Tuesday, February 21, 2017

NY State Lawmakers Looking at City Council Elections to Increase their Income

When State Senator Bill Perkins won a Special Election last week for an empty seat on the New York City Council, he became the first in a wave of State Legislators who are expected to ask voters this year to help them make a similar jump, and in the process gain a hefty Pay Raise.

“Sounds like I’m in the vanguard,” Perkins said the day after winning the Feb. 14th Special Election.

State Lawmakers, both Senators and Assembly members, have not received a raise since 1999. Legislators, who receive a base salary of $79,500, had their hopes for a raise dashed in November when a Commission formed to evaluate Lawmaker salaries failed to agree on a recommendation.

By contrast, the New York City Council last year voted itself a handsome salary increase to $148,500, from $112,500. The increase caused some consternation, in part because the raise was $10,185 greater than the one recommended by an Advisory Panel, an upward departure the Council justified because it also approved a series of Ethics Rules, including a ban on many forms of outside income.

Now close to a half-dozen State Lawmakers, all Democrats, appear to be contemplating a run for the Council this year.

Perkins, however, said the salary increase was not why he ran for the Council. “I’m not running for a higher pay per se,” Perkins, a Democrat, said before adding a caveat: “I’m not ignorant of it, and my wife isn’t ignorant of it either.”

Perkins had previously held the same Council seat, in a District that includes Harlem and part of the Upper West Side, but Term Limits forced him out in 2006. He was Elected to the Senate the same year.

The woman who succeeded him on the Council, Inez Dickens, was Elected last year to the State Assembly, creating a vacancy in Perkins’s old seat. She would have been prevented by Term Limits from running for Re-Election to the Council. State elected officials do not face Term Limits.

Perkins said that he felt he could be more effective on the Council than in the Senate, where he was in the Democratic minority. “It’s not an easy place to be in the minority,” he said. “In a legislative body where majority rules, you’re basically being ruled.”

There are other financial factors as well that may influence Legislators looking to make the jump. Moving to the Council with its higher salary could mean a boost in future Pension payments. The 51 Council Members also receive generous Discretionary funds that they can spend in their Districts.

On the other hand, State Legislative jobs are considered Part-Time and Lawmakers are allowed to hold outside employment. The City Council bans many types of outside income, however, so some State Legislators could potentially see a reduction in income if they were required to give up other jobs. Such outside income, however, has been a frequent cause of Ethical Scandals, helping to bring down Legislative Leaders like House Speaker Sheldon Silver.

Senator Rubén Díaz Sr. of the Bronx said that he was considering a run for the City Council Seat held by Annabel Palma, who is in her Second Term, the maximum currently allowed. “I’m going to give you a few reasons, and one of them is not money,” he said, bringing up the issue of pay without prompting. Diaz, 73, who also previously served on the Council, said that the Discretionary Funds given to Council Members would position him to better help the people of his District. “I’d rather be in a place that I could help my community better, where I could help senior citizens, where I could help Little League, where I could help community groups,” he said. He also said that he recently had back surgery and that at his age, the frequent drives to Albany had become difficult for him. He says that he will make a decision after a State Budget is passed.

Assemblyman Robert Rodriguez has raised $21,860 for a City Campaign, according to a January filing with the City Campaign Finance Board, and he said that he was considering a run for the Seat of the City Council Speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, in East Harlem and the Bronx. Mark-Viverito cannot run again because of Term Limits. Rodriguez also works as a Financial Adviser and might not gain financially by moving to the Council, where he would have to give up his outside job.

Susan Lerner, the Executive Director of Common Cause New York, a Good Government Advocacy group, said that, pay aside, the City Council functions much better than the State Senate or Assembly, thanks to years of Ethical and Legislative Reforms. “What we see is that when you have an appropriate pay level with correct restrictions on outside income and a more robust, functioning legislative process, combined with a well-thought-out and well-executed public campaign finance system, you attract talented candidates and some of them may be people who are sitting in other bodies,” Lerner said. “When you put all these factors together it’s attractive to be a City Council member.”

In Albany, she said, most of the activity happens behind closed doors. “If you are a public spirited community member or a legislator, it is not irrational to think that you can get more done in the City Council,” Lerner said. “You can have a more direct impact.”

In the Bronx, Assemblyman Mark Gjonaj has raised $103,000 to run for the Council Seat that will be vacated by James Vacca, who faces a Term Limit. “This particular move for me is not focused on the salary,” Gjonaj said. He said that he was interested in Local issues like “potholes, streetlights, policing, litter,” and that his Albany experience was also a plus because the City depended so much on decisions made in the State Legislature.

But John Doyle, a City Island resident who is raising money to run against Gjonaj in the Democratic Primary, described the State Capital as an ethical cesspool and said that he intended to make an issue of Gjonaj’s tenure there. “I imagine that Albany will be very much a factor in our race,” Doyle said.

Doyle says that if he is Elected he will refuse to take the new, higher salary that the Council voted itself last year, which he called “obscene.” He said that he would donate the difference between the old and new salaries to charity, or use it to pay his staff. “Leadership is about shared sacrifice,” he said. “If you’re running for office, it’s not about the money so people should agree to personally not take the pay increase.”

Gjonaj said he would use some money from the raise to augment the Discretionary funds he would spend in his District.

The wide salary differential has become the source of running jokes in Albany and New York City, according to Senator Kevin S. Parker of Brooklyn. Mr. Parker, who is not considering a run for the Council, says that his Brooklyn councilman, Jumaane D. Williams, is a friend and that they sometimes laugh over the difference in pay.

“I joke with Jumaane that I’m going to run against him — I need the pay raise,” Mr. Parker said, adding, “It’s not the money, we do it for the service. But like everybody else, you’ve got to pay your bills.”

NYC Wins When Everyone Can Vote! Michael H. Drucker
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Impeachment Proceedings in AL Could Take Down Governor and Senator

Alabama Republican Gov. Robert Bentley is termed out of office in two years, but it’s anyone’s guess if his career will survive that long, or if his long-running sex scandal will take down the man he just appointed to the Senate, former State Attorney General Luther Strange. Bentley has been accused of using State Resources to cover up an affair with a top Staffer, Rebekah Mason, and Republican Legislators have been talking about Impeachment for some time.

Alabama’s 300,000-word-long Constitution is not clear on how Impeachment should proceed. Indeed, the Legislature hasn't even considered Impeaching anyone in over 100 years. If the State House does vote to Impeach Bentley, he’d be immediately suspended from office unless and until the State Senate, which is like the lower Chamber, is dominated by the GOP, acquits him.

That means Bentley’s Governorship could effectively be over by around Memorial Day. House Judiciary Committee Chair Mike Jones recently said that he expects Impeachment proceedings, which had been paused at Strange’s request, to restart in time for the Legislature to complete its investigation before it adjourns in mid-to-late May. A panel of Lawmakers will then issue a recommendation on whether or not to Impeach Bentley.

Things can get very complicated after that. A 60% Super-Majority of the 105-member House would then have to vote in favor of permitting a vote on the underlying recommendation. If that were to pass, only a simply majority would then have to actually approve an Impeachment recommendation. It gets even trickier, though, if the Impeachment panel issues a dissenting Minority report, or if the investigation drags on past the end of the planned Legislative session, though Lawmakers can call themselves back to the Capitol if they so desire.

The State Attorney General is also investigating Bentley, which could also slow things: Jones said last week he's waiting for the Attorney General's office to give Lawmakers permission before they restart their own Investigation. Adding a further layer to all this, the new attorney General, Steve Marshall, has appointed a Special Prosecutor on account of the fact that Marshall owes his new job to none other than Bentley.

Here’s another wrinkle: If Bentley were to get stripped of his powers, Lt. Gov. Kay Ivey would presumably inherit them, and if he’s removed from office, Ivey would become Governor. But Ivey is one of many potential Republican Candidates for Governor, and some Legislators may balk at giving her a leg up over potential rivals. They might therefore be inclined to oppose Impeachment and just wait Bentley out.

However, this whole mess is unlikely to be forgotten by the June 2018 Senate Primary, and that’s not good news for Strange, the man Bentley just tapped for the Senate. In a New York Times piece discussing how unhappy some Republicans are with Strange’s sketchy-looking appoint, there’s news of an unreleased internal poll conducted for GOP officeholders has Bentley’s approval rating “at an abysmally low level.” That taint could rub off on Strange, who did much more than simply accept a job from the scandal-tarred Governor.

Strange asked the GOP-dominated Legislature to halt its Impeachment proceedings against Bentley last year while Strange’s office did “necessary related work.” But after Trump picked Sen. Jeff Sessions to serve as U.S. Attorney General, it was up to Bentley to appoint Sessions’ successor, and Strange coveted the job. In a transparent effort to try to make it seem as though there was no Conflict of Interest, Strange belatedly argued that he never said he was investigating the Governor. But after Bentley sent Strange to the Senate, Marshall confirmed that his office was in fact investigating Bentley.

That’s cast a dark cloud over Strange, and has encouraged several Republicans to make noises about challenging him in next year’s Special Election for the final two years of Sessions’ term. State Senate President Pro Temp Del Marsh, a spurned finalist for the Senate appointment, has expressed interest in facing Strange, though he’s also talked about running for Governor that year. Twice-disgraced Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore also has talked about running for Senate, as well as for Governor and attorney General.

And ex-State Rep. Perry Hooper Jr., who was also a finalist for the Senate gig, says he’s considering running against Strange. Hooper doesn’t look like an especially strong candidate, though. He lost renomination for his State House seat in 2002, and he lost the General Election for the State Public Service Commission four years later. However, he was the Co-Chair of Trump’s State Campaign, so maybe he can pick up some support from Trump fanatics.

However, it’s possible that Bentley’s problems will make Strange toxic enough that even a fairly unimpressive candidate could beat him in a Primary. It also doesn’t help the incumbent that under Alabama law, there will be a Primary Runoff if no one takes a Majority of the Vote in the first round, so Strange can’t just coast to victory with a plurality.

There are a lot of twists and turns left in this long, sordid saga, and it’s very possible that both Bentley and Strange will survive it. Strange’s position in the Senate gives him access to plenty of money, and his geographic distance from Bentley, as well as the benefits of incumbency, could help insulate him from the Governor’s problems. But if Bentley does end up collapsing, he very well could take his appointed Senator down with him.

Why does "Conflict of Interest" seem always to be part of a current Republican story?

NYC Wins When Everyone Can Vote! Michael H. Drucker
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Trump Administration Halts CA's High-Speed Rail Project

In the first big hit to the Bay Area from the Trump Administration, newly minted Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao has put the brakes on $647 million for Caltrain to go electric, and in the process pretty much killed hopes for high-speed rail coming to San Francisco anytime soon.

“It puts the (electrification) project in serious jeopardy,” Caltrain spokesman Seamus Murphy said Friday.

The hope in California was to begin creating jobs through much needed infrastructure work and upgrades. Our Country’s infrastructure, as many already know, is not only an issue of needing basic maintenance, we need to modernize virtually everything.

Caltrain has already spent $150 million on planning to go Electric, but without the Federal and Matching funds, the overall $1.98 billion project will go into limbo.

As for high-speed rail, a $64 billion, and counting, endeavor that is still not fully funded, its viability would take a big hit if bullet trains went no farther North than the South Bay.

As a Community member pointed out over the weekend, the issues concerning infrastructure programs and this new Government are endemic to how fast this Administration has been at turning our Government into an even slower-moving entity. At best, Chao is impeding progress and at worst, she is Politicizing our Country’s Transportation system.

Some Comment from California Residents:

- California is being punished for voting for Hillary.

- It’s being punished for trying to build infrastructure that has the potential to take money out of the hands of the fossil fuel industry, who is bankrolling most of these republicans (and more than a few CA Dems).

- They’re taking jobs from their own voters. The CHSR project has created a couple of thousand high-paying jobs around Phase I (with more to come for Phases II and III), all in deep red country in CA. It will do a lot to revitalize rural California. The people who live in that area vote GOP, and the GOP is screwing them over.

NYC Wins When Everyone Can Vote! Michael H. Drucker
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NM Senate Passes National Popular Vote Interstate Pact

New Mexico's Senate on Monday approved Legislation adding New Mexico to the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact aimed at guaranteeing the President, in future Elections, would be Elected by the National Popular Vote.

The Measure, Senate Bill 42, passed the Chamber on a Party-line 26-16 vote, with Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed, and now moves on to the House.

“By doing our part to move toward a national popular vote, we can begin the process of regaining the voters’ trust in our elections and ensure their voices are equal to every voter across the country,” said Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, the Bill’s sponsor.

However, several Republican critics of the Legislation accused Democrats of pushing the change in response to President Trump’s victory.

“Just because we didn’t get our way means we pout and change the entire system,” complained Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell.

Trump defeated Clinton in the Electoral College despite receiving nearly 2.9 million fewer votes Nationwide. Clinton carried New Mexico and won all five of the State’s Electoral votes, despite not holding any public campaign rallies here. Trump made two campaign stops in Albuquerque.

A National Popular Vote system would take effect if enacted by enough States to form a majority of the Electoral College, 270 Votes. Under such a scenario, a Constitutional Amendment would not be needed to make the change, as the Electoral College would not be abolished.

The Senate’s vote on Monday made it the first Chamber in the Nation to pass such legislation this year, according to a National group promoting a popular vote system.

However, 10 States have already enacted similar bills in previous years, that equals 165 Electoral College votes.

Jurisdictions enacting Law to join the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact:

Maryland - 10 (EV) - April 10, 2007
New Jersey - 14 (EV) - January 13, 2008
Illinois - 20 (EV) - April 7, 2008
Hawaii - 4 (EV) - May 1, 2008
Washington - 12 (EV) - April 28, 2009
Massachusetts 11 (EV) - August 4, 2010
District of Columbia - 3 (EV) - December 7, 2010
Vermont - 3 (EV) - April 22, 2011
California - 5 (EV) - August 8, 2011
Rhode Island - 4 (EV) - July 12, 2013
New York - 29 (EV) - April 15, 2014

Total - 165 (61.1% of the 270 EV needed)

Current 2017 State Bills Waiting a Legislature Vote:

Arizona - 11 (EV) - HB 2277
Connecticut - 7 (EV) - HB 5205, HB5434, HB5435, HB5736, SB9
Florida - 29 (EV) - HB0311, SB242
Georgia - 16 (EV) - SB64
Idaho - 4 (EV) - H0059
Indiana - 11 (EV) - SB372
Kansas - 6 (EV) - HB 2024
Maine - 4 (EV) - LD 156
Minnesota - 10 (EV) - HF42, HF44, SF10, SF16
Missouri - 10 (EV) - HB 497, HB 635
New Hampshire - 4 (EV) - HB447
New Mexico - 5 (EV) - SB 42, SB 54, SB 102
Ohio - 18 (EV) - HB25
Oregon - 7 (EV) - HB2731
Pennsylvania - 20 (EV) - HB189
South Carolina - 9 (EV) - H 3173
Texas - 38 (EV) - HB 496
Virginia - 13 (EV) - HB 1482

Total = 222 (EV)

Opponents of the Popular-Vote system argue that it would allow urban areas to decide Elections and fear that it would undermine the importance of States in the Election process.

“Basically, we would be giving our sovereign power … away to other states,” Pirtle said during Monday’s debate.

Stewart said she’s been working on the issue for years. She also sponsored similar Legislation in 2009, while she was a Member of the House. That bill ultimately died in the Senate.

Stewart also said the current Electoral College gives oversized impact, and attention, to key Battleground States.

“Essentially, 38 states are left out when it comes to presidential elections,” Stewart said.

NYC Wins When Everyone Can Vote! Michael H. Drucker
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Monday, February 20, 2017

What America Would Look Like Without Gerrymandering

In his State of the Union speech, President Obama called on Lawmakers and the public to take a number of steps "to change the system to reflect our better selves" for "a better politics." The top item on that list was to end Partisan Gerrymandering: "we have to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters, and not the other way around," Obama said.

In most States, State Legislatures draw the District boundaries that determine how many Delegates the State sends to the U.S. Congress, as well as the General Partisan make-up of that Delegation. State Legislatures are Partisan beasts, and if one Party is in control of the process they can draw boundaries to give themselves a numeric advantage over their opponents in Congress. This process is called Gerrymandering.

Some State Legislatures are more brazen about the process than others. Maryland's Districts, drawn by Democrats, are one particularly egregious example. North Carolina's, drawn by Republicans, are another. Advocates of reform have proposed various solutions to the problem over the years. In some States, Redistricting is put in the hands of an Independent Commission. In others, lengthy Court battles are playing out to draw the Districts more fairly.

But a fundamental problem with District-drawing still remains: as long as humans are drawing the lines, there's a danger of bias and self-interest to creep into the process. There is another way, however: we could simply let computers do the drawing for us.

From a technological standpoint it's fairly straightforward, a software engineer in Massachusetts named Brian Olson wrote an algorithm to do it in his spare time. Olson's algorithm creates "optimally compact" equal-population Congressional Districts in each State, based on 2010 Census data. It draws Districts that respect the boundaries of Census blocks, which are the smallest geographic units used by the Census Bureau. This ensures that the District boundaries reflect actual neighborhoods and don't, say, cut an arbitrary line through somebody's house."

Map of our current Congressional Districts stitched together from Olson's output.

Big difference, isn't it?

Algorithms like this one prioritize compactness, that is, ensuring that Voters are geographically close together. One of the telltale signs of Gerrymandering is dramatically non-compact Districts that squiggle and squirm out in all different directions, evidence of Lawmakers trying to bring far-flung Voters into a single District in order to achieve the Partisan mix that best favors their Party. Or, as Obama said: Districts that let Politicians pick their Voters, rather than the other way around.

Many Political Scientists are skeptical about the merits of drawing Districts based on compactness. Their general argument is that Districts are ideally based on Communities of interest, people who share a common demography, culture, class, etc. There's no particular reason, they say, that grouping Voters by Geographic proximity ensures this coherent Community any more than drawing lines according to any other metric. Moreover, algorithms can be biased too.

It's a point well-taken. But "Community of Interest" is an incredibly squishy term. You can define it pretty much however you want. If you're a politician in search of a figleaf justification for putting Voters from disparate corners of the State into the same Congressional District, you can always find one. Communities of interest are a great ideal, but in practice they're so fuzzy that they open the door to all manner of Redistricting shenanigans, as we've seen.

The main obstacles to automated Redistricting are legal. For starters, the Voting Rights Act mandates that in some States, race needs to be a factor in Redistricting to ensure that Minority Voters are represented in Congress. Again: a nice idea. But there's a tradeoff: packing all your Minority Voters into one District diminishes their clout everywhere else. We've seen this in the real world in Florida: the 5th District was originally drawn as a Majority-Minority District by Democrats. But Republicans saw fit to keep it that way in subsequent years, because it gave Black Voters less power in the surrounding Districts.

In the end, the prospect of an open, transparent algorithm drawing Districts based on population and compactness may be an improvement upon the status quo, where Politicians draw the Boundaries that best serve their interests. Of course, the chances of this ever becoming reality are slim: doing so would require State Legislators to voluntarily cede their Redistricting powers to a computer program.

And if there's anything Lawmakers dislike, it's giving up power.

NYC Wins When Everyone Can Vote! Michael H. Drucker
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Saturday, February 18, 2017

Trump Team Denies National Guard Report, Then Admits There is a Real Document

President Trump’s Administration labeled The Associated Press’s reporting on a leak “100 percent false” on Friday morning, only to acknowledge less than an hour later that the story was based on a real document.

The Administration’s response mimicked Trump’s remark a day earlier that even if leaks coming out of the Fovernment are “real,” the news is “fake.” And it also fit into what appears to be a pattern of ignoring reporters’ requests for comment, only to push back quickly after stories are published, as Fake.

The AP tweeted that the Administration was considering using as many as 100,000 National Guard troops “to round up” Undocumented Immigrants. The News organization soon published a full story, attributing the details of the possible plan to a 11-page Draft memo it had obtained.

The White House and Department of Homeland Security failed to respond to the AP’s requests for comment prior to publication, the News organization noted. But immediately after the AP published its explosive story, the White House and DHS denied it.

“Not true,” Michael Short, a Senior Assistant to White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, tweeted at 10:26 a.m. A DHS spokeswoman said it was “not true” 10 minutes later. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters aboard Air Force One that the AP report was “100 percent not true,” according to a pool report distributed to reporters at 10:40 a.m. “I wish you guys had asked before you tweeted,” Spicer told reporters. An AP reporter responded that the news organization had sought comment “multiple times before publication,” according to the pool report.

Then a Cox Media Group Producer tweeted at 11:03 a.m. that a DHS official said the Memo cited by the AP was “a very early” draft and “was never seriously considered.”

The White House and DHS could’ve clarified that the draft wasn’t being seriously considered by the Administration prior to publication, as journalists noted on Twitter. The Administration’s failure to respond left people to speculate about its motives.

Arizona State journalism professor Dan Gilmor also questioned the Administration’s complete denial of the contents of the document, since the document does exist.

Journalists have complained recently that the Trump Administration, which frequently decries “fake news,” often fails to respond to Requests for Comment that would allow reporters to include the Administration’s perspective or denials in their original story.

NYC Wins When Everyone Can Vote! Michael H. Drucker
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U.S. District Court Sanctions Texas for Ignoring Court Deadlines in Voter Registration Lawsuit

Thanks to Richard Winger of Ballot Access News for this post.

On February 16th, U.S. District Court Judge Orlando Garcia, a Clinton appointee, sanctioned Texas State Government for failing to follow Court Orders to produce certain pieces of evidence.

The Case is Stringer v Pablos, w.d., SA-16-CA-257.

The issue is whether Texas is or is not complying with the Federal Motor Voter Law.

Plaintiffs say that many individuals Register to Vote at Department of Motor Vehicle offices, or update their Voter Registration, and yet those applications don’t get processed.

Plaintiffs asked for certain kinds of evidence from the State, and the State was supposed to produce them by September 24th, 2016, but the State got permission to instead submit the documents by January 17th.

But, that deadline passed without any production of the documents.

CLICK HERE to read the five page (PDF) Order.

NYC Wins When Everyone Can Vote! Michael H. Drucker
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