This column was written by Kathy Zahler, who runs the blog “Dryden Daily Kaz.” As always, The Voice is eager to reprint alternative or dissenting viewpoints
Micah: Why I shop in downtown Ithaca
In addition to voting for a U.S. representative, a governor and lieutenant governor, a comptroller, an attorney general, a state supreme court justice, an assemblyperson, a state senator, a sheriff, a county clerk, and possibly a city judge, town justice, or town councilperson, Tompkins County residents will be expected to vote for or against three ballot initiatives, which NYS calls “Proposal Number One,” “Proposal Number Two,” and “Proposal Number Three.” Such proposals used to be hard to find back when we had lever-controlled voting machines. Nowadays, you have no excuse: The proposals are right on the back of the ballot.
I’m voting No, Yes, No.
Proposal Number One: Vote No
The history of redistricting in NYS goes back a hundred years and more and is rife with lawsuits. The rules are simple: Every ten years, the state may look at the census and revise its legislative districts based on population shifts. The reasons are simple: No one part of the state should have significant sway over any other parts of the state. If population is essentially similar from district to district, that should eliminate power plays. The reality, of course, is far from simple. This is New York!
Like most of the nation, New York has a bizarrely high return of incumbents to office, one that simple statistics would suggest is practically impossible. There are a handful of reasons for this, including name recognition and ability to raise funds, but certainly one reason is the drawing of district lines to favor certain parties. In a state with a clear upstate-downstate divide, that becomes a litigious issue when one party feels that the other is unfairly favored.
The state legislature has always had the power to establish districts. In the past, it has established an advisory commission but has retained the power to thumbs-up or thumbs-down any suggestions from that body.
The current ballot proposal purports to fix things. It “establishes a redistricting commission every 10 years beginning in 2020, with two members appointed by each of the four legislative leaders and two members selected by the eight legislative appointees; prohibits legislators and other elected officials from serving as commissioners; establishes principles to be used in creating districts; requires the commission to hold public hearings on proposed redistricting plans; subjects the commission’s redistricting plan to legislative enactment; provides that the legislature may only amend the redistricting plan according to the established principles if the commission’s plan is rejected twice by the legislature; provides for expedited court review of a challenged redistricting plan; and provides for funding and bipartisan staff to work for the commission.” [boldface mine]
People urging “yes” say that Proposition 1 is a step in the right direction. I think it is a step in the same direction. If the commission is established by the legislative leaders and their appointees, and legislators may again approve or reject the plan, bias is built into whatever plan the commission devises. The proposed plan again allows legislators to choose their voters, and like so many good ideas in NYS, it has been edited and manipulated to maintain the status quo while looking all pretty and new. Vote no.
Proposal Number Two: Vote Yes
Like Proposal Number One, this is another vote to amend the NYS Constitution. The purpose is to allow electronic distribution of state legislative bills to satisfy the constitutional requirement that a bill be printed and on legislators’ desks at least three days before a vote. Current provisions are only satisfied by the distribution of a hard copy of the bill.
We amend the NYS Constitution a lot, and that’s often because the original language, as is true of much state law, is simply too specific. A clever writer of laws tries to anticipate the future and to be as general as possible without being vague. For the most part, the U.S. Constitution walks the line of generalities without veering over into specifics that would need to be amended or vagueness that would need to be explained. It says, for example, “…the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” It doesn’t say “petition the Senate” or “the right of male landowners.” Perhaps the founders had good imaginations, or perhaps they were just smart. Whichever it was, the First Amendment still holds up pretty well after 227 years.
But the 1938 version of our NYS Constitution didn’t anticipate a time when printed paper bills were not necessary, so our vote is needed to correct this. Perhaps one day we can get rid of the law that forces every person working in a NYS Department of Social Services to have two separate computers, one for State business, and one for County business. This dates back to a time when you couldn’t easily partition a hard drive to keep one set of files separate from another. Now the law just sits quietly on the books, racking up dollars for the counties as they continue to purchase and support twice the number of computers they need in DSS. That’s a bad law. Proposal Number Two is sensible. Vote yes.
Proposal Number Three: Vote No
School board members learn early on how to spend one-time money; for example, that $150K in annual pork from your State Senator. Maybe you repair a roof. Maybe you buy something you would buy anyway that doesn’t have maintenance costs—new auditorium seating, say, or replacement tables for the science lab. Here’s what you don’t do with found money: Hire personnel. Purchase anything with a maintenance contract or licensing fees. Start a new initiative. Build something new.
Now here comes NYS’s Proposal Number Three, the sweetly nicknamed “Smart Schools Bond Act.” It calls for bonding in the amount of $2B to “purchase educational technology equipment and facilities, such as interactive whiteboards, computer servers, desktop and laptop computers, tablets and high-speed broadband or wireless internet; construct and modernize facilities to accommodate pre-kindergarten programs and replacing classroom trailers with permanent instructional space; and install high-tech security features in school buildings.”
Proposal Number Three violates every one-time-money rule. It is, as I like to say, the gift that keeps on taking.
Some people are complaining about Proposal Number Three because they think bonding is too risky and expensive or because they feel it’s a sly way to get districts ready for online testing. Nobody seems to be talking about how just-plain-stupid it is to buy a mess of technology with one-time money when that technology has a short shelf-life and its purchase price is merely the tip of the cost iceberg.
Suppose you buy interactive whiteboards or tablets or both for every classroom. You need to figure in any retrofitting and additional hardware, the software and technical support, the ongoing training of teachers. If you update your network to enable your new technology to work, you may need to buy switches at $8K apiece, and then there are the annual maintenance costs for each switch, and the bulbs for projectors, and the yearly licensing fees for every bit of software. But it’s year one, you’ve had your spending approved, you’ve bought new stuff, and now you’re on your own. And what do you imagine will happen in 2019 when all your new stuff is now old stuff?
This is also being sold right in the ballot text as something that will “equalize” opportunities in classrooms across the state, which is just silly. Proposition Number Three is based, as usual, on the same inequitable formula that underpins all other school funding. Rich districts get more money. Poor districts get less money.
Finally, there’s the replacing classroom trailers part, which fails to point out that the trailers are all or nearly all in New York City, which is also where most schools exist that need space for Pre-K. Upstate districts are losing population, and if they don’t already have Pre-K, they’re not about to invest in it just because they suddenly get money to build a classroom they don’t need. I don’t mind replacing some other district’s trailers, but it would be a lot better for us upstate if this were done as another building project initiative, where any district could apply for any building project it needed and get a larger-than-usual percentage of that project paid for by the state.
This one’s called “Smart Schools,” but it’s Stupid Finance. It violates School Board 101 rules and should be shot down. Vote no.
There is a fourth proposal on the Ithaca City ballot. I have an opinion about that one, too, but I don’t live in the City, so I’ll let someone else expound on Proposal Number Four.
To read the complete text of the proposals, see any of the sample ballots at http://tompkinscountyny.gov/boe.