Blair Horner's Capitol Perspective

New York’s Voting System Set for a Long Overdue Overhaul

Posted by NYPIRG on January 14, 2019 at 8:57 am
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We have all seen the grim voting statistics: New York – considered by many to be a progressive state – has one of the lowest voter participation rates in the nation.

The numbers tell the story. New York State had a voting eligible population of nearly 13.8 million in 2018. However, only 12.7 million New Yorkers were listed by the State Board of Elections as either active or inactive voters for the same time period. That means over one million eligible citizens were not registered to vote. Obstacles to registration are one reason why there is such a significant shortfall.

But voter registration obstacles aren’t the only problem, as the impact on voter participation shows. In the 2018 general election, a stunningly low percentage of registered New Yorkers – 45.2 percent –voted. A review of the U.S. Elections Project’s data showed New York to have one of the ten worst turnouts in the nation. And that ranking is consistent with New York’s voter performance over the recent decades.

When New York is near – or at – the back of the nation in voting, why hasn’t the state acted? One reason is that partisan differences on the issue have blocked needed reforms. Another reason is that incumbents get elected by those who do vote – incumbents may fear that reforms that bring in new voters may put them at risk.

Yet, the rest of the nation has moved ahead, even when faced with similar circumstances. And their successes show the path for New York to follow. For example, one way to modernize New York’s voting system is to allow busy voters the opportunity to cast their ballots early. In 38 states and the District of Columbia, any qualified voter may cast a ballot in person during a designated period prior to Election Day. No excuse or justification is required. In New York, in order to vote by mail, a voter needs to request a ballot in advance and provide an excuse.

In the modern age where parents may have to juggle work, child care, and other family obligations, allowing voters to vote early and not just on a Tuesday in November is reasonable and necessary.

Another reform option is to allow young people to register to vote prior to their 18th birthday. 18 year olds are adults and have the right to vote, but allowing 16 and 17 year olds the option of pre-registering helps get young people engaged in the civic process.

In a state with abysmally low voter participation rates, only slightly more than half of New York’s youngest citizens are registered to vote. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 47% of New York’s 18-24-year-old citizens were registered for the November 2016 Presidential election. However, once registered, large numbers of young people turn out at the polls. According to the Census Bureau, 75% of New York’s 18-24 year olds who were on the rolls voted that year.

It is common-sense to enable students to pre-register at 16 or 17 years of age—the age where school is still compulsory and many come in contact with the Department of Motor Vehicles for licenses or non-driver’s identification cards.
Thirteen states and the District of Columbia permit preregistration beginning at 16 years old and four states permit preregistration beginning at 17 years old.

The most effective method for registering new voters would be to establish a system that allows voters to register and vote on Election Day. Fifteen states plus the District of Columbia offer “same-day registration” so any qualified resident of the state can go to register to vote and cast a ballot all in that day.

Each year, just as interest in elections and candidates begins to peak, potential voters find that the deadline for registering to vote has already passed. Here in New York, campaigns for statewide and local offices barely attract public attention before October. By the time voters begin to focus on the election, the deadline has already passed.

These reforms – and more – are expected to pass the Legislature this week. The package of voter reforms that will be taken up includes other changes to make voting easier, although more steps are necessary, particularly when it comes to automatic registration at government agencies and ensuring that those formerly incarcerated are able to register and vote.

For way too long, New Yorkers have had to endure obstacles to voting and a disgraceful pay-to-play campaign financing system. And to add insult to injury, for decades we’ve seen no movement for reform out of Albany. The new Senate Majority and their colleagues in the Assembly and the Governor’s mansion deserve credit for taking the first meaningful steps to strengthen New York’s democracy. This down payment on democracy should send a strong signal to New Yorkers that the days of voter frustration and cynicism may be coming to an end.

The New Year Boosts Momentum for Reform

Posted by NYPIRG on January 7, 2019 at 8:01 am
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The new Congressional House of Representatives announced last week that it would be advancing legislation to dramatically improve the nation’s democracy. The proposal, H.R. 1, (which has as yet not been introduced) would constitute a massive overhaul of how elections are run in America. Here are a few important ways that H.R. 1 improves America’s democracy:

H.R. 1 would improve voter registration by automatically registering citizens to vote any time they interact with a government agency. Currently, 15 states have programs that track the federal proposal. Experts predict that if H.R. 1 becomes law an additional 50 million new voters will be added to the rolls.

In addition, the bill would allow for same-day registration, which allows eligible voters to register at the polls on Election Day. Again, the Congressional plan is based on successful programs at the state level, offered in 16 states.

H.R. 1 would strengthen anti-discrimination powers in how voting is done. The bill would restore power to the 1965 Voting Rights Act by reversing a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that gutted public oversight of the way elections are run in parts of the nation that have had a history of voting discrimination.

The bill would also ensure that all voters have at least two weeks of early voting before Election Day, including evening and weekend hours.

H.R. 1 also attacks problems in the nation’s campaign financing system. It would establish a voluntary, small-donor matching system of public financing for Congressional races and strengthen the existing public financing system for presidential elections.

The bill would reform the way in which legislative districts are redrawn during the redistricting process by mandating that states draw congressional districts using independent redistricting commissions and establishes that they use fair redistricting criteria.

Of course, the legislation still needs approval by the full House and then the U.S. Senate, as well as sign off from the President. However, the proposal sends a strong signal that improving elections, establishing fair redistricting processes, and reducing the corrupting influence of big money, must be at the top of policy debates nationwide.

In New York similar signals have been sent. The governor has said that he will propose campaign financing reforms that include a public financing program and measures to improve voter registration, and enhance ethics.

Unlike Washington, Albany can make these – and other important reforms – happen. The new state Senate, the state Assembly and the governor’s office are all now controlled by the same political party – Democratic. And they all appear to be on the same page – at least rhetorically – in terms of improving New York State’s democracy.

The key word is “rhetorically.” Up until now it has been easy to talk up and even pass reforms in one house of the legislature if you knew it faces certain political death in the other house. Now, such games will be more obvious. The argument that “partisan” differences squelched reform is a lot harder to make when the government is firmly controlled by one political party.

Albany’s bag of tricks also includes adopting reforms that are touted as “historic,” yet when the details emerge, the legislation is anything but that. Often the “historic” reforms are merely putting a shine on the status quo. That trick is something the public should watch out for.

All that being said, the climate for approval of state measures that are sweeping and significant is unprecedented. The reform legislation advanced in the U.S. House of Representatives sets the bar for how best to judge whatever Albany does.

New Yorkers have every right to expect that the governor and the legislature will come together to overhaul the way elections are run so that the state’s voter participation rate moves from the nation’s caboose to its engine. The public has every right to expect approval of corruption-busting measures in the areas of campaign finance (particularly with the creation of a voluntary system of public financing), government contracting, and ethics.

And New Yorkers should expect an improved system of redistricting that places the ultimate power to draw new legislative lines in the hands of an independent commission armed with fair criteria. The national census starts soon and the state needs to invest in that effort too to ensure a fair count, and redistricting will soon follow after that tally is done.

The list of needed reforms is long – largely due to the inaction of the past. But the time to act is now. It’s an historic opportunity. And unlike in the past, the political stars in New York finally align for real reform. The public must make sure that this generation of state political leadership doesn’t duck or squander this opportunity.

An Environmental Year in Review

Posted by NYPIRG on December 31, 2018 at 11:15 am
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In a year of unrelenting drama out of Washington, it’s easy to lose sight of some of the big changes being advanced by the Trump Administration, most notably its determined push to eviscerate programs that combat global warming.

There is no dispute that the Earth is heating up and the overwhelming scientific consensus is that the warming is due primarily to human activities. In fact, scientists are now arguing that unless significant steps are taken now, the planet is nearing the point of no return; a point at which it will be nearly impossible to avert a worldwide environmental catastrophe.

Unfortunately, the Trump Administration is hell-bent on ignoring science and pushing the planet over the cliff toward a world in which hundreds of millions – if not billions – of people will suffer the consequences.

During 2018, the Trump Administration has:

  • Lifted restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions from coal power plants., the dirtiest of fossil fuels
  • Discontinued a scientific review panel that advised the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) about safe levels of air pollution.
  • Proposed changes to freeze fuel efficiency standards at 37 miles per gallon, instead of the Obama-era policy that would have boosted efficiency over time to 54 mpg.
  • Rolled back regulations on oil and gas companies to monitor and mitigate releases of methane from wells and other operations. Methane is an extremely potent greenhouse gas.
  • Ended NASA’s Carbon Monitoring System, which was intended to improve the monitoring of global carbon emissions.

Beyond direct attacks on programs designed to curb global warming, the Trump Administration this year advanced other plans to weaken environmental and public health regulations,

  • Easing restrictions on oil and gas drilling across millions of acres of protected environmental habitats in 11 western states.
  • Allowing five oil and gas companies to search for lucrative oil and gas deposits in the Atlantic Ocean floor from New Jersey to Florida.
  • Approving the oil and gas development of U.S. Arctic.
  • Advancing a plan to significantly weaken clean water regulations. And more.

Which brings us to New York State.

New York alone cannot reverse the disastrous policies of the Trump Administration and its allies in Congress. But states like New York must advance science-based policies in order to show that government can make a positive difference, advance plans that protect the public’s health without harming the economy, and that it can be done in an open manner.

Here are a few steps:

  1. Commit to moving the state to 100% clean energy. Governor Cuomo has pledged to move New York to 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2040. The pledge is the easy part, making it happen is much harder. A critical component will be ensuring that the intermediate steps to achieve that goal are met and independently verified. Transparency and accountability must be critical components of any clean energy plan.
  2. Commit resources to clean up New York’s drinking water. New York’s abundant water resources are a precious natural treasure. Although the state’s water systems predominantly deliver safe water to residents, they are vulnerable to threats of contamination from a number of different sources that have grown in recent years, including: an aging and crumbling infrastructure; an industrial legacy of toxic sites; newer, unregulated toxic chemical threats; industrial and fossil fuel transportation and development; and the impacts of climate change.
  3. Develop a solid waste strategy that focuses on reducing the waste that is generated, like plastic bags and other containers, prioritizes reusing products, such as electronic devices, and boosts investments in recycling programs.

The Governor and the Legislature are due to begin a new session next week. It’s their best opportunity to make sure that New York shows the nation the way toward a greener and more sustainable future.

Reforming Albany Stays in the Spotlight

Posted by NYPIRG on December 24, 2018 at 8:55 am
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New York considers itself “progressive,” which in many ways is true.  The state’s Constitution preserves vast swaths of the Adirondack and Catskill mountain regions, protect workers, mandates help for the needy, guarantees free public education, among other measures.  However, in one area New York is anything but progressive: its democracy.

Low voter participation rates, difficulties in registering to vote, inadequate enforcement of ethics laws, and a “disgraceful” system of campaign finance have deprived New Yorkers of the best elements of a functioning democracy found elsewhere in America.

Over the many years of complaints about New York’s democracy, few reforms have been enacted due to partisan differences; Republicans and Democrats simply could not agree how to fix what ails Albany.

That all could change in 2019 with one party control of the executive and legislative branches.  Last week, Governor Cuomo laid out early on what he was hoping to get out of the 2019 legislative session.  In a speech on his goals for the first 100 days, the governor called for across-the-board actions to tackle climate change, ensure continued health insurance coverage, broader reproductive rights protections for women, and to take on the democracy challenges that face the state.

In his speech, the governor called for new voting reforms, such as enacting automatic voter registration and early voting, and to make it easier to vote by mail.   He also called for campaign finance changes, such as closing the notorious loophole that allows businesses organized as Limited Liability Companies – known as “LLCs” – to have much higher campaign finance limits than other businesses and to ban corporate donations altogether.

The governor also called for a campaign financing change that would be most impactful: the establishment of a voluntary system of public financing.  In this area, the governor did not have to look far for a model.  The City of New York has had a system for three decades that is viewed by reformers as the best in the nation at allowing candidates to run for office without having to rely on powerful special interests.  New York City’s system is praised because it encourages candidates to engage with rank-and-file voters instead of dialing for dollars from the wealthy and powerful.

Essentially, the City’s system allows candidates to choose to participate in the program that allows for $6 in clean public resources for every $1 raised in small private contributions, no more than $175.  (Those limits will increase during upcoming elections.)  Thus, candidates are required to search out small donors and rely far less on big ones.  A system that relies on a large number of small donors instead of a small number of large donors (those usually with business before the government) is a system that is far less prone to corruption,

Coincidentally, a report on this very topic came out last week from a non-partisan national think-tank.  The Campaign Finance Institute – which studies the nation’s best practices in campaign finance – released a report on the projected impacts if New York State embraced the City’s system. 

The Institute found that lowering the contribution limits, closing the LLC loophole, and instituting a system of matching funds, would in fact substantially increase the importance of small donors to candidates across the board while decreasing their dependence on large donors.  

It also found that the cost of the proposed system would be modest – less than one penny per day for each New Yorker over the course of four years.                                                             

Will that package solve the crisis of corruption in Albany?  Sadly, no.  The benefits of a voluntary system of public financing would be limited due to the Citizens United case, which allows unlimited spending by mega-donors to influence elections.  But the New York City system offers clear choices since it allows candidates the option of making a run for office without owing fealty to real estate developers, bankers, and other well-organized interests.  Instead, those candidates have be appeal to average voters to obtain small contributions that get turbo-charged through its public financing matching system.

Of course, more needs to be done, such as independent oversight of how the state awards government contracts and independent oversight of ethics.  After all, even the best laws fall short if they are not adequately enforced.

Whether New York acts could not only have an impact in the state, but nationally as well.  Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s now-infamous Citizens United decision in 2010, only localities have embraced campaign finance reforms similar to those found in New York City.  No state has adopted and successfully implemented a public financing system for gubernatorial and legislative elections since Connecticut in 2006.

If New York acts, it would dramatically improve our campaign finance system and send a powerful signal to the nation that despite court cases that have increased the risk of corruption, state governments can act to establish better ways to run for office.  That’s an investment in democracy New York should make.

Pay Raise Deal Rages in Albany

Posted by NYPIRG on December 17, 2018 at 6:11 am

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A week ago, a panel decided to give New York’s lawmakers, the governor, the attorney general, the comptroller and state agency heads big salary increases.  They did so under authority granted to them by the governor and the legislature and their decision tied pay hikes to limits for these state government leaders on outside income for lawmakers as well as a dramatic reduction in the number of additional stipends available to legislators.

Since then, there has been a chorus of complaints from many lawmakers that the panel exceeded its authority.  Let’s review the facts.

For two decades, state lawmakers, statewide elected officials and state agency heads have not had a pay raise.  I think everyone would agree that 20 years without a pay hike is a very long time.

Despite that, the governor is the third highest paid governor in the nation and the pay for state legislators is third highest as well – even with the 20 year pay hike gap.

And even that doesn’t tell the whole story.  State lawmakers’ base salary is $79,500 annually, well above minimum wage, but nowhere near extravagant.  However, the overwhelming majority of lawmakers get additional stipends for their work.

According to a recent analysis by NYPIRG, every one of the 63 state Senators is eligible for an additional stipend worth as little as $9,000 and as much as $41,500 – on top of the $79,500 base pay.  In the Assembly, every Assembly Republican is eligible for a stipend and two-thirds of the Assembly Democrats are eligible too.

Thus, the vast majority of legislators receive these additional stipends, if averaged out over all of them, they receive over $90,000.  Not too shabby, but not living the high life, either.

And lastly, under New York State law, lawmakers are allowed outside income for non-legislative jobs.  About a third of them have that.  The loudest complaints about the pay raise deal comes this group.  The reason is that under the plan advanced by the pay raise panel, the hike in salary is tied to two new changes – a dramatic limit on the amount of income a lawmaker can have outside of their legislative role and a drastic reduction in the number of available legislative stipends – from nearly everyone to no more than 15.

The complaints against the plan imply that this came as a surprise, as if something underhanded occurred.  This is hard to believe.

You see the panel was created as part of this year’s budget agreement.  It was on page 156 of the last budget bill to be approved.  And while last minute budget deals often catch lawmakers – and the public – by surprise, it’s hard to believe that this provision was a shock.

It is far more likely that a provision to hike lawmakers’ salaries was of keen interest to every single elected official.

And given that they knew the public would hate paying more for state elected officials while corruption is on the rise and little was being done to fix that problem, the pay raise provision was put together to offer maximum protection from a voter revolt.

Further, in addition to choosing current and former Comptrollers to figure out the raise, the bill said that if there are any increases in compensation, it must be linked to approval of a “timely” state budget and improvements in the “performance of the executive and legislature.”

The legislation gave the panel no guidance by what those two provisions meant.  The governor and the state legislative leaders clearly wanted to give the power to determine what those provisions meant to the panel itself.

And what could a state lawmaker have thought when she or he read that section?  A “timely” state budget means one that is on time.  And what does “performance of the executive and legislature” mean?  The panel decided that gigantic salary increases should be coupled with a reduction in the number of additional stipends and limits on outside income.

One could argue that by leaving out any restrictions on the members of the executive branch that the deal was unfair, but you can’t argue that lawmakers couldn’t see this coming.

Of course, whether the governor and the legislature created a pay raise mechanism that is wrong will be left up to the courts to decide, but for lawmakers to make it seem like the panel went beyond its scope is to ignore the process that they read, approved of, and voted for.

They have nothing to complain about.