Have a slice of pie (in the sky)

As I have written before, in 2017 the people of New York will have the chance to re-write the constitution.

If we vote for a constitutional convention, we could make major changes to the state. The provision for a constitutional convention from time to time is the most progressive aspect of New York’s rather Tamny Hall Constitution.

Democracy is not working at the state level. Too much corruption, obviously. We have no working system to address local corruption. Here are a series of fixes I would propose, if we could get the convention rolling in 2017.

Here are some ideas I have. Don’t tell me they are too big. Just spend a few minutes dreaming. New York is inefficient (1200 jurisdictions), corrupt (senate and assembly leaders both in jail), unfair (black Hispanic pipeline to upstate prisons), pumping carbon like everyone else…Politicians aren’t going to fix it. A convention might work.

100% pie in the sky to follow. Have a piece of pie!


New York State has 1200 jurisdictions: villages, towns, school districts, authorities, etc. My county, for example, has a population of 60,000 but 21 highway departments, six police forces, 17 real estate assessors, more than 40 judges, tons of building inspectors, etc.

This is an upstate issue. Long Island and Westchester may be somewhat effected by illogical and overlapping entities, but the problem is particularly acute in upstate New York. However, New York City residents, at least, and other downstate New Yorkers have an interest in fixing upstate. The mortgage recording tax, for example, paid by downstaters is subsidizing too much government upstate that is not helping the people or economy upstate but creating corrupt dens of dependency. It’s not good for any region of the state.

Having so many jurisdictions is nonsense. People have known it’s nonsense for a long time and write provisions into the old constitution that purport to address this problem but existing provisions have not worked.

Not only is this way inefficient, these fiefdoms of authority breed corruption. Inequality is also exacerbated. One town has a Walmart and get the tax revenue even as 50% of the shoppers live in the neighboring town which cannot pay for its schools. Stuff like that.

Task force

My proposal would be to create a task force that would function like a prosecutor. The office of consolidation would look at a place, a county for example, and prepare a plan for consolidation of villages, restructuring of police forces, reorganization of school transportation. The plan would be submitted to local authorities. The authorities could not change the plan, only prepare a response.

Then a jury of county residents would be convened at random. The jury would be presented with the task force plan and the existing governments’ response. They would vote. If 2/3 of the jury of, say, 24 residents votes for the plan, that’s it, the structure of government is re-written.

The state government would allow the task force six years and a budget that cannot be changed for those six years, initially, to make changes.

If we trust citizens to make life or death decisions in juries, or in complicated civil cases, we should trust them to know which plan is better for the citizens.

New York City would likely be exempt from this task force, as the city is about as consolidated as it can be already.

Apply technology

Here are three internet related proposals.

1. Small bite eLaws

When a law is proposed by legislator, an elected webmaster will then post it to the legislative website. The website then open a discussion on the proposed law. Anyone in the world can comment on the legislation as a guest commentator. Voters in the district of that legislator can register on the site and comment as a voter (putting in an ID number). The legislator must respond to some of the comments and engage on the site at least a little.

After a certain period of time, commenting is closed and voting begins. There will be three vote tallies: voter in the district, voters in the state and guests, posted on the site. No law can proceed to be voted on by the elected representatives until an online vote has occurred.

The vote online is not binding. However, there will be a chart on the site showing how many bills each legislator proposed, how popular the bills were in his or her district and in the state. The chart will show how responsive the legislator was to comments.

The new position in the constitution, legislative webmaster, is responsible for making this site interesting, easy, and assuring compliance by legislators.

Laws should be limited in scope, no more than a certain number of characters or words and addressing only one issue. These short laws, when proposed by a legislator, should then appear on a website. The webmaster cannot comment on the content of the proposed legislation on the site but can say that the law fails to meet the requirements for clear language and send it back. The representative doesn’t have to change the language but if s/he doesn’t, it will be flagged on the site.

2. All documents posted online automatically

Rather than requiring people to file FOIL (Freedom of Information Law) requests to see government documents, anything accessible through an expanded FOIL law should automatically be online by default. This could be another responsibility of the elected state webmaster. It’s easier to put everything online than have a team of people looking for paper in filing cabinets.

3. Investigative journalism consortiums

Having documents online is not enough. We also need people outside of government looking through the pile. Journalism is going through an upheaval and not enough investigative journalism is going on.

I would propose the following: The state will establish, say, four independent entities with four separate boards of directors, one explicitly right wing, one left, and two who aimed to be non-partisan. These consortiums must allow people to become members by paying some dues, set by the board. The boards of directors must be elected in part by the dues paying members.

All four consortiums will all receive one time block grants from the state. They will have a mission statement: “To research and publish unseemly behavior on the part of major institutions and powerful entities, to include some in New York State government and business.” They all have the same mission. The state will be required to fund them annually for five years. After that, the state can pull the plug or chose to continue.

It’s an experiment in rebuilding the fourth estate.

Reform Albany

Here are three proposals directed at the state legislative process. No more bigwigs!

1. Term limits

Not too short, so that professional bureaucrats do not get too much power, but not too long either.

2. More legislators

So many New York State legislators are crooks that I don’t even have to go get you the links. The top Democrat and Republican from a couple of years ago are both in jail. So, if these guys are so bad, why do I want more? Here’s why:

Members of the New York State Assembly and Senate think they are bigwigs. They get staff, offices, etc. They get enormous salaries they don’t deserve.

Compare this to Vermont, next door. In Vermont being in the state house or senate is kind of like being on the school board in a suburban area. It’s not that big of a deal. You get a travel stipend and a few dollars like serving on a jury. No staff, no special license plate; it’s not a career.

With term limits and more people, it’s harder for corrupt networks to embed themselves. We should have many more legislators, plus term limits and almost no salaries and staff, written into the constitution.

3. Legislators by lottery

Ancient Athens picked some of their officers by lot, or at random, a lottery. Again, if we trust people to sit on juries, we should trust them to vote on and propose our laws. Some percentage of this expanded legislature would be chose from the pool of voters at random.

Because people have lives, these people might only serve a short term, a few months or even weeks away from home voting on legislation. We want more disinterested people involved in the process to see if it passes the sniff test. You should know people personally who have been involved in legislation.

Pump up the Vote

Here are three proposals to making voting matter more.

1. Laws by referendum

In other states, major change comes through referendum. This is a good option when the legislative process bogs down. We should copy Colorado, for example.

2. Automatic voter registration and vote by mail

Copy Oregon in terms of voter registration.

3. No more closed primaries

Follow states like Michigan or Indiana in terms of primary elections.

Criminal justice reform

Here are three proposals to make the very serious matter of freedom and incarceration less arbitrary and unfair.

1. No more elected district attorneys and judges

Again, my experience in Columbia County makes me skeptical of elected DAs and judges. In this county, 95% of the people are, for example, white. I have no doubt that since the black and hispanic vote doesn’t matter to the outcome of elections, blacks and hispanics get disproportionately longer sentences in this county. Well connected people get off. People associated with the opposition get harsher sentences.

With my reformed state government proposals, I propose passing the nomination and approval of local authorities from the local voters and political machines to the state.

2. Apply information technology to criminal justice

At all steps, arrest to conviction to sentencing, the criminal justice system is overly dependent on human judgement. Police are given discretion on who to pull over in traffic stops, who to charge, etc. Prosecutors have discretion in terms of plea bargains. Judges have discretion in terms of sentencing.

This produces wildly varying results based on, for example, where a criminal violation might occur, who the accused happens to run into while working his/her way through the system. It’s arbitrary.

And there is no evidence that such a thing as professional judgement without reference to data even exists. A person working in the system may have been involved in hundreds of cases but there have been millions of cases that person has not worked on.

Obviously the flip side of “judgement” is bias. Studies have shown that defendants perceived as ugly get harsher sentences than those perceived as attractive. I haven’t even mentioned race yet.

The new constitution should explicitly call for the use of data in the criminal justice system. Every encounter between law enforcement and the public should be recorded in some way. Every arrest should be logged into a state-wide data collection system, including data entered by employees and data generated automatically by electronic devices (GPS, video, etc.).

The database will include information on every person and institution working in the criminal justice system. Comparing the sentences and arrest patterns between judges, counties, etc. will be easy. Any officer, say a judge, who is an outlier from the established best practices can be identified and examined.

There must be an intake form for every crime: how old was the defendant? what time of day? alcohol involved? what were the damages to the victim? witnesses? what does the research say on the recidivism rate for this crime with age assailant?

You can build a robust system to tailor sentences to what is the best outcome for the public at large, too make sure the truly dangerous people are not hurting more people, punishing people enough to stop behavior that is more amenable to correction, etc. But not willy-nilly or based on gut feeling.

Algorithms, data, reporting, and clear publishing of information can exist along side human decision making to check for oddities and anomalies. How many police in your department have filed complaints against their fellow officers? I should be able to find that information online and in a big department over a significant amount of time the answer should not be zero.

3. Rethink police

Why are police modeled after the military, with uniforms, and mostly staffed by young men? Much police work does not involve physical strength or stamina but life experience. Much crime occurs in boardrooms and town halls and on the internet.

If you have a uniformed group of mostly young men, you are imagining street crime and a cop chasing a guy down the street. Street crime can be dramatically with technology if we have proper controls on the government to protect our privacy. The cost of white collar crime is more than street crime and short sentences for white collar criminals will do more to stem criminal activity than long sentences on street criminals.

Green stuff, education, etc.

Here are three provisions that could help New York get more right with nature. The incredible diversity of the state: the finger lakes, the Adorondaks, the Hudson Valley, the Catskills, the beaches of Long Island, the west: this is an incredible state with everything, including one of the world’s great cities.

I have some idea but I think you might be all full of pie so I’ll table my list of ideas for another article.

Property tax is a stupid tax

The real estate tax-local school the primary way of funding public schools, in the suburbs and upstate is not good. In 1790, people’s houses may have corresponded pretty well to their overall wealth but today there is no reason to tax property as a form of wealth and not other forms of wealth.

Using property taxes to pay for local schools has the following problems:

  1. It is a regressive tax, unfair to the middle class. A billionaire with a 50 million dollar mansion is paying property tax on 1/20 of his wealth while a middle class family earning $75,000 with a $300,000 house with a $150,000 mortgage is paying a weath tax on more than 100% of their wealth.
  2. Basing school funding on property taxes from a jurisdiction creates wildly different levels of funding for different districts. Some areas have rich people, high taxes and Cadilliac schools. Not fair. Often racist.
  3. Property taxes distort development and make communities wierd. Old people move away, young people move away and only couples with kids are willing to pay the high taxes and then the taxes get higher, no apartment buildings in that community, stores in a different community. The natural course of development is interrupted.
  4. The real estate tax is expensive to collect, with a local assessor. The goverment pays out a significant proportion of the tax just to collect the tax.
  5. It is easy to cheat and many assessors do cheat and the state does nothing about it.

Vermont fixed this problem. Towns with ski resorts and non-ski towns. New York City funding makes more sense.


Of course there are more ideas. I lived in Manhattan and then Brooklyn for 15 years but that was 12 years ago and I’m not sure what to say about the city now… except maybe in education, and I didn’t get into education because I ran out of time. I hope you enjoyed this piece of pie and vote for the convention next year. Let’s organize and do something about this mess. Thanks. Will

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