Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/1873 Wed, 21 Nov 2018 21:01:15 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Fusion, Spoilers, and New York's Many Ballot Lines http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7656-fusion-spoilers-and-new-york-s-many-ballot-lines http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7656-fusion-spoilers-and-new-york-s-many-ballot-lines Cuomo voting 2017 primary

Gov. Cuomo voting (photo: Governor's Office)


New York’s unique fusion voting system is again in the spotlight this year, with renewed attention in the wake of Cynthia Nixon’s insurgent challenge for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination against Governor Andrew Cuomo, with the potential for vote-splitting on the left leading to a Republican victory in November. Cuomo and Nixon have each now been endorsed by a minor party with automatic general election ballot access, even as they vie for the big prize of the Democratic nomination.

Fusion voting, which allows candidates to combine the votes they receive from appearing on multiple ballot lines, is used in only eight states. But it takes its highest profile in New York, where numerous minor parties can cross-endorse rather than all having to run their own nominees, and still keep their own line on the ballot. Parties can secure a ballot line by having their gubernatorial nominee secure 50,000 votes statewide in the general election.

In New York, fusion voting has often led to individual candidates appearing on multiple ballot lines, whereby the minor parties do not threaten to play a spoiler role by costing a major party nominee victory by siphoning a determinative number of votes. For example, the Republican and Conservative parties often back the same candidates for various offices, and they appear set to do so again in this year’s gubernatorial race, behind Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro.

Governor Cuomo has appeared on several ballots lines in his runs for office over the years, including on the Democratic, Working Families, Women’s Equality, and Independence Party lines during his 2014 reelection. This year, however, the Working Families Party has backed Cynthia Nixon, who hopes to defeat Cuomo in the Democratic primary, but may appear on the general election ballot regardless and therefore risk pulling a decisive number of votes from Cuomo in the general election. Having earned the backing of the Independence Party this year, Cuomo could do similarly if Nixon has the Democratic Party nomination.

The Green Party, which typically fields its own candidates, could also play a role, pulling some voters on the left. This year it is again nominating for governor Howie Hawkins, who received over 184,000 votes in 2014. The Reform Party and Women’s Equality Party have yet to settle on a nominee.

The practice of fusion voting was common in the 19th and early 20th centuries, as a means for minor organizing arms to defeat powerful Tammany Hall machine candidates. These tickets sometimes worked: the second mayor of the consolidated City of New York, Seth Low, defeated Tammany Hall Democrat Edward Shepard on a fusion Republican-Citizens Union ticket in 1901.

The Wilson-Pakula Law of 1947, passed allegedly to disempower the American Labor Party, which was accused of having ties to communists, prevented candidates from running in the primaries for different parties; instead, a candidate must gain permission from the minor party that they’re not registered with in order to run on their ballot line. The alleged ties to communists caused ALP members to flock to the newer Liberal Party, which did not face the same allegations; the Democrats and Republicans did not want to grant their line to members of the ALP.

Cuomo criticized the Wilson-Pakula Law in 2013 after it came under scrutiny following Senator Malcolm Smith’s alleged attempt to bribe his way onto the Republican line. Some have called for repeal of the law, but so far efforts at repeal have gone nowhere in Albany.

The minor parties gain prominence unseen in most other states due to their ability to influence the major parties, and often act more like advocacy organizations than vast political organizing machines, though some have party infrastructure. According to Gerald Benjamin, a political scientist and the Director of SUNY New Paltz’s Benjamin Center, this has made New York’s politics more ideological and polarized.

“There are people who believe that periphery-oriented politics is desirable,” Benjamin said. “Pulling to the left and right is desirable. I think pulling to the center is desirable, having a two-party system that contains the conflict within that system is centrist.” He said that the system, in a way, is “mischievous” in empowering a minority of ideologically-inclined voters to have outsized influence on the process. As such, instead of allowing for more representation on the ballot, the third parties give their lines to major candidates and influence the platform and positions of the major parties and candidates.

Benjamin also says that the parties have become more prominent over time, though not to the degree they were in the 19th century.

“Their significance is higher than in the recent past,” Benjamin said, though he noted that the parties often have disparate periods of high significance, such as when James Buckley was elected to the U.S. Senate on only the Conservative line in 1970 or when John Lindsay won the New York City mayoralty on the Liberal line in 1969. “There have been peak moments. But systemically, and through politics at all levels, I think they’re at a pretty high level of significance relatively to history.”

Though there have been minor party successes for New York City mayor and U.S. senator, none has ever alone elected a governor of New York. The Democrats and Republicans have controlled the governorship exclusively since Whig Party member Myron Clark left office in 1856. The Whigs were one of the two major parties in the U.S. before being replaced by the Republicans in the 1850s.

The liberal Working Families Party (WFP), a coalition of left-wing activist groups and labor unions, is one of the more prominent minor parties in New York. The WFP typically cross-endorses the Democratic nominee and attempts to pull its nominees to the left. Cuomo and the WFP recently split dramatically after several activist groups involved with the party endorsed Nixon for governor, which led to unions leaving the party to side with Cuomo, reportedly at his behest. The unions have provided key funding to those activist groups, whose futures are at risk, along with the larger WFP, which is taking a significant gamble on Nixon.

Cuomo and the WFP have a rocky history. Cuomo initially declined the WFP endorsement in 2010 but eventually agreed to take the line, despite their platforms not being wholly aligned, especially on the issue of taxation. As such, the WFP won 50,000 votes and retained statewide ballot access.

The WFP had more leverage over Cuomo in 2014, when the party agreed to endorse him over liberal challenger Zephyr Teachout in exchange for a pledge to unify the Senate Democrats and support a more progressive platform. Cuomo did not follow through on the agreement, and also created the Women’s Equality Party, whose acronym, WEP, is very similar to WFP. His campaign urged supporters to vote for him on the Democratic or WEP lines, omitting the WFP from get-out-the-vote emails.

Having endorsed Nixon over Cuomo this year, some have raised the possibility of a vote split on the left that could land Molinaro in the Governor’s Mansion. WFP Political Director Bill Lipton, in response, declared that the party didn’t intend to act as a spoiler, telling the Associated Press that in the event Nixon loses the primary, she would “meet with our leaders, and we will make a decision that puts the interests of working families first.” However, Lipton does not think that will happen anyway.

“The more voters learn about Cynthia's progressive values, the more they like her,” Lipton told Gotham Gazette in an email. “Working Families feels confident Cynthia will win the Democratic Primary in September and go on to be both the Working Families and Democratic Nominees in November. The real problem is Andrew Cuomo being a spoiler. It looks like he will have the WEP and Independence Party lines - what happens when he loses the Democratic primary - is he willing to be a spoiler and elect a Republican Governor?”

The Independence Party has indeed endorsed Cuomo for the third election in a row, landing him on the November ballot no matter what. He is also likely to receive the nomination of the WEP, with the new party leader telling Politico that it’s “very likely the party will support Cuomo’s reelection bid.” Neither the Independence Party nor the WEP responded to requests for comment for this story.

Nixon has taken notice of Cuomo’s Independence Party endorsement. When asked about being a potential spoiler in Buffalo, she flipped the script, according to the Buffalo News.

“Why is nobody asking Andrew Cuomo that question, who is running on the Independence line and the Women’s Equality line he created,” Nixon said.

The Cuomo campaign did not respond to requests for comment from Gotham Gazette.

“Could he win without the Democrat line? Maybe,” Professor Benjamin said, while noting that the governor losing the Democratic primary would be an unlikely scenario and that a continued run would be based on a future calculation by Cuomo. The most recent poll, from Quinnipiac University, has Cuomo leading Nixon by 28 points. However, Benjamin conceded that Donald Trump winning the Republican nomination for president was also initially seen as exceedingly unlikely.

The Independence Party has had significant showings in both of Cuomo’s elections: in 2010, it received 146,576 votes statewide, while in 2014 it received 77,762, according to the State Board of Elections. In both instances, however, it was bested by the Working Families Party in vote count.

The Independence Party is, however, by far the largest third party in New York State based on enrollment. According to the State Board of Elections’ Annual Report for 2016, the most recent year available, the Independence Party had 501,738 registered voters in the state, outnumbering the second largest, the Conservative Party, by almost 340,000 voters. WFP had 50,039 registered voters. The Independence Party’s high membership, despite a relatively low electoral profile, is due in no small part to people mistakenly registering as Independence when meaning to register as unaffiliated, or “independent,” as shown by the Daily News in 2012.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has derided the Independence Party as a “bizarre and fractious political group” that “survives on confusion” of people thinking they’re registering as independent. The editorial board urged Cuomo to reject its endorsement in 2014 in order to cause the party to lose its automatic place on the ballot; Cuomo did not do that.

Unlike the WFP, the Independence Party has not committed to endorsing either the Democratic or Republican nominee in the event that Cuomo loses the primary; as such, Cuomo could theoretically continue his campaign as the Independence nominee if he loses the Democratic primary. However, like a potential Nixon campaign as the WFP nominee, a Cuomo Independence campaign against Nixon and Molinaro would allow the possibility of a vote split that would likely send Molinaro to Albany.

Cuomo’s stormy history with minor parties goes back a long way. In 2002, he was endorsed for governor by the Liberal Party, but dropped out of the race before the Democratic primary. He remained on the party’s line for the general election, where he failed to receive 50,000 votes and thus the Liberal Party lost its automatic place on the ballot. Historically a vehicle for candidates with the backing of labor unions, the party ceded that ground to the WFP and has not appeared on the gubernatorial ballot since Cuomo’s 2002 run.

Things are looking less tense on the Republican side. Molinaro appears to have consolidated support among the state’s GOP establishment; he recently won the endorsement of the Conservative Party, and his main competition for that and the Republican nomination, State Senator John DeFrancisco, recently pulled out of the race.

There’s also the Reform Party, which has a history of maverick actions and public stunts by its founder and leader, Curtis Sliwa. Last year, the party publicly urged Preet Bharara to run for either mayor or governor; Bharara, the former U.S. Attorney who was fired by President Donald Trump, has instead become a renowned podcaster.

Now, the party is apparently split on endorsing either Molinaro or former Erie County Executive Joel Giambra, who mounted a brief campaign for the Republican nomination before dropping out. According to the Daily News, the party has “punted” the decision to its May 19 party convention in Queens; if the party can’t make a decision there, it will hold a primary in September. In late April, it was reported that Sliwa himself was considering a run, saying he had “no other choice” if doctors give him a “clean bill of health.” Democrats and Republicans will hold their nominating conventions toward the end of May.

“There was a motion made to table consideration of the Governor's race until the state convention so that all of the state committee members could speak with the candidates,” Frank Morano, a spokesman for the Reform Party, told Gotham Gazette.

The party has its own outsized role in New York politics compared to its membership; according to the 2016 BOE report, the Reform Party has only 900 registered members in all of New York State.

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by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

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Fusion, Spoilers, and New York's Many Ballot Lines Thu, 03 May 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Can the De Blasio Administration Really Register 1.5 Million More Voters? http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/7522-can-the-de-blasio-administration-really-register-1-5-million-more-voters http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/7522-can-the-de-blasio-administration-really-register-1-5-million-more-voters Mayor de Blasio voting

Mayor de Blasio voting (photo: Samar Khurshid/Gotham Gazette)


New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio recently announced a DemocracyNYC plan. One big goal: “to register 1.5 million New Yorkers to vote over the next four years.”
To make this work the mayor will create a new city leadership post: Chief Democracy Officer. How hard will it be for this new chief to meet the mayor’s goal?

Let’s do some rough math, based upon recent enrollment, census, and vital statistics data:

According to estimates in the most recent American Community Survey, there were 5,402,352 citizens of voting age in New York City in 2016 (plus or minus 22,325).

According to the state Board of Elections, in November of 2017 there were 5,053,842 registered voters in the city. That’s 93.5% of the eligible citizens.

Let’s make two initial assumptions to maximize the number of potential additional registrants among those of voting age now to make the CDO’s job more possible. First we’ll put aside reasons for disqualification other than age that would further reduce the number of those eligible but not registered (in prison or on parole for a felony, judged mentally incompetent by a court, voting elsewhere). Second, we’ll add that 22,325 to the estimate – that is, make the high side assumption of the number of age- eligible citizens while remaining within the statistical range of error.

That results in 370,835 citizens who are of voting age now and not registered.

Additionally, there are about 372,000 teenagers in New York City who will reach the age of 18 in the next four years. Of all people in the city over the age of 18, about four in five (80.5%) are citizens. The percentage of citizens among younger people, many born here of immigrant parents, is likely higher. They are not all citizens, but again let’s count more rather than fewer as likely to be eligible to register to vote: 9 in 10 of them. That would be 334,800.

That brings the available target total of potential new registrants to 705,635.

People from elsewhere in the country or living abroad (but not new immigrants) will move into and out of the city during the mayor’s second term. For now let’s just consider those moving in. Some will be children. Some won’t be citizens. A high side assumption from past experience of the number who can be registered: 200,000.

That brings us to 905,635 potential registrants.

Uh oh. We are 594,365 short.

Of course there are all those people who move within the city. They change their addresses. They need to re-register. Maybe the mayor meant to include them; he did not say the Chief Democracy Officer would have to find “new” registrants. So let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. Again we have to watch out for kids, non-citizens, and those already included in our count as not registered. Estimating from federal statistics on people moving annually within and between counties for 2011-2015, it looks like 483,000 is a reasonable number.

Still not there: 1,388,022 (OK, though, we’re getting within shouting distance). To meet the mayor’s goal the Chief Democracy Officer must find about 112,000 more people eligible to register in the next four years, and register them all. Where?

But wait a minute, that’s just the additions. How about the subtractions?

The Empire Center and others have noted that New York City’s population continues to grow every year because immigrants from abroad outnumber the many already living here who are leaving. Less noticed, most of those leaving are voters or vote-eligible, while those who are arriving are non-citizens. A conservative estimate is that 189,000 actual or potential registrants will move out of the city over the next four years.

Finally, there’s mortality. About 212,000 New Yorkers will die during Mayor de Blasio’s second term, more than 95% of whom are voting age. Of course, some - probably a smaller portion than for the city population as a whole - will be non-citizens. A reasonable, conservative estimate is that death will reduce New York City’s potential electorate by 171,000.

One-hundred-eighty-nine thousand plus 171,000 equals 360,000. Departure and mortality will reduce the city’s potential electorate in the next four years by about 6.5%.

Implications:
-Registering 1.5 million people to vote in New York City over the next four years is an impossible dream.

-Registering all of the age-eligible citizens now in the city won’t significantly expand the current electorate; it will keep it about the same size.

-The largest pool of potential registrants during Mayor de Blasio’s second term is comprised of people living in the city who are already registered, but changed their addresses.

-It would be truly extraordinary if the city’s voting roles grew by half-a-million registrants in the next four years.

The bottom line: If I were asked to be the new Chief Democracy Officer, the first thing I’d do is some serious counting. Then I’d call the mayor, to renegotiate the voter registration goal.

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Gerald Benjamin is Director of The Benjamin Center at SUNY New Paltz.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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Can the De Blasio Administration Really Register 1.5 Million More Voters? Tue, 06 Mar 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Previewing Cuomo’s 2018 State of the State http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7391-previewing-cuomo-s-2018-state-of-the-state http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7391-previewing-cuomo-s-2018-state-of-the-state Cuomo State of the State Long Island

Gov. Cuomo (photo via The Governor's Office)


Governor Andrew Cuomo is set to deliver his 2018 State of the State address on Wednesday in Albany, at which he will outline his policy agenda for the year, his eighth as governor. A Democrat who plans to seek a third term later in the year, Cuomo has been rolling out planks of his State of the State agenda in the weeks leading up to the speech.

As of Wednesday morning, Cuomo had officially announced 22 pieces of the agenda, each in a separate press release from his office, some in conjunction with public events. They range from statewide proposals like environmental protections to more local topics, like fighting the MS-13 gang on Long Island, and also include promises to take away gun rights from domestic abusers, criminalize “revenge porn” and “sextortion,” invest further in his program to revitalize local downtown areas, and reevaluate the lower minimum wage allowed for workers who regularly receive tips. Most of the 22 planks have several parts that at times cover a lot of ground.

These announcements have come as Cuomo has been working to preempt, then react to recently-passed federal tax reform legislation that is opposed by New Yorkers across the political spectrum. While he’s put forth his initial 2018 agenda items, Cuomo has also been working to mitigate the effects of the tax reforms, which will likely force many New Yorkers to pay higher overall taxes, with measures such as allowing property tax prepayments.

Along with what he’s announced so far, there are a number of topics the governor is expected to address either through his State of the State speech or the policy book that typically accompanies it. That policy agenda, in combination with his executive budget proposal, also due in January, forms the initial blueprint for bargaining with the Legislature.

Cuomo's 18th plank came on Tuesday morning and deals with combating sexual harassment in workplaces, including throughout state government. Cuomo had indicated the would unveil comprehensive sexual misconduct legislation that strengthens harassment and discrimination laws in all industries, a response to the ongoing national reckoning, which has touched high-profile Cuomo donors Harvey Weinstein and Mario Batali as well as a now-former member of Cuomo’s administration, Sam Hoyt.

The governor recently made waves when he defensively responded to a reporter who asked him what he was going to do to root out sexual misconduct in state government. Speaking with a group of journalists, Cuomo told the female reporter who asked the question that singling out state government did a “disservice to women” because there are problems across industries and sectors. Cuomo vowed to deal with the issue holistically and said to look for plans during the State of the State. The governor’s response drew widespread criticism and he made efforts to clarify his intent while he also called to apologize to the reporter, Karen DeWitt of upstate public radio.

According to SUNY New Paltz political scientist Gerald Benjamin, Cuomo must further address the new tax code, signed into law by Republican President Donald Trump just before Christmas, while he also seeks attention for his other plans.

“The run-up to the State of the State is being overpowered by the debate over the federal tax changes. So, it’s taking the headlines and the governor is directly involved, when he’s using terms like ‘traitor’ to describe people,” said Benjamin. “The purpose of the early release of these items, one proposal at a time, is to control and direct the news flow. It’s a classic practice that has gone on over decades in New York.”

Cuomo recently told CNN hosts that even as he considers a legal challenge to the federal tax overhaul, “We're going to propose a restructuring of our tax code.”

“I'm not even sure what they did is legal or constitutional and that's something we're looking at now,” Cuomo added, referring to federal lawmakers. He said that the ways in which the reforms targeted heavily Democratic states like New York and California that have higher state and local taxes could be grounds for legal action.

Another piece of his agenda that Cuomo has already announced is his “Democracy Project,” which includes several measures to make online political advertisements more transparent; secure elections from cyberattacks, and improve New Yorkers’ access to the ballot box through measures like early voting.

The governor has not yet released any proposals around government ethics or campaign finance reform, which are annual topics of controversy in Albany. When Cuomo announced the Democracy Project, Gotham Gazette inquired whether New Yorkers should expect campaign finance and government ethics reform proposals from the governor. A spokesperson did not give an indication either way, but said the governor is committed to seeing his election reforms pass.

Cuomo has proposed such measures every year he has been governor, with some measures and half-measures passing on several occasions. But they have not stemmed the tide of corruption in state government. The spotlight will again be on Cuomo to make headway this year as several of his close associates are facing trial in early 2018 for their roles in an alleged bid-rigging scheme tied to Cuomo’s signature economic development programs.

“There may be a degree of uncertainty in this session because of the monumental scope and character of recent events, but the ethics question is going to be very important,” said Benjamin.

Voting, government ethics, and campaign finance reforms are among many of Cuomo’s 2017 policy proposals that did not materialize last year, either due to resistance from the Legislature, a lack of more aggressive lobbying by the governor, or other challenges.

While it was not part of his agenda last year, Cuomo has indicated that a congestion pricing plan for the New York City region will be part of his 2018 agenda, and he empaneled a commission to make recommendations that are due soon. The governor may release the details of his proposal as part of his State of the State, with the goals of reducing congestion on city streets, especially in Manhattan, and funding MTA repairs, but he may also wait for later in the year. There are host of other issues Cuomo may look to address, including major areas like affordable housing, education, and health care.

Ahead of Cuomo’s 2018 address, Gotham Gazette asked legislative leaders for what they would like to see on the governor’s agenda. Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins -- who is in talks with Cuomo and members of the Independent Democratic Conference about a potential reunification deal if Democrats can secure a numerical majority in 2018 -- noted that New York faces a difficult economic reality due to actions taken by Trump and Republican lawmakers in Washington, D.C.

“We must find more ways to protect taxpayers and create good jobs, ensure access to quality, affordable healthcare for all New Yorkers, protect women's rights, ensure our education system receives the resources it deserves, repair and fully fund our decaying infrastructure and MTA, and stand up for vulnerable communities under attack by the Trump Administration,” she said. “We have a lot of work ahead of us, and Senate Democrats will push for action to be taken immediately.”

Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, who was the first Republican to announce that he is running for governor in 2018, took aim at Cuomo.

“The priority in 2018 must be on setting an agenda that helps New Yorkers, rather than setting an agenda that helps presidential ambitions,” said Kolb, referring to Cuomo’s apparent interest in a 2020 presidential campaign. “We have an affordability problem that’s driving residents and businesses to other states. The growing infrastructure crisis is making everyday life more difficult for millions of New Yorkers. Endless unfunded mandates from Albany continue to drive up local property tax burdens. Billions in taxpayer dollars are spent on job-creation programs, with little return on investment. Government accountability and transparency have been ignored for too long. These are the priorities of the Assembly Minority Conference and I hope the governor and our legislative colleagues agree that they demand our immediate attention.”

Spokespeople for Republican Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan and Democratic Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie did not return requests for comment. While an IDC spokesperson did not return a request for comment, the IDC did unveil on Thursday its 2018 state budget agenda -- a spending plan for next fiscal year is due by its April 1 start.

Among other things, the breakaway group of eight Democratic senators led by Sen. Jeff Klein of the Bronx is calling for early voting, no-excuse absentee voting, dedicating a portion of New York City sales taxes toward MTA repairs, tax relief for many New Yorkers, and protecting health insurance for children from poor families.

In a statement accompanying release of the agenda, Klein said that the “budget addresses issues...we can advance to improve participation in our elections, enhance our children’s education, protect our workers, upgrade our infrastructure, and help our immigrant communities. As one state we must unite around passing a budget that achieves these goals that transcend party lines.”

As for Gov. Cuomo, he is returning this year to the typical State of the State address in Albany after he gave six smaller addresses around the state last year, finishing in Albany, which had been a break from tradition.

A running list of Cuomo’s 2018 proposals unveiled so far:

1. Removing firearms from domestic abusers - the legislation would build on existing restriction on gun ownership which currently only bars gun ownership from individuals convicted of a felony domestic abuse, not those convicted of a misdemeanor.
2. Protect the environment, protect the Hudson River - Governor Cuomo and Attorney General Eric Schneiderman will take immediate action to sue the federal government if the Environmental Protection Agency deems the Hudson River PCB dredging complete.
3. Round three of the Downtown Revitalization Initiative - Invest $100 Million in 10 Economic Development Regions and build upon first two rounds of downtown revitalization awards.
4. Cutting off the recruitment pipeline to eradicate MS-13 - A five-point plan to improve access to social programs, like after-school education and job training for at-risk youth. Additional support for unaccompanied minors and bolstered law enforcement in gang hotspots.
5. Examine eliminating the minimum wage tip credit to strengthen economic justice in New York State - Cuomo will direct the Commissioner of Labor to hold hearings to evaluate eliminating tip credit.
6. Continue to reduce the local property tax burden by making the state’s county shared services panels permanent - state funding for local government performance aid will now be conditioned on shared services panels.
7. Major investment to accelerate improvement at Niagara Falls Wastewater Treatment Plant - Invest $20 million to launch phase one of treatment plant overhaul to protect water quality. Commit $500,000 to accelerate studies of outfall, facility upgrades required by consent order issued by DEC.
8. New York will take legal action to halt a rail operator's plan to store thousands of railcars indefinitely in the Adirondack Park.
9. Fossil fuel divestment - Calling on New York State Common Retirement Fund to cease all new investment in entities with significant fossil fuel-related activities and develop a decarbonization plan for divesting from fossil fuels.
10. Bringing the New York Islanders home with a world-class sports and entertainment destination at Belmont Park - Internationally recognized destination will feature 18,000-seat arena, 435,000-square-foot retail and dining village, and new hotel.
11, Ending sextortion - sextortion and non-consensual pornography will be criminalized under state law and require registration as a sex offender and be punishable by jail time
12. Protecting New York’s Lakes from harmful algal blooms - a $65M investment to combat algal blooms that threaten recreational use of lakes and drinking water
13. Democracy Agenda - Protect integrity of New York Elections, require transparency for digital ads, and enact voting reforms.
14. Fast track state-of-the-art containment and treatment of U.S. Navy/Northrop Grumman contamination plume - Cites new analysis indicating it will be possible to fully contain and treat four-mile-long, two-mile-wide plume in Oyster Bay, Long Island.
15. Ensure students don’t go hungry - a five-point plan to combat hunger for students in kindergarten through college including requiring breakfast after the bell in schools, creating more pathways to healthy eating in schools, and ending practices that shame students who cannot afford school lunch.
16. Take further action to fight the burden of student loan debt. Planks include appointing a Student Loan Ombudsman; requiring colleges to provide simple 'truth in lending' facts for students; and increasing consumer protection standards throughout the student loan industry.
17. Invest $34 million to modernize and expand Stewart International Airport in Orange County. Cuomo proposes the Port Authority approve the investment, which would increase access to the Mid-Hudson Valley via construction of a permanent U.S. Customs and Border Protection federal inspection station, which would allow for both domestic and international flights. Cuomo is also proposing modernization efforts for the airport.
18. Combat sexual harassment in the workplace. "Cuomo will propose legislation to prevent public dollars from being used to settle sexual harassment claims against individuals, void forced arbitration policies in employee contracts, and mandate that any companies that do business with the state disclose the number of sexual harassment adjudications and nondisclosure agreements they have executed."
19. Strengthen workforce development. The governor is proposing "a comprehensive workforce development program to ensure all New Yorkers have access to training to meet growing workforce needs and continue to move New York's economy forward. The new Office of Workforce Development will implement a multi-pronged plan to strategically target local workforce needs in emerging industries across the state and help workers and businesses succeed in the 21st century economy."
20. "Combat climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and growing the clean energy economy. By further strengthening the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and welcoming new state members, New York will continue its progress in slashing emissions from existing fossil fuel power plants. In addition, unprecedented commitments announced today to advance clean energy technologies, including offshore wind, solar, energy storage and energy efficiency, will spur market development and create jobs across the state."
21. Taking steps to revitalize Red Hook. "[C]alling on the Port Authority and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to study potential options for relocating and improving maritime activities and enhancing transportation access to Brooklyn's Red Hook neighborhood."
22. Overhaul the state's criminal justice system. "This comprehensive package - the most progressive set of reforms in the nation -- will guarantee fairness for the accused by reshaping New York's antiquated bail system, ensuring access to a speedy trial, improving the disclosure of evidence in the discovery process, transforming asset forfeiture procedures and implementing new initiatives to help individuals transition from incarceration to their communities."

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By Rachel Silberstein and Ben Max

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article will be updated as the governor's office releases more proposals ahead of his speech.

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Previewing Cuomo’s 2018 State of the State Thu, 28 Dec 2017 05:00:00 +0000
Defeated on Con Con, Gerald Benjamin Plots His Next Move http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7319-defeated-on-con-con-gerald-benjamin-plots-his-next-move http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7319-defeated-on-con-con-gerald-benjamin-plots-his-next-move Gerald Benjamin SUNY

Gerald Benjamin


“It was a devastating defeat,” said Gerald Benjamin, wounds still fresh from a blowout he had, in his seventies, worked very hard to avoid. “The size of the defeat upset me more than the fact of the defeat,” he added, referring to the overwhelming vote against holding a New York state constitutional convention.

“I really think that this was a major missed opportunity,” Benjamin said by phone Monday, less than a week after New York voters decided 83 percent to 17 percent not to hold a convention to amend the state’s most powerful governing document. “The nature of the opportunity was misunderstood; the nature of the risk was miscalculated,” said Benjamin, from New Paltz, where he continues his work at the State University of New York, leading the Benjamin Center for Public Policy Initiatives, which was renamed after him in 2015.

The constitutional convention vote result was despite Benjamin’s best efforts, barnstorming the state giving talks and participating in debates, explaining the once-in-a-generation opportunity to truly reform state government. He’s advocated for a constitutional convention for decades, including ahead of the last every-20-years vote, in 1997, which also resulted in no gathering to debate the structures and mandates of state law.

Benjamin believes that the state constitution desperately needs modernization, the court system needs to be redesigned, and a host of changes should be made to how state government functions, including rebalancing of power between the executive and legislative branches, term limits for state legislators, and more, like home rule and campaign finance reforms.

“I did my best. I don’t feel I could’ve done anything more,” Benjamin said. “I was glad I got to vote ‘yes.’ In retrospect I felt disappointed by the margin.”

Asked if he had felt like he was voting for himself on the ballot, Benjamin laughed, and commented that the questioner appeared to be pushing him toward sentimentality. Throughout the campaign leading up to Election Day, Benjamin had regularly said that this would be the last opportunity for a convention “in my lifetime.” He’s now actively plotting his next moves toward reform.

While Benjamin and other scholars and reformers were for calling a convention, in large part to pursue changes that entrenched powers have been unwilling to consider, the opposition to a convention was an immense coalition of labor unions, civil rights and environmental groups, and others, including many on both sides of the political aisle, with a few exceptions. They vastly outspent the “yes” side, using a campaign of fear (that pensions would be stripped or natural preserves unprotected) to drive members and activists to the polls to flip over the ballot and vote “no” on proposition one.

“Those are the right were being rational,” Benjamin said, noting that Republicans are a dwindling minority in New York. “Those on the left, I don’t know.” Benjamin expressed what was a fairly common belief, that labor unions, civil rights groups, environmentalists, and allies of each were being too cynical in their opposition, that they could easily dominate a constitutional convention, which, if approved, would have taken place in 2019, with its proposals likely to be on the November 2020 ballot for voters to approve or vote down.

In 2018, there would have been delegate elections, a process some, including Governor Andrew Cuomo, pointed to as problematic, since there are no rules restricting current officeholders or their associates from running, and no campaign finance rules beyond the porous state-level ones. Cuomo had expressed support for holding a convention in the past, but that had all but vanished by the start of this year.

“I think he made the political calculation and acted in accord with it,” Benjamin said of Cuomo. “It had to do with ambition for himself and ambition for his program. And he’s good at that.I’m not condemnatory of a man making a political judgement...but I’m disappointed, it wasn’t a profile in courage. It’s indicative that the path is so narrow.”

As for the concern from Cuomo and others about the delegate election process, Benjamin said one way to negate that issue in the future is to move legislation well ahead of the next convention vote, due for 2037.

“Conversations have just started to make that happen and make some other things happen constitutionally,” Benjamin said, explaining that he is already facing the reality dealt to him on Election Day. “I’m not sitting here being discouraged,” he said.

Instead, he is talking with others about how to make changes, related to both the convention process and, perhaps more importantly, key aspects of state governance. ”I certainly will help pressure the Legislature,” Benjamin said, noting that he is not optimistic, but that not trying isn’t an option. “You can’t do anything without having a proposal...you have to have a bill, something beyond an idea. We are going to keep the conversation going in some measure.”

Reforms that would have been sought at a convention can be approached piecemeal, whether it is electoral reforms like early voting or a campaign finance system.

As for the 2017 vote that wasn’t, despite the political moment, wherein New Yorkers have little faith in state government after seeing corruption scandal after corruption scandal, Benjamin said “At the end of the day, it was a harder test than I thought it was from a political point of view.” But, he added, while “We were really outgunned, in retrospect that wasn’t really the problem.’

Benjamin cited “one structural and one operational” deficit his side faced. One on hand, he noted that with all the rights and protections that have been added to the constitution over many years, including some at constitutional conventions, ”every increment of positive rights that were added created a constituency to protect that the document wouldn’t be changed...it’s very powerful politically that aggregation of interests in favor of not opening the document.”

Second, he said, “The nature of the question doesn’t tell late-arriving people that they are talking about the state constitution.” The wording of the ballot question, which is mandated by the current constitution, does not indicate whether the convention would deal with the state or federal constitution, and people with little background knowledge may be worried that the much-revered federal constitution could be on the chopping block.

Benjamin cited the organized effort of the opposition, as well as the shifting poll numbers that helped convince many that the proposition would not pass as the vote approached, and what he called a “really problematic” and “poorly argued editorial” by The New York Times editorial board, which advocated voting “no.”

Steadfast that he’s nowhere near done seeking reform and improvement to state government structure and process, Benjamin said it’s hard to see a constitutional convention being approved in the future. “I can’t imagine the conditions that would arise, even the crisis conditions, in that case we’d address the crisis,” he said.

But, he added, “Who knows what opportunities circumstances will present.”

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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Defeated on Con Con, Gerald Benjamin Plots His Next Move Mon, 13 Nov 2017 05:00:00 +0000
What’s The [DATA] Point? 1936 http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7263-what-s-the-data-point-1936 http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7263-what-s-the-data-point-1936 whats the data point


What’s The [Data] Point? Episode 16 - 1936, with Gerald Benjamin of SUNY New Paltz  [You can download What's The [Data] Point? wherever you get your podcasts, including on iTunes]

geraldbOn Election Day, November 7, New Yorkers will be asked whether the state should hold a constitutional convention. It is a quesion that appears on the ballot every 20 years, mandated by the current constitution, and allows voters to simply answer "yes" or "no." Gerald Benjamin, a distinguished scholar from SUNY New Paltz and proponent of calling a convention, joined the podcast to discuss the controversial topic that has many in New York focused on either securing approval or voting it down. The data point, 1936, was the last time New York voters approved a Con Con, as it is often called. Benjamin believes this is the year the "yes" side could win again, and he explains both why New Yorkers should vote in favor and many of the issues surrounding the question.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think: Ben Max of GG (@TweetBenMax) & CBC (@cbcny) Listen below or download wherever you get your podcasts!

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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What’s The [DATA] Point? 1936 Thu, 19 Oct 2017 04:00:00 +0000
10 Bold or Bizarre Proposals for a New York Constitutional Convention http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/6967-10-bold-or-bizarre-proposals-for-a-new-york-constitutional-convention http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/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
The Evolving Powers of the New York Attorney General http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/6939-the-evolving-powers-of-the-new-york-attorney-general http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/6939-the-evolving-powers-of-the-new-york-attorney-general schneiderman cuomo attorney general

Cuomo & Schneiderman (photo: The Governor's Office)


The office of New York Attorney General has recently become one of the most high-profile law enforcement jobs in the country, and a springboard to the Governor’s Mansion, with its own heightened powers and prestige. Both Eliot Spitzer and Andrew Cuomo jumped from Attorney General to Governor of New York after tenures marked by major prosecutorial victories, and there is plenty of talk that current A.G. Eric Schneiderman -- one of the leading national opponents of President Donald Trump through his litigation efforts -- has his eyes on a similar leap.

But this outsized role for the New York Attorney General, the head of the Law Department and the chief lawyer representing the state, hasn’t always been so -- in fact, the move to law enforcement leader prosecuting major public corruption, financial industry malfeasance, and other cases is a new phenomenon largely ushered in by Spitzer.

The New York State Constitution actually has very little to say about the Attorney General. The document outlines, in detail, the powers of the Governor, Lieutenant-Governor, and State Comptroller, the other elected offices in the executive branch, but the Attorney General’s power is mostly derived from statutes rather than the state constitution itself.

The Constitution doesn’t spell out the Attorney General’s power of enforcement, but rather, lists some of the office’s clerical duties. The document states that the Attorney General is to be elected “at the same general election as the governor and hold office for the same term,” that the Attorney General shall be the head of the Law Department, that the AG shall render opinions on proposed constitutional amendments prior to a vote in the Assembly and Senate, and that state money and measures violating the constitution can be restrained “on notice” of the AG “at the suit of the people.”

The actual enforcement and prosecutorial power against crime in the Constitution is endowed in District Attorneys. The Attorney General would focus on defending both the state of New York and the people of the state of New York. For example, Schneiderman’s office created a “Taxpayer Protection Bureau” to more diligently root out abuses, fraud, and theft committed against taxpayers whether it be through fraud in government programs, investments, or contracts.

But the Attorney General has gradually become a regulator rather than chief lawyer. Schneiderman’s tenure has seen crackdowns on tenant abuse by landlords, on malfeasance and opacity in the nonprofit sector, and on daily fantasy sports leagues like DraftKings, to name a few things; his office filed the initial lawsuit against Trump University, the President’s fraudulent college; he refused to join a settlement with the Obama administration and all other State Attorneys General over fraudulent mortgage dealings by banks, believing that more could be attained. He turned out to be correct.

This kind of outsize visibility and power has been building for some time.

According to Gerald Benjamin, the director of the Benjamin Center at SUNY New Paltz and a leading expert on state constitutions, especially New York’s, the Attorney General "was empowered without the constitution," but instead in common law, to become what it is today. The original intent of the position was to be the state’s chief lawyer, while prosecutorial power would be delineated to the various district attorneys. But various AGs -- more so recently -- have sought instead to be high profile prosecutors due to the visibility and political capital that such a role can bring.

The office is elected separately from the governor, like in most other states, and enjoys a certain sense of independence from the chief executive. However, the attorney general can be empowered in certain areas by the governor, such as Governor Cuomo using an executive order to assign Eric Schneiderman with prosecutorial authority over some potential police misconduct, a plan opposed by four out of five of New York City’s District Attorneys at the time it was proposed. (Some have suggested that DAs are too close with local police departments to impartially review improper use of deadly force by police; at the time Schneiderman requested that Cuomo grant him the additional power in such cases, Daniel Pantaleo, the police officer whose chokehold killed Eric Garner, had recently escaped an indictment.)

According to Richard Rifkin, special counsel to the New York State Bar Association who formerly worked under Attorneys General Robert Abrams and Eliot Spitzer, the governor granting power to the AG doesn’t tether them together. “The governor,” he said, “once having given the attorney general the power, would not interfere with the attorney general,” referring to the AG as “truly an independent prosecutor.”

The position of attorney general has recently become something of a gubernatorial catapult. Schneiderman’s two immediate predecessors, Spitzer and Cuomo, went on to be elected governor successively. And many expect Schneiderman, who has emerged as a leading opponent of President Trump, suing and threatening to sue Trump and the administration on matters ranging from the Muslim ban to the American Health Care Act, to pursue the same path (Schneiderman has also been criticized for going after Trump so fervently, with some saying he is overstepping his bounds, while he argues that everything he has pursued related to Trump has been applicable to his work representing New York.). All three men enjoyed high profiles during their tenures in the office, due in part to their visible roles as prosecutors of the powerful, whether government officials, Wall Street firms, or even the President.

But the position hasn’t always been this way. In fact, arguably the only other New York attorney general in recent history who used the position as a springboard to a higher position in government was Jacob Javits, who was only attorney general for two years before being elected to the U.S. Senate (in fact, Javits served concurrently as U.S. senator and New York attorney general for six days in 1957).

According to Professor Benjamin, it was “relatively rare” for an attorney general to seek higher elected office, such as Governor or U.S. Senator, prior to Robert Abrams’ 1994 Senate run, which he lost to incumbent Republican Al D’Amato. Attorneys general have also more recently sought to take the lead on issues of “statewide and national importance,” such as climate change, gun control, and sanctuary cities, “the effect of [which] has been to elevate their importance in state politics” and draw more ambitious politicians to the position, Benjamin noted. While virtually any attorney general from any state could pursue such goals, New York’s size and prominence make the possibility all the more attractive and plausible for the state’s AG.

All of these attorneys general expanded their power at least partially on the basis of a single 1921 statute known as the Martin Act, which gives the New York AG vastly greater latitude in prosecuting financial crimes against shareholders.

Among “Blue Sky Laws,” which are laws designed to protect investors from securities fraud, the Martin Act is largely considered to be the toughest in the nation. That wasn’t always the case though, as New York’s blue sky law was initially weaker than that of many other states, until the New York Supreme Court determined in People v Federated Radio Corporation (1926) that the act’s purpose was to “defeat all kinds of fraud in connection with the sale of securities and commodities and to defeat all unsubstantial and visionary schemes in relation thereto whereby the public is fraudulently exploited,” even if the fraud can’t be proven to have “originated in any actual evil design or contrivance to perpetrate fraud or injury upon others.”

Spitzer’s 2002 settlement with Merrill Lynch, totaling $100 million, over conflict-of-interest allegations is seen as a pivotal point on the road to what the AG has become today. Prior to Spitzer’s tenure, it was mostly used for smaller financial violations, such as “shady pharmacists, Ponzi schemes, and peddlers of fraudulent Salvador Dali lithographs,” according to a 2004 article in Legal Affairs by Nicholas Thompson, published prior to the revelation of the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme, for which Andrew Cuomo used the Martin Act when he was attorney general.

Spitzer was no stranger to the way the office changed under his tenure, and made it central to his gubernatorial campaign. In a gubernatorial debate with Republican John Faso, Spitzer claimed that “we’ve transformed an office that once stood for very little, into an office that brought cases that reflected the values we all share. Integrity on Wall Street to protect your pensions; honesty and accountability in government to pursue fraud and recover more money in Medicaid waste than ever before; and honesty in the pharmaceutical sector to make sure that companies told you the truth about the pharmaceuticals you were using. These are the values I hope to bring to Albany.” However, once in office, Spitzer found the office to be more constricting than the A.G., leading to frequent clashes with state legislators such as then Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, and his approval ratings were already low before he resigned in disgrace due to a prostitution scandal.

Spitzer’s words have inspired his successors; rather than the A.G. being a “sleepy” job that just goes after small-time hucksters and defends the state in court, the office is now a formidable foe against powerful interests, and the attention those pursuits bring to the person at the helm can propel them to high office.

Schneiderman, who once represented financial firms in private practice, has used the Martin Act to pursue his “Insider Trading 2.0” initiative, obtaining multimillion-dollar settlements from financial institutions such as Deutsche Bank, BlackRock, and Barclays, as well as settlements with banks such as Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs over deceptive practices leading up to the financial crisis.

Beyond its use as a tool against large financial institutions, Schneiderman has used the act as a basis for a probe into ExxonMobil, arguing that its alleged failure to disclose to its shareholders and the public research that showed the potential impact of climate change constituted a Martin Act violation. Schneiderman issued a subpoena for the documents containing Exxon’s research, to which Exxon countersued. The suit was recently in the news when it was revealed that U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, formerly the CEO of Exxon, had used an alias, Wayne Tracker, in emails relating to the case that were “lost.” A court had ordered the documents to be released.

The New York AG also has leeway into how settlement funds are used. In a press release on April 11, Schneiderman announced that $20 million of funds from settlements with Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley would be used “to provide local governments with innovative technology to address and transform problem properties—including homes and buildings that are blighted, poorly maintained, vacant, abandoned, and in financial distress—that fell into disrepair following the foreclosure crisis,” as part of a program called Cities for Responsible Investment and Strategic Enforcement, or Cities RISE.

Previously, Schneiderman’s office had used settlement funds on other programs designed to assist homeowners post-housing crisis, such as the Homeowner Protection Program, providing legal services for homeowners, and the Mortgage Assistance Program, providing zero-interest loans to homeowners who are at risk of foreclosure; the office has also funded land banks with settlement money.

The use of settlement funds by Schneiderman is just one of many examples of how recent attorneys general have secured new money through investigative and prosecutorial work that they’ve then used for whatever priorities they see fit, at times expanding their office’s reach even further beyond the traditional role of AG.

Proponents of the Martin Act have noted the high rate at which financial crimes are prosecuted in New York; opponents have argued that the law has been used by attorneys general to score political points and boost political profiles, and that it’s been used improperly due to the broadness of the statute.

Paul Atkins, the head of Wall Street consulting firm Patomak Global Partners and the financial regulatory advisor to Donald Trump during his presidential transition, is an opponent of the Martin Act and other blue sky laws. He did not follow the president to the White House, however.

A referendum will appear on the ballot this November, asking New Yorkers if the state should convene a constitutional convention, which would make recommendations for potential changes to the state constitution. The last convention was held in 1967, but the state failed to accept the recommendations that emerged when they were later on another ballot referendum.

Professor Benjamin, a strong supporter of a constitutional convention, believes that the attorney general would seek to cement, even broaden, authority if the measure were to pass in November and a constitutional convention is indeed held. "I think they'd be well advised to try and get some of the powers of their office constitutionally grounded,” he said, “as the powers of the other state elected offices in New York are constitutionally grounded.”

For example, there could be discussion of granting the attorney general blanket prosecutorial jurisdiction to pursue public corruption cases against elected or appointed government officials. It is a power Cuomo sought as AG, but was not granted; and a power Schneiderman has sought as AG, but has not been granted by Cuomo.

Rifkin, meanwhile, believes that the AG, or any agency head, be they elected or appointed, should not push for codified powers in the constitution should a convention come to fruition. “That’s because the agencies need the powers that they need in this particular moment in time,” he said. “New issues come up, new problems arise, and life goes on, and when they’re locked in the constitution, government just can’t adjust to the current situation.”

[Related: How Cuomo's Special Prosecutor Order is Playing Out, 19 Months Later]

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by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

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The Evolving Powers of the New York Attorney General Wed, 17 May 2017 04:00:00 +0000
As Legislative Leaders Warn of Con Con Dangers, Good Government Groups Come Out in Favor http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/6935-as-legislative-leaders-warn-of-con-con-dangers-good-government-groups-come-out-in-favor http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/6935-as-legislative-leaders-warn-of-con-con-dangers-good-government-groups-come-out-in-favor assembly chamber via wikicommons

The Assembly (photo: wikicommons)


While legislative leaders are declaring opposition to a New York State constitutional convention, government reform organizations are trending in the other direction, with some who were wary of the idea in previous years coming out in support or considering doing so.

Leading up to the November 7 vote on whether to hold a convention, the debate is shaping up around fear of what could be taken away versus hope that the public can take a shot at democratic reform.

Republican Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan and Democratic Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, in a joint appearance in Albany on May 9, both warned of dangers posed by deep-pocketed interests from outside the state, who could potentially derail a “people’s convention.”

“I understand people’s desire to put it in the hands of the people to decide. But people are also subjected to campaigns,” Heastie said at the event at the Albany Times Union’s Hearst Media Center. “I think we should be very, very careful in exposing the constitution to the whims of someone from outside of the state who can decide to spend millions of dollars to put forward their position.”

Heastie and Flanagan, of the Bronx and Long Island, respectively, suggested that the state instead continue using piecemeal constitutional amendments to update the lengthy, outdated document. Such amendments must be passed by two consecutive legislative classes, then the public via singular ballot amendment.

Similar sentiments have been expressed by Senator Jeff Klein, leader of the Independent Democratic Conference, a breakaway group of Senate Democrats that forms a ruling coalition with the GOP, and, most recently, by Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins in an interview with The Daily News. On the other hand, Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, an upstate Republican, has for years been an outspoken proponent of holding a convention and is the only legislative conference leader in support of a “yes” vote on this year’s November ballot question as to whether New York should hold a convention to edit or rewrite its constitution.

The authors of the New York State Constitution included a provision that once every 20 years, the public would have the opportunity to completely overhaul and modernize the document. So, this Election Day, voters will vote on whether to hold a constitutional convention -- or a “con con,” as it is sometimes called -- and if the referendum passes, the people will then elect delegates, who would convene to potentially rewrite, or significantly propose modifications to the state constitution. Those proposals would then go before voters as a slate of changes to be voted up or down.

While legislative leaders are expressing their fear of a con con, a growing number of government reform advocates say it’s an opportunity to enact long-sought reforms that have been stagnant in the Legislature.

In March, for the first time in half a century, the League of Women Voters’ New York chapter endorsed a “yes” vote for the once-in-a-generation referendum, citing electoral reforms, campaign finance reform, fair legislative redistricting, and the modernization of New York’s court system as motivating factors. The League had been instrumental in the last convention, which took place in 1967, but did not produce the sweeping reforms many had hoped for, and ultimately all the proposed amendments, which were controversially presented to voters as a package deal, were voted down.

In the 1990s, the group’s board had a policy that the League would not endorse another constitutional convention unless the essential changes were made to the delegate selection and convention process. Five years ago, LWV board members agreed to modify that policy; rather than automatically opposing a convention that did not meet those requirements, the board would reconvene and consider whether to support a convention while thoroughly weighing delegate election and transparency concerns.

In 1997, the last time a con con was on the ballot, most good government groups chose to remain neutral on the ballot question, focussing instead on launching educational campaigns about the pros and cons of holding a convention, and potential issues to be addressed. Only Citizens Union, one of New York’s leading government reform organizations (and sister organization to Gotham Gazette’s publisher, Citizens Union Foundation), has consistently backed a constitutional convention, despite what was to many a disappointing outcome from the 1967 convention.

Twenty years ago, as was the case during previous con con votes, there was some momentum to back a convention prior to the vote, and public opinion polls showed significant interest. But a last-minute ad campaign by labor unions and other interest groups ultimately dissuaded voters for voting “yes” on the ballot question.

“The campaign to defeat the convention referendum has created some of the oddest political bedfellows in recent memory. The A.F.L.-C.I.O., the Conservative Party, the Sierra Club, the National Abortion Rights Action League, legislators of both parties and Change New York, the anti-tax group, were united against the measure,” wrote Richard Perez-Pena, for the New York Times, on November 5, 1997, just before the con con vote that year.

This year -- which follows a two-decade stretch that has seen dozens of elected officials leave office due to ethical or legal scandal -- there appears to be a marked shift and legislative leaders are finding themselves at odds with government reform organizations who view the convention more favorably, even those who sat out the vote in 1997.

Citizens Union is again in suppor and the League of Women Voters is not the only government reform organization reevaluating its stance. The New York State Bar Association (NYSBA), which as part of its mission seeks to raise judicial standards and reform the legal system, will discuss the issue at its upcoming House of Delegates meeting on June 17, and consider voting on whether to take a position on the ballot measure, a spokesperson has confirmed.

In February, NYSBA issued a report highlighting how a constitutional convention could streamline all aspects of New York’s bafflingly complex legal system, from traffic ticket processing to child support orders.

The League of Women Voters does still hold concerns about how a convention would be implemented, but decided the potential benefits outweigh the risks.

“We’re not saying this is the end-all and be-all, but we are going to try get all we want out of it. And there are risks, but it’s a balancing act. We asked the question: Is it worth it that we could gain more than people think might be lost? And the state League has decided yes, that it’s worth opening it up and trying to get the changes that we can’t get through the Legislature now,” said Laura Ladd Bierman, executive director of League of Women Voters New York.

Ladd Bierman noted that some state lawmakers recently told members of the League they would be more amenable to pushing for voting reform if the public voted in favor of a convention.

SUNY New Paltz professor Gerald Benjamin, who has been on the front lines pushing for constitutional reform for decades, said he is not surprised government reform organizations are coming around on the issue.

“Twenty years ago they made a set of decisions, so they have 20 years of experience in observing whether they have been able to achieve the reforms necessary -- they have not -- so they rightfully understand that this is the only way they are going to make progress,” said Benjamin. “Twenty years have reinforced the observation that the Legislature will not make fundamental structural changes, and the reputation in New York governance has steadily declined.”

Representatives from other government watchdog organizations -- including New York Public Interest Group (NYPIRG), Reinvent Albany, Common Cause, and Citizens Budget Commission -- told Gotham Gazette that they have not taken a position on the ballot question, but that the issue is being debated vigorously internally.

“I'm not sure what we will do. Twenty years ago we thought we could play the most useful role by staying neutral and offering a balanced look at the pros and cons of a convention,” said NYPIRG’s executive director Blair Horner. “It's possible we'll be in the same place this year.”

Bill Samuels, a businessman, con con advocate, and chair of the board of EffectiveNY, a think tank, believes the chaos surrounding President Donald Trump’s administration will also help fuel a “yes” vote in November.

“The same activists who were around in 1967 during the civil rights-anti war movement are still around today,” he said. “When you combine that with what’s happening in Washington -- if I had to sum it up: we still have a system in Albany that’s still not reaching its goal. New York and California have emerged as the great stand-up states to Trump. We want to be excited, we want to have the best Legislature in the country, and we think we can! The best way to fight Trump is to move New York forward.”

In the past, Governor Andrew Cuomo, a second-term Democrat, has repeatedly expressed support for a convention, suggesting a con con may be the only way to enact comprehensive campaign finance reform while Republicans who oppose a public matching system and donation limits continue to control the state Senate. While Cuomo came out in vocal support last year and attempted to insert money into the state budget for a preparatory committee, the issue was not included in his 2017 State of the State policy book nor his executive budget proposal. Cuomo’s office told Gotham Gazette the governor still favors a con con, but Cuomo has not been vocal about the issue. This governor has not set aside funds to plot out a potential convention like his father, former Governor Mario Cuomo, did ahead of the 1997 vote.

During a recent meeting with The Daily News editorial board, Cuomo said he supports the idea of a convention, but “you have to find a way where the delegates do not wind up being the same legislators who you are trying to change the rules on. I have not heard a plan that does that." In this point, Cuomo echoed what a variety of other elected officials, including Mayor Bill de Blasio, have said about concerns regarding the delegate process.

Meanwhile, a 40-member coalition of con con supporters called the Committee for a Constitutional Convention has launched. The group includes many prominent public figures including former chief judge Jonathan Lippman, former lieutenant governor Stan Lundine, and former state senator Seymour Lachman. They are joined by constitutional experts like Professor Benjamin and Touro Law Center dean Patty Salkin and slew of well-known attorneys like the Brennan Center’s Fritz Schwarz. Bill Samuels is a member as well.

For Citizens Union, support for a convention has only been reinforced over the last two decades. “Twenty years ago, we felt like money in politics was a problem, that effective strong oversight of public ethics was a problem, that our court system was a problem, and the balance of power between the governor and the Legislature were a problem,” said Citizen Union executive director Dick Dadey. “Those problems have not gone away. In fact, they’ve gotten worse. Our state government is broken. Budget bills are passed in the dark of night with little time to scrutinize them, pay to play culture is thriving, and voter apathy is rising.”

Opponents of a convention fear opening up the constitution could put at risk hard-won labor and environmental protections, among others. Those concerned about outside interests swaying the outcome of a convention also note that delegates are frequently people who are well-known in public life, often those who hold or previously held a public office, and point to a skewed delegate election process, which they say undermines the point of a “people’s convention.”

The current system allows major political parties to influence the delegate election, by grouping together a “slate” of candidates on the ballot. Further, of 204 elected delegates, 189 would be chosen from New York’s 63 state Senate districts, three from each, which Democrats note are heavily gerrymandered in favor of Republican interests.

While opposition forces, led by labor unions, have already begun to spend sizeable sums of money to encourage a “no” vote, it is unclear how rising populist sentiments indicated in last year’s presidential election -- especially through the campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump -- may factor in.

If the ballot measure does pass, Ladd Bierman of LWV noted, there are many questions that must be addressed in the following legislative session. Will voters be presented with a preselected slate of delegates? Will the convention be made subject to Freedom of Information Law? Where will the convention take place? The constitution says it must take place at the Capitol on April 2, but if the convention overlaps with the legislative session, there may not be sufficient office space to host the event.

Regardless of where they stand on the ballot measure, she said, if it passes good government groups will be on the front lines pushing for a process that is as fair, transparent, and as democratic as possible.

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. ]]>
As Legislative Leaders Warn of Con Con Dangers, Good Government Groups Come Out in Favor Tue, 16 May 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Constitutional Convention Absent from Cuomo’s 2017 Agenda http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/6720-constitutional-convention-absent-from-cuomo-s-2017-agenda http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/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
Calling for Efficiency, Cuomo Pushes Latest Municipal Consolidation Contest http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/6677-calling-for-efficiency-cuomo-pushes-latest-municipal-consolidation-contest http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/6677-calling-for-efficiency-cuomo-pushes-latest-municipal-consolidation-contest Cuomo red screen podium

Gov. Cuomo (photo: Governor's Office on flickr)


Since his time as attorney general, Governor Andrew Cuomo has painted a picture of New York as a state cluttered by redundant and inefficient municipalities, attributing the state’s notoriously high property taxes in large part to a bureaucratic web of overlapping government services.

Cuomo’s latest attempt to detangle the web is an incentivized competition challenging two or more local governments to come up with a bold consolidation plan as a way to cut spending, increase efficiency, and lower property taxes. This could mean anything from localities deciding to share park maintenance services or fire departments, for example, or a plan to dissolve a smaller government into a larger one.

The program piggybacks on a series of tax caps and rebate programs Cuomo, a second-term Democrat, has initiated since taking office. The prize is $20 million, part of $70 million earmarked for improving government efficiency in the $155.6 billion 2016-2017 state budget.

In theory, streamlining government to ease taxpayers’ burden is a good idea, but it is essential to identify not just any municipal consolidation, but the types most likely to produce taxpayer savings. There is also some debate as to whether, and to what extent, municipal consolidation addresses the underlying causes of the New York’s property tax problem. Furthermore, in more affluent localities, residents often say they prefer to pay higher taxes in exchange for the personal touch of smaller government agencies.

In 2010, when Cuomo was running for governor, property taxes were rising at an unsustainable average rate of 5.7 percent per year, with homeowners in 33 of New York’s 62 counties facing a property tax burden surpassing the national median. Initiatives like the new municipal consolidation challenge have been successful at curbing the upward trend, according to Cuomo’s office.

“Over the past five years, Governor Cuomo has restored fiscal responsibility to the state – reducing costs, cutting red tape and delivering relief for New York taxpayers,” said Cuomo spokesperson Abbey Fashouer. “The Municipal Consolidation Competition marks another step forward in these efforts, incentivizing local governments to find innovative ways to share services, find efficiencies and ensure a stronger, more affordable Empire State for all.”

This latest contest supplements Cuomo’s 2014 property tax “freeze,” which is in reality a credit that incentivizes municipalities to find ways to cut costs and stay within the state’s cap of 2 percent annual increase in property taxes, and is projected to save property taxpayers more than $1.3 billion over three years. Cuomo has also instituted an informal 2 percent cap on annual increases in overall state spending.

The tax “cap,” which in 2017 enters its fourth consecutive year, seeks to prevent municipal and school tax levies from increasing beyond 2 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower. This year, at .68 percent, the increase limit -- which applies to all localities except New York City -- is at a record low, and while this is in one way good news for homeowners, strapped municipalities are bound to feel the strain, according to state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli.

"In what is becoming the norm, New York’s local governments must cope with extremely limited growth for property taxes to stay within the tax cap,” DiNapoli said in his announcement of this year’s tax cap. “Low inflation has positive effects for consumers, but it also reflects an uncertain economic environment. Local officials have faced growing fixed costs and limited budget options for years, but 2017 will necessitate even tougher financial choices.”

In response, a growing number of localities are voting to override the tax cap, with 26 percent opting out in 2016. Cuomo’s new contest, which targets the state’s 13 largest municipalities outside of New York City -- only cities, towns and villages with populations of at least 50,000 (according to 2010 U.S. Census data) may apply as the lead applicant -- may help mitigate that trend for the coming year.

One such municipality is the City of New Rochelle, which will be forced to break through the tax cap next year to invest in the city’s infrastructure, according City Manager Charles "Chuck" Strome III.

The city’s chief administrative officer, appointed by the New Rochelle City Council, Strome explained that the city has been searching for ways to share services with neighboring municipalities since before Cuomo took office, partnering with neighboring suburbs of Pelham Manor, Mamaroneck and Larchmont on services like street cleaning, snow removal, and sanitation.

“I’m not really moved by competing for prizes. For me, that’s just a show,” Strome said in an interview. “I think the state’s policies recently have been very detrimental to municipalities. We've been doing things in New Rochelle long before there was a prize at the end of the rainbow.”

Rochester, the state’s third largest outside of New York City, sees itself as a leader in the region on municipal consolidation, forming cooperative agreements with the Monroe County and neighboring municipalities on things like 9-1-1 dispatch services, waste management systems, telecommunication providers, and more. Officials there were more amenable to Cuomo’s consolidation contest, but said that the most “low-hanging fruit” has already been identified and implemented.

“Given that we've done a lot of this already, we're a little challenged to find additional opportunities, but we are open to it,” said Chris Wagner, budget director for the City of Rochester.

Cuomo often focuses on the number of municipalities in New York, suggesting overlapping and redundant governments are a main driver of rising property taxes. “The cost, the waste, the inefficiency of our 10,500 local governments is still this state’s financial albatross and that is what is driving up the cost,” Cuomo said during his 2016 State of the State address, on January 14.

While it is true that on average New Yorkers continue to pay some of the largest property tax bills in the country -- 13 percent of the average household income -- there is a lively debate among social theorists about whether fewer, and thus larger, governmental bodies results in more efficiency and lower property tax bills. And, the actual number of “local governments” is up for debate.

Some dispute the 10,500 figure, saying it includes “special tax districts” -- in-town sectioning created out of specific residential needs that are brought on by suburban growth -- which often amounts to paperwork rather than additional government expenditure. (The 2012 U.S. Census of Governments places the number of cities, towns, and villages in New York State at 3,453 -- which is fewer than the national average for states across the country.)

Since Cuomo took office, the number of government service providers has been reduced, though savings produced have been relatively small. For example, since 2011, 18 New York water districts consolidated into five with a projected annual savings of $1.2 million; 72 sewer/wastewater districts consolidated into three, with a projected savings of $522,000; and six fire and fire protection districts consolidated into two fire districts, with a projected annual savings of $959,570; all according to Cuomo’s office.

Full consolidation of services or government entities tends to elicit resistance, so functional consolidation is often the most politically expedient solution for overlapping services.

Functional consolidation, in which similar municipal agencies both remain in existence, but cooperate on whether to perform the same or distinct functions for a larger geographic area, has been shown to save money and improve quality of life. Either one government entity pays the other for services or one agency performs a specific function and the other agency takes on a different function in exchange.

These partnerships are typically evaluated on a case-by-case basis. In 2012, when the Town of Brighton voted to dissolve its understaffed West Brighton fire protection district and contract with the Rochester Fire Department instead, it resulted in savings for both taxpayers in Rochester and Brighton, according to Wagner, the Rochester budget director. “From our experience, it not only helps on the property tax side of things, but it helps to improve planning and response time to a situation,” Wagner said.

Meanwhile, several years ago, a plan for the City of Rochester to combine water supply systems with Monroe County was nixed when it was determined that it would not result in savings, according to Wagner.

E.J. McMahon, president of the Empire Center, a conservative think tank, notes that smaller towns and villages often prefer to see their tax dollars used for a personal, responsive touch from police, fire, and sanitation agencies. However, McMahon says, these more localized services are not the primary driver of New York’s property tax problem. McMahon points a finger instead at state-mandated Medicaid, pension, and education costs.

“Municipal consolidation is not a panacea and it’s kind of a dodge,” McMahon said. “[Cuomo’s] premise is we have too many local governments, and that’s why we have high local taxes, and that’s essentially untrue.”

A better way to slash property taxes, he says, would be to reform New York’s 30-year-old Triborough Amendment, which requires public employers to maintain contractual agreements, including automatic pay increases, for unionized employees after their collective bargaining agreement expires -- a policy that adds $300 million a year to school budgets across the state.

The governor’s administration says it has taken steps to reduce the number of unfunded mandates -- a term used to describe burdensome state requirements that do not come with requisite funding -- establishing a Mandate Relief Council in December 2013. But while rising local school costs are offset by huge amounts of state funding -- in the 2016-2017 budget, the state allocated $24.8 billion for education aid, up 6.5 percent from the prior year -- and the state has tried to to reel in pension growth, municipalities say they are forced to make painful cuts and delay important capital projects to meet the tax cap year after year.

Strome, the city manager, noted that municipal expenses account for only 18 percent of property tax bills in New Rochelle. The bulk of it comes from school and medicaid expenses. “Most people, if they knew the facts, they'd be happy to have multiple trash pickups and police and fire services and acres and acres of parks for $3,000 a year,” he said. “The state has dumped millions of dollars in increased school aid, but municipalities have gotten zero. In my opinion, until the state seriously looks at how it deals with education, we’d never address the property tax problem.”

nassau special service districts mapIn other areas, like Nassau County, where residents pay some of the highest property taxes in the country (the average annual property tax bill topped $9,000 in 2013, according to a Zillow report), the imbalance is starker. The Town of Hempstead made several difficult cuts this year, including laying off 36 employees, but only 9 cents per tax dollar homeowners pay goes toward municipal programs and services (incorporated villages pay about 2 cents per tax dollar to the township). More that 60 percent of Hempstead taxes go to schools and libraries, another 16 percent goes the county tax -- which includes Medicaid -- and another 5 percent goes toward special districts (which Cuomo counts among the New York’s 10,500 municipalities). (see map, via the Long Island Index)

Cuomo’s office disputes the charge that the governor has not addressed education and Medicaid costs. In addition to flooding cities with education aid, the administration notes both the governor’s Medicaid reform efforts have saved taxpayers an estimated $34 billion over the last five years and the Global Medicaid Cap, which eliminated any growth of Medicaid expenses for counties (meaning any amount of spending over counties’ fixed dollar amount is picked up by the state).

“Governor Cuomo has implemented a number of targeted reforms to deliver relief for New York taxpayers – and they are working,” said Fashouer, a Cuomo spokesperson. “Today, taxes are at their lowest level in decades, we’ve capped [growth of] property taxes at 2 percent, we’re making record investments in education while delivering quality healthcare more effectively and efficiently than ever before.”

The most ambitious type of consolidation is full-scale city-county merger, in which a city and the surrounding county combine to create a metropolitan form of government, or a “super” county. Over the last 30 years, major Upstate cities have faced rising poverty rates and an increased dependence on state aid to balance their budgets. Social theorists say that in addition to consolidating duplicate services, city-state consolidation can curb urban sprawl and compel suburbanites to contribute more significantly to services provided by the city, which are utilized by everyone.

Cuomo’s municipal consolidation contest coincides with the ongoing effort to merge the City of Syracuse and Onondaga County, called Consensus. The region was granted $500 million in a similar 2015 state-funded contest, a portion of which Cuomo said was contingent on Syracuse following through on its ambitious consolidation plan.

Studies on whether larger municipalities are actually more efficient have produced mixed findings. A study done 10 years after the 1998 amalgamation of Toronto, for example, indicates that larger governments become more less responsive and more sluggish, resulting in increased costs.

Not that taxpayer savings should be the primary, or only, motivation for large-scale municipal consolidation.

In the case of the Syracuse merger, more equitable distribution of better quality services across the the county is a major focus. One of the most influential advocates for this type of merger is David Rusk, the former mayor of Albuquerque, New Mexico, who long-argued for what he terms an “elastic city” — one free of geographic limitations — which could help rectify economic, social and racial inequities, he says, and encourage greater political participation county-wide. However, in places like Syracuse, people of color who live in the city fear they’ll lose political influence with a larger unified government, while suburbanites feel that the consolidation could dilute their quality of service.

City-county mergers are notoriously difficult to pull off. While there has been some success in other parts of the country, all recent merger attempts in New York, like a proposed Buffalo-Erie merger in the early 2000s, have failed. The state’s only major regional consolidation was in 1898, when the City of New York was formed out of five boroughs, and the Syracuse-area Consensus plan is seen as an experiment of whether a consolidation of this scale can work again.

Cuomo has enthusiastically supported the Syracuse merger, but as Politico reported, the plan is at risk of being derailed by long-standing differences among Cuomo, Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney, and Syracuse’s Mayor Stephanie Miner, and there are still more questions than answers about how it would meet the at times conflicting interests of city residents and suburbanites.

Occasionally, villages vote to dissolve themselves into neighboring municipalities -- since 1921, 47 village governments in New York have dissolved, 10 of them in the past five years, according to a recent Empire Center report (see graph below). As attorney general, Cuomo pushed through a bill easing the village dissolution process and sweetening the pot for eligible villages with a $58,006 “Community Empowerment Tax Credit” when the dissolution is approved.

village dissolutions nys

In these instances, however, the tax savings per household are usually small, and more often than not, villagers resist consolidation, saying they’d prefer to pay slightly higher taxes to retain their community identity and personal touch from local government.

An example of this is the Village of Cayuga Heights (the Ithaca suburb where this reporter grew up), which has its own mayor and government and where residents consistently vote against joining its fire and police services with neighboring municipalities. “I think if we were to say, ‘Oh, let’s just join up with the Village of Lansing,’ we’d be bigger than the city of Ithaca, but we’d lose a lot too,” said Joan Mangione, the village clerk and treasurer. “When our residents come in to pay taxes, they want to feel ‘this is my best tax dollar at work.’”

Despite an attachment to these extra amenities, Cayuga Heights officials tout the village’s extensive record of looking for consolidation opportunities that make sense: it is a partner in Bolton Point, a water supply plant built in 1976 that serves five municipalities and it is represented in Tompkins County Council of Governments (TCCOG), one of two county committees in the state that meet regularly to discuss shared services, including a progressive healthcare consortium that has saved taxpayers millions of dollars.

Other examples of residents electing to pay a higher price tag for uniquely responsive municipal services can be found in many towns, villages and hamlets of Westchester County, where residents consistently pay the highest property taxes in the nation (an average of $13,842 per household in 2013, according to Zillow). The bloated bill is often justified by the county’s exemplary schools -- where between $20,000 and $50,000 a year is spent on each pupil --- and a small town approach from police, fire, and sanitation workers.

Political scientist and SUNY New Paltz professor Gerald Benjamin, a proponent of municipal consolidation, says that these New York municipalities should be more open to compromise.

“Look, we want low costs, we want our services, we have to have a hierarchy of values, and we want democracy -- which we are not always getting, because it’s too complex,” Benjamin said. “If we want all those things, they run into each other; they are not all aligned. Sometimes you are presented a range of desserts at Thanksgiving — but if you eat them all, you are going to get fat.”

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Calling for Efficiency, Cuomo Pushes Latest Municipal Consolidation Contest Mon, 19 Dec 2016 05:00:00 +0000