Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/35 Thu, 21 Feb 2019 02:03:05 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) E-Scooter Companies Ramp Up Lobbying for State and City Authorization http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8293-e-scooter-companies-ramp-up-lobbying-for-state-and-city-authorization http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8293-e-scooter-companies-ramp-up-lobbying-for-state-and-city-authorization birdride inc

(photo: @BirdRide)


With Governor Andrew Cuomo proposing the legalization of electric bikes and scooters in New York and the New York City Council considering several bills to achieve that goal, the two prominent e-scooter firms looking to do business in the state are ramping up efforts to lobby lawmakers and other officials.

Bird and Lime are barnstorming New York with lobbyists as they seek to expand into what could be a massively profitable market. The e-scooter companies have already established a presence in hundreds of cities across the United States and the globe, presenting their products as affordable “micro mobility” alternatives that get people around while reducing carbon emissions and traffic congestion.

It’s an appealing argument that has been embraced as part of the broader public transit conversation by many elected officials and transit and street safety advocates, particularly in New York City with its crumbling subway system, slow buses, and crowded streets. And that argument is being spread widely through hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on lobbying.

At the state level, Cuomo has proposed giving municipalities the authority to legalize both e-bikes and e-scooters, which many, including Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, argue would need to happen first if the city is to act.

“Authorizing these transportation alternatives in a sensible and safety conscious manner will provide cheaper and more environmentally friendly transit options to New Yorkers and visitors who can use these options for work or leisure,” said Jason Conwall, a spokesman for Governor Cuomo, in a statement. The proposal includes mandates for the use of helmets, reflective gear, a bell or horn, and a maximum speed limit.

“It will also attract new businesses and generate job opportunities for New Yorkers, and align the state with many other states and cities that have successfully brought this technology to their residents,” Conwall added.

De Blasio has seemed open to legalizing e-scooters, though he has emphasized that public safety must be the first priority. “If I can see something that will create safety in this city and allow people to use e-bikes or e-scooters, I’m very open to that,” he said at an unrelated news conference in November. But while he is in favor of pedal-assist e-bikes, he has strongly opposed legalizing e-bikes with throttles, citing safety concerns, though without evidence.

At de Blasio’s behest, the NYPD has been cracking down and confiscating e-bikes, which are often used by immigrant delivery workers, and fining individuals and businesses (most of the fines are levied against individuals, as reported by Gothamist in January, contrary to de Blasio’s professed plan to target businesses). Meanwhile, the city launched a pilot dockless-bike program last year in July -- in partnership with Lime, CitiBike, and Jump -- which allowed pedal-assist bikes, which are similar to throttle bikes but run at slower speeds.

Scott Gastel, a city Department of Transportation spokesperson, said the de Blasio administration is reviewing the governor’s proposal. “If the State takes action to provide a local path to legalization, there will be a conversation about what makes sense for New York City,” he said in an email.

The City Council is already pushing that conversation, however, through four bills that were debated at a transportation committee hearing last month where Department of Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg raised concerns about the “unregulated, illegal nature” of e-bikes and “particularly their speeds and irresponsible use by some.”

The bills in question -- sponsored by Council Members Fernando Cabrera and Rafael Espinal -- would remove restrictions against e-scooter and e-bike use, create a program to help throttle-bike owners to convert them to pedal-assist bikes, and create a pilot scooter-sharing program.

“Legalizing electric scooters and throttle electric bikes may seem like distinct issues, but they share a common theme: transit equity,” said Espinal, in a statement, “the principle that all people – particularly marginalized communities – deserve affordable, accessible, and safe transit options that get them where they need to go, whether that be for a job, a social engagement, or anything else.”

For certain City Council members, lobbying by e-scooter firms has presented a golden opportunity to attach e-bikes to the conversation, providing what they say is much-needed justice for immigrant delivery workers who have suffered under de Blasio’s crackdown.

“There’s no doubt that the reason that we’re talking about e-bikes today again is because of the money and the power that has been wielded by these tech companies, these e-scooter companies,” said Council Member Carlos Menchaca, in a brief interview outside City Hall. Menchaca has been among the most vocal critics of the mayor’s enforcement policy on e-bikes, calling the crackdown “discriminatory.”

Over the last year, Bird Rides Inc. has hired several firms to represent its interests including Blue Suit Strategies, Connelly McLaughlin & Woloz, the Mirram Group, Dickinson Avella Vidal, and Tusk Strategies, which has close ties to Council Speaker Johnson and is known for its successful effort in helping the ride-hailing service Uber avoid new regulations in New York City in 2015 (those regulations did pass in 2018).

David Estrada, Bird’s chief legal officer, is among several Bird employees who have also registered as lobbyists in New York. By the end of 2018, Bird had spent about $142,000 on its lobbying effort, according to city and state lobbying records.

Those efforts are ongoing and Bird signed retainer agreements with several of firms to work throughout this year. Blue Suit, for instance, signed an agreement to be paid $3,000 each month through March 2019 to lobby before city officials. Connelly McLaughlin & Woloz signed on for a $6,500 monthly retainer through the end of the year. The Mirram Group’s contract, which extends till August, is expected to cost $10,000 per month. Ostroff Associates is expected to receive $5,000 each month till the end of July. And Tusk Strategies’ contract was the costliest, at $25,000 per month for the full year.

Neutron Holdings, Lime’s parent company, similarly hired James F. Capalino & Associates, Urban Strategies, and Yoswein New York to lobby local and state officials for both e-scooter legislation and for expanding its dockless bike share service into New York.

“We are working with both state and city officials to improve transportation options for all New Yorkers,” said Phil Jones, Lime’s senior director of East Coast Government Relations & Strategic Development, in a statement. “Shared dock-free scooters can make transportation reliable and affordable for all New Yorkers—especially underserved communities that do not have easy access to mass transit.”

The company had already spent about $146,000 by the end of last year and plans more. Capalino & Associates’ contract runs through the end of 2019 with a $10,000 monthly retainer. Urban Strategies was retained to work for the company through the end of May for $5,000 each month.

Menchaca is adamant that e-scooter legalization should only happen along with e-bikes, and the e-scooter firms also seem on board since it advances their interests. “I was very clear from the beginning...that we’re not even talking about e-scooters till we figure out what’s going on with the e-bikes and fix that problem,” he said. “They understood that so they’re gonna play...They’re savvy. We’ll do it together.”

And he seemed to partly excuse the de Blasio administration, even as he criticized the “discriminatory focus from the NYPD” on immigrant workers. “We can’t move that much because of the state, the state needs to move to unlock our ability to legislate this,” he said. “So I wouldn’t say that the administration’s not listening.”

Does the mayor really care? “I think we’re gonna make the mayor care,” Menchaca said.

Council Member Antonio Reynoso sees the issue as indicative of a larger de Blasio problem. “The way we’re thinking about it is we’re gonna leverage the lobbying effort made by the e-scooters to make sure that we get justice for the e-bike folks,” he said in a brief interview in the Council Chambers at City Hall.

“I think it’s less about whether or not the mayor cares about lobbyists and immigrants and more about the mayor just being bad on transportation policy,” he added. “Let’s put it in perspective. Who it affects, how it affects them is kind of second to the mayor not understanding that he’s a proponent of car culture in a significant way. So whether it’s e-scooters or e-bikes, I think to him, who’s advocating for it is second to just bad policy.”

De Blasio finds himself increasingly isolated in his position. E-scooters and e-bikes are one of those rare issues where the interests of transit and street safety advocates on the ground line up with those of large firms with a profit incentive.

“It is indeed disturbing to continue to see Mayor de Blasio...continuing to criminalize the use of an e-bike which is an efficient, sustainable mode of transportation,” said Marco Conner, deputy director of Transportation Alternatives, in a phone interview he gave while riding a CitiBike, the bike-sharing program that de Blasio has expanded and which started to offer pedal-assist bikes as part of the city’s L-train shutdown mitigation plans. “Meanwhile, he’s en route to inviting e-scooter-share companies and has also legalized pedal assist e-bikes.”

Conner said the mayor’s argument that e-bikes are illegal and so the NYPD must enforce the law doesn’t hold water, particularly considering the mayor’s rhetoric about making New York the “fairest big city in America” with strong “sanctuary city” protections. The crackdown, he noted, exposes low-wage immigrants to the criminal justice system, opening them up to potential interactions with immigration authorities. “Every New Yorker jaywalks daily. Police officers jaywalk daily,” Conner said. “That’s illegal under local statute but you don’t see that kind of targeted crackdown.”

He also suggested that the city should institute a buy-back program for e-bike owners, similar to the NYPD’s regular gun buy-backs that take guns off the streets.

Conner did have concerns, however, about the governor’s legalization proposal, particularly the helmet and reflective clothing requirements, which he said are “well-intended” but would discourage the use of e-bikes and e-scooters. It would also harm the existing CitiBike program, which doesn’t require either, he pointed out.

“Helmet sharing is not a thing and will never be a thing,” he said, while the reflective clothing rule is “a recipe for subjective and racially disparate enforcement.” The governor’s proposal also gives motor vehicles the right of way over e-bike and e-scooter riders, which Conner said should be reversed.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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E-Scooter Companies Ramp Up Lobbying for State and City Authorization Tue, 19 Feb 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Automatic Sealing? Expungement? As They Legalize Marijuana, New York Lawmakers Negotiate Clearing Criminal Records http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8288-automatic-sealing-expungement-as-they-legalize-legalize-marijuana-new-york-lawmakers-negotiate-criminal-record-clearing http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8288-automatic-sealing-expungement-as-they-legalize-legalize-marijuana-new-york-lawmakers-negotiate-criminal-record-clearing may bdblasio office

Mayor de Blasio discusses marijuana policy (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


New York seems poised to enact the country’s first automatic record-clearing guidelines for past marijuana convictions. Doing so, advocates and officials say, could remove barriers for hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers whose convictions -- for behavior that may soon be legal -- complicate tasks ranging from obtaining child custody to job searching to renting an apartment.

Automatic record-clearing is part of a larger ongoing discussion on legalizing adult marijuana use in New York, something Governor Andrew Cuomo has made a 2019 priority after years of opposition that also has support in both Democratically-controlled houses of the state Legislature. “Legalize adult-used cannabis,” Cuomo said in his State of the State address in January. “Stop the disproportionate criminal impact on communities of color.”

Bronx Senator and Senate health committee chair Gustavo Rivera also emphasized on the Capitol Pressroom with Susan Arbetter earlier this month that “the primary concern for many of us is the restorative justice aspect of this.”

New Yorkers poised to benefit from record-clearing for past marijuana offenses are majority black and Hispanic. In New York City, these communities made up 85 percent of marijuana possession arrests in 2016. It’s still unclear, though, how many crimes will be eligible for automatic clearing. There are also different record-clearing processes within an automatic framework: to seal a record is to shield it from view, while to expunge it -- advocates’ preference -- removes it completely.

Melissa Moore, deputy New York director for the Drug Policy Alliance, said advocates with the statewide marijuana abolition campaign Start SMART took notes on California’s approach to marijuana legalization. There, people with certain marijuana-related convictions were invited to apply for their records to be cleared. The Drug Policy Alliance has hosted free legal clinics in the state to assist them. “It’s still onerous,” says Moore. “In New York, how do we do this in such a way that places the lowest burden possible on individuals who have already been wronged? Making it automatic.”

“I believe that the Governor's office shares the goal of Assemblymember Peoples-Stokes and I,” stated Senator Liz Krueger, “to create a mechanism for automatically clearing records for marijuana offenses that would no longer be crimes.” Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat, carries the Legislature’s Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act along with Assemblymember Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo Democrat who is also the majority leader of the Assembly.

As for scope, Cuomo’s budget proposal would automatically clear the low-level possession convictions that make up the majority of marijuana arrests -- 800,000 over the last 20 years according to his office -- by amending existing record-sealing procedures. By contrast, Democrats in the Legislature have in recent legislative sessions proposed clearing more records: all possession-related, and some sale-related, convictions.

“We recognize and see where the governor was trying to go and we think it just needs to be much more expansive,” says Kassandra Frederique, New York director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “If we are going to end the criminalization of marijuana in this state, then we have to end the criminalization of marijuana in this state, wholesale.”

"We have three goals,” Cuomo’s counsel Alphonso David told Gotham Gazette, defending Cuomo’s proposal. “The first goal is to make sure that we advance social justice. The second is to advance economic development, and the third is to protect public health and safety. Our proposal addresses all three goals."

Currently there is no expungement procedure in New York, and the governor’s office has indicated he prefers sealing. But advocates say expungement would remove ambiguity. “You would be able to say, ‘I have no criminal record,’ and that would be the end of the conversation,” says Legal Aid Society attorney Emma Goodman, an expungement expert who helped draft relevant bill language shared with Krueger’s office in January.

Advocates have proposed that court records, including criminal complaints and any written decisions, be marked as expunged, while ancillary records such as fingerprints and mugshots are physically destroyed. (Even expunged marijuana convictions can be grounds for deportation, notes Immigrant Defense Project Supervising Attorney Marie Mark, so the proposal includes additional protective measures for non-citizens.)

“Expungement means completely erasing these convictions and criminal records to give New Yorkers of color a fresh start,” said Samaria Phillips, manager of the We Rise to Legalize campaign, in a statement. Her group is attending the New York State Association of Black and Puerto Rican Legislators’ annual conference on Saturday in Albany to call for expungement.

Mayor Bill de Blasio also endorsed automatic expungement in a December 2018 task force report from his administration, with the caveat that district attorneys should have the ability to challenge on a case-by-case basis. “Expungement should occur as an automatic process…to minimize procedural burdens on those with past convictions,” the report states.

But in the interview, David emphasized the governor’s support for sealing. Because New York has strong sealing laws, he argued, the “impact of sealing is a functional equivalent of expungement, while immunizing the legislation from potential legal challenge.”

Senator Krueger’s chief of staff, Brad Usher, also confirmed that her office does not have a preference so long as the process is automatic.

“While sealing does essentially the same thing to the record, it does not bring the same level of clarity and peace of mind,” Goodman challenges. “Sealing is ambiguous and confusing for employers and people with convictions, whereas expungement is not.”

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by Emma Whitford, Gotham Gazette
@emma_a_whitford

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Automatic Sealing? Expungement? As They Legalize Marijuana, New York Lawmakers Negotiate Clearing Criminal Records Sat, 16 Feb 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Legislators Pursue Campaign Finance Reform for District Attorneys http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8278-legislators-pursue-campaign-finance-reform-for-district-attorneys http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8278-legislators-pursue-campaign-finance-reform-for-district-attorneys cy vance manhattanda

Manhattan DA Cy Vance (photo: @ManhattanDA)


District attorneys wield nearly unfettered discretion as to whether to prosecute potential defendants, but nothing in the law prevents lawyers for the accused from donating to a district attorney’s election campaign. Most New Yorkers became aware of this glaring blindspot in the state’s campaign finance law in 2017, following news that Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance’s campaign had accepted thousands of dollars from an attorney for Harvey Weinstein, the disgraced Hollywood mogul who Vance’s office had declined to prosecute after he allegedly groped a woman and was caught on tape seemingly admitting to the act.

But the state Legislature could soon make sweeping changes to the rules governing district attorney campaign financing, as Assemblymember Dan Quart and Senator Liz Krueger, both Manhattan Democrats, are pursuing legislation to enact stringent restrictions on who can contribute, and how much, to candidates running for district attorney, of which there are 62, one for each county, across the state.

“Reforming of our campaign finance laws with respect to how district attorneys and candidates for district attorneys run is critical,” Quart said in a phone interview, “so that the public gets confidence that decisions made by district attorneys are on the merits and free of any conflicts.” Quart is rumored to be considering a run for Manhattan DA in 2021.

The proposed legislation would require that all district attorney candidates disclose to the state Board of Elections whether they have accepted campaign contributions from a law firm or an attorney at that law firm representing a criminal defendant in any New York state court. The bill would also mandate that the BOE create a statewide “legal dealings database” with the names of every licensed attorney, law firm or a firm executive who represents an individual or corporation in a criminal proceeding in any state court. The individuals and firms in the database would be restricted to donating only $320 to any district attorney candidate.

Spokespeople for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins did not respond to requests for comment about support for district attorney campaign finance reform. Hazel Crampton-Hays, a spokesperson for Governor Andrew Cuomo, said in a statement, "The Governor has put forward a comprehensive ethics package in the Executive Budget and we will review any additional legislation if it passes both houses."

The proposal was first introduced by Quart in October 2017, shortly after Vance, a Democrat, requested an external, independent review of his campaign finances to rebut allegations that his office gave favorable treatment to Weinstein and other wealthy actual or potential defendants, including Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump Jr., whose lawyers gave to this campaign and who Vance’s office declined to prosecute for alleged criminal fraud in the sale of condos in the Trump SoHo hotel development.   

The review was conducted by the Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity at Columbia University, which issued seven recommendations for district attorney candidates to prevent real and perceived conflicts of interest or unconscious bias by prosecutors. They include blind fundraising (so candidates are not aware of donor identities), refusing or limiting contributions from donors with real or perceived conflicts, a strict firewall between a DA’s office and campaign, refusing contributions from one’s own office staff and their spouses, strong donor vetting processes, requiring certifications of eligibility to contribute, and published campaign contribution policies.  

Quart and Krueger’s bill would establish some of those firewalls. Quart’s legal dealings database is modelled on New York City’s own “doing business” database that logs companies and individuals who have contracts with the city and limits how much they can contribute to candidates in local elections. The $320 limit applies to candidates for borough president, whose districts are equivalent to the jurisdiction of a district attorney in the city. “I took those rules and that principle and applied it to district attorneys’ races,” Quart said.

The proposal would apply statewide. So, for instance, a law firm representing a defendant in Suffolk County wouldn’t be able to give more than $320 to a candidate running for Brooklyn District Attorney.

"It is vital that every New Yorker be able to trust our judicial system to reach conclusions based solely on the fact of cases, without even the perception that other influences might affect the results,” Senator Krueger said in a statement. “District Attorneys hold a singularly powerful position in our system, and therefore must be held to the highest standards to avoid potential conflicts of interest. This bill will help ensure that in New York, justice remains blind.”

The bill doesn’t cover all of CAPI’s recommendations, however. Berit Berger, executive director of CAPI, said the legislation is a “good start” but could go further. “The legislation does not require district attorneys to adopt blinding procedures that shield them from learning their donors’ identities,” she pointed out, in an email to Gotham Gazette. Blinding standards are currently used by candidates running for judicial seats in New York.

“As we explained in our report, this approach would most clearly address the conflicts of interest issue and safeguard against any conscious and unconscious bias in favor of campaign contributors,” Berger continued. “While the increased transparency from disclosing contributions from attorneys or firms representing criminal defendants is a great first step, I think more is needed to truly preserve the integrity of this fundraising process.”

It’s unclear if the bill will be supported or opposed by the District Attorneys Association of New York. Morgan Bitton, a DAASNY spokesperson, said the association is reviewing the proposal and that its legislative committee is set to meet later this month.

If the bill passes into law, Quart believes it could be in place for the 2021 elections. If he runs for Manhattan District Attorney that year, it would put him in contest with Vance, who will be up for reelection but has not declared whether he will run again or not. “My dissatisfaction with Cy Vance, the Manhattan District Attorney is well known,” Quart said, insisting that he had not made any decisions about his own political future yet. “I have said that whether this legislation passes or not, I would self-police in a way if I were a candidate in 2021.”

Whether Vance decides to seek reelection or not, the 2021 race could be a crowded one. This year, with no incumbent running, the race to be the next Queens District Attorney features more than half a dozen Democratic hopefuls, while races in the Bronx and on Staten Island with incumbents running again have sparse fields.

For his part, Vance, a former DAASNY president himself, supports Quart’s proposal. “As DA Vance said last year when he announced the most restrictive voluntary campaign finance limits of any elected prosecutor in New York, ‘legislative action is the surest way to achieve lasting, mandatory campaign finance reform,’” said a spokesperson for his campaign, who also noted Vance’s support for a public matching funds program for DA candidates, which is not part of the Quart-Krueger legislation, but could potentially be included in any broader public campaign finance system that Democrats in Albany hope to pass this year. Assemblymember Tom Abinanti, a Democrat, has reintroduced a bill this year that would establish such a public financing system for candidates for district attorney and supreme court justices. 

But the Vance spokesperson did say the Legislature should consider the feasibility of the legal dealings database proposal, which would be far more vast than New York City’s doing business portal. “As Columbia’s report notes with regard to the City database, ‘the class of individuals subject to Doing Business restrictions in New York City is relatively small, and is limited to senior company executives, major stakeholders, and registered lobbyists’ – as opposed to the vast and fluid population of lawyers who represent criminal defendants in New York State,” the spokesperson said.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - This article has been updated to note that Assemblymember Tom Abinanti reintroduced a bill on public financing for district attorneys and supreme court judges.  

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Legislators Pursue Campaign Finance Reform for District Attorneys Tue, 12 Feb 2019 05:00:00 +0000
In Budget Testimony, De Blasio Critiques Cuomo Plans, Presents City Albany Agenda http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8275-in-budget-testimony-de-blasio-critiques-cuomo-plans-presents-city-albany-agenda http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8275-in-budget-testimony-de-blasio-critiques-cuomo-plans-presents-city-albany-agenda de Blasio city hall budget

Mayor de Blasio (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)


Mayor Bill de Blasio received a warmer reception in Albany on Monday than he has in past years as he testified before the state Legislature on Governor Andrew Cuomo’s 2020 executive budget proposal and how it would affect New York City. Over the course of more than two hours, the mayor argued for more education funding, emphasized the need for a comprehensive revenue plan for the MTA, enlisted legislators to help fend off proposed funding cuts and costs shifts, and defended his administration’s work on multiple fronts.

In prior appearances before the Legislature, de Blasio has faced the ire of Republicans who controlled the state Senate and have used the annual budget hearing to criticize the mayor’s policies and management of the city. But with Democrats now in control of both legislative chambers, the mayor found himself largely in agreement with lawmakers and their priorities on everything from school aid and transit funding to criminal justice reform, rent regulation and marijuana legalization.

He called on the Legislature to give the city design-build authority for infrastructure projects, pushed for the expansion of a speed camera and red light camera program in the city, asked for repeal of Section 50-a of the state civil rights law, which prevents disclosure of police officer disciplinary records, and advocated for a commercial vacancy tax to fight a crisis of vacant storefronts in the city.

De Blasio appealed to the Legislature to aid New York City in avoiding what he said is nearly $600 million in proposed cuts and cost shifts included in the governor’s budget. He reiterated the city’s slightly more rocky budgetary prospects that he raised in his own $92.2 billion preliminary budget proposal last week, where he noted that his administration is implementing a PEG (program to eliminate the gap) for the first time, with the goal of $750 million in total savings across agencies by the time the mayor releases his own executive budget plan in April (at which point he’ll also have to factor in the final state budget, which is due by April 1). City agency cutbacks, he warned, would be exacerbated if the governor’s budget passes in its current form.

The mayor blamed nearly half the Cuomo “cuts” on education funding. Those include a $148 million shortfall in mandated spending on charter schools and special education services and a newly proposed school funding formula that de Blasio said would create a “winners and losers situation” by shifting existing funding away from needy schools. “Although I am certain the proposal’s well-intended, there are real problems with it,” he said under questioning from Assemblymember Ed Braunstein. The governor’s office has disputed de Blasio’s characterizations of “cuts,” noting that some of the mayor’s assessment is based on faulty expectations by the city.

De Blasio also insisted, as he has often done, that the state should provide full funding under the Campaign for Fiscal Equity decision, which would mean about $1.2 billion in additional fair student funding for the city. “We should all be outraged that something that was decided by our highest court to help our children….somehow has not been brought to full fruition,” he later said. Again on this topic, Cuomo has disagreed with the mayor’s interpretation, which is shared by many Democratic officials, with the governor saying that the Campaign for Fiscal Equity has been paid off and is a thing of the past.

De Blasio did commend the governor for backing a three-year extension of mayoral control of city schools, which Republicans often used as a cudgel against the mayor in order to extract concessions from the city. At Monday’s hearing, the mayor was able to tout his administration’s success with little pushback, pointing to record-high graduation rates.

Senator Robert Jackson, however, did prod the mayor for more accountability within the system. “I don’t believe in control...I believe in authority with oversight at an appropriate level,” Jackson said.

De Blasio was willing to concede, “The phrase might be better called mayoral accountability.” At various points, he said that his administration is seeking greater input from parents on issues such as school closures and consolidation, though it could always do better. And he also defended his authority to appoint the schools chancellor through a discretionary process. A nationwide public process would undermine the city’s ability to hire top-notch educators, he said. “The power of [mayoral control] is, everyone here and all the parents of New York City get to hold me accountable,” he said. “That was not true in the past.”

Legislators focused a significant amount of time on the MTA and proposals to find sustainable sources of revenue for the beleaguered authority, responsible for the subways and buses, while making its operations more efficient. Cuomo has proposed a congestion pricing system with some details left undetermined, but that would, among other things, give the Triboro Bridge and Tunnel Authority control over city streets. And he has said the city should split halfway any remaining MTA capital shortfall after congestion pricing revenue is counted. The governor has also been railing against the MTA structure and leadership, who he appointed, and has been arguing for greater control of the agency, which he already effectively controls.

De Blasio has rejected congestion pricing as a silver bullet to solve the MTA’s woes and has said he would prefer a millionaire’s tax to raise the requisite funds for subways and buses. He repeated that argument at the hearing and said the MTA would need a “multi-element” solution that includes several different long-term streams of revenue, including perhaps a mansion tax, an internet sales tax, and revenue from legalization of recreational marijuana use, and a lockbox to ensure congestion pricing revenue is not diverted away from the MTA. Splitting capital costs with the state, he said, would be overly burdensome on the city’s already massive ten-year capital plan, which hit $100 billion for the first time when he released it last week.

He also insisted he could only support a congestion pricing plan that had “hardship exemptions”, which went down well with some legislators but not others. For instance, Senator Jim Gaughran, a Long Island Democrat, agreed, saying he hadn’t seen a feasible proposal yet. He suggested a regional program that could also take into account commuters who use the Long Island Rail Road and bus systems, and a carve out for small businesses. Democratic Assemblymember Bobby Carroll of Brooklyn, on the other hand, said the mayor’s insistence on a progressive congestion pricing proposal seemed “disingenuous” since various carve outs would render the program insufficient.

“I think it’s a balance point,” de Blasio responded. “I think there’s a way to figure out what is a fair hardship exemption and what is not, what does it do to our revenue and what revenue we need.”

And though de Blasio has feuded with Cuomo over blame for the MTA’s failings, he generally supported the concept of giving more control to the governor. “I liken it to mayoral accountability for schools,” he said.

De Blasio also found himself defending his role in the deal to bring an Amazon campus and an estimated 25,000 to 40,000 jobs to Queens, which would give the tech giant $3 billion in tax incentives and grants. To persuade Amazon, the mayor and governor struck an agreement to circumvent the local City Council-led land use process, drawing widespread criticism.

De Blasio insisted on Monday that the $3 billion in incentives the company will receive is out of the city’s control -- most of the tax breaks are as-of-right incentives that Amazon would receive like any other company based on its location and job-creation, and $500 million of it is coming from the state in a capital grant. And he also revealed that he did not negotiate with the company to ensure neutrality if its workers attempt to unionize. When asked by Senator Jessica Ramos, a former de Blasio aide, he said he only insisted that the campus be built by union labor and that building services jobs should go to union workers. De Blasio has repeatedly said that he will continue to put pressure on Amazon related to its approach to employee unionization, and that the larger New York City pro-union environment will also play a role.

In back-and-forth with lawmakers, de Blasio also made promises, some concrete and some speculative. He said that a commission looking at the city’s property tax system would release its recommendations this year. He said the city could shave years off the Rikers Island jail closure plan if a variety of criminal justice reforms are passed by the state. He said he would work with legislators to introduce a commercial vacancy tax bill in the coming weeks. And he promised to invest in improved bus service in the city even if congestion pricing does not come to pass.

Of course, there were moments when de Blasio also pushed back. Senator John Liu, a Queens Democrat and 2013 primary opponent, pushed the mayor on his “seemingly magical solution” to expand healthcare access to 600,000 uninsured New Yorkers at an eventual cost of $100 million annually. Liu wondered whether that would mean the state could pass a single-payer program that doesn’t include New York City. “I would like to say yes to that but I can’t,” de Blasio responded, noting that single-payer healthcare would be a better option.

Assemblymember Nicole Malliotakis, a Republican who ran against de Blasio in 2017, noted that the mayor was raising alarms about budget shortfalls in the city while also increasing spending by $3 billion. “If we are anticipating all these problems with less revenue coming into the city, why are you continuing to increase the budget dramatically?” she wondered. She also asked the mayor to cap increases of the city’s property tax levy, one of the few tax burdens under the city’s control.

De Blasio did agree that the city needs a “more equitable solution” to property taxes though he disagreed that the city should cap the levy. He also defended the city’s budget more broadly, emphasizing that much of the increased spending has gone to pay increases for the municipal workforce in new labor agreements reached under his administration which had lapsed for years.

The state Legislature will continue budget hearings over the next few weeks before each house -- or perhaps both houses together -- release responses to the governor’s proposal. First, Cuomo will release 30-day amendments to his budget plan. Negotiations will heat up in March as the April 1 state budget deadline looms.

[Read: 9 Key Takeaways for New York City from Cuomo's State of the State and Budget]

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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In Budget Testimony, De Blasio Critiques Cuomo Plans, Presents City Albany Agenda Mon, 11 Feb 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Claiming Attempt to Silence Them, Advocacy Groups Oppose Cuomo Lobbying Proposal http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8270-claiming-attempt-to-silence-them-advocacy-groups-oppose-cuomo-lobbying-proposal http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8270-claiming-attempt-to-silence-them-advocacy-groups-oppose-cuomo-lobbying-proposal Cuomo press conference

Gov. Cuomo (photo: Mike Groll/Governor's Office)


Governor Andrew Cuomo’s 2019 agenda includes a host of voting, campaign finance, and ethics reforms. Of three provisions related to government lobbying, one is spurring backlash from nonprofits, smaller advocacy organizations, and grassroots activists who feel threatened. Cuomo would like to require any individual or organization spending over $500 in a year on lobbying to be required to register as a lobbyist, lowering the threshold from $5,000.

The proposal is sparking outcry from nonprofit leaders and members, among others, who view the legislation as exclusionary of smaller organizations and unincorporated activist groups that do little formal lobbying and cannot afford the labor or time to navigate the state’s complex lobbying regulations. A letter from 15 New York nonprofits outlines vehement opposition to the new legislation. “Perversely, while this might increase the number of filings, it will effectively silence small groups while increasing the influence of big money in government,” the letter reads.

Signees include The Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies, the Hispanic Federation, Homeless Services United, the Jewish Community Relations Council, the Lawyer’s Alliance, the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance, and the NYC Immigration Coalition, among others.

In addition to lowering the registration threshold, Cuomo’s two other lobbying reforms include redefining “reportable business relationships,” i.e. compensation paid to individuals connected with lobbying, to those involving $500 or more, instead of the current $1,000.

The third provision would mandate a semi-annual report for lobbying expenditures exceeding $500, lowering the threshold from the current $5,000. Cuomo has included the three lobbying reforms in his policy book and Executive Budget, setting the stage for negotiations with the Legislature before a budget deal is due April 1 for the new fiscal year.

According to the governor’s office, his larger bill is a multipronged reform package. “It’s not just lobbying reform. It’s lobbying reform, and campaign finance reform, and independent expenditure reform, and voting reform, and procurement reform. It’s all related and we have an unprecedented opportunity to increase transparency and disclosure and improve our democracy for the better. The fact that some self-described reform groups are against reform speaks to the problem in better ways than I can,” said Rich Azzopardi, a senior advisor to Cuomo.

Co-signers of the letter believe the bill would limit their ability to participate in New York democracy, and some observers of state politics believe it is purposefully aimed at quieting Cuomo critics.

Jim Purcell, chief executive officer of the Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies, made the decision to add his organization to the letter. “It’s not a fundamental disagreement about accountability, but this is taken in a direction that’s unnecessary and burdensome,” he said.

Purcell gave an example of how quickly an individual can hit $500 in lobbying expenditure. “The train back and forth to Albany is $100. A cab is $20. An organization that spends one day a year lobbying or organizing a letter to support foster care for kids, it ends up feeling like you don’t want to hear from us.”

From a bigger picture perspective, $287 million was spent in 2017 on lobbying state government by 3,415 filers, per the latest available data from the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE). Laura Abel, senior counsel for the Lawyer’s Alliance, an organization that co-signed the letter, said the top 100 filers spent 22 percent of the total amount, which translates to $63 million. By contrast, 390 filers spent less than $10,000.

“It’s a lot like election spending, where you’ve got a handful of really wealthy people and companies putting in most of the money. And then you’ve got a lot of small, really small spenders.” said Abel.

Reinvent Albany, a nonprofit watchdog that advocates for transparency and accountability at the state and city levels, also opposes the governor’s proposed lobbying reform. Its analysis, released last month, cites New York State’s 92 pages of lobbying regulations as “some of the most comprehensive in the country,” consisting of “carefully tracking and reporting compensation, expenses, hours spent lobbying, persons lobbied, and bills, executive orders, and procurement lobbied on in addition to potentially having to disclose reportable business relationships.”

Alex Camarda, a senior policy advisor for the organization, said “We think the benefits of the additional transparency are exceeded by the cost of burdens on smaller organizations.”

The burden of the legislation, if enacted, also goes in another direction. JCOPE commissioners during a January 29 meeting to discuss the governor’s proposed budget recognized what would be added responsibility for regulators. After the proposed legislation was read aloud, commissioner James E. Dering said, “Requiring lobbyists to spend $500 or more would precipitously increase the resources needed. One would hope if this is enacted there will be resources provided certainly at that time, but we may need resources in advance to gear up for that. It would be quite an increase.”

While many typically think of lobbying as done by high-powered for-hire firms, it takes many forms. As Purcell said, “I can hear someone saying ‘Lobbying is a dirty business, and I don’t want to do that,’ but if you want to have your voice heard, you have to visit your local official or go to Albany.”

Note - This article has been updated.

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Claiming Attempt to Silence Them, Advocacy Groups Oppose Cuomo Lobbying Proposal Sun, 10 Feb 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Citing Causes for Concern & Promising Cuts, De Blasio Presents Still-Growing Budget Plan of $92.2 Billion http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8266-citing-several-causes-for-concern-de-blasio-presents-still-growing-budget-plan-of-92-2-billion http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8266-citing-several-causes-for-concern-de-blasio-presents-still-growing-budget-plan-of-92-2-billion may bill de blasio fiscal 20

Mayor de Blasio presents his budget (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)


When Mayor Bill de Blasio presented his preliminary budget proposal last year, he issued solemn warnings about the threats posed by cuts in the state budget and from federal maneuvers that could mean fewer resources for the city. On Thursday, de Blasio repeated that message, but in more dire terms, as he unveiled a $92.2 billion spending proposal for the 2020 fiscal year that starts July 1.

While the plan calls for another significant annual increase in spending -- about $3 billion, or 3.4 percent, from the budget adopted last June -- the mayor also said his administration would have to make difficult decisions in the coming months, instituting a new savings program to find efficiencies in city government while ensuring that front-facing services do not suffer.

“We have some tough choices up ahead under any scenario,” de Blasio said in City Hall’s Blue Room. “We will be guided by the need to make hard choices, to find savings and then when we have to choose, we will favor the priorities that we believe are most strategic and high impact. If a program is nobly intended but not as strategically central or not as valuable, that’s where you will find the cuts.”

The mayor’s proposal will soon become the subject of City Council hearings, and the mayor will be in Albany on Monday to testify at a state budget hearing, where he will tell legislators they must help him undo elements in Governor Andrew Cuomo’s executive budget plan, which the mayor said totaled about $600 million in proposed cuts and cost shifts to the city.

The $3 billion in increased city spending outlined in de Blasio’s preliminary budget includes about $1 billion additional spending stemming from recent contract agreements with labor unions, $632 million in added education spending, $358 million in debt service costs, $325 million in fringe benefits for city employees, $113 million in mandatory charter school spending, and $109 million to expand the city’s 3-K for all program.

Overall, the preliminary budget represents a nearly $20 billion increase since the last budget modification before de Blasio took office in 2014.  

But de Blasio cautioned of an economic recession on the horizon, the symptoms of which are already beginning to show and are forcing the city to tighten its belt. The city is projecting that personal income tax revenue would be $935 million less this fiscal year than last year, for instance, with most of the drop off in December and January revenue collections. (Similarly, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced earlier this week that the state is expecting a $2.3 billion shortfall because of lower income tax revenue. De Blasio noted that Cuomo had already looked to the city to make up state deficits before the recently-announced shortfalls.)

Along with those concerning tax receipts, de Blasio pointed to additional pressure from developments at the state and federal levels. He pointed to the proposed Cuomo cuts and cost shifts that the city may have to bear in spending on education, financial assistance and health services for needy families, and spending for at-risk youth. “These are permanent cuts...when these cuts occur in the state budget, it’s not just for one year. The money goes away, never comes back,” he said, promising to oppose them but conceding that some losses may happen despite the city’s best efforts. 

The governor's administration later sought to rebut the mayor's comments on decreased education funding. "We don't know how the City considers a $282 million school aid increase over last year a cut, and a cut from what you ‘expected’ to get is a bizarre concept," said Morris Peters, a Division of Budget spokesperson, in a statement. "The state has a formula that outlines what the funding increase will be year to year – so why the City would expect to get something higher than that is nonsensical and a pure fabrication."

The threat to the city emanating from Washington is far less certain. The federal government faces a February 15 deadline to reach a budget agreement and preempt another disruptive government shutdown. If that agreement fails, de Blasio said the state would lose about $500 million every month starting in May, with the city losing about $110 million monthly. There are the more nebulous effects of the fluctuations in the stock market, which have been partly to blame for lower city revenue, and federal trade policy.

Taking those factors into account, the mayor announced that for the first time since he took office in 2014, he would institute a PEG (Program to Eliminate the Gap), which former Mayor Michael Bloomberg employed to control agency costs. Unlike Bloomberg’s program, however, de Blasio does not plan to institute a citywide percentage-based cut in spending at all or most agencies. Instead, he said he will direct most if not all agencies to cut a collective $750 million in costs by April, including by expanding a partial hiring freeze that the city estimates has saved $448 million since it was announced in April 2017. Each agency will receive a target figure for spending cuts from the city’s Office of Management and Budget, de Blasio said.

The preliminary budget also includes $1 billion in savings across fiscal years 2019 and 2020, and $1.6 billion in savings on healthcare spending in fiscal year 2020, increasing to $1.9 billion in fiscal year 2021. Yet, notably the mayor did not dedicate additional resources to the city’s reserves, keeping them flat over last year -- they include $1 billion in the general reserve, $250 million in the capital stabilization reserve, and $4.5 billion in the Retiree Health Benefits Trust Fund. Budget watchdogs have repeatedly said that while the city has solid reserves, they are not enough, especially as de Blasio continues to increase spending, to truly weather a recession.

The mayor’s preliminary budget includes few major new investments in programs, and continues funding for those that are already underway or have been announced by the mayor in the last few months. Those include $25 million for NYC Care, which will give healthcare access to uninsured New Yorkers. The program is expected to launch in the Bronx this summer and will expand citywide by 2021 at a cost of $100 million annually, serving 600,000 people. The city also plans in next fiscal year to spend $106 million to continue funding Fair Fares (half-priced MetroCards for low-income New Yorkers); $5.3 million to speed up Crisis Intervention Training for NYPD officers; $25 million to expand 3-K for All in the Bronx and Brooklyn; and $2.7 million to increase bus speeds by 25 percent by the end of next year.

Also, for the first time ever, the city’s preliminary ten-year capital strategy reached triple digits, for a high of $104.1 billion, an increase of 8.7 percent. The city’s expense and capital budgets are calculating and presented separately. Every two years the capital strategy is re-established.  

“You’ve all heard the truism that budgets are a statement of values. That’s gonna play out in these coming months,” de Blasio said. “If we get continued good news from Washington, from Albany, from our broader economic context, we’ll have more freedom. If we get bad news, we’ll be ready to make some very tough decisions.”

In the next few weeks, the mayor’s budget proposal will be dissected in a series of City Council hearings, where officials from the administration will be called to testify. On Thursday, the Council acknowledged the city’s difficult fiscal position but indicated that it was ready for tough negotiations.

“We know there are challenges presented by the economy, as well as funding shortfalls from the state, particularly in education and social services. We will work with the Administration to get our fair share from Albany,” said Council Speaker Corey Johnson, finance committee chair Daniel Dromm, and capital budget chair Vanessa Gibson, in a joint statement. “But even while recognizing the challenges, we also know this City’s economy is strong and we will fight for a fiscally responsible plan that protects the social safety net.” They vowed to push for funding for Fair Fares, education, immigrant families, and permanent housing for those who need it. “These are our values and we will never walk away from them.”

Comptroller Scott Stringer also took note of the “warning signs” for the economy and commended the mayor for instituting a PEG, which he has called for repeatedly. “It’s past time for City agencies to seriously evaluate how effective their spending really is in achieving results for New Yorkers,” he said.

Year after year, fiscal watchdogs and rating agencies have praised the city’s responsible budgeting but have also raised alarms about spending trends that could backfire in an economic crunch. Andrew Rein, president of the nonprofit Citizens Budget Commission, reiterated some of those concerns on Thursday, noting that the budget showed “modest restraint” in increased spending.

“Much bolder action is needed to ensure the City is prepared for an economic downturn,” Rein said. “Spending growth should be limited to inflation and reserves should be increased. The PEG announced today should be developed with an eye to making operations more efficient and generating recurring savings.”

Last week, CBC recommended that the city pursue a four-part strategy of lower spending growth, greater reserves, improvements to the capital plan and strengthening the fiscal health of three major public authorities -- the New York City Housing Authority, NYC Health + Hospitals, and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

The mayor said his budget did not include any new funding for the MTA, funding for which is expected to be a major source of contention between de Blasio and Cuomo over the next several months.

A state budget is due by April 1, at which time the mayor and City Council will have significantly more information to work toward their next spending plan, which is due by July 1.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - This article has been updated with a statement from a state Division of Budget spokesperson. 

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Citing Causes for Concern & Promising Cuts, De Blasio Presents Still-Growing Budget Plan of $92.2 Billion Thu, 07 Feb 2019 05:00:00 +0000
State Senate Bill Would Advance Framework for More Aggressive Green New Deal in New York http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8260-state-senate-bill-would-advance-framework-for-more-aggressive-green-new-deal-in-new-york http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8260-state-senate-bill-would-advance-framework-for-more-aggressive-green-new-deal-in-new-york dyq5fjfxcaa5cv6.jpg large

A New York Renews rally at the state Capitol (photo: @NYRenews)


As Congressional Democrats pursue efforts to pass a Green New Deal at the federal level and Governor Andrew Cuomo has outlined his own version for New York, Queens State Senator James Sanders has proposed a pathway to implementing a more ambitious climate and green jobs agenda.

Proponents of the Green New Deal aim to eliminate the country’s reliance on fossil fuels and transition to 100 percent clean energy, creating thousands of infrastructure and renewable energy jobs in the process and in a way that prioritizes fairness for those communities most adversely impacted by harmful environmental policies. It’s been championed in the past by members of the Green Party, and recently by U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the rising Democratic star who represents Queens and the Bronx and is gearing up with Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey to introduce a non-binding resolution on the Green New Deal this week, details of which have begun to emerge.

Just as newly re-empowered House Democrats created a “Select Committee on the Climate Crisis” -- though without a mandate to look at the Green New Deal -- the New York State Senate could soon follow suit. State Senator Sanders’ bill would mandate the creation of a Green New Deal task force charged with crafting a “detailed statewide, industrial, economic mobilization plan” for New York to take the state to zero carbon emissions by 2030, a goal more ambitious than those recently proposed by Cuomo and by advocates and legislators backing a separate bill, the Climate and Community Protection Act (CCPA), which has languished in the state Legislature for years despite repeated passage by the state Assembly. The CCPA is part of Sanders’ vision for a New York Green New Deal. The 18-member task force his bill would empanel would have until the end of the year to send its report and draft legislation to the state Legislature and governor.

Cuomo, who has used executive action to mandate carbon emission reductions by 2050,  recently announced support for a Green New Deal as well but his “Climate Leadership Act” proposal stops short of others. In his executive budget proposal, presented at his State of the State address in January, he advanced legislation that would make the state’s electricity sector carbon-free by 2040. He also proposed a Climate Action Council to look at measures to reduce the state’s carbon footprint overall.

The CCPA, on the other hand, would aim to make the entire state economy carbon-free by 2050, not just the electricity sector. It also establishes a Climate Action Council, similar to Cuomo’s proposal but with a different, more democratic structure. The bill is sponsored by State Senator Todd Kaminsky and Assemblymember Steve Englebright, both Democrats. It was passed by the Assembly’s Environmental Conservation Committee, chaired by Englebright, on Tuesday and Kaminsky is holding a series of hearings on it next week. It also has the backing of New York Renews, a coalition of more than 160 organizations across the state that have been advocating for it for the last three years.

There are also two other legislative proposals with similar goals as the CCPA -- the Climate and Community Investment Act, which would enact a carbon tax to fund the transition towards renewable energy, and the Off Fossil Fuels Act, which would establish a 100 percent clean energy system by 2030, among other measures, on a faster timeline than the CCPA.  

An official in Sanders’ office said that his task force proposal was modelled on Ocasio-Cortez’s effort to push for a House select committee, in an attempt to advance the conversation on the Green New Deal. Sanders has also co-sponsored the CCPA in the past and intends to support it this year as well. His new proposal, the official noted, mandates the shortest timeline and is the most progressive of the proposals.

Its supporters include the New York State Council of Churches, 350 NYC, Bronx Climate Justice North, The Climate Mobilization, North Bronx Racial Justice, Food and Water Watch, and prominent environmental scientists such as Stanford University Professor Mark Jacobson, Paul Hawken and Peter Kalmus, among others, the official said. The senator plans to rally for the proposal in the capital on Monday.

Mark Dunlea, co-founder of the Green Party in New York, said Sanders’ proposal would “go much further” than the CCPA with its longer timeline and would be much stronger than any proposal put forth by the governor. “I think [Governor Cuomo’s] concept of the Green New Deal is a branded slogan,” he said. “He can latch on to the Green New Deal as an economic stimulus program, which is good, but Sanders is going further than that, which is even better.”

But other environmental advocates want to see action immediately, rather than wait for a year from now after the task force would report. “The CCPA is still the most ambitious climate legislation out there...I don’t think that there needs to be any other interim step, this bill is the first step,” said Annel Hernandez, associate director at the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, which is a part of New York Renews.

Hernandez pointed out that the CCPA also includes a guarantee that 40 percent of funds raised from new energy and climate regulations are directed to disadvantaged communities dealing with the effects of climate change. “[A]nything that is proposed by New York State has to be abiding by the principles of a just transition,” she said. “It means that those who are on the front lines of the climate crisis, of dealing with environmental burdens in their communities, have to be a part and leading the solution to the renewable, regenerative economy.”

A spokesperson for the governor did not have comment on Sanders’ proposal (Cuomo’s office rarely provides comment on pending bills) but did note the overlap between the Climate Leadership Act and the CCPA, which are bound to be issues negotiated with the Legislature as the legislative session proceeds, up to and after a budget deal is reached by April 1. The spokesperson speculated that the CCPA will likely not be approved in its current form, and may go through amendments following the Kaminsky-led hearings, after which a version of the bill acceptable to both lawmakers and the governor could come to pass.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - This article has been updated to clarify the provisions of the Off Fossil Fuels Act. 

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State Senate Bill Would Advance Framework for More Aggressive Green New Deal in New York Wed, 06 Feb 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Despite Need, Gaining More State Support for Affordable Housing Remains Major Challenge for De Blasio http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8252-despite-need-gaining-more-state-support-for-affordable-housing-remains-major-challenge-for-de-blasio http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8252-despite-need-gaining-more-state-support-for-affordable-housing-remains-major-challenge-for-de-blasio cuomo gov housing

(photo: the governor's office)


Right now, New York City’s government should be taking advantage of the Democratic majority in both houses of the New York State Legislature to make progress addressing the affordable housing and homelessness crisis affecting city residents. But success requires a skillful effort since the political challenge is daunting, despite overwhelming public concern.

Why now? We have a new Democratic majority in the state Senate elected in 2018. The state Assembly, controlled by Democrats since 1975, has been a liberal body limited by Republican power virtually the entire time, until now.

But there is no immediate consensus on what the housing solutions might be, how much money might be available, whether the new Senate Democrats would be willing to vote for a new tax, even if just levied in New York City, or the extent to which the Cuomo administration is willing to spend more money. The population in need is large and diverse, and the resources to address any particular segment of the needy population are severely limited.

What’s the city been doing up until now? City government has made major investments in affordable housing and used its resources to stabilize evictions and step up emergency assistance -- to prevent the crisis from getting worse. But there is little let-up in a cycle of rapid growth, gentrification, and development, rising rents and prices, and the inability of large segments of the city’s population to afford higher rents on limited incomes as low rent apartments have grown scarce.

Housing data show us exactly where New York City stands. The dimensions of the housing crisis are staggering:

-There are more than 2 million rental apartments in the City of New York, with about 1 million in the private rent-stabilized or controlled system, according to Housing NYC 2018, the annual Rent Guidelines Board report. Median household incomes in rent-stabilized apartments are about $45,000 a year in 2016, and median rent stabilized rents were $1,270 in 2017.

-A report by Comptroller Scott Stringer (Nov. 2018), entitled The Housing We Need, identified 396,000 households in the City with incomes of less than $28,000 a year as severely rent-burdened, meaning their rent was 50% or more of their income. Additional households are also severely rent-burdened but their incomes are higher.

-There are 61,000 persons in the shelter system right now, not counting people living on the street (DHS Daily Report).

-There are 208,000 households on the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) waiting list, and 148,000 households on the Section 8 waiting list, with new applications closed (NYCHA Fact Sheet).

-Only about 18% of rental households live in a subsidized situation, like NYCHA, Section 8, or the Mitchell-Lama program, which has privately-owned but regulated units with low-cost financing and tax abatements to make them affordable (NYU Furman Center, 2017, Changes in NYC Housing Stock).

-About 19% of New York City residents, or 1.7 million people, lives in poverty.

The federal government added to the crisis by curtailing new subsidized housing in the 1980s and ‘90s.  

But, by 1994, New York City became governed for 20 years by Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg, for whom low-income housing was not a major priority. The shelter population was 24,000 in 1993, 28,000 in 2001, and 49,000 in 2013, the end of Mayor Bloomberg’s tenure. Mayor Bloomberg developed a program called Advantage to help residents exit the shelter system, which had a two-year cap on a voucher-like subsidy to encourage recipient families to become independent. The cap was criticized for its lack of permanency and the state eliminated its share of the cost in 2011, whereupon the mayor refused to pick up the state share and the program lapsed.

State Senate Republicans, in power during Mayor de Blasio’s tenure up until now, were not interested in proposals from the mayor like the “mansion tax,” a surcharge on real property transfers above $2 million, with the new money dedicated to housing vouchers for the elderly. Aside from the universal pre-kindergarten victory in his first year, the city has spent much of its political energy in Albany trying to limit damage to the city budget from proposals by the Cuomo administration to shift social service, higher education, Medicaid, criminal justice, and transportation costs from the state to the city, winning on some issues but losing others, rather than obtaining major new resources from the state for housing.

There are a few programs in place right now that attempt, with varied levels of success, to help ease the housing crisis:  

Supportive Housing: Since the 1990s, both the state and city have committed more resources to supportive housing, which assists persons with serious addiction or mental illness, the frail elderly, and others, and recently have embarked on new programs in this area. The state has committed to 6,000 more units of supportive housing over five years (not all of which will be in New York City), starting around 2016, and the city has made a commitment to 15/15, meaning 15,000 more supportive housing units over the next 15 years, beginning around 2016. But these units will be available not just to persons with psychiatric disabilities in the shelter system, but to persons leaving psychiatric hospitals, prisons and jails, adult homes, or just coming from their own homes and families but diagnosed with severe illnesses. There are 16,000 single adults in the shelter system now. 21,000 single adults entered the shelter system in Fiscal Year 2018, while fewer than 9,000 exited in that year (DHS Management Report, FY18). The capacity of new supportive housing units to rapidly absorb single adults from the shelter system is limited.

Affordable Housing: The large city affordable housing program, now called Housing New York 2.0, initiated by the de Blasio administration in 2014, has created or preserved 122,000 units since inception; the full plan calls for 300,00 units by 2026; 39,000 of the 122,000 units are new construction; the remainder preservation. Preserved units are also vital to long-term affordability because owners are agreeing to retain their building in regulated status in exchange for low-cost financing for repairs and large percentages of their residents are low- and moderate-income.

The new units are created through capital grants and low-cost financing to private developers to reduce the cost of construction, allowing some units to be marketed to low- and moderate-income tenants. Other units are rented at market rates and are not counted in the affordable classifications. Some projects are 100% affordable, meaning they have heavier subsidies and are not offered to higher-income households. Affordability relates to income levels; more than 50% of the affordable units have been slated for households making between $47,000 and $75,000 a year for a family of three. About 25% of the units have been slated for incomes below $47,000 a year.

But there is concern that not enough of the units are for very low-income households. A change for lower-income households would, however, require more subsidies, assuming the number-of-units goal remains the same. Without more money overall, the city would have to forsake some moderate-income units for lower-income units. Nonetheless the city has made a major commitment to getting more housing units built, in addition to the resources to reduce homelessness. The State of New York produces some affordable housing through its own programs, or sometimes in combination with city programs, but the scale of the state’s effort does not match the city’s.

There are several other significant proposals to address the affordable housing crisis that do require state involvement:

-Comptroller Scott Stringer proposed to change property transfer taxes to raise more revenue and concentrate the capital grant subsidies of the Housing New York program to the low-income population and the homeless.

The mortgage recording tax in the city would be eliminated while the real property transfer tax would become more progressive. The change would raise $400 million a year and the funds used to provide deeper subsides to help the city’s neediest population. But planned Housing New York units for the moderate-income group between $47,000 and $75,000 a year, and those above that level, would be switched over to the lower-income group and thus be displaced.

A modification to the Stringer proposal might be to use the $400 million a year as a targeted add-on for the lower-income population, rather than a substitution away from the moderate-income group. After all, both groups, the moderate-income, and the very low-income, need housing. Mayor de Blasio’s proposal, the Mansion Tax, and the comptroller’s plan both require a tax increase. But can the mayor persuade some of these new suburban Senate Democrats to agree to a tax increase for a housing purpose, when they are also being asked by the governor to support congestion pricing?

-Assemblymember Andrew Hevesi’s legislative proposal, named Home Stability Support, creates a Section 8-like voucher for the shelter population, as well as the at-risk of eviction population, funded at 14,000 vouchers a year. Cost estimates have ranged from $450 million a year to close to $1 billion a year (Renewed Push for Homeless Subsidy, Gotham Gazette, Dec. 2017). An effort by the Assembly and Senate last year in budget negotiations to fund even a start-up at $15 million a year was rejected by the governor’s Division of the Budget.

The Mansion Tax, the Hevesi proposal, the cancelled Advantage program, and current city emergency rehousing assistance efforts, which cost $200 million a year (NYC OMB, Mayor’s Message, 2018), all involve Section 8-like vouchers concept to help residents pay for rental apartments. New vouchers are very expensive. Section 8 usually pays a landlord up to $1,500 a month, or $18,000 a year, to cover one household. Each new 1,000 vouchers thus cost up to a new $18 million a year. Who should get the priority for new vouchers? The homeless? The elderly? The 148,000 households who are on the current Section 8 waiting lists, who have also been vetted as in need?

Some serious coalition building is in order to make progress. Gaining a political consensus about where to put new funds, and where the money will come from, means Mayor de Blasio must pull together support among housing advocates, the Assembly and the Senate, and run the gauntlet of Governor Cuomo and the state Division of the Budget. Is there sufficient political will to address this intractable problem?

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Jim Brennan was a member of the New York State Assembly for 32 years, where he chaired four committees. On Twitter @JimBrennanNY.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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Despite Need, Gaining More State Support for Affordable Housing Remains Major Challenge for De Blasio Mon, 04 Feb 2019 05:00:00 +0000
As Cap on Charter Schools in New York City is About to Hit, Little Talk of Extension in Albany http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8253-as-cap-on-charter-schools-in-new-york-city-is-about-to-hit-little-talk-of-extension-in-albany http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8253-as-cap-on-charter-schools-in-new-york-city-is-about-to-hit-little-talk-of-extension-in-albany albany charter gov

(photo: the governor's office)


Throughout his tenure, Governor Andrew Cuomo has been a strong advocate for charter schools as part of his broader education policy, even as many of his fellow Democrats are far less friendly toward, if not opposed to, the privately-run, publicly-funded schools. Cuomo has repeatedly supported and helped orchestrate a raising of the cap on the number of charter schools allowed in New York, both across the state, and the sub-cap for New York City, where the vast majority of charters exist.

Now, as that sub-cap on charter schools in the city is about to reach its limit with a new round of approvals in March, there is virtually no talk in Albany, from Cuomo or legislators, about raising or doing away with the sub-cap, either of which would allow more charters to open in the five boroughs. Though he has recently reiterated his support for charter schools when asked by reporters, Cuomo did not mention charter schools or the cap in his January State of the State address or the lengthy accompanying policy book, nor in his Executive Budget for Fiscal Year 2020.

During his first eight years as governor, Cuomo has had fellow charter school supporters leading the state Senate, where Republicans held the majority, at times with the help of charter-friendly breakaway Democrats in the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC). The Democrat-dominated Assembly has been unfriendly toward charter schools and closely aligned with teachers unions that oppose them -- most charters are not unionized. But now, both the Republican Senate majority and the IDC are gone. While there are charter-supporting legislators in both houses, including some Democrats and Republicans, Cuomo now faces more of the individual responsibility to advocate for charter-helpful policies in Albany.

While his policy book and budget do not include anything on the charter cap, that does not mean Cuomo won’t push for changes that would allow more charters to open in New York City. A new state budget is due by April 1, and though the city sub-cap will be hit by then, it would be just a short delay if Cuomo orchestrates a cap change in the budget, where many deals are known to come together in Albany.

The governor’s recently-outlined plans do include a 3.5% increase in total per pupil funding for New York City charter schools, but this was the only time charter schools were mentioned in the State of the State book or Executive Budget.

New York State has a cap on the number of charter schools that can be approved by the two authorizing authorities, but there is a special sub-cap for the number of charters, which allow a group to start a new charter school, that can be issued for New York City. There are currently 236 charter schools in New York City educating 123,000 students, according to the New York City Charter School Center.

There are now seven remaining charters left under the New York City sub-cap, while there are 99 charters left for the rest of the state. There are currently 18 applicants for charters in New York City that have made it through the initial application process and a meeting of the SUNY Board’s charter schools committee, one of two authorizers, is set for March.

This would be the first time that the board has to decide not just whether an applicant meets its standards, but also which of the 18 applicants should get the seven remaining charters. Assuming that more than eight applicants meet the standards, this would mean that some potentially satisfactory applicants would not receive charters.

Charter school advocates, such as those at the New York City Charter School Center, believe this is a worst possible scenario. The Center has called for the charter school cap to be eliminated altogether or at least raised to allow for new charters to be issued. Another proposal would be to end the sub-cap so that there would no longer be a distinction between charters issued for New York City and the rest of the state. This could mean dozens of new charters in the city as opposed to the final seven under the current sub-cap (in theory, all 107 statewide slots could go to charters for the city).

In a statement, James Merriman, the CEO of the New York City Charter School Center, said the “arbitrary charter cap for New York City” should be raised. He called the current situation “the definition of a crisis” and that “we are running out of charters at a time when charter schools are making remarkable progress in closing the achievement gap for some of the most vulnerable children in New York City.” Merriman called on state lawmakers “to forgo special interests and ensure all families have the opportunity to access high quality public school.”

No proposal to change the cap is currently on the agenda of the state Legislature, which has been moving a host of progressive legislation long-stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate. Gotham Gazette sent multiple requests for comment about the charter school cap to spokespeople for Cuomo, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie; none of them were returned.

The politics around charter schools has shifted in New York over the last year or two, but especially since the November 2018 elections. While Cuomo, an outspoken advocate for charter schools, won a third term as governor, pro-charter school legislators lost a variety of races, including several in New York City, both in Democratic primaries and the general election. Republicans and members of the Independent Democratic Conference lost a large number of races, though charter schools were rarely central issues in those elections. Advocates for charter schools, of both parties and in both houses of the state Legislature, currently do not hold enough power to extract charter school expansion as a concession in larger policy negotiations, but like with many issues, the fate of the charter school cap may rest in Cuomo’s powerful hands.

Lifting of the charter cap last happened in 2017, when a deal was struck for a two-year extension of mayoral control of New York City schools that also included a provision that would allow 22 revoked or surrendered charters to be reissued. Now, only seven of those “zombie” charters remain.

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by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been changed to cite seven available charters in New York City, not eight, as dicated by a spokesperson for the state education department; though there has been conflicting information put forward by several entities involved about whether there are seven or eight charters available under the city sub-cap.

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As Cap on Charter Schools in New York City is About to Hit, Little Talk of Extension in Albany Mon, 04 Feb 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Electronic Poll Books Next Step in New York Election Overhaul http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8255-electronic-poll-books-next-step-in-new-york-election-overhaul http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8255-electronic-poll-books-next-step-in-new-york-election-overhaul express poll e poll book

(photo: Elections Systems & Software)


As Democrats in the state Legislature continue a rapid pace of passing legislation to start the new session, the state Senate seems poised to advance another round of election and voting reforms, including approving the use of electronic poll books to administer elections.

Electronic poll books, used in at least 34 states and the District of Columbia, are a fairly simple but significant instrument in making elections more efficient, experts and advocates argue. They make voting faster, preventing long lines at polling sites, save costs in the long run, and are easier to update and maintain compared to the paper lists currently used in New York.

Some advocates also say e-poll books, as they’re often called, are essential in implementing improvements to voter registration processes, which the state Legislature put into motion last month, and helpful in the implementation of the significant shift of early voting, also part of the recently-passed package.

On Monday, the state Senate’s elections committee held a vote and approved a bill allowing electronic poll books, among other items on the agenda. The bill will now head to the Senate floor for a vote. Senator Zellnor Myrie, committee chair and the sponsor of the bill, is confident e-poll books will subsequently be passed by the full Legislature, in advance of this year’s primary election in June. The legislation does not mandate the use of e-poll books.

“The larger reforms that we’ve instituted and that we’re looking at for the rest of the session are going to be made much easier by us modernizing how we see whether or not someone has voted,” Myrie said in a phone interview. “So electronic poll books is something that has wide consensus.”

When Democrats took control of the Legislature this year after flipping the Senate, they quickly passed a series of voting and elections measures including early voting, consolidating the federal and state primary to June, and preregistration of 16- and 17-year-olds. They also passed measures to amend the state constitution to implement no-excuse absentee ballots and same-day voter registration -- amendments that will require passage by the next Legislature seated in 2021 and then approval by voters through a referendum.

Advocates say that early voting and same-day voter registration in particular would be far more efficient with electronic poll books.

“Implementing early voting in New York City without electronic poll books would be an administrative disaster,” said Rachel Bloom, director of public policy and programs at Citizens Union, a government reform group. “To have effective and organized early voting in New York, we need to allow for the use of electronic pollbooks.”

Other advocates aren’t as worried but agree that electronic poll books should be the next step for the Legislature. “You don’t need to have electronic poll books to do early voting but it would make it easier,” said Jennifer Wilson, director of program and policy for League of Women Voters of New York State. She noted, for instance, that Texas implemented early voting more than a decade ago but started using electronic poll books about five years ago. But for same-day registration, she said it would be “crucial.”

Jarret Berg, executive director of the New York Democratic Lawyers Council, concurred. “I don’t think it’s an indispensable component but it certainly makes a lot of sense and I don’t see how you could do [early voting] effectively without some kind of real-time reconciliation,” he said. “We need to move away from this really sloppy paper-based system.”

The advocates do acknowledge challenges and concerns about electronic poll books. Among them is the upfront cost that local counties may have to bear for purchasing equipment, like digital tablets, on which the poll books would be stored (localities may look to the state for help in paying for such equipment). Poll workers also tend to be older and could struggle with the technology. “There’s a digital divide,” Berg conceded. Training would be necessary regardless.

There are also concerns about the security of voter lists, made that much more severe after Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. Digital devices could be vulnerable to hacking, necessitating standalone devices that would not be connected to the internet and would have to be individually updated. This is similar to the electronic ballot scanners that are not internet-connected and therefore far less susceptible to hacking.

Myrie is aware of those concerns but, as the advocates also argue, says the benefits outweigh the costs. “This is really about making and administering elections much simpler,” he said. “It allows for cost savings. In the future we’re not gonna have to pay for storage of all these [paper] poll books. It is a much more efficient way to do things so that...some of the lines that we have become unfortunately very accustomed to when we go to vote are reduced by a significant measure if we make the process of checking a registration easier.”

Electronic poll books also have bipartisan support. Before Myrie took over the elections committee, Republican Senator Fred Akshar had sponsored a bill, with companion legislation put forward by Democratic Assemblymember Michael Cusick that was repeatedly passed by the Assembly. Governor Andrew Cuomo also backs the measure but some say his support would have to be backed up with funding to help counties transition to the new system, money he did not include in his executive budget proposal.

“Governor Cuomo proposed a comprehensive set of reforms in the Executive Budget to make voting easier, including authorizing electronic poll books,” Hazel Crampton-Hays, a spokesperson, said in a statement. “We will work with the legislature to identify additional resources to the extent necessary.”

Myrie is prepared to push for those resources; as some are already doing when it comes to funding early voting. It’s not clear what the initial and ongoing costs of the e-poll books may be. “Even if its a significant cost, I’ve been saying and will continue to say, to go from worst to first is gonna require some pain,” he said of New York’s voting laws.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - This article was updated after the Senate elections committee held a vote and passed the e-poll book bill.  

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Electronic Poll Books Next Step in New York Election Overhaul Sun, 03 Feb 2019 05:00:00 +0000