Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Follow the Money

Power finds money, and money finds power.

According to the website www.followthemoney.org, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D) has received $669,116 in campaign contributions. That’s $196,351 more than the assembly member (Mike Gianaris (D) – including both committees) with the next highest amount of contributions. It is also $428,318 more than the Republican assembly member with the highest amount of contributions, who, by the way, happens to be the Minority Leader James Tedisco (R). It also dwarfs the humble sum of $1,850 received by incumbent Michael Benjamin (D).

In the Senate, Majority Leader Joseph Bruno (R) receives the most money, with contributions totaling $991,704. There, the disparities at the top are not as severe. But while Bruno receives almost a million dollars, incumbent Senator John Sampson (D) has received a paltry $34,025.

These numbers are not surprising. Contributors give money to candidates that will be able to get something done if elected to office. Because so much power is concentrated with leadership, i.e. Silver, Bruno, and other top Democratic Assembly Members and Republican Senators (the majority parties in each chamber), that is where the political contributions flow.

The numbers not only illustrate the obvious – campaign finance problems – they also illustrate how power is concentrated with leadership in the New York State Legislature.

Categories: General, Campaign Finance

Monday, October 30, 2006

Clerical Errors, Not Voter Fraud

Voter fraud. It’s a phrase on the minds and lips of many voters, election officials, and politicians across the country. That’s probably why the Poughkeepsie Journal chose to title an article in yesterday's edition “Dead Voters Continue to Cast Ballots in New York.” And if this title were an accurate representation of the article it tops, it would indeed be timely and newsworthy.

Luckily for those of us who have the attention span to read more than a couple of sentences, voter fraud is in fact not proven to be rampant in our state. The irresponsible, sensational headline notwithstanding, the article is careful and full of caveats, like these passages:
The numbers do not indicate how much fraud is the result of dead voters in New York, only the potential for it. Typically, records of votes by the dead are the result of bookkeeping errors and do not result in the casting of extra ballots. The Journal did not find any fraud in the local matches it investigated.
In most cases, instances of dead voters can be attributed to database mismatches and clerical errors. For instance, the Social Security Administration admits there are people in its master death index who are not dead.

Most of the rest of the article is similarly nuanced, explaining the difficulty of creating and maintaining accurate voter databases, and the limitations of broad attempts to match the voter rolls to other sources in order to determine a voter's eligibility. The careful overall balance of the article makes the lead that much more unwelcome. Sure, it may draw readers in. But it is also likely to misinform, and in the process, does a disservice to those very same readers that the Journal hopes to attract and retain.

We believe that there is little reason for panic. Though Halloween is upon us, the dead aren't walking the earth in the direction of the polls. New York's new statewide registration list is late in coming, and there are certainly kinks to be worked out. But given time and care, New York's voter rolls will be cleaner and more accurate than ever before, as long as the cleansing process is accomplished in ways that protect the rights of eligible citizens. As the article notes, "Overzealous [purging] can result in legitimate voters being removed." Which is precisely why the article's overzealous headline is such a disappointment.

Update: Our very own Justin Levitt's piece on this subject on TomPaine.com.

Categories: General, Voting

Friday, October 27, 2006

Making Members Accountable for Controversial Member Items

The Hearst Corporation, which owns the Times Union, won a lawsuit this week against Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno that will help shine a little light in the dank corners of Albany.

Earlier this year, the Times Union learned of several controversial member item projects, but they were thwarted in their attempts to find out which members of the Senate and Assembly had authorized them.

The Brennan Center, the Citizens Budget Commission, Citizens Union, Common Cause NY, the League of Women Voters of NYS, and NYPIRG together submitted an amicus brief discussing how the effective operation and enforcement of the Freedom of Information Law is essential to the ability of citizens to hold their legislators accountable.

The opinion found that Silver and Bruno “failed to articulate a rational basis for redacting the names” and that “the public has a right to know the names of legislators associated with the funding of member item projects.”

This is a great win on behalf of the citizens of New York! Finding out what’s actually happening in Albany is the first step toward fixing it.

Categories: General

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

More Likely to Die Than Be Kicked Out of Office

Did you know...?

- Only 34 incumbents have been defeated in New York state legislative elections since 1970.

- After challenger Hakeem Jeffries won 41% of the 2000 primary vote against 20-year incumbent Roger Green, the district lines were redrawn, leaving Jeffries’ residence just a block or two outside of Green’s new district.

- Since 1995, New York's legislators are just as likely to die in office as lose in a general election.

October 17 marked the last of three scheduled statewide redistricting hearings, aimed at soliciting ideas for reforming New York's partisan linedrawing, which is widely considered to be among the nation's most anti-democratic. New York Republicans and Democrats have essentially entered into a gentleman's agreement for decades, ceding control of the Assembly to the Dems, while giving the GOP reign over the Senate. Given the scant likelihood of split-ticket voting between legislative bodies, the current redistricting process has become the primary culprit (though ably assisted by campaign finance and ballot access rules also sorely in need of change).

The hearings, held in New York City, were attended by several members of the Assembly, with all but one serving on the Governmental Operations subcommittee (the exception was Michael Benjamin, Assemblyman from the Bronx). The Brennan Center (and several other groups) made several general points about the process. First, the redistricting system, as-is, skews electoral outcomes by investing power in those who stand to benefit from how lines are drawn; voters would be better served a non-partisan commission insulated from political influence. Second, any such body needs to be representative of the diversity of New York State, in addition to creating districts that where minorities can be effectively represented. Third, counting prisoners as residents of the cities where they are incarcerated is extremely problematic for several reasons, including the fact that the practice boosts the population in upstate districts, which would otherwise be unconstitutionally underpopulated.

Our comments were well received, and echoed by groups including NYPIRG, Demos, and the Voting Rights Consortium. The hearings also saw members of non-partisan commissions like Steven Lynn, the Chairman of Arizona's Independent Redistricting Commission. His testimony, and that of others, helped develop a fuller public record that will be critical in making the case for reform. The Brennan Center looks forward to working with both legislators and other advocacy groups on redistricting reform in the near future, using proposed legislation and the hearings as a very helpful starting point.

Categories: General, Redistricting

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The Senate Made a Promise to Veterans. What Happened?

Thanks to a tip from a Veterans for Peace member, we have learned that a bill designed to provide national guard members with treatment for the toxic effects of depleted uranium has inexplicably died, despite being passed by both the Assembly and Senate this June.

The bill was introduced in January in the Assembly Veterans’ Affairs Committee and in March in the Senate Veterans, Homeland Security, and Military Affairs Committee. The Assembly substituted the Senate bill for its own, and both chambers passed the bill unanimously near the end of the session.

The Assembly has a rule (Rule III, §9) that Assembly bills approved by both chambers must be transmitted to the Governor within forty-five days, regardless of when the bill was passed. (This is not to say that they actually follow this rule: research done for our last report on legislative rules showed that the rule wasn’t followed on at least 38 of the major bills we studied.) Unfortunately, the bill both houses passed originated in the Senate, and that body does not have a similar rule.

Regardless of whether a timeframe is spelled out in the rules, though, it is hard to understand why this bill has not been sent to the Governor.

Calling all Senators: why has this bill, with supposedly so much support in your chamber, not yet made it to the Governor?

Categories: General, Legislative Rules

More Campaign Finance Violations

New York’s campaign finance laws, which are flimsy and full of holes to begin with, have once again been flagrantly violated.

Anyone familiar with campaign finance in New York won't be too surprised.

As reported by the Times Union and the Poughkeepsie Journal this morning, NYPIRG, Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, and the Sierra Club are charging that at least seven political action committees (PACs) have exceeded the already quite high $84,400 per year limit on contributions to state party committees.

Among the offenders are the state Realtors PAC, the Trial Lawyers PAC, the state medical society, the Public Employees Federation, and the teachers union. Not surprisingly for New York, the offenses were bipartisan, as both Democratic and Republican party committees received more funds than legally allowed.

This is yet another example (as if we needed another) of how desperately New York’s campaign finance system needs reform.

Categories: General, Campaign Finance

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Are You and Your Legislator Getting Railroaded by the Rules?

As we detailed in our most recent report on the State Legislature, you and your legislator may be getting the short end of the stick if she is not well liked by Bruno or Silver.

In both the Senate and the Assembly, there are no rules for dividing up public funds for member staff and offices. These funds are, of course, money legislators can use to help their constituents get their ideas and priorities transformed into law.

This is public money, provided by everyone in the State. But it is distributed in a very unfair, inefficient way. For the period of October 1, 2005 through March 31, 2006, members of the Senate (Republican) majority spent an average of $361,143,90 per office, while members of the minority spent $197,390.80 -- an average difference of $163,753.10. Similarly, members of the Assembly (Democratic) majority spent $161,575.80, while members of the minority spent just $109,804.50.

In other words, Senate Republicans were able to spend 82% more than Senate Democrats and Assembly Dems 47% than Assembly Repubs, despite the fact that every Senator and every Assemblymember serves roughly the same number of constituents.

Are you represented by a Senate Democrat or Assembly Republican? If so, the portion of your taxes that goes to run the Legislature is going into some other district's pocket.

Categories: General, Legislative Rules

Friday, October 20, 2006

Assemblyman Bing, Expect a Call

We were very happy to see this in the Gay City News:

As for political reform in Albany, Bing said he supports the leading proposals put forward by the NYU Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice


We assume this means the Assemblyman supports our call for real reform in the way the legislature operates: to make it more transparent, publicly deliberative and accountable.

We must admit, though, that we were a bit surprised by this comment from the Assemblyman:

“Even though I am an NYU Law graduate, no one from the Brennan Center has ever spoken to me,” he said. “Very few of the good government groups have spoken to me and other junior members of the Legislature to have a discussion of how things really work and what we’re able to get done.”


In fact, the Brennan Center relied quite heavily on conversations and interviews with junior legislators (from both chambers)in putting together both its 2004 and 2006 reports on how the legislature functions (and doesn't). And (not suprisingly) many of the loudest complaints about the way the legislature operates came from these junior members.

It is true that Assemblyman Bing was not one of the Assemblymembers we interviewed (we couldn't get to everyone). But we take these comments as an invitation to call him today. We'll keep you posted!

Categories: General, Legislative Rules

Monday, October 16, 2006

Hilarious

For those of you who think we often take this business of elections in New York too seriously, check out Gotham Gazette's hilarious "Voting Arcade." The site made its debut during the 2004 elections, but you can just replace the evil lever voting machine with a DRE to get into the groove for November 7th. Enjoy!

Categories: General, Voting

Friday, October 13, 2006

Spitzer on Rules Reform

In Buffalo's ArtVoice this week, Geoff Kelly provides some important comments from candidate Spitzer on the need for legislative rules reform. One key graf:

It’s a cliche because it it’s true: Albany is run by three men in a room. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno determine the legislative agenda in concert with the governor. Spitzer thinks he can change that.

“Whether we’re 50 out of 50 [in a ranking of most dysfunctional state governments] or 48 out of 50 doesn’t matter; the dysfunction is real,” he says. “The problems to a certain extent are the result on internal legislatively determined rules that only the legislature can reform.”


And more:

He also hopes to take to Albany a mandate that the Assembly Speaker and Senate Majority Leader will ignore at their peril. “I hope to win,” Spitzer says, “and I hope to win by a sufficient margin that I can go to the legislature and say, ‘This is a genuine statement on the part of the public that we need reform.’ Reform means empowering committee chairs, permitting committee chairs to hire their own staff, which means there will be genuine hearings on bills. Permitting bills to reach the floor for votes so that we can have genuine voting about the tough issues.”

Categories: General, Legislative Rules

Settling for worst-rate

In an editorial entitled "our broken legislature," the Journal News urges voters to review the Brennan Center's most recent report on the New York legislative process. The editorial flatly states that

If you aren't pressing your candidate on reform - as in more debate, more defused power, and more transparency over pork and other spending - you are settling for worst-rate.

Categories: General, Legislative Rules

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Bruno on Legislative Reform

As mentioned by Capitol Confidential, the Times Union's blog, Senate Majority Leader Bruno's reaction to our new report has so far been much more positive than his 2004 dismissal of our findings. In a press release from the Majority Leader's office, Bruno stated:
The process of reforming State government is an ongoing one. We welcome the observations and recommendations of the Brennan Center and will closely review them with an eye towards additional government reforms aswe go forward so we can further improve accountability.
It's great to hear that the Majority Leader recognizes that the reforms made in 2005 were a first step, and we look forward to working with him to implement truly transformative changes in January.

We haven't been able to find the Majority Leader's statement on the Senate site, but you can find the document on the Capitol Confidential site (linked above).

Categories: General, Legislative Rules

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Unfinished Business

The Brennan Center released today Unfinished Business: New York Legislative Reform, a 2006 update to The New York State Legislative Process: An Evaluation and Blueprint for Reform. The report details the reforms made to the legislative rules of the Senate and Assembly and documents the impact those rules changes have had in practice. The report recommends the most essential reforms that must be implemented in order to create a functioning legislative branch in New York.

The release of the original report helped spur a call for reform that reverberated across the state. All of New York’s major daily newspapers, from upstate and downstate, used their editorial pages to call the public's attention to the report's findings. More than 30 organizations from across the political spectrum endorsed our package of reforms.

It is again time to put pressure on lawmakers to reform New York's broken legislature. In January 2007, legislators will have the opportunity to adopt a set of new set of operating rules that will create a more transparent, accountable, deliberative, representative, and accountable legislative process.

Visit our webpage detailing our work to reform the New York state legislature.

Categories: General, Legislative Rules

Friday, October 06, 2006

New York as a Model?

Believe it or not, some folks in Massachusetts are holding New York out as a paradigm of democracy. No, they're not talking about our highly representative and accountable legislature, democratic process for selecting judges, or model campaign finance laws (they may not live in New York, but they're not stupid). Rather, they hope to emulate something the Brennan Center has also touted: in New York, candidates can be listed on the ballot next to more than one party, giving smaller “party designations” a real shot at reaching the threshold for being considered an officially recognized party (for example, the "Independence Party," the "Conservative Party," and, of course, the "Working Families Party."). This gives smaller parties some power while avoiding the spoiler problem a la Ralph Nader in 2000. According to the Daily Item, an independent newspaper in MA:
In a New York election, the Democratic nominee listed on the ballot for a statewide office might also be listed for that office on the same ballot as the Working Party candidate. Voters supporting that candidate, then, would have a choice of casting their vote for the candidate as a Democrat or Working Families party candidate.
Voters in Massachusetts this November will decide on Question 2, which would make the state’s ballots work in much the same way that New York's do. Opponents say this move would cause voter confusion, but supporters argue that the system works well in New York and allows third parties to have a real stake in elections. The Brennan Center recognizes the constructive role third parties play in increasing the two-party system's responsiveness in New York; it's nice to know New York may be exporting some constructive, democratic ideas.

Categories: General, Voting

Thursday, October 05, 2006

War of the Reformers?

Yesterday, Democratic State Senate candidate Andrea Stewart-Cousins held a press conference at City Hall in Yonkers to tout her 12-point plan for reforming Albany. The Westchester Journal News reports that she was joined by sitting Senators David Paterson, Malcolm Smith, Jeff Klein, Eric Schneiderman, Thomas Duane, Ruth Hassell-Thompson, Toby Stavisky, and John Sabini. The plan highlights campaign finance, redistricting, lobbying, legislative rules, and debt reform and relies in part on findings from two of our reports, Paper Thin: The Flimsy Fa├žade of Campaign Finance Laws in New York State and The New York Legislative Process: An Evaluation and Blueprint for Reform.

Stewart-Cousins is locked in a battle with incumbent Republican Nick Spano, who has also embraced a reform agenda. The Journal News notes that Democratic leaders at the Stewart-Cousins press conference complained that Spano was stealing their issue — he apparently issued his own 11 point plan to "retool" the Legislature.

This appears to be another case of two candidates trying to out-reform each other. Regardless of who wins the race in the 35th District, though, it’s great that this contest is showcasing crucial reform issues like campaign finance and redistricting.

But before the war of words gets any hotter, we have a suggestion: wait until next Wednesday, when the Brennan Center will release its new evaluation of the Legislature. Among other things, we conclude that the legislative rules reforms adopted in January 2005 (supposedly in response to our last evaluation) have not resulted in a substantially more representative, effective, accessible, accountable, and efficient legislature. We identify the four most crucial reforms that the legislators should implement when they adopt their rules in January 2007.

New York is in need of many reforms, but there are specific changes that can make the Legislature a more fuctional and representative body. We're hopeful that, next Wednesday afternoon, whatever other disagreements they may have, Stewart-Cousins, Spano and every other candidate for the 2007 Legislature will stand with the Brennan Center and agree.

Categories: General, Legislative Rules, Campaign Finance

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Upstate versus Downstate (and TX and CA and...)

The Buffalo News reported Monday that Attorney General Eliot Spitzer’s gubernatorial campaign has received about $6.4 million (or almost 16% of total receipts) from donors in 45 states outside New York.
In Spitzer, they see a rising star who as governor can affect the business climate in New York City, speak up for gay marriage, stem cell research, and abortion rights, and perhaps affect the partisan balance in Congress when New York redraws its House districts after 2010.
Upstaters may be most troubled by the numbers in News' article; contributors in the upstate region have provided slightly more at $6.7 million, which shakes out to 18 cents of every dollar collected by the Spitzer campaign.

Categories: General, Campaign Finance

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Encouraging Rather than Suppressing Voters

We spend so much of our time railing against voter suppression strategies that it’s always nice to learn about a group working to expand the electorate. The University of Buffalo has decided to partner with the Buffalo News, the Western New York Regional Education Center for Economic Development, and the Buffalo Alliance for Education to support and expand Kids Voting Western New York. The program, started in 1996, is an affiliate of Kids Voting USA, a national organization that partners with schools and election officials to expand civic learning in schools. Students from Kindergarten to high school learn the importance of the democratic process and citizen participation in government. This is a refreshing contrast to recent efforts to suppress voter participation with tactics such as restrictive voter identification laws, suspicious voter purges, and the crackdown on voter registration drives. We applaud the groups involved and hope more get on board in the future.

Categories: General, Voting

Monday, October 02, 2006

Use Special Session to Reform Rules

This morning, the New York Sun noted that it is possible we will see Governor Pataki use legislative pay raises as a carrot to get the Legislature to meet in special session and possibly pass some of Pataki’s top-priority legislation.

Pay raises would be the governor’s most important bargaining chip in a special session. If lawmakers don’t get Mr. Pataki’s approval for one, that window is closed until at least 2009. Adding to the pressure is the fact that Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, the front-runner in the governor’s race, has said he’s against giving lawmakers more money for what is supposed to be a part-time job.

We won't comment on Governor Pataki's legislative agenda, except to say that we think New York would be much better off if he would spend his remaining months in office standing up to the Legislature and demanding they reform their rules and the way they operate. Next week, the Brennan Center will release a report evaluating the Legislature's performance in this last 2005-2006 session.

We'll be posting more about this in the coming days, but here's something that shouldn't come as a shock to anyone: the Legislature is still not nearly as deliberative or transparent as it should be, the public is still locked out of the legislative process, and leadership still has near total control over whether a bill ever gets to the floor for debate or a vote. The result is a State Legislature that still does not function the way it should, or produce legislation that might solve some of the state's greatest problems.

Categories: General, Legislative Rules