Friday, May 30, 2008

News on Notice

Last week, A554, a bill known as the Voting Rights Notification and Registration Act (VRNRA), passed the New York Assembly. . . again. The bill, which was introduced by Rep. Keith Wright, would provide systematic notice about voting rights to those convicted of felonies during sentencing and again when they become eligible to vote. It would also increase public education about voting requirements and would make criminal justice agencies assist with voter registration and absentee voting.

Year after year, legislators have been compelled to introduce bills to correct the gaping information void about voter eligibility for those with criminal convictions (For more on the de facto disenfranchisement of thousands of New Yorkers because of misinformation about voting rights, see a past post on this bill.) Since 1999, over a dozen bills with similar goals to the VRNRA have been introduced in the New York legislature. The vast majority of these bills died in committee. In 2006 the VRNA passed the Assembly, but was never even introduced in the Senate.

But the progress so far of the Voting Rights Notification and Registration Act marks a welcome break with the usual, grim pattern. Not only did the Assembly pass the bill, this time there is a companion bill in the Senate which enjoys bipartisan support. Republican Sen. Volker’s sponsorship helps bring this issue above the partisan fray and lends momentum to this issue at a critical moment.

In a year that has already elicited record breaking participation rates, it is clear that the time is now to help all eligible voters learn their rights and register to vote.

--Jude Joffe-Block, Research Associate

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Uprising Author on Colbert Tonight

As my colleague James mentioned awhile back, author David Sirota will be at events in New York tomorrow and next week promoting The Uprising, his new book on populism in America. For a preview, check out Sirota on The Colbert Report tonight on Comedy Central.

Event details:

May 30, Riverside Church, 7pm: "The Underground Uprising: Alternative Routes to Social Justice in the 21st Century"
with Bertha Lewis, New York ACORN

June 3, The Strand Bookstore, 7pm, discussing his book's chapter on the influence New York is having on American populism
with Senator Eric Schneiderman
Dan Cantor, Working Families Party
Joel Barkin, Progressive States Network
Andrea Batista Schlesinger

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Et Tu, Commission on Public Integrity?

Two weeks ago, my colleague Beth Foster and I wrote an op-ed in the Daily News about the naming of a city public school campus for a sitting state senator: What's in a name? Frankly, a pretty big political favor. (The paper's title.) Actually, there seems to a trend of public schools named for sitting state Senators.

In the piece, we recommended that the Commission on Public Integrity issue a ruling to make clear that such namings of a campus or a school at a minimum violates the spirit of the Public Officers Law.

The Commission answered in a disappointing, yet hardly surprising, aptly titled letter to the editor:

Sorry, Wrong Number

Albany: Andrew Stengel and Beth Foster wrote that the Commission on Public Integrity should rule against naming a cluster of schools in Queens after a state senator ("What's in a name? Frankly, a pretty big political favor," Opinions, May 14). The commission has jurisdiction only over the executive branch of state government, as well as lobbyists and their clients. This matter is not within our purview.

Walter C. Ayres, Director of Communications
Commission on Public Integrity

Yes, it's true that the Commission, which was created last March under the Public Employees Ethics Reform Act, lacks power over the legislative branch. (Such an arrangement might be a violation of separation of powers.)

My answer: So what?

If the Commission wanted to weigh in on the issue, it could do so for the executive branch. After all, there is no doubt this is a public integrity issue. A ruling along the lines we argue would apply to the governor, but would serve as both a precedent and a warning for the legislative branch.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Dismantling Barriers to Reentry in New York

Expanding access to higher education in prisons and for those leaving prison. Extending voting rights to people on parole. Limiting the imposition of fees and fines on those leaving prison.

These are a few of the proposals that reentry advocates will raise with the state legislature today at the 2nd annual Reentry Advocacy Day in Albany.

The New York Reentry Roundtable has created a comprehensive agenda for reform that identifies reentry legislation the Roundtable is supporting on matters relating to employment, housing, family reunification, higher education, healthcare, financial debt, political participation, and sentencing reform.

As we’ve mentioned in past posts, New York’s laws that disenfranchise people on parole are not only unfair, but lead to confusion about who is eligible to vote, even among county Board of Election officials. This confusion further contributes to the de facto disenfranchisement of thousands of eligible voters and dilutes the voting power of the state’s communities of color.

Today, advocates will be lobbying in favor of a number of bills that address these very issues: A. 5555, a bill to extend voting rights to people on parole, S. 1934, a bill to correct the U.S. census policy of counting prisoners where they are incarcerated instead of their home communities, and S. 7012, the Voting Rights Notification and Registration Act, which will provide notice about voting rights eligibility to individuals within the criminal justice system’s supervision or recently discharged who are eligible to vote.

Barriers that discourage formally incarcerated individuals from becoming full, productive members of society are counter-productive to the communal goals of enhancing public safety and reducing the costs of prison. We encourage legislators to open their doors and listen closely to the advocates visiting Albany today. It is in everyone’s interest to make successful reentry a reality in New York.

--Jude Joffe-Block, Research Associate, Democracy Program

Friday, May 16, 2008

Whose Pension Bill Is it Anyway?

As Danny Hakim of the New York Times points out today in an enterprising story, the financial impact of a bill to grant thousands of city workers early retirement was provided by the unions who support it. On its face, there's nothing wrong with a union supplying analysis, except that it's included in the bill's language making it appear as if it's the government's own conclusion or as if independently verified.

Lawmakers, or in this case the union, claim the new benefit won't result in a cost, while the city says it will be $200 million in red ink annually. (Put aside that the Times goes on to quote the union's actuary hedging that the bill if enacted would actually cost a fourth of what the city estimates.)

What do the bill's sponsors, Senator Martin Golden and Assemblyman Peter J. Abbate Jr., have to say for themselves? Assemblyman Abbate told the Times: "It’s their bill." Actually, he's the elected official and it's his name that is affixed to the bill.

There's nothing wrong with a union or a non-government organization providing analysis or guidance for legislators. However, this affair illustrates the utter lack of transparency in the state legislature and lack of initiative of some members. Assemblyman Abbate's claim is shameful.

What's next? Would he introduce a bill to sell the Brooklyn Bridge because a friendly special interest group hands him a piece of paper that claims it's a good idea?

It's problematic whether he knew did or didn't know what was in the bill. So, I ask: what did or didn't he know and when did or didn't he know it?

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Bestselling Author to Discuss “The Uprising” – New Book on Rise of Populism in New York and Across the Country

Readers of this blog absolutely won’t want to miss the opportunity to hear and meet one of America’s leading progressive authors, David Sirota, in New York City on May 30 and June 3. The New York Times has called Sirota a “populist rabble-rouser” with a “take no-prisoners mind-set.” Meanwhile Barron’s has said that Sirota may emerge as the “answer” to Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter.

From personal experience as both campaign colleague and loyal reader, I can attest that Sirota is a sharp strategist; an incisive writer; and an extremely compelling, while also refreshingly humorous, speaker. His first book, Hostile Takeover: How Big Money & Corruption Conquered Our Government — And How We Take It Back quickly became a bestseller. Why? Because Sirota’s thorough research, direct style, and merciless truth-telling resonated with the readers around the country who have made him one of America’s leading syndicated columnists. That’s also why he is a regular pundit on programs ranging from NPR’s Talk of the Nation to Comedy Central’s Colbert Report.

A veteran of political campaigns and of the Center for American Progress, where the National Review described his work as “the most aggressive, most energetic opposition research in politics,” Sirota’s new book The Uprising: An Unauthorized Tour of the Populist Revolt Scaring Wall Street and Washington, hits shelves on May 27th.

The Uprising is the product of exhaustive research on populism in America today. Pertinently for readers of this blog, it includes an entire chapter on populism in New York politics, with Sirota reporting on the Working Families Party’s efforts to throw control of the State Senate to Democrats. It also features inside stories on major figures from across the political spectrum, from CNN’s Lou Dobbs, and Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer, to Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillorsen and former Connecticut Senate candidate Ned Lamont.

Sirota has two major rollout events planned in New York City, each with a slightly different emphasis. Readers of this blog know well how desperately New York — and America — needs fresh perspectives. Sirota is that and more. He is fresh perspective and fireball rolled into one.

I’ll simply say this: if you have the opportunity to join Sirota at the events below, I personally assure you that you will leave with your mind churning; your passions stirred; and your optimism for reform piqued. I hope to see you there.

May 30, Riverside Church, 7pm: "The Underground Uprising: Alternative Routes to Social Justice in the 21st Century"
with Bertha Lewis, New York ACORN

June 3, The Strand Bookstore, 7pm, discussing his book's chapter on the influence New York is having on American populism
with Senator Eric Schneiderman
Dan Cantor, Working Families Party
Joel Barkin, Progressive States Network
Andrea Batista Schlesinger

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

What's In a Name Part 2:
Ken LaValle School of Law?

As my colleague Beth Foster and I point out in an op-ed in today's Daily News, there's a troubling trend afoot in the state. Several public schools and their multi-mullion dollar facilities are named after sitting legislators who steer funding their way.

Now comes news that this year's budget has $45 million for a law school at SUNY Stony Brook , thanks to state Senator Ken LaValle. The senator's name already graces the university's $22 million outdoor stadium, which seats over 8,000. (Photo below.)

The law school appropriation is listed in the Education, Labor and Family Assistance Budget Bill (S 6803-D/A 9803-D), which is available here and listed under "Budget Bills" (direct link unavailable).

Can the Ken LaValle School of Law be next? We hope not.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

If you don't have plans tonight . . . .

Tonight, the Brennan Center and the Democracy and Voting Issue Group of the American Constitution Society will present “The Current State of Voter ID: Voting Rights After Crawford v. Marion County Election Board and Indiana Democratic Party v. Rokita.”

The event will feature our own Wendy Weiser, in addition to Jenigh Garrett, Assistant Counsel, NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc., Robert K. Kelner, Partner and Chair of the Election and Political Law Practice Group, Covington & Burling LLP, and Nathaniel Persily, Professor of Law, Columbia Law School. The event will be moderated by Professor Rick Pildes of NYU School of Law and take place from 6:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m., at the Kimmel Center, New York University, Room 905, 60 Washington Square South. There is no cost to attend this event.

Monday, May 12, 2008

In Case You Missed It

Over the weekend, the N.Y. Times makes a compelling case for Governor Patterson to begin pushing hard for reform. An often overlooked argument in favor of reform, particularly relevant as New York seems to head for an economic slowdown? "It is very, very cheap."

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Bored at the Board of Elections

As the Times Union's Captiol Confidential writes today, NYPIRG's inquiries to the state Board of Elections about corporations violating the $5,000 contribution cap in 2006 and 2007 have gone unresolved. According to state law the max contribution is $5,000 per corporation, not per candidate.

In 2006, NYPIRG discovered overages of nearly $150,000 and more than triple the next year. Meanwhile, the board, which received notice from NYPIRG one year ago from today is “in the midst of a complete review of filings reporting 2006 political contributions,” according to a letter from this February.

Three points come to mind. First, the board needs to get to work--or else. Why aren't the committees in the state legislature with oversight power--either elections or oversight--investigating?

Second, enforcement of campaign finance laws is non-existent in this case. The board's modus operandi seems to be trust and never verify.

Finally, maybe the violations were unintentional, maybe not. But, given many of the contribution limits under state law it's no wonder why a corporation might assume that the $5,000 is per candidate, not per election. For example, each affiliated or subsidiary corporation, if a separate legal entity, has its own limit. Or, an individual may contribute up to a total of $150,000.00 in a calendar year. Party or constituted committees may receive up to $94,200 from any individual contributor in a year.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Pork and Potatoes

Many, many voices--elected officials, reformers and editorial pages alike--have weighed in with disdain about the allocation of pet projects in the federal and state budgets, known as member items here at home. Last week, the Senate and Assembly released their member item data, renewing calls from around the state for change. It's worth summarizing the reaction from many points of view:

The practice is bad from a budget standpoint. In a year when lawmakers were trying to find something, anything, to cut from the budget, many say it's irresponsible to allow legislators to dole out pork like any other year. As the Press & Sun-Bulletin notes, "Defenders of the cash piles argue that the 'discretionary items' they finance are small potatoes in a $122 billion budget. True, but those were our potatoes to begin with." Attorney General Cuomo's office is stepping up to try to eradicate outright corruption, but especially in a fiscal crunch, shouldn't we expect our elected officials to be a bit more careful with our tax dollars?

The practice is fundamentally unfair to districts that elect members of the minority party. Even if you agree that legislators should have some small pot of money to give to the most worthy causes in their districts, there is no excuse for partisan distribution of member items. The population of each legislative district is constitutionally required to be substantially equal, yet NYPIRG found that the average Assembly Republican doles out a mere quarter of the amount received by the district of the average Democrat. The Senate disparity is even worse, with Senate Republicans taking home eight times the pork of the average Democrat.

The practice is wholly political. As NYPIRG's numbers show, legislative leaders not only funnel more funding to majority members, but they also prioritize within their own conferences to help their most vulnerable members. Democratic senators are also talking about severely limited member item funding for Republicans if control of the Senate flips this fall. The current practice is despicable and its continuation after a Democratic takeover would be equally deplorable.

We second the notion that it's time New Yorkers received real equality and accountability in member items. Whether pork or potatoes, the distribution ought to be based on the worthiness of the project, not the political power of the individual representative and majority party.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

New Campaign Finance Deal Should Do Better

My colleagues Andrew Stengel and Laura MacCleery have an op-ed in today's Times Union urging state lawmakers to once again take up negotiations on campaign finance reform. They argue that the deal reached by Governor Spitzer and legislative leaders last year should only be the starting point for an improved package of much-needed reforms, including lower contribution limits, elimination of loopholes, and enhanced enforcement.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Ignorance About ID

This Saturday, the New York Post ran an editorial under the headline "Voter-ID Hysteria" about the Supreme Court decision in the restrictive Indiana voter ID law and the subsequent response, most notably by Senator Schumer.

Without analyzing the failings of the decision, which our colleague Justin Levitt does brilliantly here and here, it's worth noting that the Post's editorial makes the false point that (what they call) voter fraud is a widespread problem. That simply isn't the case. Levitt proves that the notion of voter fraud is itself a fraud in his report "The Truth About Fraud."

The most common forms of government-issued photo ID are a drivers license and a passport (the Indiana law requires a current, i.e., non-expired ID). We take for granted that everybody surely has a government-issued photo ID. But why would you have an ID, which costs money, if you didn't need one?

We take for granted that everybody owns a car. We take for granted that everybody travels on airplanes. At the same time, we take for granted that millions of Americans rely on public transportation. And, we take for granted that million of Americans are in poverty. We shouldn't take for granted the right of everybody--read: all U.S. citizens at least 18 years of age--to vote.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Albany Times Union, Governor Paterson
and High Hopes for Low Limits

While on a bus to DC this morning, our colleague Beth Foster spotted today's Albany Times Union editorial that takes Governor Paterson to task for not abiding by his predecessor's self-imposed $10,000 max contribution limit.

I posted earlier this week about the news under the title of The $55,900 Question. To reiterate, I don't blame the governor for not taking the pledge--I blame the high limits. Moreover, Governor Spitzer, who created (and skirted) the pledge had quite the Rolodex for fundraising given his elite pedigree.

In fact, in 1998 then-Attorney General candidate Spitzer admitted to the New York Times that his father loaned him money in 1994 to repay more than $9 million of bank notes to finance his first campaign. (Disclosure: I was a consultant to Eliot during his first run for attorney general, but had no knowledge of his campaign finances.) Our new governor, however, comes from a far more humble background.

Back to the issue at hand, as one of our wise coalition partners put it, we can't really expect a unilateral disarmament from Governor Paterson. So, in the meantime we trust there's work underway to fix the underlying problem.

However we'd be awfully disappointed if the Times Union turned out to be right: "Oh, Mr. Paterson may yet come out with a campaign finance reform proposal before the legislative session wraps up. He might feign indignation when it somehow fails to pass."

Echoing the words of the Chairman of the Board: We still have high hopes.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Senate Minority Rules

It's not often that legislators speak out on the need for rules reform, and less so when a leader of a house does. But that's what Senate Minority Leader Malcolm Smith did earlier this week in the Albany Times-Union:

"Legislative rules bottle up good ideas instead of setting them free. Bad ideas favored by special interests rush forward with little review or consideration, and good ideas are killed in committee, delayed, set aside or worse. In our state Senate, one person -- the majority leader -- can stop any piece of legislation from being considered, debated and voted on, regardless of the impact on millions of New Yorkers in need of government action. The current system of ethics and oversight has resulted in less public trust in government at a time when we need to demonstrate competence and effectiveness in order to deliver meaningful results for New Yorkers. All lawmakers and government officials must recognize and respect bright-line rules for fairness and accountability in the use of government resources, while avoiding clear conflicts of interest in their private and family lives."

True he's in the minority, which is actually only a single seat.

The full op-ed is here.