Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/369 Thu, 13 Dec 2018 08:46:50 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) ‘It’s just not designed to do its job’: Will New York reform its state ethics agency? http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8141-it-s-just-not-designed-to-do-its-job-will-new-york-reform-its-state-ethics-agency http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8141-it-s-just-not-designed-to-do-its-job-will-new-york-reform-its-state-ethics-agency ethics reform announc

Skelos, Cuomo & Silver in 2011 (photo via the Governor's office)


This year’s elections in New York saw the issues of public corruption and government ethics reform take centerstage in several campaigns. Insurgent Democratic candidates, some who succeeded and others who did not, challenged incumbent elected officials on their parts in the broken system of corruption prevention and ethics enforcement at the state level that has allowed -- some say encouraged -- rampant corruption and self-enrichment.

Much criticism has been levelled at the state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics, or JCOPE, a relatively young agency with a lackluster record of keeping watch on wrongdoing in state government. Since the agency’s inception seven years ago, several sitting lawmakers have been indicted and convicted of public corruption. But in most, if not all, those cases, JCOPE seems to have sat idly by as other enforcement agencies eventually stepped in. JCOPE has brought enforcement actions for ethical violations against only two lawmakers in that time -- one in 2013 against former Assemblymember Vito Lopez and then in 2015 against former Assemblymember Dennis Gabryszak. The body does not appear to many as much of a deterrent or enforcer.

Now, with Democrats set to take full control of the state Legislature and legislative leaders signalling a renewed commitment to reform, there’s talk of altering, or even repealing and replacing JCOPE, with some reform-minded legislators eyeing their new opportunity and even some relevant campaign season words from Governor Andrew Cuomo about making the ethics body more independent. Among them are Assemblymember Tom Abinanti, who wants to reform the agency’s membership, and State Senator Liz Krueger, who has proposed eliminating JCOPE and creating an entirely new agency from scratch.

Good government advocates are pushing for a soup-to-nuts reimagining of ethics enforcement. At minimum, they say, there should be changes to how JCOPE commissioners are appointed and that the agency should be given more teeth. The best-case scenario? Do away with JCOPE entirely and replace it with an entity as close to completely independent of political interference as possible.

JCOPE was created in 2011 during Cuomo’s first term, after he came into office promising to wipe clean the rot that had infected state government. Part of a deal with a hesitant Legislature, the agency was charged with overseeing lobbying activities and ethics violations by members of the state Assembly and Senate, the executive branch, dozens of state agencies, and candidates for elected office. It’s composed of 14 commissioners who serve five-year terms -- six appointed by the governor and lieutenant governor, three appointed by the Assembly speaker, three appointed by the Senate majority leader, and one each appointed by the minority leaders in both legislative chambers. The governor also appoints the chair of JCOPE while its executive director is chosen by the commissioners.

To advocates, JCOPE’s structure is plainly at the root of its problems. “The fundamental problem is, if you don’t have independent enforcement of the law, it doesn’t matter how good the laws are,” said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group. “While that’s not a bumper sticker issue, it’s not the sexy ethics issue to talk about, it is the critical one. The cornerstone of effective ethics enforcement is the independence of the agency that deals with it.”

Advocates and reform-minded elected officials have argued for years that JCOPE commissioners cannot be expected to conduct robust investigations of the very institutions, entities, and individuals that appoint them. JCOPE’s current executive director Seth Agata, a former aide to Cuomo, was a particular target of that criticism during the election. Cuomo’s Republican opponent, Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro, repeatedly called on Agata to step down over having failed to adequately scrutinize the executive chamber, particularly after the corruption conviction of Joe Percoco, a former top aide to Cuomo, who was found to have used his executive chamber office while working on Cuomo’s first reelection campaign.

In their only debate of the race, even Cuomo conceded that he would prefer to see a more independent JCOPE. “I believe we need more independence on JCOPE, I believe we need totally independent appointees and not necessarily representatives of both houses [of the Legislature],” he said. “I’d be open to a number of configurations, but they’d have to be independent. I’d have the attorney general involved; I’d have the chief judge involved in appointing the members.”

As he often has, Cuomo indicated his belief that even getting the Legislature to agree to creating JCOPE was a significant lift, and he added that it provided an opportunity to push further, having cracked the door open.

In the Democratic attorney general primary race as well, Fordham Law professor and anti-corruption crusader Zephyr Teachout led the charge in calling for Agata’s resignation, inflamed in part by JCOPE’s investigation and subsequent clearing of Sam Hoyt, a former state economic development official who was accused of sexual harassment and assault by a woman who said he helped her obtain a job at the state DMV. Hoyt was previously a long-serving member of the Assembly and was also investigated for sexual harassment while in office, and was later disciplined for having an inappropriate relationship with an intern. He was recruited after that by the Cuomo administration.

Public Advocate Letitia James, who went on to win the attorney general seat, initially took a softer position on JCOPE but eventually too joined Teachout in calling for Agata to step down, as did Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, who was also in the race. Former Verizon executive Leecia Eve, who worked with Agata in Cuomo’s administration, was the only Democratic attorney general candidate not to issue that demand but did say that JCOPE should be scrapped and a new agency created from the ground up.

[Read: Agenda 2019: High Hopes for Long-Awaited Reforms]

There have been bills introduced in the state Legislature that would accomplish these goals. Earlier this year, Assembly Member Tom Abinanti, a Democrat representing parts of Westchester County, proposed restrictions to JCOPE’s membership. His bill would prohibit an individual from serving on the commission if they had been a registered lobbyist, elected official, state officer or employee, or a legislative employee within the previous ten years. “We should ensure that no member of JCOPE is inclined to act preferentially for or prejudicially against any subject of a JCOPE inquiry,” Abinanti said in a phone interview.

Abinanti said he was open to the idea of potentially scrapping the agency but said his bill was a necessary half-measure in the absence of broader action. “My bill is a more practical approach that, so long as we have JCOPE, we have to make some reforms and we need to make sure that the members of JCOPE do not have any relationships with the people who might become the subjects of their inquiry,” he said.

The office of Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, did not respond to a request for comment. Senate Democratic spokesperson Mike Murphy said, “There was much done by the previous majority in furtherance of Senate Republicans’ partisan agenda and we expect to reform those inequalities to create more fairness,” likely referring to the fact that the Senate Republicans will still maintain control of a majority of the chamber’s appointments to JCOPE even after Democrats take the majority.  

Good government advocates agree that, in the absence of a new independent agency, the Legislature should make fixes to JCOPE’s problems, which are many. Besides the perceived conflicts of interest in appointments, the agency is notoriously opaque to the public. It does not release the details of investigations or even say whether an investigation has been initiated or concluded, for which it was recently sued by New York State Republican Party Chair Ed Cox. Its bizarre rules also effectively allow three Republicans out of the 14 members to block a majority vote for an investigation to proceed into a state elected official, said Alex Camarda, senior policy advisor at Reinvent Albany. The law mandates that the majority vote must include “at least two members appointed by the governor and lieutenant governor and enrolled in the individual's major political party, if he or she is enrolled in a major political party.”

“That’s probably the greatest flaw with JCOPE,” Camarda said. And, owing to how the original JCOPE law was written, both parties also retain the number of appointments they can make even if they are not in the majority in a legislative chamber.

“There’s tweaks and adjustments to the current structure or there’s scrap the whole thing and start over,” said Camarda. “The best practice is to start with a nominating pool from which elected officials choose and the candidates that are put into the nominating pool would be put there by an outside body like the City Bar Association or judges, people who are unaffiliated with the targets of ethics investigations.”

Senator Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat, agrees with that sentiment and has proposed a state constitutional amendment to create that independent entity.

Krueger introduced a resolution, co-sponsored by Assembly Member Robert Carroll, a Brooklyn Democrat, at the tail end of the 2018 legislative session that would add a new article on state government integrity to the constitution. It would establish a New York State Commission on Government Integrity to take over the role currently played by JCOPE. The new commission would be made up of nine members -- two appointed jointly by the governor, attorney general and comptroller; five appointed by the state’s chief judge and the presiding justices of the appellate courts; and one each by legislative conference leaders of political parties that are the top-two vote getters in the previous gubernatorial election.

Pursuing a constitutional amendment would also remove Governor Cuomo from the process. Unlike a bill that he could choose to sign or veto, the amendment would have to be approved by both legislative chambers in two consecutive sessions and then be presented to voters as a ballot measure.

“So do I assume [the governor] wouldn’t like this? Yes, probably he wouldn’t like this,” said Krueger, who will be a powerful member of the incoming Senate majority. “He wrote the existing JCOPE language. I don’t think that current model is working and I think we need to fix that...It’s just not designed to do its job.”

Krueger plans on reintroducing her resolution in the upcoming legislative session in January, with a few changes, which her office shared with Gotham Gazette, after consulting with the state’s chief judge and attorney general’s office. The earlier version allowed the commission to remove a legislator from office but the new version does not give the body that authority. Another revision allows the commission to give informal advice, which can then be used by an individual as defense in any potential future investigation.

The bill hasn’t been discussed yet by Senate Democrats and Krueger said it isn’t on the list of priorities for the conference as it meets this week to prepare for January. But Krueger is particularly optimistic that the Legislature will be under added public pressure after this election to move ahead on ethics reforms, both preventative and in enforcement. “I always have said, never waste a good crisis in government,” she said, “and when people have serious doubts about the honesty and integrity of their government leaders, it is a serious problem for all of us.”

She continued, “We depend on federal prosecutors to come in and play gotcha with us to finally get anything done. I’m not opposed to federal prosecutors playing gotcha, I just think the state of New York ought to have a system in place that can self-police, that can investigate, that can find people innocent when wrongfully accused and direct those, where there are findings of bad behavior and guilt, that those people be referred to the appropriate people in criminal justice.”

Another area where JCOPE is thought to be unequipped is in examining allegations of sexual harassment, an issue brought into recent relief by the allegation of forcible kissing brought against Senator Jeff Klein by a former aide, Erica Vladimer. Not only is it unclear if JCOPE has the expertise to examine sexual harassment claims, but there is little transparency related to any investigation that may or may not be happening, nor clarity around whether an accuser is provided information about the status of an investigation.

JCOPE spokesperson Walter McClure declined to comment on the proposals put forward by Krueger and Abinanti. “Any decisions on changes to our enabling legislation or the laws that we have oversight over are up to the Legislature and the Executive,” he said in an email.

It’s unclear whether the governor will back these efforts. On government ethics reform he has a history of promising big but delivering small, something that has left critics wary. As Camarda noted, “The governor told the editorial board of the Daily News that he was going to put into place a database of [economic development] deals, which he could do via executive order or pass legislation. He has not done that.” He also cited Cuomo’s unfulfilled promise to restrict campaign contributions from vendors bidding on state contracts.

The governor also made promises to pursue campaign finance reforms, including closing the so-called LLC loophole, and has repeatedly emphasized banning outside income for legislators as a sweeping ethics solution, even when the corruption has touched his own inner circle, removed from the Legislature. He lauded the recent recommendations of a state panel that would give lawmakers a pay raise while severely curtailing the money they can make from outside sources. Cuomo has been less vocal, however, about the issues within his own administration as highlighted by the scandal-ridden Buffalo Billion economic development program.

The governor’s office also did not provide any concrete proposals for reforming JCOPE when asked for comment. Hazel Crampton-Hays, a spokesperson for the governor, said in an email, “Governor Cuomo will continue to lead the fight on ethics reform to restore confidence in government, and we look forward to engaging with the new legislature to update and refine our laws and identify which new reforms will be most effective.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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‘It’s just not designed to do its job’: Will New York reform its state ethics agency? Wed, 12 Dec 2018 05:00:00 +0000
WATCH: Agenda 2019: Movement Expected on Reform, But What Will It Look Like? http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8119-watch-agenda-2019-movement-expected-on-reform-but-what-will-it-look-like http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8119-watch-agenda-2019-movement-expected-on-reform-but-what-will-it-look-like mnn agenda ep2

(photo: @MNN59)


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

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

 Gotham Gazette:

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

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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WATCH: Agenda 2019: Movement Expected on Reform, But What Will It Look Like? Thu, 06 Dec 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Panel Previews 2019 Rent Regulation Discussion in Albany http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8118-panel-previews-2019-rent-regulation-discussion-in-albany http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8118-panel-previews-2019-rent-regulation-discussion-in-albany rent reg agen

(photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayoral Photography Office)


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

One of the most contentious issues on the 2019 docket in Albany will be the expiring rent regulations that apply to roughly 1 million apartments in New York City and determine several ways in which rents are capped and when and by how much landlords are allowed to increase rents or remove a unit from the regulated rolls. While the regulations are set to expire in June, it is widely expected that they will be extended, the main question is what exactly they will look like, and whether the fact that Democrats are set to control both the governor’s office and both chambers of the state Legislature will mean sweeping changes that benefit tenants.

Though that debate is certain to heat up when Governor Andrew Cuomo gives his State of the State address and the legislative session begins in the new year, a lot of discussion is already happening. On Tuesday, the New York Housing Conference hosted a panel discussion with key stakeholders in the rent regulations debate: State Senator Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat; Assemblymember Steven Cymbrowitz, a Brooklyn Democrat; John Banks, the president of the Real Estate Board of New York; and Thomas McMahon, principal of consultancy TLM Associates. The hour-long discussion, which largely focused on rent regulations, but also touched more generally on housing development, was moderated by Gotham Gazette’s Ben Max.

“The Senate Democrats will be heavily focused on ensuring an improvement and strengthening of tenant protections in our rent regulation system,” Krueger said at the event, signaling that her new majority conference is looking forward to working with an Assembly majority that has held rent regulations as a top priority for many years.

Housing was one of the most prominent issues of the recent elections in New York, with the broad and ever-present issue of affordability talked about all over the state, some state Senate candidates in New York City running campaigns largely focused on rent regulations, and public housing crises popping up throughout. A slate of progressive Democratic reformers were swept into the state Senate on the promise of, among other things, reforming rent laws such as vacancy decontrol and how major capital improvements are assessed, and many candidates rejected campaign contributions from real estate developers. Those Democrats now join other state senators who will take over the majority from Republicans who were especially close with large real estate interests, and plan to team with Assembly Democrats who have been looking to strengthen rent regulations on behalf of tenants for years.

As legislators, negotiating with the governor, look to reform rent regulations and get the new formula right, there are certain to be complicated discussions, as members of Tuesday’s panel made clear. Stakeholders, from activists to developers, tenants to landlords, legislators to bureaucrats, will want their say in how new laws will be shaped. The state’s rent regulation laws are set to expire in June, two months after the state budget is due. Working rent reforms into the budget would provide faster resolution and may offer an opportunity for broader horse-trading as often happens in Albany, but a rushed job could also potentially leave open loopholes or fail to adequately address the issue.

To the potential chagrin of some, the panelists advocated a slow and steady process instead of immediate legislative reform, while hitting on a variety of specifics that must be considered.

“We will move slowly,” said Cymbrowitz, the Assembly housing committee chair, after Banks, the head of the city’s most powerful real estate lobby, advocated the same. “We will not just throw legislation, take them out of committee and just put them on the floor. We will have discussions with our partners, we will talk about it, and if there has to be changes to existing legislation, we’ll look at that as well.”

The Assembly has passed rent reforms such as repeal of vacancy decontrol, which allows apartments to be removed from rent regulation, on several occasions, but the Senate has been opposed. Krueger said that while the new majority with many new members that she will be a part of has not held a conference she believes the Senate Democrats will be “very open” to repealing vacancy decontrol. Governor Cuomo, who has close ties to real estate, recently said on WNYC radio that if a vacancy decontrol repeal bill passed the Legislature, he would sign it into law.

Vacancy decontrol, vacancy bonuses, preferential rent, the Urstadt Law preventing New York City from controlling its own rent laws, and the way landlords can account for major capital improvements (MCIs) are just some of the policies that could be on the table in 2019. Advocates who want to do away with or drastically modify vacancy bonuses, vacancy decontrol, and how MCIs can be passed on to tenants argue that they will protect tenants in rent regulated apartments from abusive practices by landlords and will protect the city’s rent regulated housing stock, which has diminished significantly in recent decades.

After Senator Krueger said that her conference will be focused on strengthening tenant protections, she later added that vacancy decontrol would definitely be taken up, and singled out MCIs in particular as well.

“People are not saying end MCIs, we’re saying end the ridiculous system where if you put in for an MCI, you get to get paid back for it forever by adding it onto the rents and inflation-adjusting it forever, when on average you’re getting your full money back in seven years,” Krueger said.

For Banks, whose organization is made up of and lobbies on behalf of the city’s largest real estate developers and landlords, reforms pose a fundamental threat to the industry’s ability to do business, and to the availability of good and abundant housing in the city. He argued that vacancy decontrol, wherein an apartment leaves regulation after rent passes a certain threshold, is a tool to subsidize regulated units.

“At a fundamental level, rent regulations affect the amount of money that can go into a building, the revenue streams that go into supporting a building,” Banks said. “If those numbers are not sufficient to support the construction and maintenance of the building, then it will further chill production. It will limit people’s incentive to create additional supply.”

“We shouldn’t vilify the entirety of a segment of our economy that is as important to New York City and New York State as the real estate industry is,” he said.

Banks, as well as the other panelists, also singled out the city’s property tax system as a culprit in the increasing unaffordability of housing. A commission jointly empaneled by the mayor and City Council is currently working to discuss potential reforms to the property tax system, and City Comptroller Scott Stringer introduced a housing proposal last week to fundamentally alter the city’s real estate tax scheme. Whatever the city commission puts forth will have to then be dealt with in Albany -- like with rent regulations, the city has limited powers over its own affairs with regard to taxes, though property taxes are one area the city has significant leeway.

“It is so complicated, it is so obtuse, and there are layers upon layers of abatements and other incentives to try to get to the fundamental problem, which is it doesn’t reflect the policy realities,” Banks said, also referring to the system as “broken” and specifically calling out Class 2 property taxes, the owners of which he characterized as shouldering the greatest tax burden.

McMahon, who worked in government for decades before moving to the private sector, argued that the property tax reform commission could be used as an opportunity to help vulnerable New Yorkers.

“Should we be looking at using property tax reform to supplement low-income tenants?” he asked. “I think it’s a conversation that could be had. So it’s important that the budget be cognizant of the need to extend this program.”

On the issue of public housing, both Krueger and Cymbrowitz lent their support to using Rental Assistance Demonstration, which Mayor de Blasio recently announced would be expanded to dozens of developments throughout the city and leverages both federal vouchers and private funding to allow private companies to manage NYCHA properties, providing additional sources of revenue for housing authority developments and key upgrades to the deteriorating housing stock.

“The RAD model seems to be working very effectively in other parts of the country and the state,” Krueger said. She clarified her remarks by noting that she is not in favor of privatization of NYCHA, which some say RAD effectively does, or at least is a gateway toward.

Krueger also didn’t outright dismiss the idea of building on unused NYCHA land, a controversial process known as “infill,” but argued that the balance of market-rate and affordable units needed to be carefully found, noting that she has a development in her district where a building is being built that will be 50 percent market rate and 50 percent affordable.

Cymbrowitz talked about using NYCHA land to build senior affordable housing, but acknowledged that more senior and other affordable housing means less revenue being brought in by infill for NYCHA’s tens of billions of dollars in needs.

But Krueger also cautioned about how infill developments are designed in terms of revenue.

“A real sticking point for the community was who’s getting the money that NYCHA will get from the building,” Krueger said. “Residents want their problems fixed, and many of their position is if you’re going to be putting a new building on our site, you’re taking away a playground, at least the money that’s coming in should come to meet the needs of this facility.”

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 Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

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Panel Previews 2019 Rent Regulation Discussion in Albany Tue, 04 Dec 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Experts Confident in New York Election Security, Though Risk of Temporary ‘Chaos’ Remains http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7815-experts-confident-in-new-york-election-security-though-risk-of-chaos-remains http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7815-experts-confident-in-new-york-election-security-though-risk-of-chaos-remains govcuomo votes mount kisco primary

Gov. Cuomo voting (photo via the Governor's office)


Governor Andrew Cuomo announced on Tuesday new measures to enhance the security of the state’s elections. They include “comprehensive risk assessments, intrusion detection devices, and managed security services for all county boards of elections,” as well as training for election staff on cyber security.

The initiatives make use of $5 million allocated in the 2019 state budget for enhanced cybersecurity related to elections, which included the creation of an “election support center” and an “election cyber security toolkit,” provides “cyber risk vulnerability assessments” for state and local Boards of Elections, and requires BOEs to report data breaches to the state.

The announcement comes in the wake of the indictment of 12 Russian nationals for interference in the 2016 presidential election, involving the theft and release of emails from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton campaign chair John Podesta. A news release from the governor’s office said that the state would solicit contracts in the coming days for the risk assessments, intrusion detection devices, and security services for county boards of elections.

The broader issue of election security has become increasingly prominent in the wake of the 2016 election and the allegations of Russian interference. Cuomo’s announcement of new election security measures came just a few hours after a Tuesday panel at City & State’s Protecting NY Summit, moderated by Gotham Gazette’s Ben Max, where panelists discussed the issue as it relates to state and local elections in New York. New York is in the midst of a busy election year that features races for all of its statewide state-level positions, all of its state legislative seats, one U.S. Senate seat, and all of its House of Representative seats, among others.

The panel consisted of State Senators Todd Kaminsky and Liz Krueger; Assemblymember David Buchwald; Michael Ryan, executive director of the New York City Board of Elections; Eric Hodge, of cybersecurity firm CyberScout Solutions; and Eva Guidarini, a member of Facebook’s U.S. Politics and Government Outreach team.

In something of a twist from how New York’s dysfunctional elections are usually discussed, the state’s election security measures in the wake of the 2016 election were highly praised by the panelists. Unlike many states, New York never abandoned paper ballots so as always to leave a “paper trail” in the event of a hack. New York’s voting machines are also not “networked,” but rather are all independent machines. This makes it impossible to hack the entire system or even the machines.

“The election results are stored on the device, on two separate -- they look like flash drives, we call them portable memory devices, PMDs -- one is for unofficial results, the other remains with the machine itself for the official results,” said Ryan. “And, in addition to that, there is paper ballots. So if there was ever a really catastrophic event, we still have the paper to make sure that even though the mischief occurred, the outcome and the integrity of the outcome, which is all we could ultimately preserve, is maintained.”

Still, in the event of a hack, the city and state may still be underprepared. Ryan suggested that the BOE may be due for an increase in staffing to supplement its monitoring services.

Senator Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat, ranking member of the Senate finance committee and a member of the elections committee, said that the focus should be not just on whether the 2016 elections were meddled with, but when and how it would happen again, in 2018 and beyond.

“Rather than talk about the fact that, apparently, they are hacking our elections, and we have to assume we’ll have future elections hacked, I think the lesson from yesterday, I agree, the timing was perfect for this discussion, was if you don’t have any faith that your elected officials are going to follow the law and uphold their duties and responsibilities, we are in serious trouble as a state, a city, or a country,” Krueger said, in reference to the press conference held by President Donald Trump alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Twice during the hour-long discussion, Krueger stressed that New York has never adopted electronic-only voting systems, instead opting to leave the paper trail to ensure votes are counted. She explained that she had been part of the fight to ensure paper ballots were still used as many other states were moving to digital-only, which has come back to haunt them.

Ryan noted that the 2016 election-related hacking led the BOE to conduct, for the first time, election security exercises and simulations meant to quickly and efficiently identify and neutralize threats.

“We did our first tabletop exercises in the lead-up to Election Day,” Ryan said of November 2016. “Tabletop exercises are the way that agencies keep the muscles limber, reenacting real world scenarios in a serious way, and we did a tabletop exercise on the Thursday before a presidential election for almost seven hours. Shows you the seriousness with which everyone took that.”

Asked whether New Yorkers should stop expecting immediate and secure election results, Ryan demurred. Kaminsky said he would love to see Long Island election night results come in more quickly, like New York City is able to do.

Ryan indicated that if there was a vulnerability to hacking it would be in the uploading of results from polling places to the BOE, and that if a bad actor was intent on causing some "chaos" they would possibly be able to do that for a short period of time, but that systems, while expensive, are in place to mitigate any effects fairly quickly. There may be some temporary confusion, he said, but it would be quickly corrected.

“If there is a problem,” Ryan said, “we have backup systems in place. We can leverage police department personnel to shut down the uploading of the results from the poll sites, and shift that to the local police precincts.” Ryan said that BOE sytems are now constantly monitored throughout the year through work with New York City's technology department.

Krueger kept to her admittedly skeptical theme by recounting an anecdote of first-year computer science students successfully breaking into voting machines in Ohio within an hour-and-a-half.

“When everyone who takes the college computer class can do it in the first hour and a half, you should be very, very worried,” she said.

Hodge, whose firm is hired by governments to sure up their cyber security and election systems, said that along with the voting machines and election results, the voter databases and rolls should be protected and secured as well. He also said that policymakers should prioritize being able to detect problems immediately, and that New York carefully vet election vendors to ensure that security is prioritized.

"Thankfully," Assemblymember Buchwald said early in the program, "we've had a fairly proactive approach here in New York, not to toot my subcommittee's own horn, or the entire Assembly election committee, but we've actually had already two public hearings on election security, the most recent of which was this past November after the local elections. And if you were at the hearing, if you watched it online, you would have heard the words 'Cambridge Analytica' four months before they became national news."

Governor Cuomo’s announcement of new measures comes on the heels of a new law aimed at securing the state’s elections passed earlier this year. The law prohibits foreign entities from forming independent expenditure (IE) committees to buy ads on social media, requires ad buyers on social media to register as IE committees and for the name of the IE that bought the ad to be clearly displayed, and requires the State BOE to make political communications more transparent and accessible.

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by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

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Experts Confident in New York Election Security, Though Risk of Temporary ‘Chaos’ Remains Thu, 19 Jul 2018 04:00:00 +0000
3 Ways New York Must Advance Reproductive Rights This Year http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/7557-3-ways-new-york-must-advance-reproductive-rights-this-year http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/7557-3-ways-new-york-must-advance-reproductive-rights-this-year krueger doctors

Senator Krueger, the author, with doctors (photo: @jmumfordmd)


Note: this column was written and published in March, 2018, several months before Democrats won control of the state Senate through the November elections; they will take the majority in January

On March 13, the New York State Assembly passed three critical bills regarding reproductive health and rights: the Reproductive Health Act (RHA), the “Boss Bill,” and the Comprehensive Contraception Coverage Act (CCCA). Unfortunately, the majority coalition in the State Senate continues to bottle these bills up in committee, as it has for years, preventing them from getting an up-or-down vote on the Senate floor. This obstruction simply cannot continue.

New Yorkers deserve modern laws to protect their deeply personal decisions about reproductive healthcare, and the time to act is now.

Why the urgency, you may ask, when New York is seen as a leader in protecting women’s reproductive rights, and Roe v. Wade continues to be the law of the land?

The simple answer is that there is a war on women’s reproductive rights in our country at the state and federal level, and it has significantly intensified during the Trump Administration. Conservative judges are being appointed to state and federal courts; funding is being redirected from Planned Parenthood to clinics that do not perform abortions, and from evidence-based sex education and pregnancy prevention programs to ineffective abstinence-only programs; laws and regulations seek to chip away at Roe v. Wade and restrict abortion access by creating unnecessary hurdles and criminalizing pregnancy; lack of coverage, high co-pays, and harmful regulations reduce access to contraception.   

Even in New York, our reproductive health and rights are at risk because of our outdated and unconstitutional laws.

If a pregnant woman becomes critically ill after 20 weeks, or learns that the fetus is not viable, she must choose among terrible options: travel out of state to get an abortion (if her family can afford the hefty expense); carry to term and risk a dangerous labor to deliver a baby that is stillborn or able to survive only briefly, often in great pain; or possibly face criminal charges for getting the abortion in New York.

Current state law also fails to protect women and men from being fired or otherwise discriminated against by their employer for their reproductive healthcare decisions, whether making the decision to get an abortion, or simply choosing to use contraception. In addition, although access to contraceptive options is instrumental in reducing the number of unintended pregnancies, including teen pregnancies, and leads to families that are planned, safe, and healthy, many New Yorkers face barriers to contraceptive services due to lack of financial resources.

The RHA, the Boss Bill, and the CCCA address these pressing issues.

The existing New York State abortion law was enacted in 1970. It is not based on modern medical practices, and it does not guarantee the same constitutional protections as Roe v. Wade. Passing the Reproductive Health Act (S2796/A1748) would provide for abortion care after 20 weeks if a woman’s life or health is at risk, or if a fetus is not viable. Additionally, the RHA repeals outdated and unconstitutional criminal statutes banning abortion, and moves the regulation of abortion into the public health law, where it belongs, ensuring that New York State law treats abortion as health care and not a criminal act. Reproductive health care decisions should be made by a woman and her doctor – not by politicians or the government.

The Boss Bill (S3791/A566) closes a gap in current workplace anti-discrimination laws. Employees would not need to fear being the target of employer discrimination if they use contraception, get abortion care, or seek other reproductive health services.

The Comprehensive Contraception Coverage Act (S3668/A1378) requires insurance policies to provide coverage for all FDA-approved contraceptive products. Policies are also required to cover emergency contraception, voluntary sterilization procedures, patient education and counseling on contraception, follow-up services, and the provision of a 12-month supply of a contraceptive at one time, without a deductible, co-payment, or any other cost-sharing requirement.

At this critical time when women’s health and reproductive rights are under attack, New York must demonstrate bold leadership and stand up for women’s equality and healthy families. I urge my fellow New Yorkers to hold your Senators accountable. New York families have waited long enough - we can and must pass these bills.

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Liz Krueger is a state senator representing parts of Manhattan. On Twitter @LizKrueger.

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

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3 Ways New York Must Advance Reproductive Rights This Year Wed, 21 Mar 2018 04:00:00 +0000
State Senate’s New Sexual Harassment Policy Draws Criticism http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7463-state-senate-s-new-sexual-harassment-policy-draws-criticism http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7463-state-senate-s-new-sexual-harassment-policy-draws-criticism John Flanagan Senate

Senate Leader John Flanagan (photo: State Senate)


The New York State Senate leadership’s attempt to revamp its sexual harassment policy is drawing criticism from advocates and lawmakers.

Ordered by Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, a Republican from Long Island, the rewrite enhances protections but also adds a seemingly gratuitous line warning that falsely accusing someone is a “serious act.” It comes amid a national reckoning about workplace harassment, including in government, but also follows a claim made against one of the leading members of the state Legislature, Senator Jeff Klein. Klein, whose Independent Democratic Conference forms a ruling coalition with the Senate majority Republican conference, has vehemently denied forcibly kissing a staff member outside a bar in 2015.

Democratic Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the only female leader of a state legislative conference, expressed dismay at the changes in a statement, saying that the warning to false accusers is evidence that the Senate leadership is not serious about combating sexual harassment.

“To emphasize the punishment for filing a false report while not emphasizing the seriousness of sexual harassment is exactly the type of intimidation that has silenced so many through the years and encourages perpetrators to attack accusers,” said Stewart-Cousins.

Other criticisms of the document center around its use of the word "may" rather than "shall" in places, weak anti-retaliation language, and its failure to designate an independent person to report misconduct to.

These seeming gaps are drawing questions about the motivation for the policy rewrite and who was involved in drafting it. Spokespersons for the Republican conference and the IDC did not respond to a requests for comment on the matter, but Senate Democrats, three of whom serve on the Senate ethics committee, said they were not consulted.

“It just showed up in my staff email two nights ago... I don’t think I even got a direct copy,” said Senator Liz Krueger, who is known for her outspokenness on sexual harassment, during a recent appearance on The Capitol Pressroom radio show. “We could have told them everything that was wrong with it, but no one sought [our advice] in advance.”

An attorney who is frequently contracted to investigate discrimination and harassment claims involving the Senate, said she also had not been consulted, having not seen the documents until Gotham Gazette sent them to her.

“I learned about the new policy when I read about it in the newspaper,” said Pearl Zuchlewski, founding partner of Kraus & Zuchlewski LLP, which has been paid $198,485 by the Senate to investigate personnel claims in 2016 and 2017, according to New York State Comptroller records.

Senate Republicans stand behind the policy change, with a spokesperson saying that “the Senate has taken a strong policy and made it even stronger” and noting that the new version adds more examples of what constitutes sexual harassment, giving employees the ability to report an incident directly to the Senate's personnel officer and making clear that retaliation will not be tolerated.

“The false complaint provision that is being referenced by Senator Stewart-Cousins existed previously and has not been changed in any meaningful way. It is and always has been wrong to make a false complaint,” said Maureen Wren, a spokesperson for Senate Republicans.

While Wren would not provide details of who was involved in drafting, editing, and approving the new harassment policy, Flanagan has repeatedly said recently that he hired an outside firm to work on it, but much remains mysterious about the process.

"I asked for an independent review, we hired outside counsel, we strengthened what we do already in the Senate. I was proud of the work that we did before, we took what we did and just made it better," Flanagan said during a question-and-answer session of a Crain’s New York Business appearance January 25. “Everyone should feel comfortable in their work environment,” he added.

One of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s State of the State proposals, which reflects similar legislation proposed by Assembly Member Sandra Galef, aims to create a uniform sexual harassment policy for all government employees, including all three branches of state government.

Currently, the Senate policy covers complaints made against employees of the Senate and the Assembly’s policy covers complaints made against Assembly members and staff, with specific protocol depending on whether a complaint is made against someone working at the Legislature or in district offices. The state’s Joint Committee on Public Ethics, which is made up of Cuomo and legislative appointees, can also investigate a misconduct complaint on its own or with a formal referral from a government entity. Cuomo has proposed adding resources to JCOPE so that it can more quickly and ably conduct misconduct investigations.

Klein asked JCOPE to investigate the claim against him and has indicated such an investigation is underway. Flanagan said the Senate would not investigate because the accuser, Erica Vladimer, had not made a formal complaint within the body.

There are parts of the Senate policy that now more closely resemble the Assembly’s sexual harassment policy, last updated in 2014 after a major scandal, which is a 13-page document widely seen as a gold standard for sexual harassment policies in government.

For example, the section that recommends complainants first communicate their discomfort to the offending party and ask that the behavior stop, now mirrors an italicized line in the Assembly policy emphasizes that while “self help” is recommended it is not required. Another amendment that reflects the Assembly policy, specifies that the claim that alleged misconduct “meant no harm” or was “just a joke” is not an excuse.

However, if the impetus for the policy change was to create more parity between the two legislative houses, a side-by-side reading of the Senate and Assembly sexual harassment policies suggests there is still a long way to go, according to Alexis Grenell, a frequent commentator on government reform and gender issues, and a Democratic political consultant.

"The Senate policy is a weak imitation of the Assembly version, which is much closer to model language and includes no such warning against false reporting,” said Grenell. “No one wants to be sexually harassed or put themselves through the added stress of an investigation, which is why false reporting is so unusual. It's a red herring problem intended to discourage reporting."

The Senate’s new policy also adds a number of protected categories like creed, color, military status, familial status, predisposed genetic characteristics, and domestic violence victim status, but omits gender identity and expression, as noted by Senator Brad Hoylman, a Manhattan Democrat.

“I would call it a glaring omission -- a real statement as to the values and priorities of the Senate majority,” said Hoylman, noting that statistically transgender people of all groups are most likely to be targeted in hate crimes.

Hoylman is the prime sponsor of GENDA, or the Gender Expression Nondiscrimination Act -- which seeks to extend sex discrimination protections to people discriminated against on the basis of gender identity, expression, or transgender status -- but the Senate majority has prevented the bill from reaching the floor.

Many of the gaps cited in the old policy remain in the new version. For example, while the Assembly policy instructs complainants to report incidents to an independent counsel that has been retained, the Senate policy does not provide this avenue for individuals to report misconduct.

Senate complainants are still instructed to report incidents to an immediate supervisor or the immediate supervisor of the offender, the appropriate department head, or to his or her appointing authority.

If the complaint concerns any of those officials, or the complainant is uncomfortable making a report to any of these individuals, he or she may go to the Senate Personnel Officer, or the Secretary of the Senate.

“The concept that you should somehow first report it up the line internal to your office, when the line always goes to a senator, and/or then go to the staff of the majority leader -- also a senator, who frankly has even more reason to want to protect members and the ‘institution’ -- is just wrong,” said Krueger on Capitol Pressroom.

“I actually think this new policy is worse than the old policy and I don’t understand how in 2018 people don’t understand what the problem is and how we can address it,” said Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat.

When describing who will conduct the investigation should one unfold, the language in the Senate policy leaves up to the discretion of Senate leadership whether to hire an independent investigator, by using the word “may” rather than “shall.”

Despite that language, Republicans say that sexual harassment complaints within the Senate are handled independently and that it has been the practice for years.

By contrast, the Assembly policy indicates that the investigation “shall” be conducted by outside lawyers retained by the Assembly, and offers more detail for protecting the confidentiality of all parties involved as well as witnesses interviewed.

“Once you get into the question of what’s going to happen if there is a problem, this policy is not nearly as strong and clear as it needs to be,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of reform group Common Cause, on The Capitol Pressroom last week, speaking with Senator Krueger with host Susan Arbetter.

Other changes to the Senate policy include the addition of a 30-day time limit for both the accused and the accuser to appeal a decision.

The Assembly policy, which also includes a 30 day appeal time limit, has also been praised for taking steps to protect the privacy of accusers when they come forward and ensuring that they do not face retaliation by specifying harsh penalties for such behavior. The Senate’s two-paragraph anti-retaliation section is less specific.

The Assembly approach is not without question. In late 2017, Republican Assemblymember Steve McLaughlin was sanctioned by the Assembly ethics committee for allegedly asking a female Assembly aide for nude photos, lying about it, and then leaking her name to colleagues in the Legislature. At the time, questions were raised about the length of time it took for the investigation to unfold, as by the time McLaughlin faced disciplinary action, he was already on his way out of the Assembly, having been elected Rensselaer County Executive earlier that month.

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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State Senate’s New Sexual Harassment Policy Draws Criticism Tue, 06 Feb 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Amid Larger Moment, Will Albany Face Another Sexual Misconduct Reckoning? http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7286-amid-larger-moment-will-albany-face-another-sexual-misconduct-reckoning http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7286-amid-larger-moment-will-albany-face-another-sexual-misconduct-reckoning Cuomo Sheldon Silver Skelos Albany

Gov. Cuomo, Sheldon Silver & Dean Skelos in 2012 (photo via The Governor's Office)


As allegations of sexual harassment and assault against disgraced movie producer and major Democratic political donor Harvey Weinstein piled up earlier this month, women around the world took to social media to share stories of abusive behavior using the hashtag #MeToo.

The light being shone on the predatory behavior of Weinstein and many others resonated at statehouses across the United States, from California to Rhode Island, where women in politics have been speaking out about sexual misconduct they experienced first-hand or witnessed, with victims including legislators, young staffers and interns, lobbyists, and others.

In New York’s capital, the response has been more muted, in part because the Legislature is not currently in session, but also because Albany was recently forced to face its own mishandling of sexual misconduct scandals. As recently as 2014, the aftermath of a debacle around sexual harassment by Assemblymember Vito Lopez, which led to his forced resignation from the Assembly, produced a number of significant reforms to how harassment, misconduct, and discriminatory behavior are addressed in the state Assembly.

Now, three years later and amid a national reckoning with issues related to sexual misconduct, women in state government who spoke to Gotham Gazette noted an improvement in the Albany culture since these reforms, but say that sexist attitudes and behavior continue to plague New York state government.

While several female legislators were hesitant to speak on the record about their own experiences with sexual harassment, Secretary to the Governor Melissa DeRosa spoke frankly about her own experiences with sexism in the political sphere at a recent forum organized by Berkeley College in Manhattan. She described one incident, a decade ago, when on a conference call, it was announced that she would take the lead on a project. A man on the line, who is now a national leader in progressive politics, according to DeRosa, joked, “She can take the lead right up to my hotel room,” apparently unaware that DeRosa was on the line.

“These instances have stuck with me, but I'm not kidding myself and neither should you — many women have and still do experience far worse every day, and it's not just actresses you're reading about in the news this week,” she said, according to a transcript distributed by the governor’s office.

Calling for “societal course correction,” DeRosa encouraged young women in all industries to speak out.

The statement was a powerful one coming from DeRosa, who at 34 became the youngest person and first woman to be named Secretary to the Governor, the top aide to the state’s most powerful government official, when she was appointed to the post by Governor Andrew Cuomo. Days after DeRosa’s remarks, a former top official in Cuomo’s administration came forward with allegations that her former boss sexually harassed staffers, saying she was inspired by DeRosa’s remarks, according to The New York Post.

Patricia Gunning, who had recently resigned as the special prosecutor/inspector general of the Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special Needs, told The Post that she faced retaliatory violence for calling out her boss for his behavior.

“My hope is that this conversation will be the beginning of a new era in [how] these issues are addressed by employers,” Gunning told The Post.

On Monday, it was revealed that Sam Hoyt, a former assemblyman and Cuomo ally who ran Buffalo area projects for the state's Empire State Development Corporation, had abruptly resigned to take a job in the private sector. By Tuesday afternoon, Hoyt, who was disciplined by the Assembly in 2009 for an affair with 19-year-old intern, was accused by a former state employee of pressuring her into a romantic relationship. She told The Buffalo News that she was paid $50,000 for her silence.

In a statementCuomo spokesperson Dani Lever acknowledged that allegations of misconduct had emerged against Hoyt and that an investigation was underway.

"All state employees must act with integrity and respect," the statement read. "When the complainant made these allegations, they were immediately refered to the  Governor's Office of Employee Relations (GOER) for an investigation."

After GOER determined there were grounds for further review, the matter was referred to the Inspector General's Office, and later, the Joint Commission of Public Ethics (JCOPE), according to the statement. Hoyt maintains that the relationship was consentual, according to The Buffalo News.

But while to this point there has not been a new public outcry at the New York Legislature, female lawmakers say that the Weinstein scandal and its fallout have struck a chord and sparked private conversations about their early experiences in Albany and how they can best aid young female staff aides and legislators.

One such conversation occurred at a retreat for the Women’s Legislative Caucus in Saratoga two weeks ago, where women shared uncomfortable incidents they had experienced early in their careers and discussed how they could better unify when scandals occur, according to Assemblymember Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo area lawmaker who chairs the Women’s Caucus. One thing agreed upon, Peoples-Stokes said, was that the Assembly’s sexual harassment enforcement could be enhanced by a mentorship program for incoming members and their aides.

“We wanted to see if there is anything we can do in addition to ensure that we never need to have these experiences again,” said Peoples-Stokes. “It is something that we decided we are going to do as women of the Legislature, and you know, when women decide to do something, we get it done.”

While the Assembly reforms appear to have improved the culture in the 150-seat chamber, Albany’s sexual harassment problem has not disappeared. The Senate and the Assembly have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars over the past two years on outside counsel to investigate sexual harassment complaints. The Assembly’s ethics committee -- which exists solely to enforce policy on sexual harassment, discrimination, and retaliation -- convened a meeting in executive session on October 12 and is expected to meet again on November 2. The matter at hand is not clear.

Currently reported to be under investigation by JCOPE and the Erie County District Attorney’s office is Senator Marc Panepinto, a Democrat from Buffalo, who announced he would not seek reelection last year amid rumors of sexual harassment. Also last year, the Senate paid out $121,000 for two contracts with Kraus & Zuchlewski LLP “for legal counsel related to U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission matters and investigation of sexual harassment claims.”

Assembly members who spoke with Gotham Gazette acknowledged the body’s embarrassing history of dismissing sexual misconduct claims internally, which has led to a slew of unflattering headlines in 2012 and 2013, but noted that an influx of female legislators to the Assembly in recent years has also helped to reshape the culture. At the Senate, such scandals and its culture of protecting those in power has not drawn the same scrutiny.

Last week, New York’s chapter of the National Organization of Women (NOW) made an effort to further jumpstart the conversation, calling on women and men who currently or previously work(ed) in government in Albany and throughout the state to speak out about their personal experiences with sexual harassment or assault while on the job, citing the Legislature’s history of quashing sexual harassment complaints.

“Government sets the standard and the policies and the laws that all other industries are asked to uphold,” said Sonia Ossorio, president of the National Organization for Women - New York, said in a statement. “Given that Albany is a place where lawmakers have abused their power and sexual harassment has gone unchecked in the past, we felt it was important to give women in politics a platform to speak up.”

The women’s advocacy organization has announced the creation of a new, dedicated hotline for individuals in government to report their experiences (people can call 518-362-7857 or submit a story online at nownys.org).

In an interview with Gotham Gazette, Ossorio said the goal is to build on the momentum of the #MeToo movement. The hotline will provide independent counsel and resources to victims while also assessing how effective recent policies have been, she said.

“We immediately thought about the culture that has existed in Albany and we wanted to be able to empower women who work in politics, particularly young women and interns who head to their internships idealistic and wanting to be part of American government and are disillusioned by it,” she said. “We really want to know to what degree the environment of sexual harassment has been uprooted.”

The personal stories tumbling out of statehouses around the nation are eerily familiar to anyone who has closely watched New York state government in recent years. In California, women leaders in government have formed a campaign called “We Said Enough,” sharing stories about how they have endured groping, inappropriate comments about their bodies and abilities, and insults and jokes that diminish them professionally. In some cases, “men have made promises, or threats, about our jobs in exchange for our compliance, or our silence. They have leveraged their power and positions to treat us however they would like,” wrote the group on a website created for women to submit their stories.

An open letter circulated by members of the Illinois Legislature drew a direct comparison between the Weinstein scandal and the coercive situations in which women in government find themselves and had drawn 130 signatures by Tuesday afternoon, the AP reported.

"Every industry has its own version of the casting couch," reads the letter. "Ask any woman who has lobbied the halls of the Capitol, staffed Council Chambers, or slogged through brutal hours on the campaign trail. Misogyny is alive and well in this industry."

Albany, which has historically been referred to as the New York’s own “sin city,” is no stranger to such scandals. Repeatedly, a series of particularly egregious complaints of sexual harassment or rape has led the Legislature to a watershed moment of sorts, producing much-needed reform in how accusers are treated and how their complaints are handled.

A major turning point for the Assembly occurred in 2004, when, roiling from a series of rape accusations against Assemblymember Adam Clayton Powell IV and Michael Boxley, chief counsel to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, its leadership decided to bar members of the Legislature from fraternizing with interns.

In the state Senate, a somewhat similar soul-searching happened, but at the time many of its members were strongly opposed to the idea of an intern-fraternization ban.

In comparison to the 150-seat Assembly, sex scandals in the 63-seat Senate have unfolded more discreetly -- hinted at through money spent on lawyers or a senator or a top aide leaving the job abruptly amid rumors -- and as a result the body’s leadership has not been forced to publicly reckon with its record in the same way, according to Senator Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat who was instrumental in compelling the Senate to implement a mandatory sexual harassment training program.

A decade ago, Krueger said she was privy to two incidents involving interns who were molested by older male senators. One incident occurred in a packed elevator and Krueger famously threatened to kick the senator if he touched an intern again. The other time she learned of a sexual assault claim when she found a young staffer crying outside a senator’s office at the Capitol.

After the second incident, Krueger, who is known for her bluntness on the topic, said she urged then-Senate Leader Joe Bruno, a Republican from the Capital Region, to create mandatory sexual harassment training for all senators. When she threatened to hold a press conference naming and shaming the offending senators, Bruno, who later stepped down from the leadership role amid his own public corruption scandal, responded he would hold a competing press conference naming Democratic senators.

The way Krueger tells it, she said, “I didn't tell you [what] party this senator is in. I don't give a damn what party they are. We can do a joint press conference, and we all can name names. I don't give a [expletive].” To which Bruno responded, “OK, OK, we'll do mandatory sexual harassment training,” Krueger told The Albany Times Union.

The training became mandatory for senators and staff members and the regulations were clearly stated in a written document.

It was not the last time Krueger took her colleagues in the Legislature to task over crimes against women. In June 2003, when Boxley was led out of the Capitol in handcuffs, having been accused of rape for the second time, Krueger said she had a very public confrontation with Assemblymember Lopez, who a decade later would be toppled by his own slew of sexual harassment scandals. They were scheduled, coincidentally, to hold a joint press conference in front of the Legislative Correspondents Association office. According to Krueger, the Assembly member fumed, “How dare they come over here and arrest our counsel in our house?”

“I said ‘excuse me, he was tried with rape,’ pause, ‘for the second time,’ pause,” Krueger recalled to Gotham Gazette, “‘It seems to me that if you have anything to say publicly about this, it's let justice be fair and swift. Otherwise, I think you should keep your mouth shut.'”

Lopez’s Assembly colleagues later told her that she had made an enemy for life. “I said, ‘Good. Some enemies are worth having,’” said Krueger of the former Brooklyn Democratic boss, who lost a City Council race in 2013 and died in November 2015.

Still, Krueger acknowledges that the current sexual harassment policy in the Senate does not encourage women to come forward. “I’d like to believe the written policies the Senate came up with and mandatory training might have helped in some small way,” she told Gotham Gazette last week.

In 2014, following a series of sexual misconduct scandals involving Lopez, Assemblymember Micah Kellner, and Assemblymember Dennis Gabryszak, the Assembly officially changed its policy on sexual harassment, which had last been updated in 2009. In the past, sexual harassment complainants would typically report the incidents to the speaker’s office or the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE), but it was up to the discretion of the speaker’s counsel whether to investigate the complaints.

When it was revealed that Speaker Silver did not follow protocol and report misconduct allegations by two staff members against Assemblymember Lopez to the ethics body, instead cutting a secret $103,000 settlement with the women, Silver publically apologized for the lapse and announced that the Assembly would review its practices.

To help restructure the chamber’s sexual harassment policy, the Assembly’s ethics committee enlisted CUNY Law School Professor Merrick Rossein, an attorney, law professor, and expert in discrimination litigation. Through interviews with women in the Assembly, Rossein made a series of recommendations to the bipartisan legislative task force that was convened to address deficiencies in the Assembly’s policy.

“There are a number of things in this policy that I’m very proud of that I’d like to see in every sexual harassment policy, including the private sector,” said Rossein, who has since been retained by the Assembly as an outside counsel to investigate complaints against members, in an interview with Gotham Gazette.

Recommendations made by Rossein include the appointment of an outside investigator to look into complaints; a guarantee of confidentiality for accusers; severe consequences for an employer that retaliates against a complainant; and more. Most importantly, a lawmaker accused of harassment is barred from talking to the accuser until a designated time. Additionally, lawmakers were made mandatory reporters, required to inform the ethics committee about sexual misconduct if they see it or hear about it -- a component women say has had a dramatic impact on the culture in Albany. A hotline has been set up for people to submit tips.

The Assembly policy outlines two types of harassment, hostile work environment harassment — which is directed at somebody based on their sex, would be considered offensive by a reasonable person, and is severe or pervasive enough to interfere with one’s work environment — and quid-pro-quo harassment, the type described by victims of Weinstein, in which professional opportunities are offered in exchange for sexual favors.

In response to the barrage of corruption and sexual harassment scandals over the last decade, the Legislature has also dramatically revamped the way it approaches its ethics and sexual harassment training, according to Assemblymember Charles Lavine, a Democrat from Nassau County and former chair of the Assembly’s ethics committee. Not only are class sizes smaller, according to Lavine, but they have gone from obligatory and dry, to dynamic, thought-provoking, and interactive.

“We have gone from the days when it was almost an obligation to provide -- or what seemed to be at the time -- ethics training that was done in large groups of people,” said Lavine in a January interview with Gotham Gazette. “And while it was content-specific and good, it was not nearly so effective as the modern approach, which is to work with smaller groups of individuals in an interactive environment.”

Still, there is undoubtedly more work to be done to rectify inequities for women and in Albany. It likely doesn’t help that those at the top of Albany’s power chain are all men. Many have pushed for Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Westchester County legislator who has led Senate Democrats since 2012 and is the first woman or person of color to lead a legislative conference, to be included at the negotiating table during budget and other high-level talks. Currently, the state’s $150 billion-plus budget is largely hammered out by four men: Governor Cuomo, Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, and Senator Jeff Klein, leader of the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), which forms a ruling coalition with the Republican conference. Democrats hope that the 2018 state-level elections and an agreement with the IDC will lead to Stewart-Cousins becoming the leader of a new Senate majority.

Having more women in the Legislature would go a long way towards creating a safer space for female employees at all levels of government, according to Stewart-Cousins.

“The most disturbing thing is that almost every woman has a story regarding harassment or worse,” said Stewart-Cousins, in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “This is true in every walk of life and unfortunately true in government. Only by confronting sexism and gender bias head-on will we be able to truly create a culture which respects everyone equally. We need to support women and pro-women candidates for office and energize pro-women New Yorkers to get out and vote.”

An increase in the number of women in Albany has helped reshape the culture from an old boys' club, in which women were largely relegated to secretarial positions, to a more egalitarian environment, where women are not only elected to office, but have risen to acquire key chair positions in both houses and led the passage of women-friendly legislation.

Assemblymember Nily Rozic, who became the youngest woman in the state Legislature and the first woman ever to represent Queens’ 25th District when she was elected in 2012, said she has watched the culture transform since she began her tenure in Albany as an aide to Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh.

“It’s certainly gotten better since I was a legislative staffer, but we have a long way to go. The underlying change that’s happening is that more women are getting elected to the Legislature and that really positively affects our work place,” said Rozic.

Aside from the most serious cases of sexual assault and rape, it’s often sexual comments and diminishing jokes -- such as the one described by DeRosa -- or an extra-long hug that makes the state Legislature a treacherous place for young women.

Alexis Grenell, a political strategist and commentator on feminist issues, said the comment described by DeRosa is a quintessential example of how women are verbally undermined in the workplace.

“The harassment that Melissa described is fundamentally dehumanizing,” said Grenell. “There is nothing benign about it. It’s meant to take away her worth as a thinking, contributing person in a professional environment and renders her the sum total of her physicality and sex appeal. That is dehumanizing. It’s not why she’s on the call.”

Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou, in an interview with Gotham Gazette, recalled her first years as a legislative staffer in Washington, D.C. and as chief of staff to Assemblymember Ron Kim, of Queens. She said that when she first arrived in Albany, Kim warned her not to get into elevators with “the wrong people.” Later, she learned that she had been named on a “hot or not” list that had been circulating among male staffers at the Legislature.

“People would stop me in the hallway and say ‘you are just so exotic,’ but you know I’m not going to report them for it,” said Niou, who was elected to Silver’s old Assembly seat in 2016. “It’s just an ignorant and not very thoughtful comment.”

These types of incidents collectively create a hostile environment that women internalize and come to see as normal, she said.

“Over time, I’ve built this protective shell, like ‘oh these things are just going to bounce right off of me,’ but these things happen every day,” said Niou. “Somebody insists a kiss on the cheek -- like forces it -- but everyone kisses on the cheek, all over Albany people do the kiss-kiss thing.”

The cheek kiss, which is often reserved for women in political settings, falls into a bit of a grey area, but many women in government have observed the greeting often provides an opportunity for hands to roam. The Assembly’s newest sexual harassment policy warns that touching -- including brushing against the body, squeezing, hugging, massaging or patting -- may fall under the category of sexual harassment, but that has not ended the practice.

Grenell, who frequently holds press conferences at the Capitol, said to bypass the double kiss, she initiates a handshake by extending her arm as far away from her body as possible.

A similar strategy is deployed by one Pennsylvania lawmaker, who at a recent women-led panel in the state, explained how she avoids the cheek kiss -- by placing one hand on her colleague’s shoulder, and the other outstretched for a handshake, according to an account by a journalist covering the Harrisburg Capitol in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Albany veterans say they have grown accustomed to awkward and demeaning daily experiences.

"I've been saying for the last 15 years: Every week, I drive three hours north and 30 years back in history in regards to how we treat women," said Senator Krueger, of Manhattan.

With women across all industries, including government, empowered by the Weinstein blowup and its ripples to speak out about their experiences, Krueger said she would not be surprised if it led to another watershed moment in Albany.

“I would suspect in the New York State Legislature, like so many other places -- where you have men in powerful positions and young women who might not have a lot of worldly experience, who think these are very important men,” she said, “I wouldn’t be surprised if more stories come out.”

Update: The story has been updated with allegations about former EDC official Sam Hoyt that emerged Tuesday afternoon.

***
by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Amid Larger Moment, Will Albany Face Another Sexual Misconduct Reckoning? Tue, 31 Oct 2017 04:00:00 +0000
In Albany, De Blasio Evaluates Cuomo’s Budget, Faces Legislators’ Questions http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/6738-in-albany-de-blasio-evaluates-cuomo-s-budget-faces-legislators-questions http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/6738-in-albany-de-blasio-evaluates-cuomo-s-budget-faces-legislators-questions de Blasio albany budget testimony 2017

Mayor de Blasio in Albany (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor’s Office)


Mayor Bill de Blasio visited Albany Monday for his annual budget testimony in front of the joint budget committee of the state Senate and Assembly. In opening remarks, de Blasio touted some of his accomplishments and gave his on-the-record response to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s recently-released executive budget plan in terms of what it means for New York City and his own agenda. The mayor then fielded hours of questions from state legislators that often veered far from strict budget matters and went into how he is running city government and his policies.

Over the course of more than three hours, de Blasio was asked about a wide variety of topics by senators and Assembly members from both parties, engaging in mostly collegial back-and-forth that on a few occasions flared into contentiousness. A few topics, including an imminent city fee on plastic and paper grocery bags and the city’s child welfare agency, were asked about by multiple legislators, but there was no clear theme to the questioning like there was last year, when many pressed de Blasio on property taxes.

For his part, the mayor appeared mostly concerned with Cuomo’s new 421-a program, which aims to revive a property tax break meant to spur affordable housing development, and a variety of proposed funding cuts to the city that the governor outlined. As is often the case when he testiies in front of the state legislator, de Blasio was also engaged in fending off criticism from multiple avenues and attempting to finish his testimony as unscathed as possible.

The mayor, a Democrat now in the final year of his first term, opened his budget testimony on a conciliatory note, thanking the leadership in both chambers, and emphasizing that the interests of New York City and the rest of the state are intertwined.

“We see our role as continuing to be an economic engine for the state as a whole and for the region,” de Blasio said. “And obviously, we are the state’s primary gateway to the rest of the world and we know we have to play that role well. I also think it’s fair to say that New York State succeeds when New York City succeeds, and New York City succeeds when New York State succeeds. It’s a truly symbiotic relationship.”

He touted several accomplishments, including the development and preservation of 62,000 units of affordable housing -- part of the city’s plan to create or preserve 200,000 affordable apartments over 10 years -- dipping crime rates, higher graduation rates and test scores at public schools, and the city’s rollout of universal pre-kindergarten, which is largely funded through the state budget, he noted.

“Now, 70,000 four-year-olds are enrolled in pre-K, and we’re making sure that that investment pays off. Again, I want to offer my profound thanks on behalf of the parents of the City of New York for your support in allowing us to achieve this success,” de Blasio told about 25 legislators seated on a two-tiered dais.

New York City will need the state’s support to continue to build on its successes, de Blasio said, while acknowledging that the city still has much work to do and specifically citing homelessness as an area in need of improvement. De Blasio again promised a new homelessness-fighting plan in February, and even said that it will include a better method of community outreach in siting shelters.

Addressing the state budget, de Blasio had less to complain about this year than last -- in 2016, the the city faced nearly $1 billion in shifted costs under the governor’s initial budget proposal -- but he raised several concerns about the governor’s new 421-a plan, as well as multi-million dollar cost shifts on pre-K, charter schools, healthcare funding, and more.

The mayor praised elements of Cuomo’s budget, particularly the governor’s plan to provide tuition-free city and state college to middle class New Yorkers, a proposed three-year extension of mayoral control of New York City schools, election reforms, various criminal justice reforms, and state coverage of increased Medicaid costs.

De Blasio also sounded the alarm on threats from the Trump administration, stressing the urgency in securing public health funds and passing legislation to protect the environment. He cited Trump’s plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which he said currently covers 1.6 million New York City residents. Up to 200,000 public hospital patients could lose their insurance, endangering their health, and also potentially costing the public hospital system hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, according to de Blasio.

“So, we are quite clear that any actions taken in Washington could create real pain for both state and city government,” said de Blasio. “That’s why it’s so important that we ask your support in making sure that the state budget insulates and protects local governments and our work given these great uncertainties.”

Some of de Blasio’s comments came in contrast, to an extent, to his own preliminary budget, which the mayor released last week. In that spending plan, de Blasio made no “Trump-specific adjustment,” he said, because it was too early to tell what the new president may do on policy and budgeting.

While Cuomo’s executive budget will not be passed through the Legislature without changes, New York City would see a “net positive impact” of $279 million for the coming fiscal year, according to the financial plan. Though Cuomo’s proposal does include some smaller cost-shifts to the city, the budget stays away from the nearly $1 billion in CUNY and Medicaid cost-shifts to the city the governor had proposed last year, which were ultimately beaten back by de Blasio and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat and the mayor’s most important ally in the capital.

On Cuomo’s rebranded 421-a, called Affordable New York, de Blasio said that it would cost the city too much in foregone property tax revenue per unit of affordable housing. The mayor wants tweaks made to the proposal before it is passed, and also said that one tweak he does not want to see made to it is the re-inclusion of luxury condominiums. The program, which the de Blasio administration says is essential to building mixed-income apartment buildings in the city’s most desirable neighborhoods, was at the center of the falling out between de Blasio and Cuomo and will apparently become a contentious issue over the course of budget negotiations.

During the question-and-answer session of de Blasio’s Monday testimony, about 15 lawmakers asked the mayor dozens of questions in two-to-three minute segments.

Several Republican lawmakers pressed the mayor on how education funding is distributed, the hotly contested bag fee, and the city’s Administration of Children’s Services (ACS), which has been criticized of late for several high-profile and tragic child fatalities.

The most contentious moments of the Q-and-A came in exchanges between de Blasio and Senators Catharine Young, Simcha Felder, and Terrence Murphy, all of whom are part of the Republican majority caucus in the Senate.

Murphy, who has long-standing conflict with de Blasio after the mayor attempted to help unseat him in 2014, was the lone legislator to bring up the law enforcement investigations into the mayor and his allies. The two talked over each other at times, with Murphy saying de Blasio is untrustworthy and de Blasio claiming Murphy clearly “has a bone to pick.”

Young represents Chautauqua and Allegany Counties, chairs the Senate finance committee and co-chaired the budget hearing. She challenged de Blasio on how education funding is distributed to city schools and suggested the state should withhold funding from ACS. The ACS commissioner resigned amid criticism that recent tragedies could have been prevented by the child welfare agency, and de Blasio announced Monday that a new commissioner would be in place by early March.

The mayor defended the work of the child welfare agency, noting that it sees 50,000 to 60,000 complaints of child neglect or abuse per year, and in an overwhelming majority of cases, the agency helps children and families. He noted that sometimes courts stand in the way of a child’s removal from a troubled home. De Blasio found support from Senator Diane Savino, who is a former child protective specialist, acknowledged improvements at ACS, and said she is drafting legislation to relieve child protective workers of some of the administrative burdens of their work.

Young also pushed the mayor on property tax reform, which dominated last year’s hearing. While de Blasio has not raised property tax rates, property taxes have continued to rise quickly under this mayor because of increased property value assessments. Republican lawmakers have been pushing for both a general restructuring of the city’s property tax system, which de Blasio has regularly said is coming eventually, and a cap on city property tax growth. De Blasio and Assembly Democrats have refused such a cap, explaining that the city relies on tax revenue to fuel its $80-plus billion budget.

Senator Felder, a Brooklyn Democrat that caucuses with Republicans, expressed outrage over the so-called “plastic bag tax,” a 5 cent surcharge on paper and plastic bags to discourage use, reduce waste, and improve the environment.

“I fundamentally disagree that this issue isn’t urgent to address, in terms of climate change,” the mayor said. “It’s going to have devastating impacts if we don’t address it on all levels. We have even more urgency because we don’t know whether the federal government is going to take a step back on climate change.”

Felder and several Republican lawmakers chimed in, insisting that their objection to the fee was not an objection to the validity of environmental science.

“New Yorkers are sick of being insulted and lied to,” Felder said, raising his voice. “It has nothing to do with whether people do or don’t care about the environment. The issue is whether we have to be punitive. If government doesn't have a way to fix something, no problem -- tax! No problem -- ticket! No problem -- fee!”

With the bag fee about to go into effect in mid-February, the state Legislature is considering legislation to overrule and negate the city’s law. A bill passed the Senate, and the Assembly, which is controlled by Democrats, may take it up.

Many Democrats positioned themselves as allies of the mayor on Monday, including Assemblymember Catherine Nolan, the Assembly’s education committee chair, who asked about Foundation Aid and the failure of the state to make due on the Campaign for Fiscal Equality, a decade-old court ruling that was supposed to ensure a basic quality education to all public school students and the requisite funding. Framing it in terms of her experience as a public school parent and de Blasio’s as a former public school parent, she asked, “Do you think we were duped into thinking that we would all benefit from a full CFE?”

“It cannot be airbrushed out of history, our children have suffered from the lack of state funding,” de Blasio agreed.

Democratic Senator Liz Krueger helped defend de Blasio on a variety of issues, including his support for a “mansion tax,” which would add a surcharge to apartments sold for over $2 million.

Senator Daniel Squadron, a Democrat representing Lower Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn, took on a more contentious tone with de Blasio, however, renewing his previous calls for the mayor to sue the bad actors involved in the flipping of Rivington House, the former nursing that is becoming luxury housing. De Blasio said that the city had explored its options, but did not believe that it had a case to bring suit. He promised that his administration would talk more with Squadron about anything that can be done.

Assemblymember Nicole Malliotakis, a Republican representing Staten Island and parts of Brooklyn, commended the mayor for investing in NYPD equipment, before challenging de Blasio on his vow to defy Trump’s immigration ban. The Assemblymember, a frequent critic of the mayor, argued that the city’s list of 170 offenses that would warrant cooperation with federal immigration agents was insufficient. Noting that the city has only complied with 32 out of 584 deportation requests from federal immigration enforcement agencies, she asked, “Why would you protect individuals who are here illegally who are committing these crimes instead of putting your citizenry first and foremost and ensuring that we receive the federal funding that we need for law enforcement to do its job?”

“Assemblymember, I know you are a true believer in your ideology and I am in mine,” de Blasio replied. “And we have very different facts. We are going disagree even on the premise of the question.”

He reiterated that his administration was more concerned that low level, nonviolent offenses like marijuana possession would be used as an excuse for deportation, stressing that conforming to Trump’s anti-immigrant policies would make undocumented immigrants unwilling to speak to police, which would put the city at risk. However, he conceded, “If there are some offenses we should add [to the list of 170], we are willing to do that always.”

The exchange with Malliotakis was indicative of most that de Blasio had on Monday: he pushed back on legislators’ wording, premises, and data, but did so with some semblance of willingness to communicate further and collaborate where possible. The question then becomes, of course, whether de Blasio does indeed intend to communicate and collaborate more, or whether he was attempting to diffuse criticism at such a rare and public hearing.

After his appearance, de Blasio refused to answer questions from members of the media. While he had done so prior years after his budget testimony, this year the mayor ignored reporters who attempted to ask him questions as he walked the halls of the Legislative Office Building, engaged in conversation with a member of the Assembly.

De Blasio had meetings scheduled Monday afternoon with Heastie, Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, Independent Democratic Conference Leader Jeff Klein, and Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins. The mayor was not set to meet with Cuomo, despite the rare occurrence that both were in Albany on the same day.

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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In Albany, De Blasio Evaluates Cuomo’s Budget, Faces Legislators’ Questions Mon, 30 Jan 2017 05:00:00 +0000
Early in Albany Session, Plastic Bag Fee Sparks Home Rule Debate http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/6722-early-in-albany-session-plastic-bag-fee-sparks-home-rule-debate http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/6722-early-in-albany-session-plastic-bag-fee-sparks-home-rule-debate felder bag fee city hall via scott reif

Senator Felder & opponents of the bag fee (photo: Scott Reif)


An attempt by lawmakers in Albany to prevent the New York City Council from imposing a fee on plastic and paper bags at retail stores has reignited a debate over home rule and the state government’s interference in the work of a democratically elected local legislative body.  

The New York State Senate passed a bill on Tuesday that prohibits “the imposition of any tax, fee or local charge on carry out merchandise bags in cities having a population of one million or more.” The bill, sponsored by Sen. Simcha Felder, a Brooklyn Democrat, directly targets a law passed by the City Council and signed by Mayor Bill de Blasio last year that imposes a nickel fee on those bags and is due to go into effect February 15.

The law, which passed with a relatively slim City Council majority, is meant to reduce waste and environmental damage, as New Yorkers send billions of bags per year into the waste stream While it make exceptions for people on public assistance, its opponents argue that it would be a prohibitive burden on New Yorkers, including poor people and families more broadly.

“Many families have a hard time just getting by, paying for groceries, rent and heat, and now the Mayor wants to shake them down every time they shop just for the privilege of using a plastic bag,” Senator Felder, who represents part of Brooklyn, said in a statement on Tuesday. “Mayor de Blasio, please do not nickel-and-dime New Yorkers with another tax. This will hurt lower- and middle-income families who already struggle. I'm asking New Yorkers to stand up and tell the Mayor that this bag tax has to go.”

Although Felder is a Democrat, he caucuses with Republicans to create a Senate majority. His bill was co-sponsored by three Republicans and also two other Democrats, both members of the Independent Democratic Conference, a breakaway group that shares power in the Senate with Republicans. Felder’s bill passed with 42 votes in favor and 18 against.

For the Democratic Senators who opposed Tuesday’s bill, the plastic bag fee at the heart of the issue was not the only thing under threat. They criticized Felder’s bill for violating the state constitution’s principle of home rule that gives local governments the authority over many of their own affairs, and for doing so only in the case of New York City while making no mention of smaller jurisdictions that have passed similar bag fees.

The Senate bill, Democrats insisted, was narrowly targeted and would set a dangerous precedent for the legislative body. Even the word “fee” became a point of contention. Felder, and those who supported him, call it a “tax” instead and argue that the city has no right to impose it. Under state law, only the state Legislature can approve any new taxes. It is considered a fee because the stores keep it, the money is not passed to the government.

Sen. Liz Krueger, a Democrat from Manhattan, arguing on the Senate floor against Felder’s proposal, wondered “why should we override history, precedent, perhaps the constitution...and take an action that overrides a local government’s law applying only to itself?”

Krueger expressed concern that it reflects political developments at the national level, where the incoming federal administration may seek to unduly interfere in the workings of the state. In a statement after the passage of the bill, Krueger said, “If this bill becomes law, it will set a shameful and dangerous precedent that local solutions to local environmental issues will be vetoed in Albany.”

The bill is now with the Democrat-led Assembly and if it passes there, it would be sent to Governor Andrew Cuomo for his signature. “We would like to see if we can get the city come to an agreement with how the Legislature has raised a concern,” said Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, at a Tuesday news conference. “But again, we don’t want to minimize the environmental concern that the city has raised.”

State intervention in New York City’s affairs is not novel and has in the past been a source of tension in the city-state dynamic, at times along partisan lines. The state’s Municipal Home Rule Law provides that the state can intervene in a local jurisdiction’s affairs if the locality sends a “Home Rule message” to the state Legislature requesting that certain laws be enacted or if the state Legislature demonstrates that an issue is a “matter of state concern.” Otherwise, the state Legislature cannot pass laws that apply only to a specific locality. That the bill targets New York City is a given: there is no other municipality in the state with more than a million residents. That might give its opponents an opportunity to challenge it as a “special law” rather than a “general law” that applies statewide.

Courts have in the past cited ‘home rule’ as a basis for striking down laws passed in Albany that affect New York City alone. But the language in Felder’s bill refers to an “open class” of locality, rather than naming New York City, and that argument has been upheld by courts, said Richard Briffault, a professor at Columbia Law School who specializes in state and local government law. “The state most likely has the legal authority to ban local plastic bag fees but it is completely inconsistent with the idea and purpose of local home rule,” he said.

Echoing Briffault, Doug Muzzio, political science professor at Baruch College, emphasized Albany’s “virtually absolute” power over New York City. “Under Dillon's rule, cities are creatures of the state,” Muzzio said, referring to a judgement in 1868 by Judge John Forrest Dillon, then-chief justice of the Iowa Supreme Court, which narrowly defined a municipality’s authority as being derived from the state government. “Their powers, their very existence is determined by the state,” Muzzio added. “Albany's power over the city has long been a source of anguish. In his 1861 address before the Common Council, Mayor Fernando Wood called Albany's power ‘odious and oppressive.’ It remains so.”

Muzzio said Senate Republicans were using the authority within their right to enforce their own goals. Complicating matters, though, is that there are more than a dozen Democrats in the New York City Council who voted against the bag fee. Still, this does not change the fact that the city passed its own law on the matter.

The overarching debate is also somewhat complicated by the fact that the plastic bag fee has pitted senators representing New York City against their colleagues from the five boroughs, making them all stakeholders in the issue serving overlapping constituents. Supporters of the bag fee insisted on Tuesday that legislators from outside the city should not interfere with local matters while opponents of the fee pleaded to those outside legislators to help them avoid imposing a new burden on their constituents.

“There are seven City Council members who represent my district,” said Senator Diane Savino, an IDC memebr and one of the state cosponsors who represents Staten Island’s northern shore and parts of South Brooklyn, during the Senate debate. “Every single one of them voted against [the bag fee bill in the City Council]…What they weren’t able to accomplish in the City Council, they want me to be able to deliver for them up here in Albany. They thought it was bad policy for the City of New York. They lost the fight there but they want us to win the fight here.”

Savino also complained that the Senate had been misled by the City Council. The bag fee would have gone into effect in October last year but the Council delayed its implementation after facing strong opposition in Albany. The Senate voted then, as it has now, to ban any taxes or fees on plastic bags. As a result, the City Council struck a deal with the State Assembly to push implementation to 2017 and to revisit the language in the bill. Those negotiations have yet to produce results, with the fee set to go into effect in less than one month. “They did not negotiate in good faith,” said Savino. “We cannot trust them.”

Senator Jesse Hamilton, another IDC member from Brooklyn, who spoke later, stood up against the Senate bill. “Every time we speak about home rule in this chamber, it never applies to New York City," he said. "For this chamber to say the City Council in New York City, they don't know what they are doing, I find that a little offensive.”

Negotiations between the Council and state lawmakers are still continuing, said City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito at a news conference on Wednesday, in response to Gotham Gazette’s questions. Mark-Viverito expressed her displeasure that the Senate was attempting to thwart legislation that had been extensively debated. “I think it’s unfortunate that New York City is being specifically targeted by the bill that is being presented and that is being discussed and the Senate voted on,” she said.

The day before the Senate took up the bill, Mayor de Blasio vowed to push back against its efforts. In his weekly appearance on NY1, he told host Errol Louis, “I’ll work with the City Council to push this back, because I don’t see an alternative. Do we really want to keep doing something that’s really bad for our environment and takes up lots of fossil fuels as we’re facing climate change. I think the Council was right to pass it and if some of the folks in the state Senate oppose it, what’s their alternative? The status quo is not acceptable.”

A key player in what happens next is a main de Blasio ally: Assembly Speaker Heastie, a Bronx Democrat. Then, there is Gov. Cuomo, not typically a de Blasio friend, who would be forced to decide whether to sign the state legislation if it passes both houses. Cuomo’s office did not return a request for comment about the debate over the bag fee.

City Council Member Brad Lander, a Brooklyn Democrat and one of the prime sponsors of the bag fee legislation, is hoping that either the Assembly will vote down the bill or that Governor Cuomo, known for his positive record on environmental conservation, will veto it.

Lander said it was “mystifying” that the state Legislature would attempt to roll back environmental regulation and dictate a “law of dubious legality” to the city. But he remained open to changing the language in the bill if it meant it could be improved and receive the Legislature’s support. “I’m worried that Albany is going to nullify this very sensible effective environmental policy,” he said. “I assumed that when Suffolk County, not known as a bastion of left-wingers, passed the same bill, and when the City of Long Beach in Nassau County did the same, that that would help members of the Legislature see that this is growing, that there’s support for it, that this is something we should be looking at more broadly.”

Critiquing Felder’s bill, he added, “It is an unconstitutional special law masquerading as a general law. Home rule should be required and I think everyone knows it.”

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

Read more by this writer.

Additional reporting by Rachel Silberstein

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Early in Albany Session, Plastic Bag Fee Sparks Home Rule Debate Thu, 19 Jan 2017 05:00:00 +0000
Reevaluating New York Economic Development Programs http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/6475-reevaluating-new-york-economic-development-programs http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/6475-reevaluating-new-york-economic-development-programs Cuomo Geico jobs econ dev

Gov. Cuomo at a jobs announcement (photo: Philip Kamrass, Governor's Office)


Over the last few weeks, several reports and legislative hearings have once again cast an unflattering light on New York’s economic development policies. Unfortunately, this is nothing new. In my 14 years serving in the State Senate, I’ve seen the names of the programs change, but the results remain the same – huge giveaways to a select group of companies that don’t live up to their job creation promises.

On the Friday before the Independence Day holiday – a great time to dump bad news - the state released the job creation figures for Start-Up New York, Governor Cuomo’s much-touted program of tax-free zones primarily around colleges. You had to read the fine print to find the number of jobs created for the first two years of the program: 76 in 2014 and 408 in 2015 (although closer analysis revealed the actual number for 2015 was 395). This from a program for which the state has spent over $50 million, around $130,000 per job, just for advertising alone. The report also indicates about $1.1 million in tax breaks associated with the program in addition to these expensive ads.

At an August 3 hearing, the Assembly Committee on Economic Development grilled administration officials on these unimpressive results, and also questioned why the bulk of these government funded ads were spent in the months before the 2014 election, when the governor was seeking a second term. In his testimony, E.J. McMahon of the Empire Center for Public Policy, a conservative policy think-tank, provided some particularly useful analysis of just how much money is being devoted to these programs, and pointed out that the problems with Start-Up are just the tip of the iceberg.

According to McMahon:
“In the 2017 fiscal year, on-budget disbursements for economic development are projected to increase by $844 million—more than doubling the fiscal 2016 figure…From 2017 through 2021, the Empire State Development Corp. is expected to spend more than $6.6 billion on these and other programs, with roughly three-quarters of the money generated by backdoor borrowing…At least a half-billion more will be spent during this period on the Excelsior Jobs Program. And another $420 million a year in refundable tax credits will flow into the pockets of film and TV producers and production companies—plus $50 million a year in newly created music and video game development tax credits.”

Coming up with a complete accounting of all programs is extremely difficult, given the lack of transparency around economic development expenditures. Other states such as Illinois and Vermont require a Unified Economic Development Budget as part of their budget process, and I have long carried legislation that would create such a budgetary requirement in New York. Many legislators and testifiers at the Assembly hearing expressed frustration at the difficulty of evaluating the effectiveness of these programs given the lack of information about real cost and job creation numbers.

Recent reports from Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli on the Excelsior Jobs and Power for Jobs programs have highlighted similar issues. In his review of the Excelsior program administered by Empire State Development, the comptroller found a lack of documentation that many participants were even eligible. Furthermore, because of a reliance on self-reporting, for many companies it was impossible to verify job creation claims, or that the jobs created met requirements for work hours. Additionally, the comptroller found that job-creation goals for some companies were lowered after they failed to meet their targets.

Problems with the Power for Jobs program administered by the New York Power Authority (NYPA) were even more galling. NYPA allocates power to businesses and not-for-profits that agree to retain or create jobs in New York and to make capital investments. Among other findings, the Comptroller discovered that NYPA’s method of reporting participation in the program resulted in overstating job retention and creation by almost 30,000 jobs.

It is understandable that the governor and economic development agencies want to appear proactive in efforts to create jobs, particularly in struggling areas of the state. However, New York’s hard-working families need real jobs, not just accounting tricks. Economic development programs need to be based on facts, not wishful thinking, and must be completely transparent about their costs and results.

The evidence continues to pour in that New York’s current policies may benefit specific recipients, but they do not amount to a coherent or cost-effective strategy for job creation in our state.

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Liz Krueger is a New York State Senator representing the East Side of Manhattan, and the ranking Democratic member of the Senate Finance Committee. On Twitter @LizKrueger.

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

Note: this column has been updated to accurately reflect the tax breaks associated with Start-Up NY, about $1.1 million, included in the report referenced.

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Reevaluating New York Economic Development Programs Wed, 10 Aug 2016 04:00:00 +0000