Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/1021 Mon, 18 Dec 2017 12:41:31 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Concerns of ‘Voter Fatigue’ as New York Schedules Four 2016 Election Days http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6081:concerns-of-voter-fatigue-as-new-york-schedules-four-2016-election-days http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6081:concerns-of-voter-fatigue-as-new-york-schedules-four-2016-election-days bdb voting

Mayor de Blasio votes (photo via @BilldeBlasio) 


As New Yorkers begin a year of many voting opportunities, there are important questions that elections will help answer - like who the next U.S. President will be and which party will control the state Senate - but also concern about voter fatigue and thus, turnout.

There will be at least four chances for New Yorkers to cast votes in 2016, with three different primary election days leading up to November’s general election. There will be a presidential primary vote in April; congressional primaries in June; and state legislative primaries in September. There will also be special elections sprinkled in to fill empty seats in the state Assembly and Senate.

On April 19, New Yorkers will vote in their party primaries for president; on June 28, it will be primaries for all 27 New York members of the House of Representatives, with Senator Chuck Schumer on the ballot, too; and on September 13, primaries for all 63 seats of the State Senate and all 150 seats of the State Assembly.

No date has been set by the governor yet for special elections in the state legislature, including those to replace former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, whose 2015 corruption convictions created vacancies.

In 2015, some New York City voters cast ballots for new district attorneys, judges, and city Council members, among others. By the time New Yorkers vote for president in November, it could be their sixth trip to the polls in 14 months. Or, for residents of District 17 in the South Bronx, their seventh trip, as the resignation of City Council member Maria del Carmen Arroyo means a special election to fill her seat will occur February 23.

Frequent elections can result in voter fatigue, and diminish voter turnout. New York already has one of the lowest voter turnout rates in the country, with only 29 percent of eligible voters showing up to the polls to cast their votes in the 2014 general elections for state-level positions, including governor.

A recent New York Times editorial called the “extra burden” numerous election dates places on voters a sign of “dysfunction in Albany,” and urged lawmakers to “change the election schedule as soon as they return to Albany on January 6.”

Given how much it costs the state and municipalities to hold these elections, some have also argued that it would make financial sense to consolidate the number of days elections are held on.  (This is at least part of the governor’s rationale for holding special elections on an already-scheduled election day (by law, the city must hold its special City Council election within a shorter time frame).)

“There is no reason the state primary can’t be held on the same day as the congressional primary,” the New York Times editorial board wrote, “thus eliminating the extra election and saving the state $50 million.”

“We do have a bill that we have passed almost every year in the Assembly to combine [the dates],” Assemblymember Michael Cusick said in response to calls from members of the New York State Board of Elections to consolidate the state and federal primaries during a Dec. 10, 2015, New York State Assembly hearing on enhancing the voter experience. “That is the goal of our committees, to get the primaries in one day, so we can save the state and municipalities money.”

Despite the benefits of merging election dates and support from the Assembly, combining the dates has not yet happened, perhaps because, as the New York Times editorial board suggests, “New York State lawmakers created this problem because it’s easier on the politicians, even though it’s costly and harder on the voters.”

The 2016 elections are for local, state, and federal posts, including district leaders, state Senators and Assembly members, members of Congress, and, of course, the president. Some races are special elections, such as those likely to be set for April 19, to fill four vacancies in the state Legislature, including the former seats of Silver and Skelos, who were both forced to leave office in December after being convicted on several counts of federal corruption.

Several special elections have already taken place in the past year to fill seats forfeited due to corruption convictions, spurring growing calls for ethics reform in Albany from good government groups and lawmakers alike.

In 2015, special elections were held to replace former State Assemblymember William Scarborough, who vacated his seat in May after he pleaded guilty to felony charges of wire fraud and theft; former Brooklyn State Senator John Sampson, who was convicted of obstruction of justice and lying to federal agents as part of a corruption investigation in July; and former Deputy Senate Majority Leader Thomas Libous, who was also convicted of lying to the FBI in July.

Governor Cuomo has said time and again he does not see any point in calling a special session to deal with ethics reform, though, as he has promised ethics reform will be at the top of his 2016 agenda. And while consolidating voting days may be a step unlikely to be taken by the state Legislature, some reforms aimed at improving New York’s low voter turnout are currently being considered by state lawmakers.

Reforms like early voting, better ballot design, and an upgraded, online voter registration system would help increase voting accessibility and thus, advocates argue, voter turnout. Other bills have been introduced in the state Senate that would allow same-day voter registration on election day, voting by mail, and holding the congressional and state primaries on a single day, City and State reports. The Voter Friendly Ballot Act, which would create a simpler, easier-to-read ballot, has passed in the Assembly.

According to a 2014 report from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, New York ranks 46th in voter turnout. Six of the states that rank in the top ten for voter turnout all allow same-day registration. Nine of the states that rank highest in voter turnout allow early voting.

Currently, eleven states and D.C. allow same-day voter registration, and 33 states and D.C allow early voting. New York currently does not allow either.

Reforms such as these, supporters say, would help to modernize election laws in New York, and could - if used in combination with methods to increase voter engagement - help to bring the state’s voter turnout on par with that of states that already have policies to make voting more accessible in place.

As of January 10, the 2016 New York election dates are:

April 19, 2016 — Presidential Primaries and special elections to fill four state Legislature vacancies
The state Legislature has decided on April 19, 2016 as the date for both the Democratic and Republican presidential primaries.

Additionally, Governor Andrew Cuomo has said he will set a special election date to coincide with the presidential primary on April 19 to fill four vacancies in the state Legislature, including former Assembly Speaker Silver’s seat, and the Staten Island seat of former Assemblymember Joe Borelli, who won a City Council seat. That special election means that a local party organizations will select the candidates who will appear on their ballot lines. Cuomo has not officially declared these special elections for April.

June 28, 2016 — Congressional Primaries
New York voters will decide on their party’s candidates for all Congressional races in the state on June 28, 2016, during the primaries for all 27 of New York’s members in the House of Representatives. Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer is also running for reelection on the same day - he is unlikely to face a primary challenge.

September 13, 2016 — State Legislature Primaries
There will be primaries for all 63 members of the New York State Senate and all 150 members of the New York State Assembly on September 13, 2016. Elections will also be held on that day for district leaders in Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx.

November 8, 2016 — General Election
On November 8, 2016, voters across the country will vote for the next President of the United States. New Yorkers will also vote in a number of other critical races, including all State Senate and Senate Assembly seats, 27 races for the House of Representatives, and one US Senate race.

Voter turnout is typically higher for presidential elections than for any other race, and Democrats in New York are hoping increased turnout in a state that almost always votes blue in presidential races can help them to regain control of the State Senate.

After the 2016 elections conclude, the 2017 elections for New York City-level offices, including the mayor, are expected to heat up.

***
by Meg O’Connor, Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette  @MegOConnor13

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Concerns of ‘Voter Fatigue’ as New York Schedules Four 2016 Election Days Mon, 11 Jan 2016 21:24:15 +0000
Filing, Tracking City & State Campaign Finance Data Will Become Easier http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6001:filing-tracking-city-a-state-campaign-finance-data-will-become-easier http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6001:filing-tracking-city-a-state-campaign-finance-data-will-become-easier BOE-CFB

NYS BOE, left, NYC CFB, right


Officials from the New York State Board of Elections and the New York City Campaign Finance Board outlined plans for overhauling their respective financial disclosure tools on Friday.

Though both groups said they wanted to make it easier for campaign staff to file reports and for the public to access filings, a divide was clear between the state BOE and the city CFB in terms of current capabilities and goals. Some of BOE's planned features, such as error-checking and bulk data export, for example, are already present on CFB's platform.

Thomas Connolly, BOE's deputy director of public communications, said the board plans to roll out new finance and tracking systems by early 2017, replacing the current 1990s-era software. "Our goal is to create a state-of-the-art candidate tracking and campaign finance system that is open and transparent," he said to the audience of around 50 at Civic Hall in Gramercy. The event was co-hosted by good government group Reinvent Albany, which often scrutinizes campaign finance data and calls for significant reforms.

Currently, the state BOE operates separate and unintegrated candidate tracking and campaign finance systems—"both old enough to vote," Connolly quipped—that require a lot of manual input. BOE's new systems would integrate the two sides on the web, instead of the current desktop software. Campaign staff will file disclosures on a website—instead of using desktop software—which would also warn users if they enter incomplete or invalid information. The public-facing website will also feature more advanced search and data-export functions than currently available.

Some are disappointed that the BOE will not have its new systems up and running for the 2016 election cycle, during which all of the state legislature is on the ballot again.

In response to multiple questions from audience members about whether or not campaign contributors will be assigned unique IDs in the system - which would allow users to see where else a donor has given, Connolly said that he doesn't foresee that being implemented. He pointed to the difficulties posed by misspelled names, different people with similar names, and inconsistent abbreviations. The new filing system will, however, feature autofill to help minimize those errors.

"Our goal is that we'd rather get you flawed data than no data," Connolly said.

Though the city CFB's filing system, C-SMART, was also created in the 1990s, it has since been updated to run on the web and includes many of the features that the state BOE is eyeing. As campaign staff enter contributor data, they receive prompts and warnings if entries are invalid, incomplete, or ineligible for CFB's public matching funds program. Addresses within New York City are checked against Department of City Planning records.

(The state is at the very beginning stages of toying with a similar public matching funds program, but even a pilot has struggled to get off the ground.)

CFB spokesperson Eric Friedman, assistant executive director for public affairs, said Friday that the board constantly improves its systems because it's required to do so after every election cycle. Some of CFB's upcoming developments Friedman mentioned will address a city law passed last year that requires independent committees to disclose donor information, showing which committees supported which candidates. 2013 was the first city election cycle in the post-Citizens United world, in which independent expenditures were a significant force in city campaigns. The CFB is making its updates leading up to the city's 2017 cycle, while also adapting to new legal requirements.

Other CFB developments are primarily aimed at simplifying and improving the reporting process for campaign staff. One tool, for example, would allow campaigns to directly transfer contributor data from online donations into C-SMART. "A lot of compliance logic is built into it," Friedman said. "So campaigns have a lot of data to ensure their data is compliant."

Still, officials from both boards said that some features requested by good-government groups, like unique contributor IDs and contributors' professional affiliations, will have to be first answered with legislation. And they added that while individual campaigns can and do correct contributor data, there is little that can be done on the software side to resolve issues like false or misspelled names and addresses.

"The requirements of what the contributor is required to disclose is a matter of statues," Douglas Kellner, co-chair of the state BOE, said in response to a question about obtaining more data on contributors, including voter registration status. "I don't think either the Campaign Finance Board or the State Board of Elections has authority to go beyond those disclosure requirements in their regulations."

"It's always going to be up to the candidate or the treasurer to update or modify their data," said Daniel Cho, director of candidate services at CFB.

[Read more about the state BOE, city CFB & their roles here]

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by Christian Zhang, Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette

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Filing, Tracking City & State Campaign Finance Data Will Become Easier Fri, 20 Nov 2015 22:06:14 +0000
Boards to Offer Peek Into New Ways to Access Campaign Finance Data http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5997:boards-to-offer-peek-into-new-ways-to-access-campaign-finance-data http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5997:boards-to-offer-peek-into-new-ways-to-access-campaign-finance-data cfb screenshot site page

(photo via @NYCCFB)


On Friday morning representatives from both the New York State Board of Elections and the New York City Campaign Finance Board will come together to outline updates to their reporting systems and take questions from candidates, journalists, watchdogs, and others.

John Kaehny of Reinvent Albany, the good government group hosting the event along with Civic Hall, where it will take place, said he is most excited to have representatives of the State BOE in the New York City and ready to take questions and walk users through their new system that is expected to be ready sometime in 2017.

"They aren't known for doing this kind of thing--speaking directly to the public," said Kaehny of BOE reps. "This kind of dialogue with the public is really important for transparency." The event is free and open to the public, but RSVPs have been requested.

Technically, the "State Board of Elections" won't be at the event as Republican members of the Board decided not to take part. Instead, Democratic members will be representing themselves as employees of the agency (but not speaking for the BOE as a whole). Douglas Kellner, Democratic co-chair of the BOE, told Gotham Gazette that he hoped to have the full agency cosponsor the event but that idea was discarded by Republican chairs.

The absence of the full BOE is just another reminder of how differently the two agencies - the state BOE and the city CFB - are constituted and operate.

"The CFB are state of the art nationally; the two really come from completely different universes," said Kaehny, referring to the fact that the state BOE is not regarded as cutting edge or particularly effective. "The CFB have infinitely greater resources, they hold candidate forums, their compliance is higher - they are the model, people from across the country look to them. They aren't bipartisan, they are nonpartisan, and they get a lot done."

New York City's Campaign Finance Board is indeed seen as a national model for transparency, efficiency, and accountability. It is well funded, nonpartisan, focused, and maintains a fairly constant public relations effort. The same can't be said for the New York State Board of Elections, whose members have long complained of being underfunded. The BOE oversees data from state and local elections, as well as polling places and voting machines. It is a bipartisan organization and as such is hampered by political infighting and often deadlocks on major issues. The BOE is well known for a lack of enforcement, a lack of transparency, and using cantankerous campaign finance reporting software that is decades out of date.

Kellner, of the BOE, said he is excited to talk about the board's new software, which it is currently testing in working groups with journalists and other interested parties. Users of the BOE's current software are accustomed to botched searches, missing pages, and problems with data.

Kellner thinks that is going to change. "I am very hopeful for our new campaign finance system," he told Gotham Gazette. "Our current system was set up 20 years ago and was very much out of date. It was a credit to our staff that they've kept it functional." Kellner noted that California's system was neglected for years and finally went down, leaving the agency to record votes on paper for a year while a new system was developed.

"We had been sending out alarm signals that this could happen here. We had been asking the state for funding to update for years and thankfully Governor Cuomo agreed and we got the funding," said Kellner.

Kaehny said he is also hopeful for the new system but a bit disappointed it couldn't have been prepared in time to test during this year's relatively quiet election cycle and then given a full rollout during the 2016 cycle, when all of the state legislative seats are up for election.

Kellner said that the BOE gets a bad rap, that the agency has put a great deal of effort into reaching out to interested users for input on its new software ,and that the newly created enforcement arm of the BOE, through its compliance unit, has been auditing filings for data inconsistencies and filing errors and has either rejected filings or offered help to treasurers to ensure accuracy and consistency.

While the state BOE is set to show off some of its new tools, the CFB is also expected to outline coming changes at Friday's event, which is called "Following the Money: Opening NY Campaign Finance Data." The event listing says the two agencies will "preview new campaign finance reporting systems and discuss how to make state and city campaign finance data easier to use." The CFB is eyeing the next round of city elections in 2017, but its representatives are also aware that the board's data is always of interest to many.

Kaehny, despite his praise of the CFB, said he has a frustration with both agencies he hopes will be alleviated on Friday. He says that he and other campaign finance aficionados are in the dark about how to report data errors to the agencies and whether they actually get fixed once they are reported. "If we get anything out of it," Kaehny said of Friday's event, "it's to get both agencies to tell us how to report data problems and who is going to fix it."

***
by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing

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Boards to Offer Peek Into New Ways to Access Campaign Finance Data Thu, 19 Nov 2015 23:56:02 +0000
As Sheldon Silver Heads to Trial, A Democratic Challenger is Poised to Run http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5955:as-sheldon-silver-heads-to-trial-a-democratic-challenger-is-poised-to-run http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5955:as-sheldon-silver-heads-to-trial-a-democratic-challenger-is-poised-to-run Paul Newell Sheldon Silver

Paul Newell at a housing rally (via @NewellNYC)


Manhattan District Leader Paul Newell is gearing up for his second bid to replace Assemblymember Sheldon Silver. Newell told Gotham Gazette that he has started fundraising and is "close to running." A political lifetime ago, in 2008, Newell ran a grassroots campaign to unseat Silver, who was then at the height of his power.

Things have changed since then. Silver was indicted on multiple corruption charges earlier this year and then deposed from the Assembly speakership that he held for 21 years. His trial starts November 2, almost exactly one year before Election Day, though Newell would be challenging Silver in the September 2016 Democratic primary. That is if Silver is still in office and decides to run for reelection.

Silver has already pleaded not guilty to charges that he hid what amounted to political kickbacks, traded state funds for referrals to his law firm, and influenced real estate companies to do business with his law firm. "This is going to trial and I hope, I'm confident I will be vindicated after a full hearing," Silver told reporters earlier this year. Silver will remain in office unless he is convicted.

According to the state Board of Elections website, Newell has raised a little over $46,000 this year through his Friends of Paul Newell committee and has a little over $47,000 on hand.

Newell ran in 2008 as an anti-Albany candidate, pushing ethics reforms and calling out Silver as an impediment to real reform in Albany. The stance won him the endorsement of the New York Times, whose editorial board wrote:

"[T]here are two Democratic races in New York City that offer a chance to make a change in Albany or, at least make a strong statement about how badly change is needed. The most important of these races is in Lower Manhattan, where Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, one of the most powerful people in the state, is facing his first real challenge in decades. It is still an uphill fight for any opponent, but the race has already made one difference. It has brought the ever-secretive Mr. Silver out to meet voters and campaign for his job."

Silver faced Republican challenger Maureen Koetz in 2014. She ran on Silver's mishandling of a number of sexual harassment suits against his members, but Silver won easily. Generally Silver has escaped facing any well-funded challengers thanks to his immense power and connections.

Newell said Silver's very public fall from grace this year has residents of lower Manhattan's 65th Assembly District excited for new representation.

"Mr. Silver has the right to a trial, but there is no question the era of Sheldon Silver is over," Newell told Gotham Gazette. "Lower Manhattanites are aware of that. We are going to have new representation whether it is now or two years from now. We have a representative who no one wants their photo taken with, someone who can not actively represent our community, not because he is distracted, but because he no longer has the capacity to build the type of coalitions you need to help the district."

Douglas Muzzio, professor of political science at Baruch College, said that should Silver survive his trial and run for reelection, Newell could easily find himself the underdog again. "The bottom line is you can't beat somebody with nobody even though Silver is clearly weakened," said Muzzio.

Newell, who has served as district leader since 2009, is a community organizer who currently consults for a number of non-profit organizations. He's used his non-paid role as district leader to raise his profile, and this year there have been more opportunities as his district faces the reality that their representative, who was once arguably the most powerful man in Albany, will no longer be bringing millions of dollars in funding to community organizations. Newell has been outspoken about the need for local service organizations to reduce redundancy and work together in what are sure to be leaner times.

Newell also said Silver's replacement has to focus on reform of social service funding in the state "so that it isn't based on who sits where in Albany." He said going forward Silver's replacement, whoever it may be whenever it might be, will have to work at "building coalitions statewide" and working with the new leadership in the Assembly and Senate.

In the wake of Silver's arrest, Newell quickly took to The Daily News to write an op-ed expressing disappointment in Silver on behalf of the community and outlining the need for reform in Albany. He also explained his on-the-ground role as a district leader.

It is unlikely Newell will be the only one looking to either challenge or replace Silver. Another district leader, Jenifer Rajkumar, is also rumored to be interested in the seat. Rajkumar was defeated by incumbent City Council Member Margaret Chin, a Silver ally, in a 2013 bid for the Council. Rajkumar did not return Gotham Gazette's calls at publication of this story.

A number of other potential challengers appear to be waiting for the outcome of Silver's trial before committing to a run. Many observers expect that if Silver doesn't run, he will certainly have a horse in the race.

"If he gets convicted everybody and his mother is going to jump in," said Muzzio.

No matter how many candidates run, it's virtually certain the race will focus on Silver, Albany, and ethics.

The attention on the race could boost voter turnout. In 2008 only five percent of the district's 127,000 residents voted in the primary contest between Silver, Newell, and Luke Henry. Silver won 68 percent of the vote with 6,743 in his favor. Newell received 23 percent with 2,301 votes and Henry received 879 votes.

Newell said that regardless of the outcome of the trial anyone who challenges Silver next year is not likely to face the same resistance he did in his unsuccessful 2008 bid.

"It's unlikely you will have 25 members of the Assembly standing with [Silver] on Grand Street like I did in 2008," said Newell.

***
by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing

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As Sheldon Silver Heads to Trial, A Democratic Challenger is Poised to Run Tue, 27 Oct 2015 21:48:09 +0000
Candidates Allege Wright Unfairly Influences Elections http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5873:candidates-allege-wright-unfairly-influences-elections http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5873:candidates-allege-wright-unfairly-influences-elections Keith Wright parade

Keith Wright at the Puerto Rican Day Parade (photo: @KeithWright2016)


Afua Atta-Mensah, candidate for female district leader in Harlem's 70th Assembly District, had no illusions that running for office for the first time would be easy. But after campaigning against the entrenched Harlem political machine all summer she wonders if she would do it again. "Any newcomer is not taken kindly when they are running against the machine," said Atta-Mensah, a public defender who decided to run for the unpaid position because the job allows you to work for candidates at the grassroots level.

Her feeling is echoed by a number of candidates, including some already elected to district leader positions, but who are not supported by the County party. They say Assemblymember Keith Wright - who serves as the chair of the New York County Democratic Party and is head of the powerful Assembly Housing committee while representing the 70th AD - is unfairly using his influence and well-placed allies to tip the scales in his favor.

Wright, it is alleged, has brought political pressure for them to drop out of the little-watched races and has even used his allies at the Board of Elections to move polling places in a bid to reduce the Latino vote and ensure his loyalists are in place for what is expected to be a heated battle to replace Rep. Charles Rangel against one or more strong Latino candidates.

Since declaring for the office, Atta-Mensah has run up against the traditional roadblocks faced by new candidates, like fundraising and a lack of party apparatus and campaign network.

"These block parties they have, there is nothing like having Charlie Rangel campaign for you," said Atta-Mensah. "No matter what you think of him, he is simply a legend." But there have been additional obstacles for Atta-Mensah and other candidates for district leader and judicial delegate positions, including what they say amounts to drastic voter suppression that is meant to subvert the democratic process.

Recently the Board of Elections changed the locations of a number of polling places in Harlem adding to the confusion of a primary day that will be the first in recent memory to be held on a Thursday (September 10 - it was moved by the State to miss Rosh Hashanah). Turnout is expected to be miniscule at best and polling place changes are likely to further reduce the number of those who actually cast their votes.

A number of district leader incumbents and new candidates say the relocations are politically motivated and orchestrated by Assemblymember Wright's ally, Board of Elections clerk William Allen.

Allen, it happens, is also currently one incumbent male district leader in Assembly District 70. However, Board of Elections chair Michael Ryan told Gotham Gazette that he had Allen removed from making any decisions regarding the the 70th AD in accordance with his policy regarding anyone who is a candidate and a BOE employee.

"We have a policy in the agency in respect to political positions," Ryan told Gotham Gazette on Friday. "If an employee is a candidate and has an opponent we remove them from decision making. If they don't have an opponent it's not an issue. On July 17 I directed William Allen to refrain from activity in the 70th Assembly District."

Ryan added that no one had approached him about any possible conflict of interest before holding a Thursday press conference on the matter.

At that press conference at City Hall, several district leader candidates called this a major conflict of interest and said that Allen should step down from one of the two positions. They also said that it is all too easy for Wright and Allen to exert undue influence over poll workers, trained and hired by the BOE, and their efforts.

The uproar over the district races comes as Wright is set to run to replace Rangel against state Sen. Adriano Espaillat in a district notorious for political strife between black and Latino voters.

Joshua Bauchner, a judicial delegate on Atta-Mensah's ticket, said that he faced direct pressure from Wright's office to drop out of the race. He says Wright staffer Cathleen McCadden called him and told him his candidacy was an affront to the Assemblymember and that Wright intended to appoint the position.

"Cathleen told me these were appointed positions and asked me to withdraw," Bauchner told Gotham Gazette. "I told her I was extremely disappointed and that Wright should be encouraging debate. She asked what I would do. I said I intended to stay in because I thought there needed to be robust debate and that as County chair, Keith's job is to find people to run and increase voter involvement. She told me it would be an interesting summer."

McCadden denied the charge when reached by phone at Wright's district office, saying simply, "That's not the case," before insisting she would have to defer to Wright's press person. Gotham Gazette has not heard back from Wright's office since.

While Bauchner was the only subject willing to go on record, a number of other candidates and canvassers alleged to Gotham Gazette that Wright's office also pressured them to drop their bids for district leader or judicial delegate, or to stop working for certain campaigns. A few of these people say Wright called them personally and invoked his considerable influence both as County chair or head of the Assembly housing committee.

Bauchner said he was deeply disappointed by the call because the race is already expected to be low turnout and citing his proud involvement in politics, saying he's hosted candidates like Scott Stringer, Bill de Blasio, and even Wright at his home to boost voter education and involvement.

"Harlem is the last bastion of Tammany Hall," said Bauchner. "Keith and his generation of colleagues all suffered from the system in that they had to wait their turn for someone to turn 80-something before they could move up the ladder. I would think Keith Would support a robust election instead of a selection."

On Thursday, a group of district leaders and candidates held a press conference at City Hall to call for William Allen to resign his position as BOE clerk because of his connections to Wright. Marisol Alcantara, a District Leader in AD 70, told Gotham Gazette the polling site changes would make voting more difficult for Latino residents.

"We believe that the reason these voting sites were changed is to weaken new Americans, specifically in Northern Manhattan, from coming out to vote. And we believe that William Allen should do the honorable thing and step down," said Alcantara.

Alcantara says that she and other sitting district leaders are seeing County-backed challengers on the ballot, along with shifting poll sites. Alcantara has been honored by Espaillat for her work in the past.

John Ruiz, a District Leader for Assembly District 68, said he was concerned the polling place reshuffling will make it hard for his older constituents and those with health issues like asthma from making it to the polling place.

Maria Morillo, another uptown district leader, agreed with Ruiz. "People are telling me, 'I'm not going to vote, it's only district leader and it's too far to travel.' The polling site where I live, we have a lot of senior citizens, and a lot of them might not come out and vote. From 182 and Bennett, people have to travel seven blocks now to vote."

BOE head Michael Ryan told Gotham Gazette that politics had nothing to do with poll site moves, but instead, they were the result of the settlement of a lawsuit brought by a number of disabled voters concerned with poll site access.

Ryan did say that the BOE plans to review the changes to make sure they aren't actually creating a hardship. That review won't likely be complete until next May, and any other changes would have to be agreed upon and approved by a court. "What we are attempting to do now is to set up meetings with the plaintiffs to take a holistic look if some of the fixes created more of a burden. But so far the analysis has been done by an expert, but it hasn't included a look at distance or the terrain traversed that could have made it worse than it was before."

***
by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing 

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Candidates Allege Wright Unfairly Influences Elections Fri, 04 Sep 2015 16:45:43 +0000
City Board of Elections Expected to Again See Budget Bump http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5711:city-board-of-elections-expected-to-again-see-budget-bump http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5711:city-board-of-elections-expected-to-again-see-budget-bump BOE Michael Ryan

BOE Executive Director Michael Ryan (photo: @BOENYC)


On Thursday, Mayor Bill de Blasio is set to unveil his Fiscal Year 2016 Executive Budget, which is likely to be nearly identical to the final budget passed by the mayor and the City Council before the June 30 deadline. Much of the new version of the mayor's spending plan will be similar to his $77 billion preliminary budget, which he presented in February and was vetted throughout March by the Council. But, the de Blasio administration has already acknowledged several areas where funding levels will show a difference on Thursday, with increases planned to support manufacturing, mental health services, the MTA, struggling schools, and more.

One under-the-radar aspect of the budget that is set to see a significant change from preliminary to executive is funding for the city's Board of Elections, which administers New Yorkers' opportunities to vote.

The preliminary budget includes approximately $84.4 million for the Board of Elections (BOE), a drop from the $113.9 million that the BOE is spending in fiscal year 2015, which wraps up at the end of June. It's a differential of about $29.6 million, a 26 percent decrease.

This disparity, however, is unlikely to stick. According to the Independent Budget Office (IBO), this year's preliminary budget allocation for the Board of Elections follows a pattern of the last several years. In fact, fiscal 2016 includes a larger preliminary provision for the BOE than preliminary budgets of previous years. Doug Turetsky, IBO Chief of Staff and communications director, told Gotham Gazette that this is not something that should raise eyebrows just yet; the trend is that the actual budget will make up the $30-40 million gap from the preliminary plan. If funding stays the same, there might be reason for concern that BOE is being underfunded. But it is also important to keep in mind that each year brings different elections, whether they be on the city, state, or federal level.

It may appear a curious annual underfunding in the preliminary, just to be increased in the executive or the adopted budget, but Turetsky said that there is often talk of moving federal primary elections from June to September to coincide with state and city primaries, which would foster efficiency and decrease budgetary need. If the figure in the preliminary was closer to what will likely be in the actual budget, Turetsky explained that it may act as a "disincentive" for the state to move state and federal primary elections to the same date. By holding off on the additional funding, it puts pressure on the state to decide and, ideally, move toward a single voting date.

Council Member Ben Kallos, chair of the City Council Governmental Operations Committee, spoke similarly, but did express concern about the general issue of underfunding BOE operations. Kallos told Gotham Gazette that while the BOE tends to overestimate its financial need, if it is not appropriately funded "it is the elections and democratic process that suffers." While Kallos is looking for stronger numbers in the executive budget, he also said that "if we over-budget then that means that another agency loses."

Getting to the final adopted number is part of the process of having preliminary budget hearings in March and executive budget hearings in May and June. Kallos' committee heard from BOE representatives in March and will hear from them again as the mayor and the Council head toward an agreement.

BOE Executive Director Michael Ryan is not worried about the dramatic trend that some might say resembles the "budget dance" affecting his agency's operations in the coming year. Ryan told Gotham Gazette that the BOE still needs an estimated $12 million; approximately $2.2 million to update the expiring warranty for electronic voting and the other $10 million to meet federal mandates for ADA accessibility. Ryan expressed confidence that his agency will be appropriately funded.

The "lean and mean preliminary" as he called it, is just part of the process. The real focus is on the executive budget, he said, with little concern over the difference between the two proposals. He also put his agency into larger budgetary context. "The executive budget should be a balancing between what the mayor's office ultimately believes an agency needs to function and what the city expects to receive in tax revenue, because the city must operate on a balanced budget," said Ryan.

Ryan told Gotham Gazette that the trend has continued because it works for budget planning purposes. By underestimating in the preliminary budget, the mayor's office establishes a baseline (or placeholder as it has been called) that can be edited henceforth, after the hearings, negotiations, and decisions that follow - including decisions made on the state or federal level. "It's a check and balance, to make sure that not just the Board of Elections, but that all the agencies that are asking for funds that they actually need," Ryan said.

Ryan also said that another reason the city keeps careful tabs on the allocation of funds is a result of the budget crisis of 1975, when the city went bankrupt, spending into debt of an estimated $14 billion. Shortly after the crisis, a law passed requiring balanced budgets, removing leeway for the city to operate on deficit spending.

"I'm not anticipating any issues, quite frankly," said Ryan. "I think it's all gonna work out fine and we've been working very closely with the mayor's office to make sure that our needs are met and that we're able to fulfill our statutory and constitutional mandate to provide elections for the voters of the City of New York."

***
by Shannon Ho, Gotham Gazette
@ShanMHo @GothamGazette

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City Board of Elections Expected to Again See Budget Bump Wed, 06 May 2015 18:49:51 +0000
Quiet Before the Storm in New Phase of Mayoral Control Debate http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5702:quiet-early-in-new-phase-of-mayoral-control-debate-de-blasio-bloomberg http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5702:quiet-early-in-new-phase-of-mayoral-control-debate-de-blasio-bloomberg BdB Albany

Mayor de Blasio sits to testify in Albany (photo: Skip Dickstein via Twitter)


At the end of June this year the law that grants New York's mayor control over city schools will expire. The expiration was designed so that all interested parties can take part in a discussion of what works and what doesn't, and adjust the law as needed. Parents, teachers, advocates, and legislators all have ideas about how to make the system better. But this year there is major concern that there might not be room for a nuanced discussion.

Some education advocates have been locked in a battle with Gov. Andrew Cuomo over his education reform plans, especially around teacher evaluations. They say that in a typical year there might be major campaigns on mayoral control but instead the bandwidth on education issues has been largely monopolized. Renewal of mayoral control will likely come at the end of session, which is scheduled for mid-June, as part of a larger deal and it's unclear how much public debate will take place.

On top of that, the Legislature is still reeling from the indictment of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and now in limbo given the federal investigation into Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. Senate Republicans are scrapping to keep control of their slim majority in the face of investigations and illness and they have expressed a great hesitance to renew mayoral control under Bill de Blasio, New York's progressive mayor who worked to push the chamber into Democratic control in the recent election cycle. Republicans are now playing defense to some extent and according to sources may be looking to simply wait out the session. Making de Blasio sweat and wait is an enjoyable byproduct for some.

"Should there be safeguards, should there be caveats on mayoral control, and then how long?" Gov. Andrew Cuomo asked, framing the key questions at hand as he addressed attendees at an Association for a Better New York breakfast last Friday. "The mayor asked for permanent mayoral control," he said of de Blasio, "The Assembly's position is 6 or 7 years, mine is 3 years, the senate is basically zero. This has to be basically rationalized. There is a big gap between zero and permanent."

As much as the renewal of mayoral control looks like a battle between city-based Democrats who back de Blasio and Long Island and rural Republicans who oppose him, it is city legislators whose constituents live within the system and who want to have a nuanced discussion about reforming it. But this year those Democrats have mostly been quiet. "They may not want to say much because they just want to get it done and make the mayor happy," said one advocate who requested anonymity of those city Democrats.

When de Blasio came to Albany in February to testify before the Legislature he sold mayoral control as essential to city schools' chance at success, despite the fact he had once voraciously opposed Mayor Bloomberg's use of the same system. "Before mayoral control, the city's school system was balkanized," de Blasio said. "School boards exerted great authority with little accountability and we saw far too many instances of mismanagement, waste, and corruption."

One Democratic legislator noted that if Bloomberg had been the one delivering that statement he would have been met by derision and vitriol but Democratic legislators bit their tongues. Many, especially in the city's poorest neighborhoods, see the city school system as in need of major improvement. De Blasio says the same, but professes faith in his vision to get there and argues that with mayoral control it's clear that he is accountable for the school system's performance.

A number of Democrats in both houses have three major reforms they'd like to see accompany an extension of mayoral control.

The first is greater accountability in the awarding of contracts by the Department of Education. Sen. Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat, said she believes the city comptroller should be able to review those contracts. Sen. Diane Savino, a member of the Independent Democratic Conference from Staten Island, echoed that concern, saying that under previous mayors there had been wasteful and no-bid contracts. Krueger brought up City Time, the city's 911 revamp, and other projects where contractors botched projects and cost the city millions. "There has to be more accountability," said Krueger.

Concerns were recently raised when the Department of Education wanted to award a contract to expand internet access in city schools to a company that was tied to a kickback scandal.

"I've said repeatedly that mayoral control should be renewed but amended," Savino told Gotham Gazette. Savino said she wants to see changes to the Panel for Educational Policy (PEP) that votes on policy changes. Currently, the mayor appoints 8 of the 13 PEP members. "It is functionally a staff meeting for the mayor with no diversity of opinion," said Savino. "We need to look at adding borough presidents, board members, something. I don't know what the exact answer is, but we need to look at it."

Parental involvement has been a hot topic surrounding mayoral control since it was established in 2002. A number of legislators are concerned that the city's Citywide and Community Education Councils (CECs) do not allow for enough parental participation in policy decisions. "They don't seem to be producing the parental activity they were intended to. I'm not sure why it's not happening, but we need to look into it and see if it is something in the law that needs changing."

Senate Republicans and Gov. Cuomo will likely tie renewal of mayoral control to raising the cap on charter schools. Cuomo has insisted that the charter sector would basically be "out of business" once it hits the cap in the city, which it is nearing. In outlining his 2015 agenda, Cuomo argued for raising the cap by 100 schools and eliminating any location-based ceiling within it, as New York City now has.

Republican's have also indicated they may hold a series of hearings to examine mayoral control but nothing has been formally scheduled.

Democratic Sen. Simcha Felder, who caucuses with Republicans, told the New York Post that the charter cap is directly tied to mayoral control. "Part of the discussion is that there should be no cap on children getting a better education. There should be no cap on children," said Felder. John Flanagan, the Senate's Education Committee chair who earlier this year indicated that mayoral control needs serious reconsideration, did not return calls for comment.

Public Advocate Letitia James held a series of "Our School, Our Voices" public forums on mayoral control across the five boroughs earlier this year. The focus of the events largely became increasing community say in the policy decisions. James' office is expected to release a report with recommendations on mayoral control sometime in May.

"Mayoral control must be amended to expand parental and community involvement," James said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. "Earlier this year, my office held a number of community forums throughout New York City to discuss the future of public schools and it became clear that New Yorkers will no longer allow their voices to be drowned out of our schools system."

Despite the myriad of opinions on control the stakeholders don't appear to be rushing toward a resolution or even a basic discussion.

When asked if serious conversations about renewal had begun yet, Savino replied: "No. There is always plenty of time in Albany."

The Last Time
In 2009 mayoral control expired as Democrats and Republicans battled for control of the state Senate. The policy lapsed from the end of June until August 6. Though Mayor Michael Bloomberg had warned of great chaos if the law was not renewed, his allies on the Board of Education kept his policies in place and the law was eventually renewed, with tweaks like giving the Independent Budget Office more oversight over spending.

This year may not feature the same chaos as around the time of the '09 Senate coup, but with scandal in both houses and the precarious position of the Senate Republicans, things are similar.

Republicans are loathe to move on major issues as they are preoccupied with maintaining their majority. They have little incentive to deliver on mayoral control or renewal of rent regulations as only two of their members hail from the city and they appear to be holding onto a grudge against de Blasio. In 2009 Senate Republicans were the cinch votes for renewal of mayoral control of schools as Bloomberg had pumped millions into their campaign coffers.

When Senate Democrats finally won control of the chamber, then Democratic Leader John Sampson pushed for greater checks and balances on the mayor's power. At the time the Assembly had passed a bill that only slightly changed mayoral control - Sampson wanted to limit the mayor's ability to fire members of the Panel for Educational Policy and increase parental participation. It was the Senate Republicans who supported the Assembly's bill that offered fewer reductions to the mayor's influence.

Another major change from 2009 - at least thus far - is the absence of campaigns and grassroots movements to influence the policy. Parents' groups like Class Size Matters marched and rallied for more involvement; Bloomberg's allies created Mayoral Accountability for School Success and lobbied Albany heavily. This year those groups are missing in action. Union-allied education groups are tied up battling Cuomo, fighting on teacher evaluations, testing, and Common Core. Some advocates say they are considering action to influence the mayoral control conversation, but so far nothing has materialized.

Some legislators say that de Blasio may have learned from Bloomberg's and his own mistakes. Being critical of the Legislature backfired for both of them. In July 2009, frustrated with the impasse in Albany, Bloomberg took to the radio to criticize the legislative process. "If you remember Neville Chamberlain, no matter how many times you said yes, that's the starting point for the next round," Bloomberg said referring to the former British leader's negotiating trivails. "There's always more, more, more. I think that just the time for that is over."

Legislators cried bloody murder and accused Bloomberg of comparing them to Hitler. Negotiations stalled. De Blasio has already felt the sting of insulting opponents in the Legislature. Some legislators assume he is simply waiting quietly hoping not to ruffle any more feathers so that mayoral control is renewed in a simple trade for lifting the charter cap, which appears an inevitability in itself.

With only 22 days left of legislative session, the time for debate appears to be severely limited. In 2009 the New York Times quoted former Republican Senator Frank Padavan giving his assessment of the debate and the future of mayoral control: "There is no doubt in my mind that those of us who are here will be having a similar discussion then," Padavan said looking toward 2015. "We will look at the last six years and ask: Did our changes help?"

***
by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing

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Quiet Before the Storm in New Phase of Mayoral Control Debate Tue, 28 Apr 2015 20:52:33 +0000
With Another LLC Loophole Vote Coming, Dwindling Optimism About Any Campaign Finance Reform http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5696:with-another-llc-loophole-vote-coming-dwindling-optimism-about-any-campaign-finance-reform http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5696:with-another-llc-loophole-vote-coming-dwindling-optimism-about-any-campaign-finance-reform Skelos Silver Cuomo

Republican Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (photo: Governor's Office via flickr)


The State Senate Elections Committee is expected to vote Monday whether to advance a bill that would close a controversial loophole in state election law that allows wealthy donors to pour unlimited cash into campaign coffers through the use of multiple limited liability corporations, or LLCs.

Sen. Daniel Squadron, a New York City Democrat and the bill's sponsor, has maneuvered the bill to a committee vote despite major opposition from the Republican majority conference. Monday's vote will come after reform groups and some legislators failed in an attempt to get the State Board of Elections to reverse its 1996 interpretation of state law that created the loophole. Senate Republicans have bristled at using the term "loophole" to describe the BOE interpretation.

"As the focus continues on this critical ethics reform, it will be disappointing if Monday's Elections Committee vote breaks down along the same partisan lines that the recent budget and Board of Elections votes did," said Squadron. "In light of the BOE's professed arguments, I'm hopeful that the Elections Committee will take a serious look at this issue to prevent unlimited sums of anonymous dollars from perverting our state government and the entire political process."

Assembly Member Brian Kavanagh, also a New York City Democrat, sponsors the same bill in the Assembly. Kavanagh told Gotham Gazette he believes his conference is also ready to move on the bill and that he thinks Senate Republicans should be too. "The Republican BOE chair said that he thought the Legislature was the appropriate place to address this. And I know he isn't the only one who believes that."

The LLC loophole has become a major flashpoint in the battle for campaign finance reform because other efforts at reform failed in this year's budget negotiations and a pilot public financing program for last year's comptroller race never got off the ground.

Advocates acknowledge that while having a committee vote on the issue is a victory in itself it isn't exactly likely that the bill passes the Senate given that Republicans currently enjoy a narrow majority that could fall apart at any time due to indictment, illness, or retirement. Their candidates are often bolstered by large donations from single individuals or industries that use the LLC loophole to their advantage.

Advocates admit that the vote may be the last gasp for campaign finance efforts this year. "I think the real chance for reform this year is on the LLC loophole because there is more clear agreement on that," said Rachael Fauss of good government group Citizens Union. "I think we will have to wait for another major push until the budget next year."

Kavanagh said he expects the LLC loophole to remain a major focus for the rest of the year with perhaps some room between the Senate Republicans and Assembly Democrats to negotiate further contribution disclosure rules, including, perhaps, requiring donors to list their employers. Conversation and movement during this year's budget negotiations mostly revolved around legislators' outside income.

The last two years have been a roller coaster ride for campaign finance reform advocates. Last March advocates were in a place they had never been before: Gov. Andrew Cuomo's budget proposal included a system for publicly funded campaigns and the Moreland Commission on Public Integrity was digging deep into just how weak and ineffective the state's Board of Electionss is at enforcing New York's already lax campaign finance rules. "It felt like we had so much momentum," said Barbara Bartoletti of the League of Women Voters, who also served as an advisor to the Moreland Commission.

Over a year later things have changed drastically: Cuomo abruptly killed Moreland in exchange for some limited campaign finance reforms, and despite massive scandals the Legislature has remained obstinant, refusing to make major reforms. If last March was the high of highs, this April has been the low of lows as campaign finance reform appears all but dead for the foreseeable future.

Reformers' best chance at change - having the BOE reinterpret its opinion regarding LLCs - failed and Senate Republicans stand even more steadfast against reform. It isn't surprising that the Legislature has failed to act on campaign finance reform despite the indictment of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and the investigation into Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos because, as Barbara Bartoletti of the League of Women Voters told Gotham Gazette, nothing in Albany is surprising anymore.

"Scandal does not seem to deter the Legislature in its appetite to avoid dealing with the issue," said Bartoletti. In fact, Bartoletti said that scandal appears to have increased the Senate Republicans' affection for the current system. "The Senate Republicans hold such a tenuous grasp on the majority that they are loathe to change the system that gets them elected," said Bartoletti.

Republican Senators do tend to benefit more from the largesse of the real estate industry and corporations that use the LLC loophole to subvert the state's donation limits. Republicans counter that Democrats benefit from massive union donations.

"As soon as the so-called good government groups have anything to say about the unlimited money that unions pump into the coffers of Democrats or the dollars that Mayor de Blasio funnels to Upstate County Democrat Party Committees, we may start taking them seriously," Scott Reif, spokesman for Senate Republicans, said in a statement. "Until then, they should get a life."

Advocates don't put responsibility entirely on Senate Republicans. They look at the governor, saying Cuomo has failed to capitalize on major public outcry over scandal and not used his bully pulpit to push reform. They point to budget negotiations last year when most thought Cuomo was in a position thanks to Moreland and continuing pressure from the US Attorney to truly campaign for public financing of elections.

Instead Cuomo abruptly shuttered Moreland for what advocates call "meager" ethics tweaks and minimal campaign finance measures. The two measures - a pilot program for public financing exclusively in the 2014 comptroller's race and a new enforcement office in the BOE - have not delivered.

Incumbent Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, an advocate of public financing of campaigns, declined to participate in the system because it was so hastily arranged and his Republican opponent failed to raise enough money to participate. The program, meant to perhaps initiate a much larger system, is now defunct.

Meanwhile, little has been heard from the BOE's enforcement unit headed by Cuomo appointee Risa Sugarman.

Moreland dedicated an entire hearing to attacking the BOE's paltry enforcement mechanisms. As part of the deal to kill the commission Cuomo and the Legislature installed Sugarman as the head of an office charged with finding violations of campaign finance law and bringing cases against violators.

Good government groups and election board members alike say that so far Sugarman's appointment has only caused a regression in the board's enforcement actions.

"The independent enforcement counsell is taking a very different approach to enforcement and has given much less focus to the routine enforcement work that was done before the independent office was created," Democratic Board Chair Douglas Kellerman told Gotham Gazette.

Kellerman says that Sugarman has failed to collect fines from those who were found delinquent before she took office in 2014 and has not issued notices to campaign committees that had not filed since the July filing deadline last year. As of January Sugarman had also not begun assembling a report on the biggest violators of campaign contribution limits the board has traditionally issued.

Sugarman did not respond to a request for an interview but she confirmed publically in board meetings with Kellerman that she had not sent the notices.

At a board meeting in January Sugarman argued she had found a number of bad addresses for previous filings. She also said she was waiting for hearing officers to be hired. Hearing officers were the Legislature's contribution to the enforcement unit and are seen by good government groups as an uncesscary hoop to jump through because cases against violators must also be presented in State Supreme Court. Other commissioners pushed Sugarman to act because such a large backlog had been created.

"I guess my overall concern is that there were certainly lots of problems with the old enforcement unit," Kellerman said to Sugarman at the January meeting, "but there were lots of things that were getting done with the old enforcement unit that I'm concerned have now gone by the wayside with the transition and I hate to see us have a step backwards as opposed to forward on this. The over-contribution report was one of those things."

BOE staffers and chairs have expressed frustration that Sugarman doesn't update them on her activities. She has stressed her independence and ability to work on investigations with complete secrecy but some BOE members think the office is directionless and is looking to land big cases at the cost of basic enforcement.

Advocates share a lot of those concerns. "It seems they are missing basic procedure, missing basic compliance that the board used to do such as filing reports and audits," said Fauss of Citizens Union. "It is unfortunate that the board is not in a better position. It is a shame that we don't even see enforcement of basic compliance."

Assembly Member Kavanagh said that he believes Sugarman's office has already accomplished a great deal: "We never had someone looking at filings beyond whether they were on time or not. Without that it is hard to see how real enforcement happens. Now we actually have someone scrutinizing them and I think that will have a great impact."

Bartoletti said she hopes to see increased action from the enforcement unit over the next few months, but is concerned that precious time has already been lost. "We will be watching closely for the rest of the calendar year. We may will be looking carefully at who they hire and how independent they are. I would hope they will be a fully-staffed, functioning enforcement unit by 2016 because without enforcement nobody cares what the laws are," Bartoletti told Gotham Gazette.

Dani Lever, a spokesperson for Cuomo, told Gotham Gazette: "The administration included additional funds in the budget last year to create and support the BOE enforcement unit. The unit is fully staffed and effectively operating at capacity."

Asked whether Cuomo plans to continue to push for campaign finance reform during the rest of session Lever said: "Yes, the Governor has been and remains committed to campaign finance reform."

Right now Bartoletti said she only has faith in one man to do campaign finance enforcement and it isn't technically his job. "The only one doing campaign finance enforcement at the moment is Preet Bharara," she said.

***
by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing

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With Another LLC Loophole Vote Coming, Dwindling Optimism About Any Campaign Finance Reform Thu, 23 Apr 2015 22:40:31 +0000
Left Out of Ethics Deal, LLC Loophole Faces Renewed Scrutiny http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5684:left-out-of-ethics-deal-llc-loophole-faces-renewed-scrutiny http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5684:left-out-of-ethics-deal-llc-loophole-faces-renewed-scrutiny Cuomo Heastie

Gov. Cuomo & Speaker Heastie shake on an ethics deal (photo: Governor's Office via flickr)


The New York State Board of Elections opened up a floodgate in 1996, allowing cash to flow virtually unabated to political candidates. The BOE issued a ruling that allowed limited liability corporations, or LLCs, to be treated as individual donors and individuals to donate unlimited funds to candidates for state-level offices by creating multiple LLCs. Efforts to change the law in the Legislature have failed miserably and now a coalition of progressive and good government groups are asking the BOE to correct what they say is a major mistake that has damaged New York democracy. On Thursday, the BOE will take up what has come to be known as the "LLC Loophole," and interested parties on both sides of the debate will be watching.

Meanwhile, State Senator Daniel Squadron, a Democrat from New York City, is expected to use a parliamentary measure to force the Republican-controlled Senate to consider a bill to fix the loophole when the Legislature returns to session next week. Coming out of a budget season where ethics reforms were passed, but the LLC loophole was largely ignored, there appears to be spring life to the issue.

"The loophole is based on a ruling that hasn't been relevant since the last century," Squadron told Gotham Gazette. "I would hope the board would act to remedy that." He said he will push for a vote on his bill, but added, "I hope that won't be necessary."

The BOE is a political entity made up of Republican and Democratic appointees. Its members have tight connections to their party bosses and the BOE has shown a major reluctance to pursue and punish officials who violate election laws and campaign finance limits. But advocates remain hopeful that some in power might want to see things change. "We've seen this continual finger pointing between the Board of Elections and the Legislature, [each] saying 'they could do it if they wanted to,'" said Rachael Fauss, director of public policy for good government group Citizens Union. "The Legislature failed to act, now we are saying to the Board 'it is your turn.' We are going to actually put people on the record."

The BOE added discussion of the LLC loophole to its agenda for Thursday, as Capital New York reported, but no formal action on its status is expected. Fauss and her good government colleagues plan to be there, though.

A coalition of reform groups including the Brennan Center, the League of Women Voters, Reinvent Albany, Common Cause, the New York Public Interest Research Group, and Citizens Union wrote Governor Andrew Cuomo this week urging him to ask the BOE to close the loophole. The letter to Cuomo follows one from the Brennan Center and Emery Celli Brinkerhoff & Abady LLP to the BOE last week asking its members to do three things: rescind the 1996 opinion; treat LLCs as corporations or partnerships depending on the tax status they select (just as the Federal Elections Commission does); and clarify BOE rules to make it clear that no individual can upend donation limits by using LLCs.

In New York, corporations are limited to giving $5,000 to a political candidate, while LLCs fall under limits of individuals and can therefore give $150,000.

Governor Cuomo has a complicated relationship with the LLC loophole. He has taken in millions of dollars from single donors who use multiple LLCs to maximize their giving. According to NYPIRG, 20 percent of Cuomo's $35 million campaign chest he utilized last election cycle came through the LLC loophole.

The most striking example of this loophole largesse is via Leonard Litwin. Using LLCs and corporations, Litwin, a real estate mogul, gave Cuomo over $1 million during the last election cycle. And Litwin is the largest single donor statewide - he blankets state elections in cash - giving to candidates and committees regardless of party.

Cuomo has spoken out against the loophole and his budget included a proposal that would ensure LLCs were restricted to the $5,000 corporate donation limit, which he also proposed reducing to $1,000. But advocates note the proposal did not call for stopping individuals from donating through multiple LLCs. Even Cuomo's "half loaf" proposal was rejected by the Legislature during budget negotiations. It is unclear how hard the governor fought for LLC reform.

Dani Lever, a spokesperson for Cuomo, told Gotham Gazette, "Whether by legislation or action taken by the Board of Elections, the Governor believes the LLC loophole should be closed."

Advocates note that the BOE's 1996 decision was based on a federal ruling that has long since been changed. "In 1996, the Board of Elections decided to treat LLCs as human beings, rather than as corporations or partnerships, despite the fact that there was no indication the Legislature ever intended such treatment," the good government groups wrote to Cuomo. "The Board justified its decision by citing a single phrase in state law and stating that it sought to follow federal practice. But the short-lived federal rule it emulated was quickly changed, and the relevant state law in fact provides the Board with leeway to make a more common-sense decision. Federal rules now treat LLCs as corporations or partnerships, and in most contexts New York state law treats LLCs like other business entities, rather than as humans. There is no legal reason the Board should refuse to correct its error."

State Senator Michael Gianaris, a Queens Democrat whose conference has been stymied in its attempts to fix the issue legislatively, said he hopes the BOE acts. "We want to see it closed anyway possible," he said of the LLC loophole. "I believe it was created under a misguided ruling based on a federal rule that was quickly changed. They created it, so it would make sense for them to fix it."

Assembly Member Brian Kavanagh, who has two bills pending in the Legislature to address the loophole, said he favors BOE action on the matter. "I am confident I will be able to move something in the Assembly this year, but the cleanest way to do it would be for the Board of Elections to correct their misguided ruling."

Fauss said that it may take more public scrutiny of the loophole to finally force action and some groups have begun to try to engage their members and the public in what may seem like an obtuse and wonky issue.

Activist groups like Common Cause, Every Voice, and the Working Families Party have asked their members to contact the BOE to pressure them to rethink the loophole. "If we're ever going to end Albany's culture of corruption, we need to stop letting billionaires secretly dump millions into campaigns," said Karen Scharff, executive director of Citizen Action of New York. "The Board of Elections must rein in this flood of cash now as a first step toward returning New York state government to voters."

Jess Wisneski of Citizen Action said that the time is right because voters have become more keyed in to the influence of money in Albany. "They see the guys with the most money are just pouring an enormous amount of cash into the system and people are more aware of it than ever," said Wisneski. "Governor Cuomo says every year that he has reformed the system and it is functioning, but people can see that just isn't the case and this might be the single biggest way to change that."

***
by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union

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Left Out of Ethics Deal, LLC Loophole Faces Renewed Scrutiny Tue, 14 Apr 2015 19:48:46 +0000
8 Government Ops Agencies to Face Council Questions http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5641:8-government-ops-agencies-to-face-council-questions http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5641:8-government-ops-agencies-to-face-council-questions ben kallos

CM Ben Kallos (photo: William Alatriste)


As preliminary budget hearings at the City Council approach the end of their third week, the Committee on Governmental Operations will meet Thursday to evaluate the expense plan for a host of city agencies.

Members of the committee, chaired by Manhattan Council Member Ben Kallos, will meet representatives of eight city agencies to question them about performances and budgetary needs. The hearing will also look at the city's 59 community boards.

"The Council Member's aim will be to ensure all tax dollars get spent wisely," and that "the operations of the agencies that Governmental Operations has oversight over are open, transparent and work seamlessly for the people," an aide to Kallos said by email.

The hearing, which continues the Council's evaluation of Mayor Bill de Blasio's initial Fiscal Year 2016 spending plan, will look at the nuts and bolts of government function, including how the City runs the voting process, and much more. It will open with testimony from an executive of the Financial Information Services Agency (FISA), the body running the Payroll Management System, which processes over nine million payments and $28 billion worth of payroll annually.

During last year's preliminary budget hearing, FISA's First Deputy Director, Rose Ellen Myers, said the budget allotted to her agency for Fiscal Year 2015 was sufficient to allow it to maintain its current levels of service.

According to the preliminary budget for Fiscal Year 2016, FISA will be one of the three agencies under the supervision of the Governmental Operations Committee that will not face budget reductions. The other two are the Tax Commission and the Office of Administrative Trials & Hearings (OATH). These numbers are based on the preliminary fiscal 2016 outline from the mayor versus the adjusted 2015 expense budget.

As outlined in de Blasio's expense plan, which he announced in early February, other agencies supervised by the Committee on Governmental Operations will have to deal with budgetary cuts.

The Law Department will see its budget diminished by nearly $9 million. The Department of Citywide Administrative Services, which manages some of the city's real estate properties and provides logistic support to city employees, will be provided $44 million less this coming fiscal year, set to begin July 1.

The New York City's Board of Elections will see a drop of over $29 million, which could have to do with the BOE's limited electioneering responsibilities in November of 2015. But, performance of and funding at the BOE are significant issues. During the preliminary budget hearing last year, BOE Executive Director Michael Ryan began his testimony by denouncing a "chronic and sustained budgetary underfunding" that has impacted the office in the last several years.

"This consistent underfunding has placed the Board in financial jeopardy and has negatively impacted the Board's ability to effectively and efficiently conduct elections," Ryan said on that occasion, adding that the agency needed more funds "in order to fulfill its constitutional and statutory mission successfully."

During that same hearing, however, Council Member David Greenfield, a Brooklyn Democrat on the government operations committee, downplayed a "conspiracy to go after the Board of Elections" and ultimately asked Ryan to do more with less.

Called to testify at a hearing of the committee on March 3, Ryan and other representatives from the Board of Election said the agency is working on new software to allow online tracking of absentee ballots and communication with voters about the status of their ballot applications.

The price tag for such reform, however, is still unknown. It is possible the agency will request more funds in order to implement it, and to be sufficiently equipped leading up to coming elections.

At the hearing on Thursday, members of the committee will likely ask Ryan about the need for additional funds, introducing the possibility that more money could be earmarked to sustain the Board of Elections' efforts to expand and defend voters' participation. The Council will give its response to de Blasio's preliminary budget in April, requesting that he include more funding for certain agencies and initiatives in his Executive Budget.

While urging the City Council for more funding, however, representatives of the BOE are expected to be aggressively probed by the committee members on a number of issues. One of these is the capacity of the BOE to ensure its Electronic Voting System will work efficiently.

During the budget hearing in 2014, Greenfield pointed out the electronic machines voters use to cast their ballots have stalled in the past, creating problems at poll sites.

Another object of scrutiny will be the Board of Elections' hiring process. The city Department of Investigation has suggested the agency run a background check on every worker it hires during an election.

Ryan, however, said that while the agency does already perform a criminal background screening of its full-time employees, the same procedure would be difficult to implement in the case of the 36,000 poll workers who are hired temporarily. Ryan took over at the BOE not long before the 2013 city elections took place.

Kallos said long-standing issues at the Board of Elections will ultimately get fixed.

"There has been some forward movement and some stagnation," he told Gotham Gazette in an email. In response, he said, he will push forward the necessary reforms to eradicate "nepotism and patronage" from the agency.

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by Marco Poggio, Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette

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8 Government Ops Agencies to Face Council Questions Wed, 18 Mar 2015 21:28:29 +0000