Blair Horner's Capitol Perspective

Re-Balancing New York’s Democracy

Posted by NYPIRG on July 6, 2020 at 11:45 am

A hallmark of American democracy is the concept of political power balanced among the branches of government.  This system of “checks and balances” was baked into our representative form of government so that no one branch could operate without constraints.  And while that system has evolved over the years, that balance is still central.

In New York, the state constitution has granted the executive the upper hand in budget negotiations, but the central tenet that there should be a balance in lawmaking with the executive proposing plans and the Legislature considering and then approving them, has been in place.  In our system, the Legislature is the primary policymaking body.

Until this year.

In reaction to the looming pandemic and the anticipated chaos, the Legislature ceded tremendous policymaking authority to the governor.  They did so because at that point in March no one knew how bad the impact on the state would be and, at that time, the Legislature had no rules in place to act using remote means, such as the use of technological platforms that allowed voting from afar.

In one law, the Legislature granted the governor the authority to make significant changes in the agreed-to budget.  Under this law, on a quarterly basis, the governor can review the state’s budget and enact cuts to spending that he deems necessary.  The Legislature has the authority to come back into session to overrule those decisions, but they ceded day-to-day power to the governor to act without the Legislature.  

In a similar fashion, the Legislature granted the governor unprecedented power to enact legislation without legislative approval.  Again, the Legislature can come back into session to overturn actions by the governor, but allowing this new nearly unilateral authority to the governor to enact laws was an incredible expansion of executive power.  The power allowed the governor to make new laws and suspend or modify existing laws, whether state or local.

This new delegation of authority requires the governor to renew his own actions every 30 days and continue them if he wishes, unless the Legislature convened in formal session and overruled him.  An action they have not taken—though both the Senate and Assembly have developed rules that allow them to conduct all legislative business without being physically present in Albany.

This new arrangement not only diverges from the roles established in the state constitution, but it gives the governor unprecedented powers and allows the Legislature to duck its responsibilities.

As the pandemic eases, last week civic groups are urging that the Legislature reclaim its constitutional duties and take control of lawmaking.  Under the reformers’ plan, instead of the governor reviewing his own actions, legislators would.  If they chose to continue the governor’s decisions, they can.  Essentially, the reformers’ plan would restore some of the Legislature’s powers.

The reformers are also urged that lawmakers get back into session to do the people’s work.  Lawmakers have missed essentially one full month of session and their productivity has dropped dramatically.  While a crude measure, the Senate and Assembly have jointly approved about 150 bills during the scheduled 2020 session, while in 2019 they approved 900.

The reformers’ proposal generated harsh blow back from the executive.  Arguments were made that reforms would undermine the public health measures that had been approved.  Using a classic “straw man” argument, defenders of a sidelined legislative branch then argued that rebalancing this power dynamic would put the health of New Yorkers at risk.

That approach was designed to distract from the central argument and cloud the legitimate concern over the correct balancing of the policy responsibilities of the branches of government.

Americans have endured a toxic national politics for a long time.  Too often our national system is hinged to the strategies of debasing others’ concerns and misleading public understanding of important policies under consideration.

Sadly, it happens in New York too.  American democracy is based on a system of checks and balances — a system that helps ensure that one branch does not dominate another.  It is often a messy system and one that does not always work right.  But it is that way by design.

Members of the state Senate and Assembly are elected to represent New Yorkers in legislative policymaking and to act as a check on the executive and the judiciary.  When they cede that authority, they must do so for good reason and for only as long as necessary and no longer.  Their job is to represent us, when they fail to do so, they fail to do their jobs.  No amount of misinformation can counter that.

New York Holds a Primary in a Pandemic

Posted by NYPIRG on June 29, 2020 at 10:10 am

Last week, New York State held its primary elections.  What made this election unique was that it took place during the coronavirus pandemic.  As a result of a gubernatorial decree, all eligible New York voters received paperwork that allowed them to request an absentee ballot due to the possibility of infection from the virus.

As a result, 1.7 million New Yorkers requested a ballot, more than ten times the number requested in 2016, the last year for a presidential primary.

So how did New York’s first effort at mail-in voting go?  Not great.

The timetable for getting the absentee applications submitted was too ambitious.  New York voters had to have their absentee ballot request in the mail no later than June 16th for an election on June 23rd.  The tight timeline created difficulties for both the postal service to deliver the mail and the boards of elections to process those requests and get ballots back out the door in time for voters to cast and mail their ballots in time.  The single biggest complaint from voters was that they did not receive their ballots in time and thus had to go to the polling place to cast their vote – exactly what they were trying to avoid in the first place.

The compressed timetable and the significant added workload from the absentee ballot requests also highlighted some of the biggest flaws in New York’s elections system that existed pre-pandemic.

Every year, boards of elections have to recruit, train, and deploy poll workers to cover every polling place.  It is always difficult and there can be shortages.  When there aren’t enough poll workers, the number of available polling places must be reduced.

And who are these poll workers?  Poll workers must dedicate an entire day to watching the polls, checking voters in, and dealing with whatever snafus develop.  It’s a long day and while poll workers are paid, they are not paid a lot. Who has the time to spend all day at a polling site?  Usually older adults, often retirees.  And who is most at risk in the pandemic?

You got it, that same group.

Not only is mail-in voting a way to protect voters, but it reduces the workload for poll workers – thus reducing their risk – and reduces the need for polling places as well.

Clearly, New York has to get better at it.  This Fall’s Presidential General Election is going to have an even higher turnout than the primaries last week.  The State Legislature should hold hearings to see what can be done to make the system work better.

There are, however, some obvious lessons.

  1. Requests for an absentee ballot should be earlier in order to give adequate time for the ballot to make it to voters. 
  2. Allow voters to track their ballots – in the same way as mail delivery purchases are tracked now.  Then, if the ballot is late – or missing – voters will have time to make alternative plans, such as going to the polling place during the early voting period or on Election Day itself.  The state of California has such as system. 
  3. Create adequate numbers of polling sites.  The city of White Plains in Westchester County, for example, (with a population of 60,000) was reported to have only two polling places. 
  4. Overhaul the way in which poll workers are recruited and trained.  There were reports across the state of polling places opening late, of poll workers not giving out the complete two-page ballot, and voters being sent to the wrong polling place.
  5. Boost transparency by requiring reporting that allows everyone to know how many absentees were requested, how many were mailed out, and how many votes cast through the mail.
  6. Increase funding of elections.  Voting is the cornerstone of our representative democracy, it should be funded to ensure that elections are run smoothly.
  7. Longer term, New York should join the states of Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon and Utah in running all of their elections by mail.
  8. Ultimately, New York should get rid of an elections system run by the two major political parties.  The state Constitution requires that the board of elections be run by the two major political parties, but it does not require that the staff must be chosen due to their party registration. 

The short-term steps should be taken now, in time for the general election this November.  Forewarned is forearmed. 

The Other, Existential, Crisis Keeps Getting Worse

Posted by NYPIRG on June 22, 2020 at 10:47 am

Over the weekend the planet achieved a new milestone:  A small Siberian town hit temperatures that exceeded 100 degrees Fahrenheit.  While that region of the world is noted for its wide range in temperatures, the reading is the highest ever recorded north of the Arctic Circle.

That record temperature was part of a heat wave that is gripping Siberia and has resulted in widespread forest fires.  In one part of Siberia, more than 680,000 acres are burning.

The stunning news of new heat records underscores that the existential crisis posed by a rapidly heating planet is not going away.  We have all been – rightfully – concerned about the out-of-control COVID-19 pandemic and the demands for racial justice in the wake of the George Floyd murder and others.

Unfortunately, the looming climate catastrophe resulting from global warming is not taking a break.  Despite the dramatic reduction in global economic activity due to the worldwide coronavirus shutdown – and the easing of air pollution levels – the planet keeps heating up.  The greenhouse gases emitted from the burning of oil, coal, gas and other sources, continue to accumulate in the atmosphere. 

Of all of legitimate public policy concerns, global warming – and its catastrophic consequences – is at the top of the list.

Scientists already have documented current impacts of climate change:

  • Ice is melting worldwide, especially at the Earth’s poles. This includes mountain glaciers, ice sheets covering West Antarctica and Greenland, and Arctic sea ice. In Montana’s Glacier National Park, over the past century the number of glaciers has declined to fewer than 30 from more than 150.
  • Much of the melting ice contributes to sea-level rise. Global sea levels are rising annually and the rise is occurring at a faster rate in recent years.
  • As temperatures change, many species are on the move. Some butterflies, foxes, and alpine plants have migrated farther north or to higher, cooler areas.
  • Precipitation (rain and snowfall) has increased across the globe, on average. Yet some regions are experiencing more severe drought, increasing the risk of wildfires, lost crops, and drinking water shortages.
  • Some species—including mosquitoes, ticks, jellyfish, and crop pests—are thriving. Booming populations of bark beetles that feed on spruce and pine trees, for example, have devastated millions of forested acres in the U.S.

And it will get worse.  According to a report issued last month, if global warming continues unchecked, the temperatures due to arrive later this century in some parts of the world will bring “nearly unlivable” conditions for up to 3 billion people.

Of course, we should demand action to ensure that Black Lives Matter, that the Congress fix the shocking incompetence of the Trump Administration in addressing the pandemic, as well as a host of other issues.

But the decision of the Trump Administration – and its Congressional allies – to ignore the accelerating threat to our habitat that is the most damning of their actions. Immediate steps must be taken to curb that environmental threat.

As an obvious first step, the world must stop the expansion of the use of fossil fuels as a source of power. The looming climate threat is the result of the burning of oil, coal and gas, yet there continue to be proposals to build new infrastructure that would lock in the use of these fuels for additional decades to come.

Secondly, public investments being made today to pave the way toward economic recovery should be focused on ways to reduce the world’s carbon footprint, like investing in renewable forms of power and energy efficiency technologies.

The world must also begin to move away from the existing use of fossil fuels.  No one argues that people need to freeze to death from a lack of heating, or never drive again.  We can build systems that rely on electricity for heating and for powering our vehicles.  Inevitably, most electricity will rely on renewables, thus reducing the emission of greenhouse gases.

In short, the world cannot allow its legitimate concerns over public health and justice to take the pressure off the nation’s leaders to aggressively move to stop the world’s headlong rush toward destruction of the human habitat.

There is no Planet B.

A Nation of Laws and Democracy

Posted by Chuck Chuck on June 15, 2020 at 12:11 pm

Americans pride themselves on living in a nation governed by laws, not the whims of those in power.  Those laws are determined by representatives elected by us. 

And while those basic rights are often threatened, it is through the ballot box that we can “reset” our democracy.  In New York, the voting process and the ability to “reset” has been improved in two important ways. 

New York State has relaxed its absentee ballot requirements and last year allowed early voting

Under the New York State Constitution, voters who cannot make it to the polls on an election day, are allowed to request an absentee ballot.  In the past, an acceptable reason for obtaining an absentee ballot has been due to either an illness or some travel that made it impossible to cast one’s vote on election day.

Due to the pandemic, Governor Cuomo issued an executive order that allows all eligible New Yorkers to request an absentee ballot.  The state this year sent every registered voter a postage-paid application for an absentee ballot and allowed all New Yorkers to vote absentee because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In order to cast an absentee ballot for the primary, the request for the ballot must be submitted by Tuesday June 16th and the ballot has to be postmarked no later than June 23rd, which is primary day.

Also for this primary, New Yorkers will be able to not only cast their ballots on primary day, but during the ten days prior as well.  Under New York’s early voting law, voters now have the convenience of casting their ballots for a ten-day period prior to the election.  Starting last Saturday, New Yorkers can vote early at select locations within the county in which they live. 

Voters will be deciding which candidates will face off in November in races for the state legislature, municipal governments, state judges and congressional districts.

All counties must have at least one such site, but larger counties can have many more.  Each locality sets the dates, location and times when the polls are open.  Voters will have a 10-day window to vote at designated polling places in each county through Sunday, June 21. 

Looking ahead, in order to register to vote for the upcoming November 3, 2020 general election, an eligible New Yorker will have to be registered to vote no later than October 9, 2020.  Early voting will start on October 24th.

Those are some of the important rules that voters must follow to ensure that their voices are heard.  But those voices can only be heard if voters follow the rules and show up to vote.

Undoubtedly, we will see more and more stories about how difficult it is to vote.  Voters in the state of Georgia last week, for example, had to endure long lines and waited for hours to vote in their primary elections.  And there is no doubt that there will be efforts to subvert the voting process as a way to undermine turnout and thus swing the election.

Unfortunately, attempts to steal elections are not new to America.  Suppressing voter participation can take the form of reducing resources to run an election – resulting in long lines – and challenging the rights of legitimate voters to cast their ballots.  These disgraceful efforts are all too frequent.

However, not voting only helps those anti-democratic individuals and forces.  Not participating essentially caves into the demands of the powerful to maintain power. 

We live in a nation based on laws.  And those laws are set by the officials we have chosen to represent us.  If we choose not to participate – whether due to our own laziness or because we fail to challenge efforts to block our vote – we cede our power.  The result is a nation of laws written by the powerful few to govern the many.

That’s not America.

Can the “Street” Change America?

Posted by NYPIRG on June 8, 2020 at 11:03 am

Two weeks ago, George Floyd, an African American man, was asphyxiated when a white Minneapolis police officer pinned his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes 46 seconds.  The police officer has now been charged with murder.  Mr. Floyd’s killing, coming on the heels of the recent deaths of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, ignited protests against racism and police tactics that have broadened to include the nation’s political leadership.

Hundreds of cities and town across the nation, indeed the world, have erupted with overwhelmingly peaceful protests as diverse groups of people take to the streets to lend their voices to calls for change and justice.

Of course, in America, there have been hundreds of years of racism beginning with slavery and resulting in untold thousands of murders, both state-sponsored and individual.  The nation’s long, dishonorable history on race is well documented.  The question now is can the protests force change from the obstinate political status quo?

In that regard, the nation has much to reckon with.  The President of the United States has deliberately fanned the flames of rage, hoping that such chaos will redound to his electoral benefit in the upcoming November election. 

There is evidence that sowing the seeds of division and chaos can help a candidate who the public perceives as the “law and order” candidate.

In the 1960s, peaceful protests that challenged the political order, in particular the most racist and violent public officials in the South, led to a violent overreaction that shocked the nation’s conscience and pushed America to eliminate Jim Crow laws.

But the assassinations of the Kennedys, Martin Luther King and the resulting riots scared many Americans who wished for stability and calm and that reaction helped elect Richard Nixon.  That was fifty years ago.

Half a century later in 2020, the plea for justice and an end to racism is beyond long overdue.  Yet the President orders federal troops to disperse peaceful protestors in Washington DC so he can stroll from the White House for a photo-op; armed-to-the-teeth White counter-protestors are ignored, while peaceful protestors are beaten, tear gassed and fired upon with rubber bullets; journalists reporting on the protests are attacked – all of this exacerbates the public’s fear of chaos.

It is clear what the President’s intent is.  What is not clear is what the nation will do.

Unlike the 1960s, President Trump as the incumbent is too often responsible for causing conflict in the nation.  His indifferent approach to the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to the catastrophic toll the nation has experienced and his actions to crack down on peaceful protests – even calling for the US military to “dominate” the streets – only makes the situation worse. 

Moreover, the President’s longstanding practice of misleading the nation – including repeating obvious lies – further confuses the public while emboldening the President’s supporters, even when the facts prove him wrong.

In times like these, our elected leaders should seek to defuse the upheavals, not make them worse.

Hundreds of thousands of Americans took to the streets this past weekend, in big cities and small towns, from coast to coast, marking some of the biggest demonstrations yet in the nationwide protests against systemic racism and the need for justice, sparked by the murders of Mr. Floyd, Ms. Taylor and Mr. Arbery.

Will the “street” win?  We have seen the “street” win in the toppling of dictators, the end of colonialization, and the approval of rights for women and minorities in America.

The stakes are high.  Political desperation will lead to continued tactics to further divide the nation, to make it “us” versus “them,” instead of what is best for the nation and the world.

From that chaos, the President hopes to have excuses to deploy the military and that swing voters will look to him as the candidate to bring order and safety back to America. 

Not only is that divisive tactic dangerous to the nation, it obscures the real issues: We need to end racism, we need to have proper public safety programs, we need to deal with climate change, and we need to generate public revenues from those with the most, not slash services for those most in need.

The President may realize he is on the wrong side of history, but he is not looking beyond November.  The real leaders are in the streets calling for change.

Will the street win?  We should all hope so.