Wednesday, January 31, 2007

New York, the EAC and CIBER

For those of you that haven't seen it, the Election Assistance Commission (the federal agency that sets guidelines for voting machines) finally released at least some of its papers relating to CIBER, the independent testing authority hired by New York to certify its new electronic voting machines. The most disturbing sentence that comes up over and over in these reviews of CIBER is "CIBER has not shown the resources to provide a reliable product."

Joe Hall at UC Berkeley has estimated that CIBER qualified the voting systems used by 68.5% of registered voters (67.9% of precincts) in the 2006 election. To which, all we can say is yikes!

Meanwhile, Frank Lombardi in the Daily News reports that the recent revelations about CIBER's problems may force New York to cancel its contract with the testing authority:

A showdown with ... Ciber Inc., could come as early as Tuesday in Albany at a meeting of the state Board of Elections.

If Ciber's contract is canceled, the state's certification process would face even more delays, leaving the state's counties and New York City up in the air about what machines they could buy.

Truly a mess.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

'Tis the season, year-round

We find it interesting to hear so much talk of campaign finance reform outside of the fall campaign season.

Joye Brown’s column in Newsday this morning quoted former state senator Seymour Lachman on the special election in the Senate 7th:
"It's an important race for Republicans and for Democrats, but even important races shouldn't be bought or sold," he said. "The person who has the most money shouldn't necessarily win."
We agree with Brown and Lachman that the exorbitant (and completely legal) fundraising by both sides in this race highlights the importance of reining in campaign contributions and spending.

The Times Union also ran a campaign finance themed editorial this morning about Senate Majority Leader Bruno’s use of campaign funds to stay at a lavish hotel during a vacation (or perhaps it was a trip to meet potential fundraisers) in Palm Beach.
New York's campaign finance laws need to be sharply refined, so the almost unlimited political contributions that the state allows are restricted to the actual cost of running for a contested political office. And when that happens, New York needs a much more effective agency to enforce those laws.
We agree that campaign funds should be raised and spent only to cover the costs of running for office. Further than that, though, New York needs to implement a public financing program, and, at the very least, dramatically lower its astronomically high contribution limits in order to reduce the undue influence of money on politics and engage ordinary citizens in their government.

Categories: General, Campaign Finance

Sunday, January 28, 2007

The D&C Adds Its Voice on Judges

In a well-reasoned editorial on Sunday the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle added its voice to the growing chorus now recognizing the obvious solution for choosing judges in New York State and ensuring party bosses don't maintain total control over the process. The part that we like the best:

The best idea, assertively backed by the Brennan Center for Justice, is to keep the conventions, allowing for candidates to be nominated based on a majority of the delegate vote. But candidates with 25 percent of the delegates would earn an automatic spot on the primary ballot. That option also would be open to candidates going the petition route.

Opening the system in this way provides the best chance to bring diversity among state judges. Of 18 Supreme Court judges in the 7th Judicial District covering the Rochester region, none is a person of color.

What else can we add? Just this: hear, hear!

Friday, January 26, 2007

Growing consensus on judges

As we have noted on many previous occasions, New York state must act to reform its judicial selection procedures to comply with the Second Circuit's decision in Lopez Torres. Today's New York Law Journal reports that there is a growing consensus behind so-called designating, rather than nominating, conventions. The key element of this kind of system is a petition-based "primary bypass" which ensures rank-and-file voters a role. The article also mentions Senator John A. DeFrancisco of Syracuse, who, at this week's New York State Bar Association conference, mentioned the idea of county-by-county judicial districts, a reform Brennan Center wholeheartedly supports as a way to reduce campaign costs and increase racial and geographic diversity.

Categories: General, Judicial Selection

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Johnson, O'Connell, the Bigger Better Bottle Bill & rules

Perhaps you've heard about Assemblyman DiNapoli and Senator LaValle’s “Bigger Better Bottle Bill,” which would expand New York's bottle deposit law to cover not just soda and beer cans, but other ubiquitous recyclable containers like water bottles. (According to industry studies, worldwide sales of bottled water increased by 30 percent between 2000 and 2003 alone. Up to 20 percent of the United States population gets its drinking water exclusively from a bottle.) It's a bill with lots of popular support and a long history of failure.

This week, Artvoice, an alternative paper out of Buffalo, has a great article about the Bigger Better Bottle Bill, tracing its history and giving some interesting stats on how even the small sum of five cents is a big incentive for people to recycle them instead of chucking them in the wastebasket. A five-cent deposit increases return rates by 50 percent, and in Michigan, which has a 10 cent deposit, the return rate is over 90 percent.

While we found this article interesting in its own right, we took particular note of the fact that like so much in Albany, its failed history appears to be closely intertwined with the Legislature's opaque and undemocratic rules. For one thing, this appears to be yet another example of legislative leaders bottling up bills (pun definitely intended) in committee:
Albany Times Union columnist Fred LeBrun told Artvoice that Senate Majority Leader Bruno is "adamantly opposed [to the Bigger Better Bottle Bill] because he is the spokesperson, really, for the business and corporate community. He has not let [the bill] out of committee for two years. And he will try not to again this year but he will have less to say about it if Mr. Johnson wins and not Ms. O’Connell. So it is definitely a race to watch."
We're not convinced by Mr. LeBrun's final conclusion. Unfortunately, as our research has shown, what really matters in Albany is not how many Senators support a bill, but who controls the committees. And no matter what happens on February 6th, we're pretty sure that on February 7th, Majority Leader Bruno will still control them. And he'll still have the power — under the "new" rules adopted on January 19 — to make sure any bill he doesn't like never comes to the floor for a vote.

Categories: General, Legislative Rules

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

For those of you who were holding your breath, the new Senate rules

We’ve finally tracked down the new Senate rules (they’re not posted on the Senate website yet, even though they were adopted more than a week ago), and not surprisingly, the changes were meager.

First off, it appears that the Senate is trying to save some trees, as several of the tweaks simply reduce the number of copies of certain documents that must be filed.

Here are some of the more substantive changes:
  • Any senator can now be approved by the committee chair to speak for five minutes on a nomination being considered.

  • The rule prohibiting people with a stake in legislation from being on the Senate floor was strengthened to explicitly apply to people who would be allowed under other circumstances. This essentially means that senators’ family members or former Senators who are now lobbyists are not allowed on the Senate floor.

  • Instead of requiring a majority of all senators, a motion to petition a bill out of committee may now also be made to a standing committee. This means that a majority of committee members can approve moving a bill out of committee, even over the objection of the committee chair.
Unfortunately, the Senate also made some changes that can hardly be considered positive reforms:
  • There is now a thirty minute limit on the amount of time a particular senator may speak during the four hours of debate allowed on each bill.

  • Senators are not allowed to direct motions to petition at the Rules Committee. The Rules Committee is where the Senate leadership sends many bills to die, so this exception severely weakens the impact of the rule allowing members to petition committees instead of the full Senate.
While we appreciate any steps in the right direction, we are disappointed that the Senate Majority, after rejecting the Democrats’ attempt to institute comprehensive rules changes, did not significantly improve the way the Senate does business. The sparse reforms they did adopt do little to make the Senate a more deliberative, accountable, and responsive body.

Here is a red-lined pdf of the new rules (see the bookmarks for quick links to the revised sections).

Categories: General, Legislative Rules

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Big moves on member items (well, big for New York)

Yesterday, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo announced a new approval process for member items, which would require grant recipients to disclose any ties to the sponsoring legislator and whether they had ever violated past state contracts.

This came on the same day that the Senate and Assembly passed reforms that, among other things, would itemize member items in the state budget.

As the Daily News points out, though, the member item deal between the Legislature and Governor Spitzer came out of the same “three men in a room” process that Spitzer disparaged throughout his campaign.

They compare the reform agreement to ideas making their way on the national stage: proposed congressional legislation would require lawmakers to post earmarks on the web, identifying the member sponsoring it, at least two days before the vote actually occurs.

The Daily News argues:
Spitzer should have included ideas like those in a gold-standard reform bill, then challenged lawmakers to pass it, improve it or explain why not. That would have taken more time and energy, but it would also have shown he was serious about changing the status quo.
Despite its limited nature, we do appreciate the importance of the steps taken yesterday toward more transparency in the budget process.

However, we also note that there was almost no coverage of the actual passage of the budget reforms. Much like watching Punxsutawney Phil come out of his hole, most papers, rather than wasting ink on the formality of the vote, simply covered the emergence of the three men from the room last week. Unfortunately, that still seems to be the news that matters.

Categories: General

Monday, January 22, 2007

Malcolm Smith on rules reform

From the Times Union: "We cannot truly reform the legislative process in Albany until we have successfully reformed the rules that govern the Legislature."

We wholeheartedly agree and applaud the Senate Minority for trying to push through a set of rules that would have introduced more equity, responsiveness, transparency, and accountability to the Senate.

Categories: General, Legislative Rules

New York State officials should take a lesson from Albany-area colleges

In stark contrast to the handling of impropriety in the Legislature, when there was evidence of an ethics problem at Albany-area Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Professor Linda Layne took swift action to deal with the issue. She is pushing for an honor code at the school after discovering a student cheating on a quiz in – get this – her ethics class. Similarly, Union College just received a grant that would give professors a stipend for incorporating ethics lessons into their curricula.

However, just as legislators inevitably push back against new ethics proposals, the Times Union reports that students at RPI and Union College are skeptical about the need for ethics education and tougher enforcement. Along with many legislators, the students feel that they simply don’t have a problem.

These protests seem to be misguided. It turns out that, according to a study by the Center for Academic Integrity, “70 percent of students acknowledge some cheating on most campuses.” Yet schools with honor codes see about one-third to one-half the amount of serious test cheating experienced by schools without a similar ethics policy.

Wouldn’t it be nice to see the same improvement in state government?

We think it’s time for lawmakers to take a page from Professor Layne’s book and adopt tools to curb ethics violations and encourage fair and decent conduct. It’s time for lawmakers to pass legislation that would create a single agency with enough teeth to effectively oversee ethics in all aspects of New York government.

Categories: General, Government Ethics

Friday, January 19, 2007

Ethics Breakthrough?

No, we're not talking about the recent changes in ethics and lobbying rules in Congress.

Believe it or not, we're talking Albany. Yes, Albany.

Michael Gormley of the AP reports that:

High level legislative and executive branch officials are negotiating to create a single, far-reaching ethics agency that could break down jurisdictional walls that currently limit investigations, officials familiar with the talks said Thursday.

If the agency is created, it would mark a historic step toward reforming a state government culture derided for years by critics and government watchdog groups as unseemly, even corrupt.

We believe if this happens, it will be an extraordinary step. But also not so extraordinary. As Gormley notes:

A report by NYPIRG and the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law found 39 states have a single ethics commission for executive and legislative branches.

It seems that in Albany -- at least in matters related to ethics, lobbying and campaign finance -- to be ordinary is extraordinary.

Categories: General, Government Ethics

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Majority Leader Bruno: We Don't Understand

See the headline in the Daily News and a similar headline in the Times, that left us scratching our collective heads.

Apparently, Senate Majority Leader Bruno is in a tizzy about Governor Spitzer’s intention to attend a Democratic Party fundraiser, the proceeds of which will likely go to Craig Johnson, a candidate running in the special election for the recently vacated 7th Senate District. Bruno called Spitzer’s plans “inappropriate” and added:
I wouldn’t be talking campaign finance reform on one hand, and then on the other hand, doing 25,000 price of admission to funnel money – funnel money, launder money – into a Senate contest.
Color us confused. Is Bruno saying that he doesn't like the fact that under New York's current and very lax campaign finance laws, the Democratic Party can collect $25,000 a plate at a fundraiser -- and then send all of that money to a candidate in a single race? Or is he saying that people who take advantage of such laws to compete politically in New York don't have the right to search and argue for a more fair and equitable system?

If it's the latter, we think we now understand the Majority Leader's repeated efforts to kill campaign finance reform.

If it's the former, he should get on board with the campaign finance reforms we have long championed, such as greatly lowering the exorbitant $84,400 per year an individual can give to a party committee and capping the currently unlimited amount party committees can funnel to candidates.

Categories: General, Campaign Finance

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Senate Rules Fight -- A First Hand Account

We were present in the Senate Chamber for the fight over rules last night. It was an unusual and pointedly ironic spectacle. Liz Benjamin provided some of the details in the Times-Union but more detail follows for Rules junkies (like us).

As the Senate's rules had expired on January 15, the first order of business in the Senate yesterday was adopting a new set of rules. The Senate Democrats introduced a resolution that would have made the chamber a more open, transparent and representative body by, among other things, banning the "canvass of agreement," whereby a majority of Senators can defeat certain measures by just leaving the Senate chamber (thereby avoiding having their votes recorded as "no.").

For about two hours following the introduction of these proposals, there was a fair amount of pandemonium in the normally placid chamber, as the majority and minority debated over one point: whether individual Senators would have to go on record in opposition these proposed reforms in order to defeat them. Not that there is a problem with transparency in the Senate, or anything.

Senators Duane and Connor, both Democrats, asked for a roll call vote (meaning each member's vote would be recorded) on the Democrats' proposals. Senator Skelos (R), among others, argued that this was inappropriate -- a voice vote was sufficient. David Patterson, who now presides over the Senate in his role as Lieutenant Governor, denied the roll call vote.

In response, Senator Duane appealed the Lieutenant Governor's ruling and asked for a roll call vote to override this ruling (under Senate Rules, a majority of members can override a ruling by the Lieutenant Governor on procedure). The Lieutenant Governor -- having happened to have researched this issue earlier in the day -- found that he must allow a roll call vote of his appeal. Members would have to go on record with their votes.

For the next two hours, both sides argued over whether there would be a roll call vote -- with Republicans theatening to continue to appeal decisions of the Lieutenant Governor all night if they had to. The parties finally compromised on a vote by hands. No votes were attributed to individual members, but a count of "no" votes will be recorded (from what we understand). The number will be 32 -- the exact number of Republicans present in the chamber at the time.

And there you have it -- the new transparency in Albany.

Categories: General, Legislative Rules

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Will the Senate Opt for Self Improvement Today?

Today, the internal operating rules of the New York State Senate expire. Will the Senate grab this opportunity to change the way it does business? We hope so. Today, several New York senators introduced a resolution to reform the Senate’s rules to make the body more open, transparent and democratic. The Brennan Center, along, with 11 other groups, sent a letter to all Senators, calling upon them to adopt the proposed resolution. The resolution proposes many changes, notably,

• Ending the majority leader’s control over individual and committee resources and staff, permitting a more equitable distribution of funds;

• Prohibiting the use of the canvass of agreement, a parliamentary decision-making method that permits opponents of motions and bill amendments to avoid having their dissent recorded; and,

• Allowing rank-and-file members to meaningfully participate in committees, by eliminating proxy voting in committees and giving members some power to hold public hearings.

Two years ago, a Brennan Center report tagged the New York State legislative rules as “the most dysfunctional in the nation,” and a follow up report this year concluded that little had changed, despite some minor rules changes and promises from both State houses that their undemocratic and unaccountable way of doing business would become a thing of the past.

On the very same day that a column in the Daily News highlights the broken nature of the New York State Legislature, the Senate can make great strides towards fixing itself. If it adopts the resolution proposed today, it will be a clear signal to the public that it has heard the call for reform.

Categories: General, Legislative Rules

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Adding Color to the Bench

As we have previously noted, Governor Spitzer will probably appoint three judges to the seven member Court of Appeals this year. Today, Capitol Confidential reports that Governor Spitzer has just announced his first Court of Appeals nomination, Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Theodore Jones.

We are certain that there are many ways in which Justice Jones differs from any of the six members Governor Pataki appointed in his 12 years in office. But as Capitol Confidential points out -- there is one way that is immediately obvious and is likely to garner significant media attention: Justice Jones is African American.

Governor Patatki's final appointment on August 18, 2006 of Eugene Pigott left the Court of Appeals without a single judge of color for the first time in over 20 years. At the time, many of the State's leading politicians were mystified. "To think that in this state, with the enormous minority population that we have, that of those seven jurists (on the Court of Appeals) there's not one of color I'm saddened," former Mayor Dinkins said in an interview with The New York Times.

The need for more judges of color is more than just symbolism. A survey conducted by the Commission to Promote Public Confidence in Judicial Elections found that 71 percent of registered voters in New York believe that the state's judges are fair and impartial, but only 51 percent of black voters surveyed believed that they are. Having more minorities on the bench would go a long way toward making all New Yorkers feel that they can receive a fair day in court. More diversity among judges would also mean that decisions would reflect a broader range of perspectives.

Accordingly, we applaud Governor Spitzer for turning around an ABYSMAL record on diversity with his first nomination. The Senate will have to confirm or reject Justice Jones within 30 days of receiving his nomination.

Categories: General, Judicial Selection

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Just Asking . . .

Could there be a better advertisement for campaign finance reform in New York than the New York Times's weekly exposes of the Senate Majority Leader's creative and apparently legal use of campaign funds?

For a detailed description of all that is wrong with New York's campaign finance laws, and how rather troubling practices -- like investing hundreds of thousands of dollars of campaign funds into local companies -- can be legal, look here and here.

Categories: General, Campaign Finance

Friday, January 12, 2007

Deal Emerging on Judicial Selection?

This blog has devoted a considerable amount of space to Lopez-Torres (a case brought by the Brennan Center) and the Second Circuit's holding that New York must find a more open system for selecting judges for the Supreme Court (currently the system is dominated by party bosses at "judicial conventions").

As Jason Boog of Judicial Reports notes, since that decision has come down, the Brennan Center has been at odds with many of its traditional allies over how to satisfy New York State law and ensure that party bosses do not continue to dominate the selection of judges.

Finally, however, a compromise floated by the Brennan Center's Fritz Schwarz may bring these groups together:

Although [Fritz Schwarz] continued to insist on allowing candidates to petition their way onto primary ballots, he also embraced a continuing convention apparatus — albeit earlier in the year and with spots on the ballot for anyone gaining even a quarter of delegate votes. The idea emulates the nominating systems used for statewide offices, many of which have a convention bypass option to gather signatures and force primaries.

“This solution would give voters and candidates a real voice and a genuine opportunity to participate, while involving political parties in a way that is familiar to all participants in our State,” he explained.

Judicial Reports notes that "interviews this week with other key players in the reform debate indicate growing support for some version of such a compromise."

Categories: General, Judicial Selection

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The Brennan Center Does Not Support or Oppose Political Candidates

Despite recent insinuations to the contrary, the Brennan Center does not support Assemblyman Morelle in his bid to become the new Comptroller. But Morelle's supporters should not be too crestfallen at this because the Brennan Center does not support or oppose any candidate for public office.

There was some confusion this week when lawyer Jeremy Creelan released a letter praising Morelle's commitment to reform and recommending him for the Comptroller position. Creelan previously worked as a Deputy Director of the Brennan Center's Democracy Program, but he is now an associate at Jenner & Block and, we stress, a private citizen. In his letter, he was in no way speaking for the Brennan Center.

Read our official statement on the issue.

After initially posting otherwise, the New York Observer's Politicker now correctly writes: "Creelan was in private practice by the time he sent his letter in support of Morelle. The Brennan Center does not support any candidates."

Categories: General

A Democratic, Efficient and Equitable System

The Albany Project has a great graph showing the discrepancy in member item allocations for Republican and Democratic members. Brace yourself -- it's huge.

Categories: General

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Times Union responds to Bruno on redistricting

Yesterday’s editorial in the Albany Times-Union on redistricting and campaign finance was another impassioned and well-reasoned statement about the need for reform in New York government. The editorial points out that electoral competition is inhibited by the state's current laws, which do little to limit the amount of money in politics and allow legislators (through a commission that does their bidding) to draw their own district lines. New York has had its fair share of problems stemming from foxes guarding the proverbial henhouse, and some, the Brennan Center included, believe that more should be done to wrest control of linedrawing from those who stand to benefit the most from it. Further, we agree the ball needs to start rolling on this now, well before the 2010 and subsequent redistricting. If not, politicians will continue to drag their feet, stalling until they can make the argument that there is not enough time to successfully implement an independent commission.

To blame redistricting and campaign finance for the dysfunctional legislature's problems, is, of course, not the whole story. Indeed, New York seem to like their incumbents despite stagnation and gridlock, reelecting these legislators by large margins (Joseph Bruno was not even opposed in the 2006 general election) in districts that are highly competitive in other races (presidential, gubernatorial, etc.). It is unclear whether Spitzer’s victory will signal new voting patterns, but it certainly pointed to a mandate for reform, which he has placed at the top of his agenda. Campaign finance reform, in particular, is crucial to leveling the playing field for quality challengers, which is, in turn, an important piece of maintaining a responsive and accountable government. And redistricting reform can ensure that those challengers aren’t suddenly drawn out of the districts where they have built support. In 2006, 52 candidates in the state legislature were unchallenged. The voters deserve a better choice.

In short, we give high praise to the Times-Union calling Majority Leader Bruno to action. Additionally, we recognize that the focus of the Governor’s agenda is to make our state legislature an institution responsive to all New Yorkers, and that deserves even more applause.

Categories: General, Redistricting

Monday, January 08, 2007

Promoted from watchdogs to lions?

In this morning’s Ithaca Journal, Jay Gallagher uses a metaphor right off the pages of National Geographic to describe the current mood in Albany:
It wouldn't be surprising if members of the state Legislature these days feel like a herd of antelopes on some African savannah, cowering as the lions, or in this case “reformers,” circle around them.

Who will they pick off next? Better not fall behind the herd. They will show no mercy.
And indeed, if legislators refuse to get on board with the transformative changes New York so desperately needs, like an overhaul of the state ethics law, campaign finance reform, and an end to legislators drawing their own districts, they don’t deserve any mercy. Not from reformers and not from the voters they pretend to serve.

Categories: General

Sunday, January 07, 2007

More Thoughts on Ciber Fall Out

Nick Confessore reports in the New York Times on Friday that

New York State elections officials said on Thursday that they would consider suspending the testing of new voting machines in the state, after learning that the laboratory hired to perform the tests was temporarily barred by federal authorities last summer from accrediting new state voting systems.

State officials expressed dismay and shock at Ciber's problems with federal authorities, lending support to our theory that bad news for Ciber may be good news for New York officials who were afraid they might cost the state millions of dollars for failing to meet yet another federal deadline to purchase new voting machines:

“If we had known that, and if we had seen the report from them, we would have known why they were decertified, and maybe we wouldn’t have hired them to begin with, or maybe we would have made some remedial changes,” said Lee K. Daghlian, a spokesman for the New York State Board of Elections.

Mr. Daghlian said the board had requested a copy of a report prepared by the federal commission and would review it before making a final decision.

“It may not delay use of the new machines,” he said. “If this report comes in and it’s something really bad that we didn’t know about, we may have to start all over again.

And if they have to start all over again because federal authorities didn't warn them of Ciber's problems -- well, certainly the Department of Justice and the Federal courts can't blame them.

Categories: General, Voting

Thursday, January 04, 2007

And What Will Happen on January 16th?

As our Executive Director Michael Waldman has noted, January 3 was a very good day in New York for attention to issues the Brennan Center cares about. The new Governor introduced important proposals to reform New York’s campaign finance, legislative redistricting and ethics laws.

The one sour note was the decision of both chambers to continue to operate under their old rules -- the same rules that have produced the opaque, unrepresentative body we know too well. Just minutes before the Governor's State of the State, both chambers adopted the same operating rules they used last year. For now.

In the Assembly, just before the vote, Majority Leader Canestrari stated that the Assembly was adopting its old rules with the understanding that reform was an ongoing process and, leaving New Yorkers with some hope, anyway, that they might return to reforming the rules later in the session (as they did in February 2005).

Of more interest to us at the Brennan Center was the action in the Senate -- where the new/old rules were adopted only through January 15. On the 16th, the Senate must adopt new rules again. This should provide reform minded Senators with an opportunity to introduce new and better operating rules for the rest of the session. Who knows, there may be fireworks.

Categories: General, Legislative Rules

How Ciber's Problems May Help New York

Christopher Drew of the New York Times reports today that Ciber, the laboratory hired by New York State to test its new voting systems, has been temporarily barred from approving new machines.

At first blush, this might appear to be another voting system catastrophe for New York -- just one more bump on its incredibly slow and bumpy road to complying with the Help American Vote Act ("HAVA") and finally purchasing new voting machines (New York is behind every state in the nation in approving and buying new machines).

In fact, however, Ciber's problems may be just the excuse New York needs to get out of a sticky situation. Last year, after being sued by the Department of Justice for its failure to comply with HAVA's mandate to purchase new machines (while still taking money for them), New York State agreed -- under a court ordered consent decree -- to purchase and use new voting machines by September 2007. As the Albany Times Union and others reported last month, the New York State Board of Elections has recently determined that complying with this deadline was not going to be possible.

This was troubling for a number of reasons, not least that it might mean a loss of millions of dollars for New York. As the Times Union noted in December:

It's also unclear whether the latest setback will further jeopardize federal money the state was to get to help modernize its voting systems. New York was slated to receive at least $200 million, but the Justice Dept. may seek to cut that by $50 million for the missed deadlines so far.

The State is going to have to go back to the Justice Department and the Federal Court and work out a new agreement. It seems likely that Ciber's problems will provide the State with some cover as it seeks to have the consent order re-opened and modified.

Categories: General, Voting

Spitzer Says Tinkering with Judicial Selection Not an Option

Since prevailing in the landmark case Lopez-Torres -- which struck down the State's current party boss dominated process for selecting Supreme Court Judges -- the Brennan Center has argued that mere "tinkering" with that process (as proposed by some) will not be sufficient. If there are to be elections for Judges, the voters must have a say — the party bosses cannot continue to control who becomes a Judge in New York.

Today's New York Law Journal reports (subscription required) that at a post-State of the State news conference, Governor Sptizer made clear that he agrees with the Brennan Center, and that he will not allow such tinkering to substitute for changes the Courts have made clear are necessary:

"There are some who are saying let the court's mandate sit where it is and have an open primary," Mr. Spitzer said. "I think there is a superficial appeal to [open primaries] but the very real concern articulated by those who have spent a great deal of time looking at the judicial selection process is that the impact of money in those elections could be monumental. Whether we have an open primary process or restructure the conventions . . . there must be a way to primary onto the ballot. I will not support anything that has a closed convention structure, where only those who came out of the convention could be on the ballot."

Categories: General, Judicial Selection

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Bruno on Bonacic's Fate After Vote for Majority Leader

A Republican senator from the Catskills area, John Bonacic, has been trying to drum up a movement within the majority caucus to boot Joe Bruno out of the top majority position. He hasn’t had much success in recruiting members to his cause, and there has been some speculation about Bonacic’s fate after today’s leadership vote.

However, as reported by the Times Herald-Record:
When asked whether Bonacic might suffer repercussions for his insurrection, Bruno said, “There are no repercussions about anything.” “Life is what it is.”
We hope Majority Leader Bruno lives up to this statement. Under current Senate rules, the Majority Leader holds what amounts to absolute control over office space, resources, and which bills reach the floor of the Senate for a vote, which means that Senator Bonacic has taken a real chance by challenging Bruno’s power.

We also think that if Senator Bonacic is concerned with Bruno’s position in the Senate, he should sponsor a resolution amending the rules to relieve the Majority leader of exclusive control over the most basic member needs. The ability of a legislator to represent his or her constituents in government should not be contingent upon loyalty to a party leader.

Categories: General, Legislative Rules

Time for State Legislature to Step Up?

On the heels of Spitzer's inauguration, and with momentum for reform building, papers around the State call for the Legislature to become a more transparent, accountable and representative body. And to start making changes this week.

From the Daily News, an editorial entitled "Day One for the Legislature":

As is well known, after a nationwide study, NYU Law School's Brennan Center branded the Legislature America's worst a few years back. To rise above being a laughingstock, lawmakers made minimal changes. It was considered revolutionary, for example, that they ended empty-seat voting, a convenience that counted them as present and voting "yes" as long as they were somewhere in the Capitol.

Both houses will soon get down to formalizing new rules and procedures. This will be the time when lawmakers will first show whether they take seriously Spitzer's reform message. Will they ban the receipt of all gifts more pricey than a cup of coffee, as he is doing for the executive branch? Will they provide all members, whether in the majority or the minority, with equal staff and resources, as happens in Congress? Will they end their enslavement to lulus? They must.

And from the Syracuse Post Standard, "Be Fair And Share: Stop Allocating Tax Dollars on the Basis of Party and Loyalty." The Post-Standard points out what the Brennan Center highlighted in its most recent report on the State Legislature:

In a comparable period, the average member of the Senate majority was allotted $361,143.90 to spend on his or her office, compared with $197,390.80 for the minority senator. In the Assembly the numbers were $161,575.80 for the average majority member, $109,804.50 for the average minority member.

In other words, the average Senate Republican was able to spend 82 percent more than the average Senate Democrat. The average Assembly Democrat spent 47 percent more than his or her minority Republican counterpart.

The paper instists that the Legislature must do what's right: Equalize resources available to majority and minority lawmakers, including member items. Additional resources should go to legislators solely on the basis of need or other objective criteria - not party affiliation or loyalty.

Finally, we would be remiss if we didn't highlight Mark Bitz's excellent New Year's Eve op-ed, "How Legislative Rules in Albany," in which he calls on the Legislature to embrace basic rules changes, this week, to make the legislature more transparent and accountable.

We'll all be watching.

Categories: General, Legislative Rules

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Day 2: Some Friendly Suggestions

The New York Times leads with stories about Spitzer's likely push to change Albany's culture, and more particularly to overhaul the state's ethics laws.

The Brennan Center, Citizens Union, Common Cause New York, League of Women Voters New York and NYPIRG think the new Governor is on the right track. In Albany today, at 11 a.m., we have presented our "top 10 list" of needed ethics reforms. They are as follows:

Create an Independent Ethics Commission. Create a commission with jurisdiction over statewide elected officials, state officers and employees, state legislators, and legislative employees.

End “Pay to Play.” The infusion of large sums of money by businesses and unions with public contracts and lobbyists into the campaign coffers of elected representatives has generated a widespread public belief that contributors are “paying” those officials for the opportunity to “play” with the government. New York should join a growing number of states and localities with “pay to play” restrictions on lobbyists and public contractors.

Ban honoraria. As of January 2006, at least 23 states prohibited honoraria in some manner if offered in connection with a legislator’s official duties. Giving speeches and participating in public policy discussions are important parts of a public official’s job. To allow groups to offer state lawmakers honoraria for performing these duties, however, creates a real or apparent conflict of interest for public officials.

Restrict the personal use of campaign contributions. Restrictions on the personal use of campaign funds must be strengthened and enforced.

Strengthen the “revolving door” ban. Bans on “revolving door” lobbying seek to restrain former state government and party officials from using their government connections to benefit themselves, their clients or their business interests after they leave office.

Create more stringent requirements for financial disclosure for public officers. Financial disclosure requirements for state employees must be strengthened. It’s important that any ethics reform include ways to enhance the requirements for disclosure of financial information by state employees in various ways.

Require ethics training for lobbyists and for the governor, legislators, legislative employees, state agency officers, and state agency employees. Once good laws are on the books, the good way to prevent ethics violations is through education. A reform package should expressly require ethics training for all state officials, including the governor, and legislators, as well as continuing education in these areas provided by the state ethics commission.

Strengthen accountability of “member items” and other lump sum appropriations. Some of the most recent scandals have resulted from misuse of “member item” spending. Any ethics reform package should address such abuses. At the very least, the choices made about how to spend this money should be made public. If a member item system is to be continued, then a fairer allocation system coupled with better oversight must be established.

Strengthen ethical standards for public officials. We recommend that a new ethics law prohibits business relationships between public officials and lobbyists and those with receive government contracts. Moreover, a new law must make it clear that public officials cannot use public employees in order to provide personal services.

For more detail on these recommendations, look here.

Categories: General, Government Ethics