Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/1020 Sat, 16 Feb 2019 13:54:18 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) A Simple First Step to Help the MTA Re-Establish Credibility http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8116-a-simple-first-step-to-help-the-mta-re-establish-credibility http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8116-a-simple-first-step-to-help-the-mta-re-establish-credibility mta rf

Andy Byford (photo: Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit)


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

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) is teetering on financial collapse and still struggling to overcome a meltdown in subway service and collapse in bus ridership. No one doubts that the MTA has serious problems and riders are suffering. But before the State Legislature approves tens of billions of new funding, the MTA needs to show it is serious about improving its decision-making and transparency.

Politically, the MTA has met the enemy: its lack of credibility.

Former Chair Joe Lhota at the MTA Board’s October 2018 meeting acknowledged this, saying, “I’m aware that before we can credibly appeal for billions of dollars of public money, we must continue to advance a reform agenda.” New York City Transit’s Fast Forward plan is a whopping $40 billion appeal and promise to improve the subways and buses. Andy Byford, New York City Transit’s president and the plan’s architect, in unveiling the plan stated that NYCT is working on the “rollout of a new transit organization - one that is built around a customer centric, continuous improvement model, one that emphasizes transparency and accountability, and one that going forward delivers on its promises.”

One of the easiest ways for the MTA to show that it is serious about improving transparency is to bring its Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) process into the 21st century. This means putting it fully online with an OpenFOIL website, modeled on the successful platforms already used by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and the City of New York, and as developed by the Obama administration for federal agencies.

The idea behind FOIL is that the public can ask for and get information that government decisions are based on -- information that we, the public, paid for with our taxes (and, in some cases, fares and tolls). Ideally, much of this information should already be online in an open format that is easy to search, download and use. But in 2018, the MTA is still a long way from putting important information online and in accessible formats. For journalists, researchers, and watchdogs that seek to hold the MTA accountable, that means FOIL is often the only way to get certain public records.

Gotham Gazette: Unfortunately, the way the MTA implements FOIL is not working for either MTA staff or the public. A recent report by my organization, FOIL that Works: Increasing MTA transparency and accountability by putting FOIL online, dug into the MTA’s FOIL process and found a dysfunctional and fragmented mess.

The MTA received nearly 9,000 requests in 2017 (see chart below), with those inquiries handled differently among its eight separate agencies. New York City Transit still responds to many FOIL requests with paper letters instead of by email. Complicated requests can take over a year to fill, and most FOILers don’t have the legal resources to take the MTA to court to speed things up. FOIL requests might be deemed “closed” by agency staff, but this does not mean the requestor actually received the information sought.

There is a better way to do things, and fortunately for the MTA, it doesn’t have to look far. The Port Authority in 2012 revamped its freedom of information access policy, and created an online portal for FOI requests. This reform was led by Pat Foye, then the Port Authority executive director, and now the MTA’s president, as well as Scott Rechler, who has since switched boards to the MTA. Now, once a record is released to the public, it goes online in a searchable portal for everyone else to benefit from. This saves both the Port Authority staff and the public time - a win-win.

mta image1

The City of New York also has an Open Records web portal, which eases the FOIL process for the public and agency staff. The code for the portal is available in open source, which is essentially free for the MTA to adopt and expand for its needs.  

The MTA also doesn’t segregate information requests the way it should. As shown in the chart above, in 2017 two-thirds of MTA FOIL requests - more than 6,000 - were for police incident reports. But these don’t have to go through FOIL. The state Department of Motor Vehicles has an in-house online collision reports portal where the public can privately request their own incident reports, and the MTA should do the same. The MTA’s FOIL staff should focus on other types of FOIL requests to ensure that they don’t languish for so long.

OpenFOIL and an online police incidents portal for the MTA are supported by 13 other city, state, and national organizations - a diverse group including good government, transportation, freedom of information, and environmental organizations including the National Freedom of Information Coalition, Riders Alliance, League of Women Voters of the City of New York, NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign, and Environmental Advocates of New York.

The MTA can and should put FOIL online on its own. But should it not, the public has another important backstop - the state Legislature. Newly elected and re-elected legislators, in particular Senate Democrats, have promised to tackle MTA reform, and if the MTA can’t reform itself, they should require it. Passing legislation requiring OpenFOIL for the MTA is a great start for legislators to take their oversight role seriously.

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

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Rachael Fauss is Senior Research Analyst at Reinvent Albany. On Twitter @RachaelFauss & @ReinventAlbany.

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

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A Simple First Step to Help the MTA Re-Establish Credibility Mon, 03 Dec 2018 05:00:00 +0000
A Closer Look at the Tax Incentives in the Amazon Deal http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8110-a-closer-look-at-the-tax-incentives-in-the-amazon-deal http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8110-a-closer-look-at-the-tax-incentives-in-the-amazon-deal govcoumo realestate

Cuomo, de Blasio & an Amazon rep celebrate (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)


Amazon’s decision to put a corporate campus in Long Island City after a year-long, somewhat-public search for a host city and a series of incentives from New York City and State has drawn skepticism and outrage in Queens and beyond for a number of reasons.

Some activists and elected officials oppose the secretive process by which Amazon got its land, tax breaks and grant, others feel like the company isn’t a corporate entity the city and state should be welcoming because of labor, political and other practices. But all of the opponents to the Amazon deal seem to agree that that package of roughly $3 billion in incentives the trillion-dollar corporation is getting from New York is out of bounds, an inappropriate giveaway based on old economics, in the midst of both a strong overall city economy with low unemployment on one hand and affordable housing, public housing, and transportation crises on the other.

And while a look at the programs in question reveals that Amazon doesn’t appear to be getting tax incentives or breaks that wouldn’t be available to other large employers who set up shop in New York, economists and budget watchdogs suggest the outrage over the tax break package Amazon is getting presents an opportunity to reexamine New York’s use of subsidies to entice companies. (Note: there is one discretionary capital grant in the deal for roughly $500 million that is separate from the $2.5 billion in city and state tax incentives.)

Where does the money come from?
The three largest incentives Amazon is getting from New York come from three as-of-right (that is, incentives available to any company that meets the requirements) programs: the Excelsior Jobs Credit Tax Program, the Relocation and Expansion Assistance Program (REAP) and the Industrial and Commercial Abatement Program (ICAP). The latter two tax breaks are incentives established by the state government that affect the city tax rolls, while the former program affects state tax rolls.

“They’re state created, like 421-a,” John Kaehny, the Executive Director of Reinvent Albany, told Gotham Gazette about ICAP and REAP, with reference to the tax break known as 421-a that seeks to incent housing development with some affordability included. “So the New York City Department of Finance administers them, but they have to, they're made to by state law. Basically it's money that the state is directing be taken out of the city's tax revenue.”

Along with their as-of-right nature, all three programs require a company actually delivers jobs in order to take advantage of the breaks. In that sense, Amazon is no different from a hotel company or mobile phone infrastructure company or real estate company in applying for the programs. In the case of the Excelsior program, Amazon is taking advantage of a refundable tax credit equal to 6.85 percent of the total wages per new full-time job they create, and a capital investment credit equal to 2 percent of a company’s total qualified investments that result in new jobs.

For the city tax breaks, ICAP is a tax abatement program that may last up to 25 years, available to companies who undertake new commercial construction in areas outside of some exempted sections of Manhattan. It appears Amazon will be eligible for a 15-year ICAP that begins to decline in year 12. REAP is a per-job tax credit in which companies from either outside New York City or below 96th Street in Manhattan get a $3,000 per employee credit for 12 years for each employee that moves into the new office outside the REAP area.

In addition to the above programs, Amazon is also getting a cash grant from the state called an Empire State Development Capital Grant that’s potentially worth $505 million and is supposed to help defray some of the costs from building the new corporate campus. And because New York State is taking over the land where the office will be located and making it tax-exempt, Amazon will make payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs) that the city has said will be equal to the property tax bill the company would pay on the land otherwise. Half of the money from the PILOT will go to the city’s general fund, and half of it will go towards infrastructure improvements around Long Island City.

All told, the tax breaks from the jobs credit, ICAP and REAP and the capital grant could wind up adding up to $3 billion in incentives to Amazon, if the company delivers the 25,000 jobs it’s promised over the course of 10 years.

What’s the problem exactly?
In his media appearances and statements to defend the incentive package, Governor Cuomo has suggested that these kinds of tax breaks are just the cost of doing business in America. But some economists, like James Parrott, the Director of Economic and Fiscal Policies at the Center for New York Affairs, say the programs are working off of a somewhat dated economic model, especially since he found that the city gave up almost $6 billion in tax revenue in Fiscal Year 2018 thanks to a stew of incentive programs like ICAP and REAP.

The predecessors to ICAP and REAP arrived in “a different historical economic context, coming on the heels of the 1970s when there was a lot of corporate headquarters movement out of New York City,” Parrott told Gotham Gazette. “With the loss of 600,000 jobs between 1973 and 1979, it was a really difficult economic period for the city. So in the 1980s the city put in place, and ramped up its commitment to subsidize corporations to stay in New York City, to relocate to New York City and to add employment.” But these days, Parrott says the city’s economy is healthy enough to function without massive incentives.

“We're now at a point where the total employment level in New York City is 4.3 million, almost 700,000 to 800,000 higher than it's ever been before,” he said. “Arguably New York City doesn't need to do anything to subsidize new economic development investments, given the very rapid employment growth we've had in recent years.”

Though he continues to stress that his administration refuses cash grants to companies, de Blasio also continues to defend the Amazon deal, including the use of the subsidies involved, again doing both during his weekly NY1 appearance on Monday. “[W[hat we need to move towards is a society where it’s not about cities competing” over companies, the mayor told host Errol Louis. “The specific incentives were automatic and part of state law,” was also part of his defense, and he suggested that if people want to see an end to the as-of-right programs, people should debate that in the future.

Parrott said he could understand the use of the Excelsior programs upstate, given the region’s struggling economy and what he said was a better oversight process than the program’s predecessor, the extremely troubled and criticized Empire Zone program. But the entire program also has an annual cap ($183 million in 2019 and steadily decreasing to $36 million in 2024 per the Citizens Budget Commission) that will have to be raised by the state Legislature if Amazon creates all of the jobs it’s promised, leaving Parrott to wonder, “why on Earth, if you have these limited tax credit resources, you spend those in New York City? The one place in the state that that least needs economic development subsidies?”

Kaehny sees some self-promotion as a motivating factor in giving state money to Amazon, specifically on the part of the governor. “Cuomo wants to create a narrative that shows that he had some agency, that he was the one that closed this deal with Amazon, that he did something that caused this deal to happen,” Kaehny said. “If Amazon says, ‘Well we don't care about the subsidies at all, we really just wanted New York City and this terrific dynamic place with a huge job market of talented people, the kind that we want working for Amazon and we don't really need subsidies,’ well then what's Cuomo’s role in landing the deal?”

It’s an especially pertinent question according to Kaehny and others who insist that Amazon was probably going to come to New York anyway. Both before and after identifying Long Island City as one of its landing spots, Amazon officials said that the ease of recruiting tech talent was the key ingredient in their search. A request for information that Amazon sent to Somerville, Massachusetts included one question about the incentive package the city could offer, but multiple questions about quality of life and the area’s working populations.

That in turn raises the issue of where New York should actually invest, in businesses or in infrastructure, according to Jonas Shaende, the chief economist at the Fiscal Policy Institute. “Should we just give [companies] tax subsidies outright or should we invest in what makes New York so attractive and so vibrant and so great? In the things that that are the real factors in in their decision making, things like the transportation system, the affordable housing the access to to labor, to education facilities those kinds of things.”

Shaende wasn’t alone in that line of thinking, as redirecting state subsidies from corporations towards local infrastructure was a centerpiece of the Marc Molinaro and Stephanie Miner campaigns for governor.

It’s real money
Another one of the governor’s defenses of the incentive package is that New York isn’t actually paying Amazon anything at all, but rather is letting the company pay slightly less in taxes than it would otherwise. In his “op-ed” published to the governor’s official website, Cuomo writes:

“Our proposal offered that, when and if those revenues are realized, the government would effectively reduce their $1 billion payment by about $100 million for a net to New York of approximately $900 million. New York doesn't give Amazon $100 million. Amazon gives New York $900 million.”

It’s a rhetorical sleight of hand that doesn’t pass muster with any expert Gotham Gazette spoke to. “I mean, that's just fundamentally wrong because essentially all economists left, right, wherever agree that a tax abatement or tax credit is a form of expenditure by government and is rightly called a subsidy,” Kaehny said, pointing out that the Governmental Accounting Standards Board (which sets the rules for financial reporting by government entities) now has a rule that counts subsidies as expenditures.

And in the case of the capital grant Amazon is getting, the cash is very much real. “It's clearly a case where it's a budget choice [Cuomo's] making, here's $500 million in taxpayer resources we're going to give to Amazon rather than use it for something else,” Parrott said.

“[Cuomo] happens to have a reserve of resources, out of which it’s very likely that this money is going to come,” Parrott said, talking about New York settlements reached with banks who are alleged to have committed mortgage securities and other financial fraud. “Although there wasn't anything said in the memorandum of understanding with [Empire State Development] and the state and the city that said where the capital monies are going to come from, my guess is it will come out of the reserve,” he said. Cuomo has indicated he does not need legislative approval for the capital grant, but legislators, especially those opposing the deal like Queens state Senator Michael Gianaris, are exploring all their options to block or change the deal.

The Citizens Budget Commission was measured in its critique of the grant, comparing the reimbursement-style payments as better than upfront costs the state has taken on with, for instance, the $750 million solar panel plant it built in Buffalo. But CBC still criticized the ongoing lack of oversight for where the money would come from. The grant has also been criticized in multiple corners as a sop to Cuomo-friendly construction unions, with critics charging the state is essentially paying Amazon to use union labor.

And the subsidies also open New York up to the double whammy of even more companies asking for the kinds of tax breaks Amazon is set to receive while at the same time trying to provide services and pay for them in a state budget operating under the governor’s self-imposed 2 percent cap on annual spending increases.

“It’s not a fiscally responsible way of running government,” Shaende said. “It could be potentially highly problematic for the state, because the state still relies on taxes. And we have the 2 percent spending growth cap, we have all sorts of measures that that the governor adopted to show that he's running a very fiscally responsible shop. He saves money, let's say, by cutting services, by finding efficiencies, in joint services between municipalities. So he saves, you know, a couple of nickels here a couple of dimes over there, and then he just splurges like this.”

Could this spur change?
As lawmakers scramble to find a way to stop or change Amazon’s incentive package, there’s at least some hope among reformers that the publicity surrounding the deal can lead to a change in how the state and city use tax incentives. The incentives all going towards one company has already brought more attention to the ways New York uses them than their use for the Hudson Yards development, Parrott said, despite the fact that “the total cost of the Hudson Yards tax breaks rival the amount of the city and state subsidy to Amazon.”

The surrounding outrage may also give new life to the proposed subsidy tracker known as the “Database of Deals,” an idea that Reinvent Albany’s Alex Camarda pointed out “is not rocket science” in Assembly testimony for more accountability in the state’s economic development funds last year. It is a transparency measure Comptroller Tom DiNapoli has called for but Cuomo has opposed; it passed the Republican-led state Senate earlier this year, but was not given a vote in the Democrat-led Assembly.

According to Shonede, the database not only could provide transparency to what’s going on in the state, but a better template for future spending.

“As a community of experts, we need to stress some basic accountability, how many jobs we get per dollar spent, and what kind of jobs they are,” Shoende told Gotham Gazette. “And if we do that, in a consistent and serious way, a basic accounting of these efforts, it’s going to be obvious that the best way to improve the situation with income inequality, and lack of good jobs in vulnerable communities and improving the business climate have to do with what the traditional role of the government is supposed to be. And that is making sure that people are safe, that they are well prepared for the market, and that the infrastructure is such that it minimizes the business costs for the businesses that you see operate in the neighborhoods,” he said.

And so in his own way, despite resisting intensive oversight of the state’s economic development initiatives, the governor may have inadvertently dragged the state’s subsidy programs further towards daylight. “This is kind of a like peeling the onion of Albany dysfunction and scurviness in a microcosm, this deal,” said Kaehny. “Because there's all this stuff baked in here that's been going on for a long time time. But it's like for the first time people in New York City were like ‘Oh s***,’ but reality is they've been doing this for many, many years.”

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by Dave Colon, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been updated with more clear description of Amazon's eligibility for ICAP.

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A Closer Look at the Tax Incentives in the Amazon Deal Wed, 28 Nov 2018 05:00:00 +0000
With Nod from De Blasio and Push from Johnson, Momentum for Ranked-Choice Voting in New York City http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8062-with-nod-from-de-blasio-and-push-from-johnson-momentum-for-ranked-choice-voting-in-new-york-city http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8062-with-nod-from-de-blasio-and-push-from-johnson-momentum-for-ranked-choice-voting-in-new-york-city bdb at voting machine

(photo: Gotham Gazette)


With all three of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s charter revision proposals approved by voters by wide margins on Tuesday, eyes are now on the 2019 Charter Revision Commission, empaneled by the City Council and other officials, which will, in some respects, pick up where the 2018 commission left off, possibly considering issues that the mayor’s commission did not act on.

Key among those is ranked-choice voting (also known as instant runoff voting), an alternative method of voting wherein voters rank their candidate preferences rather than simply voting for one. For whichever races it is applied to, if no candidate wins the required percentage of the vote on initial count, the last place candidate is eliminated, and the second preference of the eliminated candidate’s voters receives those votes. This continues until one candidate secures the required percentage, often set at 50 percent.

As of now, New York City only holds runoffs for citywide positions -- mayor, public advocate, comptroller -- and if no candidate receives 40 percent of the vote. Mayor Bill de Blasio narrowly avoided a runoff in the 2013 Democratic primary for mayor, but there was one that year for public advocate.

That runoff, in the Democratic primary between eventual winner Letitia James and Daniel Squadron, led to heightened calls for ranked-choice voting, especially given the high cost of the runoff relative to the budget of the public advocate’s office.

Increasing support from elected officials and among the public led to ranked-choice voting being considered and discussed by the 2018 charter commission; in its final report, the commission said that it had received a “considerable volume of public comment about ranked choice voting.” In the end, the commission demurred on ranked-choice, arguing that more research and time were required and recommending that a future commission tackle the issue.

It may not take long; that commission may well end up being the 2019 commission, which has already met six times, twice in Manhattan and once each in the other boroughs, and has a much longer timeline on which to tackle issues. It is expected to continue deliberations, solicit online feedback, and hold hearings and meetings throughout the first half of next year, with its ballot proposals likely due by early September.

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who got to name several commissioner including the chair, Gail Benjamin, testified at a recent hearing in favor of ranked-choice voting, urging the commission to look into it. De Blasio, meanwhile, singled out ranked-choice voting when asked by Gotham Gazette at a press availability what he would like the 2019 commission to tackle, though he did not endorse the idea outright.

“There was a very vibrant discussion in this charter revision commission, for example, about ranked-choice voting,” the mayor said. “For me, the jury’s still out on ranked-choice voting. I grew up with it in Massachusetts. I think it has strengths and I think it has weaknesses. And I’d sure like to see a lot more research on it. But there’s a lot of people who believe it might be very beneficial in New York City.”

Despite not taking an affirmative stance on the issue, de Blasio’s answer is a signal of his evolving position on ranked-choice, according to Alex Camarda, senior policy advisor at Reinvent Albany, a good government group that supports ranked-choice voting.

“I think it’s significant,” Camarda said. “I think what’s telling is we’ve now seen, in the last few months, the mayor last week and the Council speaker at the Manhattan charter revision commission hearing, both called on the commission to consider instant runoff voting, and ‘here are the different arguments for it.’ And I think that’s a signal to the commission that they should seriously look at this.”

“I think there’s a new openness to it on their parts that at least wasn’t public in the past,” he continued. “De Blasio in 2013 went on The Brian Lehrer Show and actually took a position against IRV, and said at the time that the starkness of two candidates in the runoff, he thought was clarifying for voters. So clearly, his position seems to have evolved.”

Aside from good government groups, which almost uniformly support it, ranked choice also has the support of other prominent city elected officials: along with Johnson, support comes from Comptroller Scott Stringer and Public Advocate James, who was elected State Attorney General on Tuesday and in May called herself “the face of instant runoff” given her 2013 race. City Council Member Brad Lander has sponsored a bill to implement "instant run-off voting" (James is a co-sponsor) in the Council.

"As the upcoming Public Advocate race shows, Ranked Choice Voting is an idea whose time has come for New York City," Lander said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. "Stronger majority support, better outreach to diverse communities, less negative campaigning, and it even saves money. What's not to like?"

Advocates, including those in New York, note that ranked-choice both makes third parties more viable (by limiting the need for “strategic voting”) and forces candidates to appeal beyond their base, in the hope of attracting voters as second preference. Ranked-choice would also allow city elections to avoid costly, low-turnout runoff elections when no candidate secures the required threshold of votes.

“We think that enabling voters to rank candidates creates an environment where there's more substantive policy debate, and there’s less negativity in campaigning, because candidates have to appeal to second choice and even third choice votes,” Camarda said.

In 2013, the runoff between James and Squadron was estimated to cost about $13 million, for a position with a $2 million budget, in an election with 6.5% turnout. In a report released the following year, the city’s Campaign Finance Board recommended that New York City adopt ranked-choice voting for municipal elections.

Advocates also claim that ranked-choice increases turnout, though studies have been conflicting on the matter. Some have charged that it can be confusing to voters, decreasing turnout and the diversity of the electorate. Turnout in San Francisco, the largest American city using ranked-choice, has been generally depressed since the implementation of ranked-choice, while in Minneapolis, the results have been far more promising.

Ranked choice has taken a higher political profile after Maine voters adopted the system by referendum in 2016, after a string of gubernatorial elections going back to 2002 where no candidate received a majority of the vote. The measure survived several legal and legislative challenges and was used in this year’s midterm elections; the Democratic gubernatorial candidate won an outright majority, but the race in the 2nd Congressional District is currently being decided by instant runoff.

Along with San Francisco and Minneapolis, ranked-choice is used in cities such as Oakland and Memphis, where voters approved ranked-choice in 2008 but it has not yet been implemented. On Tuesday, voters in that city rejected a ballot proposal to abandon ranked-choice, and it will be used in 2019. And de Blasio’s hometown of Cambridge has used ranked-choice since the 1940s; Cambridge’s system is a unique hybrid of ranked-choice and proportional representation.

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by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

This story has been updated.

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With Nod from De Blasio and Push from Johnson, Momentum for Ranked-Choice Voting in New York City Thu, 08 Nov 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Vote Yes Three Times to Improve New York City Democracy http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8052-vote-yes-three-times-to-improve-new-york-city-democracy http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8052-vote-yes-three-times-to-improve-new-york-city-democracy three voting booths

(photo: Mayor's Office)


A political awakening is sweeping New York City. Voter turnout during the last election spiked nearly 300 percent. More New Yorkers are speaking out and looking to engage in the civic life and democracy of their city.

Earlier this year, hundreds of New Yorkers, many of them everyday people who gave up their personal time to attend a public hearing, voiced their concerns to a New York City Charter Revision Commission appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio traveling the five boroughs. The Charter Commission boiled down hundreds of hours of public testimony into three proposals that will be on the back of Election Day ballots, each in the form of a yes/no question.

Voting "yes" on all three proposals will give New Yorkers new opportunities to channel their rising political energy and hopes for a more diverse and representative government. 

A "yes" vote on Question 1 will empower everyday New Yorkers by amplifying their voices in political campaigns for local office. New Yorkers making contributions to candidates will have their small donations matched with $8 in public funds for every $1 donated. A $10 contribution will grow to $90; a $100 donation multiplied to $900. And, the influence of big money will be further slashed by reducing the maximum individual contribution by a third. This proposal will also enable more New Yorkers to run for office themselves by raising small donations from their friends and neighbors. A "yes" vote on Question 1 is backed by Reinvent Albany and the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), among others.

On Question 2, a "yes" vote will enable all New Yorkers to vote directly on a slice of the city’s budget to beautify a local park, make a pedestrian crossing safer, or any number of other ideas that come from local communities. A Commission would be created to organize and connect New Yorkers to volunteer opportunities in government and the private sector, among other responsibilities to foster civic engagement and make the city better. This proposal is strongly supported by leaders in the worldwide Participatory Budgeting movement, which this proposal will expand.

A "yes" vote on Question 3 will open up opportunities for more New Yorkers to serve on community boards. Community boards provide advice on local land use, neighborhood quality of life issues, and the city budget, and serve as the level of government closest to the people. Yet, according to community board and census data, many boards consist of members who have served for decades, and do not reflect the diverse makeup and viewpoints of their neighborhoods.

By requiring community board members step down from their positions for two years after serving eight years, everybody in the community will have an opportunity to participate and have their voices heard. This proposal is strongly supported by citywide, grassroots groups like Transportation Alternatives that have decades of experience working with community boards.

A yes, yes, yes vote on the three ballot proposals will collectively harness the heightened activism of New Yorkers as robust participants in their democracy and their city. Find the questions on the back of your ballot and approve them for a stronger New York City.

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Alex Camarda is Senior Policy Advisor for Reinvent Albany. On Twitter @alex_camarda & @ReinventAlbany.

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

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Vote Yes Three Times to Improve New York City Democracy Mon, 05 Nov 2018 05:00:00 +0000
State Board of Elections Curtails Power of Enforcement Counsel http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7852-state-board-of-elections-curtails-power-of-enforcement-counsel http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7852-state-board-of-elections-curtails-power-of-enforcement-counsel gov and cuomo coughlin votes

(Photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of the Governor)


The State Board of Elections voted on Wednesday to hobble the subpoena powers of Chief Enforcement Counsel Risa Sugarman, dealing a significant blow to one of the state’s only election law watchdogs.

The new rules, which were voted on by the board at a commissioners’ meeting in Albany, would require Sugarman to obtain permission from the board members (two Democrats, two Republicans) for each subpoena she plans to issue in a probe, and for the “circumstances of the investigation” to be divulged to the members. Previously, the board approved Sugarman’s ability to make subpoenas in probes, but she was given latitude to make individual subpoenas within a probe.

The new rule also requires that Sugarman provide regular reports to the board members detailing metrics related to her investigations, and for investigations to be limited to six-month timeframes. Sugarman is the first and only person to hold the relatively new position at the board.

She has, in the past, criticized the proposed rule changes as being designed to hobble the powers given to her in 2014, after Governor Andrew Cuomo and Legislature passed a law designed to depoliticize the BOE’s enforcement process.

"These amendments would allow the politically partisan commissioners of the SBOE to impose their own political will on the independent chief enforcement counsel's investigations," Sugarman said in a June letter to the board, obtained by the Albany Times-Union.

The final vote on the measure was 3-1 in favor, with Democratic appointee Andrew Spano dissenting. Before the vote, Sugarman provided sharply critical testimony wherein she accused the board members of attempting to hobble a crucial state watchdog.

“By your vote today, you will send a message,” she said, saying that a “yes” vote would stand for partisan intervention into independent oversight, while a “no” vote would stand for “fair and complete investigations.” Sugarman said that the rescission of unmitigated subpoena power, as well as reporting requirements and a six-month timeframe for investigations, would hobble the enforcement counsel’s ability to fairly investigate campaign finance violations.

Sugarman claimed that the regulations would slow the pace of investigations by requiring approval of subpoenas by the BOE, and would hinder the independence of the investigation by needing approval from partisan appointees. In effect, the commissioners, not the enforcement counsel, would “control the course and content of an investigation,” she said.

Sugarman brought up supporters of her fight against the new regulations: seven state residents who submitted public comment, gubernatorial candidate and former Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner, the Office of the New York Attorney General, good government groups Reinvent Albany and Rochester for All, five members of the former Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption, three District Attorneys, and attorney Milton Williams.

“Gutting the Enforcement Counsel’s authority and independence will only serve to encourage more corruption in New York,” Attorney General Barbara Underwood said in a statement. “Our partnership with a strong, independent Enforcement Counsel has allowed us to hold public officials to account for breaking campaign finance laws and cheating New Yorkers. With today’s vote, that work is jeopardized by potential political interference in law enforcement investigations.”

Governor Cuomo, too, opposed the new regulations, expressing his opinion just before the board meeting, though it had been sought for weeks.

“‎We reviewed these draft regulations and believe they are unnecessary and ‎could harm the operations and the independence of the enforcement counsel's office,” Cuomo spokesperson Tyrone Stevens said in a statement on Wednesday morning. “We don't support their adoption and, believe that today's vote should be delayed and members should go back to the drawing board to address these concerns. The Democratic members of the Board of Elections have been informed of our stance."

Spokespeople for Democratic Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Republican Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan did not respond to requests for comment.

The enforcement counsel was created to independently deliberate election law violations, instead of leaving the job to the partisan board of elections. After Cuomo faced intense controversy for his shuttering of the Moreland Commission, interpreted by many as a reaction to investigations into his administration or people close to him, he and legislative leaders Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos (both now convicted of public corruption) fostered the creation of the enforcement counsel as a compromise.

Regardless, the members of the board criticized Sugarman, saying that her office was inadequately enforcing campaign finance law. Douglas Kellner, the Democratic co-chair of the board, said that enforcement had “effectively stopped” since 2014, the year the enforcement counsel was created, in the areas of deficiencies and non-filings of campaign finance disclosures.

Kellner and other board members said that despite thousands of referrals to Sugarman, only a few dozen hearings had been commenced.

“It’s beyond me why there has not been public outrage at the fact that this has happened,” Kellner said, singling out good government groups for a lack of criticism. Kellner said that he had spoken to good government groups who were in support of the new rule, but did not say which ones.

"I think it's pretty clear that I'm fed up with the current process of the enforcement unit,” Kellner said. “I call upon people in the good government groups...to look at the numbers. Look at the numbers of non-filers, and to how enforcement counsel has handled those non-filers."

One of those government reform groups, Reinvent Albany, issued a statement Wednesday expressing opposition to “the sections of the proposed rules which create new procedures for the chief enforcement counsel to issue subpoenas to persons and committees being investigated for violations of Election or other laws.”

“We believe these procedures will slow or terminate important investigations of alleged violations of Election Law,” the statement continues. “The Board should not seek to undercut the independence of the chief enforcement counsel, who has investigated types of cases not previously taken on by the Election Law enforcement unit of the Board.”

Reinvent Albany supports, however, “the sections related to reporting enforcement activity but believe reporting should be made public and expanded to include all aspects of compliance and

enforcement by the State and county boards of election. The Board currently does not report much, if any, compliance and enforcement activity to the general public, and it should do so as is done by other state agencies while respecting the rights of the accused.”

Republican co-chair Peter Kosinski said that the six-month timetable was necessary in order for voters to know who they were voting for, and whether they had not committed election law violations; Sugarman had earlier said that the timeframe was “arbitrary.”

However, Rockland County District Attorney Thomas Zugibe, who submitted testimony against the new rule, said in an op-ed for loHud in July that board members had admitted in 2013 to only undertaking a single probe in the preceding four years. According to the 2015 Board of Elections annual report, Sugarman received board authorization to seek subpoenas in 19 probes in 2015, with nine cases being referred for possible prosecution. The 2017 report noted that Sugarman had received subpoena authorization in four cases and referred one for prosecution.

The 2013 annual report, before the enforcement counsel position was created, lists no subpoenas or prosecutions.

The board also voted on Wednesday to implement new regulations on political advertising on social media platforms, rules that follow the adoption of a new law passed in this year’s state budget. The new rules will ban foreign entities from purchasing digital ads on social media platforms, and will require ad buyers to register an independent expenditure committee; the board will require that IE’s name be displayed prominently on the ad, as having paid for it.

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by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

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State Board of Elections Curtails Power of Enforcement Counsel Wed, 08 Aug 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Attention Shifts to Assembly Hesitation on Accountability Bills Opposed by Cuomo http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7718-attention-shifts-to-assembly-hesitation-on-accountability-bills-opposed-by-cuomo http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7718-attention-shifts-to-assembly-hesitation-on-accountability-bills-opposed-by-cuomo govcuomo speakerheastie

Speaker Heastie, left, and Governor Cuomo (photo via the Governor's Office)


Amid open conflict with Governor Andrew Cuomo, a second-term Democrat, the Republican-controlled state Senate recently passed a package of bills aimed at shedding light on taxpayer-funded economic development projects, among other reform measures. The move helped reignite attention on the legislation and put pressure on the Democrat-led Assembly to pass bills it has previously supported.

The legislation includes the Procurement Integrity Act, which would restore the state comptroller’s power to review contracts before they are officially awarded, and the “database of deals” bill, which would create a public catalogue of economic development awards and their results. Such grants run into hundreds of millions of dollars in public funds, though they are often largely hidden from the public and have been at the center of recent corruption charges.

Assembly support for the measures was strong enough that earlier this year they were included in the chamber’s one-house budget, as they were in the Senate’s, though they were not included in the enacted state budget after negotiations among the Assembly, Senate, and governor.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie praised the Procurement Integrity Act last year, saying, “Another set of eyes will make people feel better that, yes, things are done correctly.”

However, the bill hasn’t made it out of the Assembly’s Government Operations Committee -- even though the committee’s chair, Assemblymember Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Democrat from Buffalo, is the very lawmaker sponsoring the legislation. The bill has 37 co-sponsors in the 150-seat Assembly.

And as the June 20 scheduled end of legislative session approaches, the “database of deals” bill is stalled in the Assembly’s Ways and Means Committee, chaired by Democrat Helene Weinstein of Brooklyn. That bill has 34 co-sponsors.

The reason for the hold-up? Advocates for the legislation are pointing at Cuomo, and his influence over Heastie.

“The speaker is jamming the bills because the governor wants him to,” said John Kaehny, executive director of government watchdog Reinvent Albany. “If those bills went to the floor of the Assembly, they would pass overwhelmingly.”

Assemblymember Robin Schimminger, a Democrat and main sponsor of the “database of deals” bill, echoed Kaehny’s comments.

“The governor does not want this bill moved,” the Buffalo-area representative told Gotham Gazette. “The question is, do Chair Weinstein and Speaker Heastie -- are they going to do the right thing or are they going to roll over and not move?”

Weinstein’s, Peoples-Stokes’, and Heastie’s offices did not respond to requests for comment. Questions around the bills, and whether Heastie and Assembly Democrats are willing to cross Cuomo, come as Democrats have a relatively recent “unity” pledge and coordinated campaign effort ahead of the fall elections.

The economic transparency legislation is seen by many as essential after corruption indictments centering on some of the governor’s most vaunted development programs.

Federal indictments in 2016 depicted a “pay-to-play” culture in which members of Cuomo’s inner circle received bribes or other perks in exchange for lucrative state contracts and special treatment meted out to developers in secret. Longtime Cuomo government aide and campaign manager Joseph Percoco was convicted of fraud and soliciting bribes in March. Former SUNY Polytechnic President Alain Kaloyeros heads to trial later this month for allegedly helping rig multimillion-dollar contracts.

Both the Procurement Integrity Act (S.3984/A.6355) and “database of deals” bill (S.6613/A.8175) aim to address perceived flaws in how Cuomo has overseen funding allocations. The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment for this article. Cuomo has in the past dismissed calls to restore the comptroller’s pre-clearance authority on the applicable state-funded contracts, which was stripped from the office during Cuomo’s first years as governor.

The projects Kaloyeros helped oversee, including a $750-million solar panel factory in Buffalo, were tied to SUNY Polytechnic. While Kaloyeros was allegedly scheming to reward developers who had donated to Cuomo’s re-election campaign, the state comptroller had no insight into the process; the governor and legislative leaders took away his power to pre-audit all state contracts over $250,000, including for SUNY- and CUNY-affiliated non-profits, in 2011 and 2012.

The Procurement Integrity Act, introduced by Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, would restore that power.

"One of the reasons why folks thought they could get away with something is that they knew nobody was really looking, other than the people on the inside who turned out to be benefiting from this," DiNapoli told Syracuse.com last month.

The bill would also authorize the comptroller to approve SUNY Research Foundation contracts valued at over $1 million and would bar state-affiliated nonprofits from doling out contracts unless explicitly authorized by law. Such non-profits are at the center of the Percoco and Kaloyeros cases, with an entity called the Fort Schuyler Management Corporation awarding allegedly rigged bids.

Last year, Cuomo’s counsel told Gotham Gazette the clean-contracting legislation “does not address the issue.”

“The proposed legislation…is both burdensome and duplicative,” Alphonso David said. “The vast majority of these contracts are subject to OSC [Office of the State Comptroller] post-award oversight and these measures only add significant delays and increase costs for New York taxpayers.”

Still, basic information about the taxpayer-funded programs that Kaloyeros helped oversee, along with numerous other public-private projects, is not available to the public. The governor’s office publishes vague information about projects like the Computer Chip Commercialization Center in Utica, which has been variously described as generating 300 to 1,500 jobs and entailing investments from $100 million to $1.5 billion.

The “database of deals” would aim to fill in holes in public knowledge of such projects. It would list every taxpayer subsidy that corporations receive along with the number of jobs created and cost per job to taxpayers.

The Senate passed the “database” bill and the Procurement Integrity Act by votes of 62-0 and 60-2, respectively, on May 9. They were part of 11 total reform bills widely viewed as a snub to Cuomo, who fell out with the Senate’s Republican leadership amid political maneuvering in April.

“Because [Cuomo] went to war with the the Senate GOP, [Senate Majority Leader John] Flanagan put them up for a vote and -- no surprise to anybody -- they passed overwhelmingly,” Kaehny observed.

“It is imperative that the public trusts the actions of their public officials, especially when it comes to spending the people’s money,” Flanagan, of Long Island, said in a statement after the reform bills were approved. “This extensive package would help fix many of the issues that lead to corruption and the misuse of taxpayer funds.” While pressure from the Senate GOP is unlikely to sway Cuomo, recent weeks have seen the governor change his stance on a variety of issues in the face of the Democratic primary challenge from Cynthia Nixon. Observers have noted she’s pushed him left on policy like legalizing marijuana.

But while the actor and activist-turned-candidate has slammed Cuomo on corruption scandals in general, she is yet to make a cause of transparency and accountability reform legislation in particular.

Speaking on The Capitol Pressroom radio show on Monday, DiNapoli, a Democrat, voiced skepticism that the bills will pass the Assembly this session. Even if the Assembly approves the legislation, one of them -- the “database of deals” bill -- varies slightly from the Senate version and would have to be reconciled in conference.

“I’m the forever optimist, but it seems that the end of session is getting very bogged down and work’s not happening,” DiNapoli told host Susan Arbetter.

“My optimism is somewhat tempered by the seeming stalemate,” the comptroller added, referring to drama in the Senate. “At least, that’s how we ended last week. Let’s hope this week turns out a little differently.”

A number of advocacy and watchdog groups are organizing a final push for the “database of deals” and clean-contracting legislation, including a rally calling on Heastie to advance the bills on Thursday in Albany. Participants include Reinvent Albany, as well as Citizens Union, Common Cause NY,  League of Women Voters NYS, New York Public Interest Group (NYPRIG), and a variety of progressive advocacy organizations, such as Fiscal Policy Institute.

“There are many steps we should be taking, but the time is running out,” Assemblymember Schimminger said.

***
by Shant Shahrigianh, Gotham Gazette
      

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Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. ]]>
Attention Shifts to Assembly Hesitation on Accountability Bills Opposed by Cuomo Wed, 06 Jun 2018 04:00:00 +0000
City Council Considers Requiring More Reporting on Required Reporting http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7700-city-council-considers-requiring-more-reporting-on-required-reporting http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7700-city-council-considers-requiring-more-reporting-on-required-reporting City Council Cabrera Vallone

CMs Cabrera, left, and Vallone (photo: Emil Cohen/City Council)


How does the New York City Council check city government agencies without legislating agency operations, which it sometimes does not have the power to do? Reporting bills.

The Council often passes legislation that requires an agency under the direction of the mayor to produce a report, like Local Law 47, which compels the NYPD to compile data on subway fare-beating arrests. This bill, and the NYPD’s response, quickly became another flash point in tensions between city agencies and the Council, which has mandated oversight responsibilities along with its legislative powers.

The intention behind the bulk of reporting bills -- which, like other legislation passed by the Council, are typically signed into law by the mayor -- is more transparency into agencies that then allows both the public and Council members additional insight into government function, effectiveness, and efficiency, and indications of operational or budgetary reforms that may be needed. But, reporting bills can also be onerous, requiring valuable resources at city agencies mandated to compile information, and there are questions about how often required reports are even produced or used by the Council.

Now, a new bill at the Council is aimed at bringing additional oversight and transparency to the totality of required reporting -- but that bill itself is the source of disagreement. A recent hearing on the bill, which is sponsored by City Council Member Fernando Cabrera and would add new requirements for an online database of all required reports, saw discussion of the bill as well as the practice of passing reporting bills. The bill would add new information about when reports are due and put public pressure on city agencies to produce required reports.

According to the listing for the bill on the Council website, the bill would require the city’s Department of Records and Information Services, “which is currently required to receive and post all reports required to be produced by local law or executive order on its website, to list all required reports, when they were last received and when they are next due.” It would also require DORIS to send a request “to any agency that does not transmit a required report, and would require the posting of such request on the website in lieu of the required report until such report is received.”

At the April 26 hearing, representatives of the mayor’s office and the Department of Records and Information Services (DORIS) testified in opposition to the bill, which also received a lukewarm public reception from some City Council members.

The bill currently has the sponsorship of only Council Member Cabrera, who chairs the Committee on Governmental Operations, which held the hearing, at which other Council members voiced concerns over the Council’s tendency to pass reporting laws and whether or not such laws do more to inundate agencies than substantially help the Council or the public.

If enacted, the bill -- known as Intro. 828 -- would enhance the DORIS-run digital database of reports required by local laws, executive orders, or mayoral directives. Currently, DORIS maintains the Government Publications Portal; however, the scope of this portal is limited by a mandatory keyword search engine as well as the fact that it lacks some of the most recent reports from city agencies. For example, the portal does not provide any reports from the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) past the year 2014, despite reports being published as recently as this year.

Additionally, other recent reports by agencies such as the Department of Buildings, including those on gas utility risks or construction safety, or the Department of Criminal Justice, such as annual reports on jail population or crime rates, are similarly not accessible through the current portal.

DORIS and the Mayor’s Office of Operations cited unnecessary burden and premature planning as to why the bill should not be passed.

“With the continuous addition of legislated reports required of city agencies, we recognize the need to ensure strong administrative practices to support agency compliance,” said Emily Newman, the acting director of the Mayor’s Office of Operations, at the hearing last month. “However, we do not believe that Intro. 828 identifies the most effective approach and that it is not in the city’s best interest to mandate a new process in advance of any relevant recommendations of the Report and Advisory Board Review Commission.”

The Report and Advisory Board Review Commission, which reviews reporting requirements and assesses the usefulness of such reports, among other objectives, was set to reconvene this month. The last time the commission met was in 2012, despite the city charter mandating that it has annual public meetings.

“Intro. 828, as drafted, includes requirements that would be onerous for DORIS to undertake in real-time,” Pauline Toole, the DORIS commissioner, said at the City Council hearing. “Some agencies submit reports on a weekly basis, some monthly, some quarterly, and updating the list for each submission would require extensive resources and, ultimately, not provide the public with a worthwhile service.” Toole said DORIS currently updates the site on a “regular basis.”

Toole also cited an increase in the number of reports submitted to the government publications portal, where over 21,000 reports have been submitted to the current DORIS portal today, a jump from 7,000 reports submitted in 2014.

Both Toole and Newman reaffirmed a desire to work on another possible solution in concert with the City Council in order to update the accessibility of all governmental reports online. Meanwhile, other concerns were additionally raised by Council members.

“I am as big on transparency as anything, but when we make demands out of agencies to do their jobs in other ways, I do worry that we are adding in so much onto them that is unfunded,” Council Member Keith Powers said at the hearing. “You know, we don’t fund new staff for that.”

Council Member Kalman Yeger also raised the concern of finances by considering what the potential savings would be if DORIS had a smaller annual quota for reports it must make available, which, according to Toole, currently stands at about 400 reports per year. “I’m curious to know how much we can save the taxpayers if we perhaps were to stop legislating the various agencies of this city to prepare information that is probably readily available by simply asking the agency to give the information out,” Yeger said at the hearing.

Alex Camarda, a senior policy advisor for Reinvent Albany, a government reform group focused on increased transparency, testified in support of the bill at the hearing – albeit, with some tweaks.

While the bill currently says that DORIS would send a letter of request of transmission to agencies ten days prior to a report’s deadline, and subsequently post that request on the website until the actual report is submitted, Camarda suggested that such a letter should be sent at the beginning of the fiscal year and that a seperate column listing all the agencies that did not yet transmit a report be created. Other proposed amendments to the bill include identifying which part of the charter administrative code requires the report as well as providing a brief summary of the report in the online database.

“We think government generally needs to move away from providing information that’s locked in static PDF reports and report data in an open, usable and dynamic form,” said Camarda.

Council Member Cabrera’s office did not respond to multiple requests to discuss the hearing and any modifications that he might consider making to the bill.

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by Chelsey Sanchez, Gotham Gazette
@chelseynsanchez  @GothamGazette

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City Council Considers Requiring More Reporting on Required Reporting Tue, 29 May 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Charter Revision Commission Urged to Consider Tighter Donation Rules for City-Affiliated Nonprofits http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7654-charter-revision-commission-urged-to-consider-tighter-donation-rules-for-city-affiliated-nonprofits http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7654-charter-revision-commission-urged-to-consider-tighter-donation-rules-for-city-affiliated-nonprofits m bdb first lady chirlane

Mayor de Blasio & the Mayor's Fund (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayoral Photo Office)


A government reform group is urging Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Charter Revision Commission to explore stronger restrictions on donations to nonprofits affiliated with city agencies, building on a raft of laws passed through the New York City Council and signed by the mayor in 2016, which are set to go into effect next year.

Reinvent Albany, an organization focused on government transparency and accountability, is advocating for greater disclosure requirements and lower limits for donations made to city-affiliated nonprofits by entities and individuals who have contracts and other business with the city and appear on its “doing business” database. One of the most prominent examples of a city nonprofit is the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City, which carries out programming through public-private partnerships and raises millions in private funding to do so every year, and is currently chaired by de Blasio’s wife, First Lady Chirlane McCray.

Reinvent Albany will present its recommendations at a public hearing of the mayor’s Charter Revision Commission in Queens on Thursday.

The recommendations are an outgrowth of controversy involving several top elected officials and organizations, most recently in de Blasio’s first term, when he formed a nonprofit called the Campaign for One New York to help promote his political agenda, particularly his push for universal pre-kindergarten and a tax increase to fund it. The group accepted large donations from many wealthy donors and special interests, including labor unions and real estate developers, many of whom had business with the city and had also been backers of the mayor’s electoral campaign. At the time, electoral campaigns were far more restricted in donations they could accept from entities with city business -- no such limits applied to elected official-affiliated nonprofits.

Though it wasn’t required, the mayor disclosed the group’s donors voluntarily every six months. But, the entire scheme invited criticism, and its efforts helped trigger a federal investigation of the mayor and his associates. The investigation eventually closed without charges being filed, but de Blasio and his team were criticized by federal prosecutors as well as the city’s Campaign Finance Board.

In response, the City Council passed a bill to rein in donations to nonprofits affiliated with elected officials, bringing “doing business” donation limits in line with those that apply to electoral campaigns -- just $400 for mayoral candidates -- and putting those nonprofits under the jurisdiction of the Conflicts of Interest Board. In 2019, the COIB will start to issue detailed reports of such nonprofits, including their donors and how much they contributed. The bill, spearheaded by then-Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, was signed by de Blasio, who called it the right thing to do despite claiming he had done nothing illegal or unethical with the Campaign for One New York.

But the new rules do not cover nonprofits affiliated with city agencies, which, Reinvent Albany points out, number in the hundreds and currently have no “doing business” restrictions.

“We’re increasingly concerned about nonprofits that have existed for years affiliated with city agencies, and donors giving to these nonprofits and having business with those same city agencies,” said Alex Camarda, Reinvent Albany’s senior policy advisor, in a phone interview. The lack of regulation could create the “perception of undue influence, if not actual conflict,” he said. With the mayor having formed a Charter Revision Commission with the express mandate to look at campaign finance reform, the issue appears to be right up the commission’s alley, if not necessarily something de Blasio had in mind.

To close several holes, Reinvent Albany recommends that all donations to nonprofits affiliated with elected officials be capped. The law currently only applies the $400 doing-business cap to those nonprofits that spend more than 10 percent of their budget on public-facing communications featuring the elected official. Camarda said the limit could be higher, though he did not suggest a specific amount.

Further, as Camarda mentioned, the group is calling for expanding donation restrictions to all city agencies, public benefit corporations, public authorities, and local development corporations. “A company that does business with the city could give millions” toward a city agency under the current law, Camarda said. “That’s where we feel the [Council’s law] doesn’t go far enough.

The COIB requires that agencies report any private donations above $5,000 made either to the agency or to an affiliated nonprofit. Those donations are reported in broad ranges that obscure how much an agency has received. For instance, The Fund for Public Schools, a nonprofit tied to the Department of Education, reported more than $4 million in donations from May through September 2017, per the latest disclosures available, including exact donations though it was not required. Reinvent Albany is also pushing for disclosure of all donations in their exact amounts, and on the city’s Open Data portal to allow for easy data analysis.

Finally, the group is calling for the city’s ethics laws to apply to volunteers who are involved in major policy work and senior appointments and that are also fundraising for nonprofits affiliated with electeds. Though their testimony does not say so, the recommendation clearly alludes to First Lady McCray, who has played an increasingly prominent role in de Blasio’s administration, appearing with the mayor at major personnel announcements and continuing to roll out aspects of her main policy and program initiatives. In late 2016, amid investigations into the mayor’s administration, Politico New York reported that the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City was more thoroughly vetting donors to avoid potential conflicts. McCray recently told Gotham Gazette and City Limits that she does not worry much about conflicts given that lawyers handle those issues. The Fund provides assistance for programs at 30 city agencies and has played a prominent role in the administration’s ThriveNYC mental health initiative, which was spearheaded by McCray.

“We do not oppose per diem or unpaid volunteers serving on city boards, task forces and commissions, much like the members of this commission,” the Reinvent Albany testimony reads. “But they should not also be fundraising simultaneously for nonprofits affiliated with elected officials.”

The group acknowledged that there were nonetheless nonprofit organizations that may not be covered by any changes they recommend, such as organizations that receive large sums in city funding and whose board members are donors to city elected officials.

“Many of these nonprofits do important work that helps the city,” Camarda said. “We don’t want them to become avenues for companies and wealthy donors to circumvent the campaign finance system.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Charter Revision Commission Urged to Consider Tighter Donation Rules for City-Affiliated Nonprofits Thu, 03 May 2018 04:00:00 +0000
City Council Hears Bill on Charter Revision Commission http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7547-city-council-hears-bill-on-charter-revision-commission http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7547-city-council-hears-bill-on-charter-revision-commission Fernando Cabrera

Council Member Fernando Cabrera (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


A day after Mayor Bill de Blasio announced initial appointments to a Charter Revision Commission that he is convening to examine the city’s campaign finance laws, Public Advocate Letitia James and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer testified before the City Council on their own alternative proposal to create a Commission to examine the structure of city government.

The Charter is the city’s seminal governing document, laying out the powers and functions of every level of city government. It is also a living document, and state law allows the mayor to create a 15-member Charter Revision Commission under his executive authority and also gives the City Council power to create one through legislation. Past mayors have availed of this power, some more than once. In February, de Blasio announced at his State of the City address that he intended to call a commission that could put proposals on the ballot for the November general election.

On Friday, speaking before the Council’s Committee on Governmental Operations, James and Brewer advanced their proposal, which they had put before the Council in December and which City Council Speaker Corey Johnson recently signed on to as a lead co-sponsor. (The hearing had been on the schedule all week, perhaps explaining the timing of the mayor’s Thursday announcement.)

As opposed to the mayor’s commission, where he appoints all 15 members, the James-Brewer bill would allow other elected officials a say in the process. The mayor would get four appointments, as would the City Council speaker. The five borough presidents, the public advocate, and the comptroller would each get to choose one member. An updated version of the bill grants the Council speaker the power to appoint the commission’s chair, a change that coincided with Johnson signing on as a co-sponsor and the Council pushing ahead with Friday’s hearing.

James, in her opening statement, lauded the mayor’s intent in creating a commission but said it suffers from the same problems as previous commissions: “predetermined conclusions, a narrow focus on issues within Council authority, and a timeline far too tight to do the job right.” During his State of the City and since, de Blasio has indicated he wants his commission to focus on campaign finance and electoral reform, though he has acknowledged that by law the commission can look at the entirety of the charter.

“The bill you will consider today...is a vehicle for a truly democratic and holistic process,” James said. Although both James and Brewer spoke of changes to the charter that they would be glad to see -- for instance, a stronger role for the Council in city budgeting, a greater voice for communities in land use decisions, enhanced oversight of city agencies -- they emphasized that those were not mandates that their proposed commission would be charged with. (Perhaps the only issue that James said she would not want on the table is changes to term limits for elected officials.) Rather, they would empower a commission to deliberate on the entire charter with ample time to consider the ramifications of any changes -- their commission would make proposals to go on the ballot in 2019.

“Those discussions will not be had if the mayor simply appoints a slate of proxies and tells them what conclusions to reach,” said James, a Democrat like de Blasio, Brewer, and Johnson who is widely expected to run for mayor in 2021.

James and Brewer also sought to dispel the notion that the commission they are proposing would competing with the mayor’s, pointing to the 2019 timeline and noting that they invited the mayor to join their effort. “This does not need to be a zero-sum game, or even a competition,” James said.

Brewer, in particular, emphasized that past commissions had been formed by mayors to fulfil particular agendas and that appointees of the mayor were unlikely to consider proposals that could curb, in any way, the power of the mayor’s office. “I think all of our ideas would benefit from the give and take and compromise that would be necessary in a commission not controlled by any one elected official,” she said.

Council Member Fernando Cabrera, chair of the committee, praised the bill and said he supported it because it was a “far better approach” than the mayor’s. “It will be a charter revision for everyone,” said the Bronx Democrat.   

But, Council Member Kalman Yeger, who was just elected to the Council in November, wasn’t sure about the proposal. “My perspective is that I have some discomfort with outsourcing my work, if you will, to an unelected body of 15 people,” he said, noting that though the speaker may get appointments on a commission, the other 50 Council members would not. He also raised concerns about proposing ballot referenda in 2019, an off-year in the election cycle when voter turnout is expected to be extremely low.

James pushed back against those concerns. “I believe we should democratize this process,” she said, acknowledging that all the stakeholders in the commission would have to work hard to engage voters and generate interest in the revision process.

Yeger, a Brooklyn Democrat, also pointed out what is most ironic about the two commissions: that they are being proposed by Democrats who ardently opposed holding a Constitutional Convention to examine the state constitution, which was a question on the ballot last November. Both Brewer and James conceded that though they opposed the ConCon, as it was colloquially called, the charter revision process has sufficient checks and balances, particularly with diverse appointees on a commission.

James also noted that one of the big fears about the ConCon was about the individuals behind the curtain who would control it, which isn’t the case with their proposed commission. “There is no Wizard of Oz in this particular process,” she said. “It’s the Manhattan borough president and Letitia James, who you both know and work with.”

Representatives for the four other borough presidents also testified in support of the bill, as did a number of government reform groups and advocates.

Stanley Fritz, campaigns manager at Citizen Action of New York, encouraged the Council to set aside funds for a public education campaign to engage voters in the charter revision process. The bill currently calls for the Commission to hold at least one hearing in each of the five boroughs and to conduct extensive outreach to civic and community leaders.

Fritz also advocated for amending the bill’s prohibition on appointing lobbyists to the commission, insisting that it should ensure that only lobbyists employed by for-profit entities should be barred, and that those who advocate for non-profits should be allowed to serve. Otherwise, “it would exclude virtually the entire New York City good-government community, including the sorts of advocates who are testifying before you today,” he said.

Doug Muzzio, political science professor at Baruch College's School of Public and International Affairs, has also testified before an expert panel of the 2010 Charter Revision Commission created then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg. On Friday, he emphasized that any new commission should “articulate clear and compelling goals” related to broad subject areas such as governmental structure and land use, without which it would be directionless. He also said the commission should look at the unfinished business of past commissions, and “beware the unintended consequences,” though he didn’t offer specifics.

Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, said the bill was “skeletal” and should add language to ensure that staff of those elected officials making appointments should be excluded from working for the commission. She also questioned why Speaker Johnson would be allowed to appoint the chair of the proposed commission, as opposed to the commission members choosing their own leader.

Alex Camarda, senior policy advisor for Reinvent Albany, had a few prescriptions for a potential commission. He said the speaker and mayor should jointly appoint the chair of the commission;  and stressed that the commission should abide by the state’s Freedom of information and Open Meetings laws, and should require public posting of events, materials, reports and archives.

He also suggested that the bill include language requiring commission members and staff to solely use government emails to carry out their work and that any lobbying directed at the commission should be publicly reported.  

Camarda also encouraged the Council and mayor to work together on one commission, warning that two commissions could result in “conflicting policy, public confusion, excessive politicization, inefficiency, and litigation.”

“There is no doubt two commissions convened in the same year would be unprecedented in recent memory and create a high degree of uncertainty,” he said.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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City Council Hears Bill on Charter Revision Commission Fri, 16 Mar 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Sunlight for Subsidies http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/7542-sunlight-for-subsidies http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/7542-sunlight-for-subsidies andrew cuomo buffalo

Gov. Cuomo in Buffalo (photo via The Governor's Office)


New York State and local governments spend over $8 billion annually in taxpayer money, giving subsidies to businesses through tax abatements and credits, low or no interest loans, grants, and capital investments like building factories. Eight billion dollars could otherwise pay for the MTA Subway Action Plan in addition to the entire 5-year capital plan for New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA). Instead it is awarded to wealthy companies like Alcoa, IBM, Goldman Sachs, Tesla, Verizon and JP Morgan Chase.  

While spending billions, Governor Cuomo and Empire State Development have not acted on common-sense transparency measures that provide basic information taxpayers deserve to know: the types of benefits companies are receiving; the cost to taxpayers; and the number and cost of jobs created or retained.  

Their inaction comes as the governor’s former senior advisor Joe Percoco was convicted on three federal corruption counts, including solicitation of bribes, in the first of two trials involving the alleged rigging of contracts tied to upstate mega-development projects worth hundreds of millions of dollars in business subsidies.

New Yorkers deserve to know more about economic development money being spent, including where it is going and what the money is actually producing.

Democratic Assemblymember Robin Schimminger and Republic Senator Tom Croci have introduced legislation (A.8175/S.6613-B), which would create a “Database of Deals” listing all projects awarded to a particular company, detailing subsidies received, and what New Yorkers are receiving for their return on investment in the taxpayer cost per job. The bill passed out of committees in both houses last year but never made it to the floor for a vote.

The Assembly and Senate each included a similar proposal in one-house budget resolutions passed on Wednesday. Meanwhile, the New York City Council passed legislation in December codifying its own “Database of Deals” established by the city’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC.) EDC had already made economic development in New York City more transparent by publishing a map showing major projects and their essential data across the five boroughs.  

A state “Database of Deals” is fundamental transparency modeled on existing disclosure in numerous states of different political stripes including Florida, Maryland and Indiana. This reflects the near-unanimity on the need for greater transparency and accountability of business subsidies.

While states fervently compete to give taxpayer subsidies to the world’s wealthiest corporation, Amazon, for its second headquarters, the way in which public money is awarded is being challenged from the left and the right. Nationally, the progressive labor-backed Good Jobs First has long advocated for economic development accountability while the conservative Koch Foundation is seeking proposals to “identify and develop measures to provide transparency and accountability to corporate welfare.” In New York, groups as ideologically varied as the Working Families Party, Citizens Budget Commission, and Empire Center have questioned the state’s economic development practices.  

But Governor Cuomo need look no further than his own 2013 Tax Reform and Fairness Commission to understand the need for transparency and accountability of business subsidies.  In a report written for the commission entitled New York State Business Tax Credits: Analysis and Evaluation, the authors concluded, “There is, however, no conclusive evidence from research studies conducted since the mid-1950s to show that business tax incentives have an impact on net economic gains to the states above and beyond the level that would have been attained absent the incentives. In addition, business tax incentives violate principles of good tax policy and tenets of good budgeting.”

Despite the questioning of their efficacy, Governor Cuomo’s Executive Budget proposes over $2 billion in new spending and tax credits on business subsidies. Last year, the Assembly and Senate wrote the governor a blank check, increasing economic development spending without passing any legislation that would make the spending more transparent or measure the effectiveness of whether, and which, business subsidies work best.  

This year, Reinvent Albany and fiscal and transparency watchdog groups are urging the governor and Legislature to act on four measures to make taxpayer spending on business subsidies more transparent and accountable, including the “Database of Deals.”

They should act swiftly to restore the public trust, which has been battered by federal indictments and sordid accounts of insider dealing at trial.

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Alex Camarda is senior policy advisor for Reinvent Albany. On Twitter @alex_camarda and @ReinventAlbany.

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

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Sunlight for Subsidies Wed, 14 Mar 2018 04:00:00 +0000