Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/1010 Wed, 13 Dec 2017 20:33:54 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Voting Reform Advocates Say Cuomo Can Do More Through Executive Order http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7089:voting-reform-advocates-say-cuomo-can-do-more-through-executive-order http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7089:voting-reform-advocates-say-cuomo-can-do-more-through-executive-order Cuomo podium

Gov. Cuomo (photo: The Governor's Office)


Governor Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order Monday expanding the list of New York State agencies required to provide voter registration assistance and creating a task force to oversee implementation of the program.

While current state and federal law requires the forms to be available at the Department of Motor Vehicles and certain social service agencies, Cuomo’s new order mandates that all agencies that interact with the public through professional licensing, recreational activities and other avenues carry the forms.

The State Agency Voter Registration Task Force -- comprised of Cuomo’s counsel Alphonso David, Jamie Rubin, his Director of State Operations, as well as a variety of agency commissioners -- will explore ways to implement the reforms laid out in the executive order. The task force will also study the use of electronic signatures and how to set up secure online voting registration systems -- similar to the one currently in place at the Department of Motor Vehicles -- through additional state agencies, according to the governor’s office.

Advocates of voting reform, who were disappointed by the lack of meaningful electoral reform during the 2017 legislative session, were buoyed by the news, praising it as an important first step, but they also noted that a lot more can be done to increase access to registration and voting.

“While we appreciate Governor Cuomo’s intentions, his proposed executive order will do little to address the issues New York State voters face on Election Day. Voter purges, strict registration and party change deadlines, and long lines at the polls cannot be fixed with enhanced voter registration,” said Jennifer Wilson of League of Women Voters in a statement.

In pointing out that voter registration is not the main barrier to voting in New York State, Wilson noted that in 2016 voter registration reached a record high, but many newly enrolled voters faced barriers to casting their ballots.

“While we agree that state agencies should take a more active role in voter registration, we would prefer to see an executive order that enacts early voting, alters registration deadlines, or allows for electronic poll books. The only way to truly empower voters and ensure ballot integrity is to make voting easier and more accessible,” said Wilson.

Reinvent Albany, a government reform group, issued a statement saying the organization is “most excited by the potential to use proven technology to implement fully online voter registration in New York State. State agencies, SUNY and CUNY and Boards of Election should make voting easier by maximizing the use of secure technology.”

“Governor Cuomo’s actions are a helpful step in what we hope is a wider push to update our archaic voting system,” said New York Civil Liberties Union head Donna Lieberman, noting the executive action’s timeliness in the wake of the Trump administration’s request for voter information through its newly created voter fraud commission, which critics say is paving the way to attempt voter suppression, and 44 states, including New York, have refused to comply with.

The voter registration expansion ordered by Cuomo could have a significant impact in places like New York City and Westchester where a considerable number of voters do not frequently interact with the DMV, because they are not car owners or are not licensed to drive.

A recent study by the New York Public Interest Group (NYPIRG), which has been pushing for all agencies to make voter registration forms available, found that fewer than 50 percent of people who are of voting age living in Brooklyn or the Bronx possessed driver’s licenses, while in Queens, 64 percent of those residents were licensed, and in Manhattan, 54 percent of those residents were licensed. Eighty-three percent of voting age Staten Islanders were licensed, and in Westchester, 88 percent of those residents were registered with the DMV.

The analysis also found disparities between men and women who interacted with the DMV in New York State; there were 300,000 fewer female licensed drivers than male drivers, though there are 600,000 more women than men in the state. The NYPIRG estimates are based on 2010 U.S. Census data.

Cuomo has also ordered SUNY and CUNY to conduct a full investigation of their campus voter registration practices in order to ensure that required steps are being taken to increase voter registration rates among young voters on the state's public college campuses. State law requires SUNY and CUNY campuses to provide all students with voter registration forms at the beginning of each school year, as well as in January of each presidential election year.

Finally, Cuomo directed the DMV to send information referencing its online voter registration application in all emails reminding New Yorkers to renew their licenses, identification cards, and vehicle registrations, in order to maximize New Yorkers' awareness of the electronic voter registration application.

Since the launch of online voter registration in 2012, there have been over 921,922 online voter registration applications, including 430,886 who identified themselves as first-time voters, according to Cuomo’s office.

Reinvent Albany called on the new Cuomo task force, CUNY and SUNY to hold public hearings around improving voter registration.

Earlier this year, as part of his State of the State and 2017 policy book, the governor proposed "The Democracy Project," a legislative package to further modernize and reform New York's voting system. The bills were comprehensive, including early voting, same-day voter registration, and automatic voter registration, but the governor was criticized for failing to see any of those measures passed during the budget or subsequent legislative session, which ended in late June.

When asked about the failure to pass these reforms, Cuomo said there was “no appetite” in the Legislature.

"There is more to do; there is no political will to do it. Otherwise we would have done it in the budget," Cuomo said of the reforms when talking with reporters at an annual Easter open house.

Chisun Lee, senior counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, noted that while an executive order has its limitations, the governor could direct his task force to “study the benefits of and best practices for implementing opt-out automatic registration — a reform that would move New York from the back of the pack to the vanguard of pro-voter states.” Under this program, all eligible voters would automatically be registered unless they proactively declined.

“Today’s order is a good step forward, though more can and should be done to replace New York’s archaic, paper-based registration system with a modern, electronic one that increases efficiency and improves accuracy of our registration rolls,” Lee said in a statement.

A spokesperson for Cuomo’s office said the governor will continue to push for the reforms introduced in his 2017 agenda, but did not elaborate about how.

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Voting Reform Advocates Say Cuomo Can Do More Through Executive Order Wed, 26 Jul 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Cuomo Embraces Voting Reform Agenda, But Implementation Poses Challenges http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6724:cuomo-embraces-voting-reform-agenda-but-implementation-poses-challenges http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6724:cuomo-embraces-voting-reform-agenda-but-implementation-poses-challenges Cuomo voting 2015

Gov. Cuomo voting (photo: The Governor's Office on flickr)


During his State of the State tour early this month, Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed a trio of major reforms hailed as important steps toward modernizing New York’s antiquated electoral system and increasing the state’s paltry voter turnout. While they are long-called for proposals that many are pleased to see Cuomo promote, implementing these goals could be more complicated than it may seem.

Two of the three reforms, early voting and automatic voter registration, were outlined in Cuomo’s 2016 agenda, but the initiatives failed to move through the Legislature last year due to opposition from Senate Republicans, who control that chamber. It is a power structure that continues into the 2017 session, meaning the road to passage is uphill, and steeply so.

New York is one of only about a dozen states without some semblance of early voting. While the state already has a form of automatic voter registration through the Department of Motor Vehicles, Cuomo’s proposal is to streamline and expand the practice. If passed, it would amount to more widespread automatic registration, but not universal.

The third electoral proposal from Cuomo, same-day registration, will likely require a constitutional amendment -- meaning approval from two consecutive classes of the state Legislature, then voters via ballot referendum -- a process that would take at least three years. There is some debate among constitutional law experts over whether such an amendment is required for any form of same-day registration, which would allow voters to show up at the polls to both register and vote on the same day.

The three reforms are almost universally seen as long overdue in New York. Voter turnout in New York is especially poor: in 2014, the state ranked 49th of the country’s 50 states. While New York has watched many other states change voting laws to increase access to the ballot, the voter turnout deficit here is growing progressively worse, with just 19.7 percent of eligible voters casting their ballots in the 2016 presidential primaries. Turnout numbers have also consistently declined during gubernatorial elections and, in New York City, during mayoral election years.

“New York is so far behind the curve on election administration that almost anything is an improvement,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of government reform group Common Cause New York. “I think the governor has picked issues that are very good places to start.”

Those with high praise for Cuomo’s 2017 electoral agenda include Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who, after monitoring the state’s four election days of 2016, issued an exhaustive report with areas for reform at the end of the year.

"I commend Governor Cuomo for proposing common sense reforms to our voting system. I look forward to working with Governor Cuomo, the legislature, and everyday New Yorkers across our state to address the systemic problems in New York's voting laws,” Schneiderman said in a statement. “New York must become a national leader in voting rights by expanding and protecting the rights of all New Yorkers to cast their vote.”

In the statement, Schneiderman also recommended consolidating New York's exhausting voting schedule into a single primary. In 2016, there were three: in April for the presidential race; in June for congressional races; and in September for state legislative races.

While it is still early to speculate exactly how the Legislature will respond to Cuomo’s electoral reform agenda, there are key early markers, process details, and implementation questions ahead of whatever policy debate may occur.

One thing is certain: Democrats in the Assembly, where they have the majority, and in the Senate, where they do not, will be behind the election and voting modernization efforts -- including and beyond Cuomo’s three main proposals. What is less clear is whether the governor will fully push for early voting, automatic voter registration, and same-day registration in budget negotiations, which are just beginning; and whether there is any room for passage in the Republican-controlled Senate, perhaps with the help of the Independent Democratic Conference -- the seven-member body that has formed a ruling coalition with the Senate GOP.

Early Voting
When it comes to early voting, New York is one of just 13 states without some window wherein voters can cast ballots before Election Day.

For several years running, an early voting bill has passed the Assembly, only to be blocked in the Senate.

According to Gov. Cuomo’s 2017 proposal, every county would offer residents access to at least one early voting poll site for every 50,000 residents during the 12 days leading up to Election Day. Voters would be guaranteed eight hours on weekdays and five hours on weekends to cast early ballots, and bipartisan county boards of elections would determine locations of the early poll sites.

While high voter participation would ideally be a bipartisan issue, New York Republicans -- who cling to control of the state Senate by a tiny margin -- have calculated that better ballot access and more participation is likely to turn out Democratic voters, according Senator Michael Gianaris, a Democrat from Queens and outspoken proponent of voting reform.

“These reforms are more necessary than ever and I’m glad they were included in the governor’s presentation, but the problem is Senate Republicans seem to have a personal interest in keeping people from voting,” said Gianaris, a co-sponsor of several packages of electoral legislation. “That's been the biggest hurdle to overcome, because voter restrictions tend to benefit them.”

A spokesperson for Senate Republicans did not return multiple requests for comment.

A natural partner of early voting is absentee voting. In his State of the State policy book, Gov. Cuomo, a second term Democrat, also cited the requirement for absentee ballot voters to provide an excuse, which is written into the state constitution and its removal would require a constitutional amendment.

A bill to remove this requirement from the constitution has passed the Assembly and is, like other voting reforms, awaiting Senate approval.

Senator Joseph Addabbo, who co-sponsored the bill and served as chair of the Senate Election Committee in 2009, said his staff has not looked closely at the governor’s plan yet but expressed hopeful optimism about the governor’s electoral reform agenda.

“I’ll say I can embrace a lot of what he’s proposing and now our legal counsel might look at whether and how it can be implemented,” said Addabbo, a Democrat from Queens. “This is a lot of what we’ve worked on and proposed in 2009. We really go through painstaking measures to determine what is going to get voters to vote.”

In addition to persuading the Senate majority, Cuomo and Assembly Democrats will have to hash out the details with counties, which, while supportive of early voting, want the governor to include a provision for who would foot the bill -- approximately $3 million per year, according to one estimate -- for the additional polling options.

"Despite principled visions on the issue, on the fiscal nature of the cost shift it's unconscionable for the state to be shifting and enacting policies these days in the property-tax-cap era. It should be dead on arrival." Stephen Acquario, executive director of the state Association of Counties, told the USA Today Network.

Automatic Voter Registration
Automatically registering voters when they become eligible or when they come into contact with government agencies is a fairly new concept. Since 2015, automatic voter registration -- which can have different forms and meanings short of universal automatic registration of voters once they become eligible -- has been approved in six states with strong bipartisan support and is taking off across the country, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

The idea is to shift the onus of registering from the individual to the government. In addition to increasing voter registration in other states, automatic voter registration has been shown to have significant benefits for administrators, reduce costs, and improve the accuracy of electronic poll books.

Cuomo’s proposal, recycled from last year, would automatically register anyone who comes into contact with a state Department of Motor Vehicles, unless the person chooses to opt out. Currently, eligible voters can register through the DMV, but they must provide additional voting information as they apply for DMV services.

Cuomo’s proposed version of automatic registration is preferable to similar bills passed in Oregon and California, which only registers eligible citizens who apply for or renew a driver’s license. However, Cuomo’s plan is not as inclusive as say, that which is outlined in New York’s Voter Empowerment Act, sponsored by Senator Gianaris and Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh, which would enable a variety government agencies to automatically register voters.

The Brennan Center outlines four ways that states can modernize their electoral systems with automatic registration. The first, of course, is by automatically registering anyone who interacts with government offices, unless the person declines registration. The second is portability, which ensures that registered voters remain on the voter rolls even after they move within the state. The third, online access, allows voters to register, check, and update their registration records through a web portal. And fourth, the state should provide a “safety net,” that allows citizens to correct errors on the voter rolls or register before and on Election Day.

Ideally, automatic registration would occur through many different state-run agencies, reaching well beyond the DMV to the the widest possible segment of eligible voters. There is a sizeable population, especially in urban centers like New York City, that does not drive or interact with the DMV. Broader automatic registration would include:

DMVs; Medicaid and public assistance offices; colleges and high schools; military recruiters and other military offices; unemployment and other public benefit offices; firearm licensing agencies; immigration offices; government-funded job-training centers; law enforcement and corrections agencies that interact with people who regain their voting rights after a criminal conviction.

Some community groups have raised concerns that tying automatic voter registration to the DMV alone may skew registration number in favor of areas with high rates of car ownership, disproportionality impacting upstate voters over New York City, for example.

Researchers at the Brennan Center are exploring whether data can shed light on the concern that automatic registration through the DMV advantages some groups over others.

“We recognize that this is a serious concern for some important groups and we want to take a close look at this question,” said Chisun Lee, senior counsel at the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. “We are hopeful that the net benefits for increasing the franchise, and reaching voters who otherwise wouldn't be enrolled, will be positive for all.”

Same-Day Voter Registration
Same-day voter registration, perhaps the boldest of Cuomo’s proposals, would allow New Yorkers to register and vote on the same day.

Currently, New Yorkers must register to vote 25 days prior to an election, though the state constitution's requirement is only ten days. Depending on how it would be implemented, same-day registration may require a constitutional amendment. However, if early voting is passed, there are legal experts who argue that the constitution would allow same-day registration for those who vote prior to ten days before Election Day.

Again, a constitutional amendment is typically at minimum a three-year process which would require two “yes” votes from consecutive Legislatures and the passage of referendum on the following year’s general election ballot.

Alternately, a “yes” vote on the constitutional convention referendum, which will be on the ballot this November, could provide another avenue to remove restrictions and institute reforms like same-day registration.

At this point, 13 states and the District of Columbia have same-day voter registration, and California, Vermont, and Hawaii have approved the provision, though it has not yet been implemented, according to Cuomo’s office.

The upcoming opportunity to amend the state constitution via constitutional convention, which, for New Yorkers, appears as a ballot referendum every 20 years will be November 7, 2017. A constitutional convention is a four-year public process that could result significant changes to the entire document and laws of the state. If New Yorkers say “yes” to a convention on this year’s ballot, a year later, voters will select delegates to participate in the convention; the following year, in 2019, the convention will convene; and voters will be able to vote on any proposed changes the following Election Day.

Like with the electoral and voting reforms Gov. Cuomo has proposed, he has expressed varying degrees of support for a "yes" vote on a constitutional convention, but whether the governor takes significant action will go a long way toward determining the outcome.

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Cuomo Embraces Voting Reform Agenda, But Implementation Poses Challenges Sun, 22 Jan 2017 05:00:00 +0000
Assembly Reform Group Nears Release of 49-Recommendation Report http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6166:assembly-reform-group-nears-release-of-49-recommendation-report http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6166:assembly-reform-group-nears-release-of-49-recommendation-report Heastie laughing

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


The long wait for recommendations from a group of Democrats charged with finding ways to improve the transparency and democratization of the state Assembly may soon be over. According to Assembly Member Gary Pretlow, co-chair of The Assembly Working Group on Operations, Participation and Transparency, the release of a 49-point report is imminent.

Pretlow told Gotham Gazette that the the committee's report will be made available after a press release is written and legislators return from their week-long mid-February break. According to Pretlow and several other sources, the rest of the majority conference was briefed on the dozens of recommendations contained in the report, some of which wouldn't be acted on until the start of next session, in 2017. Others that could be implemented as "tweaks" to operating procedure or legislation could be voted on this session, they say, while some would have to be agreed to by both the Senate and Assembly.

"We're just waiting for the press release to be done," Pretlow told Gotham Gazette. "We did a presentation of all 49 recommendations to the speaker [Carl Heastie] and all the members but we didn't give them copies because you'd already know what was in it if we did that. So, hopefully the report will be out after the break."

Both houses of the Legislature are due back in session on Feb. 24.

Assembly Member Brian Kavanagh, the group's other co-chair, said that the committee was "reaching a consensus" but refused to give a timeframe for the report's release, saying that Gotham Gazette's previous report that the group had missed its own deadline was unfair. Since January, Kavanagh has told other outlets that the timeline for the report's release was "soon," but with "no timeframe."

Neither Kavanagh or Pretlow would divulge any of the 49 proposals.

A number of legislators briefed characterized many of the changes as "common sense" and "overdue" with fewer "large," "big deal" changes. A few members indicated that they believed some larger issues have yet to be resolved. A number of members said they expect a public review process.

The group has been presented with a wide array of proposals from legislators and good government groups--things as simple as creating electronic alerts to notify legislators of committee hearing times and locations, using the internet to enhance public comment and participation, and revamping the Assembly's legislative search tool. More complex and politically difficult issues include creating a way for bills with wide support to be considered in committee and advanced to the floor for a vote.

Assembly Republicans and reform groups have derided the Assembly panel's deliberations for a lack of public hearings and for excluding legislators from the Republican minority. Kavanagh and Pretlow polled Democratic members and held meetings with good government groups for input on what changes might lead to more open debate, allow rank-and-file members to advance legislation, and perhaps even provide members from both parties with equal resources for staffing and offices.

Heastie announced the appointment of the working group on April 16 of last year after he won a leadership battle sparked by the indictment of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. At the time, Kavanagh was a member of an upstart reform caucus that asked candidates for Silver's position to consider whether changes should be made to increase transparency and make it easier for bills to make it to the floor for debate without the speaker's direct blessing. The group has been largely inconspicuous since Heastie announced it.

Earlier this year Assembly Republicans proposed a number of rules changes of their own that Democrats quickly rejected. Republican Assembly Member Jim Tedisco, who is backing a bill that would allow members to bring a bill to the floor for a vote if they have the support of 76 members (a majority in the 150-seat chamber), has pressured the group to release its recommendations. "They said they needed ways to make the Assembly more transparent, well we gave it to them and they rejected it," Tedisco told Gotham Gazette of the Republicans' attempt at rules reform, which included term limits for leadership positions.

Tedisco announced earlier this week that he was writing Kavanagh a letter asking for the transparency group's report. "These guys are just playing stall ball," said Tedisco. "It's nearly been over a year and now they aren't going to release it over vacation. It's the longest lived and least productive working group I've seen in my life."

Tedisco said Kavanagh arrived at his desk shortly after he announced he was writing him, looking to collect the letter. "So I handed it to him, with the signatures of 25 other guys who signed the letter." He added that he didn't admire Kavanagh's position. "I've never seen Superman and Clark Kent in the same room and I've never seen a powerful leader voluntarily give up power," said Tedisco, referring to the hold of the speaker and majority on the Assembly. There are many questions about how much reform Heastie is willing to support.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara - who took down Silver and his Senate counterpart, former Republican Senate President Dean Skelos - has focused on what he said was the corrupting nature of the "three men in a room" structure that concentrates power in legislative leaders and the governor. He called on rank-and-file members to stand up and challenge leaders when they use their power to block votes or interfere in committees.

"You have to make sure everyone in the institution has an independent operating mind and brain and gut," Bharara told interviewer Alan Chartock of WAMC radio during his visit to Albany on Monday. "So at least somebody in the face of overreaching, or face of despotism, or face of corruption, will rally people to go to the other side and say 'This is enough, we can't go along with this.'"

Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, said Bharara's comments spotlighted the need for more for rules reform and increased transparency. "I think the U.S. Attorney's remarks were on target. They showed the necessity of the working group and the need for it to get its job done," said Dadey.

Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb said that Assembly Democrats should defy their leadership and issue a set of recommendations that takes some of the power back from the speaker--especially given how Silver was removed from office.

"The U.S. Attorney is dead right in asking, 'since when has it become acceptable for three men to decide everything,'" said Kolb, who lamented the rejection of his caucus' proposed rules changes. "These were good ideas, but from the minority point of view it was arrogance - they said, 'We're in charge and you're not.' The Kavanagh group did a lot of hooting and hollering for almost a year. It is nonsensical to continue to stall."

Democratic members point out that getting over 100 politicians, many of whom have long enjoyed the perks of being in the majority, all on the same page about revamping the rules of the chamber isn't exactly an easy task. While good government groups have been critical of the time it's taken many of them indicate they are withholding judgement until they see the final product.

DeNora Getachew, campaign manager and legislative counsel for the Brennan Center, said that she has had no indication of what the working group has focused on or that they've considered the Brennan Center's many reports on legislative rules that focus on empowering members to bring bills to the floor without the speaker's blessing. "That's the heart of how to empower and operate a more democratic process," said Getachew.

"The report should have been out before the start of 2016 so the rules could have been enacted this year," said Dadey of Citizens Union. "I would have prefered the group acted quickly and had an open public discussion but I am hopeful that the report is one that we can embrace."

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

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Note: Gotham Gazette is published by Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union.

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Assembly Reform Group Nears Release of 49-Recommendation Report Fri, 12 Feb 2016 04:27:47 +0000
Commission Considers Raises, Reforms for Elected Compensation http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6009:commission-considers-raises-reforms-for-elected-compensation http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6009:commission-considers-raises-reforms-for-elected-compensation de blasio mark-viverito council members

The Mayor, Speaker, & Council members (Demetrius Freeman/Mayor's Office)


Attendance was notably sparse at the first public hearing of the commission charged with making recommendations around compensation for city elected officials.

Fewer than fifteen people, about half of whom were journalists, went to Brooklyn Law School on November 23 for the Quadrennial Advisory Commission hearing to collect input from the public. Four people testified to urge the commission to make compensation-related reforms in their recommendations: two leaders from good government groups and two other concerned citizens. No elected officials were present, though Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer testified at the second public hearing held at CUNY Law School in Queens the next night. City district attorneys had previously sent a letter to the commission arguing for an increase in pay.

None of the three citywide elected officials, other four borough presidents, or 51 City Council members have publicly expressed an opinion about compensation levels.

In September, in a move required by law, Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed a three-person commission to review the compensation levels of elected officials. Those salaries are supposed to be reviewed by a commission comprised of private citizens generally recognized for their knowledge of management and compensation every four years, but out of reluctance by mayors to make a move that is generally perceived by the public as an attempt to give themselves and their colleagues a raise, the salaries of New York City’s elected officials have gone unchanged since 2006.

At the hearing, Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, reiterated the good government group’s support for salary increases for the city’s elected officials provided that they are accompanied by other reforms. Dadey’s testimony was well-received by the commission and its chair, Fritz Schwarz, Jr., who asked Dadey several questions. Citizens Union argues that salary increases should be prospective, only taking hold in 2018 - after the next city elections; come with elimination of “lulus” (stipends) for chairing City Council committees; and with a cap on outside income to no more than 25 percent of one’s city salary, with full disclosure.

Gene Russianoff, senior attorney at the New York Public Interest Research Group, echoed Dadey’s calls for reforms, saying that any compensation increase must also be tied to meaningful restrictions on outside income, ending the practice of awarding lulus to Council committee chairs, and prohibiting retrospective salary increases.

The commission includes Schwarz, Jr., the Chief Counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice; Jill Bright, Chief Administrative Officer at Condé Nast; and Paul Quintero, Chief Executive Office at ACCION EAST, Inc. It will likely release its recommendations around compensation levels for the mayor, public advocate, comptroller, borough presidents, City Council members, and district attorneys by the end of the year, though the commission is already passing the initial timeline set in the mayor’s announcement. Public comment is open until December 3.

The mayor may accept, reject, or amend the findings of the commission, sending recommendations to the City Council for a vote on any new salaries before they head back to the mayor for approval into law.

At the hearing, Dadey pointed out that a large majority of Council members said that they think the raises should be prospective in their earlier responses to a Citizens Union questionnaire - a change which Mayor de Blasio also supports.

“37 out of 51 Council members said they support our proposal that any future increase in Council Member salary should only apply prospectively to the next elected class,” Dadey said (there has been some fluctuation in Council membership, but the numbers largely apply to the current Council).

Also noting that no Council members were there to testify and none have publicly voiced an opinion about raiss, Dadey said, “So why give them something that they haven’t asked for, and why give them something that they oppose?”

Schwarz confirmed that no Council member testimony had been received by the commission.

“You have this opportunity to actually come out with your recommendations and change a process that has been flawed for 28 years,” Dadey told the commission regarding the notion that raises should only be for the next class of elected officials. Many current officials will be heavily-favored incumbents running for re-election in 2017, but the point is one of principle and appeared to resonate with the commission.

Though some have said that issues with Council members and the mayor voting on their own salary increases could be avoided by simply pegging salary adjustments to one of a couple of economic measures, like the cost of living, Schwarz expressed dismay with the idea of proposing automatic COLA increases.

“What worries me about that concept are two things: one, ordinary citizens are not guaranteed COLA increase; and two, if a government official’s future raises are automatic, it removes any democratic accountability - so they get their extra pay but they don’t have to go through the rigor and sometimes hard public position of saying there should be more pay for my office,” Schwarz said. (COLA increases were not recommended by Citizens Union or NYPIRG.)

At the second hearing, Borough President Brewer also supported making any salary increase prospective. In the testimony she submitted to the commission, Brewer said, “I believe this commission should strongly urge the Mayor to do two things: First, commit now to empanel another pay raise commission in 2019; and second, to introduce legislation that contains an effective date of January 1, 2018 -- the first day of the next term of office for all New York City elected offices.”

In his testimony, Dadey pointed out that eliminating stipends for Council committee chairs is supported by 31 members of the Council. These stipends, known as lulus, currently range from $5,000 to $25,000 and, Dadey says, have contributed to the creation of unnecessary committees. With 38 committees, six subcommittees, and two task forces, nearly every Council member receives a stipend in addition to their $112,500 salary.

The large number of committees, Dadey said, allows “the speaker to use the lulus as a way in which to extract loyalty on particular issues which they would not otherwise do.” Only truly senior leadership positions like the Speaker and Majority Leader should receive stipends, Dadey added.

“We have more committees in the City Council than in the House of Representatives in the US Congress,” Dadey said, adding that the number of committees Council members serve on restricts their ability to focus on certain issues. These points raised Schwarz’s eyebrows.

In her testimony, Brewer, who was a Council member before being elected borough president, also expressed support for eliminating stipends. “Lulus should be abolished,” she wrote. “I think lulus have become a way of giving all but the least favored Council Members added compensation.”

Schwarz agreed that the lulus “can completely mislead people.” Due to public pressure, eleven Council members have refused to accept lulus this year, according to the Daily News editorial board.

During her testimony, Bronx resident Roxane Delgado pointed out that “City Council members voted against an amendment eliminating lulus as recommended by the commission in 2006.”

Since being a member of the City Council is only considered a part-time job, Council members are permitted to earn outside income. Citizens Union recommends outside income should be capped to no more than 25 percent of the elected official’s salary, with full disclosure, since eliminating outside income altogether would detract from the goal of attracting candidates with varied private sector experience, the good government group says.

Currently, fewer City Council members earn income from an outside job than at any time before.

Russianoff also supported meaningful restrictions on outside income, testifying that NYPIRG “strongly favors a congressional model which allows members of the federal government to devote 15% of their time to outside activities.”

Brewer, however, suggested that the job of a City Council member should be considered a full-time job.

At the first commission hearing, Schwarz pointed out the merit in keeping the position part-time, saying “A lawyer who joins the government brings something valuable, as does a community organizer, as does a businessman or woman - it’s important to have people in the Council who have varied life experiences.”

During the hearing, Commissioners Schwarz and Bright gave some insight into their process.

“We’re looking at the benefits, pensions, and compensation relative to the citizens that elected officials represent,” Bright said. “We are looking at the cost of living as a factor, not only the consumer price index, but also how much it costs - rent, food, utilities - what it actually costs to live here for the average citizen.”

“We are considering median household income,” Schwarz said, but added, “I don’t think we are likely to look at the percentage increases for the city’s regular workers in collective bargaining as” a target, referring to new union contracts signed between the de Blasio administration and city workers.

“If we went beyond those for the elected officials, I think we would be in trouble. To me, what they’re relevant to, is to make sure that we’re not going beyond them,” Schwarz clarified of the union contract increases.

According to New York City code, in making its recommendations, the commission must consider the duties and responsibilities of each position, the current salary of the position and the length of time since the last change, and any change in the cost of living, as well as a number of other factors.

The salaries of New York’s 64 elected officials has gone unchanged since 2006, though only 27 have held office for more than one term, and 22 were first elected to their posts just two years ago.

The 2006 commission’s recommendations resulted in a 25 percent salary increase for Council members (up to the current $112,500 per year base)  and a 15.4 percent increase for the mayor, from $195,000 to $225,000.

This year, Brewer has called for a 15 percent increase for all offices. Dadey and Citizens Union also support salary increases, given the demanding responsibilities placed on New York City’s elected officials, and the fact that they have not received a salary increase since 2006.

“The offices of the city’s elected officials need to be well compensated in order to attract individuals to public life who are talented, committed, and well qualified to carry out their jobs as successfully as they can,” Dadey said in his written testimony.

Some elected officials, however, have been seeking raises much higher than what good government groups support. According to the Daily News, a handful of Council members have been discreetly supporting a 71 percent increase. It’s something Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito called “ridiculous” and that Dadey, among others, have also panned. Mark-Viverito has not expressed an opinion about raises and says she wants to see the results of the commission's work.

Earlier this November, the Daily News also reported the city’s five district attorneys - who currently make $190,000 annually - wrote a letter to the Quadrennial Advisory Commission requesting a 32 percent increase to their salaries, up to $250,000.

For his part, Mayor de Blasio has indicated through a spokesperson that he would “decline” accepting any pay hike “for the duration” of his current term.

Though the Council and the mayor have approved the commission’s recommended salary increases in the past, recommendations for reforms have gone unheeded.

In its report, the 2006 quadrennial advisory commission suggested “limiting the ability of government officials to raise their own salaries and receive them immediately would improve the integrity of the government and public confidence in it.”

The same commission also called lulus “ripe for reform,” and recommended that either a future Charter Revision Commission or the Council should consider reforming the practice of awarding extra stipends to Council members. 

Yet no changes have been made in nearly the decade since, and as a result, good government groups are demanding that any recommendations for salary increases this year hinge upon the Council’s agreement to enact relevant reforms.

As Russianoff of NYPIRG points out, “the Council has unfettered discretion to act. The Council’s unfettered power remains to pass local laws dictating compensation for City officials." 

***
by Meg O’Connor, Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette
@MegOConnor13

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union.

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Commission Considers Raises, Reforms for Elected Compensation Sat, 28 Nov 2015 19:35:57 +0000
Conference Keys to Restore Voter Confidence Start with Campaign Finance Reform http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5823:conference-keys-to-restore-voter-confidence-start-with-campaign-finance-reform http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5823:conference-keys-to-restore-voter-confidence-start-with-campaign-finance-reform CFB conf panelists

Ann Ravel, Jared DeMarinis & Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, from left (photo: @NYCCFB)


Ninety-six percent of Americans are concerned by the role of money in politics. Ninety-one percent think there's nothing they can do to change it.

Federal Election Commission Chair Ann Ravel presented these statistics during her keynote address at a conference - "American Elections at the Crossroads: How do we restore voters' faith in elections and get them back to the polls?" - focused on changing that cynical sentiment, held by the New York City Campaign Finance Board, the Brennan Center for Justice, and the Committee for Economic Development on Wednesday.

Ravel, joined by elected officials, campaign finance experts, and academics, considered the effects of money in politics - particularly the role public campaign finance programs can play in spurring voter participation and leveling the influence playing field.

In her remarks, Ravel warned that the influence of money in politics is causing people to disassociate with electoral and government processes. "The influence of money in politics is contributing to this low level of political trust," she said. But, she added that the problem is not the amount of money, "the issue is where the money comes from."

John Mollenkopf, a distinguished professor at the CUNY Graduate Center and the director of its Center for Urban Research began by noting the role of political contributions in spurring people to vote.

"The positive takeaway to begin with is people who contribute are more likely to vote. So clearly the act of contributing is an extension of political engagement, it's something people do on top of bothering to go to the polls and public match really incentivizes people to contribute," Mollenkopf said, referring to New York City's small donor matching program. The Campaign Finance Board matches contributions of up to $175 at a six-to-one ratio for candidates for mayor, comptroller, public advocate, borough president and City Council.

Former U.S. Congressmember Tom Petri of Wisconsin agreed, describing political contributions as a way for people to feel they have a stake in elections, compelling interest particularly in local elections.

"I think sometimes we get too focused on big money in the big elections which are very important, but we should also remember the political process is a huge broad diverse one," Petri said, indicating that their are many municipal level contests that people often forget when focusing on presidential and congressional races.

For New York City Public Advocate Letitia James, campaign contributions from voters are as symbolically important as they are practically.

"When ordinary New Yorkers put their hard earned money into a campaign, they are putting faith in candidates," James said. Citing her modest personal means, the public advocate often points to the necessity of the public matching system in allowing her to compete electorally.

To combat the problem of low voter turnout in municipal and state-wide elections, Mollenkopf emphasized the role of political parties as agents of voter mobilization and suggested a solution that may be unsavory to many in City Hall.

"As strange as it may seem for a person like me who is a long-time Democrat, I think we need a stronger Republican Party in New York City," Mollenkopf said. "We need a party that will go out and contest these elections with candidates who will give the Democrat incumbents who often have no challenge, give them a run for their money, get everybody really involved."

City Council Member Eric Ulrich, a Republican from Queens, agreed with the importance of a two-party system, but "as much as I'd love to see a stronger Republican party, I'm not going to hold my breath anytime soon," he joked.

Ulrich attributed low voter turnout to a cumbersome voting and voter registration process.

"A lot of people don't vote because they're not registered and they're not registered because we don't make it easy for people to vote," Ulrich said, adding he hopes to see an app developed that could register voters. "Imagine how many 18-year-olds we could register in the classroom in seconds; teachers could encourage students to whip out their smartphones and register."

Additionally, voters should be able to vote at any poll site in New York— not just their district's designating polling site— and should be able to vote early, Ulrich argued.

"One of the reasons voting turnout is so low is that we tell people you can only vote from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. on a Tuesday," Ulrich said. "And if you can't make it, you can't be a part of the process."

Panelists also discussed localities which have successfully implemented public financing laws, as well as efforts across the country to pass laws encouraging small donations to candidates. In New York, proponents of the New York City system often call for a similar state program whereby campaign donations are more tightly limited and public matching dollars are available for small contributions.

"Money will always be in politics," acknowledged Jared DeMarinis, director of Maryland's State Board of Elections. In Maryland, Montgomery County's campaign finance program, the first in the country passed after Citizens United v. FEC - the Supreme Court decision that lifted restrictions on political spending by corporations - was designed keeping in mind the altered political environment. "Let's not have the hard caps on expenditures," they decided. "Let's just cap how much public monies we'll give to candidates but allow them to keep raising beyond that but just restrict on how the money is raised." Montgomery's program was "basically modelled after the New York City idea," said DeMarinis.

Other parts of the country may be passing campaign finance laws, but not all have been as successful as New York City, according to Michael Malbin of the Campaign Finance Institute. He compared the small donor public matching programs in New York City and Los Angeles and found that "not all matching funds have the same effect." A study he conducted with Michael Parrott found the New York program to be significantly more effective than the one in Los Angeles due to differences in how they are structured, including around what percentage matching funds account for spending limits. "You need a program that will actually work, that will do its job well," he said.

One area in which he found success in both cities was that supporting small donations encouraged political participation among less wealthy and non-white racial and ethnic groups. "In both cities, small donors come from much more diverse neighborhoods than large donors," he said. His study found that New York City Council candidates raised campaign contributions from 90 percent of the city's census block groups. In Los Angeles, the percentage was lower, but still significant at 68 percent.

Currently, efforts are underway to create or strengthen campaign finance laws in several cities and states across the country, including Chicago, Santa Fe, Seattle and Maine, panelists said.

"We have seen an enormous interest in cities and states across the country. And in many places over the next two or three years, we are going to see dozens of jurisdictions looking to move small donor public financing," said Karen Hobert Flynn, senior vice president for strategy and programs at Common Cause. "It's about people wanting to reclaim their government."

"Our hope is that Chicago will mimic what's happening in New York, in Los Angeles, and other places," said Mike Petro, vice president of Committee for Economic Development. "Those are the victories that we need across the country."

***
by Catie Edmondson and Zehra Rehman, Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette

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Conference Keys to Restore Voter Confidence Start with Campaign Finance Reform Thu, 23 Jul 2015 20:33:02 +0000
In End of Session 'Scorecard,' Plenty for Next Year's Albany Agenda http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5791:in-end-of-session-scorecard-plenty-for-next-years-albany-agenda http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5791:in-end-of-session-scorecard-plenty-for-next-years-albany-agenda Cuomo Heastie Flanagan

Heastie, Cuomo, Flanagan (L-R) (photo: Governor's Office via flickr)


In the Democrat-controlled Assembly, it was 122-13; in the Republican-controlled Senate, 47-12. With those votes and a Governor Andrew Cuomo signature, a final policy package brought an underwhelming end to a tumultuous 2015 legislative session in New York's capital. 

Look at the bill, which combines laws on a variety of disparate issues, and see it's headlined "relates to rent-control provisions," referencing what was to many the most important aspect of the deal reached by Governor Cuomo, Republican Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, and Democratic Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie. This year's 'three men in a room' took a little extra time to get to "yes," with the 2015 'big ugly' passed through the Legislature a little over a week after the originally scheduled end of session.

You can forgive Albany lawmakers for being a little tardy, though - as Governor Cuomo has said, it was no ordinary year in Albany. "This was a very difficult year," Cuomo said last Tuesday when announcing the framework of a deal. "There were extraordinary developments...It was almost unimaginable to have this kind of change in this period of time. You wound up with two new leaders." He was, of course, alluding to the fact that both Flanagan's and Heastie's predeccesors were arrested on corruption charges earlier this year.

Along with an extension of rent regulations that mostly concern New York City tenants and their allies, the deal includes action briefly extending mayoral control of city schools and the 421-a real estate tax abatement program; providing property tax rebates; setting aside funding for nonpublic schools; and altering the cap on charter schools so more can open in New York City. Cuomo and the Legislature also struck deals on campus sexual conduct and nail salon regulation.

While extensions were passed on major sunsetting items, the 2015 deal may be more notable for how much it did not include than for what it did.

Cases in point: noting the absence of items he had promised action on, Cuomo announced two executive orders he would be issuing on criminal justice issues. Facing an uncooperative Senate, the governor had also already set things in motion to up the minimum wage on his own, with his Department of Labor convening a fast food worker wage board set to deliver recommendations soon.

But on those issues some action is being taken - there is also a wide variety of policy seeing no movement through the end of session deal or Cuomo on his own, angering advocates behind pushes to enact paid family leave, the Gender Non-Discrimination Act, the DREAM Act, government ethics and campaign finance reform, and mixed martial arts (MMA), to name a few of the most-sought. New York will continue to be the only state that does not sanction MMA and one of only two that continues to try 16- and 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system.

Yet according to Cuomo, the end-of-session deal is a robust package, plenty good for New Yorkers, and further evidence that New York government is functional. Speaking at a press conference announcing a final agreement, Cuomo said, "I am personally very happy and very proud of this legislative package. I think that it is responsive to the problems that are pressing the state right now. I think that it is actually a very robust and extensive legislative package of reforms that goes a long way towards making this state a better state."

The governor also praised Flanagan and Heastie. "These gentlemen were in a very difficult situation to step in as a new leader," Cuomo said, adding that it was "extraordinary" that the two could step into the legislative process in the middle of negotiations and ensure government keeps working.

Flanagan seemed mostly pleased with the session's policy outcomes. Heastie less so. But, Heastie and many of his supporters have been quick to note that the deal appears to be the best the new speaker could do. He was fighting an uphill battle, many Democrats argue, against an obstinate Senate Republican conference and, in some cases, an unsympathetic Democratic governor. New York City Democrats - elected and otherwise - were largely disappointed, and many point a finger at Cuomo, who they say did not fight hard enough on key issues or for tenants.

State Senator Adriano Espaillat, a Manhattan Democrat who voted against the end-of-session deal, said, "We are far from where we need to be to protect tenants...we need strong rent laws, not a slight improvement."

City Comptroller Scott Stringer said similarly, "When it came to protecting tenants, Albany failed miserably," Stringer said Sunday on John Catsimatidis' radio show, according to the Daily News. "We have an affordable housing crisis," Stringer added, "But the rent stabilization deal didn't address those issues."

The rent laws took center stage as Albany lawmakers let them briefly expire and the session puttered into overtime. But, the regulations were among many issues at play, some of which saw action. In looking at the outcomes of the 2015 legislative session - which some have called anemic or "the absolutely bare minimum" - we see the initial framework for next year's policy agenda.

WHAT WAS DONE
Rent Regulations: extended for four years, and strengthened slightly with an increase and indexing of the threshold by which units can be removed from the regulated rolls; an increase in civil harassment penalties where owners harass a tenant to obtain a vacancy; and an adjustment to the limits landlords can charge tenants to receive reimbursement for building improvements. Senate Republicans attempted to insert income verification measures, but they did not make the final deal.

Of Assembly Speaker Heastie's push on rent regulations, Governor Cuomo said, "I believe the rent package that he has obtained is a major step forward. You have certain voices that would say rent regulations should just go away - I understand that, but that's not going to happen any time soon. But he has done an extraordinary job in crafting a program that addresses the entire spectrum of the problem."

Reaction: the extension came as a relief to tenants and their allies, but is seen as largely inadequate, as the comments from Espaillat and Stringer indicate. City Council Member Jumaane Williams has said that "Governor Cuomo completely and thoroughly let New York City tenants down."

A spokesperson for a coalition of pro-tenant groups, Real Affordability for All, said "This deal is very bad for tenants, good for corruption and a step further to eliminating the largest source of affordable housing in the state. The changes included to the laws are as insignificant as the reforms made in 2011, which led to the displacement of thousands of working class New Yorkers and to the high record number of families who ended up in city shelters. It completely ignores the affordable housing crisis." Activists say thousands of rent regulated apartments will be lost each year and they plan to continue to protest the deal.

Taxes: the state property tax cap, limiting growth at two percent per year, is extended for an additional four years, and a new property tax credit, "$3.1 billion over four years in direct relief to struggling New York taxpayers," is included. In a statement, Senate Majority Leader Flanagan said, "We are taking action on long-held Republican priorities that reduce the property tax burden here in New York so that we can create jobs, grow businesses, and help taxpayers keep more of their hard-earned money."

Reaction: the governor is largely praised for fiscal discipline when it comes to property tax increases, while the property tax cap and the new tax credit are seen as wins for middle class and wealthy homeowners. The Citizens Budget Commission, however, expresses concern about the tax credit, writing, "The legislative package passed in Albany last week rejected some misguided and expensive proposals, including a tax credit for benefactors of private schools. Unfortunately, other expensive proposals were included, adding to current and future state expenses without providing offsetting savings or revenues...By far the largest part is a new property tax relief rebate program, which will cost $1.3 billion annually when fully implemented."

421-a: "The legislation extends the 421-a program for six months, with a provision that allows representatives of labor and industry groups to reach a memorandum of understanding regarding wage protections for construction workers. If such an agreement is reached, the program will automatically be extended for four years," according to a release from the governor's office. A key piece of the deal is that affordable housing will be mandated as part of any development approved to receive the tax break, a significant change from the previous version, which included major exceptions. The deal also bans the so-called "poor door" setup that some developers enacted with separate entrances for market-rate tenants and affordable unit tenants.

Reaction: 421-a was a source of conflict between Governor Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio. The final plan - assuming that the two sides can come to a wage agreement - is very close to what de Blasio proposed, which he and his aides have pointed out, including through a convincing infographic.

"Some real progress was made on 421-a. We were very proud of that fact," de Blasio said on Monday, according to The Observer. "We're going to have a lot more affordable housing than we would have otherwise, and taxpayers are going to get a much better deal, because any time we subsidize a building, there will be affordable housing as part of that." The deal does not include the so-called "mansion tax" de Blasio called for on sales of apartments over $1.75 million and used to fund affordable housing, which the mayor called "a mistake" and a "lost opportunity."

The deal appears to work for just about all the key stakeholders, though the labor agreement that must be reached could halt the celebration, and even if it is worked out by the parties, the proof of this deal's success will be in the pudding that is real estate development and accompanying affordable housing built over the coming years.

Education: there is $250 million to private schools "for the costs of performing State-mandated services," money which many say the schools are already owed; requirements for the "disclosure of state exam questions and answers" and other measures to improve standardized testing; a "one-year extension of mayoral control of the New York City school system"; and an "increase in the number of charter schools available to be issued in New York City to 50 and enhanced flexibility in teacher certification rules" for charter schools.

Reaction: de Blasio and his allies had sought at least three years extension of mayoral control (de Blasio had originally pushed for it to be made permanent and the Assmebly had passed a seven-year extension); the one-year deal is seen as an insult to the mayor and, to some, revenge by Senate Republicans for de Blasio's 2014 efforts to swing the Senate to Democrats. It is unclear how much Governor Cuomo fought for a longer extension, though he had himself originally proposed three years early in 2015. "The outcome of the negotiations was the best that we could do," Cuomo said. Mayoral control will now be a focal point again in 2016 as de Blasio seeks another extension.

Meanwhile, much of the rest of the deal appears to extend the governor's education reform agenda. Cuomo allies in the charter school sector praised the deal. "Today Albany leaders stepped up and delivered for parents and students who demanded more choice," said StudentsFirstNY Executive Director Jenny Sedlis. "Too many children are stuck in failing schools without options...Thankfully, Albany leaders understand that charter schools play a critical role in the delivery of free, public education in New York."

Albany lawmakers also announced a deal enacting Cuomo's "Enough is Enough" campus sexual assault conduct policy across the state. "We have a bill on sexual assault on campuses that is the smartest and toughest bill in the United States," Cuomo said announcing the deal. "I think it's going to set a new national model for other states to follow."

EXECUTIVE ACTION:
The governor is taking executive action on three issues, each of which will still be revisited in terms of legislation, likely in 2016.

Governor Cuomo wanted legislation passed to raise the age of criminal responsibility, but Senate Republicans balked. "To me the single most important piece of 'raise the age' is getting the 16- and 17-year-olds out of state prisons and that's what I can do by executive order," Cuomo said last week. "We'll be creating facilities designed for those 16- and 17-year-olds that will be much more appropriate than a state prison," he said.

Cuomo also announced that since he could not come to a deal with legislative leaders on a special prosecutor in cases where police officers kill unarmed civilians, he was appointing the attorney general as such for one year, and will hope to come to a legislative solution in 2016.

The governor has pushed a further increase in the minimum wage, which is now $8.75 per hour and set to go to $9 at the end of the year. Unable to get Senate Republicans to bite, Cuomo announced he had instructed his Department of Labor to convene a wage board examining wages in the fast food industry. The wage board has held several public hearings and is set to announce its recommendations any day. Hopes are high that the board will "do the right thing and recommend a $15 wage for fast-food workers that will take effect as soon as possible," as a statement from Working Families Party State Director Bill Lipton read. Even if the board announces something less than $15 per hour, it is likely to push a significantly higher wage than $9.

ON TO NEXT YEAR:
While Cuomo acts on his own regarding the minimum wage in the fast food industry, where 16- and 17-year olds are imprisoned, and how investigations into police killings of unarmed civilians are run, it is almost certain that the governor and others will want to see legislative action on the three issues come 2016.

Advocates will have to continue to push for the DREAM Act; paid family leave; the Gender Non-Discrimination Act; raising the age of criminal responsibility and other criminal justice reforms; an increase in the minimum wage; legalizing mixed martial arts; ethics and campaign finance reform; and much more. Cuomo did not get Assembly Democrats to agree to his education tax credit proposal that would have incentivized contributions to nonpublic schools, and it is unclear if there will be another push for it in the future. It is clear, however, that the other issues on this list will remain the focus of much lobbying and activism:

Ethics and Campaign Finance Reform: "I'm disappointed and, frankly, find it incomprehensible, that there were not further measures taken to reform the procedures in our state government and in our campaigns," Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said on Friday, according to The Observer.

Schneiderman, who has put forth his own sweeping ethics reform package, said he wants to see a special legislative session before the scheduled January return of business to Albany. Good government groups, including Citizens Union, the Brennan Center, and NYPIRG, released a statement saying, "New York's leading civic organizations today decried Albany's continuing failure to fully address the ceaseless ethics problems head-on during the 2015 legislative session. The groups called on Governor Cuomo and the state's legislative leaders to convene a special session to tackle ethics reforms before the end of the calendar year."

Among the reforms the good government groups and Schneiderman want to see are limits on legislators' outside income and the closing of the infamous LLC loophole, which allows virtually unlimited campaign donations.

The Gender Non-Discrimination Act: The State Assembly has passed GENDA eight times, but the legislation, which, according to the Empire State Pride Agenda, "would update the state's anti-discrimination protections to cover transgender New Yorkers," has stalled in the Senate. The Pride Agenda released a statement saying that with the end of "a deplorably unproductive legislative session," the Senate has left transgender New Yorkers at continued risk "to the vicious discrimination that haunts countless trans lives." The Pride Agenda and allies also want to see action banning "conversion therapy" on minors in New York, which has also passed the Assembly.

Paid Family Leave: It's an issue gaining more and more traction nationally, but New Yorkers are looking to push paid family leave at the state level in the absene of federal policy. Reacting to a lack of movement before the end of the 2015 session, the New York Paid Family Leave Insurance campaign issued a statement, saying, "It now appears that New York families will have to wait yet another year for paid family leave. Meanwhile, thousands of workers upstate and down are still forced to choose between caring for their loved ones and their families' economic security...While employers and employees in California, Rhode Island, and even next door in New Jersey continue to reap the benefits of this overdue policy, New York is still woefully behind." Advocates cite The Paid Family Leave Insurance Act, which passed the Assembly in March and "would provide up to 12 weeks of paid leave to bond with a new child, care for a seriously ill family member, and deal with issues that arise when a family member is called to active military service."

Business owners and their allies continue to express reservations about any additional mandates placed on owners, both in terms of monetary cost and productivity. Many insist that New York should not take any further action to make the state more unfriendly toward business.

Well before the end-of-session deal was reached, it was clear that little beyond the basics would be done. Those behind the issues above, plus the DREAM Act, a farm workers bill of rights, the abortion plank of the Women's Equality Agenda, MMA, and other pieces of legislation watched the final negotiations in disappointment, and beginning to think about influencing the start of business next year.

In most instances, it is Democrats left wanting more. When the final deal was announced on Thursday, Assembly Speaker Heastie spoke of coming to terms with reality. "You could always want better," he said. "This is a bicameral Legislature and the Republicans in the Senate have their own vision on what they'd like to see and you do the best you can and try to compromise...We would have loved to have done more." 

***
by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
@tweetBenMax

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In End of Session 'Scorecard,' Plenty for Next Year's Albany Agenda Mon, 29 Jun 2015 20:09:15 +0000
Overwhelmingly Passed Again by Assembly, Bill to Close LLC Loophole Appears Iced by Senate http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5722:overwhelmingly-passed-again-by-assembly-bill-to-close-llc-loophole-appears-iced-by-senate http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5722:overwhelmingly-passed-again-by-assembly-bill-to-close-llc-loophole-appears-iced-by-senate squadron podium

Sen. Daniel Squadron (photo: @DanielSquadron)


On Tuesday the state Assembly passed a bill to close the controversial LLC loophole at the center of the federal corruption cases against former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. Both men - a Democrat and a Republican, respectively - were recently arrested and subsequently stepped down from their powerful leadership posts. Later in the evening Tuesday, the Senate’s version of the bill to close the loophole that allows money to flow unfettered into campaign accounts appeared to be dispatched by Senate Republicans in a bit of behind-the-scenes maneuvering.

The LLC loophole that allows individuals and corporations to donate unlimited amounts of cash to legislators has been treated by many as a political hot potato all year. It gained attention when Glenwood Management and its principle, Leonard Litwin, were connected to the Silver indictment. Litwin is the state’s largest campaign donor thanks to the many LLCs he controls and his tendency to donate large sums to politicians at all levels of state government and in both major parties. The issue flared up again after Litwin and his company appeared in the federal complaint against Skelos.

According to a study by Common Cause NY, Glenwood Management has given $12.8 million in political donations from 2005 to 2014, but only 10 percent of those donations actually came directly from Litwin or his companies. The rest of the donations were made by LLCs registered to Glenwood or listed at its address.

In April, Sen. Daniel Squadron, a New York City Democrat, used a parliamentary maneuver called “Motion for Committee Consideration” to force the Elections Committee to consider the bill. In an apparent move designed to avoid controversy, Republican Senators voted to move the bill out of committee without recommendation. Instead of being sent to the floor for a vote it was sent to the Corporations Committee. Squadron told Gotham Gazette at the time it appeared the Republcians had “used a loophole to kill an attempt to stop a loophole” because the Corporations Committee rarely meets.

The rules say that once a bill is referred to a committee it must be heard within that committee’s next two meetings, if they are held within the legislative session for which the bill is active.

Somewhat surprisingly, the Corporations Committee did indeed meet on Tuesday, only after the meeting had been rescheduled multiple times - its second meeting since the bill left the Elections Committee. The meeting was finally called to order in the evening after the day’s Senate session. Committees rarely, if ever, meet after session. In fact, Squadron said he couldn't recall a committee meeting being scheduled for after session during his seven years serving in the Senate.

The LLC bill was not on the committee's agenda despite Squadron’s insistence that Senate rules mandated it. Committee Chair Sen. Michael Ranzenhofer told Squadron that he had not received a letter requesting his bill be put on the agenda until just before the meeting.

Squadron said he indeed had notified the committee properly and that the request for consideration he filed with the Elections Committee should have ensured the bill was on the agenda. Republican counsel interpreted the rules differently saying that the motion did not mandate a vote in Corporations.

“I just got your letter. I haven't been able to digest your letter,” Ranzenhofer told Squadron. “Let me take look at it and decide whether it should be on the calendar.”

Squadron pressed Ranzenhofer on when the committee might meet next and if it is likely his bill would be on the agenda. “Actually, before this subject came up it was actually not my plan to have any more meetings,” Ranzenhofer responded and referenced the many bills that had already been considered during the meeting. With that the meeting was adjourned.

“Hope springs eternal,” Squadron told Gotham Gazette. “I have hope that the new leader will consider the importance of this measure,” Squadron said, noting that new Majority Leader John Flanagan had only been elected to replace Skelos the day before. Flanagan told reporters earlier in the day that he would discuss the loophole with his conference.

Barbara Bartoletti of The League of Women Voters said she wasn’t exactly surprised Squadron’s bill was not considered. “No one pays attention to committee meetings in the Senate,” she said, adding, “Most lobbyists don’t even show up because they are controlled by leadership.”

Consensus on ending the loophole has been elusive despite the headlines it has inspired.

Closing the loophole appeared to be part of budget negotiations, with Governor Andrew Cuomo saying publicly that he believes it should be closed, but it was absent from the final deal that was revealed to legislators minutes before they had to vote for it. It has been unclear if the governor, whose campaign accounts have benefited immensely from LLC contributions, has worked at all to move Senate Republicans toward closing the loophole.

In April, good government groups partnered with legislators to push the State Board of Elections to close the loophole that it had created through a 1996 ruling. The Board deadlocked 2-2, with both Republican appointees voting against a measure sponsored by the Democrats to consider limits on LLCs.

Also last month, the Senate Elections Committee referred Squadron’s bill to Corporations, where it appears it will die. There is no indication that the committee will meet again before legislative session ends in mid-June.

“They all benefit from this,” said Bartoletti of both houses of the Legislature and Governor Cuomo. “One of them will do something on it knowing the other will prevent real action.”

Assembly Member Brian Kavanagh, a New York City Democrat and sponsor of the Assembly bill to close the LLC loophole, acknowledged the fact that members of both political parties are beneficiaries in the status quo. “This is a non-partisan issue,” said Kavanagh. After his bill was passed by a whopping 120-8 vote in the Assembly, Kavanagh later issued a statement saying he hopes “The Senate will join us in enacting this, by passing Senator Daniel Squadron's companion bill."

In the news release celebrating the Assembly vote sent out by Speaker Carl Heastie’s office, Kavanagh is also quoted saying that "The LLC loophole is perhaps the most egregious weakness in our laws regulating money in politics. It has been the mechanism of choice for certain people to attempt to buy influence wholesale.”

For his part, Heastie stated, “Limits on political contributions exist for a reason...By treating LLCs the same way we treat corporations, we can create greater transparency and put an end to the use of multiple LLCs as a means of working around campaign finance laws.”

Good government groups issued a statement praising the bipartisan passage of the bill in the Assembly. “With the passage of A.6975-B, the Assembly has sent a strong bipartisan signal, and is taking an important step to uphold the public interest and rebuild confidence through the passage of one of many needed ethics reforms,” said the statement from a coalition of groups including The New York Public Interest Research Group, Common Cause, The Brennan Center, Reinvent Albany and Citizens Union. “We encourage the Senate to follow suit and let New Yorkers know they are serious about addressing the pervasive culture of corruption plaguing Albany.”

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing 

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Overwhelmingly Passed Again by Assembly, Bill to Close LLC Loophole Appears Iced by Senate Wed, 13 May 2015 03:41:38 +0000
Left Out of Ethics Deal, LLC Loophole Faces Renewed Scrutiny http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5684:left-out-of-ethics-deal-llc-loophole-faces-renewed-scrutiny http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5684:left-out-of-ethics-deal-llc-loophole-faces-renewed-scrutiny Cuomo Heastie

Gov. Cuomo & Speaker Heastie shake on an ethics deal (photo: Governor's Office via flickr)


The New York State Board of Elections opened up a floodgate in 1996, allowing cash to flow virtually unabated to political candidates. The BOE issued a ruling that allowed limited liability corporations, or LLCs, to be treated as individual donors and individuals to donate unlimited funds to candidates for state-level offices by creating multiple LLCs. Efforts to change the law in the Legislature have failed miserably and now a coalition of progressive and good government groups are asking the BOE to correct what they say is a major mistake that has damaged New York democracy. On Thursday, the BOE will take up what has come to be known as the "LLC Loophole," and interested parties on both sides of the debate will be watching.

Meanwhile, State Senator Daniel Squadron, a Democrat from New York City, is expected to use a parliamentary measure to force the Republican-controlled Senate to consider a bill to fix the loophole when the Legislature returns to session next week. Coming out of a budget season where ethics reforms were passed, but the LLC loophole was largely ignored, there appears to be spring life to the issue.

"The loophole is based on a ruling that hasn't been relevant since the last century," Squadron told Gotham Gazette. "I would hope the board would act to remedy that." He said he will push for a vote on his bill, but added, "I hope that won't be necessary."

The BOE is a political entity made up of Republican and Democratic appointees. Its members have tight connections to their party bosses and the BOE has shown a major reluctance to pursue and punish officials who violate election laws and campaign finance limits. But advocates remain hopeful that some in power might want to see things change. "We've seen this continual finger pointing between the Board of Elections and the Legislature, [each] saying 'they could do it if they wanted to,'" said Rachael Fauss, director of public policy for good government group Citizens Union. "The Legislature failed to act, now we are saying to the Board 'it is your turn.' We are going to actually put people on the record."

The BOE added discussion of the LLC loophole to its agenda for Thursday, as Capital New York reported, but no formal action on its status is expected. Fauss and her good government colleagues plan to be there, though.

A coalition of reform groups including the Brennan Center, the League of Women Voters, Reinvent Albany, Common Cause, the New York Public Interest Research Group, and Citizens Union wrote Governor Andrew Cuomo this week urging him to ask the BOE to close the loophole. The letter to Cuomo follows one from the Brennan Center and Emery Celli Brinkerhoff & Abady LLP to the BOE last week asking its members to do three things: rescind the 1996 opinion; treat LLCs as corporations or partnerships depending on the tax status they select (just as the Federal Elections Commission does); and clarify BOE rules to make it clear that no individual can upend donation limits by using LLCs.

In New York, corporations are limited to giving $5,000 to a political candidate, while LLCs fall under limits of individuals and can therefore give $150,000.

Governor Cuomo has a complicated relationship with the LLC loophole. He has taken in millions of dollars from single donors who use multiple LLCs to maximize their giving. According to NYPIRG, 20 percent of Cuomo's $35 million campaign chest he utilized last election cycle came through the LLC loophole.

The most striking example of this loophole largesse is via Leonard Litwin. Using LLCs and corporations, Litwin, a real estate mogul, gave Cuomo over $1 million during the last election cycle. And Litwin is the largest single donor statewide - he blankets state elections in cash - giving to candidates and committees regardless of party.

Cuomo has spoken out against the loophole and his budget included a proposal that would ensure LLCs were restricted to the $5,000 corporate donation limit, which he also proposed reducing to $1,000. But advocates note the proposal did not call for stopping individuals from donating through multiple LLCs. Even Cuomo's "half loaf" proposal was rejected by the Legislature during budget negotiations. It is unclear how hard the governor fought for LLC reform.

Dani Lever, a spokesperson for Cuomo, told Gotham Gazette, "Whether by legislation or action taken by the Board of Elections, the Governor believes the LLC loophole should be closed."

Advocates note that the BOE's 1996 decision was based on a federal ruling that has long since been changed. "In 1996, the Board of Elections decided to treat LLCs as human beings, rather than as corporations or partnerships, despite the fact that there was no indication the Legislature ever intended such treatment," the good government groups wrote to Cuomo. "The Board justified its decision by citing a single phrase in state law and stating that it sought to follow federal practice. But the short-lived federal rule it emulated was quickly changed, and the relevant state law in fact provides the Board with leeway to make a more common-sense decision. Federal rules now treat LLCs as corporations or partnerships, and in most contexts New York state law treats LLCs like other business entities, rather than as humans. There is no legal reason the Board should refuse to correct its error."

State Senator Michael Gianaris, a Queens Democrat whose conference has been stymied in its attempts to fix the issue legislatively, said he hopes the BOE acts. "We want to see it closed anyway possible," he said of the LLC loophole. "I believe it was created under a misguided ruling based on a federal rule that was quickly changed. They created it, so it would make sense for them to fix it."

Assembly Member Brian Kavanagh, who has two bills pending in the Legislature to address the loophole, said he favors BOE action on the matter. "I am confident I will be able to move something in the Assembly this year, but the cleanest way to do it would be for the Board of Elections to correct their misguided ruling."

Fauss said that it may take more public scrutiny of the loophole to finally force action and some groups have begun to try to engage their members and the public in what may seem like an obtuse and wonky issue.

Activist groups like Common Cause, Every Voice, and the Working Families Party have asked their members to contact the BOE to pressure them to rethink the loophole. "If we're ever going to end Albany's culture of corruption, we need to stop letting billionaires secretly dump millions into campaigns," said Karen Scharff, executive director of Citizen Action of New York. "The Board of Elections must rein in this flood of cash now as a first step toward returning New York state government to voters."

Jess Wisneski of Citizen Action said that the time is right because voters have become more keyed in to the influence of money in Albany. "They see the guys with the most money are just pouring an enormous amount of cash into the system and people are more aware of it than ever," said Wisneski. "Governor Cuomo says every year that he has reformed the system and it is functioning, but people can see that just isn't the case and this might be the single biggest way to change that."

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union

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Left Out of Ethics Deal, LLC Loophole Faces Renewed Scrutiny Tue, 14 Apr 2015 19:48:46 +0000