

Later last year, in response to criticism that few items in his 11-part plan to clean up Albany passed through the Legislature, Cuomo made the case for a constitutional convention in a New York Times interview, saying it was the only way to close the infamous LLC loophole, which allows virtually unlimited campaign donations from deep-pocketed interests.

Republicans would never agree to such reform, Cuomo said, “because they believe it ends corporate money, and only union money would come into the system, which would help the Democrats.”

He added, “The people are going to have to do it.”

In this year’s State of the State and budget, the governor once again laid out an ambitious plan for government ethics reforms in areas like campaign finance, voter registration, and term limits, but his silence on Con Con may be related to his wanting to maintain the support of labor groups ahead of his 2018 reelection campaign.

A spokesperson for Cuomo did not rule out the possibility of forming a commission through means outside of the budget. “We continue to support a Constitutional Convention and are examining all options and resources available to form a commission,” said Cuomo press secretary Abbey Fashouer.

Bill Samuels, the founder of government reform organization EffectiveNY and a vocal proponent of a Con Con who supported the governor because of his stance on the issue, said he remains hopeful that the governor would identify funds to convene a commission.

“If he is serious about major constitutional change, it's only going to happen through a constitutional convention,” Samuels said. “He clearly has not made a statement ‘I've changed my mind.’ I don't think he’s changed his mind, but he may have changed how active he wants to be,” he added, with a nod toward Cuomo’s looming reelection year.

A major challenge for nonprofits and interest groups pushing for a convention is getting the word out to the public and educating New Yorkers about the issues at stake. Recent polls show that nearly two-thirds of New Yorkers have heard little or nothing about the referendum, though polls also show that the idea does resonate with people. Constitutional convention advocates beyond Samuels expressed dismay over the governor's silence, saying he missed a significant opportunity to engage and educate the public on the upcoming referendum.

“New Yorkers have three chances in a lifetime to get serious attention to the operational structure of their state government and now we have a clear crisis in confidence,” said Gerard Benjamin, political scientist, SUNY New Paltz professor, and longtime advocate for a constitutional convention. “The governor has joined the state Legislature in its efforts to deny the public the necessary info to make the choice.”

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Constitutional Convention Absent from Cuomo’s 2017 Agenda Wed, 18 Jan 2017 05:00:00 +0000
Justice Department Decision Boosts Push for Private Prison Divestment http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6504:justice-department-decision-boosts-push-for-private-prison-divestment http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6504:justice-department-decision-boosts-push-for-private-prison-divestment GEO stock


A recent decision by the federal Department of Justice to scale back and eventually end the use of private prisons indirectly impacted New York City’s pension funds, reducing holding values by millions of dollars and leading to renewed calls from activists for the city to divest from the for-profit corporations that operate these prisons.

Earlier this month, the Obama administration took a major step against an industry that has long been criticized for its culture of violence, secrecy, and the devaluation of human life: private prisons. The administration announced that owing to a decrease in the federal prison population, it would begin to reduce its reliance on private prisons run by for-profit corporations.

The decision was also based on a DOJ report that determined private prisons to be costly, unsafe, and inefficient in reducing recidivism.

The effects on the industry were immediate, with stocks of the two largest private prison corporations in the United States, the GEO Group and the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), plummeting by about 40 percent in a day. They briefly rebounded and then fell again on Monday when the Department of Homeland Security indicated that it would evaluate, and possibly eliminate, the use of private immigration detention facilities.

This news has some impact here in New York, both financially and symbolically. Although New York State does not have any private prison facilities, New York City’s five pension funds together had roughly $20 million invested in the GEO Group and CCA as of May (GEO does have an immigration detention facility in Queens and a re-entry location in the Bronx). Considering the drop so far in the value of those stocks, the investment has likely lost close to $8 million. Although the number itself is a pittance compared to the altogether $160 billion pension fund, it’s largely the principle behind the investment which has raised concerns. Activists say it’s both a diminishing avenue of investment and one that contradicts the proclaimed progressive bonafides of the majority of the city’s elected officials.

“It may be a small amount but morally it’s bankrupt and financially it’s bankrupt too,” said Randy Credico, a WBAI radio host, regular political candidate, comedian, and activist who has been advocating for the city to divest from private prisons for years. He created End Prison Industrial Complex (EPIC) to push the issue with online petitions and has organized protests in prison garb outside Comptroller Scott Stringer’s office.

Credico stripes ErrolCredico (pictured, middle) said there is a national movement against mass incarceration, among both Democrats and Republicans, and that the only way private prison stocks could go up was if mass incarceration went up. “It’s only gonna get worse,” he said. “These stocks are going nowhere. They prey on human misery. They’re in the human cargo business.”

He called it a “dark mark” on New York’s history that the City is still invested in private prisons and said the city’s pension trustees need to follow the likes of Columbia University, General Electric, the United Methodist Church, Pershing Square Capital Management, and others that have all pulled out of private prison stocks.

Credico, as is evident by his protests, points namely to Stringer, who is the custodian and financial advisor to the five public pension funds in the city, for having failed to recognize a bad investment as well as not having stuck to his progressivism as an outspoken critic of mass incarceration. While Credico’s ire may be focused on Stringer, he is but one player in a larger investment game.

A spokesperson for the comptroller’s office spoke to Gotham Gazette about the process by which investments are made and said that the Comptroller, who is also on the Board of Trustees of four of the funds, does not have absolute authority over investments or even the choice of companies in which to invest. The Comptroller advises the five pension funds and the funds each approve of an asset allocation composed of a mixed bag of assets, including a significant amount invested in public equities. The majority of stocks owned by the funds are held in passive index funds, such as the S&P 500 or Russell 2000. The holdings in private prison companies were likely acquired through their ownership of these indices.

Stringer has sought to use his pension fund leverage on other issues, such as corporate board diversity.

The Obama administration’s announcement has not escaped the comptroller’s attention. “The Justice Department report made clear that the private prison industry’s claims of superior cost savings and effectiveness over government-run prisons do not stand up to close inspection,” Stringer said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “The private prison industry’s continued failures in safety and security as well as the legal and reputational risks inherent in the enterprise, compel us as fiduciaries to carefully consider whether holding these types of assets is prudent and in the best interest of City workers and retirees.”

Stringer’s statement seems to echo what activists have been saying for a long time. “The concept of asking pension funds to divest is a historical phenomenon that’s very justified,” said Bill Samuels, founder of EffectiveNY, a government watchdog group. Samuels is a part of EPIC, Credico’s advocacy group. He cited the state’s history of divestment movements, going back as early as the 1980s to protest apartheid in South Africa and the more recent push to divest from gun manufacturers and fossil fuels. “These types of issues have been present for decades,” Samuels said.

In the wake of the federal decision on private prisons, Samuels said it would be a logical move for the City to divest and one that is in line with “the most progressive city” in the nation. “If the President of the United States can speak out on it, then every government pension from Cleveland to California to New York City should speak out on it,” he said. “The president made a major decision. I would expect states or cities that haven’t done so to follow suit immediately.” He was charitable about Stringer’s role in the process, conceding that he couldn’t make the decision alone to divest as his state counterpart Tom DiNapoli did in October of last year.

The city’s leadership has in the past been trendsetters on divesting from increasingly unpopular companies or industries. Following the San Bernardino mass shooting in December of last year, when President Obama made a case for gun safety measures and limits on ownership of high-calibre assault weapons, Mayor Bill de Blasio submitted a resolution to the New York City Police Pension Fund to examine divestment from gun manufacturers. The mayor’s message was clear: the city should not be investing in an industry and product involved in “countless tragedies” across the country, and that the president’s executive action was “a turning point in the effort to end senseless acts of violence against Americans.”

De Blasio has criticized the private prison industry for years. When he was Public Advocate, he was a vocal opponent of the GEO Group’s practices at its Queens facility.

Current Public Advocate Letitia James, who sits on the board of the New York City Employee Retirement System, one of the five pension funds, said in a July 3 radio interview with Samuels that the city should divest from private prisons and that she was considering presenting a resolution to the board to that effect. She had also been behind the resolution to divest from gun retailers that the NYCERS board voted to approve in July.

Jamie Trinkle, campaign and research coordinator for Enlace, which coordinates a national private prison divestment campaign, said, “It’s pretty appalling when city governments invest the pensions of public employees into the future incarceration and detention of fellow residents and employees.” She pointed out that the DOJ announcement showed the fragility of these companies as far as the pension fund’s fiduciary priorities are concerned and that the time is ripe for them to divest their stake.

“The city should not be invested in the expansion of state and corporate control of communities of color, immigrants and the poor,” Trinkle said. “Instead they should be investing in community-based solutions that increase the wellbeing of these communities that have been most impacted by criminalization.”

In a letter sent on Monday, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito urged the Department of Homeland Security to follow the DOJ’s example and stop contracting with private immigration detention facilities. When asked by Gotham Gazette if the speaker would support divestment from the same private prison firms that run these facilities, a spokesperson for the speaker said that her office hasn’t examined the issue closely but would be open to the idea.

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Justice Department Decision Boosts Push for Private Prison Divestment Tue, 30 Aug 2016 04:00:00 +0000
A Post-Budget Test of the Governor’s Commitment to a Constitutional Convention http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6283:a-post-budget-test-of-the-governor-s-commitment-to-a-constitutional-convention http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6283:a-post-budget-test-of-the-governor-s-commitment-to-a-constitutional-convention cuomo desk legislation signing

Cuomo signs legislation (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of the Governor)


In terms of the state’s nearly $150 billion budget, $1 million isn’t a lot of money. But for reform advocates the $1 million Gov. Andrew Cuomo had committed in his executive budget plan for a commission to prepare for a constitutional convention was both functionally and symbolically crucial to their belief that the governor and the Legislature would actually commit to reforming state government - or at least giving “the people” an opportunity to do so.

The funding was dedicated by the governor for supporting and reforming the process of running a constitutional convention, which voters will have the opportunity to approve on their November 2017 ballots. A convention, government reformers say, would allow voters to consider major changes to the state constitution including things like public financing of election campaigns, term limits for legislators, and redistricting of legislative domains. It was a sign to many eager to see a more ethical, democratic government that Cuomo, a Democrat who many advocates see as having abandoned a number of previous reform efforts, was on board for real change.

However, the funding was nowhere to be found when a budget deal was reached.

Advocates for both a constitutional convention and good planning for the possibility of one now say it is up to the governor to act to prepare for the convention without the help of the Legislature. As a sign of how complicated the constitutional convention politics are, two prominent convention supporters are split on who is to blame for the funds being taken from the budget.

“The fact that he can't find $1 million in a $150 billion budget is shocking,” said Bill Samuels, a con-con supporter and head of reform group Effective New York. “Here we go again where [Gov. Cuomo] says one thing and does another just as he bowed out of [the] Moreland [Commission to Fight Public Corruption] and countless other examples, like redistricting reform, where he did one thing and said another.”

Gerald Benjamin, a dean and political scientist at SUNY New Paltz who is involved in a public education campaign surrounding the 2017 constitutional convention vote, disagreed. “The Legislature isn’t off the hook,” Benjamin said in an interview. “This was a hostile act designed to thwart reform. This isn’t about pressuring anyone to act, this is about the public taking an opportunity for the public good.” State of Politics first reported that the $1 million was not included in the state budget after Benjamin notified the outlet.

The Cuomo administration says it is fully committed to supporting a constitutional convention and says the legislative leaders simply weren’t interested.

“We continue to support a constitutional convention and are examining all options and resources available to form and fund a commission,” Cuomo spokesperson Rich Azzopardi told Gotham Gazette.

Scott Reif, spokesperson for the Republican Senate Majority, said that his conference wasn’t satisfied with Cuomo’s proposal. “There were no specifics provided by the Executive about the proposed appropriation,” Reif explained.

Reif’s counterpart for the Democratic Assembly Majority said similarly. “There was no structure around the proposal as to how the money would be used, so as defined in our one-house budget and approved in the final budget we thought a better use of the funding would be for the Women's Suffrage Commemoration Commission,” said Assembly spokesperson Michael Whyland.

The Legislature is capable of calling a constitutional convention at any time, but the Constitution mandates voters get to decide whether to call one every 20 years. The next referendum is scheduled for Nov. 7, 2017. If approved by a majority of voters a convention would be held in April 2019, but first voters would have to select delegates in November 2018.

A major concern for supporters and detractors of a convention is the current selection process for convention delegates, the people who would actually negotiate constitutional changes. In the past, many delegates have been elected officials or people with close connections to them, which raises fears that the process will be stacked in the favor of the establishment instead of voters. A number of fixes to the problem have been floated inside and outside the Legislature, but so far no action has been taken.

Cuomo’s 2016 policy book that accompanied his budget provided the following explanation: “From ethics enforcement to the basic rules governing day-to-day business in Albany, the process of government in New York State is broken. Governor Cuomo believes a constitutional convention offers voters the opportunity to achieve lasting reform in Albany. The Governor will invest $1 million to create an expert, non-partisan commission to develop a blueprint for a convention. The commission will also be authorized to recommend fixes to the current convention delegate selection process, which experts agree is flawed.”

Samuels dismissed the notion that the Legislature was responsible for removing the proposal from the budget. “You can't put [Carl] Heastie and [John] Flanagan on the hook,” said Samuels of the current Assembly Speaker and Majority Leader, respectively. “They have no interest in the whole thing. They think [U.S. Attorney] Preet [Bharara] is done going after the Legislature.”

Benjamin rejected Reif’s assertion that there wasn’t enough “detail” in the governor’s proposal, noting that the state has routinely prepared for constitutional conventions over the past century. “A good reason to do this is because the Legislature is against it,” Benjamin said with a laugh.

Republican Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, a longtime supporter of a constitutional convention, told Gotham Gazette that he feels the onus is on Cuomo to move the process forward. “My guess is the majorities aren’t too wild about a constitutional convention,” said Kolb. “Like a host of other things, if the governor really wants it he can obnoxious until he gets what he wants.” However, Kolb said he could understand the hesitation of the legislature to approve $1 million for a convention voters might reject.

Some groups are loathe to open up the process because they worry it is corrupted - convention delegates tend to be politically connected, including some state legislators themselves - and some groups worry the convention process could lead to a rolling back of good government reforms or environmental or labor protections.

Advocates for the process have been trying to change how delegates are selected to reduce political cronyism. They saw Cuomo’s preparatory commission as assurance that the lead up to a referendum and convention would be open and orderly.

Legislative leaders, on the other hand, have very little interest in a process that would allow the public to vote on reforms that could reduce their grasp on the majority, or otherwise weaken their power.

Samuels said securing the $1 million was on Cuomo and his failure to do so reflects his lack of commitment to truly reforming Albany. “Believe me, this is all on Cuomo,” said Samuels, “This is just another bait and switch. Andrew’s father [former Gov. Mario Cuomo] used an executive order to start a preparatory commission, and I don’t see Andrew doing that. Andrew isn’t following in his father’s footsteps.”

Cuomo administration officials said that in fact they are considering using an executive order as Mario Cuomo did in 1993. The Goldmark Commission received some funding from Rockefeller College and helped plan how a convention would be held and what issues should be put before voters.

Kolb said he supports executive action by the administration to jumpstart the convention process. “He’s formed all kind of commissions through executive order, he just formed one today, so why not for this?” Kolb said, referring to a new panel the governor announced Thursday that will study the state’s business climate. “I didn’t think he should end the Moreland Commission.”

Still, Samuels is distrustful of the administration’s intentions. He said that in 2010, Cuomo aides promised him that if elected governor he would move up a constitutional convention to 2011. “Joe Percoco gave me a memo with all the things Cuomo would do to reform Albany and at the heart of it was a constitutional convention and all sorts of reforms that would be passed,” Samuels said. “He didn’t do any of it and yet he still has the nerve to say he supports it.”

Cuomo administration officials note Cuomo’s 2010 campaign policy book contained a commitment to having a constitutional convention. The issue took up four pages of the 252-page book, which is no longer available on Cuomo’s campaign website.

“In order to achieve lasting reform in many areas, we need to amend our State’s Constitution,” it reads. “Specifically, a Cuomo Administration would work to enact into law important reforms at a constitutional convention including an overhaul of our redistricting process, ethics enforcement, and succession rules, among others.”

Benjamin says now is the time for the governor to seize the chance to advocate and prepare for a convention: “This is a an opportunity for the governor. In a time dominated by such rage at the political status quo, this is an opportunity to look at the system and give the public a chance to participate.”

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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A Post-Budget Test of the Governor’s Commitment to a Constitutional Convention Sun, 17 Apr 2016 22:12:47 +0000
Amid Further Ethics Scandal, What Can Cuomo Do Now? http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5713:amid-further-ethics-scandal-what-can-cuomo-do-now http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5713:amid-further-ethics-scandal-what-can-cuomo-do-now cuomo side

Gov. Cuomo (photo: @NYGovCuomo)


Last March Gov. Andrew Cuomo killed the Moreland Commission on Public Corruption in a deal with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Republican Majority Leader Dean Skelos. Now, a little more than a year later, both legislative leaders have been arrested and charged with multiple counts of federal corruption. Surrounded by scandal, it isn't immediately clear what the governor can or will do next. One thing that is sure, though, is that the worse Albany looks, the worse Cuomo looks.

After Silver's January arrest Cuomo gave a speech at NYU outlining grand ethics reform proposals like public financing of campaigns and enacting a full-time legislature. But when it came time to cut a budget deal, Cuomo again agreed to limited change in order to get an on-time spending plan. After Skelos' arrest this week, the governor has remained relatively quiet. With Albany in disarray and a national laughingstock, what can Cuomo do in a tough situation he has largely made for himself?

Reformers and political experts are torn about Cuomo's next move, especially after he's trumpeted many ethics adjustments as the end-all-be-all. Some say Cuomo needs to use the bully pulpit without fear of losing political capital, while others say Cuomo shouldn't say anything at all. On Wednesday Cuomo lamented the fact that if the charges against Skelos are true, it flies against the work he and others, including Skelos, have done trying to clean up the capital.

Zephyr Teachout, a Fordham Law professor whose speciality is corruption and 2014 primary opponent of Cuomo's, said that the Skelos indictment shows that none of Cuomo's smaller ethics initiatives have actually changed the climate of corruption in Albany. "Symbolic action won't cut it," said Teachout. "There is no bridge he can start to build right now, there is not one thing he can toss out there at this point."

Teachout added that "the thing that is so damning" about the complaint against Skelos is that the alleged corruption occurred since Cuomo's been in office, "not like the Silver indictment where things took place before Cuomo took office. So it shows us these incremental changes haven't paid off."

The Skelos complaint details how the majority leader asked Glenwood Management to steer title insurance business to his son. Skelos allegedly threatened to punish members of the real estate industry if they failed to comply with his demands and eventually a representative of Glenwood allegedly gave Skelos' son a $20,000 commission for doing no work. Glenwood steers millions of dollars into campaign accounts - including Cuomo's - of candidates running at all levels through the LLC loophole that allows them to subvert campaign finance limits.

"We've always suspected this is how things are done behind closed doors, but these complaints have really brought it into the light," said Dick Dadey, executive director of good govenrment organization Citizens Union. "Not just the influence of campaign donations but that some officials use their positions to extort," he added.

It was these kinds of relationships that the Moreland Commission was digging into when Cuomo's aides began interfering with it. And it was that kind of scrutiny that led legislative leaders to pressure Cuomo into ending the commission altogether, though it is unclear how much pressure they really had to apply.

Teachout said that Cuomo, who has taken in over $1 million from Glenwood, should go to great lengths to demonstrate he is not himself tied to the company in any quid-pro-quo arrangement.

"He should tell Glenwood their kind of business is not welcome in Albany, he should reveal his emails with Glenwood and [its head] Leonard Litwin and say enough is enough on the LLC loophole," said Teachout.

Bill Samuels, head of good government organization EffectiveNY, called on Cuomo to return all the donations from Glenwood. "I shouldn't have to call on the Governor to return this tainted money. If he were truly committed to ethics reform and cleaning up Albany, Cuomo would have immediately returned these funds to Glenwood Management and expressed outrage over this latest corruption scandal unfolding on his watch," Samuels said in a statement.

Cuomo told Capital New York at a press conference in Syracuse on Wednesday that he would not return the donations or refuse to accept more because Glenwood representatives had not been charged with wrongdoing. "If no one did anything wrong, then you can't just say, 'You have no right to participate in the political process,'" the governor said.

Dadey agrees that Cuomo should not have to return the contributions because they were made legally, but says that it would be, "Helpful to know what kind of interactions the administration had with Glenwood."

Karen Scharff, executive director of Citizen Action NY, said she feels Cuomo's attempts at ethics reform haven't paid off because he is so concerned about immediate political wins rather than the long-term good. Scharff said she'd like to see Cuomo take to the bully pulpit on public financing of elections even knowing that he won't win this year, but ready to take a loss and do it to build political momentum.

Teachout agrees. "If he actually believes in reform he has to show he is willing to take genuine political risk," she said. "He has to come out saying: 'Win or lose I am going to put capital on the line for this to get credibility."

Blair Horner, legislative director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, told Gotham Gazette that he has concerns that public financing of campaigns simply won't go anywhere because Senate Republicans are ideologically opposed. He and other good government advocates also worry that Cuomo no longer has any credibility on reform issues and that his proclamations on the subject have become white noise to the public and to legislators.

"The governor has eroded the bully pulpit," Horner said. "He has been delivering speeches but not real reform. In Albany, talk is cheap. He has shown that he prefers triage but that doesn't get you anywhere."

Dadey said that Cuomo must stay on the soap box to "connect the dots of corruption for the public."

"The governor must not allow this saga of scandal and corruption to prevent him from enacting real ethics reform," said Dadey. Good government groups like Citizens Union and NYPIRG, as well as reform-minded legislators and Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, have been calling for sweeping reforms aimed at truly cleaning up Albany's corruption problem. They say that the time for incrementalism is over.

Horner said that action is critical and he thinks the governor could find quick consensus with the Legislature on certain issues. Horner wants to see a new ethics watchdog where "the appointees aren't captives," a bill to restrict legislators' outside income, and legislation to end the LLC loophole. "The time for fake ethics reform has long past," said Horner.

Cuomo has remained relatively silent on Skelos' indictment. On Wednesday he said he will not call on Skelos to resign because, "I don't have the option of picking who they pick as their leaders. They pick a Senate leader, I will work with that leader," Cuomo said referring to state senators, especially the Republican majority.

Doug Muzzio, professor of political science at Baruch College, said he believes Cuomo is doing the best thing he can for himself by remaining mum on the scandals that have left Albany more dysfunctional than ever. "My initial inclination is he should keep quiet, stay far away from it, don't even comment," Muzzio told Gotham Gazette. Cuomo appears to be taking that tack, instead promoting on Wednesday that several private New York colleges have signed on to his campaign aimed at reducing sexual assault on campuses and penning an op-ed in the New York Times announcing his new move geared at raising the wages of fast-food workers.

What he'll do next on ethics reform is far from clear. Muzzio said Cuomo should avoid making any grand speeches on reform because everyone has heard it before. "I don't think Groundhog Day works because the press are gonna hang him for it. He should keep quiet while working toward a strategy of reform because this is going to pass."

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing

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Amid Further Ethics Scandal, What Can Cuomo Do Now? Wed, 06 May 2015 21:02:53 +0000