Monday, June 28, 2010

Closed-Door Budget Negotiations: Déjà Vu All Over Again

At this time last year, the State Senate had blown through the last scheduled day of session without finishing its legislative business for the year. The chamber, still in a state of post-coup deadlock, was unmoved by increasingly angry calls from the governor to convene in extraordinary session to pass the bills necessary to keep government entities afloat in the new fiscal year. Approval ratings for the legislature were at an all-time low, and for good reason.

Sound familiar?

Both chambers of the legislature may technically be functioning this go-round, but the rest of the scene looks all too familiar – missed deadlines, questionably effective attempts by the governor to spur the legislature to action, and even lower approval ratings.

This time, of course, legislative leaders and the governor are deadlocked over the budget (which is now three months overdue), not majority leadership of a chamber. But little else has changed. The public leaders’ meetings on the budget have been light on substantive conversation and heavy on finger-pointing. The real negotiations – the contents of which we are forced to glean from often vague comments to the press – are happening behind closed doors.

After several three-way closed-door negotiating sessions with the governor, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Democratic Leader John Sampson decided to break with the governor over the weekend and forge a two-way budget deal. When asked what caused the breakdown, Speaker Silver was vague on the details:

“Obviously the governor called us, his staff, and briefed us on his version of a three-way deal, which was a number of things that didn’t affect the budget, that, you know, didn’t help us get there, and things that neither house wanted.”

It’s unclear precisely what elements Silver refers to here, and while details of the two-way deal have trickled out over the last day, the legislative leaders are doing little to bring the budget debate into daylight now that it is entirely within their control. Today, Senator Sampson told reporters asking about the budget deal that they were “conferencing it,” which is to say they are discussing it in another closed-door meeting, this one attended by the Senate Democratic conference. It’s difficult to say if the Assembly is even doing that much.

It is worth noting that the roots of last year’s coup could be traced in part to an opaque budget process that offered little opportunity for open and substantive debate. Apparently our lawmakers haven’t learned their lesson.

Brennan Center files Complaint Against State and City Boards

You may have seen the article in today's Times. The complaint as filed is here.

The Times does a decent job of explaining the issue. As we've blogged before, this is a big but very basic problem, with a simple solution.

The problem: the State and City Boards have setup the new machines so that they do not give voters adequate warning of “overvotes”– ballots that cannot be read in full because the machine reads the ballot as having too many votes for a particular contest. Instead of returning the ballot, as is done in many other jurisdictions, in New York the ballot will be retained, and a computer screen with present the voter with a confusing message that includes a green “cast” button. Voters are not told if they press the green button, their vote will not count.

The only other time these voting machines have been used in the same way in a major election -- same confusing message, ballot not automatically rejected (13 counties in Florida in 2008) -- they produced overvote rates almost 14 times higher than expected, with thousands of votes for the presidential contest rejected – in comparison to almost no votes rejected in the 36 counties that automatically returned the ballots. Evidence shows that African Americans and Latinos, in particular, were disproportionately impacted by the lack of overvote protection.

The solution: the State and City Board can fix this problem by checking a box in the setup files that would automatically reject overvoted ballots. Despite numerous attempts by the Brennan Center and other voting rights groups to make this change, they have not done so.

In today’s New York Times, New York State Election Board spokespersons took issue with the Brennan Center’s proposed fix, arguing that in order to reset the machines, it would take a months of testing and that they would have to re-program thousands of machines.

That's simply not true. Numerous sources, including the State Board, the voting machine vendor and independent computer scientists have confirmed to us in the last several months that requiring the machines to return overvote ballots requires only "checking a box" in the setup file for these systems. These machines were built to allow the City and State Board to do this at anytime. It will not cause delay to do the right thing.

Monday, June 07, 2010

How a Bill Becomes A Law

Via Andrew Sullivan comes this handy chart for how a bill becomes a law. What's striking, of course, is how many of the things listed in this chart do not apply in the New York State legislature. Under "Committee Work," we'd have to get rid of hearings devoted to the bill in almost all cases, of course, as well as "mark-up," "final reading," and "report." And then there's introduction of amendments, voting on amendments, public debate, confirmation from an independent budget office that "the bill adheres to spending and revenue constraints," "conference committees," etc., etc. How many bills in New York go through even a majority of the items listed on this chart?