New stealth legislation in Albany has fusion voting in its sights

New York State government, to borrow a phrase, moves in a mysterious way. Not always in a good and proper way, but oftentimes, mysterious.

I’m referring to such things as the preparation and approval of the annual budget. While most of the budget is day-to-day management of the government, there are always some surprises.

This year’s surprise was public financing of elections for state office, potentially providing up to $100 million in public funds for campaigns. The stated goal, aside from spending a ton of money, is to drive corrupt “bad” money out of elections.

The thinking is that there will be no need for large donations from influence-seeking donors. It’s not that simple.  Independent PACs could still provide substantial “uncoordinated” funding for a candidate.

Don’t confuse this public financing idea with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s campaign proposal, “Democracy Dollars,” where she wants to provide all adults in the country with $600 worth of vouchers to be donated to federal election candidates. Too bad for the Senator that this is not already in place, considering that her presidential campaign fundraising is struggling.  It’s so bad that a Corey Booker campaign operative recently encouraged people to make small donations to Gillibrand to help her qualify for the upcoming debates.  But I digress.

Public financing of New York elections was actually just sort of included in the state’s new budget. The three people in the room couldn’t, or perhaps didn’t want to, work out all the details.  So they punted to a commission.

There have been many, many commissions over the years in New York government. Most commonly the process is used to try to make an issue go away.  But there is a more recent example that may be a more appropriate role model for the public financing issue.

A year ago the state legislature was in one of its kabuki dances about a perennial unresolved matter – pay raises for state elected officials. The subject was kind of touchy so a commission was a perfect device for taking care of business.

The pay raise commission was comprised of several current or former state and New York City comptrollers. They labored mostly in private and then late in the year issued a report which recommended substantial raises for the elected officials and state department heads.

Tucked in the report was a reform proposal to limit the outside income of state legislators. And the kicker was that the recommendations of the commission would become law unless the state legislature overruled them during a narrow holiday season window of time.  The state legislature took no such action and so we have a law approved by a commission.

There is a legal challenge to the issue concerning the limits on outside income by legislators, but for now the rule is in place. It becomes effective next January.  It leaves certain legislators, including Senators Michael Ranzenhofer and Robert Ortt, with a dilemma about what to do, since they are among the legislators with considerable outside income.

So in 2019 we have a new commission to consider the puzzle of public election financing. Search the internet and you will find nothing about this commission.  It’s not known if any members have been appointed yet.  Seven of the nine members are to be named by Democrats – Governor Andrew Cuomo, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastsie.

Assuming the commission does in fact get constituted in the near future they have a lot of work to do, having to consider such things as:

  • What might be the limits of public financing that would be available for the various state offices?   We may be talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars for legislative candidates and millions for statewide offices.
  • Will there be different amounts for different parts of state, considering that NYC media costs a lot more than the markets in upstate?
  • What would be the criteria for awarding public funds, and at what ratio of private donations to public funds? The New York City version of public financing provides $6 for every $1 of privately raised small donations.
  • How much will it really cost? Candidates could proliferate in such a climate, driving up costs.
  • When will the process begin? If approved in December, probably in 2020.
  • Who will administer the system, including enforcement? Likely the State Board of Elections, which isn’t exactly a role model for effective enforcement of the law.

Public financing could turn out to be the political consulting class’ full-employment program. Candidates who would otherwise pass on what might be considered, in a gerrymandered world, a hopeless cause, could be encouraged to run by consultants who could capture large sums of money in such races, regardless of the prospects of victory.

It has been suggested that the commission’s rules should be modeled on the public financing plan in place in New York City for the past several years. In a recent special election for City Public Advocate, a more or less irrelevant job, 17 candidates were in the running and 11 of them divided up $7,178,120 of public funds in the process.  Voter turnout was just 118,395, or 2.3 percent of all registered voters.

An interesting sidelight to that City election has an Erie County connection. Nomiki Konst, daughter of former Erie County legislator and Chris Collins cabinet member Kathy Konst, was one of those 17 candidates.  Konst got $512,568 in public funds for her campaign; she raised $191,397 privately.  Ms. Konst received 2,739 votes, running 11th in the field of 17 candidates.  There is a lingering controversy about how her campaign spent about $90,000 in public money, a large chunk of it going to a consultant.

But there is one more thing about the work of this new state commission. Part of its charter is to examine whether New York State should continue to allow the practice of a candidate running under the banner of more than one political party; there are currently eight legally constituted parties in the state.  The process is call fusion voting.  There is hardly a candidate for any state or local office in New York who only runs on the ballot of just one of the major parties.  New York is one of only three states in the country that allows fusion voting.

Fusion voting has some powerful allies, starting with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and many other elected officials who have all run on multiple party lines. Unions affiliated with the Working Families Party are supporting the continuation of fusion voting.  The minor parties, of course, all (except for the Green Party which mostly runs its own affiliates) have a vested interest in continuing the existing process.  It gives those who runs the minor parties influence over candidate selection, the approach to issues, and access to public jobs.

Governor Cuomo reportedly has no love for the Working Families Party, despite having been elected twice with their support.

Ending fusion voting would have a significant effect on politics in the state as well as locally. There is the often-repeated point that no statewide Republican candidate has been elected since 1970 without the support of the Conservative Party.  There is considerable similar evidence on the local level.  Consider these examples in Erie County:

  • Republican Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw was re-elected in 2017 by a margin of 22,226 votes. He received 23,221 votes on the Conservative Party line.
  • Republican Sheriff Tim Howard was re-elected in 2017 with a victory margin of just 3,457 votes. The Conservative line provided 23,119 votes.
  • Republican County Clerk Mickey Kearns was elected in a special election in 2017 with a margin of 7,830 over Democrat Steve Cichon, Kearns having received 22,234 votes on the Conservative line. In 2018 he was re-elected by just 4,194 votes, with the Conservative line providing 28,314 votes.

None of this is to say that those candidates might not have been elected without minor party endorsements, which also included the Independence Party and the Reform Party. None of these Republican candidates, however, received more votes on their own party line than the Democrat received, although Mychajliw came close.  All this helps explain why Democrats want to end fusion voting.

The public financing commission, like the pay raise commission last year, is required to report by December 1. The state legislature will be given until December 22 to veto the plan.  Otherwise it will become law.  If the end of fusion voting is included in the commission’s report, minor parties in the state will be in a whole new territory in 2020.

Sometime it is suggested that observers of politics should just buy some popcorn and watch the show. The public financing commission show, however, will be mostly just a private showing.  Maybe Netflix will pick it up next year.

Ink by the barrel, facts by the byte, progress by the bit — contrasting views of Buffalo’s budget

Department of Motor Vehicles Commissioner and former Buffalo Comptroller Mark J. F. Schroeder has never been a shrinking violet. Whether he was taking on a political challenge or belting out an incredible version of a classic Italian song, he’s always put his heart into it.

And that was the case last year when he, still the Comptroller, published a very strong, hard-hitting analysis of Mayor Byron Brown’s 2018-19 city budget. In a detailed review, Schroeder laid out the argument for the proposition that the city’s finances were in trouble.

Brown dismissed the analysis and suggested that Schroeder’s budget challenge was simply sour grapes for Brown’s defeat of Schroder in the 2017 Democratic primary for mayor. That loss undoubtedly stung Schroeder, but the numbers in his budget analysis were thorough and accurate.

But now there is a new city budget on the table for the year beginning July 1. The Mayor has issued a press release talking about all the great things contained therein, including level taxes. The highlight is the proposal for the city to take over the ownership and operation of 32,000 street lights.

Politics and Other Stuff, in June of last year, reviewed Schroeder’s analysis of Brown’s 2018-19 budget, and found the Comptroller’s work very credible. The Common Council, a year ago, did some minor tinkering with the budget but basically ignored all of Schroeder’s commentary. So did the Buffalo Control Board, which is supposed to be there to, well, control. The Board, also known as the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority (BFSA), has a budget of nearly $1,000,000 and a staff of five.

This blog took another look at the City’s finances last December to see if any progress had been made in either receiving revenues that were questionable or in reining in spending in light of the fanciful budget assumptions. Nope, nothing happening. In March, the Control Board weighed in to encourage city officials to “closely monitor” the budget.

The Buffalo News’ coverage of Mayor Brown’s proposed 2019-20 budget was pretty much a regurgitation of a press statement by the Mayor – which was interesting because the Mayor had recently described the News’ reporting, at least in terms of the Community Action Organization, as “fake news.”

Last Friday the News doubled down on the 2019-20 City budget with an editorial entitled “Brown’s City Budget Is Sound.” The commentary described the budget as “Brown’s stay-the-course plan… As the mayor pointed out in announcing the spending plan, both the residential and commercial rates are significantly lower than when he took office, a reflection of rising revenues in that period as well as sensible financial management.”

It complemented the Mayor’s decision to borrow $80 million to purchase the street lights from National Grid and to use efficient LED bulbs for the city’s street lights. They then went on: “[T]he budget plan wisely takes a more conservative approach than last year to revenue from Seneca-owned casinos, slotting in $11 million… With its rainy day reserve funds mostly depleted, city budget makers need to continue to remain conservative in their assumptions and get more aggressive in finding savings.”

By coincidence last Friday, the Investigative Post’s Geoff Kelly also had a story about the city’s budget. That report was more detailed in its analysis of the new city budget, with a headline that described the situation more accurately than the News:   Mayor Brown’s Risky Budget Assumptions.”

Kelly suggests “[T]here is little fat in Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown’s proposed 2019-2020 budget, as befits a city where, despite aspirational talk of a renaissance, population is stagnant and job growth and real wages trail national averages.

However, that word aspirational also applies to some projected revenue streams on which Brown’s budget relies. Other words and phrases come to mind, too, such as tentative, maybe, never going to happen, and zombie.”

Newly appointed Comptroller Barbara Miller-Williams has issued a report on the 2019-20 budget. Her office basically updated the numbers in Schroeder’s previous study.

Here are some of the continuing issues with the city budget, raised in Schroeder’s 2018 analysis, which the Mayor, the Common Council and the Buffalo News have mostly ignored:

  • Tribal Pact Casino Revenue. The 2018-19 budget included $17,000,000 in expected revenue, which would have accounted for two and one half years of delinquent payments. An arbitration panel has recommended the payment of the money claimed to be owed to the state, which will then distribute a portion to Buffalo, but the deal is not yet done. Brown’s new budget includes $11 million in Casino revenues for next year. Contrary to what the News suggests, that is not “a more conservative approach.” The amount is higher than the amount included in previous city budgets. In the last fiscal year when Buffalo received full payment of these revenues, 2015-16, the receipts were $7,026,041.
  • Sale of City Owned Real Estate. The current budget includes $8 million, even though the city in 2017-18 collected only $362,350. Through April 30 of the current year receipts have totaled $914,000. The new budget expects $6.9 million.
  • Traffic Violations Revenue. In 2018-19 the revenue was projected at $6 million. The city collected just over $3 million in 2017-18, and revenues through April 30 of this year have been $2.16 million. The new budget has the number at $3.3 million.
  • Entertainment Ticket Fee. This was to be a new revenue source to charge a fee to those attending five particular entertainment venues in the city. The 2019-20 budget expects $752,000. As Kelly suggests, “the entertainment ticket fee is never going to happen.”
  • Gifts and Donations. This idea emanated from Albany as a way around the limit on federal tax deductions for state and local taxes. The plan was to have people “donate” money to governments and allow such deductions to be used for federal tax purposes, with most of the donated money in fact being property tax payments. Buffalo expected $2.1 million for the year. As of April 30th $138,905 had been received. Nonetheless the 2019-20 budget includes $1,397,726 in revenues from this source.
  • Parking Tags and Fines. The current budget includes $7.9 million. As of April 30 the reported actual income was $6.1 million. $7.9 million is anticipated in the next budget year.
  • Grant Reimbursements. A total of $1,414,099 was projected for 2018-19 but only $129,287 had come in by April 30. The new budget factors the revenue at $1,117,795.
  • Overtime expenses. The actuals for 2016-17 were $29.4 million, and for 2017-18, $29.7 million. Nonetheless the 2018-19 budget provided only $16.4 million for OT. As of April 30 $18.7 million had been expended. The 2019-20 budget estimates the OT budget line at $17.36 million.
  • Judgments and Claims expenses. The line was budgeted at $2 million. In 2017-18 $6.9 million was spent, and in 2016-17 the total was $8.1 million. As of April 30 in this fiscal year $1.9 million was paid out. The 2019-20 budget number is again $2 million.

There’s an old political expression: “a million here, a million there, pretty soon you’re talking real money.”

Here are four threads to this story, and perhaps the last one is the most important: 

  1. The current 2018-19 city budget appears to be heading for a significant deficit. The damage was done a year ago when it was proposed and adopted. There are only 47 days left in the fiscal year, as of May 14. It is not salvageable. The deficit threshold in the BFSA enabling legislation for imposing hard control board status seems likely to be breeched.
  2. The proposed 2019-20 city budget is set to double down on the fiscal problems set in motion last year. Many of the false assumptions that were placed in last year’s budget document are being repeated in some modified form. While there are some minor concessions to reality, overall the improvement is just a tiny bit. The illusionary revenues make it a structurally unbalanced budget, which is another trigger for a hard control board.
  3. The Common Council seems poised to do basically nothing about these impending problems. The Control Board has been sitting on its hands.
  4. The folks who buy ink by the barrel at One News Plaza, given their circulation of daily newspapers, still control the flow of news reporting and analysis in this town. TV and radio news reporting often mimics the coverage. Superficial stories do not benefit the community. Analysis by the Investigative Post and this humble blog get into weeds of this story, but public views of public issues are influenced mostly by the printed newspaper.

This is a very serious matter, not just in Buffalo, but around the country. Newspapers have large infrastructures and payrolls that are not being sustained by shrinking advertising dollars. Pittsburgh and New Orleans residents have seen their one remaining newspaper shrink. The paper in Salt Lake City is trying to convert into a 501(c)(3) tax exempt organization to raise money through donations. News rooms around the country are being taken apart. What’s left of local newspaper reporting is heavy on things like sports coverage but very light on things that are very significant to local communities.

The lack of serious news analysis can encourage public officials to think that they can get away with things because no one is paying attention. The Investigative Post’s reporting on things like the Buffalo Billion scandal, environmental and other issues has been outstanding, and they have extended their reporting to WGRZ-TV and other avenues. But when you circulate much of your important information by the byte rather than by the ink barrel, it’s just never going to be the same as it once was. And improvements in public policy shrink to “just a bit.”

I offer no solution to this dilemma. But think about it, think very hard about it, because the vitality of a community depends upon understanding this issue.

WNY firms and organizations spent $5.1 million on lobbying in 2018

Budget-wise, things have been getting a bit tight in Albany recently. The urge to spend state money by newly-elected liberal Democrats from New York City was tempered by the realities of diminishing tax revenues as well as Governor Andrew Cuomo’s interest in continuing to hold down the growth in spending.

Nonetheless, determining how state resources will be used continues to feed a large segment of the business community that tries every year to get a larger piece of the pie. Lobbying is alive and well in New York State. Continue reading

What’s happening (and not happening) with the 2019 elections in Buffalo?

The year 2019 really seems like a strange one in local politics. The state Election Law changes, which shifted the political calendar, seem to make everything a bit off kilter.

A June primary schedule is not new in New York. Such was the case for many years until the early 1970’s, when Albany changed things to set up a September primary. That, of course, means that practically no one involved in local politics today has any history about the rhythm of what an early summer primary means. Continue reading

What kind of health care should be available to all Americans?

Far be it for Donald Trump to pass up an opportunity to make another mess for the political party that he now dominates. So he decides to promise the greatest of all health care plans.

He even named the three senators who he said will lead the charge in repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act. Problem is, they all seem to be busy with other more important things – like watching grass grow. Continue reading