Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/369 Mon, 23 Oct 2017 11:23:20 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) In Albany, De Blasio Evaluates Cuomo’s Budget, Faces Legislators’ Questions http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6738:in-albany-de-blasio-evaluates-cuomo-s-budget-faces-legislators-questions http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=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/?id=6722:early-in-albany-session-plastic-bag-fee-sparks-home-rule-debate http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=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.”

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by Samar Khurshid, City government 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/?id=6475:reevaluating-new-york-economic-development-programs http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=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
Cuomo Appears to Give Up on Legislature Closing LLC Loophole http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6409:cuomo-appears-to-give-up-on-legislature-closing-llc-loophole http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6409:cuomo-appears-to-give-up-on-legislature-closing-llc-loophole cuomo budget mujica

Gov. Cuomo & his budget director, Robert Mujica (photo: The Governor's Office)


Gov. Andrew Cuomo appears to have given up on the state Legislature taking action to close the notorious LLC loophole, which allows wealthy donors to subvert campaign finance laws by creating multiple limited liability corporations that can each give more than $60,000 to a candidate’s campaign.

According to The New York Times, Cuomo said this weekend that it would be up to the public to close the loophole through a constitutional convention.

In January, the governor made closing the LLC loophole a key plank of his government ethics reform package. He and his representatives have said repeatedly that Cuomo wants the loophole closed. In late May, after months without mentioning the loophole unless prompted by reporters, the governor unveiled “a menu” of eight bills that would partially close the loophole for various combinations of campaigns for elected positions -- all of the bills would have impacted gubernatorial candidates, including the incumbent governor, who has been the biggest beneficiary of LLC giving.

“The people of New York are demanding change and it’s time we took action to restore the public trust by closing the LLC loophole and bringing fairness to our campaign finance system,” Cuomo said in the May 24 statement announcing his bill menu aimed at closing the loophole that has allowed tens of millions of dollars into campaign accounts. “For years, I have proposed closing the LLC loophole – one of the most egregious flaws in our campaign finance system – and every year the bill has stalled.”

According to Cuomo, Senate Republicans are unwilling to act on the loophole because they rely on corporate money. The legislative session ended with what many reform advocates see as minimal ethics reforms, highlighted by a move toward stripping pensions from officials convicted of corruption. In his first post-session remarks, the governor told The Times that there is no path to closing the LLC loophole through the Legislature and that it must be done through a constitutional convention.

“There has to be a dose of reality in the assessment,” Cuomo told The Times. “It is tantamount to political suicide for the Republican Party in this state because they believe it ends corporate money, and only union money would come into the system, which would help the Democrats.”

He added: “The people are going to have to do it,” referring, according to The Times, to a constitutional convention.

A number of reform advocates and legislators who support closing the loophole were taken aback by Cuomo’s comments and their meaning in terms of his pursuit of reform. Cuomo made little public effort to move the multi-faceted reform agenda he proposed in January and instead appeared to move the goalposts for reform toward the end of session when he announced he wanted to tackle independent expenditure campaigns, something Senate Republicans found much more appealing than restricting legislators’ outside income or closing the LLC loophole.

“It sounds like the governor is saying he can't get it done,” said Democratic Sen. Liz Krueger of Manhattan, who is party to a lawsuit brought by reform groups and current and former legislators against the State Board of Elections to close the loophole. “It sounds like the governor is saying ‘I'm incapable of reforming Albany and we have to leave it up to a constitutional convention,’ and I don't know that he is wrong.”

Dick Dadey, executive director of government reform group Citizens Union, said he is unwilling to wait for a convention to address the loophole. “His comments personify his frustration not being able close the loophole and point to a goal too far in the future to accept,” said Dadey. “We can’t rely on a convention that we don’t know will be called.”

Voters have the ability to approve a constitutional convention every 20 years. The next vote is scheduled for November 2017. If voters were to approve it, they would vote again the following November to select delegates to represent them at the convention, which would actually get underway in April 2019. Delegates would meet to debate reforms to the constitution that could focus on anything from money in politics to the state’s civil rights mandates. Voters wouldn’t get to vote on proposed changes from the convention until November 2019.

There is no guarantee that closing the LLC loophole would come up during a constitutional convention or make it to a final vote.

“The Board of Elections created this loophole and they can fix it,” said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group, referring to the state BOE’s 1996 ruling that opened the loophole. “These LLCs have been at the center of major corruption scandals so it isn't like this is an academic problem,” said Horner. “It’s a real problem.”

Not only does Cuomo’s suggestion that a constitutional convention is the only way to close the loophole discount the lawsuit Krueger is involved in and mean that change couldn’t possibly occur until November of 2019, but it also appears to fail to factor in the possibility of Democrats winning the Senate majority from Republicans this fall. Democrats in the Senate and Assembly both claim to support closing the LLC loophole. The Assembly, which is controlled by Democrats, has voted a number of times to close the loophole while some Senate Democrats have tried to force a vote on closing the loophole in their chamber to no avail.

“I guess seeing the Senate Democrats take control of the Senate isn't a way he sees to get things done,” said Krueger. Cuomo, a Democrat, has been criticized over several years for not doing enough to help Democrats take the chamber and for being too close to Republicans. Cuomo has touted his ability to productively work across the aisle.

Mike Murphy, spokesperson for Senate Democrats, said closing the LLC loophole is at the top of their agenda. “Senate Democrats have been fighting to close this loophole for years only to be rebuffed by our Republican colleagues. When we take the majority this will be one of the first things we pass. The people of New York deserve a government that they can trust.”

John Kaehny of Reinvent Albany said at the most basic levels he sees Cuomo’s comments as the governor giving up on reform, but he also sees it as Cuomo letting Senate Republicans off the hook on an issue that could be used to help Senate Democrats win control of the chamber.

“It means the governor is not going to use the LLC loophole as a campaign issue against Senate Republicans. He could beat the Republicans over the head with the LLC loophole because the Democratic-controlled Assembly and Senate Democrats support closing the loophole, as do all of the watchdog groups and independent experts and editorial boards,” said Kaehny.

Cuomo’s office did not respond to requests for comment around whether Cuomo did indeed mean that closing the LLC loophole would require a constitutional convention and whether he was discounting the possibility of Democratic control of the Senate.

Many believe Cuomo prefers governing, as his father did, with a Democratic Assembly and Republican Senate, allowing him to pass more conservative fiscal measures when necessary.

Dadey agreed that Cuomo’s comments appear to ignore the possibility of change in the Legislature. “The Governor’s position does not take into account Senate control,” said Dadey. “This lets the Legislature off the hook.”

***
by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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

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Cuomo Appears to Give Up on Legislature Closing LLC Loophole Tue, 21 Jun 2016 04:00:00 +0000
End of Session Menu Previews Next ‘Big Ugly’ in Albany http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6370:end-of-session-menu-previews-next-big-ugly-in-albany http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6370:end-of-session-menu-previews-next-big-ugly-in-albany heastie cuomo flanagan june 2015

Heastie, Cuomo, Flanagan June 2015 (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)


Last week, the Senate came to standstill as the star of popular beer commercials came to the Capitol as a guest of Senate Republicans. Legislators of both parties fawned and snapped pictures with Jonathan Goldsmith, of Dos Equis fame. Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan’s office proudly posted a picture of the two men together on Twitter; Democratic legislators quoted catchphrases of “the most interesting man in the world” on the Senate floor. While it's fairly customary for both houses of the Legislature to honor various heroes and celebrities, it was striking to see the house come to standstill with less than two weeks left in the legislative session and a myriad of major policy issues not being given a moment of public debate.

On Wednesday, the Legislature will return to Albany after a long Memorial Day weekend facing just nine remaining scheduled session days. Many legislators and advocates have abandoned hope for any significant, substantive policy victories. After a particularly contentious budget process that yielded major victories for Governor Andrew Cuomo on a path toward a $15 minimum wage and paid family leave, the leadership of both houses appear to be more concerned with the impending election season than hashing out deals on a variety of subjects. The spectre of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara has also chilled legislators’ appetites for deal-making. And yet there remain some policy matters that will likely be smashed together into a casserole of legislation that has come to be be known as “The Big Ugly.”

The convictions of both former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos on multiple federal corruption charges led many legislators and advocates to assume that this year would see significant action on government ethics reform. Gov. Cuomo put forth an ambitious ethics agenda during his January State of the State speech.

New Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan refused to negotiate ethics reforms in the March budget deal and has since stonewalled on any reform issue other than legislation to strip pensions from state employees convicted of felonies. The Assembly has refused to move on the Senate version of that bill because labor unions are concerned their members would lose their pensions after offenses.

Despite a standoff on ethics, legislators don’t appear worried that passing bills to allow fantasy sports gambling, online poker, mixed martial arts fighting, and easier access to liquor will hurt their chances at reelection this fall.

However, a new Siena Poll released Tuesday shows that 96 percent of voters say passing ethics reform legislation should be the top priority for legislators at session’s end - with 81 percent calling it “very important.”

Good government groups see the pension forfeiture measure as a token reform and have pressed for the closing of the “LLC loophole” that allows businesses to create multiple limited liability companies to donate virtually unlimited amounts of campaign cash; public financing of candidate campaigns; the end of lump sum appropriations in the budget; limits on political contributions by companies with business before the state; limits on legislators’ outside income; and a renovation of Albany’s ethics watchdog, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE).

Only one of those proposals, closing the LLC loophole, appears to have any life left this session. Meanwhile, top priorities for lawmakers appear to include legislation around the aforementioned topics like daily fantasy sports, but also regulations of for-hire vehicle services like Uber, combating the heroin epidemic and a couple of more serious issues - the governor has also mentioned an interest in a breast cancer screening program. High-profile legislation like the DREAM Act, which would make undocumented students eligible for state financial aid, and raising the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 17 or 18, appear completely off the table.

There is, though, the issue of mayoral control of New York City schools, which will expire at the end of June unless it is renewed, and whether Cuomo and legislative leaders can reach a memorandum of understanding around how $2 billion in budget money targeted for affordable housing will be spent.

As lawmakers, lobbyists, and advocates hit the home stretch of legislative session, the following issues may be on the verge of some action:

Campaign Finance Loophole
Gov. Cuomo recently proposed eight bills, all of which would restrict each LLC to giving $5,000, for every combination of different elected offices, and make the people behind LLCs more transparent. The legislation would not limit the number of related LLCs that can donate, though, nor would it address the issue of labor unions and their local subsidiaries, which some compare to the issue of LLCs.

One bill would cover only the Governor’s race - Cuomo said that bill was to “show that I’m willing to go first, and I’m willing to go it alone.”

State Senator Liz Krueger, a Democrat from Manhattan, said that she welcomes the effort despite not thinking the legislation goes far enough and not believing Senate Republicans will pass anything. Action on the LLC loophole would likely force Krueger and her allies who are suing the State Board of Elections to end the loophole to have to start the process all over again. “It might interfere with my lawsuit and yet I welcome it,” Krueger told Gotham Gazette. “Yes it will only limit LLCs to $5,000 and most of these real estate guys have tons of LLCs, but it's a start that I would welcome. However I don't have much faith the Senate will allow it.”

Senator Daniel Squadron, also a New York City Democrat, has repeatedly tried to force his bill to close the loophole to a vote in the Senate only to have it bottled up in committee. Squadron issued a statement supporting the governor’s menu of reforms. “However,” wrote Squadron, “it’s critical the Loophole be closed for the Legislature, especially given the central role the Loophole has played in ethics scandals in both houses. Anything else would be a cop-out by the Senate Republican Majority.”

Flanagan quickly shot down Cuomo’s efforts in a statement, rejecting the LLC loophole as a reform issue and insisting reform efforts should focus exclusively on reforms related to activities of Mayor Bill de Blasio, despite the fact that his predecessor, Skelos, was convicted on corruption charges that involved the influence of real estate groups that have flooded legislators’ campaign coffers with donations through the loophole. De Blasio is being investigated for efforts he led to flip the Senate into Democratic hands in 2014 and is the subject of other controversies that Flanagan referenced.

“We need to bolster our money laundering laws, move aggressively against straw donors and unmask the identity of those groups or individuals who want to operate in the shadows. We should take action to stop non-profits who flout transparency and who donate unlimited sums to directly support a politician’s agenda by regulating them through the Board of Elections, JCOPE or another appropriate agency with jurisdiction. We should clarify the laws which could potentially shield the so-called “agents of the City” and subject these secret agents to the same code of ethics and disclosure laws as the government officials they work for. And, we must provide more frequent and more timely disclosure, and insist on strict enforcement of the laws that are already on the books,” reads Flanagan’s statement.

Krueger said she is disappointed by what she sees as an attitude held by many legislators that there is nothing wrong with the status quo. “I can’t believe my colleagues wake up in the morning and think things are really OK here because things really are not OK,” said Krueger.

Heroin Opioids
Senate Republicans have made dealing with opioid and heroin addiction a priority for the year and Cuomo and legislators have held panels across the state in the last few weeks on how to address the problem. There will be another in Brooklyn on Wednesday.

“We will get a comprehensive plan done before session ends,” Cuomo said at a related event on Long Island on Wednesday. “We are not going to leave Albany until this state has the best plan to deal with this. Period.”

Cuomo is calling the crisis a health issue and said he agreed with a panel member who called on insurers to cover rehab for prescription pill addiction and said he would also like them to fund education efforts.

“Pharmaceutical companies have made a fortune selling these drugs,” Cuomo said. “We should now go back to them and say, 'you have to do an education effort and tell people about the dangers of these drugs,' which they have not done. And I would make them pay for it at their cost.”

Senate Republicans issued a report on May 17 proposing a “four pronged” approach to fighting heroin and opioid addiction. The report focuses on increasing awareness of the problem, expanding treatment through insurance coverage, providing better treatment programs, employment and diversion programs for recovering addicts, and giving law enforcement more leeway to fight drug trafficking.

“This report reinforces the notion that the scourge of heroin and opioid addiction does not affect one region of the state, or one race, or one ethnic group,” said Sen. John Bonacic, a Republican from Mount Hope, in a statement accompanying the release of the report. “It’s a global problem that affects everyone, and this report along with its recommendations, is a positive step towards the goal of one day ending this terrible epidemic.”

It is unclear how Cuomo’s task force will interact with the Senate findings, but a package deal on the crisis is expected to be reached before the end of session. Some of the criminal justice aspects could be contentious.

Alcohol Business
Gov. Cuomo is backing an overhaul of the state’s liquor control laws that date back to the days of prohibition as one of his top priorities. Cuomo has sought to make New York’s breweries and wine-making operations a draw for tourists and a boon for local agriculture. His omnibus bill introduced on May 18 would cut back restrictions on when alchohol and liquor can be served, lessen some burdens for the permitting process to serve alcohol, and reduce fees for wholesalers.

However, Democrats in the Assembly and Senate have expressed concerns that the bill goes too far and could create tension in New York City neighborhoods where bars are sited close to churches and residential areas. “I have a real concern that the governor’s alcohol legislation will end up locating bars near churches,” Krueger told Gotham Gazette. “It is an issue of space unique to New York City, and I’m not sure that has been taken into account.”

Assemblymember Robin Schimminger, a Democrat from Buffalo, expressed similar concerns to Politico New York. “It looks as though this bill would allow ex-cons to get licenses to operate taverns adjacent to churches and sell shots and beers as early as 8 a.m. on Sunday mornings,” said Schimminger. "Obviously, there are many issues with this package.”

Schimminger told Politico he doubts the bill will pass this session as it stands.

Daily Fantasy Sports & Other Betting
Attorney General Eric Schneiderman had barely announced his suit against major fantasy sports operators FanDuel and DraftKings for violating the state’s gambling laws before legislators rushed to promise to legalize the practice. The companies reached a settlement with Schneiderman in late March, promising to cease operations in the state to give the Legislature a chance to change the law.

Assemblymember Gary Pretlow, a Democrat from Mount Vernon, and Sen. Bonacic have led the charge to legalize in their respective houses to legalize daily fantasy sports betting. Bonacic’s bill has moved forward in the Senate while Pretlow introduced his on Friday. There are differences in the bills, but both include legalization as well as a licensing fee and a tax. Both bills would tax companies 15 percent.

Bonacic is also sponsoring a bill to legalize online poker.

Some legislators are concerned that the allure of money - both revenue for the state and campaign contributions from major gambling interests - has effectively killed any debate about the impact of gambling on New Yorkers, especially as the state just recently allowed the construction of a number of casinos.

“It is telling that this is a priority at the end of session,” Krueger said. “This is just another example of an industry with loads of money that is going to get what it wants without any real consideration of how what they are asking for will impact the state.”

A number of Democrats say even without the question of morality they wonder when the legalization of so many ways to gamble in the state - from racetrack betting to video slots, casinos, online games, the state lottery, and more - will eventually lead to diminishing returns.

Housing
Senate Republicans and Gov. Cuomo have been pushing for a renewal of the 421-a property tax credit used toward the development of affordable housing that expired at the end of last year. Housing advocates insist that if any discussion of the issue comes up, rent regulation laws must be renegotiated as the two were tied together last year. The tax break expired after real estate and labor failed to come to a deal. The fate of the bill was put in their hands by Cuomo and legislative leaders after the governor insisted any deal had to include wage guarantees for labor - a position the governor still holds despite the fact that no deal has been reached and there are concerns about the development of affordable rental housing in New York City. With few days left in session many doubt anything will come to pass on 421-a or the rent laws.

However, one major housing issue remains that can’t be legislated but should be taken up in a technical process by the governor and legislative leaders. Two billion dollars in funds was included in the state budget to be spent on the creation of affordable housing. While the cash was appropriated Cuomo and legislative leaders neglected to actually spell out how any of the cash would be spent. They are now expected to negotiate an memorandum of understanding to spell it all out. Legislators concerned with how the plan will be decided have said for weeks they expect negotiations with Cuomo’s office to start soon but it is unclear where things currently stand.

A group of housing advocates especially focused on funding supportive housing, which includes social services, has launched a campaign to push Cuomo to finally cut a deal and release the funds. “Promises don't build housing," Mary Brosnahan, president and CEO of the Coalition for the Homeless, told The Daily News. "Tens of thousands of homeless New Yorkers await the governor to take immediate action and make good on his promise to build supportive housing. We need Gov. Cuomo's leadership to secure the required MOU."

Mayoral Control
It is assumed, despite Flanagan’s repeated lashings of de Blasio and the fact that his conference is set on using the mayor as a boogeyman in upcoming Senate races, that there will be some sort of extension of mayoral control of New York City schools in order to keep the system alive. How long the extension will be is unclear - some legislators have begun to assume that Senate Republicans will demand another simple one-year extension as they did last year in order to punish de Blasio. Assembly Democrats recently passed a three-year extension, which is what the governor proposed in his budget.

'Playing Defense'
The budget deal or end-of-session “Big Ugly” are notorious for packaging major bills with a number of narrow, industry-tailored pieces of legislation that are not subject to appropriate scrutiny. Last year, the Legislature barely managed to tackle any substantive issues in the budget, but did approve a tax break for luxury yacht buyers that was supported by yacht retailers. One of the arguments for the bill, made by Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie at the time was that “Right now, no one purchases their yachts in the State of New York because Florida offers a similar program.”

Krueger said that at this point in session she is past thinking about what good might get done and is focused on trying to catch bad legislation that may get forced through in a last-minute deal.

“I’m really playing defense now. I don’t have much hope for this session,” Krueger said. “I’m on the outlook for those really bad bills that tend to sneak out while no one is paying attention.”

***
by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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End of Session Menu Previews Next ‘Big Ugly’ in Albany Tue, 31 May 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Concerns Over Proceedings as De Blasio Administration Faces Second Mayoral Control Hearing http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6341:extension-of-mayoral-school-control-politicized-some-say http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6341:extension-of-mayoral-school-control-politicized-some-say de blasio farina state senate

De Blasio testifying in Albany (photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayor's Office)


It was supposed to be the grilling to end all grillings: Mayor Bill de Blasio seated at a small table, staring up at glowering Republican state Senators carrying major grudges for his work to oust them from power in the 2014 elections, all carrying the fate of his ability to enact education policy in the palm of their hands. That wasn’t what took place.

The May 4 hearing in Albany on mayoral control of city schools featured four hours of meandering questioning, polite responses, and a generally cordial atmosphere. There was no major comeuppance despite one seemingly scripted attempt by Republican Sen. Terrence Murphy to chide de Blasio for the investigations he currently faces. Murphy’s staff quickly blasted out a press release about how he had challenged the mayor.

It was surprising to many who had witnessed the hearing when, the day after, Republican Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan issued a statement blasting the mayor’s testimony and calling his competence into question. “Too often, the mayor showed a disturbing lack of personal knowledge about the city schools. In addition, he has left too many unanswered questions and failed to provide specifics on many of the issues raised by my colleagues on both sides of the aisle,” Flanagan said in a statement. “Until that occurs, I will not entrust this mayor with the awesome responsibility of operating the New York City school system.”

Flanagan’s statement on the hearing convinced many Democrats and education advocates that the two May hearings on mayoral control are politically motivated. The de Blasio administration - represented by schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, but not the mayor - is scheduled to testify again during a hearing in Manhattan on Thursday. Flanagan released a statement Wednesday morning criticizing the mayor for the decision not to testify: "I am extremely disappointed the Mayor doesn't believe this hearing is significant enough to attend," he said. "With the future of mayoral control at stake, Mayor de Blasio has left too many unanswered questions about his stewardship of the New York City school system." 

The mayor was granted just a one-year extension of mayoral control last year. His predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, was the first to be given mayoral control by the state - which provided an original term of seven years in 2002, followed by a six year extension that was due to expire last year.

Testimony for both of this month’s hearings has been “by invitation only” and according to a number of parents, education groups, and Senate Democrats several parents have been told they will not be allowed to testify and instead can submit written testimony. Senate Republicans released a list of those who will testify on Thursday - like the first hearing, it is heavy on charter school supporters and others in the education reform community.

On Tuesday, the Assembly passed a three-year extension of mayoral control. The Democratic Assembly Majority had previously supported a seven-year extension. De Blasio issued a statement thanking the Assembly.

“Along with a bipartisan coalition of New Yorkers, we refuse to subject more than one million schoolchildren to the dysfunction and chaos of the old system,” de Blasio’s statement reads. “We once again urge swift approval by the entire legislature of this proven governance structure.”

The three-year extension is seen by many as a concession to Senate Republicans. Some Democrats privately worry that Senate Republicans will push for another single-year extension - something Gov. Andrew Cuomo, locked in an ongoing feud with de Blasio, would likely support, as he did last year.

“I was very surprised to hear Senator Flanagan’s assessment of the mayor’s testimony mainly because he didn't attend the hearing,” said Sen. Brad Hoylman, a Democrat from Manhattan, who questioned the mayor at the hearing. “I thought the mayor was on point, answered directly, and seemed to have command of the issues. I was gratified following the hearing that some of my Republicans colleagues agreed.”

Hoylman said Flanagan's statement, “made it pretty obvious this has little to do with the well-being of 1.1 million public school kids and has become a proverbial political football.”

Sen. Liz Krueger, also a Manhattan Democrat, expressed a similar take on Flanagan’s statement. Saying it “did not seem to reflect my observations at the hearing, nor my discussions with senators in attendance. I think there was general agreement between Democrats and Republicans that the mayor and his team did an excellent job answering questions. And they all supported mayoral control.”

De Blasio was flanked in Albany by city Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina, who will be at the center of attention on Thursday, as well as aides.

Republican Sen. Carl Marcellino, the education committee chair who oversaw the hearings in a steady fashion, did not return requests for comment; neither did Flanagan’s office.

Hoylman said he has yet to decide whether he will attend the next hearing, saying he has concerns they are a “kangaroo court.”

Krueger expressed her concerns about the process by which people were invited to testify. She and Hoylman said they had heard from parents and parent groups who were told they could not testify in person and were asked to submit testimony.

“I hope that the people who testify at round two of the hearing represent parents, teachers, principals and local elected officials,” said Krueger. “They were not heard in Albany at Round 1.” After de Blasio and Farina, many of the speakers at the first hearing were tied to charter schools, which are largely supported by Senate Republicans. De Blasio has been the target of protests and campaigns by charter groups because he has not been a supporter of charter schools and sought to limit their growth.

Shino Tanikawa, president of Community Education Council District 2, said she has made multiple attempts to testify as a parent at the upcoming hearing, contacting Marcellino’s office as well as a number of other legislators. She said the last communication was from Marcellino’s office telling her she could submit written testimony. She’s given up on testifying in person.

Tanikawa said she has been put off by the entire process. “The Albany hearing was very skewed because you had quite a few people in support of charter schools,” said Tanikawa. “I don't think there were any parents at the hearing. This next one seems pretty opaque, all we know is there is a hearing. We don’t know who is testifying or how long it's going to last.” (One of the charter school supporters who testified in Albany is a parent who also helps lead a pro-charter group.)

Tanikawa wondered why the hearing isn’t held in the fashion of the City Council where testimony is open to the public and those who sign up to testify do so under a specified time limit.

Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters, will be testifying at Thursday’s hearing, but she is also disheartened by the process. “I’m very concerned that this has turned into a political football,” Haimson told Gotham Gazette of mayoral control of schools. “Many parents were against mayoral control under Bloomberg and they still are against it now under Bill de Blasio. This is about a system, but the Legislature seems to change their minds depending on who's in office. They don’t care that it leads to irrational policy and unwise spending.”

Haimson was not impressed with the level of questioning at the first hearing, saying it was tangential and without much substance. “I don’t think Albany has much to say about New York City’s schools. They should stay out of it. It would be better if it were up to the [City] Council, people who serve closer to the people. There is no reason this decision should be made upstate.”

On Wednesday afternoon, de Blasio will lead a press conference at City Hall with business leaders who support an extension of mayoral control.

Sen. Hoylman said that although he is appreciative that the Senate is actually holding a hearing on an important legislative issue he is concerned these hearings are being used as political leverage.

“I think it is the height of hypocrisy that they authorized the previous mayor twice because of an increase in test scores and graduation rates and that's exactly seen under Mayor de Blasio’s tenure. This is clearly an application of a double standard and I wouldn't be so upset if I wasn’t a city resident with a five-year-old in public school myself. The fact that we have non-New York city legislators without kids deciding who is overseeing this system makes no sense. Hearing from parents in the system is crucial to understanding its efficacy.”

***
by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note: this story has been updated with news that de Blasio will not be testifying at Thursday's hearing and with comment from Sen. Flanagan.

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Concerns Over Proceedings as De Blasio Administration Faces Second Mayoral Control Hearing Tue, 17 May 2016 04:00:00 +0000
There's a Long List of Voting Reforms New York Can Pass http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6295:there-is-a-long-list-of-voting-reforms-new-york-can-pass http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6295:there-is-a-long-list-of-voting-reforms-new-york-can-pass voting AG april 2016 

AG Schneiderman votes (photo via @AGSchneiderman)


Voter participation has been on the decline across the country for decades now, but is especially poor in New York, where only 29 percent of those eligible cast their votes in the 2014 general elections for state-level positions, including Governor. Whether you measure by eligible or registered voters, the New York numbers are bleak, though they always look worse when using “eligible” - there are nearly 2 million citizens of voting age not registered to vote in New York. In some countries, even states in this one, citizens are automatically registered to vote when they become eligible, so the two numbers are virtually one and the same.

Automatic registration is among a long list of voting reforms that advocates for more participation in the political process want to see passed in New York and elsewhere.

Forty-two years ago, in 1974, 75.4 percent of registered voters cast their vote for Governor of New York, according to the State Board of Elections.

This week, as a competitive presidential primary arrived in New York for the first time in decades, only 19.7 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot Tuesday, according to data from the Election Project, making New York turnout second-lowest for the presidential primary so far.

Nationwide, New York ranks 46th in voter turnout. Worldwide, the United States also ranks next-to-last in voter turnout among similar developed democracies, according to data from the Pew Research Center. In the 2012 presidential elections, voter turnout in the U.S. reached 53.6 percent of voting age population, while in Sweden, it was 82.6 percent in 2014 general elections. Sweden automatically registers voters once they become eligible, as do many other countries that have higher voter turnout, while in most of the United States, the onus is on the citizen to register.

There are a number of factors that contribute to New York’s abysmal voter turnout: registration deadlines far in advance of the election (two of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s own children were unable to vote for him in the primary on Tuesday, because, in Trump’s words, they were “unaware of the rules and they didn’t register in time”); long lines at the polls due to a short voting window; a lack of voter engagement; and voter fatigue (especially of concern with four separate New York election dates this year).

Legislation has been introduced time and again in Albany to improve accessibility and participation by making both registering to vote and casting one’s vote as easy as possible, yet hardly any legislation to enact meaningful reform to New York’s voting system has been signed into law in recent years.

Meanwhile, not only does New York have restrictive voting laws, but in New York City, persistent problems with the Board of Elections came to a head during Tuesday’s primary election after the BOE confirmed that more than 125,000 Democratic voters in Brooklyn had been removed from the voter rolls between since November (2015). This year’s primary election gave rise to a record number of complaints ranging from issues with poll site opening hours late, poorly staffed polling sites, and confusion over poll site locations.

The problems led city Comptroller Scott Stringer to launch an audit of BOE operations and management, announced on primary day, when he called the agency “consistently disorganized, chaotic, and ineffective.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio expressed support of the audit, saying that the BOE’s repeated errors make it clear that “major reforms will be needed to the BOE and in the state law governing it,” as the BOE’s unexplained voter purge “undermines the integrity of the entire electoral process.”

New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has also opened an investigation into the BOE. "I am deeply troubled by the volume and consistency of voting irregularities," Schneiderman said in a statement. "That's why we have opened an investigation into alleged improprieties in yesterday's voting by the New York City Board of Elections.” Schneiderman said his office's voter complaint hotline "received more than one thousand complaints" on Tuesday - about six and a half times more complaints were received on Tuesday alone than during the 2012 general election (150 complaints total in 2012).

A significant issue that the primary shined a light on is New York’s registration deadlines - in order to vote in the party primaries, registered voters had to change or declare party affiliation before a deadline in October of last year; while anyone registering anew had until March 25 of this year - reasonably recent, but not the up-to-and-including day-of registration that some want to see enacted.

The state Legislature is now in session, and with three more elections coming up this year, lawmakers could take action on a number of reforms that may help modernize the voting process and improve voter turnout.

Bills have been introduced in the Senate and the Assembly to make voter registration automatic, expand online voter registration, improve New York’s confusing ballot design, allow for early voting, extend registration deadlines, consolidate the state and federal primary election dates, and more. Several resolutions have been introduced in the New York City Council calling on the state to pass some of these reforms, including consolidating election dates and allowing a period of in-person voting prior to election day.

“Voting is the most basic and essential act in our democracy - but the truth is, too few of us bother to do it,” City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said during her Feb. 11 State of the City address, at which time she called on the state to enact several voting reforms, including automatic registration, early voting, no-excuse absentee voting, and same-day registration. “Part of the blame for low voter turnout rests with antiquated voting laws that have failed to keep up with improvements seen in other states,” Mark-Viverito said.

It is entirely within the state government’s power to make voting easier and more accessible, and most of the proposed reforms would also make the voter registration system more accurate and efficient and would reduce costs involved with maintaining the voter rolls and administering elections. Still, the political will has not been there.

Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh, a Manhattan Democrat, believes many of the problems with Tuesday’s primary “stem from bad, outdated election laws.”

“We ought to modernize the election laws so that both registering initially and maintaining and updating the registration can be done online and automatically,” Kavanagh told Gotham Gazette, “both to give voters more control over the process and to minimize the extent to which there are errors in the rolls resulting from clerical errors from paper applications.”

Kavanagh has sponsored several voting reform bills in the Assembly, including legislation that would enact automatic voter registration, extend registration deadlines, and allow for same-day voter registration. Though year after year some of these bills have been introduced and passed in the Democrat-led Assembly but not the Republican-controlled Senate, Kavanagh is optimistic that “what has happened leading up to the presidential may be a spur for many real changes.”

Increasing voter engagement and education is as important as increasing accessibility, some say, and a number of initiatives to do just that are underway in New York. There are also efforts that combine the two, including National Voter Registration Day and Student Voter Registration Day - the latter took place in New York City on March 18 this year and got 8,500 students registered to vote.

Besides enacting commonsense voting reforms, officials looking to increase voter turnout should be studying what factors have led to the higher participation rates that exist in certain areas of New York, says Gerald Benjamin, professor of political science and director of the Benjamin Center at SUNY New Paltz.

“There are places in New York that have very high turnout - what can we learn from those places?” Benjamin said. “They’re mobilizing organizations to get out to vote, the issues are passionately held and very important to people, so we get highly competitive elections. That’s what gets people to vote.”

“It has to do with old fashioned competition,” Benjamin continued, “meaningful elections, high stakes stuff going on - that drives participation.” Perhaps the most effective ways to increase voter turnout, Benjamin says, are to “increase competitiveness, make the issues locally relevant, and create mobilizing institutions to turn out voters.”

Improving Voter Registration

Voter Empowerment Act
One of the more comprehensive voting reform efforts that has been introduced in the state Legislature in recent years is the Voter Empowerment Act, which seeks to make the antiquated registration process more efficient by expanding online registration and modernizing the way voter information is collected, processed, stored, and shared.

The Voter Empowerment Act would allow certain government agencies that interact with voters to automatically register citizens to vote (unless they opt out); require the state Board of Elections to make certain registration information available to voters online so they may update their information over the internet; automatically update registrations of New Yorkers who move within the state; allow people to register or change their party later in the election cycle (10 days before an election); and permit pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds.

Democratic State Senate Deputy Minority Leader Michael Gianaris, the bill’s sponsor, has pushed for the Voter Empowerment Act to be passed in the Senate for years, as has Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh, who has sponsored the Assembly bill to enact the VEA. While one bill to enact the act failed in committee when the Senate Elections Committee voted against it in May of 2014, the latest versions of the bills are currently awaiting committee action in both the Senate and the Assembly.

“Our current voter registration system makes it far too difficult for New Yorkers to get themselves registered and get to the polls,” Kavanagh said in a press release. “Handwritten forms, data entry errors, arbitrary deadlines, and other defects in the system all too often make it difficult or impossible for voters to vote.”

Should the Voter Empowerment Act pass, the legislation would improve the accuracy of New York’s voter rolls by reducing the number of outdated or duplicate registration records. Additionally, switching to a modern voter registration system that transmits voter registration information electronically would save the state and counties money by reducing the costs involved with processing voter registration and maintaining an accurate list with the current error prone paper-based voter registration system.

Automatic voter registration
Automatic voter registration would be major step for New York that could dramatically increase the number of registered voters and, likely, the number of ballots cast. In March 2015,Oregon became the first state to pass legislation to automatically register eligible citizens who interact with the DMV to vote (unless they opt out), and California’s governor signed a bill modeled on Oregon’s law not long after.

Speaking with City and State last year, Senator Gianaris said automatic registration “would register over 2 million people in the state who are eligible but unregistered right now. By way of comparison, in [the 2014] gubernatorial election, a little over three-and-a-half million people voted, so you can imagine what kind of an impact adding over 2 million people to the rolls might have in a situation like that.”

In January, Governor Cuomo announced a proposal that would make New York the third state to adopt automatic voter registration through the DMV. “Why do we make it so difficult for the people to participate? Voter registration should be a presumption, not a hurdle,” Cuomo said during his State of the State address. “Let’s flip the paradigm and automatically enroll voters when they get a driver’s license. They can always opt out.”

Yet concerns have been raised about how the automatic voter registration through the DMV could "skew the electorate in ways that are not desirable or fair," as Kavanagh told the Daily News, since it would significantly increase the number of registered voters in more suburban areas of the state and upstate New York, but would do relatively little to increase the number of registered voters in New York City, where car ownership rates are lower.

That issue could be fixed by expanding the number of state agencies, including social service and health-related agencies, that offer voter registration, so that New Yorkers could be automatically registered to vote through a variety of government interactions. The Voter Empowerment Act would include the State University of New York, City University of New York, the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, public housing authorities in the state, and the Division of Military and Naval Affairs as agencies that offer automatic voter registration.

New York City Council Member Ben Kallos has sponsored a number of bills aimed at increasing voter access, including bills that were signed into law by Mayor Bill de Blasio in December 2014 that expanded the number of city agencies required to offer voter registration forms.

Yet ultimately, the power to decide how and when citizens may register to vote and cast a ballot mainly rests with the state.

Pre-registration
Separate bills to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to pre-register to vote passed in the Assembly in 2014 and have since been reintroduced during this legislative session, but are awaiting committee action in the Senate. These bills would also require local education boards to adopt policies that promote student voter registration and pre-registration. A resolution calling upon the New York State Legislature to pass, and the Governor to sign the bills (A2529/S857) has been introduced in the City Council.

City Council Member Helen Rosenthal, with colleagues, community organizations, NYC Votes, and others, launched the city’s first Student Voter Registration Day on March 20, 2015, during which time 17- and 18-year-olds were encouraged to register to vote in their schools. After large year two growth, 10,500 students have registered to vote through the program.

Pre-registration is an important part of increasing voter turnout, advocates say, because allowing young people to access the voting system can help to form a lasting habit of civic engagement.

“We know that the earlier you start voting, the more likely you are to maintain that practice,” said Umair Khan, ‎Deputy Counsel to Public Advocate Letitia James and member of the New York City Campaign Finance Board’s Voter Assistance Advisory Committee, during the committee’s Dec. 15 public hearing.

Same-day registration
Same-day registration allows eligible voters to register to vote and cast their ballots on the same day. In New York, eligible voters must register at least 25 days before the election date in order to cast their vote.

Currently, eleven states and the District of Columbia allow same-day voter registration (also known as Election Day registration), and three other states have passed same-day registration laws that have yet to go into effect. Voter turnout is much higher in states that have same-day registration than in those that do not. According to a report on voter turnout in the 2014 midterm elections by Nonprofit VOTE, voter turnout in states with same-day voter registration averaged 12 percent higher than states that do not have such an option.

Making same-day registration a reality in New York would require a change to the New York State Constitution, and bills have been introduced by Gianaris and Kavanagh in the Senate and the Assembly, respectively, to do so. Legislation to implement same-day voter registration is also needed, and bills Gianaris and Kavanagh have introduced legislation to allow same-day registration (in addition to other reforms) in the Senate and the Assembly a number of times. Both bills were referred to their respective election committees at the beginning of this year.

In New York City, meanwhile, the City Council’s Committee on Governmental Operations recently laid over a resolution calling upon the state Legislature to pass and the Governor to sign legislation amending the Election Law to establish same-day and online voter registration.

Lowering the voting age
A nationwide campaign to lower the voting age to 16 was launched in December by the nonpartisan group Generation Citizen, which promotes youth participation in civic affairs. In New York, that would require a change to state law (though city-specific enabling legislation may be a possibility).

A number of other countries, including Argentina, Germany, and Norway, allow 16-year-olds to vote. Two cities in Maryland have already lowered their voting ages to 16 in recent years, and efforts to do the same are currently underway in San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

Across the United States, 16- and 17-year-olds pay taxes on income and can drive in most states. In New York, they are tried as adults in criminal courts. A white paper from Generation Citizen suggests lowering the voting age to 16 could drive demand for better civic education in schools and could ultimately help America’s voter turnout problem.

“We know from our work with young people throughout the City that many of them are eager to have their voices heard when it comes to public policy debates and who is going to represent them in government,” said David Pechefsky, New York City site director for Generation Citizen, at an April 8 rally calling for state lawmakers to enact election reform.

One key argument to lowering the vote age is to help young people develop the habit of voting before they go to college, which often takes them to another geographic area. Voting before college may make people more likely to vote during college, whether by absentee ballot or another means.

Restoring voting rights to paroled felons
Fourteen states and the District of Columbia automatically restore voting rights to individuals convicted of a felony upon their release from prison (the state legislature in Maryland narrowly overturned Governor Larry Hogan’s veto of a bill to extend voting rights to felons before they complete probation and parole in February, restoring the right to vote to some 40,000 recently released Maryland felons). Four states permanently disenfranchise citizens with a past felony conviction, and require a petition to the government to get the right to vote restored.

In New York, voting rights are restored automatically upon discharge from parole after those who have been convicted of a felony have been released from prison (those on probation can vote). Yet legislation currently awaiting committee action in Albany could change that, by amending election law and correction law to allow convicted felons to vote upon their release from prison, even while serving parole.

Bills to restore voting rights to felons out on parole were referred to election committees in January in both the Assembly and the Senate. According to the New York Civil Liberties Union, as of 2010, “an estimated 122,018 people with felony convictions are barred from voting in New York,” with 46 percent of those disenfranchised out on parole. That disenfranchisement, supporters of restoring voting rights to felons say, disproportionately affects communities of color and hinders the reintegration process.

Proponents of a change say that allowing voting while in prison and upon release would aid in reintegration and that loss of voting rights has never been a deterrent to committing a crime.

In New York City, a resolution calling on the state Legislature to pass and the Governor to sign the Assembly bill related to voting rights for convicted felons was laid over by the Committee on Governmental Operations in February.

Improving the Voting Process & Election Day Operations

Open primaries
New York is one of the eleven states that have closed primaries, meaning voters must be registered with a political party in order to cast a primary election vote, which excludes independent voters and those who failed to realize they must be registered with a party.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders criticized New York’s closed primary system during a rally in Washington Square Park on April 13, saying, "We have a system here in New York where independents can't get involved in the Democratic primary.”

“Young people who have not previously registered and want to register today just can't do it,” Sanders continued in front of a crowd of many young people, “So this is going be a tough primary for us."

According to the state Board of Elections, out of 10.7 million active voters in New York state, nearly 3 million are not registered with either major party.

New York also has the earliest change-of-party deadline in the country among states with closed primaries. New York is the only state where the deadline to change one’s party does not even fall within the same calendar year as the primary (this time the deadline was October 9), forcing voters to make a critical choice regarding their party enrollment long before many have even had much of a chance to get to know the candidates.

Independent voters protested New York’s closed primary system on April 14, gathering on the steps of City Hall at a rally organized by nonpartisan groups like IndependentVoting.org and Open Primaries to call on lawmakers to adopt an open primary system.

bill to establish an open primary system for all state and congressional elections is awaiting committee action after first being introduced in the Assembly. Legislation to shorten the change-of-party deadline to 25 days before any election has been introduced in both the Assembly and the Senate.

Better ballot design
New York ballots can often be confusing, causing voters to make mistakes which in turn render their votes invalid. The Voter Friendly Ballot Act, sponsored by Assemblymember Kavanagh, would set clear requirements for how ballots should look and create a ballot layout that is easy for voters to read and use.

In 2010, tens of thousands of votes cast in New York were voided after voters filled out their ballots incorrectly. Statewide, roughly 20,000 votes for Governor were thrown out and between 30,000 and 40,000 votes for other candidates were voided, according to a report by Sundeep Iyer and Larry Norden from the Democracy Program at NYU's Brennan Center for Justice.

The Voter Friendly Ballot Act has passed in the Assembly three times, but “died in Senate” in January and has returned to the Assembly.

Early voting
Early voting allows eligible voters to cast their ballots before election day. The small window of time voters have to get to the polls on Election Day, which typically falls on a Tuesday, can result in long lines, and can exclude a number of New Yorkers who simply cannot make it to the polls while they are open.

New York is one of the few states that completely prohibits early voting in any form - 34 states and Washington D.C. allow in-person early voting. Early voting can begin as many as 45 days ahead of an election in some states or simply the weekend before an election in others. According to a report from New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer’s office, in 2012 “approximately 31 percent of all votes nationwide were cast prior to Election Day in November.”

A number of bills to enact early voting are currently pending in Albany. Assemblymember Kavanagh and Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins have sponsored bills that would establish a 12-day early voting period that ends the Sunday before election day. Another bill, sponsored by State Senator Tony Avella, would change the days of voting for primary and general elections from Tuesdays to the first Saturday and Sunday after the first Friday of September and November, respectively.

“While early voting does require some investment and a change in the way resources are allocated, analysis of data in early voting states shows a number of gains that ultimately eased pressure on Election Day,” said Art Chang, member of the New York City Campaign Finance Board and chair of the Board’s Voter Assistance Advisory Committee, during testimony before the Assembly Election Law Committee on Dec. 10.

“Allowing an ample early voting period allows poll workers to gain more experience and troubleshoot problems that occur at the polling place, such as malfunctioning voting machines or bottlenecks in line management,” Chang added. Early voting typically designates a smaller number of polling places that are open during the run-up to election day.

According to a poll conducted by the Census Bureau, 28 percent of those registered voters who did not vote in the 2014 midterm elections said they failed to do so because they were “too busy” (this was the answer with the most frequent response). Early voting and other measures to expand the amount of time citizens have to cast their vote could help to alleviate chronically low voter turnout.

In fact, expanding voting before Election Day was recommended by Presidential Commission on Election Administration in 2014. The report suggested that, “in order to limit congestion on Election Day and to respond to the demand for greater opportunities to vote beyond the traditional Election Day polling place, states that have not already done so should expand alternative ways of voting, such as mail balloting and in-person early voting.”

“Virtually everywhere early voting has been enacted, voter participation has increased significantly,” Chang said during a Dec. 15 Voter Assistance Advisory Committee public hearing.

Currently, New Yorkers can vote early by submitting an absentee ballot, but voters are only allowed to do so if they meet certain qualifications, like begin absent from the county on Election Day, or physically unable to get to the polls due to a disability.

The Vote Better NY coalition has launched a petition calling on Governor Cuomo and the state Legislature to pass the Voter Empowerment Act, the Voter Friendly Ballot Act, and legislation to allow early voting in New York.

Cuomo is supportive of early voting, and included a proposal for early voting in an outline of his 2016 agenda. The proposed legislation to require every county to offer access to at least one early voting polling place that will allow New Yorkers to cast their vote for 12 days leading up to Election Day for every election.

“I think we have a reasonable shot” to get some voting reforms passed this year, Kavanagh said during an April interview, adding that ”the governor effectively put my early voting bill in the budget this year...the governor is on board with some of this.”

Absentee voting
Similar to early voting, absentee voting allows citizens to cast their votes ahead of election day, though without necessarily making a trip to the polls. Absentee voting can reduce long lines at the polls and increase accessibility by making it possible for citizens who, for lack of time, transportation, or physical ability, simply cannot make it to the polls.

Currently, 27 states and D.C. allow no-excuse absentee voting.

Twenty states allow absentee voting only if the voter can provide an excuse that meets the state’s requirements for allowing absentee ballots. New York is one of those states.

With absentee voting, the voter may turn in their ballot by mail or in person. Voting reform advocatessupport allowing no-excuse absentee voting in New York, which would require a state constitutional amendment in addition to legislation, though bills to enact no-excuse absentee voting have yet to pass in either the Assembly or the Senate.

Voting by mail
Voting by mail is on the rise in some Western states, with supporters arguing that voting by mail is a more cost-effective way to administer elections and improves voter participation by making it more convenient to vote. Washington, Oregon, and Colorado conduct their elections entirely by mail, and 19 other states allow some elections to be held by mail.

Oregon has one of the highest voter turnout rates in the country, with 69.5 percent of registered voters casting their vote in the 2014 general election. Both Washington and Oregon saw significant increases in voter turnout after transitioning to “all-mail” elections, according to the Washington Post: “In Oregon, turnout rose from 59 percent in 1998, the midterm election before the state went all-mail, to 69 percent in 2002. Washington’s turnout rose from 64.5 percent in the 2006 midterms to 71.2 percent in 2010, the first year elections were conducted entirely by mail.”

bill sponsored by Senator Liz Krueger, also a Manhattan Democrat, to instruct the state board of elections to study the feasibility of voting by mail, and authorize a pilot program for such voting during the study is currently awaiting committee action. Legislation to allow qualified voters to vote by mail in New York has also been introduced in the Senate.

Consolidating election dates
Frequent elections can result in voter fatigue and decrease voter turnout. New Yorkers dedicated to casting their vote will make four trips to the polls in 2016 (five for those living in New York City’s 17th City Council District, where a special election occurred in February).

As the New York Times editorial board wrote in December, “There is no reason the state primary can’t be held on the same day as the congressional primary, thus eliminating the extra election and saving the state $50 million.” Congressional primaries are slated for June, state-level primaries for September.

There has been support for consolidating the state and federal primaries in the Assembly, as Assemblymember Cusick pointed out at a Dec. 10, 2015 State Assembly hearing on enhancing the voter experience. “We do have a bill that we have passed almost every year in the Assembly to combine [the dates]...That is the goal of our committees, to get the primaries in one day, so we can save the state and municipalities money.”

Holding so many separate elections is not only fiscally wasteful, but also reduces voter turnout. For years, Assembly Democrats have repeatedly introduced legislation to move the primary elections for state-level offices from September to June. In February, the Assembly passed a bill to designate June 28, 2016 as the state’s primary election date for state and federal offices.

One month later, the Republican-controlled Senate passed a bill designating Aug. 19, 2016 at New York’s primary election date for state and federal offices, to the dismay of Democrats, who questioned why Republicans would move the primary to a month typically used for vacation time by many people.

Instant Runoff Voting
Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) allows voters to rank candidates by order of preference. If no candidate passes the minimum threshold needed to win the election, the candidate in last place is eliminated, and votes are redistributed according to the preferences on the ballots. The process repeats until a candidate passes the threshold.

IRV is already used in mayoral elections in cities like San Francisco and Oakland, and even London. Ireland uses IRV in its presidential elections. Supporters of the process say that IRV saves taxpayers millions of dollars by eliminating the need to hold runoff elections, which are typically even more poorly attended than the original election.

In 2013, the Democratic primary for New York City Public Advocate resulted in a runoff which cost New York City $13 million and had significantly lower voter turnout than the initial primary itself - only 5.7 percent, or 345,089 registered Democrats turned out to cast their vote in the runoff election.

A bill to allow instant-runoff voting in primary elections for Mayor, Public Advocate, and Comptroller of New York City passed in the Senate last year before it “died in Assembly” in January. A similarbill, sponsored by Assemblymember Kavanagh, is awaiting committee action in the Assembly.

Better training and conditions for poll workers
Difficulties at New York City poll sites was an all-too-frequent occurrence during Tuesday’s primary, with reports of poll sites opening late, jammed ballot scanners, and poll workers instructing voters to fill out affidavits when ballots weren’t scanning. Some problems can be traced to the fact that the city BOE struggles to recruit and train the 30,000 plus workers necessary to run the city’s poll sites during election days.

Although New York passed a law allowing poll workers to serve “half day” or eight hour shifts years ago, the “BOE has been very reluctant to implement it,” Assemblymember Kavanagh said, due to the “sincere but misguided belief that it will make their lives harder and not easier.” According to Kavanagh, the BOE is now piloting half-day shifts in some places.

It is understandably difficult to find 30,000 people who are willing and able to remain at poll sites from about 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. and accept $200 for about 17 hours of work on one or a few individual days in a given year.

Because of this, few meet the criteria for a recruitable poll worker, creating a situation where, after poll workers are given a “competency test at the end of the training, and [the BOE] often ends up having the poll workers who passed the test and the ones who failed the test work the polls anyway because they don’t have enough people,” Kavanagh says.

A bad experience at the hands of incompetent poll workers can discourage voters from casting a ballot again in the future, or worse - “if that problem is widespread, it can actually affect the outcome of an election,” Kavanagh said.

Comptroller Stringer and others have suggested that the BOE should implement half-day shifts, improve training for poll workers, and raise the wage from $200 per day ($12.50 an hour) to at least $240 ($15 an hour) to improve election day operations.

Reforms to improve engagement
Promoting civic engagement and voter education is also a critical component of improving voter turnout. Bills have been introduced in the City Council that would require the New York City Board of Elections to provide email and text reminders about poll site locations, hours, and upcoming elections; mail voter’s their voting histories, place notices on all discontinued poll sites to direct voters to the proper poll site, and provide a voter guide for all elections.

NYC Votes, the New York City Campaign Finance Board’s voter outreach and engagement arm guided by its Voter Assistance Advisory Committee, runs a number of programs with community partners and city agencies designed to engage with voters in the hopes of increasing civic participation.

Some of those programs include National Voter Registration Day, the city’s official nonpartisan Voter Guide, Student Voter Registration Day, the Youth Poet Laureate program, “I Voted” stickers for city poll sites, NYC Votes Advocacy Day at the state Legislature in Albany, and the citywide Debate Program.

Other election-related reforms
The huge amount of money spent on election campaigns in the United States has led many voters to become frustrated with the corrupting influence of money in politics. In New York, the many calls to close the LLC loophole - which allows limited liability companies to circumvent New York’s campaign donation limits and give large sums of money to candidates through various LLCs - have not yet led to reform.

New York City is moving ahead on reforms to its campaign finance system, which already offers public matching funds and is seen as a state and national model. A package of eight bills was introduced to the City Council in November and will be discussed at a hearing in May. The legislation aims to strengthen the system and adjust it to recent developments outside of city control.

Restrictions on gerrymandering would also help remedy issues with New York’s voting processes, as less gerrymandering would encourage more competition in elections, and thus more engagement. Through a ballot referendum, New Yorkers did pass a new redistricting process last year that will go into effect after the next census.

State Senator Tony Avella and Assemblymember Luis Sepulveda have also introduced bills that would give voters the power to recall elected officials. Nineteen states and Washington, D.C. currently allow voters to recall state officials if a significant number of voters are dissatisfied with the job their elected official is doing.

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by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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There's a Long List of Voting Reforms New York Can Pass Fri, 22 Apr 2016 02:54:01 +0000
Budget Leaves Cuomo's Affordable Housing Plan A Mystery http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6265:budget-leaves-cuomos-affordable-housing-plan-a-mystery http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6265:budget-leaves-cuomos-affordable-housing-plan-a-mystery cuomo entering stage left

Gov. Cuomo arrives to outline the budget agreement (photo via The Governor's Office)


Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed a sweeping $20 billion plan to build and preserve affordable housing and fight homelessness during his State of the State speech earlier this year. The plan, to be implemented over five years, is expected to create 100,000 new units of affordable housing and 6,000 supportive housing beds for the homeless. The policy book accompanying Cuomo's speech and executive budget outlines several general housing categories and promised more detail "in the coming weeks."

Last week, Cuomo and legislators agreed on a new $147 billion state budget for fiscal year 2017 that includes nearly $2 billion for affordable housing, but it offers no details on where the housing will be built, who will build it, or when the state will start looking for projects to fund.

In the place of specifics is a notice that the plan is to be worked out in a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between Cuomo and legislative leaders. In other words, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, and Cuomo will be allowed to decide behind closed doors, through a negotiated legal document, how to spend the initial $2 billion intended for affordable housing projects. It is unlikely to face scrutiny from the public or rank-and-file legislators.

"The debate over supportive and affordable housing was pushed off because all the oxygen in the room was sucked up by the minimum wage debate," said Assembly Member Andrew Hevesi, a Queens Democrat who has sparred with the Cuomo administration in the past over the governor's funding of supportive housing, of budget negotiations.

Senator Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat, said she believes that Cuomo and legislative leaders will have to spell out what they plan to do with the $2 billion of budget money lined out for housing programs in a resolution later this year and put it to a vote in both houses. "I believe each house will have to vote on a resolution lining out specifically how it's going to be spent," Krueger told Gotham Gazette. "I don't know what they believe, however," she said referring to legislative leaders and the Cuomo administration. "We are a little loosey-goosey with the law around here, it's just the Capitol."

Hevesi said he believes that the same budget negotiating teams that negotiated human services and housing issues from both legislative houses and the Cuomo administration will reconvene to hash out the details later this session. He does not expect a public vote. He said he expects the Assembly, which is dominated by New York City Democrats including Heastie, to work as an advocate for the city and its specific housing needs during negotiations.

During a Tuesday press conference at the Capitol, Assembly housing committee Chair Keith Wright said that housing is still "an open question in the budget" that will be worked out by "MOU."

"This has never been done before," said Krueger. "You are not supposed to have lump sum appropriations decided without the vote of the Legislature. We are talking about a hypothetical plan to spend $20 billion on housing, there should be a robust discussion on how it's being spent, where it's being spent, and the plusses and minuses of any particular approach."

David Friedfel of the Citizens Budget Commission said that while it isn't "uncommon" for MOUs to be used in the budget, it is new to see one used in a program related to housing. "It's not uncommon but it's not something we support," Friedfel told Gotham Gazette. "We've seen these MOUs used to create the pots of money that got Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos into trouble."

In fact, MOUs are used throughout this year's budget, especially in language funding the governor's major infrastructure projects.

This year's budget also includes more of what good government groups have come to call "slush funds" created for use by the Governor and Legislature.

Cuomo administration officials did not respond to requests for comment about the housing MOU or about when to expect more details about the governor's affordable housing and homelessness plans.

In January, Cuomo outlined some overarching goals for his housing plan. His policy book released for his State of the State and budget address says the intention of his $10 billion housing plan is: "To add critical supply to the state's stock of affordable housing."

It says the plan "will create and preserve 100,000 units across the state. This historic investment offers a transformational blueprint to address the diversity of housing need across the state, strengthen protections for tenants, and create new opportunities for low-to moderate income households. The Plan —which boosts state spending on housing programs by nearly $5 billion—will build and preserve affordable units and individual homes; make homeownership affordable for first-time buyers; increase investments in the revitalization of our communities; promote housing choice opportunities for all New Yorkers; revamp services in ways that better serve clients including New Yorkers seeking affordable housing..."

The policy book is short on other specifics, but promised, "The comprehensive House NY 2020 Plan will be released in the coming weeks." Almost three months later and with the new budget passed, there still aren't many specifics.

The Capital Budget shows a $1,973,475,000 allocation for a "Housing Program" under the Division of Housing and Community Renewal. Nearly $600,000,000 of that goes to the creation of an "Infrastructure Investment Account." The language for the program states:

"In support of a comprehensive, statewide multi-year housing program in accordance with a plan approved in a memorandum of understanding executed by the director of budget, the speaker of the assembly and the temporary president of the senate."

Any of the cash appropriated to the account can be "suballocated to any state department, agency, or public authority for the purposes stated herein, only in accordance with a plan approved in a memorandum of understanding executed by the director of the budget, the speaker of the assembly, and the temporary president of the senate, who shall file such approval with the department of audit and control and copies thereof with the chair of the senate finance committee and the chair of the assembly ways and means committee."

The budget language further stipulates that the cash for the fund be doled out over a five-year period.

The budget also contains a $57.5 million line for the creation of supportive housing, which is long-term housing with social services, and $5 million for emergency and transitional housing for people with AIDS.

"It's concerning that we have a verbal commitment of $20 billion but here we have a $2 billion commitment meant to be spent over five years," said Sen. Krueger, who said it could be worrisome for those interested in building affordable housing. She noted that the nature of construction dictates that all the money wouldn't need to be spent up front, but having it lined out in budget documents would be helpful to those interested in utilizing state cash to subsidize affordable housing.

Mayor Bill de Blasio appears to be one of the many New Yorkers interested in having more details on the state's affordable housing agenda. De Blasio has an ongoing ten-year, 200,000 unit affordable housing plan, as well as several programs aimed at combatting homelessness. "We look forward to seeing further action on increased State support for homelessness and housing as the session continues, and ensuring those priorities receive the scrutiny they merit," de Blasio said in a statement reacting to the passage of the state budget.

The mayor had a similar reaction after Cuomo's State of the State address in January. "You know, it's an initial idea," de Blasio told reporters at the time of the $20 billion, five-year plan announced that day. "We have to see the specifics about timelines and how it's going to play out, but look, it can only be for the good of New York City if the state is making an additional commitment to New York City on affordable housing on top of the 200,000 units we're already committed to."

A representative of the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) had the same message this week. "We are looking forward to hearing more about the State's plans for additional resources for the construction and preservation of affordable housing in New York City," a spokesperson said in a statement emailed to Gotham Gazette.

Cuomo's plan follows de Blasio's, outlined in 2014, to create 80,000 units of affordable housing and preserve another 120,000 units (preservation of units includes extending rent regulations through benefit-agreements with landlords). De Blasio also pledged to create 15,000 supportive housing units over the next 15 years, announcing in December a new supportive plan after negotiations with the state on a new joint program did not yield results (there have been three such programs in the past, stretching back several mayors and governors). Going back to last year, the governor has been a regular critic of de Blasio's management of the city's homelessness crisis. When announcing his supportive housing plan, de Blasio challenged the state to act. It appeared Cuomo was doing so as he delivered his State of the State.

Now, advocates are concerned there may not be all that much new money in the budget. Cuomo administration sources have indicated the $20 billion figure includes "on and off budget resources" including tax credits and funding for housing-related departments such as the Department of Homes and Community Renewal.

Friedfel of CBC said that the use of MOUs makes it harder to follow how money is being spent, but that it also has advantages for those spending it. "It does make it more difficult to track than a more generic appropriation," said Friedfel. "It also gives them more freedom about how to spend it."

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Budget Leaves Cuomo's Affordable Housing Plan A Mystery Tue, 05 Apr 2016 18:32:33 +0000
Confusion, Concern Remain as Cuomo Promises Full CUNY Funding http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6243:confusion-concern-remain-as-cuomo-promises-full-cuny-funding http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6243:confusion-concern-remain-as-cuomo-promises-full-cuny-funding cuny protest

Shirley Jackson of the CUNY Student Senate at Thursday's protest (via @PSC_CUNY)


Gov. Andrew Cuomo's budget proposal to have New York City take over $485 million in funding for CUNY still has a number of legislators and advocates on edge despite the administration's repeated attempts to quell concerns. Advocates and faculty held a "die in" at Cuomo's New York City office on Thursday afternoon and a number of legislators say they remain ready to delay the state budget and vote against it should CUNY face any cuts, or cost shifts.

"The governor has said the CUNY budget won't change and I am here today to hold him to his word," Barbara Bowen, president of PSC/CUNY, the system's main labor union, told Gotham Gazette before Thursday's protest. Bowen said the administration had reached out to her and was "insistent on their message."

More than 40 protesters were eventually arrested at the rally, which was over general cost shifts, a push for increased funding, and the expired faculty union contract.

Facing backlash for the cost-shifting proposal after he unveiled it in January, Cuomo said that the state budget wouldn't "cost CUNY a penny" and that his administration would team with City Hall to find "efficiencies." However, when the time for 30-day amendments to the governor's fiscal year 2017 budget proposal rolled around, the proposed cost shift remained. The de Blasio administration has indicated it has yet to have detailed discussions about savings with the Cuomo administration. CUNY is a joint city-state system.

"It is appalling that the faculty union and for-hire political advocacy groups are knowingly misleading their members and the public to score cheap political points." Cuomo spokesperson Dani Lever told Gotham Gazette. "We have said repeatedly and unequivocally that CUNY will receive its full $1.6 billion in state aid this year. Further, the Governor has urged CUNY and its faculty union to resolve their current contract negotiations. The fact that these groups are ignoring reality is alarming, irresponsible, and a flagrant disregard for the students they claim to advocate for. Rather than using unfounded and untruthful scare tactics to lie to the public, they should support the Governor's fight to direct more funding to students instead of administrative costs."

Lever did not respond to questions about whether the de Blasio administration was involved in finding efficiencies at CUNY. De Blasio's team also failed to respond to a request for comment. When asked recently, de Blasio has only said in general terms that he and his aides continue to talk with the governor and his team.

As outcry mounted earlier this month, Cuomo and State Director of Operations Jim Malatras said they will hire a management expert to find cost savings in management at CUNY and SUNY. Cuomo stressed that the administration was looking to shave administrative costs at CUNY during a press conference in Manhattan on March 17.

"These are back office savings," Cuomo said. "They have nothing to do with students in classrooms. As a matter of fact, if you reduce the money you're spending in the back office, you can do better and do more with students."

Some legislators say they have approached the administration for clarity. They have asked questions about what Cuomo's intentions are, whether the management expert precludes negotiations with the city, whether the administration is still looking for the city to pay more of a share of CUNY costs, and whether a $240 million pot of cash Cuomo put aside in his budget to help cover retroactive pay raises for CUNY staff would remain if the operating cost transfer is restored. They say they were referred to previous statements and not given any particular clarity on the situation.

When asked about the $240 million for retroactive raises administration officials said that it was "out of our hands" because CUNY is in mediation with its union. They further indicated that all interested parties are involved in looking for efficiencies at CUNY, but that the current plan is for a management expert to look for efficiencies to be included in next year's budget (fiscal year 2018).

"This year's executive budget proposal ensures that CUNY will receive full funding," said Malatras in a statement sent out on March 16. "The $1.6 billion in aid it receives has not changed, and will not change under this budget. The funding stays constant. CUNY supports hundreds of thousands of students, many of whom are new to our state or our country, or are the first in their family to attend college. The Governor's commitment to supporting those students and the institution that serves them could not be stronger, and his budget proposal reflects that reality."

The question is not necessarily whether CUNY will be fully funded, but whether the state budget will indeed shift hundreds of millions of dollars in CUNY costs onto the city. The implications of that shift are not immediately clear - the de Blasio administration insists it would be devastating.

Some rank-and-file legislators who aren't privy to the backroom budget negotiations among Cuomo and majority leaders of the two houses harbor a deep mistrust of the administration's plans. They see the proposal as an attack on the city, motivated by the governor's feud with de Blasio, as well as a negotiating tactic that gives Cuomo more leverage over Assembly Democrats.

"Actions speak louder than words. We have a document that we have to deal with that tells us CUNY is going to be cut by nearly half-a-billion dollars," Sen. Gustavo Rivera, a Bronx Democrat, said of the governor's budget proposal. "It may be off the table but we don't know. They didn't take it out of the budget with 30-day amendments, so as far as we're concerned it's in play."

The Assembly, which is controlled by Democrats, did not include the cost shifts in its one-house budget. The Republican-controlled Senate's budget supports Cuomo's cost shift. De Blasio opted not to include the shifts in his preliminary city budget proposal, saying that he was taking the governor at his word that the "efficiencies" wouldn't cost the city any money. The state budget is due by April 1, the city budget by July.

Malatras told The New York Times in a recent interview that the governor's proposal was a negotiating tactic to get City Hall and CUNY to take reforms seriously. "The only way you compel change sometimes is where you put financial skin in the game," Malatras said.

"You don't start a conversation by punching someone in the face." Sen. Rivera countered. "We are talking about a cut to an essential service that provides people with a future. CUNY serves 70 percent students of color and 40 percent immigrants. I'm not sure why anyone would put it in the budget. You don't start a conversation by saying 'Here you have to come up with $485 million to fund an essential service.'"

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, also a Bronx Democrat, has been adamant that the governor's proposal will not remain.

"It looks like the Cuomo administration was wishing, hoping, praying that City Hall was going to pick up the tab," said Sen. Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat who has been outspoken against the cost shift. Krueger said she now believes the proposal is off the table but said, "I think people should be concerned."

Advocates and legislators say that Cuomo's proposal has created outrage and debate about education funding that they doubt the governor anticipated. "This has sparked a public conversation about CUNY," said Bowen. "But that conversation won't be adequate if all it decides is whether it will be cut and funding is restored to where it was. Because the state funding level is not adequate."

Bowen said that state funding for CUNY remains at "recession levels." She and her allies are now pushing for several budget demands. They say per-student state funding has fallen by three percent under Cuomo.

"I hope to see a final enacted budget with no cost shift," Bowen said, "that also includes at least $240 million for retroactive raises, that freezes tuition, and has provision that will have state funding increase every year to be constant with inflation."

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Confusion, Concern Remain as Cuomo Promises Full CUNY Funding Thu, 24 Mar 2016 23:30:22 +0000
Once Rife with Problems, City Budget Process Now a Model for State System in Need of Reform http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6097:once-rife-with-problems-city-budget-process-now-a-model-for-state-system-in-need-of-reform http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6097:once-rife-with-problems-city-budget-process-now-a-model-for-state-system-in-need-of-reform cuomo exec budget pres 2014

Governor Cuomo presents his 2014-2015 Executive Budget


In 1975 New York City was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, having balanced its budget for years with massive borrowing and shady accounting tricks. Banks were at the point where they would lend no more. Mayor Abe Beame had written the announcement of the city's default. City lawyers were in State Supreme Court filing a petition for bankruptcy and police were prepared to serve the banks.

At the last minute bankruptcy was averted as the federal government provided the city with loans. Those loans combined with the state-created Financial Control Board, which required the city to use generally accepted accounting practices and provide four-year financial plans, are credited with turning things around.

Gone were the days when operating expenses were reclassified as capital investments, when labor costs were paid for with new loans, when raids on existing funds were acceptable ways to pay for new expenses. The city underwent such a turnaround in the following decades that its budget process is now thought to be a shining beacon across the country. The Financial Control Board that used to strike fear into the hearts of mayors is now a sleepy, almost forgotten entity.

The state government, however, is facing a crisis of its own--not a fiscal one, but a crisis of trust, brought on by a series of convictions of sitting legislators that was capped late last year by the convictions of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. For years, the Silver and Skelos served as two of the 'three men in a room' deciding the budget with the Governor. It's a process that has been decried by good government advocates, reform-minded legislators, and the U.S Attorney, Preet Bharara, who brought Silver and Skelos to justice for abusing their positions.

"I think people should start to talk about budget transparency as a matter of ethics," said Sen. Liz Krueger, the Democrats' ranking member on the state Senate finance committee. "People really should care about the lack of transparency in the state budget process for a whole lot of reasons. One of them is that if you don't know what's going on, pay-to-play wins the day. If someone wants something in the budget they get it there with a whole lot of lobbying money that no one knows about. That's the harm, that's the danger and I'll tell you that happens constantly."

A number of major corruption cases, including Silver's, have centered on the opaqueness of the budget process that allows legislators and the governor to put aside secret slush funds. For example, Silver was able to direct discretionary funding to a cancer doctor who in turn sent Silver and his law firm lucrative clients suffering from a rare form of cancer.

Former Sen. Malcolm Smith was convicted in a scheme whereby he would provide a developer a $500,000 lump sum from the budget. A report from good government group Citizens Union found that the 2014 and 2015 fiscal year budgets had over $3 billion in lump funds, while Cuomo's proposed 2016 budget had around $2.6 billion. Citizens Union, Common Cause NY, and NYPIRG have this year called on legislators to support reforms making budget spending more transparent.

"Preet Bharara, the federal prosecutor who convicted both Silver and Skelos, basically said the strongest tool these guys had to game the system was unbridled power and an unbelievable lack of transparency in policing 'three men in a room,'" said Assemblymember Jim Tedisco, a Republican from the Capital Region who has proposed a bill that would force any pot of cash negotiated in the budget to be line-itemed and mandate that it is publicly documented how the cash is eventually spent.

"The other thing Bharara told us is 'if you see something, say something,'" Tedisco said. "I didn't know about these pots of money and I'm sure my Democratic colleagues in the chamber didn't know either. So if you don't know who got the money, you can't stop what's going on. We just don't have that transparency holistically."

Slush funds aren't the only part of the state budget that thwart transparency. Today the bad practices New York City was forced to abandon are commonplace in the state budget process. The state budgets without generally accepted accounting practices, routinely raids other programs, has lump-sum appropriations where spending is at times decided by memorandum of understanding between the governor and legislators, and routinely pushes expenses down the road.

This year Gov. Andrew Cuomo has proposed a slew of major infrastructure projects including the revamp of Penn Station and a third track for the Long Island Rail Road, but his budget proposal does not lay out how to fund them. Meanwhile, his budget continues funneling cash to economic development projects that are managed by entities with little transparency. Cuomo's Buffalo Billion project is currently under investigation by Bharara's office.

Frank Mauro, executive director emeritus of the Fiscal Policy Institute, who also served as the director of research for the city's last major charter revision and as secretary of the Assembly's ways and means committee, said that the differences between the city and state budget processes are striking. "I don't think many people know just how different the city process is from the state's," said Mauro.

The city budget process begins when the Mayor submits his Preliminary Budget to the City Council before January 21 each year (this was just moved from Jan. 16). Then the City Council holds public hearings over a period of several weeks, bringing in agency commissioners and budget directors to examine spending, considers budget priorities from community boards and borough presidents, and takes testimony from groups and citizens.

The Council must issue its findings and recommendations by March 25. The Mayor then has until April 26 to propose an Executive Budget, with explanations of programs as well as a fiscal outlook for the city. The Council then holds another series of public hearings which are followed by negotiations between the mayor's budget office and the Council finance division. These negotiations must result in a balanced budget by the end of June, with the new fiscal year beginning July 1.

The Council is allowed to increase, decrease, add or omit any appropriation for personal services, or omit or change conditions related to any appropriation. The Council then votes on the budget. The mayor can veto any additions or increases the Council adds but may not interfere with any decreases.

The city process also includes a significant role for the Comptroller, who oversees city contracts and audits city agencies. The Comptroller is the city's chief financial watchdog and analyzes the Mayor's budget proposals, performing independent forecasting, raising red flags, and making recommendations.

"In the state budget you have to investigate where the money has gone, where certain programs are accounted for, and even then, good luck," said Sen. Krueger. "Even the [state] comptroller's office does not know until years later what was actually spent."

The state process begins when the Governor devises an Executive Budget based on the needs of agencies and any programs he or she supports and delivers the budget to the Legislature. Both houses of the the Legislature put out their own budgets, mainly to signal their major priorities for the year. The Governor delivers his executive budget along with appropriation, revenue and budget bills by February 1. The Legislature typically holds a series of budget hearings on particular topics, like transportation and local governments.

Under reform legislation passed in 2007, the Legislature is supposed to convene conference committees between both houses to reach agreements on aspects of the budget and set priorities. These committees have been ignored in the past despite the reform legislation.

The Governor and Legislature are also required agree on a revenue forecast on or before March 1. They are generally very good at doing this, failure to do so results in the state Comptroller setting the forecast. The Legislature can only reduce or entirely remove spending proposed by the Governor and it has no control over the Governor's proposals for spending. The Legislature can add spending, but the Governor has the ability to line-item veto. The Legislature must vote on a budget by April 1, which is the start of the state's fiscal year.

It isn't until the budget is voted on that a new financial plan is created showing how all the changes impact spending. So while a budget may start as balanced under the Governor's proposed plan, it rarely ends that way.

The state budget is usually full of non-budget policies because the budget process gives the Governor the upper hand - the Legislature can either negotiate the Governor's priorities, stall, or fail to vote on a budget on time, in which case the Governor can simply issue emergency extenders that put his budget into place.

Budgets are normally negotiated exclusively between the two majority leaders of the Legislature and the Governor, and time and again budget bills are not given the three-day waiting period for review mandated by law. Instead, the Governor issues messages of necessity that allow the budget bills to be voted on immediately. The result is legislators voting on voluminous budget bills late at night, having little or no time to actually read them. "To say there is any level of public review is just insulting," Krueger said.

"I think the biggest difference between the state and city budget processes is that the state budget is a political negotiation and you don't see a financial plan until a month later," said Tammy Gamerman, a senior research associate with the Citizens Budget Commission (CBC). "With the city they tell you how they are going to balance the budget."

Adding further mystery to the state budget, Governor Cuomo has taken to combining his State of the State address and Executive Budget presentation, doing so this year and last. This leads to less public explanation of the budget and more focus on big policy initiatives the governor is backing. In his speech last week, the governor laid out a number of government ethics proposals, including public financing of campaigns. He did not discuss changing the budget process.

The city budget process is not perfect, of course. The City Council continues to push the Mayor to more specifically account for agency spending, providing more units of appropriation instead of lump sums. There is also a good deal of discretionary spending available to the City Council Speaker that watchdogs want more accounting for.

Sen. Krueger, who is one of the most outspoken legislators during late night state budget votes, picking at and tracking spending threads while most legislators are waiting to simply cast a "yes" vote and get back to their districts, said that 'three men in a room' has led to an absolute lack of budget transparency and alienated the public.

Krueger says she has seen a decrease in attendance at budget hearings, even from groups that have a lot at stake in the budget. "At the end of the budget process each year, after I'm done beating my head against the wall over one thing that made it through the budget process or the other, I come to find out there are 16 other things I missed," Krueger told Gotham Gazette. "I don't catch a huge number of things and I do care about this. So imagine what it is like for someone who isn't a legislator, who doesn't have experience with this. I want people to know they should be involved in the process. They should come to hearings just to point out 'Hey, you know New York has state parks that need to be funded and that isn't in here.'"

Most rank-and-file legislators and advocates acknowledge that budget reform is not a hot topic at the moment. The last time there was major attention on the subject was in 2009 when Senate Democrats briefly controlled the chamber. They issued a report that recommended conference committees be given control over larger sums of budget funds, that the state adopt generally accepted accounting principles, a two-year budget cycle, and the creation of a legislative budget office.

Krueger has since introduced bills that would create a state agency in the model of the city's Independent Budget Office - a nonpartisan, publically funded agency that provides information to elected officials and the public about the budget, reviews budget proposals, and provides policy analysis. The bill has gone nowhere in the Senate.

Krueger and other reformers also want to see the state require bills to have truthful financial impact statements. Currently, bills introduced from rank-and-file legislators, committee chairs, legislative leaders, or the Governor are supposed to have impact statements, but some simply lack them while others are presented in a dishonest way. Rather than presenting a program's cost for a year, some bills only represent a month's cost, or less.

Gamerman said she feels that some progress has been made toward budget transparency over the last few years.

"Accountability issues born of the financial crisis of the '70s forced the city to use generally accepted accounting principles," said Gamerman. "There isn't any similar oversight of the state. The state has increased transparency through the Open Budget website. There is more info on agency spending. One of the big differences between the city and state is the city does a much better job tracking performance with the Mayor's Management Report. The state has been talking about doing something similar."

Mauro said that he finds it unlikely there will be a major push for reform unless the Legislature feels the Governor is abusing his current powers because the status quo still works for the leadership. "It's an unlikely scenario where the Governor isn't running roughshod over the Legislature with budget powers that we'll see a push for change," said Mauro.

***
by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing

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

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Once Rife with Problems, City Budget Process Now a Model for State System in Need of Reform Mon, 18 Jan 2016 05:28:20 +0000