Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/84 Sun, 16 Jun 2019 17:03:58 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) De Blasio's End-of-Session Albany Agenda http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8566-de-blasio-s-end-of-session-albany-agenda http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8566-de-blasio-s-end-of-session-albany-agenda mayor bdb carls assembly

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


With 11 days of state legislative session left, including Monday, Mayor Bill de Blasio headed to Albany to confab with Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie to push for several legislative priorities.

Among the major items on his agenda, according to mayoral spokesperson Freddi Goldstein, are reforming rent regulations, legalizing marijuana, eliminating the Specialized High School Admission Test (SHSAT), authorizing design-build contracting at several city agencies, expanding the discretionary threshold for awarding contracts to minority- and women-owned businesses (MWBEs), restoring employer protection provisions for school bus contracts, repealing Section 50-a of the state Civil Rights law, which shields disciplinary records of police officers, parole reform, and allowing judges to consider dangerousness of an individual as a factor when determining bail.

"There's a lot going on in the final weeks here of the legislative session," de Blasio said at a Monday afternoon news conference, before meeting with legislative leaders. "I want to say at the outset, I want to express my admiration for Speaker Heastie and Leader Stewart-Cousins. What they've achieved already this year has been remarkable, it’s been historic. A lot more is going to happen over the next few weeks. This is going to be judged as one of the great legislative sessions in many decades."

De Blasio has mostly been quiet about his Albany priorities ahead of the June 19 end of the scheduled session, at which time a typical “big ugly” mash-up of bills may again pass through the Legislature and be approved by the governor. Active on the presidential campaign trial, de Blasio is making his presence felt in the state capital at what he says is the right time, given that little is decided in Albany before the final days before a budget is due or the legislative session ends. Questions linger, though, about de Blasios’ focus on his mayoral duties, including pushing his state agenda, and about what kind of clout the mayor has among state leaders.

Unlike past years, where the mayor had to contend with a hostile Republican-controlled Senate, de Blasio finds himself in a stronger position as he negotiates with and lobbies his own Democratic allies. The mayor did not meet with Governor Andrew Cuomo on Monday but, on a few items on his list, he finds himself on the same page as Cuomo, who listed his own ten legislative priorities last week.

Cuomo’s top priorities include rent regulation reform, strengthening the state’s MWBE program, strengthening state sexual harassment laws, legalizing paid surrogacy, banning the ‘gay and trans panic defense’ for violent crimes, passing an Equal Rights amendment to the state constitution, approving drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants, ending the statute of limitations for second- and third-degree rape, passing a prevailing wage requirement for certain private construction, and pay equity for women.

“The first opportunity to pass these things was in the budget, so the items that are left are the items that we couldn’t pass in the budget for one reason or another,” Cuomo said at an unrelated news conference. “Either they were too difficult or we just couldn’t get to them as a matter of time.”

Rent regulations
In a May 20 op-ed for The New York Daily News, de Blasio railed against state rent regulations, which are expiring June 15 and apply to roughly 1 million New York City apartments, home to about twice that many New Yorkers.

Democrats, in control of both houses of the Legislature for the first time in nearly a decade, are advancing a massive overhaul of the current state rent laws that housing and tenant advocates have blamed for increasing unaffordability and a housing crisis in the state. It’s unclear at this time, however, if the Assembly majority, Senate majority, and Cuomo can get on the same page with exactly how aggressive they want to be in favor of tenants. So far, de Blasio has sounded mostly aligned with Cuomo, a bit more moderate than where Assembly Democrats say they want to go with the laws. The Senate majority has not outlined its agenda.

“For 25 years, the landlord lobby has had the upper hand writing these rent laws,” de Blasio wrote. “Now, we have a chance to do right by tenants and close the loopholes landlords have exploited. People’s homes and security are on the line. There’s no higher priority for the days left this session in Albany. I’m ready to fight alongside tenants, shoulder to shoulder, to get this done once and for all.”

Last week, in a Friday interview on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show, de Blasio again said his top agenda item is reforming rent regulations. “Well on the Albany I’d say rent, rent and rent,” de Blasio told Brian Lehrer. “I mean overwhelmingly, number one is to strengthen rent control, get rid of vacancy decontrol, get rid of the vacancy bonus, fix the whole situation with the major capital improvements and the apartment improvements so that tenants are not paying through the nose and constantly paying for something even after it’s already been paid off, protect folks who have preferential rents, you know, stop the abuse of them.”

Marijuana Legalization
De Blasio also insisted that the legalization of adult use of marijuana should be “done the right way.” It has been looking increasingly likely that marijuana legalization will again fall off the table as decisions are made in the capital. Cuomo has repeatedly said he doesn’t believe the votes are there in the Senate to pass legalization, citing reports from the Senate Democrats themselves.

“I still think it might happen, Brian, but I’m adamant about the fact it cannot lead to a new corporate reality and I fear this deeply that legalization of marijuana creates a new tobacco industry or a new opioid industry done the wrong way,” de Blasio said. “If New York State as a progressive state is going to legalize marijuana it has to be done in a way that really empowers community-based businesses particularly in communities of color that suffered for so long because of draconian laws that sent people to prison for low-level drug offenses.”

On Monday, he reiterated that position. "We have a chance to get it right. It does not have to be a sector dominated by big corporations. It can be something very different, and New York State has the power to do that, and that's what I'm going to fight for," he said. 

SHSAT
The SHSAT is a single test used to determine admission to the city’s eight specialized high schools, per state law that applies to the three most prominent of the eight. But de Blasio has sought to scrap the test in part to diversify the student population at those high schools, where black and Latino students are vastly underrepresented.

Though the mayor has the ability to eliminate the test at five of the eight schools, he has instead sought state authorization to do away with the test entirely. It is a controversial stance that has backers and opponents, and it appears unlikely that the Legislature and Cuomo will come to resolution on the issue by the end of session.

Design-Build
Design-build allows government agencies and authorities to solicit bids for infrastructure projects that, as the name suggests, combine both the designing and building aspects in one contract. It streamlines procurement, cutting down on time and costs. But New York City agencies need the state’s approval to use design-build, and Mayor de Blasio has repeatedly pushed for it to little avail. 

"Design- build is not high profile, but it's high impact," the mayor said on Monday. "We’re talking about a methodology that saves across many, many construction projects, can save literally billions of dollars, can save years of construction time, much better for neighborhoods." The key agencies and authorities for which the mayor is seeking design build authority are the Department of Transportation, Department of Design and Construction, the Parks Department, Health + Hospitals, and the New York City Housing Authority.

MWBE Discretionary Funding
In the last few years, the city has successfully lobbied the state to increase the value of city contracts that can be awarded to Minority- and Women-Owned Business Enterprises (MWBEs) from $20,000 for goods and services to $150,000. Last year, the city awarded $3.7 billion in contracts to MWBEs, up from $1.6 billion in 2015. In March, de Blasio announced a state proposal that would expand the discretionary threshold to $1 million, estimating that it would increase MWBE contract awards by $500 million each year. 

Reforming 50-a
Section 50-a of the state Civil Rights law prohibits the disclosure of the personnel records of police officers. Though the statute was not enforced for decades, the NYPD under de Blasio began to use it to prevent the disciplinary records of officers from being released to the public. De Blasio has defended the department’s about-face on the policy as simply compliance with the law, but has repeatedly said he supports reforming the statute, a position that has been echoed by NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill.

Bail and Parole Reform
Earlier this year, the state Legislature passed several criminal justice reforms, including severely limiting the use of cash bail. But, while reform advocates want to completely eliminate cash bail, de Blasio has instead supported a “dangerousness” standard that would allow judges to factor in whether a defendant could pose a risk to public safety. "Remember, there are some people who are profoundly dangerous who have a proven, unfortunately, a proven record of being dangerous to their communities, but are not a flight risk," de Blasio said Monday. "In those cases, [the] judge’s hands are tied and they do not have a ready way to hold them in the way they need to. We need to come up with a very precise definition of dangerousness so that it is not overused. But I think that's something that can and should be done while this legislature is still in session." Even as they accepted compromise on significant limits to the use of cash bail, legislators who backed bail reform have mostly balked at the idea of creating a “dangerousness” standard.

De Blasio is also in support of a bill, sponsored by Assemblymember Walter Mosley and State Senator Brian Benjamin, that would prevent parolees from being sent to jail for non-criminal, technical violations. The measure would further reduce the population of Rikers Island, which is necessary for the city’s plan to close the scandal-plagued jail complex. De Blasio has also pushed for New York State parolees to be removed from city jails, which the administration says is the only population that has been increasing at Rikers.

Employer Protection Provisions
De Blasio has pushed since 2014 to restore Employee Protection Provisions (EPPs) to all school bus contracts awarded by the Department of Education. EPPs require bus companies to hire workers based off a seniority list, to ensure adequate wages and pension benefits. The inclusion of EPPs has been a priority for the New York City Council as well; the Council’s Committee on Education passed a resolution last week calling on the state Legislature to approve EPPs in all current and future bus contracts.

MIssing from De Blasio’s End of Session Agenda
De Blasio’s recent comments and the list provided by his spokesperson do not include a variety of policies that the mayor has either expressed support for or interest in seeing addressed by state government. These include legalization of certain e-bikes and e-scooters, aggressive climate protection legislation, and more.

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

Read more by this writer.

Note - This article has been updated to note that Mayor de Blasio supports reforming Section 50-a of the Civil Rights Law, not repealing it. 

Note - This article has been updated with the mayor's comments from a Monday news conference.

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De Blasio's End-of-Session Albany Agenda Mon, 03 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
For Ruben Diaz Jr., a Booming Bronx and Plan to Run on Development http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8565-for-ruben-diaz-jr-a-booming-bronx-and-plan-to-run-on-development http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8565-for-ruben-diaz-jr-a-booming-bronx-and-plan-to-run-on-development Ruben Dia Jr.

Ruben Diaz Jr. (photo: Diaz Jr.'s office)


Development in the Bronx has defined Ruben Diaz Jr.’s borough presidency, now in its tenth year and coinciding with record economic expansion across the city and country coming out of the Great Recession. And Diaz Jr. has defined his borough presidency –– and plans to build his upcoming run for Mayor –– around economic and housing development.

The Bronx has seen $18.96 billion poured into development since 2009, the majority of which has gone to residential units, according to the borough president’s most recent development report. Diaz Jr. releases an annual report on commercial and housing development in the Bronx and holds a celebratory event to tout the investment.

During his 2019 state of the borough address, Diaz Jr. recalled his first address in 2010. “That day, I laid out the beginnings of a conceptual master plan for our borough,” which included “encouraging new developments of all types,” he said. “Our work over the past decade in the Bronx has had a powerful impact,” Diaz Jr. declared before praising low unemployment rates.

Since the start of his tenure as the Bronx’s top figurehead, Diaz Jr. has espoused a vision of growth in the borough driven by community-centric development, where housing and employment opportunities flourish for Bronxites across the economic spectrum, and displacement is avoided. In short, all the good of gentrification without the bad.

It’s a vision of relatively rapid improvement for the borough with the highest, but decreasing, poverty and crime rates that creates opportunity for struggling Bronxites and attracts new people to the Bronx to set up or work at new businesses and obtain reasonably-priced housing and reasonable commutes to Manhattan.

As Diaz Jr. begins his campaign for mayor ahead of the June 2021 Democratic primary that is likely to all-but-decide the city’s next chief executive, assessing how well he has executed his vision and his overall legacy is challenging, in part because the position of borough president is largely ceremonial and coordinative.

Helping to usher in development is one concrete way in which the job of borough president can be performed, though, and given how Diaz Jr. heralds his tenure on the subject and plans to center it in his mayoral run, it is an essential area to dissect.

The reality of Diaz Jr.’s tenure when it comes to development is of course complicated, and reality is a bit murkier than the borough president presents in his public comments.

While development has proliferated in the Bronx, with dozens of land use rule-changes approved since 2009 to help developers build more and bigger, unemployment is still higher than the rest of the city, homeownership rates are still low, and some Bronxites have been displaced. And the true impacts of some development and land use decisions won’t be felt for years more to come.

Diaz Jr., consistently burnishing a reputation as a pro-growth leader of the city’s poorest borough, has staunchly denied that significant displacement has occurred and has fired back at critics who say otherwise.

In 2015, a professed resident of the south Bronx called into WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show –– which was hosting Diaz Jr. and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer to discuss gentrification and de Blasio’s then-new Mandatory Inclusionary Housing plan –– to implore Diaz Jr. to “wake up” in the face of what the caller deemed “out of touch” leadership in which “people are being pushed out daily.”

The borough president shot back. “No one can prove to me that we forced one community out to bring another one in,” he said. “If you look at all of the 17,000 units of housing that I’ve been a part of in the last six years, the overwhelming majority of that have been for low-income. Unfortunately, there's folks like yourself and others who have your own agenda and you're not in reality. You're not really paying attention to all the good things that we're doing.”

Diaz Jr. told the caller about a land use hearing he held with the community that he “didn’t have to have,” a common refrain from the borough president when he exceeds the technical duties of his office (which has limited powers but does influence land use matters), during which he listened to “more than 50 testimonies” and voted with the community against the early iteration of the mayor’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing program.

MIH requires certain amounts and levels of income-targeted “affordable housing” within larger projects when developers receive city permission to build bigger than previous land use rules would allow (otherwise known as an upzoning). Questions have long abound as to whether the city’s income targets for “affordable housing” are really appropriately low enough to match New Yorkers in most need.

The borough president went on to say that the unemployment rate was cut by half during his tenure, that his administration “has done three developments for military veterans” –– a specific concern from the caller, a veteran who said he’s not receiving proper help –– and that he created jobs.

Diaz Jr. was largely correct in his assessment of the Bronx’s economic growth -- housing and jobs have expanded greatly over the last ten years in a borough that had immense opportunity for investors, especially as crime has also dropped significantly in recent decades and the city’s population has steadily climbed. The Bronx also offers a great deal of parkland and key long-standing attractions like the Bronx Zoo and Yankee Stadium.

“The Bronx is booming, so Ruben can certainly beat his chest with that,” said Bob Kappstatter, a political and media consultant, and longtime former Bronx bureau chief for the New York Daily News.

But the question of whom deserves credit for these benchmarks is complicated.

Unemployment has fallen drastically and job creation has surged in the Bronx over Diaz Jr.’s borough presidency; but he assumed the position in 2009 just after the economic crash and carried out his limited duties during a time of historic national and citywide growth. Developers and investors clearly began to see the Bronx as a more desirable place to do business, and it likely helped to have a borough president who rolled out a welcome mat.

Diaz Jr. has helped build housing for veterans and other Bronxites with special needs, but he’s also backed luxury developments that have priced locals out, rent burden rates continue to soar, and the tenant eviction rate in the Bronx is dramatically higher than anywhere else in the city.

Overall, Diaz Jr. has supported diverse development projects, from high-end housing to NYCHA infill and 100% “affordable” buildings, using what he calls a neighborhood-by-neighborhood approach to achieve his goal of a mixed-income borough. It’s an approach that has largely been in line with both mayors, Michael Bloomberg and Bill de Blasio, who have held office during his tenure as borough president, and whom he hopes to succeed come January 1, 2022 on a campaign platform that will center on his record of bringing development to the Bronx.

An Especially Strong Borough President
The primary responsibilities of borough presidents are providing guidance on land-use matters, appointing community board members, and serving as an ambassador for the borough. While borough presidents have few binding powers, they can show significant strength with the right allies to push their agenda forward.

“Borough presidents are cheerleaders,” said Kappstatter, “and he’s done a pretty good job.”

Diaz Jr. has amassed significant power in the Bronx as part of a small group of officials leading the county’s Democratic Party apparatus, most notably state Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, who led the county party until his 2015 ascension to the powerful speakership, and current county party chair Marcos Crespo, who serves in the Assembly. The Bronx Democrats are intensely focused on electing Diaz Jr. mayor in the 2021 election. Crespo, Heastie, and Diaz Jr. closely run Democratic politics in the borough as tightly as possible.

The borough president also has an important close relationship with Governor Andrew Cuomo, now a third-term Democrat, and many members of the state Assembly (where he served from 1997 through 2009), state Senate, and City Council, where his controversial father, Ruben Diaz Sr. now serves. With Cuomo, Diaz Jr. appeared to be developing an especially close bond, with the governor regularly hosting events in the Bronx where he and the borough president would heap praise on each other. That pattern has slowed recently.

Meanwhile, Diaz Jr. often finds himself having to distance himself from his father’s remarks and positions, especially on LGBT and women’s rights issues.

Diaz Jr. worked well with former Mayor Bloomberg, with whom he shared a more aggressive vision of development, but has clashed with Mayor de Blasio on several fronts, including the specific terms of Mandatory Inclusionary Housing, wherein Diaz Jr. wanted more flexibility for borough presidents and local officials to negotiate with developers and foster mixed-income housing, and the fate of the Kingsbridge Armory.

The Bronx Democratic Party is an insular but powerful group that works to elect Democrats to every position possible, a highly-achievable goal in the Bronx where Democrats far outnumber Republicans, and supports candidates who will work to elevate each other’s political power. Crespo, who interned for Diaz Jr. in 2003, has led the party since 2015, when Heastie rose to the Assembly speakership and became one of the three most powerful people in state government, along with the leader of the state Senate and the Governor.

During his early political career and time in the Assembly, Diaz Jr. and Heastie became quite close. In 2008, Diaz Jr. was integral to elevating Heastie’s career; as part of the “rainbow rebels,” a small group of black and Hispanic lawmakers, he successfully pushed for Heastie to oust Jose Rivera, a formerly influential Assembly member, as head of the Bronx Democratic Party.

Heastie has been instrumental in constructing new schools and after-school centers in the Bronx, among other spoils that come with heights of political power. And since rising to the Assembly speakership, Heastie holds significant power in setting the state’s legislative and budgetary agenda.

With difficult, expensive projects in the works, like new MetroNorth stations and the planned Kingsbridge National Ice Center, which has stagnated over the years due to a lack of funding, Heastie is a vital ally for Diaz Jr. As is Cuomo, though Cuomo and Heastie have been on colder terms over the past year, which could impact Cuomo’s potential support for Diaz Jr.’s mayoral bid. The 2021 Democratic primary for mayor is expected to be a crowded and highly competitive affair; a race that is already in motion and is expected to kick into another gear in 2020.

Diaz Jr. also works closely with Rafael Salamanca, whom he appointed to a Bronx community board and went on to win a seat in the City Council in a 2016 special election. Salamanca now serves as the chair of the powerful City Council Land Use Committee, the result of a deal reached to help elevate Corey Johnson to the speakership of the City Council. Since that deal, Johnson has emerged as a more powerful political force than some imagined, and is now a likely mayoral candidate in 2021, competing against Diaz Jr. and other likely candidates such as Comptroller Scott Stringer and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, and whomever else may throw their hats into the ring.

These relationships enable Diaz Jr. to advance his agenda (and build his brand) through New York’s complex governmental processes and bureaucracies, from the start of the city land use process at the community board level all the way through the City Council, with support at the highest levels of state governance. Diaz Jr. will have whatever weight the Bronx Democratic Party can bring to bear for his mayoral run, and the machine’s often close relationship to its Queens counterpart could also be helpful (Heastie and Diaz Jr. both recently endorsed Queens Borough President Melinda Katz in her Queens Democratic Party-backed run for District Attorney.)

Unsurprisingly, Diaz Jr. has another layer of support from the real estate industry, as evidenced by his approach to development and campaign donations he has received.

A Gotham Gazette analysis of Diaz Jr.’s filings with the city’s Campaign Finance Board shows that 38% of contributions of $1,000 or more to his three borough president campaigns came from individuals in the real estate industry, including developers, realtors, architects, and construction firms.

“Campaign finance considerations have no influence on the work of the borough president and his office,” Diaz Jr.’s office told Gotham Gazette in a statement.

In recent months, Diaz Jr. has spent substantial time courting developers and investors, in addition to meetings with close allies, according to considerably redacted copies of his daily schedule from February through April of this year, attained by Gotham Gazette through the Freedom of Information law. The schedules show the borough president’s appointments and their locations, but appear to repeatedly black out the topics of the specific meetings, whether with developers or former Bronx Borough President and mayoral candidate Freddy Ferrer, or others.

Goals and Rhetoric Compared to Reality
Diaz Jr. has helped champion and spearhead development in the Bronx, with a stated goal of rendering the borough a destination that New Yorkers want to move to rather than leave. He has argued that doing so requires a diverse economy with residents of all income levels, while striking the right balance between development and community benefit.

In 2009, as Diaz Jr. delivered his inauguration speech to an adoring crowd in Lehman College in the aftermath of the economic crash, he told the people of the Bronx, “Perhaps the most important piece of our agenda is going to be economic development.”

Over the following 10 years, Diaz Jr. has sought to bear out his vision through mass development, creating job, housing, commercial, and recreational opportunities. But at the same time, he’s promised to keep the community at the core of his actions. In his view, he said in 2010, “When developers want to do business in our borough, they must do what is right for the entire Bronx and not just themselves.”

“We cannot accept that the minimum wage is the best salary a developer can offer while they take so heavily from taxpayers’ wallets,” Diaz Jr. continued. “If you want charity, you must be charitable. If you want a public benefit, your project must benefit the public.”

As he pushed for balanced development, Diaz Jr. criticized Mayor de Blasio’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing plan, which mandates that developers allowed to build bigger than they otherwise would be able to set aside a certain portion of new housing at “affordable” rents.

Diaz Jr. pushed the City Council to vote against an early version of the plan in 2015, as did many other city officials and community board members. Though, he had a more complicated argument than most critics, who largely said that the MIH plan did not go far enough to mandate deeply affordable housing: Diaz Jr. wanted more options for local officials to use to negotiate with developers, both in terms of lower- and higher-income regulations. He issued a statement at the time that read, “the proposal as it stands would not fully realize the goal of truly mixed-income communities.”

After pushback from a broad cohort of city officials and others, de Blasio offered a new MIH plan in 2016 with a broader variety of thresholds for affordable housing “bands” that could be selected during a rezoning. “While the housing deal does not go as far to assist the low income community as many of us had hoped,” Diaz Jr. wrote in a statement at the time, “it is an encouraging step in the right direction.”

Two years later, Diaz Jr. praised the construction of Martin Luther King Plaza in Mott Haven, which contains 166 affordable units, 67 of which are permanently affordable. Forty-six of the permanently affordable units were “made possible through MIH,” a 2018 statement from Diaz Jr. reads. Many Bronx developments are taking place under new MIH terms, whether through a neighborhood rezoning or specific plot upzonings that trigger MIH.

Monxo López, adjunct professor of Latino studies and politics at Hunter College and co-founder of activist group South Bronx Unite, said that the borough has undergone a sudden change after the decades of systemic disinvestment, blazing fires, and the dereliction of housing.

Now, he said, “we see an over-interest in exploiting our land, the value of our land, a land that is valuable and has become valuable because of the real existing efforts to make this place––meaning Mott Haven and the South Bronx, and the Bronx in general––a livable place.”

Meanwhile, Diaz Jr. has remained rhetorically committed to community-centric development, which he championed in his 2014 state of the borough address. He pointed to the Kingsbridge Armory as the paragon of his vision for the Bronx: the former military structure is set to be developed into an ice rink, after long discussions with community members to ensure protections of local jobs and housing. The project has been severely stalled.

“We have set a new standard for responsible development. That, ladies and gentlemen, is planning with a purpose. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the Diaz doctrine.”

The reality in the Bronx has been complicated.

While development has superficially improved the Bronx, replacing burnt out or vacant lots with new buildings, the community of people who already lived in the borough, especially its most downtrodden and poor areas, is not always the recipient of growth.

“It’s like both things are going on at once,” said Elliott Liu, an activist in the Bronx and graduate student in anthropology. “You have all sorts of new buildings going up...but at least a handful of people get evicted.”

A 2019 report from the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development (ANHD) showed rampant threats to affordable housing in the Bronx.

Mott Haven and Kingsbridge are home to some of the highest rates of housing price change in the city. And of the 10 neighborhoods with the highest number of evictions executed by court-ordered marshals in 2018, seven were in the Bronx. The report also ranks six Bronx neighborhoods in the top 11 neighborhoods citywide undergoing serious threats to affordable housing.

“Homelessness is still a big issue, and where is homelessness coming from? Gentrification and rising rents,” said Kappstatter. But, he added, “you can’t blame Ruben on this one, this is a citywide issue.”

Massive economic growth characterized the economy over the past ten years, especially in New York City, and the effects spread to the Bronx. According to a state comptroller report, since 2010, the number of businesses in the Bronx has grown by 17%, reaching nearly 18,000, and the population of the Bronx has been the fastest growing county in the state, largely driven by immigration.

In 2017, unemployment in the Bronx reached its lowest point since 1990 at 6.2%, according to the state comptroller report––but that still leaves Bronx County behind, with the seventh highest unemployment rate in the state and higher than the citywide rate of 4.5%.

After a difficult history of a decreasing population and divestment from housing, the Bronx had 498,500 occupied housing units in 2016, according to the state comptroller report. That number has remained fairly steady since Diaz Jr.’s earliest years in office; in 2010, the Bronx housed 472,464 occupied units, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Other housing metrics show a bleaker picture of the borough over the past ten years: 60% of Bronx households put at least 30% of their income toward rent, “higher than in any other borough and six percentage points higher than the citywide share,” according to the state comptroller report. The number of households who used half their income for rent grew by 19% between 2007 and 2016.

Bronx County has the second lowest rate of homeownership in the country, though Manhattan and Brooklyn follow closely behind, according to a 2016 study from New York University’s Furman Center and Citi. The most recent available federal data on homeownership shows a rebound in the Bronx’s homeownership rate starting in 2016 after a steady decline in 2009, following the recession that included the home foreclosure crisis.

Eviction numbers in the Bronx further challenge the notion that development will lead to affordable housing for all: 6,858 tenants were evicted in the Bronx in 2018––more than any other borough, while it has the fourth-highest population, according to City Council eviction data. The eviction rate in the Bronx is one eviction per 79 units. The next highest rate is one eviction per 180 units, in Brooklyn, and Manhattan has the lowest eviction rate at one per 345 units.

“For the past decade,” said Diaz Jr.’s spokesperson, John DeSio, in a brief written statement to Gotham Gazette, “the borough president has worked assiduously to build affordable housing and fight displacement, create new jobs, protect NYCHA residents, improve health and educational outcomes, and continue to make the Bronx an even greater place to live, work and raise a family.”

Though Diaz Jr. has promoted commercial development, job growth has not necessarily followed.

Many other commercial development projects that Diaz Jr. has favored have been concentrated in Mott Haven. But the unemployment rate in the neighborhood is at 16%, according to a 2015 study from the Health Department. And Co-Op City, the neighborhood home to the Mall at Bay Plaza––a development project Diaz Jr. praised as a major success––has seen some of the lowest job growth in the borough, according to the state comptroller report.

Diaz Jr. once fully welcomed the Trump Links project in the Bronx’s Throggs Neck neighborhood, but he has since walked his enthusiasm back. In his 2014 state of the borough speech, Diaz Jr. hailed the golf course as a harbinger of job creation and prosperity. “Donald Trump understands the power of his brand, and we are now partners. That is the ‘New Bronx.’”

The golf course opened in April 2015 and Diaz Jr. was one of the first golfers to play on the course, according to DNAInfo. But when Trump announced his presidential campaign that June using racist rhetoric, Diaz Jr. decided to boycott the course. He had already been vexed by Trump’s marketing of the golf course as located in “Ferry Point,” according to DNAInfo. He argued the advertising obscured the golf course’s connection to the borough as it is not the name of any of the Bronx’s neighborhoods. Business at the golf course slumped since Trump assumed the presidency, according to the Washington Post. Diaz Jr. has repeatedly condemned Trump on a slew of the president’s statements and policies.

“Our work over the past decade has borne real fruit,” Diaz Jr.’s spokesperson wrote. “We are shedding the stigma that has dogged this borough for so long, and we are building a brighter future for everyone.”

Several examples show Diaz Jr.’s approach to major projects that will in part determine his legacy as borough president and the future of affordability and opportunity in the Bronx.

La Central and Mixed-Rate Development
Mixed-income development is at the crux of Diaz Jr.’s plan for the Bronx, and perhaps, if he ascends to the mayor’s office as he hopes, for the city at large. Diaz Jr. has touted his case-by-case approach to development with resources allotted as necessary.

La Central, if all goes according to plan during its construction, will test this approach. The project embodies the tensions at the heart of the development debate in the Bronx: it will reserve housing for the borough’s most vulnerable citizens, coupled with glossy amenities like a recording studio.

Leaders across the state praised the five-building La Central development, designed to function as a community space as much as a housing complex. The buildings in the Melrose neighborhood are slotted to fill a formerly vacant lot with more than 800 units of sub-market rate (“affordable”) housing.

Land use documents show that La Central plans to bring 832 “affordable” housing units to the borough –– defined as scaled for Bronxites who earn 30-130% of the area median income –– including 160 units reserved specifically for homeless veterans and Bronxites with HIV/AIDS. The complex will also host community spaces including a YMCA, daycare services, a 25-story Astronomy Tower, farm space, a skate park, and a recording studio. Locals have sought to reserve half the units for residents of Melrose and the nearby Mott Haven and Port Morris neighborhoods, in addition to efforts to hire locally.

The buildings are also situated near the shared 2 and 5 train station, a Metro-North stop, and several bus stops, in the vein of increasingly popular Transit-Oriented Development, which seeks to create more housing near transit hubs and decrease reliance on cars globally.

“La Central is an exemplar proposal that will fill a gaping void that has plagued The Hub for decades,” Diaz Jr. said at the time. The project earned the unanimous approval of the City Council after it was pledged to reserve a number of apartments at rental rate of $640 per month and the use of union labor for construction.

Breaking Ground, Hudson Companies, BRP Companies and ELH-TKC are each developing parts of La Central, with $100 million of funding from Wells Fargo.

“I want to note the level of outreach the development team has given to my office,” Diaz Jr. wrote in his non-binding approval of the project in June of 2016, complimenting the regular conference calls that he said developers set up and their willingness to change the buildings’ design to better fit with the Bronx’s “warmer color” aesthetic. “I welcome this diverse, truly mixed-use, transit oriented development. I am proud to have contributed $1.5 million toward its development.”

The project has hit some logistical snags along the way.

The Department of Buildings recently placed a stop work order on one of La Central’s buildings after a loose piece of equipment injured a construction worker’s neck and landed him in the hospital. The building received a more minor stop work order late last year after contractors failed to properly update the Department of Buildings, though it was later rescinded.

The Westchester-based construction company, Mountco Construction & Development, has been charged with a host of violations since the project broke ground, resulting in a total of $28,145.95 in fines for the two buildings slated for full affordability, compared to the other three mixed-rate buildings. Mountco could not be reached for comment.

The architect, FX Collaborative, has designed buildings across the world, from Dubai to Hudson Yards. It holds social responsibility as one of its foremost principles and wrote that their design for La Central “will provide a diversity of environments connected to the larger context.”

Residents harbor mixed feelings toward the project. “La Central is continuously called a ‘transformative’ development for the Bronx, but what does that mean for the local residents?” Ed García Conde, founder of welcome2thebronx.com, wrote. “Gentrification and displacement.”

Construction on La Central started in June 2017 and the first building is slated to open this summer.

Compass Residences and Luxury Development
This 1,279-unit market-rate development under the Third Avenue Bridge lies at the epicenter of gentrification in the South Bronx, alongside a coffee shop with $4 lattes, several restaurants, boutiques, and gyms.

The original developers, Somerset Partners and Chetrit Group, laid out their vision for the South Bronx’s future as “Williamsburg meets DUMBO.” Diaz Jr. nodded to the project in a 2015 speech citing the “complete metamorphosis of the Harlem River waterfront.” Last year, however, after a tumultuous three years of development, Somerset and Chetrit sold to Brookfield Property Group after Diaz Jr. courted Ric Clark, the company’s chairman, with a tour of the Bronx.

“From just south of the Third Avenue Bridge all the way to 149th Street,” Diaz Jr. said in 2015, “We found the opportunity for thousands of housing units of all kinds, new waterfront access, and park space.”

While residents hold varied feelings about gentrification, with some concerned about displacement and others who welcome new amenities, a near consensus emerged against the project’s original developers. The developers threw an infamous warehouse party with a “Bronx is Burning” theme that saw glamorous celebrities posing against fake bullet-ridden cars, harkening back to the Bronx’s difficult past, epitomized in the 1970s and ‘80s.

Somerset Partners notoriously sought to rebrand the South Bronx as the “Piano District” and plastered billboards in the area that promised “luxury waterfront living.” The billboard enraged locals and sparked the hashtag #WhatPianoDistrict among Bronxites who viewed the moniker as an erasure of the thriving community already in place. The group did not return repeated requests for comment.

Though Diaz Jr. himself disapproved of the “Bronx is Burning” theme and the “Piano District” moniker, they are emblematic of the types of mindsets that he has welcomed to the Bronx through his approach to pursuing development and a sense of the Bronx as a destination with at least some luxury experiences available.

Somerset and Chetrit sold the development to Brookfield Properties in 2018 for $165 million, the New York Post reported at the time. “Brookfield’s interest in the Bronx accelerated when Borough President Diaz invited Brookfield Properties’ Ric Clark on a tour of the borough,” said a spokesperson for the company. Brookfield Properties expects to reserve 30 percent of the units for sub-market rate housing, which would allow the company to claim a tax break.

The architecture firm, Hill West, partners with luxury developers, like the Trump Organization. Their history of community involvement includes contributions to major nonprofits like Habitat for Humanity, the SkyScraper Museum, and the Queens Library Foundation. The two buildings are currently under redesign to “optimize the functionality of the site,” according to a spokesperson from Brookfield Properties.

The Department of Buildings issued a stop work order to the Lincoln Avenue property last August for permit issues after two similar complaints. The violations have not yet been resolved and may result in a fine of just over $2,000.

FreshDirect and Community, Labor Tensions
In February 2012, Diaz Jr. took on the relocation of FreshDirect, the online service that delivers groceries directly to customers’ doors, to the South Bronx from Long Island City in Queens as a major project of his first term as borough president. In the time between then and the opening of FreshDirect’s new Port Morris warehouse in July 2018, the project was marked with bitter controversy.

A bidding war between the Bronx and New Jersey broke out to lure FreshDirect in 2012. A site in Port Morris along the Harlem River waterfront ultimately won out with over $100 million in state and city tax incentives.

When Diaz Jr., alongside Governor Cuomo and then-Mayor Bloomberg, announced the project, it was slated to bring $112.6 million in investment to the Bronx in addition to at least 2,000 construction and 1,000 permanent jobs, including holdovers from the Queens facility, according to the New York City Economic Development Corporation.

Once FreshDirect decided on the Port Morris site, activists sprung into action, denouncing the introduction of an extensive fleet of trucks into a neighborhood already suffering from poor air quality and the highest childhood asthma rate in New York City.

The conflict rose to the courts as activist group South Bronx Unite sued FreshDirect for violating environmental review laws. The state appellate court sided with FreshDirect. Diaz Jr. called the result a “victory not only for FreshDirect, but for the Bronx as a whole.”

FreshDirect exceeded its promise to bring 1,000 jobs, according to the company, which says it has hired 1,500 workers. The jobs now pay at least $15 per hour, in compliance with the state minimum wage.

But FreshDirect has a fraught history with employee unionization through the United Food and Commercial Workers, the group under which the company’s truck drivers are unionized and that has also sought to unionize the warehouse workers (in addition to other union groups). In 2014, 16 city and state officials signed a letter addressed to FreshDirect’s CEO, Jason Ackerman, encouraging the company to work with the union. Diaz Jr. did not sign the letter. In his office’s written statement to Gotham Gazette, his spokesperson neglected to address questions about this issue.

After difficult bargaining between FreshDirect and UFCW in 2014 to raise wages by roughly 20% over three years, from just over $10 per hour, Diaz Jr. said he was “very pleased” they could reach an agreement. Warehouse workers are still not unionized.

Though he shows no clear record of having gone to bat for FreshDirect workers in any meaningful way, the borough president has positioned himself as a champion of labor rights. In January 2018, following the Supreme Court’s Janus v. AFSCME decision, which ruled that public employees could opt out of paying dues, he said, “Our city and state must enact policies that prevent the erosion of rights that have been gained through union organizing and collective bargaining.”

NYCHA Infill
The Bronx is home to 44,292 NYCHA apartment units, according to the authority––the third-highest of the boroughs, after Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Diaz Jr. has frequently spoken out against poor conditions and mistreatment of NYCHA tenants, especially over heat and hot water outages during the winter of 2017 and into 2018.

The borough president has generally been in favor of NYCHA infill plans, or developing new privately-run buildings on NYCHA land to generate revenue for the cash strapped public housing authority through lease agreements. Though there are many forms it can take, infill is often opposed as a form of privatizing public assets and welcoming gentrification to low-income areas. Many infill proposals include a mix of affordable and market-rate housing given that market-rate units can raise more money for both developers and NYCHA.

In 2012, Diaz Jr. approved the construction of three buildings on NYCHA land: two affordable buildings with one reserved for seniors, and a third for more lavish townhouses. Diaz Jr. wrote in the ULURP application, “It is the eventual inclusion of this third phase [of townhouses] that makes this project all the more critical and reflective of my mixed-income community development policy.”

In 2018, Diaz Jr. resoundingly approved the ULURP application for a mixed-use building called Betances VI on NYCHA land with affordable housing, including 30 units for homeless and mentally-disabled Bronxites, and retail space.

“Betances VI represents a unique collaboration that will bring to the Mott Haven community of the Bronx affordable housing, new retail development, and perhaps most importantly of all, accommodations for some of our city’s most needy citizens,” he wrote.

Lemle and Wolff Companies developed both projects. The firm specializes in “construction and management of high-quality affordable housing,” according to its website. Five of the seven company’s principals have donated small amounts of money to one of Diaz Jr.’s borough presidency campaigns for a sum totaling $1,610, according to his campaign finances. That number jumps to $4,730 if including donations from the first principal Joseph Zitolo’s wife, Susan Zitolo. In 2015, The Daily News reported that the company owed $500,000 in backwages.

Community Board 1 disapproved the application, out of concern that Lemle and Wolff Companies would not be held accountable to providing adequate housing for the homeless, or play space for tenants’ children.

In response, Diaz Jr. said he understood the concerns, but that “affordable housing is vital, as too is giving people with a troubled past a chance to achieve success.”

At the same time, he’s spoken out strongly against developing over green space on NYCHA land. “That’s where children go out and play, that’s where seniors go out to sit and get fresh air,” he told The Observer in 2015.

Kingsbridge National Ice Center and Execution Difficulties
After years of contention between city and state officials over the decades-long vacancy of the Kingsbridge Armory, in 2012, a coalition including former Deutsche Bank executive Kevin Parker and a former New York Rangers star Mark Messier, proposed reconfiguring the empty former military structure into the world’s largest indoor ice rink: the Kingsbridge National Ice Center.

The Kingsbridge Armory has sat vacant since 1996 when it became city government property. The Related Companies won a bid to renovate the armory into a shopping mall with the support of then-Mayor Bloomberg. The 2009 proposal, however, resoundingly failed in the City Council with a vote of 45-1 (with some abstentions); the Council then overrode Bloomberg’s veto 48-1, over concerns surrounding traffic and wages for the potential mall workers. Diaz Jr. slammed the proposal, instead pushing for development legislation that mandated living wages for the future ice center’s employees.

A 2012 proposal revived renovation plans for the armory, leading to the Kingsbridge National Ice Center, envisioned by Diaz Jr. as launching the borough to further global prominence. During a 2014 speech, Diaz Jr. honored “the amazing new venture that will bring the world’s greatest ice sports complex ot our borough.”

Though the imposing structure has sat vacant for decades, neighboring residents did fear eventual displacement when the project neared approval. An agreement between the community and developer Kevin Parker, in part brokered by Diaz Jr and Council Member Fernando Cabrera, set in motion the final approval from the City Council in 2013.

According to the New York City Economic Development Corporation, the ice center will generate 890 construction jobs and 267 permanent jobs. Kingsbridge and the surrounding area has the highest unemployment rate in New York City. The Community Benefits Agreement stipulates living wages for all workers involved with the ice center, jobs for Bronxites, women and people of color, free access for local schools, a green action plan, and other clauses envisioned around the local community.

Despite the potential for community benefits, funding the ice center has posed a significant challenge. Issues related to funding also caused significant tension between Diaz Jr. and de Blasio, which came to a boil in 2016.

Previously slated to open in 2018, Parker and his partners are only now in final financing stages and, according to Crain’s New York Business, is projecting an opening in early 2022.

Diaz Jr. Eyes the Mayoralty
“If you’re a good politician,” Kappstatter, the political consultant, said on Diaz Jr.’s mayoral plans, “you’re running right now, not two years from now.”

As Diaz Jr. prepares to launch his mayoral run, the question becomes how his development legacy will translate citywide. He pitched himself as mayor on WBAI’s Max & Murphy radio show in March on his ability to create jobs and build housing, citing the borough’s unemployment and development statistics under his tenure. “We’ve been doing that, not just having businesses do business in the Bronx, but doing business with the Bronx,” he said when asked to give a preview of what his mayoral campaign message will be.

He concluded: “As we speak of equity, that’s going to be the message here. That this is a city here, where we can provide a better future, not just for some for but all. And we can do this together. Wee can do this in a practical, pragmatic, progressive way.”

Diaz Jr. has staked his legacy on his approach to development and pursuing a mixed-income borough, a “New Bronx” with more amenities and opportunities, and the larger picture of increased development in the Bronx over the last decade. He’s clearly preparing to argue that he’s helped lift up the Bronx at minimal cost to its residents in terms of displacement or lack of affordability moving forward.

The Bronx certainly remains a mixed-income borough, both in terms of residents’ earnings and the housing available. The questions for Diaz Jr. include whether he is seen as too close to real estate interests and whether the development he has touted has indeed been good for Bronxites, and how it is perceived.

According to data from the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, the borough is home to residents and housing across the economic spectrum in neighborhoods like Mott Haven and Hunts Point, where around 75% of the residential units are rented at market rate. In historically wealthier neighborhoods like Riverdale and Throggs Neck, those numbers jump to 88% and 97.6% respectively. But in lower income neighborhoods like Highbridge, market rate units account for 60.8% of housing.

Diaz Jr. has undoubtedly drawn close ties to the real estate industry, members of which are likely to continue to support him as his political profile grows. He has proven himself business-friendly, but sought the approval of unions, and he’s certainly had an eye on community development, job opportunity, and improving education.

Now with decades as an elected official and political player in the Bronx, he has close ties with many elected officials, club leaders, and others who may be ready to help him get elected citywide. Bringing home the Bronx in a mayoral run will be essential, and the borough is not known for its high voter turnout to begin with.

“Ruben’s eye is totally on the mayoral prize,” said Kappstatter.

“We hope that he goes back to those roots of listening to the community, trying to use his skills and intelligence to fight...for what is right for this borough,” said López, the professor and activist, as he said Diaz Jr. did with the Kingsbridge Armory.

“Will that happen? It’s totally up to him.”

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For Ruben Diaz Jr., a Booming Bronx and Plan to Run on Development Sun, 02 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
10 Issues to Watch in Albany’s Post-Budget Legislative Session http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8419-10-issues-to-watch-in-albany-s-post-budget-legislative-session http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8419-10-issues-to-watch-in-albany-s-post-budget-legislative-session Cuomo legislators bills

(photo: governor's office)


Although the state budget approved earlier this week included several progressive priorities for Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state Legislature, there are still three months left in the legislative session this year and a list of remaining items on which the governor and legislators have promised action.

Taking advantage of their party’s newfound control over both houses of the Legislature, Democrats moved a long list of bills already this year, both prior to and in the budget. Though there has been a level of expected divergence on some bills within the legislative chambers, and a more unexpected degree of infighting between the legislative leaders on one hand and the governor on the other, long-sought Democratic priorities have nonetheless advanced, from voting reforms to women’s reproductive rights to gun control and much more.

In a Sunday news conference outlining the details of the budget agreement that included congestion pricing, criminal justice reform and other new policies, Cuomo also laid out some unfinished business for the days ahead including legalizing the adult use of marijuana.

“We have not legalized cannabis, adult use cannabis. The political desire is there, I believe we will get it done,” Cuomo said. The governor had intended to use much of the estimated $300 million in annual revenue that would be raised from taxing marijuana sales to fund the MTA. But the proposal was pulled in different directions and it became apparent a few weeks before the April 1 budget deadline that a deal on all the intricacies of legalization was unlikely.

On the one hand, more conservative legislators and law enforcement officials raised concerns (some unfounded) about public safety, with several county leaders indicating they planned to opt out of allowing sales, and, on the other, lawmakers of color and criminal justice reformers wanted to see both opportunity and revenue go towards communities most impacted by marijuana enforcement. “It is complicated to come up with a program that does it and protects public safety, and does economic empowerment for communities that have paid the price,” Cuomo said. “And the best way to do it was not in the race of the budget.”

He also spoke of a desire to update the so-called public works bill to ensure workers receive a prevailing wage on construction projects receiving state benefits, and reform the state’s rent regulations, which expire in July. Along with marijuana legalization, rent regulations are expected to be the most controversial issues taken up in the remaining session.

In a Tuesday interview on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show, Cuomo in particular addressed reforming the Major Capital Improvements (MCI) law that allows landlords to substantially increase regulated rents after undertaking significant renovations. It is one of a small handful of rent regulations that legislators plan to strengthen -- others include preferential rents, the so-called vacancy bonus, and vacancy decontrol.

“That’s going to be I think a great reform for tenants and I believe we’ll get more than people have ever gotten before,” Cuomo said of MCI changes, “because it wasn’t just the real estate lobby, but there was a reluctance to deal with the details of how these laws actually work and we now have three months to focus just on these laws because we got so much done in the budget.”

On MCIs, Cuomo indicated what has become a popular Democratic position that even some in real estate see as potentially tenable: that landlords should be able to pass along some of the costs of improvements to tenants, but not necessarily in perpetuity. Some legislators want to abolish the MCI program altogether, though others, as well as real estate representatives, warn that could lead landlords to drastically limit investments in their buildings.

Cuomo also included several other priorities in his executive budget proposal that weren’t included in the adopted budget and could potentially be addressed in the next few months. He floated a proposal to allow municipalities to legalize the use of electronic scooters and bicycles, which criminal justice reform and immigration advocates in New York City are particularly eager to see approved. The city has been cracking down on e-bikes -- which are regularly used by restaurant delivery workers who are often immigrants -- and the City Council has been awaiting authorization from the state to legalize them.

State lawmakers and activists are also pushing a bill that would allow drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants, which would affect more than 700,000 immigrants living in New York. The governor has publicly said he supports it, but Gothamist reported last month that he was working behind the scenes to prevent its passage. The bill's Assembly sponsor, Bronx Assemblymember Marcos Crespo, had urged its inclusion in the budget, tweeting on March 27, "Senate and Assembly Dems should come together and support our immigrant families in This budget cycle." Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie responded to Crespo, saying the chamber would advance the bill after the budget. 

The governor has also proposed ending the state’s ban on paid surrogacy and just last week urged lawmakers to act. “It is unconscionable that people need to leave the state to have a child due to New York State's antiquated surrogacy laws,” he said in a statement. But surrogacy was not legalized in the budget.

Though there has been little discussion of legislation favorable to charter schools -- which have stronger allies in the Republican Party but also enjoy support from Cuomo and some Democrats -- there is a possibility that the state could look at expanding the cap on the number of charters in New York City, a threshold that was met for the first time this year.

In the Assembly, Speaker Heastie said Tuesday that his chamber would be “laser focused” on rent regulation, though he did not say whether it would take priority over marijuana legalization. “I don’t wanna say what’s bigger than the other but I think there’s 20-something years worth of history with rent regulations that I think has to be spoken about, talked about and fixed,” he told reporters outside his office, according to audio provided by a spokesperson. “So I’d say it’s going to be a huge, major focus of ours.”

He also said “there’s support within the conference to do universal rent control. In the Assembly we don’t just wanna seem like we care about the tenants in New York City...We want to protect tenants all across the state.”

Two significant proposals that gained little traction, outside of advocacy circles, prior to the budget were the New York Health Act and the Climate and Community Protection Act.

The NYHA, led by Assemblymember Richard Gottfried and Senator Gustavo Rivera, would establish a single-payer health care system in the state. Cuomo has supported the principle, but insists that it should be federally funded rather than putting the state’s finances in jeopardy. It remains to be seen if the bill will gain any momentum in the three remaining months of session. Supporters rallied for it on Tuesday in Albany, trying to establish it as a key priority for the next several weeks. It’s unclear if either Democratic majority in the Legislature has the stomach for pursuing the policy and forcing a broader conversation on what would make for a major overhaul of health care and insurance in the state, as well as the state tax code.

The CCPA is a roadmap to moving the state economy towards entirely renewable energy and creating jobs in the process, akin to a version of the Green New Deal being championed by national progressive Democrats. But Cuomo proposed his own version of “New York's Green New Deal,” which was a somewhat less aggressive alternative proposal that only dealt with the energy sector. Neither moved towards passage before the budget and will likely be a matter of discussion as the post-budget session moves ahead.

One aspect of the budget agreement that left government reform advocates particularly disappointed was the omission of any new anti-corruption measures targeted specifically at the state’s scandal-ridden economic development programs. The budget included funding for a “database of deals” that will purportedly outline projects receiving state assistance, but did not include statutory language about the structure of the database, which will apparently be at the discretion of the Cuomo administration and its Empire State Development.

The governor also agreed to administratively restore the state comptroller’s authority to pre-audit contracts handed out by SUNY and CUNY affiliates, rather than give it legislative power.

Heastie said Tuesday that those two measures could end up in statute, something legislators have been threatening for years. “I think that we did agree that on ethics we wanted to engage in three-way conversation so I think those discussions will happen in the second half as well,” he said, echoing comments he’s made in the past.

[Read: In State Budget, More on Voting, Little on Ethics, and Half-Baked Campaign Finance Reform]

In February, the Assembly and Senate held the first joint hearing in decades on workplace sexual harassment, hearing from several women who had experienced harassment when employed by former state lawmakers. The women testified to the inadequate protections against harassment in state law and insisted that the Legislature must work to improve them, as well as the broader culture in Albany.

Both Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins have said they support holding additional hearings that could potentially take place in the next few months and set the stage for further legislative action. The former legislative aides, some of whom have formed the Sexual Harassment Working Group, have a set of proposals to strengthen the state’s anti-harassment laws, and there are several legislators who appear ready to work with the advocates to advance those priorities, which would apply to both the public and privates sectors, as did anti-harassment laws passed last year.

Ineffective state response to sexual harassment in part points to the oft-maligned Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE), which victims have said is incapable of appropriately handling sexual harassment complaints against those in government. JCOPE has also been criticized as lacking independence from the very officials it is supposed to investigate, leading to calls -- and legislation -- to replace the commission with a new body. It’s unclear if there will be any momentum in the coming months to explore that option or a host of other reform bills, some proposed by Cuomo, like extending the Freedom of Information Law to the Legislature.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - This article has been updated.

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10 Issues to Watch in Albany’s Post-Budget Legislative Session Tue, 02 Apr 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Advocates and Senators Refute Assembly Democrats' Concerns with Campaign Finance Reform http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8376-advocates-and-senators-refute-assembly-democrats-concerns-with-campaign-finance-reform http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8376-advocates-and-senators-refute-assembly-democrats-concerns-with-campaign-finance-reform myrie camp fin

Senate Democrats push campaign finance reform (photo: @zellnor4ny)


With less than two weeks until a new state budget is due, Governor Andrew Cuomo and the Legislature have yet to come to an agreement on a public campaign financing model for state elections. But the conversation around the measure, which advocates and experts say is a long-due reform in a state beset with repeated corruption scandals, has taken a turn since Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie raised several doubts about the viability of public campaign financing, some of which Cuomo has echoed.

They’ve voiced these concerns despite the fact that the Democrat-led Assembly and Cuomo, a third-term Democrat, have annually supported such campaign finance reform and Cuomo included a plan in his 2020 executive budget proposal. This is the first year in Cuomo’s tenure that Democrats control both houses of the Legislature, having won a Senate majority in November.

At a Wednesday hearing of the state Senate’s Committee on Elections, which was also attended by several Assembly members, experts and advocates sought to rebut those concerns as they pressed legislators to act sooner rather than later.

Earlier this month, Heastie said there weren’t enough votes in his chamber for the public financing proposal, which would create a voluntary system with significantly lower individual contribution limits and public matching of the first $175 of all qualifying contributions at a 6-to-1 ratio.

Heastie cited mostly debunked concerns about independent expenditures being able overwhelm candidate campaigns , large budget gaps the state is facing, and criticisms of the public financing model used by New York City, which the state is looking to emulate in principle, particularly the regulatory aspects.

The Assembly did end up including a statement of support for the proposal in its one-house budget resolution last week, but without specific details. In a March 15 interview on New York Now, Heastie denied that he and his members were getting “cold feet.” He pointed to the city’s public funds program, which caps spending for participants, and said independent expenditures could dominate, while inaccurately saying that IEs are not an issue in New York City elections.

“I think that no one wants to exclude everyday individuals from participating in democracy. We think it’s a good thing but people also have to understand you don’t want to open the door to having IEs pretty much pick your legislator,” he said. He also questioned how the system would work with fusion voting, which allows candidates to run on multiple party lines, though the city’s has not encountered this as an issue and the state program would emulate that a candidate receives matching funds only based on their fundraising, no matter how many ballot lines they have.

Cuomo has raised similar concerns about independent expenditures and fusion voting, though he insisted recently that public financing must be included in the state budget.

“How many races are we potentially talking about? How much does it cost? Who's doing the compliance on all these issues? The Board of Elections - which has nowhere near this capacity now? What is the effect of the multiple lines and multiple races? Do you fund all those multiple lines in the primary and then all those multiple lines in the general? So it's necessary, it's right, but it's complicated,” Cuomo said at a news conference outlining his budget priorities on March 11. He did, however, mention the possibility that the Legislature could pass a budget that includes general support for and legalization of public campaign financing and then “figure out the details afterwards” in the post-budget session.

The Senate’s one-house resolution supports “establishing a publicly financed small donor matching system in order to curtail the corrosive influence of money in politics in addition to other necessary campaign finance reforms.” Unlike their Assembly counterparts, senators have not equivocated about implementing the system. Senator Zellnor Myrie, chair of the elections committee, is an ardent supporter of the proposal and, prior to the hearing on Monday, he led a news conference with several colleagues, including many fellow newly elected senators, and government reform advocates to push for it.

“We should be listening to the everyday New Yorker and not big donors,” Myrie said at the news conference, where he was joined by Senators Alessandra Biaggi, Rachel May, Brad Hoylman, Brian Kavanaugh, Todd Kaminsky, Julia Salazar, David Carlucci, Jessica Ramos, John Liu, Andrew Gounardes, and Gustavo Rivera, as well as Assembly members. Myrie also brushed aside questions about funding the program. “To me, this is not a cost, this is an investment. It is an investment in the integrity of our democracy and I think not until people have trust in their government will they trust the process.”.

For government reform advocates, campaign finance experts, and some legislators, the concerns expressed by Heastie, and to a lesser extent Cuomo, are broadly unfounded.

For one, the governor’s proposal does not limit candidate spending like New York City’s program, and also does not cap fundraising from private sources, which together would blunt the effect of independent expenditure campaigns while boosting the impact of small donors.

Additionally, as the Brennan Center for Justice’s Lawrence Norden noted, concerns about the program becoming exorbitantly expensive because of fusion voting “reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of the way the policy works.” Candidates in New York City already run on multiple party lines but public funds are not disbursed for each party but rather for each candidate. “The number of parties on the ballot is irrelevant to all of this. And a candidate doesn’t get more money because she’s listed on more than one ballot line,” Norden wrote.

There are indeed some logistical concerns with instituting public financing statewide, which legislators raised at Wednesday’s hearing.

New York City’s program is administered by the New York City Campaign Finance Board (NYCCFB), an independent, nonpartisan agency, and the state BOE lacks the resources or expertise to do that kind of work, as Cuomo indicated. City candidates, some of whom are now sitting legislators, have also critiqued what they see as the CFB’s overly punitive policies, which they say lead to yearslong audits and burdensome fines for relatively minor violations. Lawmakers also worry that public funds could entice candidates to run frivolous campaigns to raise their own profiles or to otherwise accrue some private benefit.

Those arguments were also repeatedly refuted by individuals testifying before the committee on Wednesday in Albany, though many did acknowledge that New York City’s program is far from perfect.  

Amy Loprest, executive director of the NYCCFB, and Rick Schaffer, chair of the Board, noted that the city’s disclosure laws around independent expenditures are stronger than the federal government’s, and that candidates in local races have prevailed despite facing massive independent expenditures campaigns.

Loprest also argued that the system has thresholds that preclude candidates from abusing it for personal gain, though any assessment of the issue is subjective. Candidates must show a level of community support that validates their campaign, she said, and their spending is strictly audited after the election to ensure public funds are not misused. “We are always improving our system and that was built into the law,” Loprest said, when Assemblymember Robert Carroll, a Brooklyn Democrat, asked how the city balances monitoring of both independent expenditures and complaints from candidates about “picayune problems.”

Schaffer also insisted that the CFB has taken efforts to aid candidates and to prevent them from making mistakes that could end up costing them later. “We’re not interested in ‘gotcha.’ Our job is to help candidates follow the rules which admittedly are complex because it’s a complex system,” he said. The CFB’s audit processes, Loprest noted, are also being consistently improved to ensure candidates do not have to wait years for results.

But Assemblymember Harvey Epstein, a Manhattan Democrat, seemed unconvinced, particularly when considering that audits of every campaign at the state level -- four statewide races and 213 state legislative races -- would be a monumental task. State Board of Elections officials did downplay that worry later in the hearing, noting that the governor’s proposal only calls for fully auditing all statewide campaigns but not every legislative one, instead using a random sampling.

The State BOE has not taken a formal position on the program but at least two commissioners, a Democrat and a Republican, support its implementation. Other commissioners have insisted that if the program is passed, it should be accompanied with sufficient funding and that it should first go into effect after the 2022 elections, the next statewide cycle.

A state program, said BOE co-executive director Robert Brehm, would be about 3.67 times larger than New York City’s and would cost between $20-$60 million each year in administrative costs if fully scaled. According to a December 2018 report from the Washington D.C.-based Campaign Finance Institute, the program would disburse about $140.5 million in public funds over a four-year election cycle. For context, the governor’s state budget proposal for 2020 is about $175.1 billion.

At Wednesday’s hearing, Chisun Lee, senior counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center pointed out the importance of establishing a public financing program. She noted that in last year’s election, 100 donors gave more to candidates than 137,000 small donors altogether, and small donations only accounted for 5 percent of all contributions to state campaigns. She cited the example of other jurisdictions with public financing programs, such as Connecticut, and said the state should create a culture of assistance rather than punishment at any entity charged with overseeing its implementation.

And though she admitted that the governor’s proposal is not flawless, “In great part...it is a workable, effective small donor matching system,” she said.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Advocates and Senators Refute Assembly Democrats' Concerns with Campaign Finance Reform Wed, 20 Mar 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Speaker Says Assembly No Longer Supports Public Campaign Financing, Downplays Other Reforms http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8342-speaker-says-assembly-no-longer-supports-public-campaign-financing-downplays-other-reforms http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8342-speaker-says-assembly-no-longer-supports-public-campaign-financing-downplays-other-reforms heastie carl nys assembly speaker 9.62

(photo: Buck Ennis/Crain's)


Though Democrats have for years blamed Republican intransigence for the failure of key campaign finance and ethics reforms in Albany, those measures still appear stalled even as their party controls the entire state Legislature and governor’s office. On Friday, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said that the votes are not there in his chamber to approve a public-matching campaign finance system, despite the fact that the Assembly has repeatedly passed such a measure in the past when Republicans controlled the Senate.

Heastie appeared at a Crain’s New York Business forum at the New York Athletic Club, where he gave remarks about the Assembly’s accomplishments and priorities, then took questions from Erik Engquist of Crain’s and Errol Louis of NY1, before also speaking with other reporters after the event.

With a new state budget due April 1, Heastie said it appeared unlikely that the Assembly would approve public campaign financing before or within that deal, though it is a long-held Democratic goal espoused not only by Assembly Democrats but also the new state Senate Democratic majority and Governor Andrew Cuomo.

“I think the members want to discuss it but I’d say right now what the concerns are on IEs [independent expenditures], problems with [New York City’s] campaign finance system, also with a shortage of [state] money, I think they want to have the discussion but I’d say right now there’s not 76 members who want to move forward with it in the next three weeks in the budget,” Heastie said in response to a question from Gotham Gazette, and referring to the minimum number of votes needed to advance a bill in the 150-seat chamber.

The speaker later tweeted to add to his comments from the morning, writing that the Assembly does want to consider a small-dollar matching program, but one that does not use public money.

Heastie also threw cold water on a state Senate-approved bill to limit campaign contributions from entities seeking state contracts and downplayed the need for additional government ethics reforms, saying that law enforcement entities catch bad actors and he is “still waiting for the idea of the bill that will really fix people’s morality.”

Asked about it by the moderators, Heastie expressed concerns that a bill passed on Tuesday by the state Senate could end up hurting the party in power. The bill, S3167, prohibits companies bidding for state contracts from contributing to “officeholders with authority over procuring entities” within a specific window of time, therefore applying largely to the executive branch, namely the governor.

Though Heastie’s conference has advanced similar bills in previous years, he hesitated to endorse that measure, which was sponsored by new state Senator Zellnor Myrie from Brooklyn.

“On the premise of it, it sounds great. Yeah, anybody who wants to bid on a contract, yeah they shouldn’t have the opportunity to make contributions to the governing entity because there could be the appearance that somebody’s trying to grease the skids,” Heastie said. “But the way that the legislation is drafted...it just covers such a vast number of people so that one company who...bids on a contract, their lobbyist, and it doesn’t just stop there, every other company that that lobbyist is responsible for is now radioactive.”

The bill would also put the State Democratic Party and Governor Andrew Cuomo, a third-term Democrat, “in a bind,” he said, because it would exclude them from raising funds from entities who would be able to donate to Republicans who don’t hold the same authority in state government. The bill includes a prohibition on contributions “indirectly or directly, to political committees operationally controlled by officeholders with authority over state governmental entities” that receive and review bids and issue contracts. “So I guess that on the surface the bill sounds like a great idea, but it really does put the governor and the Democratic Party at a huge disadvantage as compared to the Republican Party,” he said.

Asked about Heastie's comments, Jonathan Timm, a spokesperson for Senator Myrie, said in a statement, "The history of corruption in New York State government demonstrates that inaction is not an option. As with any other legislation, this bill will be subject to negotiation with the Assembly, and the Senator looks forward to working with them to clean up state government in the best way possible."

Speaking to reporters after Friday's event, Heastie then tempered expectations about public campaign financing, which appeared for months as though it would be a crowning achievement of the new Democratic era in Albany.

His comments weren’t taken lightly by a variety of advocates, including the Fair Elections for New York coalition, which has been pushing the state to adopt a small-donor matching system similar to the one in place in New York City, among other reforms.

“Historically, the Assembly Democrats have supported people-powered elections anchored with a small-donor matching system,” the coalition pointed out in a Friday statement, responding to Heastie’s comments as initially reported by Gotham Gazette.

“‘Fair elections’ is the policy that will really shake up the status quo, and thus the real test of the new Albany,” continued the coalition statement, referring to the Fair Elections Act that the Democratic Assembly has passed in previous sessions and that Senate Democrats have supported in the minority. “Passing this legislation now, in the budget, is the best chance for New York to once again lead the nation by having a campaign finance system that gives everyday New Yorkers as loud a voice as the wealthiest donors.”

The coalition is made up of more than 200 groups, including labor unions such as 32BJ, tenant organizers such as New York Communities for Change, immigrant advocates like the New York Immigration Coalition, environmental and racial justice groups such as the Sunrise Movement and VOCAL-NY, good government advocates like Reinvent Albany and more.

Urging the governor and legislative leaders to reject a budget that does not include public campaign financing, the coalition offered solutions for Heastie’s concerns. It said a public financing system should not include spending limits, therefore mitigating the effect of outside independent expenditure campaigns; suggested that New York follow Connecticut’s public matching program, which gives assistance to candidates in using small dollar contributions, compared to New York City’s program that many have called too punitive; and pointed out that the total budget ramifications of public financing were between $40-60 million, which wouldn’t even be apparent in the short term and could hardly affect a $175 billion state budget. The annual costs, the coalition estimated, would be less than $3 annually for every New Yorker.

Asked to comment on Heastie’s statements, neither the office of Senator Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins nor that of Governor Cuomo responded.

After seeing the blowback to his comments, Heastie issued another statement on Twitter Friday afternoon, writing, "I want to be clear – the Assembly Majority is supportive of limiting the influence of money in our elections through consideration of a small dollar donor matching system that does not rely on scarce public funds. Our members are not ready to support the NYC model for the entire state, but we will continue to have discussions in order to reach our goals."

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

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

This story has been updated.

Note - This article has been updated with comment from a spokesperson for Senator Zellnor Myrie. 

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Speaker Says Assembly No Longer Supports Public Campaign Financing, Downplays Other Reforms Fri, 08 Mar 2019 05:00:00 +0000
New York Democrats on Eliminating Cash Bail: Not If, But How http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8245-new-york-democrats-on-eliminating-cash-bail-not-when-but-how http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8245-new-york-democrats-on-eliminating-cash-bail-not-when-but-how gov cuomo provide update clinton

(photo: the governor's office)


Taking the stage at the Global Citizen Festival in Central Park last September, Governor Andrew Cuomo promised to end cash bail “once and for all,” a move that would launch New York into the national spotlight with New Jersey and California. “In America you are still innocent until proven guilty,” he told the cheering crowd. “And that’s whether you’re black or white. That’s whether you’re rich or poor.”

The elimination of the cash bail system, under which poor black and Hispanic New Yorkers are disproportionately incarcerated pre-trial, does seem imminent thanks to a new Democratic majority in the state Senate. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, whose chamber last year passed legislation that only limited cash bail, assured faith leaders at Trinity Chapel in Manhattan on Thursday that, “I support a 100-percent-ending-of-cash-bail system.”

But big questions remain: who will be eligible for pretrial incarceration, what constraints will be put on judges, the reach of controversial ankle bracelets.

Cuomo’s recently-released budget proposal calls for more extensive pretrial detention and monitoring than an advocate-backed bill in the Legislature, and several Democrats told Gotham Gazette they want broad judicial discretion on domestic violence cases: a red flag for advocates who see a window for bias. As Democrats use their new power to rapidly pass progressive legislation, bail reform, in all its complexity, could prove a test of how far they’ll go.

“We have to remember there's a presumption of innocence,” warns Democratic Assemblymember Dan Quart of Manhattan. “The point of bail is not to judge or adjudicate people.”

The New York City jail population has decreased by 1,500 over the last two years, according to a December report from the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice. Still, as of September more than a third of the 8,200 people in city jails were held pre-trial on misdemeanors or nonviolent felonies. More than 90 percent of the jail population is people of color. The commission, led by former chief judge Jonathan Lippman, estimates substantial bail reform could reduce the population by 3,000 people.

Deputy Senate Leader Michael Gianaris of Queens likes to remind reporters that the FREEnewyork campaign, composed of more than 150 grassroots groups, has dubbed his bail reform bill with Manhattan Assemblymember Danny O’Donnell the “gold standard.” It eliminates cash bail and was a non-starter in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Under the Gianaris/O’Donnell bill, most defendants would be released on their own recognizance. Possible exceptions include witness intimidation cases, and felony cases where the defendant is accused of attempting to seriously injure another person.

Anyone eligible for pretrial incarceration would be entitled to a hearing where a judge evaluates evidence and considers less-restrictive alternatives, like mandatory check-ins. These hearings would mark a “huge step forward,” says JoAnne Page, president of the Fortune Society, a nonprofit that provides prison reentry services. Currently, setting bail is “a decision that happens in a heartbeat.”

Cuomo’s budget proposal also eliminates cash bail and mandates pretrial hearings. However, his net of eligibility for pretrial detention is much wider, including Class A felonies like murder, conspiracy, and controlled substance charges; most violent B and C felonies like rape, assault and weapon possession (burglary and robbery are excluded); and cases where the judge deems the defendant a threat to the physical safety of someone in their family or household, regardless of the severity of the charges.

Alphonso David, Cuomo’s counsel, told Gotham Gazette that the governor intentionally excluded controversial public safety assessment tools (which Mayor Bill de Blasio has endorsed). These tools rely on data points like a defendant’s age and criminal history, and have been met with allegations of racial bias in New Jersey and California.

But if decarceration is the goal, advocates warn, the net of eligibility for pretrial incarceration must be much smaller -- lest judges balk at losing cash bail and fall back on detention.

“Unfortunately, the same decision-makers who are deciding to set bail on our clients now are going to be the ones who decide whether or not, after an evidentiary hearing, to keep that person remanded,” says Legal Aid Society attorney Marie Ndiaye. “The only thing you can do to really, really decarcerate is just by really, really limiting the number of people who could even be eligible for that kind of treatment."

Cuomo also wants electronic monitoring as an option for people charged with felonies and domestic violence misdemeanors. “When you have something like electronic monitoring there’s a very real risk that it means the expansion of social control,” warns Page, of the Fortune Society. “The threshold you pass before you put an electronic bracelet on someone is much lower than locking them up.”

Last year, the Assembly passed a proposal that would have preserved cash bail and electronic monitoring in felony and domestic violence misdemeanor cases -- a broad category that includes verbal threats. “I'll be the first one to say the Assembly bill wasn't good enough,” Heastie told advocates Thursday.

O’Donnell also dismissed the Walker bill as a relic earlier this month. “In previous years the Assembly would come up with bills we thought might pass muster in the Republican Senate,” he explained. “Those days are over. I would hope that my colleagues would come around and take this bolder approach.”

But there is still substantial Democratic support in the Assembly for the domestic violence provisions in the Walker bill. “There are going to be enough Democrats, me among them, who will be raising the issue,” said Assemblymember Amy Paulin of Scarsdale. “If we don't protect domestic violence [victims], I won't be voting for the bill.”

“Whether it's cash bail or pretrial detention I'm not worried about that,” added Assemblymember Patricia Fahy of Albany. “My interest is the bottom line…that we are not tying any judicial hands in keeping our streets safe, or our households safe.”

This is a point of entry for the state District Attorneys Association, which opposes expansive bail reform on the grounds that it curtails prosecutorial discretion. “We have serious concerns about, with the swipe of a pen, creating a proposal that has calamitous effects on public safety,” Albany County District Attorney David Soares told Gotham Gazette.

Domestic violence advocates in the FREEnewyork campaign say this logic is at odds with the ultimate goal of significantly decreasing jail populations, and relies too heavily on the perceptions of law enforcement. “Particularly for LGBTQ people,” cautions Audacia Ray of the New York City Anti-Violence project, “the way police and prosecutors perceive what is happening is often faulty and racist.”

Senate and Assembly leaders tell Gotham Gazette that they hope to come up with a compromise before budget negotiations, which are set to begin in earnest in March. A budget deal is due April 1. “The old ways of Albany involved trading one thing against an unrelated thing,” Gianaris said. “The new New York Senate is trying hard to break that mold.”

“The tricky thing with bail,” he added, “is that if we don’t do it right, things can get worse rather than better.”

***
by Emma Whitford, Gotham Gazette
@emma_a_whitford

Read more by this writer.

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New York Democrats on Eliminating Cash Bail: Not If, But How Thu, 31 Jan 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Commission Recommends Pay Increases and Ethics Reforms for State Legislators http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8125-commission-recommends-pay-increases-and-ethics-reforms-for-state-legislators http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8125-commission-recommends-pay-increases-and-ethics-reforms-for-state-legislators senatechamberalbany2

(Photo via Wiki Commons)


Statewide elected officials, legislators and agency heads are slated to get pay raises next year following recommendations issued Thursday by a four-member panel that was created in this year’s state budget.

The New York State Compensation Committee voted on Thursday to raise the salaries of legislators for the first time in nearly twenty years, as well as for the four statewide offices and for executive agency commissioners. The committee will publicly release a report and deliver it to Governor Andrew Cuomo and the State Legislature on Monday outlining their binding recommendations on phasing in the salary increases over three years, accompanied by certain ethics reform measures. The raises will go into effect by January 1 unless the state legislature meets and rejects them.

The committee -- which included State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, former State Comptroller and SUNY Board Chair Carl McCall, and former New York City Comptroller and CUNY Board Chair Bill Thompson -- was created in the state budget to determine an appropriate raise for legislators, based on cost of living and on salaries for legislators in other states. The current base pay for state legislators stands at $79,500 and has remained unchanged since 1999.

Per the panel’s unanimous recommendations, salaries for legislators will be raised to $130,000 by 2021, with lawmakers set to receive $110,000 in 2019 and $120,000 in 2020. The commission also recommended limiting outside income for legislators to 15 percent of their salary, in line with the rules for members of Congress, and the elimination of committee stipends -- commonly referred to as lulus -- for all but the top leadership in both legislative chambers.

“I think in looking at the fact that they haven’t had a raise in twenty years...when you talk about the issues of fairness, it is not the right thing,” Thompson said, arguing that the idea that legislators only work part-time is a mischaracterization due to their in-district work. The limits on outside income will take effect in 2020, because, according to McCall, legislators would need time to disengage from their outside income-generating activities and could not do so right away.

The panel also endorsed raising the governor’s salary to $250,000 by 2021, up from the current $179,000. The lieutenant governor, attorney general, and state comptroller, each of whom currently make $151,000, will see their pay rise to $210,000 salary by 2021. DiNapoli recused himself from that vote.

The pay raise committee was originally meant to be chaired by Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, but DiFiore announced in May that she would not serve because she believed a judge determining legislative pay was unconstitutional. The broader constitutionality of the committee has also been challenged, as it is still unclear whether a pay raise can be authorized by outside officials or if it must be approved by the legislature. The panel members, however, insisted that their recommendations are enforceable for all their proposals except the raises for the governor and lieutenant governor, which must be approved by a joint resolution of the legislature. They also maintained that tying the raises to an outside income limitation and curbing committee stipends was within their authority, which could potentially invite legal challenges going forward.

When the salary raises are fully implemented by 2021, New York will surpass California and have the highest-paid governor and legislature in the nation. McCall noted that coupling the pay increase with outside income limitations would also quell the discontent New Yorkers feel about giving raises to a legislature that has long been marred by scandal and corruption. “We really have to make sure that we send the signals to the public about how serious they are about doing their job and doing it well,” McCall said.

For executive agency heads, the panel proposed four classes of salary, a decrease from the current six, which will be assigned depending on the agency. By 2021, commissioners in the top class will make $220,000 and commissioners in the bottom class will make $170,000.

Legislative leaders have expressed support for the panel’s recommendations. Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins announced her support for the measure on Thursday, hours before the meeting, while also concurrently declaring support for ethics reform. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie testified to the Commission last week in favor of the raise, noting that legislators have financial strains similar to their constituents. “They too must finance college loans, meet the cost of child care, and provide for the wellbeing of elderly parents and loved ones at home,” Heastie said. He further argued that, because so many legislators live in the expensive New York City metro area, a pay raise was warranted to more adequately reflect the high cost of living here.

The New York Public Interest Research Group, which advocates for government reform, was skeptical of the panel’s recommendations, pushing for a more comprehensive set of “corruption-busting” reforms. “While we agree that the Congressional model is appropriate to regulate legislators’ outside income, advancing a reform in this area alone is inadequate,” said NYPIRG’s Blair Horner, in a statement. “We note that the ethical problems that have plagued the state have not been limited to the legislative branch. Given the stunning pay-to-play scandals that have rocked government, reforms in that area must be addressed. Failure to do so highlights the inadequacy of the reform package.”

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by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

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Commission Recommends Pay Increases and Ethics Reforms for State Legislators Thu, 06 Dec 2018 05:00:00 +0000
As Democratic Senate Becomes Reality, Unclear How Hard Assembly Majority Will Push Prior Agenda http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8083-as-democratic-senate-becomes-reality-unclear-how-hard-assembly-majority-will-push-prior-agenda http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8083-as-democratic-senate-becomes-reality-unclear-how-hard-assembly-majority-will-push-prior-agenda how hard push

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (photo via the Governor's office}


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

As New York lurches out of election season and looks to what issues the state legislative session in 2019 could tackle, the Assembly is in an unfamiliar position as something more than a purgatory for progressive priorities. For years, the lower house of the Legislature was a place where progressive goals like criminal justice and voting reforms, the DREAM Act, the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act, the New York Health Act, and the Climate and Communities Protection Act could reliably be passed thanks to a huge Democratic majority. And every time those bills passed the Assembly, the state Senate, controlled by either Republicans or an alliance of Republicans and breakaway Democrats, would almost always keep the companion legislation in committee, far from a floor vote.

But with Democrats about to take control of the state Senate in addition to the governor’s mansion, the Assembly will in 2019 have a chance to actually see bills they’ve passed every year get a real debate in Albany. And advocates and activists are waiting expectantly for just that scenario to happen, their sense of urgency heightened in the Trump era, which led their efforts to help flip the state Senate so it is no longer a roadblock.

While the state Senate Democrats will not be in the same political universe as the outgoing Republican majority, the conference will still need to sort out its priorities, including how those of some of its tax-averse suburban and upstate members, who’ll need to win re-election in 2020, align with the city-dominated Assembly. One-party rule may not be the rubber stamp that Republicans warned it would be during the election, especially as the new state Senate majority will have to get its footing under a dominating and fairly moderate governor. Cuomo also campaigned for the newly-elected state Senators from Long Island, as well as the Hudson Valley’s Peter Harckham and Brooklyn’s Andrew Gounardes, which in theory, and his own telling, gives him some sway over them that may counteract the influence of grassroots activists who worked to elect a Democratic Senate.

By appearances, a wave of progressive legislation bursting out of Albany and washing over New York would be an expected natural occurrence. Democrats are in possession of a supermajority in the Assembly and Senate, one whose membership stretches from Suffolk County to upstate and western New York and whose new members did not shy away from embracing far-left progressive priorities like single-payer healthcare. Carl Heastie, once found to be one of the most liberal legislators in all of America, remains the Assembly Speaker, and Democrats have a 106-43 advantage in the chamber. One significant question now hanging over state government: how hard left will the Assembly push?

Their long-sought situation in the Legislature leaves progressive activists like Jonathan Westin, the executive director of economic justice organization New York Communities for Change, feeling hopeful for the session to come. “I think the Assembly has been committed to a lot of progressive legislation for a long time and we expect them to continue to do that,” Westin told Gotham Gazette. “A lot of the grassroots base is ready to push but at the same time we feel pretty confident that the Assembly is gonna go forward and pass a lot of these bills.”

In his first year as speaker, Heastie laid out a series of now-familiar priorities for the 2015 Assembly Democrats. Passing the DREAM Act, raising the state’s minimum wage, reforming the state’s rent laws in a more tenant-friendly direction. While the DREAM Act has still not come to the floor of the state Senate since a failed 2014 vote and the state’s rent stabilization laws were renewed but not drastically changed in 2015, progressives did see a victory when Cuomo prioritized and pushed through the Republican Senate a $15 minimum wage program of sorts in 2016.

Heastie used the 2018 legislative session to again push for the DREAM Act to become law, and also highlighted Assembly legislation to alter a suite of rent regulations essential to hundreds of thousands of units of affordable housing in New York City. Assembly Democrats also passed the New York Health Act, which would institute single-payer health care, for the fourth straight year in 2018, GENDA for the tenth straight year, major climate change fighting legislation (the CCPA) for the third straight year, and the Reproductive Health Act , which would codify Roe v. Wade into state law, for the fifth straight year.

What’s different about the upcoming legislative session is not only have Democrats captured the state Senate, but a good chunk of the new legislators going to Albany are staunch progressive voices who were sent to office by furious left-wing organizing both old and new.

Democrats like Zellnor Myrie and Jessica Ramos made things like major overhauls of the rent laws and repeal of the Urstadt Law, which keeps New York City from setting its own rent-stabilization laws, centerpieces of their insurgent state Senate campaigns. In the Hudson Valley, newly-elected Senators Harckham and Jen Metzger both embraced the New York Health Act as feasible and worthwhile, and DREAM Act-supporting activists from Make the Road Action, the immigrant and working class advocacy organization, helped power Long Island state Senator John Brooks and state Senator-elect Jim Gaughran to their swing-district wins.

On the other hand, there are already powerful figures in the party suggesting that long-sought leftist priorities are toxic outside of New York City, leadership in the Legislature will have to tamp down enthusiasm for any bills that might raise taxes, and Cuomo said in an interview that he thinks something like single-payer health care will get bottled up by the governing processes that separate campaign rhetoric from reality.

Incoming Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins herself said “We’re not coming in there to raise people’s taxes,” in an interview on WBAI’s Max & Murphy. But she did also lay out priorities for the conference to start, naming things like reproductive rights, the Child Victims Act, and said, “I’m sure that will be able to do something about that early on” when it comes to instituting early voting in New York.

In the Assembly, Heastie sent out a list of priorities just after the election, a mashup of specific socially liberal and more vague fiscally liberal policies that are familiar to many. Called out by name for passage are the Child Victims Act, the Reproductive Health Act, banning gun bump stocks, speedy trial reform, and electoral  and campaign finance reforms like no-fault absentee voting, closing the LLC loophole, and early voting.

But while the speaker wrote that New Yorkers “deserve a healthcare system that guarantees coverage for all,” there’s no mention of the New York Health Act or the state-run single-payer system it would create. No specifics are listed for the rent reforms while Heastie states “The Assembly Majority is ready to pass legislation to extend and strengthen programs that protect low and middle income tenants to keep them from being priced out of their homes and communities,” (though Heastie reportedly told a pair of real estate representatives at the Somos conference that vacancy decontrol and preferential rent are history) and the DREAM Act is nowhere to be found, nor a mention of any environmental policy (though that isn’t a total aberration). Heastie's office declined an interview request, pointing Gotham Gazette to the speaker's post-election missive.

And even though some of the more famous liberal priorities aren’t mentioned by name, the focus on electoral reform appears to be a place where the base and the Assembly line up perfectly, with the upcoming Senate majority and Cuomo apparently in the same mindset, too, though the details will need to be hammered out.

Working Families Party political director Bill Lipton told Gotham Gazette that he doesn’t expect the Assembly’s “long, progressive history” to change under Carl Heastie and a new Albany order, and that he’s happy to see people willing to tackle electoral issues.

“We can't repair the damage unless we face head on the contradiction of financing election campaigns with wealthy donors who want tax cuts, contracts and loopholes for themselves,” Lipton wrote to Gotham Gazette in a statement. “The result both nationally and here in New York has been disastrous,” Lipton wrote, while highlighting a small-donor matching funds program that he hopes the state institutes now that there’s a Democratic trifecta. Campaign finance reform is something Cuomo has long-pledged support for, not moved through the Republican Senate, and promised to deliver with a fully Democratic Legislature.

Westin also endorsed a starting focus on electoral reform: “the one thing that's been in common in New York is the influence of real estate money and we have to clean it up once and for all. Carl and the Assembly have a real opportunity to do that, and I think is one of the biggest things that needs to happen quickly,” he said.

agenda19v2 aThere is some reason for progressives to have concerns in the Assembly though, according to Sean McElwee, the co-founder of progressive think tank Data for Progress. While McElwee pointed to the progressive wave that elected a large piece of the Democrats’ state Senate majority, that energetic mandate wasn’t seen in Assembly elections. “In the Assembly you've basically had a bunch of Democrats who were like the [Republican] House of Representatives under Obama. They kept passing an Obamacare repeal, and once it was time to pass it for real, there were some cold feet. I worry about that dynamic with the Assembly. When I've talked to the New York Renews coalition about the CCPA, they've said silently, ‘Yeah we're gonna have real problems in the Assembly when it comes time to pass this,’ and the same for Medicare for All advocates.”

It’s not an out-of-hand fear for progressives, who can look to neighboring New Jersey and the fact that legislators backed away from pledges to tax the rich and didn’t get a slam dunk on legalizing recreational marijuana despite Democrats having total control of the government.

But those activists who powered the anti-IDC candidates and Long Island Democrats to victories aren’t planning on sitting on their hands. “We may see some Assemblypeople who previously voted for some things be hesitant about putting their votes behind them,” Mia Pearlman, the co-founder of progressive grassroots organization True Blue New York, told Gotham Gazette. “So if it comes to that, we fully plan to be lobbying in Albany and on the ground in the district of any elected representative who we feel can be swayed, needs to be swayed, needs support, needs pressure to vote for legislation that we're supporting.” Pearlman did say that even though there might be some hesitant members, she felt that there were also plenty of members of the Assembly who were ready to get to work on passing the bills that had died in the Senate in past years.

While Pearlman echoed the call to tackle an issue like electoral reform early on, she also said she and her allies very much expect the Assembly to make reasonable progress on the other bills that have been stymied in previous years. On something like the New York Health Act, for instance, she said that while the bill doesn’t have to be passed for the sake of being passed, she wants to see an actual debate move forward on it to find the best way possible to provide universal comprehensive healthcare coverage, a line of thinking that aligned with Harckham’s call for hearings and passing a bill by the end of his first two-year term.

“The idea that it's somehow a victory for the Assembly to have such a big majority solely so they can say ‘Yay we have a majority’ is sort of absurd,” Pearlman said. “The purpose of having a big majority is to actually do something with it, to pass legislation, not just pat ourselves on the back and say ‘Look how many members we have.’ So we expect after all these years of waiting that they'll use that majority to write legislation and get things done.”

The Assembly could, in theory, pass the existing version of all of the bottled up left-leaning bills that haven’t made it out of the state Senate for years, and put the onus on the new Senate, as well as the governor. But it seems needlessly adversarial for the Assembly to get off on that kind of footing with a more ideologically similar Senate conference, which in all likelihood they’ll need in negotiations with a governor more prone to triangulation, political centrism, and describing his progressive opponents as “dreamers not doers” than he’s known for bold leftism.

The new situation in Albany is also an opportunity for government to work differently, Pearlman suggested, opening things up and making it more transparent, especially during the budget season. “We don't have to have three men in a room or two men and a woman in the room, that is not written in our state constitution that the budget has to be written at the last possible minute behind closed doors,” Pearlman said. “What we're hoping is that the conference leaders will look at the process of how things are done in Albany and demand they're done in a more transparent and more equitable and better way.”

At the moment though, Stewart-Cousins doesn’t seem keen on blowing up the process, as she told Max & Murphy, “I’m interested to see how this thing really works as well. I’m sure I’ll have a lot of opinions once I’ve actually been part of it,” in response to whether she plans to make the budget process more transparent.

Cuomo also campaigned on keeping state spending tethered to the (somewhat rhetorical) two percent cap he instituted during his first term, and has flatly said an additional tax on high-earners to raise revenue for the MTA will not be happening, even speaking for the Legislature before the next session has started. So as for what might make it through the budget, McElwee said he predicts progressives can get “one big budget-buster” through the process each year, and if he had to play favorites, he’d pick the Climate and Communities Protection Act. “For me and I think a lot of millennials, climate change is the biggest existential threat we change. And I think a policy that can mitigate that while also creating jobs and infrastructure would be a sort of progressive model for the county,” he said.

But ultimately, progressive activists say they aren’t taking anything for granted, even as people talk about the Democratic majority in the state Senate as a permanent one. “Politics is all about waves and momentum, and if you don't capitalize on the momentum you never know where you're gonna end up in the future,” Westin told Gotham Gazette. “I think our belief is we need to pass all the priorities this cycle, as you see even on the federal level and clearly in the state too, you never know what the next configuration is going to look like, and we don't want to waste this opportunity.”

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

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by Dave Colon, Gotham Gazette
     

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As Democratic Senate Becomes Reality, Unclear How Hard Assembly Majority Will Push Prior Agenda Sun, 25 Nov 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Amazon’s Recent New York Campaign Contributions Mostly to Members of Congress http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8082-amazon-s-recent-new-york-campaign-contributions-mostly-to-members-of-congress http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8082-amazon-s-recent-new-york-campaign-contributions-mostly-to-members-of-congress cuomo jeffries

Gov. Cuomo & Rep. Jeffries (photo via Governor's Office)


Before Amazon announced the placement of one of its next satellite “headquarters” in Queens, drawing mixed reactions from local lawmakers and significant overall pushback, the company’s campaign finance footprint in New York shows it was spreading its money around to many New York politicians, mostly those at the federal level.

Eight members of the U.S. House of Representatives from New York City, all Democrats, who signed a now infamous letter last year to compel Amazon to consider the city, received more than $26,000 in total campaign contributions from Amazon from the beginning of 2017 to October 2018, according to Federal Election Commission (FEC) filings, with four of the members receiving $7,500 of that total before signing the letter.

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, whose district includes part of Queens, received $8,000 total from Amazon in four separate contributions to his campaign since 2017, including $1,500 before he had signed the letter and $6,500 afterward, a time period that coincided with Jeffries’ recent reelection to the House, though he did not face serious opposition. Jeffries’ office did not respond to a request for comment for this story, but he said in a statement to Cheddar that the deal “will supercharge New York City’s reputation as the single best place to do business in America.”

Brooklyn Rep. Yvette Clarke received $5,000 from Amazon, half before signing the letter and half since -- Clarke did face a tough primary challenge this year, narrowly defeating Adem Bunkeddeko before cruising to victory in the general. In a statement for the city’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC) that was sent to members of the media upon the Amazon announcement, Clarke said, “Amazon’s decision to locate a headquarters in New York City is a testament to the strength of our technology sector.”

Other letter signees who received Amazon contributions include Rep. Eliot Engel, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (whose district includes Long Island City), Rep. Gregory Meeks, Rep. Nydia Velazquez, and Rep. Adriano Espaillat, all of the five boroughs. Maloney called for a fair “public review” of the deal in a statement to Politico, arguing that “[a] beneficial deal will withstand public scrutiny.”

Upon the announcement of the deal to bring Amazon to New York City, Espaillat issued a statement of praise, saying in a tweet, “Welcome to New York City, @Amazon. We have the best & brightest technologically skilled workforce that is ready & willing to work & invest in our community & help our economy continue to grow,” while Velazquez issued a statement criticizing the process and outcome, saying, “Many New Yorkers, myself included, are concerned by the enormous incentives this package extends to Amazon.”

Rep. Joe Crowley of the Bronx and Queens received $2,500 from Amazon before he signed the letter, according to FEC filings. He lost his seat in an upset to now Congressional Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has been a strident critic of the Amazon deal. The democratic-socialist tweeted that she finds the deal “extremely concerning,” arguing that the money for tax breaks for Amazon could be better spent on the “crumbling” subway and disenfranchised communities.

It’s unclear if any of the members of Congress played a role in the negotiation process, which was apparently led by Cuomo, along with de Blasio and members of their two teams -- those involved apparently signed non-disclosure agreements at Amazon’s insistence. Members of Congress’ support or opposition, however, can play a crucial role in the overall atmosphere around such a deal and the public perception thereof. For the most part, Amazon is more concerned with federal regulations and nationwide tax policy, evident from its campaign funding patterns. Data from OpenSecrets.org shows that Amazon gave about $1.17 million to federal candidate campaigns in 2018 alone, 52% of which went to Republicans and 48% to Democrats.

Amazon has also given some campaign contributions at the local level, including $1,000 to Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie’s campaign committee in January of this year, according to state election records. Heastie did not respond to a request for comment, but the Bronx Democrat told the New York Times in a statement that “this deal has the potential to more than pay for itself.” He added that, “Of course we take our role in approving aspects of this deal very seriously and we will be closely reviewing it.”

The only other local lawmaker whose campaign funds Amazon added to was Republican state Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, who received $1,000 in January, according to state election records.

New York City and State have agreed to roughly $3 billion in financial incentives to Amazon to settle in Long Island City, including tax breaks and rebates mostly from existing economic development programs that would be applicable to other companies, as well as a roughly $500 million capital grant from the state that is discretionary. The deal is based on a pledge by Amazon to create 25,000 new jobs in the city over 10 years, at an average salary of $150,000 per year. Some of the incentives are directly tied to those jobs coming to fruition. The company may also qualify for new federal tax savings.

Critics have cried foul about a secretive process with virtually no public input before a deal was struck (there will be some before everything is finalized) and that there are billions of dollars of incentives going to one of the wealthiest companies in the world. A number of elected officials did praise the deal, including U.S. Senator Charles Schumer of New York, the Democratic Senate minority leader. Schumer received a total of $10,000 from Amazon in three separate contributions to his campaign committee in 2015 ahead of his reelection the following year, according to FEC filings. He has not received any funds from Amazon since his 2016 reelection.

Some of the criticism towards the Amazon deal is tied more broadly to Cuomo’s economic development programs and their incentives for companies to relocate or create jobs. Flanagan, whose 2018 campaign got the relatively minor boost from Amazon, criticized Cuomo for giving handouts rather than working to improve New York’s overall economic climate. Flanagan’s majority conference, which is handing over the reins next year to Democrats who flipped the chamber on Election Day, has signed off on budgets that have included Cuomo’s programs.

Amazon, a trillion dollar-company, spent $110,000 lobbying the state Assembly, Senate, and executive branch on bills related to taxation and regulation of internet companies from the beginning of 2017 to October of 2018, according to state lobbying records. JCOPE (the Joint Commission on Public Ethics) lists Amazon lobbying activities as only related to “internet/online sales & related issues,” but specific bills lobbied on include the establishment of a task force to study an internet marketplace tax and bills that propose to regulate voice-recognition technology.

The company also spent over $120,000 lobbying New York City government in the last two years for participation in their cloud computing services, according to city lobbying records.

The records do not show lobbying related to the new headquarters in Queens. That process appears to have been removed from official lobbying and instead part of the competition Amazon announced, wherein it received hundreds of pitches from governments and coalitions around the country. There are no records of Amazon donating to the campaigns of either Cuomo or de Blasio.

Jeff Bezos, Amazon CEO and one of the wealthiest people in the world, said in a statement on the day of the announcement that the new “headquarters” split between New York and Virginia “will allow us to attract world-class talent that will help us to continue inventing for customers for years to come. The team did a great job selecting these sites, and we look forward to becoming an even bigger part of these communities.”

Hiring for the new offices is scheduled to begin in 2019, according to Amazon. Governor Cuomo has said that the new office campus and related employment will generate more than $27 billion in tax revenue over the next 25 years.

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by Jake Shore for Gotham Gazette
  

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Amazon’s Recent New York Campaign Contributions Mostly to Members of Congress Sun, 18 Nov 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Andrea Stewart-Cousins on Taking the Senate Reins, the Democratic Agenda & Getting Inside 'The Room' http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8085-andrea-stewart-cousins-on-taking-the-senate-reins-the-democratic-agenda-getting-inside-the-room http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8085-andrea-stewart-cousins-on-taking-the-senate-reins-the-democratic-agenda-getting-inside-the-room stewart cousins senate

Andrea Stewart-Cousins (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo)


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

After the election results from earlier this month, Andrea Stewart-Cousins is set to become majority leader of the state Senate and, beginning in January, to preside over the chamber as it works with Democrats in charge of the Assembly and Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat headed into his third term, to address a long-delayed liberal agenda. Stewart-Cousins, who represents parts of Westchester, will become the first woman and first woman of color to lead a legislative chamber in New York.

Appearing on the Max & Murphy program on WBAI radio, Stewart-Cousins discussed her approach to leading the Senate, outlined a few priorities for the upcoming session, explained some ways in which Democrats will differ from Republican who have led the upper chamber, and commented on becoming one of three people who will be in “the room,” ultimately making major decisions about the state budget and legislation along with Cuomo and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.

When asked, Stewart-Cousins mostly demurred about what issues would be at the top of the Senate agenda, saying that, especially with 15 new members in her roughly 40-member majority conference, senators would first need to meet and discuss how they will approach the upcoming legislative session.

“I have avoided that ‘my first hundred days will look like this’ and ‘this is the batting order,’” Stewart-Cousins said, repeating the terms of the question from one of the hosts. “Because I think the first and foremost thing we’re going to do is [create] the type of conference and senators that people have frankly been voting for again and again and not been getting.”

However, some policies she did mention were those that had already been set as first-order-of-business and seemingly non-controversial among virtually all Democrats: early voting, the Child Victims Act, and the Reproductive Health Act. These are among many policies Stewart-Cousins said “have not been able to move under Republican leadership for so many years” that Democrats plan to get to.

Stewart-Cousins noted that she has faith in the new members of the Senate, some of whom are part of a younger and more progressive movement that successfully claimed many of the seats formerly held by members of the Independent Democratic Conference, a breakaway group that had formed a coalition with the Republicans, at times giving them the seats for a majority. While these new members certainly won’t cut deals with Republicans, they still may not be on the same page with more senior members of the body, perhaps pushing for different, more progressive priorities like single-payer health care.

“We have 15 brand new members and we have to make sure everyone is up to speed,” Stewart-Cousins said. “I am so impressed with every single one of them that I have no doubt that the leadership they will provide, along with my current members, will be absolutely outstanding.”

Stewart-Cousins was also hesitant to name specifics when asked what legislation she sees as being tougher to pass, suggesting with a laugh that there could be conflict about anything and everything.

“I almost want to say all of the above because, you know, we’re Democrats,” she said with a chuckle. “I think everyone agrees on the outcomes we want, it’s just how to get there.”

Stewart-Cousins stressed her belief that Democratic takeover of the Senate is a major step forward for the state, as rather than having to debate over why policies that, for example, raise the minimum wage or ensure access to quality affordable healthcare, are necessary, the new Democrat supermajority will only have to decide on how to best design said policies.

“We’re not starting at convincing people that these things are important,” she said. “Now we’re starting a conversation where we understand [what] the objectives are.”

“Guess what, we’ll have a conference that is willing to acknowledge climate change and therefore, work towards ensuring our planet’s future,” she continued.

agenda19v2 aWhile expectations are high about addressing climate change, criminal justice reform, gun control, voting and campaign finance reform, tightening rent regulations, and more, there have been concerns that if Democrats were to flip the Senate and full control of state government that taxes would go up in order for the new regime to pay for all its new programs. But, during the campaign and since, Stewart-Cousins and others in her incoming majority have said they have no plans to raise taxes, an approach in line with Cuomo’s, but not necessarily Assembly Democrats.

Asked on Max & Murphy if she is indeed committed to not raising taxes, Stewart-Cousins reiterated her stance, and pointed to the federal tax reforms passed in late 2017 that are likely to negatively affect many New Yorkers due to the new cap and local and state deductions from federal tax obligations.

“We are not coming in there to raise people’s taxes,” Stewart-Cousins said. “We understand that New York is a big state and we understand that we need to make sure that it is affordable. I’m personally concerned about the impact of this federal tax bill on the New York taxpayers, and I think most people in our position are.”

Taxpayers will find out if Democrats stay true to their promise in their first big test: the next state budget, which Stewart-Cousins and her conference will have significant influence on, as the new Senate majority leader negotiates with Cuomo and Heastie. As the first woman to lead a legislative majority, she will be entering that negotiating room that has been male-dominated. When asked what that may mean, Stewart-Cousins said it shows progress made and more to do.

“I think it means that people see that once again another glass ceiling, marble ceiling, whatever you want to call it, has been broken,” she said. “We make certain assumptions about how far we’ve come, and we have in many ways, but I think everyday we’re also being reminded that there is more ground that has to be covered more ceilings to break.”

When asked if she has any plans on how to change the backroom process that often leads to major budget and legislative agreements that are voted on with virtually no public review, Stewart-Cousins said she couldn’t yet say.

“It’d be impossible to say, because I’ve never been in it,” she said, pausing to laugh. “I’m interested to see how this thing really works as well. I’m sure I’ll have a lot of opinions once I’ve actually been part of it.”

When it comes to those outside the Democratic conference, Stewart-Cousins said that she has not spoken to any Republicans who want to switch conferences, but would be happy to meet with Senator Simcha Felder, a Democrat who previously gave Republicans a one-seat majority in the Senate, about his role in the upcoming session. She said Felder had reached out and they would set something up, though he is not expected to command any special perks as he had from Republicans for helping give them the majority.

Of the former IDC members who kept their seats, Senators Diane Savino and David Carlucci, Stewart-Cousins said they have been and continue to be part of the Democratic conference, which they returned to in an April deal reached by Governor Andrew Cuomo.

[Listen to the full conversation: Soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins on Max & Murphy Nov. 14, 2018]

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

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by Victor Porcelli, Gotham Gazette

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Andrea Stewart-Cousins on Taking the Senate Reins, the Democratic Agenda & Getting Inside 'The Room' Sun, 18 Nov 2018 05:00:00 +0000