This opinion essay was originally published in the Times-Herald Record during the 2016 presidential campaign. Gerald Benjamin is no longer an enrolled Republican. Associate Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been widely and wrongly condemned for her critical remarks about Donald Trump’s fitness to be president. “Partisan.” “Inappropriate for Read more…
This post originally ran on the Gotham Gazette The New York State Senate and Assembly, both now in Democratic hands, last month gave first passage to several changes to an earlier constitutional amendment, adopted in 2014, creating a so-called Independent Redistricting Commission to redraw district lines every ten years for Read more…
On May 25 in White Plains, U.S. District Court Judge Cathy Seibel ruled that the at-large system used for electing the nine members of the East Ramapo School Board denied the district’s Black and Latino voters effective choice in its elections, violating §2 of the Federal Voting Rights Act (VRA). Under an at-large system every voter votes to fill each board position, allowing a disciplined majority to control all seats. A majority of the East Ramapo district’s voting population is Hasidic Jews. The School Board has long been dominated by members recruited and endorsed by the leaders of this religious community and elected at-large through the use of block voting.
On the second Tuesday in May, in ordinary times, voters across New York State (with the exception of those in the Conference of Big Five School Districts—Buffalo, Syracuse, NYC, Yonkers, Rochester) head to the polls to cast a ballot in favor of or against their local public school district budget. Read more…
One person was never meant to be in charge in these United States. Given Donald Trump’s oft demonstrated predisposition to act with little regard for the constitution, it certainly appears that, in making sure that governmental power was dispersed, the founders had a very good idea.
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…
A look at upcoming events hosted by the BenCen A Conversation with Congressman Antonio Delgado October 10, 2019, 5:30-6:30 pm Student Union Multipurpose Room, SUNY New Paltz Campus The Benjamin Center for Public Policy Initiatives is pleased to welcome to our college Congress member Antonio Delgado, member of the Read more…
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…)
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.
Dr. Gerald Benjamin of the Benjamin Center has written or edited more than a dozen books on the workings of New York State government and politics. In light of historic changes in the balance of power in New York State on Tuesday, it seemed all-too-obvious to get Benjamin’s quick take on what has happened and what it means for New York’s voters.
Next Wednesday, November 15th, Benjamin will co-lead a conversation at the State Academy for Public Administration in Albany on this topic. But ahead of that event here’s Benjamin’s framing.
The Most Important, Least-Discussed “Win” for Democrats
Benjamin said the statewide majority in the Senate, retention of the Governorship by Cuomo, and the firm grip on the Assembly is a precursor to retaining control of all three branches in 2020 and controlling redistricting. “We had a constitutional amendment to mitigate partisanship and redistricting. But the final say remains with legislators.” Consequently, he said, we can be sure that Democratic control will be cemented in both houses, and congressional districts will be redesigned to favor them.
However, speaking on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show Wednesday, Senators Michael Gianaris and Liz Krueger said they’re not happy with the redistricting amendment. “It was really nothing more than an awful political outcome,” Gianaris said. “The Republicans made sure that they ingrained an unfair process in the state Constitution.” Kreuger pointed out that, given the state’s party alignment, Democrats would still secure their majorities without the level of gerrymandering that exists today. “You can do redistricting independently and fairly and you’re still going to end up with more Democratic Senate seats because the gerrymandering has been so unfair for so many decades.”
How many decades?