Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/1516 Wed, 23 Jan 2019 18:09:45 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Cuomo's 2019 Agenda of Election, Campaign Finance and Government Ethics Reforms http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8210-cuomo-s-voting-campaign-finance-and-ethics-reform-proposals http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8210-cuomo-s-voting-campaign-finance-and-ethics-reform-proposals gov cuomo albany

(Photo via the Governor's office)


Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed a broad agenda of progressive legislation in his State of the State speech on Tuesday, accompanied by more detailed policy and budget books, including several measures aimed at improving New York’s democracy and increasing public trust in state government.

Emboldened by full Democratic control of the State Senate and Assembly, after years of a split Legislature where Republicans controlled the upper chamber, Cuomo reiterated many of the proposals that he has repeatedly advanced in vain in previous years and also introduced new ideas to combat public corruption, reduce the effects of money in politics, and provide more transparency about the workings of the Legislature and Executive branches.

Cuomo took stock of the state government’s failure to police its own -- as he spoke about passing ethics reforms, the powerpoint slide behind him filled with newspaper headlines about corruption in state government, starting with his own administration. “If you read the headlines over the past few years, they have been continuous and they have been disappointing, and they have been disgraceful, and they have been widespread,” he admitted. “It looks terrible and it is terrible.”

Government reform advocates have broadly praised the governor’s platform as they continue to examine the details included in the budget. On voting reforms, there seems to be general agreement, while the campaign finance and ethics proposals may prompt further debate.   

Election Reforms
Cuomo backed several voting reforms, many of which were passed by the State Legislature on Monday and sent to the governor’s desk for his signature. They included early voting -- he has proposed 12 days of early voting while the Legislature passed a 10 day bill -- consolidation of state and federal primaries into one date in June, pre-registering 16- and 17-year-olds to vote, and portability of voter registrations. There was also the campaign finance reform measure of significantly limiting contributions through the so-called LLC loophole and requiring more transparency from LLC owners.

The Legislature also began the process of amending the state constitution to establish same-day voter registration and no-excuse absentee ballots by mail, both of which will have to be approved by the next Legislature seated in 2021 and then through a ballot referendum.   

Cuomo supports all of the above, and his proposals go further, some of which are matched by bills Democratic legislators have introduced. The governor wants to make Election Day a state holiday, implement automatic and online voter registration, and also expand voting hours for primary elections upstate where polling sites currently only open at noon.

Campaign Finance Reform
Cuomo is supporting a sweeping campaign finance reform agenda that includes a public matching system for the state.

The Legislature’s LLC bill brought contribution limits in line with those for corporations, at $5,000. Cuomo, on the other hand, has proposed closing that loophole entirely (something some legislators have said they want to do in a next phase) and banning all corporate contributions to candidate campaigns, while also lowering contribution limits across the board. He also proposed prohibiting any contributions from individuals or entities that have recently applied or are seeking government contracts.

Separately, the governor pushed a measure to require reporting of intermediaries or “bundlers” who collect donations from several contributors and funnel them to candidates.

He wants to establish public financing of elections, providing 6-to-1 matches for small contributions up to $175, similar to the system currently in place in New York City. The public funds limits would be $8 million for candidates for governor; $4 million for lieutenant governor, attorney general and comptroller candidates; $375,000 for Senate candidates; and $175,000 for Assembly candidates.

On Wednesday, the governor’s office put out details of his proposal to lower contribution limits -- statewide candidates would be able to receive a total of $25,000 ($10,000 for the primary and $15,000 for the general election) down from the current effective total limit of roughly $65,100. Limits would be lower for state legislators -- Senate candidates would be allowed to raise a total of $10,000 from individual contributors, down from $18,000; Assembly candidates would be limited to $6,000 total, down from $8,800. While significant reductions, the numbers are still quite high relative to individual donation limits to presidential candidates or candidates for mayor of New York City, for example.

Cuomo is also seeking to take on the scourge of “dark money” flowing into elections through independent expenditures by anonymous sources. His budget briefing book calls for expanded disclosure by 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) nonprofit groups of the “extent and nature of their expenditures used to influence the debate on public issues, and the identity of large donors who facilitate that speech.”

“These loopholes make the entire campaign system fraught for a lack of integrity,” Cuomo said. “You want to talk about franchising individuals who now feel disenfranchised - a corporation, a large contributor with a $10 million check can buy an election and nobody knows who he or she is.”

Government and Lobbying Ethics
Though some of his proposals are likely to face resistance from the State Legislature, Cuomo wasn’t shy about challenging his legislative counterparts in his Tuesday speech as he railed against the recurring instances of corruption that have come to light in recent years, including from within his own administration.

“Now, we will never stop venial, greedy, ignorant, behavior by people. And we shouldn't be expected to do that,” Cuomo said, “but we should be expected to do everything we can to have a system in place that safeguards against fraud or theft, and there it is a continuing battle, but there I believe we can do more to ensure the public trust.”

He proposed requiring candidates in state elections to disclose their tax returns, a measure that is usually voluntarily taken by candidates for major offices like mayor, governor, and president. Cuomo’s budget proposal would require statewide candidates to release ten years of tax returns and five years of returns for candidates for Senate and Assembly.

He also emphasized the need to expand the state’s Freedom of Information Law to cover the state Legislature, a move that certain lawmakers have backed in the past but one that previous legislative leaders have ardently opposed.

The governor is also seeking to ban government employees from volunteering for their employer’s political campaigns, and wants to require local elected officials to annually disclose their finances to the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE), just as state elected officials and employees are required to do.   

Cuomo also floated a “Lobbying Code of Conduct” to severely limit real and perceived pay-to-play politics and to curb the revolving door practices that have become commonplace in Albany. He proposed greater penalties for violations of lobbying laws, lowering the threshold for disclosure of lobbying activities to $500, down from $5,000, a ban on loans from lobbyists to candidates, and preventing political consultants from lobbying the elected officials who they helped get into office. He is also advocating for expanding the blackout period in which government employees and elected officials, as well as their staff members, would be prohibited from becoming lobbyists from two years to five.

The governor promised on Tuesday that if the state Legislature did not approve the code of conduct for lobbyists, he would prohibit those lobbyists who do not voluntarily abide by it from lobbying the executive chamber. The provisions of his proposal, however, contain many gray areas as well as steep penalties -- a lobbyist who deliberately violates the rules could receive a civil fine of $25,000 or be banned from lobbying for six months to five years -- that will be part of negotiations if there is any movement on the proposals.  

In a surprising move, the governor also announced on Tuesday that he had reached an agreement with State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli to implement certain reforms to the state’s contracting and procurement processes, including returning to the comptroller certain powers that had been stripped during Cuomo’s first year as governor. Cuomo said he would allow the comptroller to pre-audit any SUNY, CUNY and Office of General Services contracts worth more than $250,000, granted the audits are done within 30 days, and, in turn, the comptroller agreed to turn over contracts above that threshold to the state inspector general for audits.

“Contract procurement review must be performed and government must function on a timely basis,” Cuomo said. “I don't believe one is the enemy of the other. Yes, review contracts, but yes let's get it done quickly because government has to function and we have to get things done.” The agreement neutralized criticism that Cuomo faced for undermining the comptroller’s authority and also preempted the potential threat of the state Legislature passing these measures against the governor’s wishes.   

Cuomo also proposed strengthening the powers of the State Inspector General, giving the office the authority to oversee nonprofits affiliated with SUNY and CUNY, as well as “state-related procurement and the implementation and enforcement of financial control policies at SUNY and CUNY.”

“This proposal is a positive step forward,” said Jennifer Freeman, a DiNapoli spokesperson, in a statement. “Improvements to the procurement process will assure that independent checks and balances are in place to prevent abuse.”

Finally, the governor’s briefing book indicates that he will direct Empire State Development, a state agency responsible for economic development programs, to create a publicly accessible online database of projects getting state benefits. Good government advocates, DiNapoli, and some legislators have long been pushing for such a “database of deals” and praised its inclusion in the governor’s budget proposal.  

“We’re very pleased by the sheer scope of the many good government reform measures the governor issued and we’re carefully evaluating them,” said Alex Camarda, senior policy advisor at Reinvent Albany, a nonprofit advocacy group. “We’re most pleased with progress on clean contracting.”

***
by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

]]>
Cuomo's 2019 Agenda of Election, Campaign Finance and Government Ethics Reforms Wed, 16 Jan 2019 05:00:00 +0000
The Case Against Public Campaign Financing in New York http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8199-the-case-against-public-campaign-financing-in-new-york http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8199-the-case-against-public-campaign-financing-in-new-york senator cat young

Senator Young, the author (photo: @SenatorCathyYoung)


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

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

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

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

Facts show that they are wrong.

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

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

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

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

It is not a track record that inspires confidence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

]]>
The Case Against Public Campaign Financing in New York Tue, 15 Jan 2019 05:00:00 +0000
WATCH: Agenda 2019: Movement Expected on Reform, But What Will It Look Like? http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8119-watch-agenda-2019-movement-expected-on-reform-but-what-will-it-look-like http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8119-watch-agenda-2019-movement-expected-on-reform-but-what-will-it-look-like mnn agenda ep2

(photo: @MNN59)


This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

mnn59 agenda ep2As part of Agenda 2019, the project from Gotham Gazette and City Limits, hosts Ben Max and Jarrett Murphy were joined on Manhattan Neighborhood Network by State Senator Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat, and Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause NY, to discuss reform issues and the year ahead. Topics included voting and election reform, government ethics reform, and campaign finance reform. Krueger's new Democratic majority in the state Senate are pledging to work with the Democratic Assembly majority and Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo to usher through a long list of stalled reforms, but what will actually get done? And what should it look like? Watch:

 Gotham Gazette:

This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

***
by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

]]>
WATCH: Agenda 2019: Movement Expected on Reform, But What Will It Look Like? Thu, 06 Dec 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: De Blasio Finishes Year 5 & The Push for 'Fair Elections for New York' http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8120-max-murphy-podcast-de-blasio-the-push-for-fair-elections-for-new-york http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8120-max-murphy-podcast-de-blasio-the-push-for-fair-elections-for-new-york mxm logo

Ben Max, left, of Gotham Gazette, and Jarrett Murphy, right, of City Limits


December 5, 2018 - Max & Murphy Podcast: De Blasio Finishes Year 5 & The Push for 'Fair Elections for New York'

wbai hirsh jw 400bMayor de Blasio is nearing the end of his fifth year in office, and in the first half of the show the hosts take stock of recent news surrounding the mayor and questions of his leadership.

In the second half of the show, Max & Murphy were joined by two leaders of the new "Fair Elections for New York" coalition that is made up of activist groups, labor unions, and other organizations seeking to pass a slate of reforms related to voting and campaign finance in New York: Jess Wisneski of Citizen Action New York and Alison Hirsh of 32BJ SEIU. Wisneski and Hirsh outline the planks of the policy push and the political dynamics at play as they seek to pass policies like early voting and a public-matching campaign finance system with Democrats fully in control of state government in 2019.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or wbai.org

***
by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

]]>
Max & Murphy Podcast: De Blasio Finishes Year 5 & The Push for 'Fair Elections for New York' Wed, 05 Dec 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Agenda 2019: High Hopes for Long-Awaited Reforms http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8117-agenda-2019-high-hopes-for-long-awaited-reforms http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8117-agenda-2019-high-hopes-for-long-awaited-reforms Cuomo democracy protection

Gov. Cuomo signs legislation (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)


This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

The 2018 election cycle in New York laid bare the myriad failings of the state’s political system that advocates and reform-minded elected officials have long recognized. Several candidates, many in it for the first time, ran competitive races on the backs of small dollar donors while highlighting the lax campaign finance laws that allow wealthy interests to fund campaigns across the state. Corruption in government and ethics reforms were salient issues, particularly so in the gubernatorial and attorney general races. In New York City, chaotic Election Day administration brought renewed scrutiny to the long mismanaged Board of Elections as well as the state’s arcane voting and elections laws. And voters, for the first time in a long time, seemed to be paying attention to it all.

“There is a tremendous amount of demand for democracy reforms,” said Sarah Goff, associate director at Common Cause New York, a government reform advocacy group. “The state Legislature has the unique opportunity, with the dramatic shift in landscape, to prove to voters that they got the message.”

As Democrats won full control of the state Legislature and, yet again, the governorship on November 6, government reform advocates like Goff rejoiced. After years of legislative paralysis on their priorities -- aided in no small part by Republican obstructionism and abetted somewhat by lackluster Democratic commitment -- a slew of election, campaign finance, and other reforms now seem all but assured to pass in 2019 (though few are counting any chickens before they hatch).

Democrats who overwhelmingly controlled the Assembly have been approving measures for years that would open up elections, limit the power of big money, and create more accountability in government. The party now also controls the state Senate for the first time in nearly a decade and with a strong margin that is likely immune to the internal divisions that cost Democrats the chamber in the past. Democratic leaders -- Governor Andrew Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, and newly-minted Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins -- made concrete promises on the campaign trail and will no longer have any excuses for failing to follow through on professed priorities like early voting, lower individual campaign donation limits, and a public-matching campaign finance program -- among several others.

“The Governor will continue to lead the fight to strengthen our democracy and restore confidence in government by advancing additional ethics and voting reforms, including but not limited to closing the LLC loophole, restricting outside income, creating a full-time legislature, expanding financial disclosure requirements, and instituting early voting and automatic and same-day voter registration,” said Hazel Crampton-Hays, a Cuomo spokesperson in an email. “We look forward to working with the Assembly and new Senate Democratic Majority to pass these critical priorities this session.”

Most of the broad election and voting reforms that Democrats are promising are also backed by the new Fair Elections for New York coalition, comprised of 91 organizations including government reform groups, political clubs, labor unions, faith-based organizations, and grassroots advocates fighting for everything from immigration and tenant reform to environmental protections. It’s an eclectic alliance that brings together both partisan and nonpartisan groups because, they say, they recognize that strengthening New York’s democracy is the first domino in improving, on multiple fronts, the everyday lives of New Yorkers.

“The need for an overhaul of New York’s voting and campaign financing system is apparent and well documented,” the coalition members wrote in a letter sent Monday, November 26, to the governor and state Legislature. “It is inherently inequitable, unfair and allows an exorbitant amount of power to be concentrated in the hands of the very few wealthy and well-connected.”

“I think this is going to be one of the most productive sessions in the history of New York State,” State Senator Michael Gianaris of Queens, who will be deputy majority leader to Stewart-Cousins starting in January, told Gotham Gazette after an unrelated news conference in City Hall Park.

Still, pushing through a long list of reforms, some more controversial than others, will not be easy. There are many details to work out, and some politically contentious issues to decide, starting with whether legislators will get a pay raise for the first time in two decades, and whether there will be clear agreement on ethics reforms to accompany such a raise. While there seems to be widespread agreement on passing early voting, will partisan lawmakers take on restructuring the New York City Board of Elections, a move that would likely happen in spite of protests from local party affiliates? These are just a few of the many questions that face Democrats in state government, starting with the governor, as the 2019 session looms.

“This isn’t just a moment that’s happening in New York State,” said Joanna Zdanys, counsel for the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, which is part of the Fair Elections coalition. “I think that the election this November showed that democracy reform is a major priority in jurisdictions small and larger across the country, on the local level as well as the national stage.”

Voting Reform
Voter turnout surged in New York in both the September primary and the November general. More than 45.6 percent of registered New Yorkers cast a vote on November 6, up from 33.2 percent in 2014, largely driven by a “blue wave” of Democratic voters incensed and energized since the election of President Donald Trump. But turnout has, more often than not, been anaemic in past elections. In the 2016 presidential, for instance, New York ranked 41 out of 50 states for turnout.

Advocates say these dismal numbers owe to “passive voter suppression” stemming from the state’s outdated voting laws. New York is one of only 13 states that do not allow early voting, and registration and party enrollment deadlines are needlessly long, all serving to limit, intentionally or not, participation in elections.

There have been a few incremental efforts at the state and city levels to expand and protect the franchise, but larger reforms have been blocked by the Republican Senate while Democrats like Cuomo and Heastie have kept them on the backburner in terms of policies they’ve pushed to bring Senate Republicans along during annual compromises.

Governor Cuomo also signed an executive order in April restoring voting rights to parolees (Those on probation were already allowed to vote). The New York City Council pushed that measure further by passing a law mandating that individuals released from city jails be given a written notice about their voting rights and a voter registration form. The Council has taken other steps as well, expanding access to interpreters at polling sites in immigrant-rich communities.

Mayor Bill de Blasio attempted to leave his own imprint on the voting system by launching the DemocracyNYC initiative, which includes a ten-point plan to encourage more voters to register, to ease access to the polls, and to provide more transparency around lobbyist activities and civic education in city schools, among other measures.

A larger package of reforms that advocates want and that can bring substantive change has repeatedly failed in the Senate and when Democrats take the chamber in the upcoming legislative session in January, they have pledged quick movement on seeing at least some of them through. These include automatic voter registration, same-day voter registration, no-excuse absentee ballots, electronic pollbooks, shortening party (change of) enrollment deadlines (which are the longest in the country) and pre-registering 16- and 17-year-olds.

However, the first item that’s likely to pass is early voting. Ahead of state budget negotiations this year, Cuomo proposed funding an 12-day early voting program and the measure did not budge. What many see as the pressing need to implement early voting was bolstered after the Election Day debacle in New York City, where higher turnout, a complicated ballot design, bad weather, aging ballot scanning equipment and a lack of preparedness by the city BOE together created long lines at the polls and frustrated voters and elected officials. Early voting, government reformers agreed, would have preempted those issues, though turnout was not so high that the system should have buckled under conditions that did not include the weather-ballot combination. Still, early voting, which exists in more than three dozen states, is also seen as an issue of equity and fairness, giving people the opportunity to vote on multiple days, which is especially relevant for those with little control of their work schedules, among others.

“I think there will definitely be a very clear consequential order to how things move and a clear cadence from where we sit and where the coalition sits,” Goff of Common Cause said. “Early voting is a easy no-brainer, this can easily be done in the first 30 days. We are...very optimistic that this will happen very quickly.”

Elections and Campaign Finance Reform
Earlier this year, in response to Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, the state Legislature passed and the governor signed the New York State Democracy Protection Act, which instituted new regulations for online political advertisements including disclosure of who purchased them and requiring the BOE to archive all online ads.

While those were lauded as important measures to provide more transparency in campaign expenditures, it’s on the fundraising side that things remain opaque, and reformers say the state’s laws need substantive improvement. A significant proportion of campaign contributions flow to candidates through limited liability companies, which are not required to disclose their owners and can help individuals and corporate entities evade limits on donations (which are already far too high, many argue). The LLC loophole is, perhaps, the most derided aspect of state elections and one that both Democrats and Republicans exploit, though it has most benefited Cuomo and Senate Republicans, two entities most friendly to real estate interests, which are often behind the creation of LLCs.  

“Corporations shouldn’t be allowed to buy elections,” said Julissa Bisono, lead organizer at Make the Road New York, an immigrant-advocacy group and another Fair Elections coalition member. “Every year we are up in Albany fighting on housing, fighting on more funding for our schools and it’s just been really difficult to pass legislation because big corporations are contributing money to these elected officials...so that they will block legislation that would affect low income communities, and communities of color.”

Cuomo, the biggest beneficiary of LLC donations in recent election cycles, has repeatedly vowed to close it but did not put significant political capital into doing so, blaming Senate Republicans for blocking the legislation. Next year, that is expected to change as the governor has made it among his top priorities and Democrats will take control of the Senate having run on the issue.

Democratic control over both the Assembly and Senate also bolsters the odds of the state adopting a public campaign financing program, possibly similar to New York City’s voluntary program that matches small dollar donations with public funds to help level the playing field for candidates. A pilot program for the state comptroller race in 2014 failed to gain any traction but there has been renewed attention in this last cycle to campaign financing and how it determines not only who is elected to office but what legislation eventually makes it through the Legislature.

“There is absolutely no excuse not to get rid of the LLC loophole and no excuse not to bring publicly financed campaigns to a vote,” said Fordham Law professor Zephyr Teachout, in an email. Teachout unsuccessfully ran in the gubernatorial primary in 2014 and in the attorney general primary this year, both times emphasizing the need to tackle rampant corruption in state politics, starting with campaign finance reform. “If there are people out there who oppose publicly financed campaigns, we need to know now and be ready to primary them,” she added.

There are other ways that New York can also tweak election management to encourage both turnout and efficient administration. This year, the state held two primaries, one in June for congressional races and the September primary for state races. Advocates have repeatedly pointed out that multiple primary elections both confuse voters and lead to fatigue, questioning why the state Legislature would spend more money on separate ones instead of consolidating them to be held on a single day.

The New York City BOE’s election fiasco has also prompted calls for reforming the agency, which is funded by the city but is technically a state entity. The City Council and Mayor de Blasio have sought to improve the board’s functioning by professionalizing its staff and reducing the influence of partisan appointees, though there is little enthusiasm even among Democrats for removing the county political parties from nominating BOE commissioners. The Board is under no obligation to heed the city’s authority.

“We see it every election day, that the board of elections is in desperate need of reform,” Gianaris said. “Once we have an elections committee chair which should be in the next couple of weeks, that should be something we focus on pretty aggressively.”

Ethics Reform
Good government advocates are looking to the New York City Council as an exemplar of the types of reforms that the state Legislature should pass. In 2016, Council members voted to give themselves, and other city elected officials, significant pay raises. But at the same time, the Council banned almost all types of outside income for members, eliminated committee chair stipends, also known as lulus (which were open to abuse as reward and punishment and salary padding), and improved financial disclosure requirements.

“Albany should look to all the things we’ve gotten done in the City Council over the past five years,” said City Council Member Ben Kallos, who previously chaired the governmental operations committee and helped lead the reform effort, “and it starts with no outside income, no more lulus, campaign finance reform...I believe that those three things would help clean up a lot of the corruption in Albany.”

To the dismay of good government groups and activists, however, the governor and Legislature have repeatedly wrestled over ethics reform with little to show for it. Cuomo infamously came to power promising that he would clean up Albany but later shut down the Moreland Commission that he had set up to fulfil that very pledge in the face of a resistant Legislature that kept seeing its members hauled off to jail. The compromise Cuomo struck with the Legislature created the state-run Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE), which many have criticized for being an inefficient agency with too-close ties to the governor and legislative leaders, who appoint its members.

Gotham Gazette: Democrats who ran for attorney general either called for scrapping JCOPE or restructuring it. Even Cuomo conceded, in his general election debate with Republican gubernatorial nominee Marc Molinaro, that he would like to see a more independent JCOPE, which oversees ethical behavior in state government. Cuomo suggested that there could be different ways its members are appointed, but did not put forth a concrete proposal.

And though he was initially silent when the state Board of Elections proposed new rules that could curb the powers of its own enforcement counsel, Risa Sugarman, who investigates campaign finance wrongdoing, the governor did criticize the BOE when the rules were later approved.

Cuomo has insisted, and reform advocates agree, that state legislators should work fulltime and that outside income should be limited or prohibited while financial disclosure requirements should be expanded. It was outside income that was central to the recent corruption convictions of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, a Republican.

But the governor sought to convince the Legislature to pass those ethics reform by leveraging the work of a state commission created in 2015 to look at pay raises for state elected officials. Legislators have not received a pay bump since 1999 and Cuomo said they shouldn’t unless they approved new reforms. That commission came to a contentious end with Cuomo’s appointees effectively killing any chance of increasing compensation for legislators.

This year, Cuomo and the Legislature again empanelled a pay raise commission through the state budget and it has already been beset with troubles over the constitutionality of its composition. But, it is set to issue binding recommendations that would go into effect unless the Legislature meets to vote them down -- in effect, lawmakers set up a system that would give them raises with their fingerprints removed. But, there is also controversy around pay raises without agreements to accompanying reforms, something legislative leaders have resisted.

Another significant step towards accountability in Albany could happen under the attorney general’s office. During the Democratic primary, the four candidates agreed that the attorney general must be able to independently investigate state officials, which the office can currently only do in most cases after receiving a referral from the governor or another entity with that power, such as a local U.S. Attorney or even the state comptroller, in some instances. All the candidates agreed that the office should have a permanent, standing referral to do so and Attorney General-elect Letitia James has promised to immediately seek that authority after taking office. Still, it is something that then-Attorney General Andrew Cuomo called for when he was in the role but has not provided since becoming governor himself.

One Charter, Two Commissions
New York City voters overwhelmingly approved three ballot measures on November 6, which lowered campaign contribution limits, imposed term limits on community boards, and created a new civic engagement commission that will also work to improve and report on poll site interpretation services.

But more sweeping changes may lie on the horizon. The three 2018 referenda were placed on the ballot by a Charter Revision Commission empaneled by mayoral fiat. A separate commission was created soon after through City Council legislation with appointees chosen by the mayor, the Council speaker, the public advocate, the comptroller, and the five borough presidents. That commission is taking a far more expansive look at the city’s governing document and the powers and responsibilities it delineates to the different parts of city government.

As envisioned by Letitia James and Gale Brewer, who proposed the initial legislation, the commission could alter the structure of city government in a way that hasn’t been done since 1989 by a previous commission. “I think the Charter Revision Commission will really be the biggest place where we talk about what the functions of government are” said City Council Member Keith Powers, “how do the mayor and the City Council interact with each other, what agencies should be empowered here, how to do budgeting, things like that.”

[Read: Elected Officials Present Broad Proposals to 2019 Charter Revision Commission]

The 2019 commission appears to be looking at budget and land use processes, and may also take up two prominent issues that the mayor’s commission punted on -- instant runoff voting, also known as ranked choice voting, and setting up a system of independent redistricting of City Council districts.

Rules of the Room
Under City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and his predecessor, Melissa Mark-Viverito, the 51-member legislative body has passed a series of reforms and rules changes to give more power to members, create more transparency in how bills become law, and improved the internal culture of the Council. While Mark-Viverito did so through formal rules reforms, Johnson has made more administrative changes in keeping with some promises he made while running for speaker, though he has yet to move on others.

Reformers say that must happen in Albany as well. Under Cuomo, the Legislature has passed eight on-time or nearly-on-time budgets, but to do so, the governor has repeatedly employed a mechanism called a “message of necessity” that allows rushed votes on massive packages of legislation with little to no public review or debate. The entire process draws the ire of some legislators and virtually all reform advocates each year.

“We would love to see this year’s state Legislature no longer do these end of session big uglies,” Goff said, referring to the omnibus legislative package regularly passed at the end of the legislative session, “where ethics reform is crammed in at the last minute at 4 a.m. behind closed doors, and sort of gets carted out with minimal conversation and public engagement.” She hoped that the newly elected progressive Democrats, first-time legislators many of them, will help “crack some of the calcified power structure and culture in Albany.”

Teachout argued for democratizing the Legislature, as did Assembly minority leader Brian Kolb, a reform-minded Republican.

“We should allow for a simple majority of members to bring any bill to the floor for consideration and a vote, regardless of leadership objections,” Teachout said. “For too long, Albany is where responsibility goes to die -- electeds say they support one thing, but without a public vote, we don't know what they are saying behind closed doors.”

Kolb drew a parallel between Democrats in the House of Representatives and in the state Senate. Both chambers returned to Democratic control in the midterms, with young, first-time electeds who are now leading calls for empowering rank-and-file members. He said term limits were necessary, for leadership and committee chairs, for that to happen. “[B]ecause that’s where power becomes basically consolidated as people get to stay in these positions for a long, long time,” he said. “We think that there should be a change to that process that would break up the monopoly of power. And of course...any statewide legislative negotiations should include the minority party in both houses of the legislature, whether it’s the budget or anything else that matters.”

There are indication that, at least in the State Senate, there may be a culture shift. “There has been a lot of justified criticism of Albany that it’s too driven by the leadership and people don’t have a say,” Gianaris said. “We have 15 new members, I think [Majority Leader] Andrea Stewart-Cousins has made it clear that she intends to talk to all those members and make sure we have consensus on whatever we’re going to do.”

This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

***
by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - This article incorrectly stated that the governor and the state legislature appoint the executive director of JCOPE. They only appoint its commissioners. The article has been updated.   

]]>
Agenda 2019: High Hopes for Long-Awaited Reforms Mon, 03 Dec 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Next Steps for 3 City Charter Revisions Passed Election Day http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8073-next-steps-for-3-city-charter-revisions-passed-election-day http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8073-next-steps-for-3-city-charter-revisions-passed-election-day schools chancellor reg

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

Voters approved three ballot proposals on Election Day to amend the New York City charter, the city’s foundational governing document -- the local constitution. The proposals related to the city’s campaign finance system, civic engagement, and community boards. Mayor Bill de Blasio, who empaneled a charter revision commission last year that put the proposals on the ballot, argued that the proposals would strengthen democracy in the city.

“The question in front of voters was simple: Are we going to be a city that works for everyone,” de Blasio tweeted after the measures passed. “New Yorkers answered with a resounding ‘YES, YES, YES!’”

Now that all three proposals are to be added to the charter, they will have to be implemented within the next few years. At the same time, another charter revision commission created through City Council legislation is also holding public hearings and is expected issue its own recommendations for the 2019 general election ballot.

Each of the three proposals approved this year included language around implementation, though some aspects will be left to certain individual and group decision-makers.

Proposal 1 - campaign finance reform
Proposal 1, which lowers campaign contribution limits in city elections and enhances the city’s public-matching campaign finance program, passed with 80.3 percent approval.

New York City’s voluntary public matching funds program, often seen as a model for the country, currently matches the first $175 of each campaign contribution at a ratio of 6-to-1. Proposal 1 raises the public match to 8-to-1 for the first $250 of a donation, thus increasing the impact of smaller donations, and will lower individual contribution limits to citywide candidates from $5,100 to $2,000, with lower offices like borough presidents and City Council members also seeing public match increases and lower contribution limits.

The goal is to empower small-dollar donors, giving their contributions a greater impact and disincentivizing candidates from depending on larger, wealthier donors and PACs. In theory, it allows first-time candidates not backed by deep-pocketed donors to run more competitive races.

The percentage of a candidate’s overall spending limit that can be received in public funds will be increased from 55 percent to 75 percent, and candidates will be allowed to receive public funds earlier in their races -- a change that could help insurgent candidates or candidates without deep-pocketed allies, but also could help incumbents rack up higher totals earlier.

Under the text of the amendment, the new campaign finance regulations will take effect on January 12, 2019. But, candidates who choose to participate in the public funds program and run for office in the 2021 primary elections can choose to opt out of the new rules, thus sticking with the current limits and system. Candidates must declare their intentions by July 15, 2019.

For non-participating candidates, meaning those who opt not to participate in the matching program, the limits and thresholds remain the same as they were before January 12.

All candidates participating in the public matching program will be brought under the new regulations starting in 2022.

The language of the amendment also includes a clawback provision should any of the changes to contribution limits and matching fund ratios be struck down in court. In such an instance, all the changes would be nullified except for the expansion of the public matching funds cap from 55 percent to 75 percent.

In all, the charter commission estimated that the new system would increase the amount of public funds disbursed to candidates by roughly 47 percent relative to the very busy 2013 city election cycle, which will in many ways be mirrored for 2021. In the 2013 cycle, the Campaign Finance Board doled out $38 million in public funds. Under the new rules, disbursements would have been an additional $18 million, for a total of $56 million, according to the charter commission’s staff research.

In last year’s elections, when there were fewer competitive races, the CFB gave out about $18 million in public funds, which would have seen an additional $8.5 million in public funds under the amended charter.

City Council Member Ben Kallos, who unsuccessfully attempted to increase the public funds cap to 85 percent through legislation, was glad to see voters pass the improvements to the system. In a phone interview, he implied that concerns about the cost of the new system were overblown, and said that enhancing the system is key to eliminating real and perceived conflicts of interest.

“It’s far less than the city lost on Rivington, and whether it was a case of actual corruption or just appeared improper, it had significant cost to our city,” Kallos said, referring to the scandal around the city’s sale of Rivington House and related allegations of pay-to-play involving the mayor. “Just the defense of our city cost about $6 million,” he added in reference to the mayor’s legal bills accrued during law enforcement investigations of his fundraising that saw no charges filed. “So whether it is to save $100 million around Rivington or the $6 million in legal fees, it pays for itself.”

He continued, “When the next mayor’s going to have a budget in excess of $90 billion, [$18 million] to make sure that that elected official would only be accountable to the voters without the influence of big money is worth every penny.”

Gotham Gazette: Proposal 2 - civic engagement commission
Proposal 2, which creates a civic engagement commission tasked with implementing a citywide participatory budgeting program and other initiatives, passed with 65.5 percent approval.

The new citywide participatory budgeting program, expanding efforts undertaken annually in City Council districts (currently in 31 of the 51 CDs), would have to be implemented by the commission by July 1, 2020. Participatory budgeting allows residents to vote on projects to spend a certain amount of funds in their Council districts.

The commission will also be tasked with improving translation services at voting sites and providing resources to community boards, as well as more generalized partnerships with community organizations to increase civic engagement.

The commission would remain a fixture after implementing its designated programs, and would be required to report annually on its programs, many of which can be by its own design.

The commission will consist of 15 members: 8 appointed by the Mayor, 2 by the City Council Speaker, and 1 by each Borough President. The mayor’s majority of board picks worried some that it would be a power-grab of sorts, given the wide latitude afforded to the commission with its mission of “enhancing civic engagement and strengthening democracy.” But in that respect, it is actually something of an improvement from the proposed Office of Civic Engagement, which would be completely under the mayor, per a bill introduced by City Council Member Brad Lander, who supported proposal 2 and celebrated its passage.

The commission will be empaneled on April 1, 2019.

Proposal 3 - community board reform
Proposal 3, which establishes term limits for community board members and institutes a set of new requirements around the community board application process and more, passed with 72.3 percent approval.

Community board members, who are appointed by Borough Presidents and currently allowed to serve an unlimited number of two-year terms, will now be allowed only to serve four consecutive two-year terms. At that point, members will be term-limited out, but they will be allowed to be reappointed after a two-year interregnum. Current community board members will be allowed to serve an additional four terms no matter how long they have served as of 2019. Thus, no current member will be term-limited off their board until 2027.

To prevent heavy turnover that year and the following year, appointees commencing their term in 2020 will be allowed to serve five terms.

Borough Presidents will also be required to seek out diverse candidates for community board appointments, ensuring that different geographic areas are adequately represented. The proposal mandates that borough president reach out to community organizations active in the district and also allows civic groups and neighborhood organization to submit nominees to the Borough President. Community boards as constituted today are often criticized for being older and whiter than the communities they serve. Younger and more diverse voices on community boards could lead to very different outcomes. Borough presidents will also be required to make applications for community board member positions available on their websites with detailed requests for information about members, including work and community experience, demographic information (which would be optional) and conflicts of interest disclosures, among other things.

While community boards do not have a binding vote on land use and development matters, local City Council members often strongly consider and align with their home community boards. Four of the city's five current Borough Presidents expressed strong opposition to proposals 2 and 3 (Brooklyn's Eric Adams was the lone exception) and worked unsuccessfully to defeat them.

The civic engagement commission approved in proposal 2 will also be required to provide additional resources to community boards, such as “urban planning professionals and language access resources.”

Though it received a higher vote share than proposal 2, proposal 3 was widely seen as the most controversial of the three during the election season. While proponents noted that community boards are often older and whiter than the communities they represent, opponents said the measure would lead to a brain drain to the benefit of real estate developers. The worry was that an influx of new members without land use knowledge would allow developers to run roughshod over community interests. In the end, voters took the side of the proponents.

This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

***
by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Ben Brachfeld contributed to this piece.

]]>
Next Steps for 3 City Charter Revisions Passed Election Day Sun, 02 Dec 2018 05:00:00 +0000
As Affordability Crisis Becomes More Acute, Real Estate Donations Emerge as Litmus Test for Some Democrats http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8112-as-affordability-crisis-becomes-more-acute-real-estate-donations-emerge-as-litmus-test-for-some-democrats http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8112-as-affordability-crisis-becomes-more-acute-real-estate-donations-emerge-as-litmus-test-for-some-democrats  Ocasio-Cortez Teachout

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez & Zephyr Teachout (photo: Gotham Gazette)


This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

Queens City Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer has said he will refuse donations from wealthy landlords and the real estate industry as he runs for borough president. Julia Salazar, a democratic socialist in Brooklyn, defeated an eight-term incumbent state senator using her rejection of real estate donors as a rallying cry. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez did the same when she toppled Democratic Rep. Joe Crowley and became the youngest woman elected to the United States House of Representatives. Zephyr Teachout sought the Democratic nomination for attorney general while eschewing real estate contributions and making it a core plank of her campaign. Nomiki Konst, an investigative reporter, recently launched her campaign for New York City public advocate with the same promise.

New York’s real estate industry, most of it concentrated in the dense confines of New York City,  has long played a significant role in funding candidates for elected office up and down the ballot across the state and beyond, a role that candidates of both major parties and political insiders have always recognized. But as voters, particularly energized, activist Democrats, focus on the affordable housing crisis and take heed of the state’s broken campaign finance laws, including loopholes that donors, especially those in real estate, have exploited to pad the coffers of legislators and executives, some progressive Democrats have begun to reject campaign contributions from the real estate industry.

Affordable housing policy, including the already-begun debate over rent regulations decided in Albany that will be a significant issue in 2019, is at or toward the top of many activists’ lists, and housing justice advocates increasingly see campaign finance pledges as a litmus test for candidates. Increasing numbers of Democrats eschewing real estate money, or at least any given through the so-called LLC loophole, has given those activists and advocates cause for optimism that real estate’s role in state elections may be on the decline and that their elected representatives will heed the clarion call to protect tenants and listen to small donors over wealthy special interests.

“I think that it’s clearly a concern amongst a growing number of voters,” Van Bramer told Gotham Gazette. “I think it’s increasingly one of those issues that people want a response on from their elected officials and candidates. And I think that they’re right to be concerned about the influence of big money, generally speaking.”

“Money still plays a huge role in our elections and real estate is a good way to raise money in New York City and New York State,” said Celia Weaver, research and policy director at New York Communities for Change, a leading housing and economic justice advocacy group pushing campaign finance reform, strengthened rent regulations, and deeper affordable housing development. “It’s like oil in Texas.”

Though questions about the influence of real estate money have swirled for decades, Weaver traced the budding trend of declarations against taking any of it to Diana Richardson’s election to the state Assembly in 2015, in a district that includes rapidly gentrifying Crown Heights and at a time when state rent regulation laws were up for renewal in the state Legislature. “Her decision to refuse real estate money in that election turned what would ordinarily be a pretty boring special election where the Democratic machine just gets to anoint the person who’s going to run and take the line to a widely covered exciting race that was really a referendum on the real estate industry and its role in politics,” Weaver said. “That became a huge touchstone for voters in the district.”

It’s common knowledge that the real estate industry has been a staple in electoral politics for decades and its members’ donations have been part of the picture across the political spectrum. Democrats and Republicans have benefited from them, none more so than Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat recently re-elected to a third term. But the recent election cycle, the first since Donald Trump was elected president, saw greater awareness among voters about the power of state government and the special interests that fund campaigns. Actor and education activist Cynthia Nixon also used that backdrop to run a competitive primary challenge against Cuomo. She refused donations from real estate and issued a scathing indictment of the governor’s reliance on big donors in the industry, while calling for sweeping housing justice reforms.

Weaver also pointed to the high-profile corruption convictions of former State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, a Republican, in trials that exposed how a real estate firm, Glenwood Management, attempted to wield influence over legislation. Glenwood, an enormous donor to Cuomo and many legislators, recently made massive contributions to Senate Democratic candidates ahead of the November election where it appeared likely they would become part of a new majority in the chamber.

The primary mechanism for real estate donations has been the gaping loophole in state campaign finance law that allows limited liability companies with opaque ownership -- a common instrument in the real estate business -- to circumvent contribution limits. City Limits reported in September that LLCs had been used to donate more than $188 million to political campaigns since the late 1990s, with about $31 million given to gubernatorial candidates alone, including Cuomo. “Combining his campaign for attorney general in 2006 and his three runs for governor, Cuomo has received roughly one of every eight dollars donated by LLCs,” City Limits found. Those donations are largely dominated by the real estate industry.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has also come under scrutiny for accepting significant real estate donations, especially to a political nonprofit he established to push his agenda that became the subject of law enforcement investigations related to whether City Hall did favors for its donors.

A collaborative report in 2016 by ProPublica, The Real Deal and the National Institute on Money in State Politics tracked how real estate developers who benefitted from a prominent tax incentive called the 421-a program gave about $21 million to party committees and candidates since 2000, out of $83 million that the real estate industry donated in the same time.

“I think people are very much aware that rich donors including real estate developers and landlords are distorting our election system,” said Michael McKee, treasurer of Tenants PAC, a political action committee dedicated to affordable housing. “I think that’s the growing awareness. There’s no question about it.”

It was in that context that a slew of progressive Democrats ousted their more moderate and real estate-tied partymates from office with the support of smaller donors and by rejecting corporate backers. “The housing crisis in this city is out of control and going into a year when candidates are going to be debating rent regulations in Albany, voters wanted candidates that are gonna act with integrity and widely believed that candidates who work for the real estate industry won’t,” said Weaver.

Besides Salazar, Zellnor Myrie and Alessandra Biaggi similarly ran for and won Democratic primaries in the state Senate in opposition to wealthy real estate interests. Each of the three represents a district, much like a lot of the city, grappling with a deep affordability crisis and pockets of gentrification displacing low-income residents of color. Their opponents all received significant contributions from real estate.

The decision to reject real estate seems based in both principle and pragmatism. Biaggi made housing justice a prominent campaign issue as she successfully dethroned Senator Jeff Klein, once the powerful leader of the Independent Democratic Conference, a breakaway faction of eight senators that propped up Republican control of the Senate. Democratic voters rejected six of the IDC members, blaming them for preventing the passage of many bills, including stronger rent regulations, and replaced them with progressive Democrats, including Biaggi and Myrie.

“It’s not necessarily that taking real estate money makes you a bad legislator or a bad person...but for me, it’s very clear that it’s a slippery slope,” Biaggi said in a phone interview.

Even as she acknowledged how difficult it can be to run for office without wealthy donors, Biaggi said it was important to her to retain her independence and answer to everyday constituents, not just those who can write big checks. “The winning can’t take precedence over the fact that, once you’ve won, the people who have helped get you there are the people who are going to come knocking on the door and that’s really a very challenging thing to come to terms with,” she said. Biaggi spent about $330,000 on her campaign and won with 53.1 percent of the vote, while Klein disbursed more than $3 million to try to keep his seat and got 44.5 percent.

Salazar said her commitment, and Myrie’s and Biaggi’s, to refuse real estate donations proved that it’s possible to run a viable campaign with small donors, and build grassroots support and trust in communities by doing so.

“I think advocates have long recognized the correlation between the amount of real estate money that many electeds have taken and their failure to advocate vigorously for tenants,” she said. “When other candidates see those campaigns being successful and they see this growing and increasingly loud demand from advocates, I think that is what is translating to them paying more attention.”

Those in the real estate industry push back against being made the boogeymen of state politics. Real estate is, without a doubt, central to New York City’s fortunes and the industry comprises a large part of the city’s tax base. The sector is scapegoated more so than other industries and groups, like those in health care, finance, or education, that also employ somewhat similar tactics in state elections. And of course, many candidates regularly pursue real estate donors when running for office.

“There are people who are willing to accept our contributions because our philosophies or the ideas that we are espousing are aligned with their philosophies,” said John Banks, president of the Real Estate Board of New York, in an interview. “There are people who don’t want to accept real estate money because their philosophies don’t align with the work that the real estate industry does and there are people who move back and forth across that continuum.”

Banks pushed back against any notion that his industry has used the LLC loophole to improperly sway the political landscape to its benefit. “The real estate industry respects and follows both the letter and the intent of the law and to say that someone who follows the letter of the law is in someway undermining the legitimacy of the political process is a naive statement,” he said.

And, he noted, the real estate industry is intrinsically a part of New York’s landscape, more than any other, even finance, or technology. “Unlike some of the other industries, mobility is not something that is an option for us,” he said.

There are also Democrats, even those who call themselves progressives, for whom real estate donations are far from an insurmountable liability, even if they are unpopular with the party’s left wing. Cuomo sailed to reelection, in part by taking millions combined from LLCs and the real estate industry that he then used to overwhelm his less-funded primary and general election opponents over the airwaves. New York City Public Advocate Letitia James, not a close friend to real estate, accepted similar donations and was resoundingly elected the next attorney general of New York State. In the attorney general primary, for instance, James ran on a platform that included criticism of bad landlords and yet received $10,000 from an LLC linked to the Durst Organization, one of the largest real estate developers in the city. That LLC and seven others under the Durst umbrella also gave a combined $150,000 to one of James’ opponents, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, which became a line of attack from Teachout.

“The real estate industry is pretty broad and diverse,” said Jordan Barowitz, spokesperson for the Durst Organization. “I work in it, as do members of 32BJ and the super in your building and the residential broker who leased you your apartment.” He said “painting all these people with a pretty broad brush” is problematic. “Unfortunately there’s a lot of blaming in politics these days and it’s easy to point to one group or person or industry and say they’re responsible for everything that’s bad in this world and that’s pretty simplistic and wrong.”

“Honest politicians don’t take bribes and reputable donors don’t request quid pro quos,” he added.

There is a distance between bribes and quid pro quos on one hand, of course, and donations having some influence on policy-making, even if simply by virtue of how donations help candidates get elected.

McKee of Tenants PAC noted, for instance, that REBNY had begun donating larger sums in this election cycle to Democratic candidates once it seemed apparent that the party was going to regain control of the state Senate and, by result, the entire Legislature.

“REBNY saw the handwriting on the wall. They’re equal-opportunity opportunists. They don’t care who’s in the majority. They’ll try to buy influence with them by giving them money,” McKee said. “I’m not suggesting in any way that the mere fact that REBNY has started giving money to Democratic senators means that those Democratic senators are going to sell tenants out. That’s not my point. My point is that this is how they try to win friends and influence people, with big money.”

The influence of such donations can come down to seemingly small changes in policy, like the exact threshold at which an apartment leaves rent regulation, not necessarily major new legislation that would raise flags as donor-favors.

Gotham Gazette: Myrie wanted to avoid even the perception of corruption when he took his pledge, he said. “The number one reason that I did it was because...when we were gonna be facing the fight in Albany on whether or not we’re gonna protect tenants, I wanted there to be no confusion about which side I was on,” he said.

It would be hard to argue, he said, that real estate hasn’t had a corrupting influence on politics. “Albany for the longest time has passed watered down legislation,” Myrie added. “We have not protected tenants the way that we’ve needed to and that, you can draw the direct correlation to the increase in the amount of real estate donations to the Legislature. I think anyone looking at that objectively could say that it has had a corrosive effect on how we pass policy affecting our tenants.”

“Once you take that money, of course it influences how you legislate,” Biaggi said. “Now I think there are ways to protect against that, and that goes into campaign finance reform.”

Biaggi asserted that the path to stronger rent regulations runs directly through reforming the state’s campaign finance system, primarily through closing the LLC loophole, but also through lowering individual donation limits, where New York has some of the highest in the country. Closing the LLC loophole alone, advocates say, would take away real estate’s biggest weapon of political influence, and they insist it should be accompanied by a public campaign financing program, like the one currently used in New York City, to boost the voices of ordinary New Yorkers who only give $25 or $100 to a candidate.

Democrats in the Assembly have repeatedly attempted to reform campaign finance law but have been roadblocked for years by Republicans in the Senate, who have been major beneficiaries of real estate donations. Many, Cuomo included, have emphasized that ending the LLC loophole is among their priorities in the upcoming legislative session in January.

“If you had these kinds of reforms, candidates wouldn’t have to spend so much time cultivating rich people to make big donations,” McKee said.

On the other hand, Republicans have long-argued that labor unions often use campaign contributions to support and influence Democrats, and that any LLC reform should also institute limits on how local chapters of unions are classified in campaign finance law.

Weaver, from Communities for Change, said, “Not only are rent laws coming up in 2019 but I think there’s gonna be a big referendum on the role of money in politics generally…and the campaign finance stuff is also gonna be a referendum on tenant issues and real estate money in politics specifically.”

This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

***
by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

]]>
As Affordability Crisis Becomes More Acute, Real Estate Donations Emerge as Litmus Test for Some Democrats Thu, 29 Nov 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Prominent Elected Officials Oppose De Blasio Charter Revision Proposals http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8026-prominent-elected-officials-oppose-de-blasio-charter-revision-proposals http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8026-prominent-elected-officials-oppose-de-blasio-charter-revision-proposals Mayor de Blasio

Mayor de Blasio (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayor's Office)


Mayor Bill de Blasio is seeking to make a lasting impact on city governance through a charter revision commission that would transform the city’s campaign finance system, promote greater civic involvement in city affairs, and inject new blood into local community boards. But prominent elected officials, most of whom are Democrats like de Blasio, don’t agree with the proposals the mayor’s commission has put on the November 6 ballot and are urging New Yorkers to reject them.

The mayor’s commission put three questions on the ballot for voter approval through a simple majority. The first would significantly reduce individual campaign contribution limits and expand the city’s public matching funds program; the second would create a civic engagement commission with appointments mostly by the mayor to coordinate citywide participatory budgeting and other initiatives such as interpreting services at polling sites; and the third would impose term limits on community board members and alter how those members are recruited and appointed to ensure greater diversity.

Though the mayor appointed the commission and announced its areas of focus, he was not to have direct say over its final report or proposals, but he did announce support for all three and is now campaigning to see them approved by voters.

“These reforms will go a long way toward strengthening our democracy and limiting the influence of big money in our elections,” he said in a September statement, when the proposals were released. “There's no doubt in my mind that these measures will help us build a more fair and equitable city.” On Sunday, de Blasio spoke at two churches in Manhattan, urging congregants to flip their ballot and decide on the three questions. “[V]ote yes, yes, yes. So we can open up the doors of democracy wide and make this an even greater city,” he said at Bethel Gospel Assembly.

Other elected officials, however, are not so certain, and are expressing somewhat mixed reviews, though many are opposed to community board term limits.

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, for instance, supports lowering contribution limits and creating a civic engagement commission, but not term limits for community board members. “I don’t think term limits are necessary,” Johnson, a former community boar chair, said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “These aren’t lifetime appointments. They must be reappointed by elected officials who are term limited. I think that provides enough checks and balances to our community boards, while allowing us to keep the good members with experience and wisdom. It is also our job as elected officials to always be looking to appoint new civic minded leaders who are interested in serving.”

It’s an argument that’s also been advanced by four of the five borough presidents -- only Brooklyn’s Eric Adams supports the term limits question.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, in fact, led the creation of an independent expenditure committee to oppose both term limits and the civic engagement commission, an effort in which she was joined by Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, and Staten Island Borough President James Oddo (Oddo is the lone Republican in the group). “These proposals would be a real—and in some cases dangerous—disruption to the way Community Boards protect our communities,” Brewer wrote in an email to supporters earlier this month, arguing that it could lead to a drain in institutional wisdom and give real estate interests and lobbyists a leg up in discussions about community development. The proposal does include a provision whereby individuals term-limited off of community boards are eligible to serve again after a one-term, two-year “cooling off period.”

“Our community boards are the eyes and ears of our neighborhoods and are often the first line of defense against unwanted projects as well as the initial point of contact between city agencies and our neighbors,” said Diaz Jr. “We should be working to strengthen their role, not strip them of the knowledge and historical focus that makes them so important in the first place.”

Katz said the current appointment process allows “ample opportunity” to pick diverse candidates “for a dynamic mix of talent,” while Oddo worried that the “one-size-fits-all solution” could have unintended consequences.

Adams, however, has argued, “While institutional knowledge is valuable, a reasonable term limit for Community Board members will allow the best of both worlds: institutional knowledge and new voices.”

On expanding the campaign finance system, however, only Adams and Oddo have publicly opposed the question among the borough presidents, though for different reasons. “[Brooklyn BP Adams] opposes the campaign finance reform measure because it doesn’t go far enough as he believes in 100 percent public financing,” said an Adams spokesperson. Oddo, on the other hand, has been a staunch opponent of public financing and simply said, “Hell no!” about proposal one.

Spokespeople for Katz and Diaz Jr. did not respond to requests for comment about the campaign finance reform proposal.

[Read: Brewer Creates Committee to Oppose Charter Revision Proposals]

Comptroller Scott Stringer also opposes the second and third questions while supporting the first on campaign finance reform. “The City must take a serious look at our Charter — it’s critical to tackling the important issues facing New Yorkers,” he said in a statement. Stringer has laid out his own exhaustive plan of charter proposals to the 2019 charter commission, a separate one from the mayor’s that was created through City Council legislation that is taking a far broader look at the city’s governing principles. 

Stringer added, “I support the first initiative because we need a campaign finance system that does everything it can to engage New Yorkers and help people run for office. I oppose proposals 2 and 3 which will weaken communities’ voices in shaping their own development.”

At an October 31 news conference at City Hall, Gotham Gazette asked Speaker Johnson if he would urge the 2019 commission to reverse community board term limits if they should pass. Johnson said he would not. "I think it's important to lice by the will of the voters," he said.  

A spokesperson for Public Advocate Letitia James did not provide her stances despite multiple requests for comment, one of which was acknowledged.

Among a few rank-and-file City Council Members, reception of the proposals seems to be mixed. Council Member Brad Lander, a Brooklyn Democrat, for example, supports all three proposals and has in particular been advocating for the creation of the civic engagement commission -- Lander had proposed the idea through legislation and presented it to the commission.

“I truly believe these ballot proposals give us an opportunity to do something important to strengthen our local democracy: To improve our campaign finance rules. To turbo-charge civic engagement. To expand participatory budgeting city-wide,” he said in an email blast to supporters, calling on New Yorkers to pledge their support.

Manhattan Council Member Ben Kallos, also a Democrat, is backing all the proposals as well. Kallos has been a staunch campaign finance reform advocate and the first question would partially achieve what he has in the past tried to do through legislation, to expand the amount of public funds given to candidates running for office. “Democracy in New York City will finally get better,” he said in a September 6 statement, if the first question is passed, “reducing contribution limits and making small dollars more valuable by matching more of them with a greater multiplier.”

City Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, a Queens Democrat, is also urging a "yes" vote on all three proposals. City Council Member Jumaane Williams, a Brooklyn Democrat, has expressed support for the campaign finance proposal, but a spokesperson did not respond to a request for his positions on the other two.

On the other end, there’s Council Member Helen Rosenthal, again a Manhattan Democrat, who opposes all three measures. “The spirit of the first two proposals is positive and some of the substance is even promising, but each raises significant concerns to the point where I cannot support them,” she said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. Also noting a criticism that was raised when the mayor first announced his commission, she added, “Of course, all three proposals could be implemented through the current legislative process.”

Even government reform groups appear somewhat split on the ballot proposals. Reinvent Albany is advocating for all three. “Reinvent Albany believes a YES vote on these ballot measures will collectively amplify the voice of everyday New Yorkers and create new opportunities for injecting fresh perspectives into the public debate over how to make our city better for everyone,” the group said in an email blast on Monday.

Citizens Union, another good government advocacy organization opposes the proposal for a civic engagement commission, supports community board term limits, and has not taken a position on the campaign finance question.

***
by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - This article has been updated with additional comment from City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Council Members Jimmy Van Bramer and Jumaane Williams.   

]]>
Prominent Elected Officials Oppose De Blasio Charter Revision Proposals Mon, 29 Oct 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Closing the Door on Foreign Money in New York City Elections http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/7972-closing-the-door-on-foreign-money-in-new-york-city-elections http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/7972-closing-the-door-on-foreign-money-in-new-york-city-elections vote here large


How far and how deep did the Russian government and Russian nationals go to influence United States elections? While hacking and manipulation of social media have garnered significant attention from both the media and the Mueller investigation, it’s also clear that Russian money was being funneled through some surprising channels, such as the National Rifle Association (NRA).

When Citizens United opened the floodgates for corporations to spend unlimited amounts in our elections, it also blasted open a loophole for foreign money to be used to influence U.S. elections. Earlier this month, we collaborated to introduce a bill to close that loophole and keep foreign money out of New York City elections.

While current federal law—affirmed by the Supreme Court in 2012—prohibits foreign governments, foreign-based companies, and people who are not U.S. citizens or permanent residents from contributing or spending money in connection with any federal, state, or local elections, after Citizens United, foreign entities can still invest money through U.S.-based corporations that can then spend as much money as they want on American elections. That’s a direct threat to democracy, and one that our federal government has yet to remedy.

This is not a hypothetical. Companies that we consider to be “American” often have significant foreign investment, and at times that investment comes from some questionable sources. DST Global, for example, has gained notoriety for its Russian connections and has significant investment in many U.S. tech companies, including several iconic companies like Airbnb, Facebook, and Twitter. Saudi Arabia has also been “using its wealth for global influence” with over $2 trillion to invest via its sovereign wealth fund, and it has already taken large stakes in U.S. based companies like Uber, Tesla, and Sprint through its joint tech fund with SoftBank Group, a Japanese company. To be clear, we do not mean to say that these companies are controlled by Russia or Saudi Arabia, but they do serve as examples of how little we know about the foreign ownership of American companies, some of which spend significant amounts trying to influence American politics.

As the U.S. midterm elections approach, foreign actors are testing out new ways to hide their trails. They’ve stopped paying in rubles, and that means that the corporate loophole created by Citizens United will be ever more attractive. The evidence is also mounting that Russia was not alone. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and others reportedly sought to put their thumbs on the scale. Though Ellen Weintraub, the vice chair of the Federal Election Commission, has been sounding the alarm about this for years, partisan politics has stopped attempts in Congress and at the Commission to prevent foreign money from being funneled through corporations.

That’s why it is critical to move now to protect our local elections from corrupt foreign influence and to help create a national model for campaign finance reform. In order to protect the integrity of New York City elections, our bill -- Intro. 7087 -- would strengthen the existing federal prohibition on direct foreign and corporate campaign contributions by extending the ban to American corporations under substantial foreign ownership or control.

The bill would prohibit contributions and spending in local elections by “foreign-influenced entities,” which is defined as an entity that is either (1) more than 5 percent owned by a single foreign national, (2) more than 20 percent owned by more than one foreign national, or (3) a corporation in which foreign-national owners call the shots on its political activities. A similar proposal enacted in St. Petersburg, Florida received the backing of constitutional luminaries like Laurence Tribe and Charles Fried, and stands on firm legal ground.

New York has long been a leader in taking action to protect the integrity of its elections and ensure that the voices of New Yorkers are not drowned out by corporate money. New Yorkers deserve to know that foreign money is not flowing into local elections through hard-to-trace corporate channels. This bill upholds the basic principles of American self-government, free from foreign influence. Foreign interference is a clear and present danger, but by closing this gaping loophole New Yorkers can stem the flow of foreign money in their own elections and lead the way for the rest of the nation.

***
Public Advocate Letitia James
John Bonifaz, President, Free Speech For People
Shanna Cleveland, Senior Counsel, Free Speech For People

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

 ]]>
Closing the Door on Foreign Money in New York City Elections Wed, 03 Oct 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Mayoral Charter Revision Commission Puts Three Questions on November Ballot http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7912-mayoral-charter-revision-commission-puts-three-questions-on-november-ballot http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7912-mayoral-charter-revision-commission-puts-three-questions-on-november-ballot charter revision commission 2018

The Charter Revision Commission (photo via Charter Commission)


After months of meetings and deliberations, thousands of suggestions and dozens of hours of public hearings, the charter revision commission created by Mayor Bill de Blasio voted to put three broad questions on the ballot in November. If approved by voters, the proposals would significantly reduce campaign contribution limits in city elections, create a new agency to civically engage the public, and apply term limits and appointment reforms to community boards.

De Blasio created the commission to review the city charter with an eye on reducing the impact of wealthy donors and special interests in electoral campaigns and drawing more New Yorkers to participate in elections and civic life. The 13-member commission largely stuck by that mandate, though it did consider and reject other significant proposals including independent redistricting of City Council districts and instant runoff voting, also known as ranked choice voting, which the mayor does not support. (A separate City Council-created charter revision commission is also beginning public hearings this month and could possibly take up the issues left unresolved by the mayoral commission. It will recommend ballot questions in 2019.)

On Tuesday, the members of the mayoral commission met for the final time, at the New York Historical Society west of Central Park, to approve their final report and three “yes” or “no” questions that will be put to voters on the November 6 general election ballot.

“Our job was to try to figure out what could make our city more just, more fair and more democratic and then to put it on the ballot to see if New Yorkers wanted the city to be run in this new fashion,” said Cesar Perales, chair of the commission, on Tuesday. “That’s what we did. I think we did that well and it’s going to be up to the voters in November to determine whether or not these things would be better for our city.”

The first question proposes expansive reforms to the campaign finance law and the city’s public matching funds program, which incentivizes grassroots fundraising by matching the first $175 of every eligible campaign contribution at a 6-to-1 ratio for candidates who choose to participate in the program.

The proposal would reduce contribution limits for participants from $5,100 to $2,000 for citywide candidates, from $3,950 to $1,500 for candidates for borough president, and from $2,850 to $1,000 for City Council seats. The proposed limits for those who choose not to opt in to the program are $3,500, $2,500 and $1,500 respectively.

The proposal also increases the matching ratio to 8-to-1 for the first $250 raised by a citywide candidate and for the first $175 raised for all other seats. It would increase the cap on public funds disbursements from 55 percent to 75 percent of the spending limit for a seat, while also doling out the funds earlier in the election cycle.

There was some clear disagreement about how the new campaign finance rules would be applied. A majority of commissioners agreed that candidates should be able to choose to abide by the new rules for the next citywide primary in 2021, and that the rules would be mandatory thereafter.

Two of the commissioners, John Siegal and Wendy Weiser, disagreed with that implementation plan, though both voted to approve the question. “I do not think it is wise public policy to have a situation in which regulated parties get to make the decision as to whether they will or will not follow new regulations,” Siegal said. “I cannot think of another situation in which a regulatory agency has been put in that position. I do not think its necessary. I actually don’t think there’s any benefit to it.” He did, however, hold out hope that candidates would see the benefit of voluntarily participating, since the lower contribution limits would be accompanied by potentially more public funds.

“While I do share the concern about having a choice, I am heartened by the assurances that this is really unlikely to come to pass,” Weiser said, “that everyone is really likely to follow the new system. It is the one that makes much more sense.”

Carlo Scissura, the commission secretary, was the sole dissenting voice on the campaign finance question. He conceded that the commission published an “overall great report” but has in past hearings expressed doubts about increasing the taxpayer contribution by creating a larger public matching funds program. “I wish that on the campaign finance, that we took a little different approach but it does reflect the will of what we heard and the will of the majority of the commission,” he said.

The second question, which was unanimously approved, would create a new 15-member Civic Engagement Commission, with eight appointed by the mayor -- including the chair and executive director -- two by the City Council speaker and one each by the five borough presidents. The mayor would have to appoint at least one member from each of the city’s largest and second-largest political parties, which, likely in perpetuity, means Democrats and Republicans.

Among the roles the commission would play are administering a citywide participatory budgeting program starting in 2020 (it’s currently employed by City Council members in dozens of districts); providing interpreters at poll sites; working on civic engagement with advocacy groups and nonprofit service providers, with a particular eye on outreach to limited English-language speakers; and providing annual reports on progress on those fronts. The proposal also allows the mayor to delegate more powers and responsibilities to the commission.

The notion of an Office of Civic Engagement has recently been pushed forward by City Council Member Brad Lander, who has introduced legislation to create one. If approved, the charter revision creation of such a commission would appear to negate Lander’s legislation. The Brooklyn Council member testified to the commission about the idea of creating a civic engagement body and has held his legislation as the charter commission proceeded with its work.

The most controversial proposals the commission is putting on the November ballot deal with community boards, the most local form of city government. The third question would establish staggered term limits for community board members, to reduce mass simultaneous turnover. Those members appointed or reappointed on or after April 1, 2019, would be allowed to serve four consecutive two-year terms; those appointed on April 1, 2020 may serve five terms; and those appointed after that would again only serve four terms.

The commission also recommended changes to the appointment process, to make it consistent across the five boroughs and to promote diverse membership. The civic engagement commission, if passed, would also be tasked with providing technical assistance to community boards, particularly urban planning expertise and language access. Eleven commissioners voted in favor of the question, while Commissioner Angela Fernandez abstained from the vote.

The commission’s final report was also approved unanimously, and the questions will be delivered to the City Clerk to place on the ballot, giving the commission two months to educate and inform New Yorkers that they’ll be able to choose more than just candidates in November, when New Yorkers will be voting largely on state-level elected positions, including for Governor and members of the state Legislature.

“These reforms will go a long way toward strengthening our democracy and limiting the influence of big money in our elections,” Mayor de Blasio said in a statement. “There’s no doubt in my mind that these measures will help us build a more fair and equitable city.”

***
by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

]]>
Mayoral Charter Revision Commission Puts Three Questions on November Ballot Tue, 04 Sep 2018 04:00:00 +0000