The Coronavirus and a “New” State Legislative Process

It’s impossible to quarrel with the New York State Senate and Assembly amending their rules last month to allow remote, electronic attendance and voting at legislative sessions during the current murderous pandemic. In-person sessions certainly would have qualified in size and character as the kinds of large gatherings that have Read more…

When Politicians are Appointed, Rather than Elected, We the People Don’t Get to Choose

Filling vacancies when a politician steps down is a hot topic today. Witness the mess in Virginia. Closer to home in Ulster County, we likewise are facing a controversy, albeit of a smaller scale. Ulster County Executive Michael Hein recently announced that he will shortly resign to become the commissioner of the New York State Office of Temporary Disability Assistance. This will create a vacancy in the county’s top elected executive position for the first time since we adopted our charter in 2006. So we find ourselves learning now about how we must fill the vacancy. And some of us are not happy.

Ulster County Democratic Committee Chairman Frank Cardinale and his Republican counterpart, Roger Rascoe, have asked that governor Andrew Cuomo intervene in the process. More on that, shortly.

The bigger picture is that we miss the significance of this kind of issue because our governmental system is so decentralized. There are more than 500,000 elected offices in the United States.  After looking at some demographics and mortality tables, I reached a rough estimate that about 3,000 incumbents will die in office this year. And that does not count those who will resign, or get sick and can’t work, or move away, or are removed for cause. Nor does it consider offices that must be filled because no one runs for them. In total, that’s likely several thousand more. So we need to think hard about what is at stake.

When I worked on the question of filling vacancies in elective office for the New York City Charter Commission in the 1980s, I learned of the mix governmental and political considerations embedded in this process: continuity in governance; legitimacy of representative government; and political career advancement. Unfortunately, too often the latter priority overwhelmed the other two more noble goals, and careers in “elected” office were regularly launched and advanced by appointment. (more…)

The Mess of New York Lawmaker Pay

This post originally ran as an opinion column in the Gotham Gazette and has been re-posted here with the publisher’s permission.

New Yorkers have been upset by state legislators’ compensation for more than 200 years. At the 1821 constitutional convention, Ezekiel Bacon, a former member of the Assembly and of Congress, called the pay issue “…a hobby horse of ambitious demagogues and peddling politicians, that caused the great questions that affected the vital interest of the state too often to be overlooked.” The current debate is nothing new. We’ve never liked how much legislators are paid. We’ve never liked how the matter is decided.

At first the decision was left to the Legislature and the Governor (who was then far less powerful than today). Public distress at the members’ generosity to themselves led to the specification of a $3 per diem rate ($56.28 in today’s money) in the state constitution by the convention of 1821. This made the pay alterable only by constitutional amendment, which required public ratification after passage in two successive legislative sessions or adoption by a following convention. The Governor, with no role in the amending process, was denied formal involvement. The people—always skeptical, sometimes hostile—were left with a decisive voice.

No constitutional convention held after 1821 during the period that legislative pay was still constitutionally specified—in 1846, 1867, 1894, 1915, and 1938—succeeded in increasing it. Some delegates, like the publisher Horace Greeley in 1867, thought public service was sufficiently rewarded by a legislator’s “consciousness of honorable usefulness” and the “gratitude’ of other citizens. If provided at all, those who held this view believed, pay for legislators should be sufficient only to cover expenses. At later conventions most delegates, many of whom had been or were senators or Assembly members, voiced support for better compensation for legislators, but failed to act on the matter because of the  expense, or because of fear that public hostility to a pay increase would lead to overall defeat of their work at the polls. Indeed, the constitution proposed in 1915, the only one offered by a convention that included a pay increase for legislators, was rejected by the public at referendum.

In the hundred years between 1846 and the end of World War II, voters did approve two amendments offered by the Legislature providing for members’ pay increases. The first of these, passed in 1874 and supported by both Democratic Governor John T. Hoffman and Republican Governor John Adams Dix, increased legislators’ annual compensation to $1,500 ($33,030 in current dollars) from the maximum of $3 day for 100 days ($8,318 in current dollars) set by the 1846 convention. This was the first specification of legislative pay as an annual salary, not as a per diem for what was then still universally regarded as part-time work. In 1911 voters defeated an amendment calling for a salary increase to $2,500. This increase ($35,966 in current dollars) was finally passed in 1927 as part of a broad package of reforms championed by Democratic Governor Alfred E. Smith.

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Your Most Important Vote this November is Hidden on the Second Page of the Ballot

Partisan gerrymandering — incumbents drawing legislative districts to keep control of legislative bodies — destroys democracy by assuring that majorities don’t rule. It has been described as elected officials choosing their voters, instead of their voters choosing their representatives. 

At the national, state and local levels our governments are made undemocratic by gerrymandering; despite widespread protest, those in power in both major parties keep doing it so that they can stay in power. Repeated efforts to get the U.S. Supreme Court to undo this practice have failed, though surely it is unconstitutional.

What most people in Ulster County may not know is that we are among the handful of places in the country that doesn’t have this problem. That’s because our county charter gives us a process for neutral non-partisan legislative redistricting. And it has worked. The districts for the current, closely divided county legislature were drawn through this non-partisan process. But in doing this the first time around we found out that there were some flaws in our design, and we needed to take further steps to be sure that it was more inclusive and effective while remaining non-partisan. 

Under the leadership of County Executive Michael Hein, a commission headed by Kingston attorney Rod Futerfas was formed to work on this. (more…)

The Supreme Court and Gerrymandering: What about New York?

 

The Supreme Court may be on the verge of enacting a standard to block (or at least limit) partisan gerrymandering for state legislatures. There’s just one problem: This “uniform” standard simply does not work for New York State. Or perhaps more ironic, the Supreme Court may choose not to adopt the standard for determining fairness in districting in the Wisconsin case before it now because it is not universal, because it doesn’t work for at least one state, our very gerrymandered Empire state.

New York State has a centuries-long tradition of partisan gerrymandering for its legislature. The 1894 Constitutional Convention cemented a redistricting process for the state’s Senate and Assembly that the great Democratic Governor Al Smith later said made the legislature “constitutionally Republican.” It was not until the U.S. Supreme Court one-person-one-vote decisions of the mid-1960s, 75 years later, that the door was open to a period of Democratic control of the Assembly; that dominance became firm in the famous Watergate election of 1974, and was entrenched in the decennial redistricting following the 1980 census. Meanwhile the Senate remained in GOP hands. And since then, until recently, largely as a result of bipartisan gerrymandering achieved by the collaboration (collusion?) of the partisan majorities in the two houses, New York has had divided control of its legislature, with the Democrats dominant in the Assembly and the Republicans in the Senate. 

A complex state constitutional amendment “reforming” the redistricting process in New York was adopted in November of 2014. There remains a good deal of skepticism, however, about its value in blocking gerrymandering, because it leaves the final word on district design with the Legislature. We will see its impact after 2020. 

Interestingly, even if Senate Democrats manage to patch up their differences, gain a majority and keep it through the redistricting following the 2020 census, it is likely that partisan gerrymandering will persist. Even the most reform minded members in a new Democratic Senate majority are likely to think “now it’s our turn.”

That is, unless the U.S. Supreme Court decides to change the rules. Until now, it has been reluctant. The court acknowledged in Davis v. Bandemer in 1986 that a partisan gerrymander might be so egregious that it would have to step in, but has as yet not found a case in which it was willing to do so. In addition to a reluctance to enter the “political thicket” the court has been concerned about identifying a clear, straightforward useable standard for fairness in districting that might be applied without generating massive amounts of litigation. See Vieth v. Jubelirer (2004).

Very good measures of districting bias devised by political scientists have as yet not found favor with the Supreme Court. Perhaps this is because Chief Justice John Roberts is not the only one on the high bench who regards political science as “sociological gobbledygook.” Yet Justice Kennedy, the swing vote, (more…)

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