Friday, June 29, 2007

Time for Spitzer and Bruno to Spend Time on the Couch?

Gabe Pressman from WNBC in New York City thinks Albany could use a good therapist. Writing about the ongoing feud between Governor Spitzer and Senate Majority Leader Bruno, he says, "There seems to be deep, personal antagonism between the two men. But if there is, they ought to grit their teeth and find a way to carry on. There's a great need for them to get along."

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Lord Bruno of the Banana Republic of Albany

The Daily News editorial staff blasted Senate Majority Leader Bruno this morning for his response to Governor Spitzer's accusations that the Senate leader was to blame for the end-of-session disappointment. They write:
Hearing Bruno knock Spitzer for being autocratic was hilarious considering nothing happens in the Senate without the blessing of Lord Bruno of the Banana Republic of Albany. Unaccustomed to being asked to play by someone else's rules, he is responding with less aplomb than fellow Lord Sheldon Silver The Sly, Assembly Speaker.
While these jabs are good for a chuckle, the Daily News also gets down to business, calling on Bruno to join Senate Minority Leader Smith and Assembly leadership in open negotiations on the big issues that were left on the table last week. We especially like the suggestion that the sessions be webcast.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Reform A.M. for June 26

The Glens Falls Post Star thinks the Legislature could learn a thing or two from the state's hardworking students.

A lobbyist is already threatening to challenge restrictions on lobbyist and city contractor campaign contributions that hasn't even been passed yet by the New York City Council.

Bill Hammond at the Daily News agrees with Governor Spitzer that Senate Majority Leader Bruno is to blame for the "end-of-session collapse."

Monday, June 25, 2007

Unregulated Work in the Global City

Last week, our colleague Annette Bernhardt and her team released Unregulated Work in the Global City, a report describing how the systematic violation of federal, state, and local law is threatening to become a way of life in New York City's major low-wage industries.

Over three years, their intensive research documented a city where jobs pay less than minimum wage, and sometimes nothing at all; where employers do not pay overtime for 60-hour weeks, and deny meal breaks that are required by law; where vital health and safety regulations are routinely ignored, even after injuries occur; and where workers are subject to blatant discrimination, and retaliated against for speaking up or trying to organize.

The report focuses on New York City, but the authors believe these conditions exist throughout the American economy.

Read the full report, or check out the individual industry profiles. Also check out the commentary on The Nation blog and TPM Cafe.

Group Enumerating U.S. Catholics Runs into Same Snags as Secretaries of State

USA Today reports this morning that the 2007 Official Catholic Directory will be released this week. The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate estimates that there are over 64 million Catholics in the United States, but they note that there are likely "ghosts" included on their lists--people who have died or disaffiliated with the religion.

It's always interesting to find parallels with the problems election officials have faced in implementing the Help America Vote Act. They have had to walk the fine line (sometimes successfully and sometimes less so), trying to rid their rolls of dead or ineligible citizens without purging legitimate registrations. Elections officials must be even more careful than those surveying the population, though, because in the elections context, being left out of the count means the denial of the fundamental right to vote.

Governing without the Legislature

Toward the end of a Saturday New York Times article by Danny Hakim, which details the Governor's "significant disappointment" in his ability to move the legislature toward greater reform -- and in particular toward passing campaign finance reform -- the Governor is quoted as stating that he is looking forward to working without the state legislature:

There is an unbelievable opportunity now to govern through the agencies, and that’s frankly what I’m really looking forward to.

While we share the Governor's frustration, we cannot agree that governing without the legislature is the solution to its dysfunction or the problems that dysfunction has caused. There is only so much that can be done without the legislature -- legitimate change must involve the legislature and the legislative process.

The real answer is reforming the legislature itself -- so that the public and rank-and-file members can facilitate needed changes, even over the objections of Bruno and Silver. That means the end to solutions created by the three leaders in backrooms, and greater power for standing committees and individual legislators to hold hearings and set the legislative agenda.

After three years of pushing for such change, we won't claim that this is an easy goal. But it's still the best chance to fundamentally change the way Albany works (or more specifically, doesn't).

Friday, June 22, 2007

Time to look to Governor Spitzer?

The Assembly took a step in the right direction yesterday by passing A554, the Voting Rights Notification and Registration Act. This bill, introduced by Assemblyman Keith Wright, seeks to clear the fog of misinformation and confusion that currently surrounds the voting rights of people with felony convictions in New York.

The bill would amend the election code to require clear and systematic notice to individuals of their voting rights once they regain their eligibility. It will also require criminal justice agencies to provide assistance with voter registration and voting by absentee ballot, and will assure that corrections and elections agencies share the data necessary to verify voter eligibility.

While New York election law disfranchises only those individuals incarcerated or on parole because of a felony conviction, there is a widespread misunderstanding of the law among affected communities and elections officials. A 2005 report by The Sentencing Project found that close to 60 percent of New Yorkers under the supervision of the criminal justice system did not know that an individual on probation could vote, and more than 60 percent reported that no one ever informed them of their voting rights.

A 2006 survey by the Brennan Center and Demos found that approximately half of New York's 63 local boards of elections were not aware of the eligibility requirements. Thousands of eligible New Yorkers may have been misinformed as a result.

The New York State Board of Elections has since taken steps to educate elections officials about the voting rights of people with felony convictions. Nevertheless, this legislation is necessary to both remedy past errors and to ensure that these errors are not allowed to continue.

Given that there was no companion legislation in the Senate and the legislative session ends in a matter of hours, the bill’s passage in the Assembly will not result in a change in New York law. Unfortunately, bill A554 is destined to be the 23rd bill in a period of eight years that attempted to ensure the voting rights of eligible New Yorkers with felony convictions but failed to become law. Going forward, advocates will look to Governor Spitzer to provide leadership on this important issue.

Judith Joffe-Block

Legislative Dysfunction: Example 425,701

The AP reports that despite the fact that there is universal agreement that it will be impossible for New York to meet the current state mandated deadline (September 2007) for replacing lever machines, the two chambers could not come to agreement on a new date before the legislative session ended.

"They have to do something," said Lee Daghlian, a spokesman for the state Board of Elections.

Can we suggest that when they return to Albany, each chamber pass something, and then convene a conference committee?

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Reform A.M.

The New York Times reports that Spitzer and legislative leaders are still bartering over campaign finance reform, pay raises for legislators and judges, and congestion pricing.

The Times Herald-Record compares the end of the legislative session to the Sopranos finale.

The Democrat & Chronicle thinks legislators should stay in Albany until they handle pending issues like expanding the DNA database, capital confinement, campaign finance reform, and power plant siting.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The Importance of Hearings on Bills

There is no better time to understand what's wrong with the way the New York State legislature works than right now. In the closing weeks of a New York legislative session, dozens of bills pass through committees and each chamber's floor with no debate and little indication that the legislators have reviewed the bills on which they are voting.

The Assembly, in particular, has gotten better about holding hearings on general topics: economic development, judicial reform, redistricting, property taxes, have all been the subject of hearings in the legislature in the last couple of years.

But rare indeed is the hearing in which legislators review, and ask the public to comment on, the language of a bill they are about to vote on.

Why does this matter? In a commentary issued today, Bo Lipari of New Yorkers for Verified Voting shows how the legislature's reluctance to hold heaerings on bills makes it all too likely that controversial and potentially troubling language will get slipped into bills and passed into law without the public (or even most legislators) being any the wiser. In this case, the language in question appears to be an attempt by Microsoft to weaken the State's ability to review the code running its soon to be purchased electronic voting machines:

[The] bill's stated purpose is to make “technical changes” to the recent law moving the date of New York's presidential primary to February. Because this bill involving the new primary date must be passed next week before the Legislative session ends (New York has jumped on the bandwagon to be part of the super presidential primary in February 2008) this grave weakening of the public’s right to review software would come along part and parcel with the primary date change. The players promoting this behind the scenes are relying on the fact that this reprehensible eradication of citizen protections won't be noticed until it's too late. If Microsoft and the vendor lobbyists had their way, the public would have known nothing about this until after the law passed.

If true, it's reprehensible, but nothing new. And it provides yet another example of the need for real transparency and substantive hearings on bills before they become law.

Reform A.M.

Mayor Bloomberg scraps his affiliation with the Republican Party.

State Assembly passes Spitzer's gay marriage bill.

Activists gear up to fight Microsoft's attempts to change the law requiring the code for voting machines software to be put in escrow.

The New York Times profiles Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Reform A.M.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver says a pay raise for judges and legislators is "still on the table."

The Times Union gives a rundown of the end-of-session activity in the Legislature.

The Governor's approval rating is up, while the Legislature's is down.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Reform A.M. (in the P.M.)

Sorry for the delay, folks.

The New York Times reports that partisanship and campaign finance and ethics laws are stifling Albany's nightlife.

The Journal News sees this year's legislative session as a sign of progress.

The Times Union thinks Senator Griffo's campaign finance hearings would have looked less like a stalling tactic earlier in the session.

The Niagara Gazette advocates cameras in the courtroom.

State aid has given Buffalo greater financial stability.

Friday, June 15, 2007

What New York Has In Common With Brazil

It's not the tropical weather, and it's not soccer great Pele. It's not even a certain hair removal technique popular in Brazil.

According to the Strange Maps blog, New York and Brazil have roughly the same gross domestic product, though the authors note that this figure is slightly misleading, as the country and our state do not have comparable populations.

Check out the map to see which countries line up with the rest of the states. Our favorites: Algeria (played by West Virginia) and Uzbekistan (played by Wyoming).

Reform A.M.

The Governor and legislative leaders have reached a deal to reform Wicks Law, which currently requires localities to hire multiple contractors for public works projects.

Yesterday's leader's meeting brought out tempers on campaign finance.

The AARP wants a bill requiring doctors to disclose gifts from pharmaceutical companies.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Forums Are Fine, but Action Is Better

In a press release issued Tuesday, New York Republican Party Chairman Joseph Mondello touted the Senate's plan to hold public forums on campaign finance reform as "an admirable effort to engage experts and the public in an open, thoughtful debate."

The Brennan Center is always happy when either chamber of the legislature holds public hearings on matters of grave public importance. But we hardly share Mondello's sentiment that the Senate's actions in the area of campaign finance reform are "admirable."

The Senate did this year what it always does - it allowed its leadership to stall and ultimately kill any campaign finance legislation that was introduced. We all already know that New York's campaign finance system is broken. Good government groups and other experts have written countless reports, letters, and op-eds explaining in detail how painfully inadequate our laws are. And a recent Siena poll shows that the vast majority of New Yorkers believe the Governor's proposal would make elections fairer.

The Senate should hold hearings on the Governor's much-needed campaign finance reforms - and then it should pass them. If the hearings are legitimate, it will be apparent that anything less is just another cop out.

Reform A.M.

The Election Assistance Commission has refused to certify CIBER, the company New York State has hired to test new electronic voting machines.

Lt. Governor David Paterson touts lower contribution limits at an event sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Rockland County.

The state Senate has approved a bill to put cameras back in New York courtrooms.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Reform A.M.

Since there are always reform-related stories that we don’t get a chance to comment on, we thought we’d start putting all that news in a quick post first thing in the morning. If any stories catch your eye that we miss, shoot us a comment!

Rochester Democrat & Chronicle guest essayist says legislators don’t deserve a pay raise.

Spitzer and the Yankees are held to a higher standard.

Senate Elections Committee to hold its first meeting on campaign finance this morning.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Then Let's Get Asking!

The New York Times ran a story this morning highlighting the jump in political giving from limited liability corporations in the last few years. Donations from LLCs went from less than $5 million per year from 1999 to 2005 to almost $12 million in 2006.

The Times reports that the state Board of Elections followed the lead of the federal government and began treating LLCs as separate from their parent company or controlling partners in the mid-1990s. This means that individuals and corporations can skirt New York's contribution limits by donating to parties and candidates through their LLCs. Governor Spitzer's campaign finance reform proposal would ban LLCs from making campaign donations.

Unfortunately, the Board failed to continue following the federal lead several years later when federal rules were tightened to count all LLC donations toward the limit on the controlling individuals.

When asked why New York's rule wasn't similarly revisited, Board spokesman Lee Daghlian said, "It probably was not revisited because no one asked that it be done."

Then let's get asking! This change would by no means count as comprehensive campaign finance reform, but it would close up a significant loophole.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Not That Anyone Needed Reminding

Everyone has a favorite example of how the Legislature's dysfunction leads to inaction, with little ability on the part of New Yorkers to hold their individual legislators accountable. From the Working Families Blog, which has been particularly focused on paid family leave this week:

There's no better example of Albany dysfunction than a Republican State Senate that says they support giving paid time off to parents of newborns (or newly adopted children) and adults who need time to care for ailing relatives, but then not actually passing the bill.

More to the point: there's no better example of Albany dysfunction than a majority of members of a chamber saying they support a bill, but never actually voting on it.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Stand Strong, Spitzer

Yesterday's New York Sun analyzed the struggle between the Legislature and the Governor during the waning days of the legislative session. The Sun reports that some legislators “are predicting that Mr. Spitzer will break the logjam and downgrade his demands on a campaign finance bill.”

We urge the Governor to stand strong. Far from being a radical approach, the Governor’s proposal is a reasonable, carefully crafted package that would go a long way toward fixing New York’s broken campaign finance system. We must lower our contribution limits and close up the biggest loopholes that riddle the current law.

Pay raise or no pay raise, New York’s legislators should pass the Governor’s campaign finance reform proposal before the end of the session. And while compromise is an essential part of the legislative process, we should not allow the bill's detractors to water down these important reforms.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Bloomberg on Millionaire Candidates

This tidbit from Mayor Bloomberg on millionaire candidates (via Empire Zone):
Being wealthy doesn’t guarantee you get elected. Two years ago I think there were 22 millionaires running for Congress, and only two got elected. So money is certainly helpful but is hardly the end-all and the be-all...I suggest that anyone who goes into office first go out and become a billionaire. It does make it a lot easier. But you still have to do a good job — the public’s not that stupid.
The Mayor and the Speaker of the City Council are trying to tighten up New York City's campaign finance laws to ban "pay-to-play" contributions to candidates from those seeking city contracts.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Rachel Leon Leaving Common Cause New York for JEHT Foundation

Rachel Leon, a ten year veteran at Common Cause New York and close ally of the Brennan Center, will be leaving her post as executive director in July to become Senior Program Manager for the Fair and Participatory Elections program at the JEHT Foundation. We wish her all the best in her new position and hope to continue working closely with both her and Common Cause.

Can we hear a "Hey Hey, Ho Ho, Gerrymandering's Got to Go!" for Rachel? Or substitute another favorite Reform NY Day cheer. Altogether now!

Monday, June 04, 2007

Cornell Grad Highlights Importance of Student Participation in Government

Being from a small town in Central New York, I was delighted this weekend when, at a barbecue in Williamsburg (Brooklyn, not Colonial), I met an alderman from Ithaca, Gayraud Townsend.

What impressed me about Townsend is that he is only a year or so older than me. A Washington, DC native, he decided to run for the Common Council during his junior year at Cornell.

In an interview with the Ithaca Journal during his 2003 campaign, Townsend said, “I decided to run for council basically because I feel that students should have a voice in the community process…I've always been an activist in the community, and I saw an opportunity for me to take hold of something.”

Students and young people, just like any other group, need representatives in government to look out for their interests, but they are some of the least likely to see one of their own ranks in an elected position.

As longtime advocates of student participation in voting and government, we think it’s great to see someone like Townsend postponing his career for four years to ensure that students in Ithaca are getting a fair shake.

It is also refreshing to see a politician keep his word. Townsend promised during his campaign that he would serve out his full four-year term, despite his impending graduation in 2005. Townsend is three years in and planning to serve until the end of 2007.

Poughkeepsie Journal Editorial on the Need for Campaign Finance Reform

The Poughkeepsie Journal highlights one of the many reasons New York needs campaign finance reform:
Worst yet, enforcers have done a lousy job monitoring existing campaign finance laws. The Gannett News Service in Albany reported about 160 corporations and nonprofits apparently violated New York's limit on campaign contributions in the 2006 elections alone, basing information on a study by a coalition of good-government groups.

Some companies went well beyond the $5,000 donation - but found ways around the law by making some of the contributions to political committees, not to specific lawmakers. Incredibly, the state Board of Elections, which should have more oversight over these transactions, has only one person assigned to investigate these cases. This has to change.
Governor Spitzer's plan would close the loophole that allows corporations and individuals to bypass campaign contribution limits by donating through limited liability corporations.

Comparing New York Government to Iraqi Leaders

In a Saturday letter to the editor of the Elmira Star-Gazette, Vincent Azzarelli from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad writes:
Jay Gallagher's May 27 column about the chances for a death penalty vote in the Legislature was an interesting perspective on the idea of Rule of Law in New York, while we are trying to impose much harsher benchmarks and rules in Iraq.

Imagine how the Iraqis view a column like Gallagher's: The leadership of New York state won't vote because it's too politically dangerous; yet we continually ask the Iraqi politicians to vote and risk their lives, not just political careers.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Spitzer Joins Brennan Center in Convening of Civic Leaders on Campaign Finance Reform

This afternoon, Governor Eliot Spitzer joined the Brennan Center for Justice in convening a meeting of civic, business and educational leaders to discuss the need for campaign finance reform in New York State.

Among the Governor's comments:
Rooting out the pervasive influence of special interests from state government will not be accomplished through the actions of elected officials alone, but will require the support of civic-minded individuals and organizations...Today, the Brennan Center for Justice and other like-minded individuals have reaffirmed their unwavering commitment to ending the stranglehold special interests have on Albany and allowing our elected officials to be held accountable to the public.
Photos to come!