The district lines have been drawn. Now what?

In Memoriam

We as a community are overwhelmed by the terrible tragedy that was visited on us last Saturday. We honor the lives of the victims and pray for and reach out to help their families and friends in this time of overwhelming grief.

We search for answers to questions about the madman’s evil deeds; some we can figure out and some we never will. Our politics have given rise to the kind of falsehoods and hatred that lead to such events. As horrible as this is, we must not be afraid to speak the truth and to hold those who encourage such behavior accountable.

Redistricting

How comforting to know that someone we have never heard of has now given us the boundaries of politics in New York State for the next ten years.

Jonathan Cervas was appointed special master last month by State Supreme Justice Patrick McAllister to draw those lines.  Six months from now, no one will remember those names until ten years from now, when it comes time again for the state’s congressional and state legislative districts to be redrawn.

McAllister set Cervas to his task after the Justice, followed by Appellate Division and the Court of Appeals decisions, concluded that the Legislature’s redrawing of districts was unconstitutional and a gerrymander of the process.  The courts substituted the knowledge, experience, and personal inclinations of Cervas for that of the 213 elected members of the Legislature.

Cervas’ decisions, if finalized later this week, will give New York congressional and state Senate districts that will help Republican candidates considerably. His decisions are nearly final and probably cannot be successfully challenged.

Here is Cervas’ version of a gerrymander:

  • Among the 26 congressional seats, there will be 15 districts that are strong or leaning Democratic, five that are strong or leaning Republican, and six that can be considered “toss-ups.” Registered Democratic voters outnumber registered Republicans in the state by a margin of more that 3.6 million, so it is not easy to make things come out that way.
  • Two Democratic House members are put in the same districts in several downstate instances.
  • Erie County is divided into three House districts. Brian Higgins will continue as Buffalo’s representative in a district that also includes Amherst, the Town and City of Tonawanda, Grand Island, the northern half of Cheektowaga, plus Niagara County.
  • The new 23rd district includes much of current southern tier district plus the these towns in Erie County: Boston, Colden, Collins, Concord, Eden, Hamburg, North Collins, Orchard Park, West Seneca, the City of Lackawanna, the southern portion of Cheektowaga, and a small part of Clarence.
  • At the moment both Higgins and Chris Jacobs live in the same district. Higgins is about 200 feet outside of the 26th district.
  • The new 24th District includes Alden, Holland, Marilla, Newstead, Sardinia, Wales and most of Clarence. The district stretches up to Watertown.
  • There will be 38 Senate seats that are strong or leaning Democratic, 10 that strong or leaning Republican, and 15 that can be considered toss-ups.
  • The Senate districts in Erie County have been considerably redrawn. It looks like there could be a need for some candidates to consider changing their residences.
  • Senator Sean Ryan’s district is located exclusively in Erie County with a portion of south and west Buffalo, plus Lackawanna and the towns south and east of Buffalo. The district is slightly Republican by enrollment.
  • Senator Tim Kennedy’s district now will include north and east portions of the City of Buffalo plus Grand Island and the Town and City of Tonawanda.
  • Senator Ed Rath’s district includes Alden, Amherst, Cheektowaga, Clarence, Newstead and West Seneca. Enrollment is marginally Democratic.
  • Senator Pat Gallivan’s district is now outside of Erie County and includes Senator George Borrello’s current territory, although Gallivan could run in Ryan’s new district.

Justice McAllister ruled last week that any congressional and Senate candidates who previously filed petitions do not need to re-circulate petitions regardless of whether or not the signatures on such petitions were from the new district that the candidates choose to run in; they have until May 31 to file a document indicating which district they will run in.  Additional candidates may now circulate petitions that must be submitted by June 10. That’s a scheme that any political boss would be proud of.

When we left off on the subject in April (it seems so long ago), it appeared that Congressman Brian Higgins might face a primary once again from Eddie Egriu; Congressman Chris Jacobs saw any potential primary opponents eliminated; and Senator Sean Ryan would be challenged by Ben Carlisle.  We should know soon if those challenges continue or if there will be any more.  Senator Ed Rath has gone from the circulation of petitions to run for re-election; to deciding not to run against Senator Tim Kennedy; to again being a candidate for re-election in a newly formed district.

Congresswoman Claudia Tenney from New Hartford had decided to poach into a Legislature-drawn district that somewhat resembled the former 23rd district along the southern tier, abandoning a run in the central part of the state she lives in.  She will need to decide which district to run in. Jacobs lives in the new 23rd district.

The congressional and Senate primaries will occur on August 23rd.

Tom Reed’s parting gift to the state and the Republican Party

Congressman Tom Reed announced earlier this year that he would not run for re-election, regardless of how the district lines would be drawn.  His departure from public life, related to scandal, was the third by a Western New York Republican House member in the past twelve years; there was also one Democratic resignation due to scandal in 2010.  On May 10th Reid suddenly announced his resignation, effective immediately.

It used to be that the governor would have sole discretion for determining when or if there would be a special election to fill a vacant congressional or state legislative seat.  That did not sit well with state legislators, who subsequently passed a law setting up a strict schedule for special elections.  That law requires that when a vacancy occurs the governor must within ten days announce the date for a special election to fill the vacancy.  The election must be scheduled no sooner than 70 nor no more than 80 days from the date when the governor issues her special election proclamation.

The practical effect of Reed’s May 10th announcement was to set this schedule in motion:  proclamation of the special election date by May 20th; a special election to be held on a date between late July and early August.  That could be just about three weeks away from the court-ordered August 23 primary date for congressional and Senate seats.

Therefore, to the extent that Reed’s former 23rd district and a new 23rd district overlap, the voters in that part of the state will be faced with a special election and a primary election about 25 days apart.  The county Boards of Election in that overlapping area will need to go through the time and expense of setting up for those two elections, in addition, of course, to the June 28th primary and the November 8th general election.

If Congressman Reed had factored any of this into his personal planning he could have saved the voters and the Boards some time and money.  He could have also saved his Republican Party a lot of grief if the special election and the August primary were coordinated.  There will be a Democratic challenger in whatever election is being held in the old and new districts, but party registration in that part of the state will favor the Republicans.  Apparently Congressman Reed did not bother to inform party leadership of his plans before his resignation announcement.  There could be different individuals elected to complete Reed’s term and to be elected in the new district.

This might remind you of another Republican dilemma that also took place in Western New York in recent years.  In 2018, in the midst of the Chris Collins fiasco, party leaders and potential replacement candidates labored mightily to remove Collins from the ballot and substitute someone else.  The scheming failed and Collins ran for and won re-election.  A change in the state Election Law, subsequently approved, would have made that switcheroo easier.  In 2019, following Collins’ guilty plea a special election occurred, nearly eight months after Collins resigned; Governor Andrew Cuomo was responsible for the delay.  The special election, however, was held on the same day as the scheduled June primary for the office, saving some money but leaving Collins’ district without a voting representative for an extended period.

So what might have been a relatively quiet political summer, following the June primary, will instead be filled with political activity right through August 23.  Voters can be forgiven for losing interest as the summer drags on.

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Brown’s new budget again relies on large one-shot revenues to balance the books

Mayor Byron Brown earlier this month presented his proposed 2022-2023 city budget.  It includes a five percent property tax increase and substantial increases in city spending. Approximately nine percent of the revenues ($52.6 million) come from federal stimulus funding that will be no more a year from now.

It seems appropriate to refer to something this blog reported last September after a debate during the hard-fought election for mayor:

The debate did bring out a discussion about the possibility of a property tax increase with Walton in favor of a small increase.  An increase of three percent was on the table.  Brown cited his record of cutting taxes.  He misrepresented the implications of a three percent increase in taxes, suggesting that it would amount to an extra $300 per year for property taxpayers.  A home assessed at $100,000 pays $998.50 in combined Buffalo city and school district taxes.  A three percent increase in taxes would equal $29.96.  The Buffalo News in an editorial used the same faulty math that Brown used.

Just eight months later, the truth be told.  A Buffalo News story reports that for “owners of a home assessed at $100,000, the tax increase would be about $50.”  Given some other relevant factors, it seems that the increase in property taxes next year will begin a series of regular and perhaps larger property tax increases.

Consider the following from the mayor’s budget:

  • On the revenue side, the $52.6 million in federal stimulus money revenue is certainly a highlight.  It will not be there when the 2023-2024 budget is prepared.  Fifty-two million dollars equals 35 percent of the city’s annual tax levy.
  • The new budget indicates the receipt of $34.8 million casino revenue in the current year, making up for the money that the Seneca Nation had withheld from the state and host communities over the past five years.  The new budget projects $11 million for the new year, which is about 47 percent higher than what the city received in 2018-2019.
  • The new budget reports that the city government’s share of the Erie County sales tax will be seven percent higher than two years ago and nearly 21 percent higher than what the 2021-2022 budget projected.
  • Some other revenue numbers that anticipate double digit increases over actual 2020-2021 receipts include the sale of land, buildings, and equipment – up $3.57 million (510 percent); service charges – up $2.7 million (22 percent).
  • The operating budget also draws considerable revenues from some Enterprise (quasi-independent) departments including the Water Department ($8.4 million); Solid Waste ($0.7 million); and Parking ($1.6 million).  Total amount from such funds:  $10.7 million.  That inclusion of user fees as city operating revenues allows the official property tax levy to be smaller.
  • On the spending side, the total city budget is up $33.7 million or 6.3 percent over the current budget.  Many departmental increases are in the double digits including the Mayor and Executive offices (up $1.8 million/29 percent); and the Common Council (up $412,000/14 percent).  The Police Department budget is growing by an added $5.4 million or six percent and the Fire Department’s spending will be up $5.1 million or nearly eight percent).
  • The Mayor’s Budget Message notescreation ofnew offices that will enable Buffalo to meet the challenges of the 21st century. As part of my Administration’s Recommended Budget, we will be creating a new Office of Innovation, an Office of Climate Adaptation, and expanding an Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion under the direction of the City’s Chief Diversity Officer. These new offices, some of which are a consolidation of other functions spread across different City departments while others are entirely new, represent a shift in our focus so that we can strategically address the issues of digital inclusivity, global warming, and racial and economic equality in an intentional and comprehensive manner. Creating these new offices—and the positions that will go with some of them—will also enable the City to access more grant and philanthropic funding for these types of initiatives, undertake transformative projects that will help reduce long-term operational and capital costs, and make Buffalo’s economic development environment more competitive into the future.”
  • The city’s contribution to the Buffalo Public School System remains at the same amount, $70.8 million, that it has been at for several years.
  • The budget includes increased funding for new vehicles ($1.5 million) and equipment ($300,000).  Such expenses can be looked at two ways.  A good use of one-time revenues such as the federal stimulus money is cash purchases of things like replacement vehicles that will update the fleet yet do not necessarily require equivalent expenditures in subsequent years.  On the other hand, such one-time purchases might, in effect, be traded in by the Common Council in the reduction of total spending, which will allow the new budget to generate a larger surplus in the fiscal year ending next June, thus replenishing the reserve fund that went to zero in 2018.
  • City expenses for the medical insurance of retirees now represent 93 percent of the amount the city pays for medical insurance for current employees ($42.8 million versus $46 million).

The $300+ million in federal stimulus that the city has received over the past two years (some of which having been directly assigned by federal law to capital expenditures) provided the city government with some breathing room. The city had over a several year period prepared budgets that listed tens of millions of dollars in unrealistic revenues while also depleting the fund balance, setting up serious problems.  Once again, the mayor and Council are facing a situation where a huge amount of one-time revenue in the form of the federal stimulus funds will disappear, leaving a huge hole to fill at this time next year.

Over the last year or two there has been considerable discussion among a few members of the Common Council about getting the city budget to a structured position where realistic operating revenues match operating expenses and the city’s reserve fund is rebuilt.  Council Finance Committee Chairman Rasheed Wyatt has taken the lead in such conversations.

As it is sometimes said, “never let a good crisis go to waste.”  So here they are again.  Let’s see what happens this time.

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