Nov. 4 ballot asks voters to decide on redistricting, borrowing $2 billion for schools

| The Oneida Daily Dispatch

ALBANY >> Beside the marquee race of Cuomo vs. Astorino vs. Hawkins, voters next month will have an opportunity to cast ballots on redistricting, having the Legislature go paperless, and borrowing $2 billion for schools.

Legislators quietly put the three ballot proposals in place for the Nov. 4 election, hoping they would win approval without much controversy, especially for a plan to heap more debt on New York taxpayers. 

The proposals will appear on the reverse side of the paper ballots that now are used, requiring voters to remember to turn the page over to vote yes or no three times after marking their choices in the races for governor, which pits incumbent Andrew Cuomo against Republican Rob Astorino and Green Party nominee Howie Hawkins.

John Cahill and Eric Schneiderman are also on the ballot for attorney general, along with Bob Antonacci and Tom DiNapoli for comptroller, and candidates around the state running for Senate and Assembly seats.

Here’s a look at the three propositions:

PROPOSAL 1 – “REVISING STATE’S REDISTRICTING PROCEDURE” 

This measure changes the procedures now used to draw voting district lines for the Assembly, Senate and Congressional districts. Currently, a joint Senate and Assembly commission draws the lines. 

This would be replaced by a 10 member panel, consisting of eight Democratic and Republican appointees of the Senate and Assembly minority and majority leaders and two members appointed by the eight. The two cannot be enrolled in a political party. 

Legislators spun the new commission as more independent than the current commission, even though control would remain in the hands of the legislative leaders. Opponents including NYPIRG and Common Cause said the change is only intended to stop actual reform by enshrining the current insider controlled redistricting process in the Constitution.

Last month, a judge ruled that the ballot wording could not include the word “independent” because the new panel would remain under the control of the Legislature, which could reject any plan it drew up and create their own plan.

Judge Patrick McGrath said “the Commission’s plan is little more than a recommendation to the Legislature which can reject it for unstated reasons and draw its own lines.” He also questioned the makeup of the panel: “The Court is not aware of any other law in New York state that has ever required a Commission or any legislative body’s vote approval to be dependent on the political make-up of the Legislature.” 

Good government groups blame redistricting gerrymandering for many of the problems in Albany, from the power of special interests over the public good to the seemingly endemic corruption in the Senate and Assembly.

PROPOSAL 2 – “PERMITTING ELECTRONIC DISTRIBUTION OF STATE LEGISLATIVE BILLS”

The proposal will “allow electronic distribution of a state legislative bill to satisfy the constitutional requirement that a bill be printed and on the desks of state legislators at least three days before the Legislature votes on it. Under the current provisions of the Constitution, this requirement can only be satisfied by distribution of a physical printed copy.”

Assembly member Jim Tedisco, R-112, said the measure he supported would save $53 million annually in printing costs. The Senate and Assembly runs several printing shops to churn out bills and publications, printing up at least 213 copies (one for each of the state’s 213 legislators) of each of the 17,000 or so bills that are introduced in a typical two-year legislative session. One estimate is that the bills total 19 million pages annually.

“Voters will have the opportunity to help make Mother Earth smile by turning their ballot over and voting ‘Yes’ to the constitutional amendment I sponsored to go digital at the Capitol to save millions of tax dollars and stop needlessly wasting paper that ends up in our landfills,” Tedisco says on his website.

When the measure to put the constitutional change on the ballot first passed in 2013, the only opposition was heard from paper industry interests who oppose any move away from the printed page. There were also some grumbles that putting laptops or tablets on legislators’ desks would spoil the historic ambiance of the Senate and Assembly, even though many legislators now bring in their own to use.

PROPOSAL THREE – “THE SMART SCHOOLS BOND ACT OF 2014″ 

This proposal permits the state to borrow up to $2 billion for schools, primarily spending the money on short-term needs like electronic equipment. Typically, bond borrowing is done for major capital projects. Thanks to a succession of governors and legislatures, New York is one of the most debt-laden states in the U.S., with a per capital state and local debt burden of $17,000 per person. 

According to the language released by the state Board of Elections, the money could go “to acquire learning technology equipment or facilities including, but not limited to … interactive whiteboards, computer servers, and desktop, laptop, and tablet computers.”

It could also be spent “to install high-speed broadband or wireless internet connectivity for schools and communities; to construct, enhance, and modernize educational facilities to accommodate pre-kindergarten programs and provide instructional space to replace transportable classroom units; and to install high-tech security features in school buildings and on school campuses.”

The borrowing was proposed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo as part of his State of the State address in January. School officials did not advocate for the borrowing and many say schools need money for more vital things than computers. Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said Monday on the Capitol Pressroom public radio show that she is not taking any position on the borrowing, the same stance taken by other big school-related groups. 

“The bond act ultimately isn’t about the desirability of classroom technology or pre-K expansions — although both are certainly debatable,” E.J. McMahon of the Empire Center said in a statement he issued Monday. “The core issue raised by Proposal 3 is whether a state general obligation bond issue, even one with a relatively short ‘weighted average’ duration of 10 to 20 years, is the best way of paying for a combination of short-lived tech and long-lived buildings, when existing annual state aid categories already subsidize both without testing the state’s bond limits.”

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