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Opinion

In Amazon Debate, Atlantic Yards Lessons Beyond Those Aired at First City Council Hearing


barclays center ground

An Atlantic Yards groundbreaking (photo: Spencer T Tucker)


More public participation might help. So might ULURP. But rigorous skepticism is more important.

It was fascinating, having watched in 2004 and 2005 two New York City Council subcommittee hearings on the announced Brooklyn Atlantic Yards project, to see the Council's Committee on Ecomomic Development, with the Speaker prominent, on December 12 take a distinctly adversarial stance toward the proposed Amazon campus in Queens.

Back then, not only were the Governor and Mayor gung-ho for “jobs, housing, and hoops,” many Council members, despite their questions, were essentially enthusiastic. Meanwhile, the developer and supporters got significant time from the hearings’ start, relegating opponents to later slots.

And it was curious to hear both proponents and opponents of the Amazon deal rather tritely invoke lessons from Atlantic Yards (now called Pacific Park), suggesting the need for either broader public participation or the importance of the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), which gives the Council the final say (rather than using the state General Project Plan, which puts the Governor in charge).

Don’t get me wrong: neither broader participation nor ULURP are necessarily bad things. But they’re hardly saviors when big money and powerful players are at work, and when projects unfold over time and multiple economic cycles.

For example, promises made in Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs), or even in state approval documents, as we’ve learned, can be followed by contracts that offer crucial slack. For example, the fine print allowed Atlantic Yards, estimated to take ten years, a 25-year buildout.

So, while these massive development projects differ significantly, the Atlantic Yards experience makes clear that, as the Amazon deal unfolds, more muscular, and consistent, skepticism and oversight is needed. We’ll see how much surfaces at the next hearing, held by the City Council's Committee on Finance, scheduled for January 30.

Circumventing ULURP?
In December, at about an hour into the first of several promised Council hearings on the Amazon deal, Council Speaker Corey Johnson confronted James Patchett, president of the New York City Economic Development Corporation, about a line he’d truncated—for faster delivery—from his prepared statement: “this is by no means an attempt to deliberately circumvent the ULURP process.”

“Former deputy mayor Dan Doctoroff was asked, when he left city government” about the avoidance of ULURP for Atlantic Yards, recounted Johnson. “If I had to do it over again,” Johnson said, paraphrasing Doctoroff, “I would bring Atlantic Yards through ULURP…because it's the right process to get community buy-in, and the public review is worthwhile.”

“Now, I don't agree with Dan Doctoroff on everything, but I thought that was an interesting comment,” Johnson continued, pressing Patchett on “why it was important…to facilitate the subverting” of ULURP.

Patchett replied that the “UDC Act”—referring to the Urban Development Corporation, the state authority that can override local land use—“is available to do more comprehensive planning,”  and is “more powerful” than ULURP for certain projects. Certain things, he said, can’t happen with ULURP, like having the state hold title to project land. Hmm—similar tactics were used with Atlantic Yards, but Doctoroff, in retrospect, would’ve used ULURP.

So when Patchett said the city’s primary focus was getting the promised 25,000 jobs, it sounded like the end justifies the means. “More powerful” also translates as “certain passage by appointees who answer to the governor.” With Atlantic Yards, that meant not only initial passage of the project, but steady agreement regarding revisions of the timetable and thus promised public benefits.

Empire State Development, the successor to the UDC, has, in my observation, steadily affirmed the governor’s (and developer’s) will regarding Atlantic Yards. Only at state legislative oversight hearings have ESD officials faced hard questions. That key state authority, we should remember, avoided the first City Council hearing on Amazon, just as it sidestepped those Atlantic Yards hearings held by the Council.

Community buy-in?
“We certainly did take lessons from Atlantic Yards,” Patchett continued, citing “the importance of community input, the importance of genuinely involving people in the way the project ultimately looks. That's why we set up the Community Advisory Committee.”

Pre-empting the Community Advisory Committee (CAC) announcement, state Senator Michael Gianaris and Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer announced on November 21 that they would boycott such a body, calling it “a thinly veiled attempt to present the Amazon development as a fait accompli.” That’s hard to doubt, though it is possible that the CAC -- supposed to advise on issues like workforce development -- could have some impact.

The CAC has 45 members (though one’s already resigned), appointed in consultation with local elected officials and stakeholders, and is supposed to meet quarterly; its three subcommittees -- including one that will advise on local infrastructure spending -- are supposed to meet monthly. Town halls should be held two weeks after each quarterly meeting, reported Christine Chung of The City. That could add some sunlight.

Given the very low bar, this has more legitimacy than the Atlantic Yards CAC, which was not set up until some 28 months after the project was announced and barely met. When Atlantic Yards opponents, in a lawsuit challenging the project’s environmental review, called the CAC illegitimate, a judge disagreed, saying the law is so slack it’s even legit to establish such a committee after a project is approved.

A somewhat transparent CAC also seems better than the Atlantic Yards Community Benefits Agreement (CBA), a private contract that purported to guarantee such things as job-training and affordable housing, but had crucial loopholes; for one thing, the developer never hired the required Independent Compliance Monitor.

The CBA was used as a political wedge. The developer gained support from groups -- some with track records, others astroturf -- led in large part by black leaders in Central Brooklyn, who had legitimate grievances about past developments and could help a large corporation to argue that middle- and upper-class opponents living closer to the project site, largely white, were selfish NIMBYs.

So it’s surprising that Amazon has not already organized some Queens stakeholders to vouch for the company’s intentions to lift up some of the borough’s struggling precincts. After all, Amazon has already taken a page from the big-developer playbook, buying ads in the tabloids (and mailing several flyers to New Yorkers) repeating, for example, the dubious claim that the project would bring $27 billion in new tax revenues.

Keep in mind that even seemingly robust public consultation may only go so far when the state’s in charge. In 2014, a volunteer body, the Atlantic Yards Community Development Corporation (AY CDC), was set up to advise ESD, as part of a 2014 settlement to avert a potential lawsuit on fair housing issues. However, it’s mostly toothless.

A few now-departed AY CDC members have raised questions about the project, while most -- the board is controlled by the governor -- are there to nod yes. Though the AY CDC is supposed to meet quarterly, last year it held its second meeting -- essentially to support an ESD contract renewal -- with just one day’s notice on March 30, and hasn't met since.

How good is ULURP?
Though ULURP offers more public input, and New York City legitimacy, than the state process, it typically leads to tweaks, not significant changes. Doctoroff has said the Bloomberg administration at the time doubted its rezoning prowess, so it pursued the expedient route around the City Council. “With twenty-twenty hindsight,” he wrote in his 2017 memoir, “I am positive we could have placated our opponents in negotiations and gotten the process through ULURP.”

Well, not quite; some people adamantly opposed the arena (now Barclays Center), or the project’s density. But ULURP would at least have put the debate in the public sphere, and empowered the local Council member, then Letitia James.

It should be noted that the two Council committee hearings regarding Atlantic Yards came under the leadership of then-Speaker Gifford Miller. After the project was approved, while the Speaker was Christine Quinn, known for her closeness to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the Council wouldn't green-light future oversight hearings requested by James and colleague Brad Lander.

Today, compared to the Atlantic Yards history, the Council Speaker is less beholden to the mayor; the economic impacts of the 9/11 attacks are more distant; we don’t have the distraction (and lure) of professional sports; and we’ve seen the explosion of gentrification near the waterfront. Moreover, Amazon is a lightning-rod company, to say the least.

(Still, it would be interesting to see whether an office project at the Long Island City waterfront without subsidies -- or Amazon -- would generate such pushback. After all, the Amazon site was once to encompass two huge mostly residential rezonings -- Anable Basin, Long Island City Innovation Center -- arguably adding more neighborhood burdens.)

Yet, Johnson surely knows that ULURP is its own political game. Consider the Council’s recent approval of a giant two-tower project, 80 Flatbush, at a site that bridges Downtown Brooklyn and low-rise streets. After the project’s developer sought to nearly triple the allowable density, Council Member Steve Levin expressed concern, while the local community board was staunch in its opposition.

Eventually the project was approved with only modest reductions, and Johnson, according to Levin, was very much in the loop. While the public learned a lot about the expected benefits -- affordable housing, a replacement school, a new school -- ULURP never ventilated a key question: the value of the additional square footage the developer gained via an upzoning.

Regarding Amazon and ULURP, not everyone sees a silver bullet. As urban planner Sylvia Morse tweeted, “The people are shouting NO AMAZON, not ‘we want 7 months of procedural theater, during which speculators will drive up housing prices in LIC, followed by a bad deal getting rammed through anyway after council members get to pretend they tried.’”

A better planning process
Last September, Council Member Lander offered some cogent criticism before the Council-spurred 2019 Charter Revision Commission, suggesting that, with challenges like affordability, sustainability, and aging infrastructure, “our highly reactive ULURP process just is not getting the job done."

"Each application is brought either by a private developer or by the administration,” Lander said, “and it's not judged against a broad set of goals we've collectively agreed to, for sustainability or affordability or how to share and distribute the challenges and benefits of growth.”

He suggested "a comprehensive and proactive planning process.” What might that mean regarding Amazon? Perhaps the city and state should’ve set some goals for transit and other infrastructure for Long Island City beforehand, beyond the modest $180 million announced by the city on October 30. Remember, the two percolating rezonings were not being judged in that proactive way. (See criticism from the Municipal Art Society.)

A broader effort at planning might have put the city and state “incentives” (subsidies) in context. Sure, we’re not necessarily shoveling cash, outside a state construction grant that could be worth $505 million, as a special favor to Amazon, given that most of the subsidies are as-of-right and performance-based.

But some dialogue and data might clarify, as critics have argued, whether such subsidies are wise and deserve to be perpetuated. After all, Amazon admitted that the prime, not sole, driver was the talent pool.

Stronger analysis
There are also other murky parts of the deal, such as a seemingly low fee for public land and generous lease terms, as I wrote last month for Gotham Gazette. It was interesting to see Speaker Johnson scorn the state projections that saying Amazon would be a financial boon for the city and state, and argue for an independent study.

New York has a vehicle for such analysis; it’s called the city’s Independent Budget Office and, when called in 2005 and 2009, IBO raised serious skepticism about Atlantic Yards (and should probably do an update). With that project, however, government officials and many in the press embraced a study paid for by the developer, which was wrong from the start and which is now clearly way off (in part because the project wasn’t built in ten years).

Another analysis is needed, too. At one point during the Amazon hearing, Council Member Francisco Moya requested an independent study to report on such things as the project’s economic, infrastructure, and housing impact. The NYC EDC’s Patchett, nonplused, responded that, of course, the state process requires a study.

But that’s not a truly independent study. In projects like Atlantic Yards, such environmental reviews, however sufficient to pass legal scrutiny, serve the interests of the project’s sponsors and the agency boosting it.

The Council could fund a such an independent study. Sure, this doesn’t address the question of Amazon-the-company, with business practices that, to some, disqualify it. But, at the very least, if the chief executives of New York City and State are going to offer pre-cooked ambitious plans, the obligation of the legislative branches should be continued oversight.

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Norman Oder is a Brooklyn journalist who writes the watchdog blog Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park Report. On Twitter @AYReport.

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It’s Time for New York to Embrace New Modes of Transportation


lime bikes

(photo: Lime Bike)


Over the last few weeks, the governor’s decision to cancel the L train shutdown dominated New York transportation news. People cheered the decision, thankful that thousands of riders along the route won’t be stranded during the week as they go back-and-forth to work, run errands, and shuttle around their city.

But for a lot of New Yorkers – myself included – the L train news provided no comfort. Actually, it stung a little. Because while the MTA and our leaders are focused on merely keeping our existing mass transportation system from failing, there are millions of us who do not live within easy walking distance of the subway, and who do not have any reliable, affordable transportation options whatsoever.

So one subway line will remain open. Great. What about the rest of us?

The subway lines concentrate in Manhattan, then scatter into the outer-boroughs, missing huge swaths of middle- and lower-income New Yorkers. In other words, those who need reliable public transportation the most tend to have the worst access.

Take where I live, for example. To get to Manhattan from my apartment in the NYCHA Richmond Terrace complex on Staten Island, I have to walk for nearly a half-hour to the ferry. That’s almost an hour of walking, both ways. To his credit, the mayor just announced a new fast ferry plan for Staten Island that will help overall travel time -- but actually getting to the ferry is still a haul.

And my commute is nothing compared to others’ across the city. According to the Pratt Center for Community Development, 750,000 New Yorkers travel more than one hour each way to work. Notably, two-thirds of them earn less than $35,000 a year. Most of those New Yorkers are also black or Latino.

New subway lines and stops are not going to fix that because no one is planning to build any. The MTA is a financial mess and new lines are prohibitively expensive. New bus lines would be welcome, but those would also be costly and vulnerable to budget cuts.

But there are other modes of transportation that require little or no infrastructure that could effectively address the problem now – and the City Council held a hearing on them this week.

On Wednesday, Council members debated legislation to legalize electric scooters in New York, and to expand access to dock-free bikes and scooters citywide. The bills – which now have significant support from Council members – cannot be passed soon enough.

There are companies ready and willing to deliver dock-free bike- and scooter-share service right now. Start-ups like Lime and Jump already provide pedal bikes and e-bikes in pilot zones in the Rockaways, part of the Bronx and on the North Shore of Staten Island. My organization successfully partnered with Lime this summer to serve Richmond Terrace’s alternative transportation needs.

These new, convenient options are operating successfully in other big cities such as Seattle and Paris at citywide scale, carrying thousands of people a day from point A to point B and connecting them to public transportation, significantly shortening their trips.

Dock-free bikes and scooters are also affordable. The standard fee for dock-free bike rides is a third of CitiBike’s price and comparable to a subway or bus fare, allowing people of any income or zip code to move around more easily.

And dock-free bikes and scooters will connect a more diverse population to affordable, reliable transportation. Lime surveyed about 600 riders in its New York City pilot zones and found that about 70 percent of its riders identify as non-white. Sixty-one percent of riders said they were from households that earn $50,000 a year or less.

Governor Cuomo recently endorsed legislation that will authorize cities like New York to allow dock-free electric bikes and scooters. The Legislature should pass those bills as soon as possible, and the city should follow suit.

The city’s transportation equity crisis is real. We must deliver new transportation options to New Yorkers -- especially those who are stranded by mass transit. We deserve at least the right to choose a better commute. Let’s make it happen.

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Sarah Blas is the Executive Director of the Richmond Terrace Therapeutic Gardens.

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A Strategy That’s Working in New York School Turnaround


mayorchancellor eng

(photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)


For decades, decisions about education policy in New York have been filtered through state and local conflicts. Indeed, politics often dominates, divides, and obscures the conversation, causing many to lose sight of the most fundamental question for anyone who cares about education reform: how do students learn?

In looking for an answer, we found a school improvement framework that has the potential to unite all sides of the debate.

Our research team from Teachers College at Columbia University examined the implementation of a train-the-trainer model called Strategic Inquiry that was introduced in Renewal Schools, a Mayor Bill de Blasio administration initiative that included providing struggling schools with additional funding and support from the New York City Department of Education in an effort to improve student outcomes.

We found substantial improvements in student performance and school culture measures – at a low implementation cost and in a relatively short time-frame. Notably, these improvements were mostly achieved in schools with underperforming students and English language learners, two groups that have been traditionally hard to reach.

So how did this model work where others have failed?

Among other things, customization and buy-in from school leaders were key. Strategic Inquiry established a process that empowered teacher teams to identify specific students who have been historically underperforming. These teams then diagnosed and implemented what is needed to improve performance for those particular students. This, in turn, led to the improvement of school and district systems that have systematically contributed to those students’ challenges.

What also worked was Strategic Inquiry’s process of “getting small” by focusing on the precise things that evidence suggested students needed, rather than large areas dictated by accountability measurements. In other words, teachers and administrators identified breakdowns in learning and fixed them in real time as opposed to following an impersonalized reform plan dictated from above.

This study found several indicators of improvement in student achievement. After controlling for various factors, students in schools that adopted Strategic Inquiry principles were almost two-and-a-half times more likely to be on track to graduate and less than half as likely to be off track to graduate, compared to students in schools without this approach. Surprisingly, we observed these results despite the fact that the sample schools were only in the third year of implementation of a program designed to last five years.

In addition, teacher participation on inquiry teams was high, principal support for the program was strong, and educators reported extremely positive feedback about the support they received from Strategic Inquiry representatives.

There were no shortcuts. Investments in deep training of district and school-based leaders required the full engagement of educators. Teachers worked in partnership to study how students were struggling to learn. They designed and tested interventions, and applied what was working to improve the systems that had constrained students’ success. Engaged – and empowered – educators taught colleagues to do the same and spread the best practices across each building. This cycle worked to shift school culture and improve student achievement.

Strategic Inquiry shows that investing in the learning of educators can deliver real results in the learning of students. It offers optimism in achieving the highly-coveted, but often elusive outcome of improved student performance results in a relatively low-cost, minimally resource-intensive manner. It’s also worth noting that the program generated these positive outcomes while targeting some of the most difficult-to-reach student populations.

Without rendering judgment on the totality of Mayor de Blasio’s Renewal program, our study shows promising results for this model. It’s clear that there are some valuable components that succeeded and are worth pursuing and adopting elsewhere. Regardless of what type of school you prefer, Strategic Inquiry’s train-the-trainer approach ought to be part of the education reform toolbox for educators, policymakers, and parents alike.

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Dr. Priscilla Wohlstetter is Distinguished Research Professor in the Department of Education & Social Analysis and co-author of a new report from Teachers College at Columbia University.

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Private Sector Failure Requires NYCHA’s Preservation


mayor private

(photo: Mayor's Office)


Many New Yorkers likely wonder why Mayor de Blasio wants to spend $24 billion on saving the aging towers of the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA). Much of this public housing consists of plain brick towers, which the city built rapidly from the 1930s to the 1960s, in a dated “towers in the park” design, now worn down from decades of hard use. In Singapore and much of Europe, government policy has targeted public housing of this age and type for billions in spending to remake projects to match changing urban tastes, family size, and rising densities.

But in the United States and New York there is no equivalent housing program with the funds to replace NYCHA’s 175,000 apartments (400,000 registered tenants), which rent on average at just $550 per month. The mayor, in the unprecedented $24 billion NYCHA 2.0 plan he released in December, is forced to rely on a complicated and potentially uncertain financing plan integrating city, state, federal, and private funds; private sector management of fully one-third of NYCHA’s portfolio; and hoped for revenues from “infill” ground leases and sales of air rights.

Added together the plan’s various elements will still barely provide for basic renovation when spread across a massive system that has a minimum of $31 billion in capital needs; NYCHA 2.0 certainly won’t cover redevelopment to a twenty-first century standard. Even if New York had the funds for massive redevelopment, it would still be a risky proposition to take NYCHA projects offline (many of which have 1,000 units or more each). NYCHA is already full to overflowing and the private market lacks sufficient low-cost units to accommodate relocation needs.

The risk is high in losing any of NYCHA’s units because the most endangered commodity in New York City is the privately-operated apartment that rents for less than $1,000 -- with rent-regulated units in particularly perilous straits. Public housing is now such a crucial part of that low-cost market that to lose the system, or even part of it, would, according to the respected Regional Plan Association, drive up homelessness, take housing from working-class people, and worsen conditions citywide because the market cannot replace the units.

A Brief History of Massive Failure

private building(Lewis Hine, Elizabeth Street, 1912. Library of Congress)

Today’s private sector housing failure is nothing new; instead, lousy and expensive housing has been a persistent dimension of New York City life for over a century. The city was once dominated by thousands of privately owned tenement buildings that crowded land and people together at density levels the world had never seen before. The creation of the subway in 1904 relieved that pressure for a time, allowing for a mass exodus to newer tenements, apartment buildings, or small homes in the outer boroughs. NYCHA also launched in the 1930s as an all-out attack on these tenements.

Tougher housing regulations and the suburban boom accelerated the tenement exodus from the 1930s onward, but many tenements in areas such as East Harlem and the Lower East Side backfilled with migrants from the south and Puerto Rico in the mid-twentieth century. Owners of many vestigial tenements abandoned or burned many of them from the ‘60s to the ‘80s.

Gentrification since the 1970s in New York City generated a new twist on private sector failure. Landlords of surviving apartment buildings good and bad won revisions in rent control and stabilization since the 1970s. They have used these lenient rules ever since to raise rents or drive out long-time tenants. Many private landlords haven’t cared if a tenant family must pay 50 percent or more of their income on rent. Dangerous conditions in many of these lower-rent buildings, which are not as widely publicized as those at NYCHA, are a mixed bag with irregular heat, lead exposure, and mold common.

Private Sector Saviors?
Many private real estate companies have, in fairness, played a crucial role in affordable housing management and development since the 1960s. Indeed, the various tax credits and breaks, and zoning bonuses, have created new “affordable” units that are modern and comfortable. Yet the supply of these units is relatively small (as they are often a minority percentage of a building); apartments time out of affordability after a specified period (requiring new public financing); and most apartments are targeted for income levels higher than public housing.

The result is scarcity and insufficient affordable housing production: the odds of landing one of the new privately developed and managed affordable units produced in 2018 was just 1 in 592. At the current rate of new private construction in Mayor de Blasio’s broader housing plan, which produced a record 7,857 affordable units in 2018, it would still take two decades or more just to replace NYCHA’s 175,000 units.

The real estate industry has also stepped up to play a central role in the conversion of public housing to private sector management and may end up running about 66,000 units of NYCHA housing under what NYCHA calls PACT (nationally it is RAD). Builders also hope to ground-lease NYCHA sites that could provide funding for renovation of surrounding buildings and additional affordable and market-rate units.

Private companies aren’t taking on these NYCHA projects or infill projects for entirely altruistic reasons, of course. Infill projects, even with affordable components, can be profitable. Private managers who take over existing NYCHA projects are being handed thousands of well-located, structurally-sound, mostly debt-free, fully-tenanted, property tax-free, federally-subsidized (Section 8) apartments they can borrow money from banks to renovate. Managing and renovating these buildings is a heavy lift, but there is a significant upside if done right.

Time to Step Up!
The private sector, even given these good steps, is still not doing enough for either NYCHA or the average low-income renter. Without a large-scale program of new production, the region will continue to be uncompetitive as business shifts to places where lower and even middle-income people can afford to live decently. The city’s private sector is booming today, for sure, but so is the national economy. When times get tight, New York City may seem much less attractive. A desperate population is also likely to be drawn to draconian rent regulations, higher taxes, and more “socialistic” policies to try and level the playing field. It isn’t pretty when recessions hit New York.

Both real estate interests and large employers should be putting more of their energy and funds into expanding affordable housing programs at the state and federal levels. Only when the real estate industry starts producing tens of thousands of affordable units per year do they earn a right to speak about NYCHA’s future and/or redevelopment. It also wouldn’t hurt if a business titan or two stood up for public housing funding and improvements.

Instead of putting so much of its energy into fighting rent stabilization or marketing overpriced apartments to foreign investors, business leaders could take a cue from their wealthy predecessors. Governors Roosevelt, Lehman, and Rockefeller developed and fought hard for creative programs to boost low-cost housing production. Or they can look west. Microsoft’s new commitment of $500 million to affordable housing in Seattle reflects, hopefully, a new era of commitment from employers to making more equitable housing market.

Where is New York City’s Microsoft of affordable housing?

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Nicholas Dagen Bloom is a professor at New York Institute of Technology (NYIT) and a NYCHA scholar, and has a new book on state/urban policies: How States Shaped Postwar America.

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How We Got Here & Where To Go: The Centuries Old Legislative Pay Debate in New York


gov cuomo carlheastie

(photo: Office of the Governor - Kevin P. Coughlin)


New Yorkers have been upset by state legislators’ compensation for more than 200 years. At the 1821 constitutional convention, Ezekiel Bacon, a former member of the Assembly and of Congress, called the pay issue “…a hobby horse of ambitious demagogues and peddling politicians, that caused the great questions that affected the vital interest of the state too often to be overlooked.” The current debate is nothing new. We’ve never liked how much legislators are paid. We’ve never liked how the matter is decided.  

At first the decision was left to the Legislature and the Governor (who was then far less powerful than today). Public distress at the members’ generosity to themselves led to the specification of a $3 per diem rate ($56.28 in today’s money) in the state constitution by the convention of 1821. This made the pay alterable only by constitutional amendment, which required public ratification after passage in two successive legislative sessions or adoption by a following convention. The Governor, with no role in the amending process, was denied formal involvement. The people -- always skeptical, sometimes hostile -- were left with a decisive voice.

No constitutional convention held after 1821 during the period that legislative pay was still constitutionally specified -- in 1846, 1867, 1894, 1915, and 1938 -- succeeded in increasing it. Some delegates, like the publisher Horace Greeley in 1867, thought public service was sufficiently rewarded by a legislator’s “consciousness of honorable usefulness” and the “gratitude’ of other citizens. If provided at all, those who held this view believed, pay for legislators should be sufficient only to cover expenses. At later conventions most delegates, many of whom had been or were senators or Assembly members, voiced support for better compensation for legislators, but failed to act on the matter because of the  expense, or because of fear that public hostility to a pay increase would lead to overall defeat of their work at the polls. Indeed, the constitution proposed in 1915, the only one offered by a convention that included a pay increase for legislators, was rejected by the public at referendum.

In the hundred years between 1846 and the end of World War II, voters did approve two amendments offered by the Legislature providing for members’ pay increases. The first of these, passed in 1874 and supported by both Democratic Governor John T. Hoffman and Republican Governor John Adams Dix, increased legislators’ annual compensation to $1,500 ($33,030 in current dollars) from the maximum of $3 day for 100 days ($8,318 in current dollars) set by the 1846 convention. This was the first specification of legislative pay as an annual salary, not as a per diem for what was then still universally regarded as part-time work. In 1911 voters defeated an amendment calling for a salary increase to $2,500. This increase ($35,966 in current dollars) was finally passed in 1927 as part of a broad package of reforms championed by Democratic Governor Alfred E. Smith.

The provision of costs for travel was long an important element of the debate in New York over legislative compensation. The 1846 constitution provided for coverage of travel expenses to and from the regular annual legislative session. Based upon the time travel took, the assumption then was that payment for one round trip would suffice; once members got to Albany they would stay there for the session’s duration. As time passed, faster travel by boat and train made regular return to legislative districts possible. Members desirous of pursuing both political and private business sought to return home during legislative sessions, and constituents expected to see them there. But provision for payment for only one round trip was specifically retained in the 1894 constitution. At the 1915 convention, future Democratic Governor Smith asserted that coverage of the cost of members’ professional travel to assure their return to Albany during the regular session, and thus the presence of required quorums to do business, was more important to the effective functioning of the legislator than was their increased pay. Coverage of the cost of one round trip a week was finally added by the 1938 constitutional convention.

There is an established practice in New York State of paying some legislators additionally for additional work. Because they specified a per diem rate with a limit of 100 days for which members could be paid, drafters of the 1846 constitution felt it necessary to assure members got pay for added days when they were required for special sessions. They also specified that the Assembly Speaker was to “receive an additional compensation equal to one-third of his per diem allowance as a member.” In 1857 Republican Governor King’s veto was overridden to allow legislative committee members to be paid for work between annual sessions. The 1894 constitution eliminated added pay for the Speaker, but did provide it for “Senators, when the Senate alone is convened in extraordinary session, or when serving as members of the Court for the Trial of Impeachments, and such members of the Assembly, not exceeding nine in number, as shall be appointed managers of an impeachment, shall receive an additional allowance of ten dollars a day.”

An amendment passed in 1964 further constitutionalized added pay for added work; that is, what has become known as the ”lulu” system. It provided “Any member, while serving as an officer of his or her house or in any other special capacity therein or directly connected therewith not hereinbefore in this section specified, may also be paid and receive, in addition, any allowance which may be fixed by law for the particular and additional services appertaining to or entailed by such office or special capacity.”

In the immediate post WWII period legislators debated whether to try to amend the constitution to seek a doubling of salary (from $2,500 to $5,000 per year) or to seek to reinstitute the practice of legislative control of members’ compensation by statute, of course with gubernatorial approval. Either approach required a constitutional amendment. They took the later course, and succeeded. There ensued eight legislative pay raises in the 50 years between 1948 and 1998, compared to two, as noted, in the previous century.

Five of these raises occurred in the 25 years between 1948 and 1973, during times that the GOP controlled both legislative houses and the governorship. In 1948, the annual salary doubled, to $5,000. It was increased to $7,500 in 1954; $10,000 in 1961; $15,000 in 1966; and $23,500 in 1973. When measured in 2017 dollars, 1973 pay reached $131,806 per year.

The period of divided partisan control of state government that began in 1974 and persisted almost continuously through 2018 saw the use of many of the techniques later evident in the 2018 debate over legislative salary: employment of commission recommendations to diminish political pressure; linkage to salary increases for statewide elected officials, judges and commissioners; gubernatorial support made conditional on legislative action on other policy matters, related and unrelated; and the use of the lame duck session to address the issue, to diminish political risk. Following the recommendation of a five-person commission appointed by the Governor and legislative leaders, a bill was approved in 1979 that increased legislative salaries to $32,960 to be spread out over five years, with concomitant raises for judges and agency heads. Another was passed in 1984 in a lame duck session; it raised legislative salaries to $43,000. Governor Mario Cuomo’s support in 1987 for a salary increase for legislators to $57,500 was linked to their passage of ethics legislation that he championed and they resisted. Governor George Pataki made his support for the last increase, to $79,500, conditional on passage of legislation creating charter schools in the state.

We then went 20 years without increasing legislative salaries, the longest such period since 1948. Until the increase now moving forward, though under legal challenge and rhetorical dispute, a state legislator’s salary bought less in 2018 than it did in 1961. Two centuries of debate about legislative pay in New York have consistently been driven by skepticism about or hostility toward legislators, their integrity and their motives. Earlier reformers sought ways to discourage (or sanction) part-time legislators’ inclination to lengthen sessions to collect more per diem pay. Less was better.

Modern reformers want their legislators to work full-time, without the distractions and conflicts that arise from earning outside income. More is better. Early reformers searched for ways to encourage (or require) legislators to actually show up for sessions so that the necessary quorums could be assembled,  rather than “...play at ten pins, or sit at their hotels, or take rides to Saratoga.” Modern reformers also have their “performance standards,” e.g. timely budget passage. Yet is this really what the conversation about legislative pay should be about?

Two similar observations made almost a century-and-a-half apart are convincing in suggesting that the answer is “No.” In a debate at the 1821 constitutional convention, Robert Clarke, a former Assemblymember and delegate to the 1821 constitutional convention, argued that the goal should be to  make legislators’ pay “not so large as to be an object of cupidity, or so low as to prevent men in the middling paths of life from attending without great sacrifice to private interest…making the job only interesting to…nabobs and those having no honest employment.”

In 1984, Assembly Speaker Stanley Fink, a foremost legislative leader of the 20th century, said: ”If you want to continue [increasing] the quality and caliber of legislators on both sides of the aisle and don’t want a legislature composed by independently wealthy people or people who couldn’t hack it somewhere else you have to keep pace.”

Yet so long as the pay decision is in the self-interested hands of the Legislature itself, citizens will never believe that to attract people of competence and integrity to public service is the primary motive in setting legislative pay.

The state Legislature often lives quite comfortably with self-interested behavior: witness its devotion to gerrymandering in drawing its own district lines. But in 2018 enlightened self-interest prevailed on the pay issue, and the Legislature tried to do the right thing: it gave the decision -- not just the power to recommend -- to an independent commission, subject to a “legislative veto.” The pay increase the commission adopted is reasonable, even modest; it fairly makes up for the real erosion in legislative pay experienced in recent years. But the commission went beyond its brief; legislators didn’t ask for and don’t like the conditions it linked to the recommended raises, though there have commonly been conditions linked to raises for much of the state’s history.

And there is a bigger problem: this process is unconstitutional. The state constitution says that “Each member of the legislature shall receive for his or her services a like annual salary, to be fixed by law.” Clearly, the Legislature must set the pay itself; it cannot delegate the decision.

The lesson: right church, wrong pew. On legislative pay, as on redistricting and ethics, on all matters in which legislators are inextricably self-interested, we need a constitutional amendment to create a separate, truly independent, constitutionally-rooted body to make the decisions. This will move us toward competence and integrity in our elected institutions and help restore citizen trust in government.

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Gerald Benjamin is director of The Benjamin Center at SUNY New Paltz.

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New York’s Private Sanitation Workers Deserve Fairness


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(photo: Spencer T Tucker)


Each January, we have the opportunity to take a day and celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Every passing commemoration to the life and legacy of Dr. King is a reminder to rededicate ourselves to advancing social and economic justice in New York and across the country. This year, as New York’s commercial waste industry is facing potential overhaul, it is particularly fitting to reflect on Dr. King’s often overlooked work helping sanitation workers in their fight for fair wages and higher safety standards.

If implemented, the New York City Department of Sanitation’s waste zones plan could leave a significant number of sanitation workers – the vast majority of whom are people of color – jobless. The livelihood of workers should not be used as collateral to score political points, which is why the NAACP New York State Conference supports reform to the city’s private waste industry that would vastly increase oversight and efficiency, without costing anyone their job.

Commercial waste is one of the few industries in our city that gives formerly incarcerated men and women a second chance to hold down a steady job with good wages, provide for their families and, most importantly, regain their sense of dignity. In a sense, the private waste industry has been able to service the formerly incarcerated as the second chance worker program New York doesn’t really have. However, DSNY’s waste zone plan stands to overhaul the industry while possibly causing significant job loss, which we know would disproportionately harm formerly incarcerated workers of color.

That is why we continue to stand firmly opposed to DSNY’s proposal to create commercial waste zones, and it is why we strongly support new legislation by City Council Member Robert Cornegy, Jr., known as Intro. 996, which would bring much-needed reform to the commercial waste industry without implementing a zone-based system. Job loss, especially among our most vulnerable populations, should not be taken lightly.

Intro. 996 will increase worker safety and hold bad actors accountable, without causing hundreds of workers to lose their jobs. On the other hand, DSNY’s proposal permits only a small number of companies to operate in each zone. Many private waste companies – particularly the smaller mom-and-pop ones – will be forced to consolidate or go out of business, leaving hundreds of workers without a job.

Council Member Cornegy’s legislation would give the city’s Business Integrity Commission the authority to establish safety standards for industry employees and private waste carters. Under Intro. 996, BIC would have far more power to guarantee companies are properly training their employees and hold bad actors to account.

Additionally, the legislation would, for the first time, require industry-wide reporting on demographics data for workers across the commercial waste industry. This will allow the city to have a better sense of who is working in the industry—including second-chance workers of color—to ensure that their progress is tracked and they are effectively protected under any new rules and regulations.

The vast majority of the private waste industry’s formerly incarcerated workers were already failed once by misguided policy – and we can’t let them down again with the administration’s waste zones plan.

The NAACP New York State Conference hopes other members of the City Council join us in supporting Council Member Cornegy’s fair and equitable proposal to reform the private waste industry.

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Dr. Hazel N. Dukes is president of the NAACP New York State Conference.

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Note: this column has been updated to clarify language about potential job losses as a result of the city's plan; it is unclear what job impact the plan will have.

New York City Is Still a Union Town and That’s a Great Thing for Our Future


count me in bldg trades


New York City - a beacon of the labor movement - has a duty to stand up for construction unions and serve as a model for rest of country

The labor movement is under attack. Over the past few years, assaults on unions and labor have escalated at a breakneck pace. From recent court cases like Janus v. AFSCME to right to work legislation creeping through state legislatures, one thing is clear: unions remain strong, but our resolve is being tested by increasingly relentless attacks from moneyed interests and a hostile political environment where the value of profit is placed over the value of working people.

We all know what happens when union and labor power are diminished -– a race to the bottom follows where working people lose out and a handful of wealthy individuals reap the rewards of everyone else’s hard work. That is not to say the pursuit of wealth should be discouraged – healthy entrepreneurship, innovation, and risk power the economic engine of New York, and those who drive their industry forward should be rewarded; however, the engine works best when all its pieces are working fairly and in concert.

There’s a reason New York is the most union dense state in the country, and that is because, as New Yorkers, we don’t settle for less, we champion the best. Unions are the backbone of this state and from the recent fight to codify construction safety to #CountMeIn, our movements have been at the forefront of pushing the country forward in the fight to build a solid middle-class for all.

Now, more than ever, New York City finds itself at a pivotal moment in labor history. With growing wealth inequality and in the face of a commercial and residential construction boom, will developers and power players stand up for our middle-class or will they settle for the lowest denominator, like open shop, in the name of cost-cutting?

As Governor Andrew Cuomo has mentioned, New York will continue moving forward by building new bridges, new airports, and other new infrastructure. This means jobs - lots and lots of middle-class jobs. Middle-class jobs aren’t created out of thin air -- they require cooperation between job creators and job seekers and the understanding that if an employee works hard and does their part they should be able to support a family without worrying about whether their next paycheck will be enough to scrape by or whether they will make it home safely.

Lawmakers need to spearhead legislation to ensure that residents are being paid higher wages, provided with adequate health benefits, and are placed in an environment with good working conditions -- tenets of union work. These are not revolutionary ideas, but axioms of New York’s history -- a history that some would like to see erased.

With a wave of development underway ranging from Hudson Yards, to Amazon HQ2, to residential booms in Brooklyn and the Bronx, local and state officials and developers must work together to protect unions, particularly as it relates to construction.

This means no open shop for Hudson Yards. This means work environments with high standards. Taxpayers are already footing the bill for massive projects like Hudson Yards, they expect something in return. How about some middle-class jobs? There should be no blank checks in the greatest city in the world. Open shop is broken shop and New Yorkers deserve better.

They know they deserve better and that’s why, over the past year, we’ve seen the enormous grassroots success of the #CountMeIn movement, which has brought together New Yorkers of different races, religions, and backgrounds united in a fight for their fair share. While much has been made of reports of a supposed decline of construction unions in New York City, such analyses do not take into consideration total market share. For example, growing claims of the rise of open shop do not paint the whole picture because they exclude commercial or institutional markets. When the dollar amount is analyzed, union construction accounts for 70 percent of New York City’s total construction -- a much higher proportion than non-union construction. The #CountMeIn movement is evidence that the revival of the labor movement starts here and it begins with construction unions.

Now is the time for lawmakers and developers to cultivate this grassroots energy and do what is right: listen to the voices of New York and reject open shop, promote worker-friendly legislation and show that yes, we can continue to build the greatest city in the world, and we can do it while creating middle-class jobs and preserving the economic future for the next generation.

New York’s metric for success is not just about jobs or numbers on a spreadsheet, it’s about dignity and quality of life for our workers. At this moment in history, this is a battle worth fighting, and if it is won, it will serve as a model for the rest of the country.

Let’s prove that New York cares about fairness and a strong middle class. The future of unions and the labor movement depends on it.

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Gary LaBarbera is President of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York. On Twitter @NYCBldgTrades.

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Community Demands for the Next Queens District Attorney


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Queens DA Brown and several ADAs (photo: @QueensDABrown)


Thankfully, “progressive prosecutor” is the new “tough-on-crime” prosecutor, and the trend has been on the rise ever since hardliner Anita Alvarez lost her re-election campaign for Cook County District Attorney in 2016 and progressive crusader Larry Krasner won his campaign for Philadelphia D.A. in 2017. Over the last two years, district attorney elections from Houston to Boston have promised substantial criminal justice reform, and many across the United States are looking to the 2019 Queens District Attorney race as the next forum for change.

But we know from experience that election rhetoric doesn’t always equal reform. Let’s take a look closer to home. Brooklyn D.A. Eric Gonzalez succeeded the late Ken Thompson in 2017, promising “the most progressive D.A.’s office in the country” as he sought election to a full term. In forums leading up to the election, candidates fought over who was the most progressive, with Gonzalez promising to end cash bail and stop prosecuting fare evasion if elected. And yet, according to Court Watch NYC reports, D.A. Gonzalez requests cash bail every day and continues to prosecute fare evasion. Despite these broken promises, D.A. Gonzalez is celebrated in the media as an example of a good and progressive D.A.

Progressive talk is cheap. Real change is not.

In our borough, the 2019 Queens District Attorney race is shaping up to be an essential test. Current D.A. Richard Brown is a true standby of a bygone era. He charges people with no regard for devastating immigration consequences. He prosecutes people like Terrell Gills, who he knows to be innocent. He forces people to waive their speedy trial rights, requests absurdly high bail, and coerces plea deals. He advocates for Rikers Island to remain open. He fails to hold the NYPD accountable for perjury or brutality. He champions broken-windows policing by prosecuting marijuana possession, fare evasion, and other low-level offenses.

Queens deserves better. It is the fourth largest county, with 2.4 million people, and home to the largest community of immigrants in the nation, making this an election of national importance. On the heels of U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s historic grassroots upset victory and after Richard Brown’s announcement that he won’t seek re-election, suddenly anything seems possible here. The field is wide open -- at least nine candidates have speculated a run, and they’re all promising reform. But who’s going to make sure the best candidate for the job wins and that those reforms actually happen after a winner is declared and gains power?

That’s why grassroots groups came together to form “Queens for DA Accountability,” a coalition of 19 (and growing) community organizations dedicated to ending mass incarceration in Queens. We are led by people of color, immigrants, and formerly incarcerated Queens residents. This Martin Luther King Jr. Day at 1 p.m., we’ll officially launch at the Queens Criminal Court, and for the next year, before and after the election, we’ll be doing the work in our borough -- teach-ins, protests, educating the public about the role of the district attorney and the importance of this race for us and our neighbors. We’ll be sitting in arraignment courts and reporting out what we see from D.A. Brown’s office and building power with communities impacted by the justice system. We’ll be making public art, launching social media campaigns, door-knocking, and holding town halls.

Though media will cover this race as if an election can end incarceration, we know better. Only by using any means necessary to hold the district attorney accountable to community demands will we truly liberate our communities.

These are our demands for the next Queens District Attorney:

1. We demand a public plan to cut the Queens population in jail by 50% in 5 years.

2. We demand zero tolerance for police misconduct in any form.

3. We demand an end to money bail and a start to open, early, automatic discovery.

4. We demand sentencing recommendations that are compassionate and individualized to each case.

5. We demand a list of charges the D.A. will decline to prosecute. This includes charges related to drug use, sex work, crimes of poverty, and other low-level offenses. The D.A. should not prosecute survivors of domestic, sexual, or gender-based violence for acts of self-defense.

6. We demand a D.A. who won’t try young people as adults.

7. We demand a D.A. who keeps ICE out of the courts. The DA should consider immigration consequences in charging decisions.

8. We demand full transparency. The D.A. should release data about outcomes of the office to the public and hold quarterly town halls.

The Queens District Attorney is an elected public servant. When the D.A. brings cases, the offices does so in the name of “the People of the State of New York.” We, the People, have a right to know what’s done in our name. We’re here to bring real community accountability to the office.

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Andrea Colon is a lifelong resident of Far Rockaway, Queens and Community Engagement Organizer at Rockaway Youth Task Force, representing RYTF on the Steering Committee of the Queens for DA Accountability coalition. Jon McFarlane is a lifelong resident of Jamaica, Queens and a volunteer for Court Watch NYC, which is a member organization of the Queens for DA Accountability coalition.

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The Government Shutdown and Trump’s War on the Safety Net


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City Council Member Stephen Levin, the author


We have now reached the longest government shutdown in history with no plans for reaching a deal anytime soon. Hundreds of thousands of federal workers’ jobs have been impacted and the shutdown has delayed mortgage applications, caused significant Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) staffing callouts, impacted basic healthcare access for Native Americans, and created waste pile-ups at national parks. Federal employees have even started looking for new jobs after being denied their paychecks last week with no sign of progress.

Worse still to come, the shutdown could put the nation’s safety net in peril. Forty-two million Americans rely on food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps); if the shutdown continues into February, we will see an increase in hunger nationwide as people lose benefits and are forced to turn to emergency assistance at food pantries.  Following pressure, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) committed to funding February SNAP benefits, however, if the shutdown continues, the Center of Budget and Policy Priorities estimates families could see their benefits cut by 40%. In New York City alone, almost 1.7 million residents depend on food stamps, and would be forced to worry if they’ll be able to provide enough food for their loved ones simply because of President Trump’s political game of chicken.

This government shutdown is callous and irresponsible; and we’ve already begun to see the impacts on nutrition benefits. According to Rewire News, over 2,500 grocery stores have stopped accepting SNAP because of paperwork filing issues caused by the federal government. States are also required to apply to issue February benefits by January 20, disrupting recipients’ normal monthly food aid schedule. One SNAP recipient in Brooklyn, Brenda Riley, with the Safety Net Activists said it best: "The president and other politicians who have created this shutdown should sacrifice their own salaries instead of hurting families who are already on soup lines."

Unfortunately, the president’s disregard for SNAP recipients is just the latest attack in a long line of attempts to dissolve the country’s safety net and harm low-income communities. Perhaps most concerning is the proposed executive order published late last month calling for new work restrictions on the SNAP program to cut off basic food assistance for hundreds of thousands of Americans. Under the current policy, single adults 18-through-49 are only granted SNAP benefits for three months out of every three years if they are not working more than 20 hours per week. However, longstanding bipartisan rules have allowed waivers to this restrictive policy, recognizing high rates of unemployment in communities and lack of job training access that make work requirements extremely burdensome. Trump’s proposed rule would significantly reduce allowances for job waivers, effectively cutting off the lowest income recipients who are unable to work more than 20 hours a week or who have a difficult time finding a job. This proposal undermines the very notion of a safety net, and unrealistically expects recipients to suddenly afford groceries, maintain stable housing and cover high health costs.

SNAP has been an incredibly successful program and made the difference for millions of families who don’t have to sacrifice groceries to be able to afford their monthly rent. In 2015, food assistance lifted 4.6 million Americans out of poverty, including 2 million children and 366,000 seniors. Adding burdensome work requirements would only make it harder for already struggling New Yorkers to cover basic expenses, and would further contribute to the city’s income divide.

It’s also bad economic policy. In 2017 alone, SNAP helped generate over $5 billion in economic impact in New York City, as every dollar spent through SNAP adds $1.79 to its local economy. The fact is, the vast majority of Americans who receive SNAP already work, and for those who don’t, it is largely due to a disability or circumstance that prevents them from working. These new restrictions reinforce harmful stereotypes in order to discourage participation and public investment in the program more broadly.

The onslaught of attacks on the SNAP program require that we fight back. New York City has long committed to investing in food assistance programs -- such as through passing legislation to increase awareness and enrollment among eligible residents and by making healthy, local food accessible to all SNAP recipients through the City’s GrowNYC’s Healthy Exchange Project. As a result of the Greenmarket partnership, over $1 million in SNAP benefits were redeemed at city farmers markets in 2016 alone. But federal restrictions are rolling back public assistance at a time when the need is increasing. Rent continues to rise and New Yorkers are facing stagnant wages and supermarket closures, making it difficult to afford nutritious food.

The government shutdown and recent cuts to SNAP are also impacting our city’s emergency food assistance program — providers have shared they are seeing increased traffic as people are supplementing their SNAP benefits with food pantries and soup kitchens. With recipients’ monthly SNAP benefits running out sooner, many are turning to food pantries to make ends meet, where monthly resources are depleted quicker and providers are struggling to keep up with the demand. If the shutdown continues much longer, New York City will need an emergency assistance contingency plan.

The president’s ongoing attack on food assistance is nothing short of draconian. I encourage New Yorkers to call on the administration and Republican leadership to join House Democrats’ efforts to reopen the government and protect New Yorkers’ access to food aid. And when the Food and Drug Administration’s public comment period on work requirements opens, I will be submitting comments in opposition to the proposed rule. Congress has long maintained bipartisan support of the food stamps program and should not let up now — the 42 million Americans who receive SNAP benefits are counting on us.

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Stephen Levin is a City Council Member from Brooklyn and chair of the Council’s General Welfare Committee. On Twitter @StephenLevin33.

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Lessons from 'Hell': What’s Cuomo Really Doing with the L Train?


Cuomo MTA L train

Cuomo tours the L tunnel (photo: The Governor's Office)


There’s far more to what Governor Andrew Cuomo is saying than what he says at a major announcement. And when an announcement concerns New York’s public transportation, you can bet it’s a calculated communications decision with serious long-term implications.

On Thursday, January 3, Governor Cuomo announced he was slamming the brakes on the L train shutdown. After consulting for three weeks with an independent panel of experts, his team insists repairing the Canarsie Tunnel connecting Brooklyn and Manhattan can be done with only night and weekend disruptions for 15 to 20 months, tossing aside the 15-month full closure three years in the making by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) and scheduled to begin in April. It was a bold bet by New York’s most powerful politician, who has inconsistently taken responsibility for and interest in the transit authority that he has de facto control over.

Many commuters and real estate interests rejoiced, some transit advocates rang the alarm, and several transit officials masked frustration with bewilderment. For the public, there’s a fair bit of confusion to clear up -- it’s hard to make sense of conflicting messages and a lack of comprehensive information. How are riders supposed to think about this new plan? Does the MTA have any idea what it is doing? Where was the governor all this time?

Ultimately, what can the public consider to be truthful?

While the governor insisted that he had now involved himself with the L train plan -- which would disrupt the lives of hundreds of thousands of commuters, business owners, and others -- because of the magnitude of the issue and the pleas of multiple constituents, many questions linger. Along with the aforementioned, one especially important one: What’s Cuomo really doing here? Cuomo has manipulated public opinion to execute transit repairs before, and it’s happening again during this L train saga. He’s again taking a calculated political risk.

Consider the governor’s role in 2017’s “Summer of Hell.” Originally, the “Summer of Hell” had nothing to do with a subway system in decline. The catchy name’s source was none other than Governor Cuomo. He created this crisis narrative at a May 23, 2017 announcement to brace LIRR commuters for six weeks of Amtrak’s necessary repair work at Penn Station. Yes, that was it. But it became much more.

Amtrak’s plans were already two years in motion and announced one month earlier. Yet, Cuomo parachuted in to blame Amtrak for Penn’s state of disrepair, tell Long Islanders to adjust their established commuting routines, and present new contingency plans (ferry, bus and ticket supplements). The weeks leading up to the “Summer of Hell” were terrifying for many Long Islanders who commute into Manhattan.

In the end, Cuomo’s exaggeration made the “Summer of Hell” anything but. The crisis narrative drove Long Islanders off the LIRR, the underused ferry and bus services were curbed in the first week of repairs, and trains ran better during a supposed “hell” than at any time in the past two years. Cuomo manufactured a crisis worth his addressing by lowering expectations, then being able to take credit for exceeding the low bar he set. However, the “Summer of Hell” phrase he applied to Penn quickly became used to capture the state of transit more broadly, and liberally wielded against the governor by electoral opponents and other critics.

Cuomo’s “Summer of Hell” announcement and L train un-shutdown announcement were strikingly similar in format, with the governor intervening at the eleventh hour to shake things up when a great deal of planning, both on the infrastructure and commuting sides, had already been done. On the L train, Cuomo went after the MTA and city Department of Transportation, reassured Brooklynites their neighborhoods can survive the partial closure, unveiled his new plan, and touted the state’s (read: his) willingness to innovate -- all the while trying to sweep under the rug the fact that he stayed away from shutdown plans for the previous three years.

Again, what’s the Governor really doing here? I spent more than a year researching the “Summer of Hell” and New York’s transit management, uncovering why Cuomo would popularize impending doom and what his transit priorities are. He seizes opportunities to be, or appear to be, a savior who is helping commuters, while minimizing his political risk.

As he’s swooped in on the L train shutdown, Cuomo’s entire frame of discussion relates to commuters and commuting disruptions, with his plan presented as one that will drastically reduce challenges for L riders.

Cuomo’s team and various Cuomo political appointees, like Port Authority Executive Director Rick Cotton, relentlessly use the phrase “customer experience” to describe their project selection choices. They’re looking to improve transit’s touchpoints with the commuting public, they say. Yet, the terrible MTA customer experience was a major flashpoint in the gubernatorial primary and general elections that Cuomo nevertheless won by wide margins last year.

Cuomo’s particular project focus is controllable (ideally media-intense) situations: ones he can use to demonstrate tangible success to the public, because he’s fairly certain the outcome will raise a pathetically low bar for service. Though plowing through bureaucracy makes projects like the new Tappan Zee Bridge tough to execute, Cuomo uses it as an opportunity to brandish his image as a “doer,” even if he oversees the entrenched bureaucracy he maligns, and has positioned himself as a champion for infrastructure by taking some service bar layups, per se. He replaced the truly hellish Goethals Bridge, is renovating JFK and LaGuardia Airports (the country’s worst), installed WiFi and LED lighting in ugly subway stations, and built an app to more conveniently buy train tickets. And he made sure the new Tappan Zee is named after his father: the Mario M. Cuomo Bridge.

For the L train shutdown, Cuomo’s making his willingness to innovate visible relative to that of the MTA, which he does control despite his protestations. Presenting his advice from engineering experts, Cuomo touted big names like Tesla, Cornell, and Columbia so lay people understand how “outside the box” and the traditional bureaucracy he is going to address the tunnel and its users. He talked about never-tried-here methods that will make New York a national model, using European infrastructure methods considered superior, giving him another public relations advantage.

It’s difficult to know just how productively innovative Cuomo’s proposal is, though evaluations are ongoing, with the MTA Board briefed on Tuesday during an “emergency” meeting held at Cuomo’s behest. His language is reminiscent of when he solicited outside proposals to modernize the subway in 2017, as part of a “Genius Challenge” that ultimately bore little fruit. Ideally, the new L train plan will make a much bigger impact than the Genius Challenge did, but at this stage, there are plenty of questions to be answered.

Here’s one: Just how obvious is the new shutdown fix? Cuomo’s team feels it’s tremendous, Andy Byford, the still new and heralded president of MTA New York City Transit, admitted it’s enticing, some MTA board members are shocked but intrigued, and advocates like Riders Alliance Executive Director John Raskin remain skeptical. It’s astonishingly unclear in whom the public should place faith in making the correct project decision. Making matters more complex, the MTA Board's independence can’t be completely trusted in deciding which project is better. Interim Chair Freddy Ferrer has put his finger on the scale from the January 3 press conference onward.

In the past, Cuomo’s used project delivery as conduit to more power, and he’s clearly using the L train in a similar fashion. Situations where he’s able to beat the poor transit status quo are opportunities to show the state should be directly in charge, when it suits his narrative.

Cuomo’s projects at and around Amtrak-controlled Penn Station cultivate a potential takeover there, too. For starters, the governor is spearheading Moynihan Train Hall at Penn’s western edge without including New Jersey Transit on the project. Cuomo’s involvement in 2017 track repairs also saw him propose that New York State, not the federal government, operate Penn Station. Since then, Cuomo’s attempted to take control of the whole neighborhood around Penn.

For the subway, Cuomo has repeatedly questioned the MTA’s convoluted governing structure and wants to “blow it up.” He’s forcing the MTA Board’s hand in deciding which L train project is best, and some members (largely Mayor Bill de Blasio appointees) are publicly frustrated. However, the public’s discontent with the MTA and warranted aversion to a full shutdown gives the governor leverage in changing shutdown plans today, and blowing up the MTA tomorrow.

Cuomo needs public support in order for his takeover to work -- that’s why analyzing his communication is critical. Cuomo knows tearing things down with “outside the box” solutions appeals to desperate commuters, especially those seeking relief from the L-pocalypse. Under the guise of repeated complaints from people in Brooklyn, Cuomo is saving New Yorkers from the pain they’ve already been told is coming.

It’s a stunning reversal in government communication. For three years, officials at the MTA and city DOT were upfront about disruptions with locals and assumed the risk that comes with accountability; in exchange, riders would accommodate changes to daily life. This tacit agreement amounts to a commuting social contract.

Ironically, Cuomo helped write this script during the “Summer of Hell,” except this time (by virtue of association with running the MTA), Cuomo was stuck with accountability for a project he wasn’t running directly. Cuomo prioritizes controllable situations, and fallout from the possibly the greatest planned transit disaster in history does not qualify as such. So, Cuomo is hastily withdrawing himself from the original shutdown agreement -- let’s call it a breach of contract.

If the Board sticks with the original plan, Cuomo’s more off the hook than he would have been otherwise, but transit agencies’ jobs become harder. Floating an alternative is a tease to communities that, in all likelihood, face serious hardship. It hinders the MTA and DOT’s ability to get everyone on board (again) in surviving the “L-pocalypse.”

But, if Cuomo’s plan gets approved, which appears to be the more likely scenario, it spreads pain into more distant, seemingly manageable chunks. Yet, in the quest to absolve himself of responsibility for the old plan, the governor is creating an alternate, riskier scenario: he’s directly accountable for making the L-pocalypse a bearable experience.

Cuomo may have just thrown a low-pressure system into a brewing superstorm, like when the “Summer of Hell” crisis narrative Cuomo created blew up in his face. By intervening on behalf of 230,000 Long Islanders, Cuomo unintentionally gave millions of subway and bus riders city-wide a succinct term to express their long-festering frustrations, plus point the finger his way. Backed into a corner, Cuomo and former MTA Chair Joe Lhota enacted a Subway Action Plan for short-term fixes, though Andy Byford’s long-term Fast Forward plan remains unfunded.

If the L train shutdown plans are scrapped, and the governor does “blow up” the MTA, can Cuomo really pick up the pieces? Only one person ever, former MTA Chairman Dick Ravitch, has proven capable of successfully overhauling the MTA; it took him a decade of nonstop, focused effort. With that in mind, will Cuomo be around long enough and truly committed to implement meaningful structural reform?

Over the coming weeks, it will be critical to translate what Cuomo tells the public into his future transit action items. In the meantime, it’s essential all the questions about the new proposal are answered, and to remember 2017 as we examine Cuomo’s words and actions with a critical eye.

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Tim Lazaroff is a freelance journalist specializing in transit.

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The Case Against Public Campaign Financing in New York


senator cat young

Senator Young, the author (photo: @SenatorCathyYoung)


It’s a new day in New York. On January 1, the Senate Republican Conference, our state’s last line of defense against tax-and-spend, downstate-centric policies, assumed its new role as the minority party in the New York State Senate.

While many in New York are cheering this change, many others are wary. They should be.

A host of progressive, and in some cases, extremist, agenda items are being pushed by Governor Cuomo and the Democratic majorities in each house of the Legislature.

One of the first items on their list is passage of legislation enacting a statewide system of public campaign financing, modeled after New York City’s matching-funds program. Democrats claim there is broad support for such a change and that it would increase political competitiveness and reduce corruption.

Facts show that they are wrong.

No one would argue that corruption is not a problem in New York’s political system. Senate Republicans took the lead in passing a sweeping package of reforms in 2018 - widely lauded by good government groups - that would have targeted Albany’s “pay-to-play” culture and other corruption culprits. It died in the Democrat-led Assembly.

Democrats claim that public financing of campaigns is a cure for the corruption problem. The city’s small donor matching funds program, enacted in 1989, provides participating candidates with $6 for every $1 a New York City resident donates, up to $175 (and those numbers are set to increase in future elections). The system was intended to bring integrity to the campaign process by empowering small donors and diminishing the influence of special interests.

However, an honest examination of the system shows it has fallen far short of its laudable goals. In fact, the system has proven to be an additional channel for campaign corruption.

Establishment of the public financing system has allowed ethically challenged candidates and their operatives to cheat the taxpayer-funded program by creating fake donors, called “straw donors,” to receive matching funds. Former comptroller and mayoral candidate John Liu, a newly-elected State Senator, was fined more than $26,000 for a straw-donor scandal that resulted in jail time for an aide and a fund-raiser. He has a lot of company: Bill de Blasio, Malcolm Smith, Anthony Weiner, Dan Halloran, Jesse Hamilton, Albert Alvarez, Al Baldeo, Ron Reale are just a few of many city politicians associated with public campaign finance scandals.

It is not a track record that inspires confidence.

Supporters of publicly financed campaigns also promote the feel-good idea that the system encourages political competition by making it easier for political newcomers and less well-funded outsiders to run for office. A December 2017 Georgetown Public Policy Review found this theory to simply be wishful thinking.

Its examination of incumbent re-election rates for state legislators in states offering taxpayer-funded campaign programs and those without such programs found no statistically significant difference. Incumbency rates for the groups were 89 and 91 percent, respectively.

Similarly, the hoped-for impact on civic engagement also has not been realized. In the first two mayoral elections under public financing in New York City, 1989 and 1993, voter turnout was 60 percent and 57 percent. In 2013 turnout was 26 percent and in 2017, it was 23.9 percent. These decreases have occurred even as the size of the taxpayer-funded match has risen significantly, starting as 1:1 in 1989 rising to 6:1 in the most recent election. It is now moving to 8:1.

Given these poor results, it is impossible to justify using taxpayer dollars for such a system. In New York City, the fiscal year 2018 budget for the Campaign Finance Board was $56.7 million, including $10.6 million for staff and $40.2 million for campaign matching funds. The cost to implement a system similar to the city’s on a statewide scale has been estimated at between $200 million and $300 million. With New York State projected to have a $3 billion budget deficit in the forthcoming fiscal year, and a slowing stock market that will only make the deficit worse, the notion of creating a vast, new state bureaucracy to dole out taxpayer funds to political candidates is irrational.   

Even absent any deficit, diverting taxpayer funds to pay for political campaigns and negative television ads is indefensible.

As Stephen Eide, a scholar with the Manhattan Institute, argues “what governments spend taxpayer dollars on is as significant as how much they spend. Unlike public financing for, say, cleaner streets or better schools, public financing of elections provides a private benefit – serving the needs of officeholders, staffers and consultants engaged in politics as a career.”

All this begs the question: where does the public stand on taxpayer-financed campaigns? Studies indicate that the majority of the public is opposed. Recent surveys (Quinnipiac, 2017) found that 54 percent of survey respondents were opposed to public campaign financing; 12 percent had no opinion; and only 34 percent were in favor.

While one-party rule is now a reality in New York state government, those in power need to remember their overriding duty is to act in the best interests of all New Yorkers.

Public campaign financing is a device to benefit politicians, not the public. New York can’t afford it fiscally or ethically -- not now, not ever.

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State Senator Catharine M. Young represents the 57th District, including Allegany, Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, and portions of Livingston County. She is the Ranking Republican member on the Senate committees of Elections and Ethics and Internal Governance. On Twitter @SenatorYoung.

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Note: this column has been updated with the latest budget deficit forecast provided by Governor Cuomo on January 15.