Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/500 Tue, 22 Jan 2019 02:52:11 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Max & Murphy Podcast: Comptroller Scott Stringer http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8157-max-murphy-podcast-comptroller-scott-stringer http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8157-max-murphy-podcast-comptroller-scott-stringer mxm logo

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


December 19, 2018 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Comptroller Scott Stringer

wbai 12 19 scott stringerCity Comptroller Scott Stringer joined the show to discuss his new affordable housing plan, the work he did on a state compensation commission, the deal to bring Amazon to New York City, and more.

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

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Max & Murphy Podcast: Comptroller Scott Stringer Wed, 19 Dec 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Agenda 2019: City & State Budgets on Mostly Solid Ground, with Major Questions Looming http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8147-agenda-2019-city-state-budgets-on-mostly-solid-ground-with-major-questions-looming http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8147-agenda-2019-city-state-budgets-on-mostly-solid-ground-with-major-questions-looming Cuomo budget presentation

Gov. Cuomo (photo: The Governor's Office)


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

New York’s economy has seen several rosy years in the decade since the Great Recession, with a run of steady growth, increasing job numbers, rising wages, and reliable tax revenue that has defied historical trends -- and led to growing city and state government budgets. But 2019 may be the peak of that economic swing as economic experts predict a long-expected slowdown to set in before 2020. New York City, the experts say, seems better equipped to weather any adverse effects of slowing growth and the state may struggle, presenting some hard choices for Democrats who will fully control state government come January and have a long list of priorities, some of which have financial costs attached.

Also complicating the fiscal pictures as the state and city levels are projected budget gaps that must be closed, looming negotiations over how to fund the next MTA capital budget plan and its tens of billions of dollars to fix the subways, and the still unclear effects of recent federal tax reforms, among other outstanding questions. The finances of New York City continue to show a rosier picture than those of the state, with the city economy essential to the state’s ability to spend more each year, though the state has grown its budget in much more limited fashion than the city under Mayor Bill de Blasio.

In January, Governor Andrew Cuomo will present his State of the State address and executive budget for the fiscal year that begins April 1. Afterward, de Blasio will respond to the governor’s budget plan -- which will set the stage for negotiations with the state Legislature, de Blasio, and others -- and release his own preliminary budget for the next city fiscal year, which will begin July 1. Once the state budget is finalized, the city will be able to take its details -- funding levels, new mandates, and more -- into account as it creates its own budget. The specifics of the annual struggle over what the state is asking or requiring of the city are to be seen, though Cuomo has already indicated he plans to seek more money for the MTA from de Blasio.

Budgets are statements of values as much as they are financial planning documents and Cuomo and de Blasio, both Democrats, face pressure each year to balance their policy priorities with fiscal restraint, as well as the demands of others, especially members of the respective legislative bodies each must negotiate with. The governor prides himself on having passed eight on-time or nearly on-time budgets with a 2 percent cap on increased spending, though he is known to manipulate the numbers to say he has stuck to that limit even though some years he has not. De Blasio boasts of record amounts of savings, though watchdogs regularly say that he is not socking away enough given the extended economic boom while he is spending too much, especially in recurring costs like through a significant expansion of the city workforce.

The agreed upon state budget was more than $168 billion for the current 2019 fiscal year, with savings that are far too minimal according to every expert. And the mayor’s administration, though praised by fiscal monitors for its responsible financial planning, has overseen ballooning expenditures, passing a nearly $90 billion budget for fiscal 2019 -- it was $72.7 in the final year of the Bloomberg administration.

But New York City revenue is largely based on property taxes, which would remain relatively stable even in the event of an economic slowdown. The state on the other hand is far more vulnerable since personal income tax and sales tax contribute a bulk to state revenue.

Barring any unforeseen circumstances, the current economic expansion, the second-longest in the country’s history, will continue through most of 2019, bolstered by the federal tax cuts passed in 2017 (even if many New Yorkers’ tax burdens increase due to the new cap on state and local deductibles). It should allow both the state and the city to keep spending, though experts warn that both should prepare for what will happen down the line. Both the Cuomo and de Blasio administrations, along with the state Legislature and City Council, respectively, should be putting more money towards rainy day funds, fiscal experts say; particularly the state, especially as necessary infrastructure investments loom large and add to already rising debt obligations.

New York State
The state budget remains far more precariously placed in the case of a downturn, even though one isn’t expected to hit soon. The governor has reiterated in recent months that he will continue to abide by a self-imposed 2 percent limit on increased annual expenditures, which presents little wiggle room to add major spending initiatives, though it remains to be seen if the governor will employ one of his many budget maneuvers to obscure actual spending increases. For instance, the State Fiscal Year 2019 budget, which began April 1, included a provision that funnels Payroll Mobility Tax revenue directly to the MTA instead of going through the state, effectively shifting $1.5 billion out of the budget.

“Part of the problem is they’ve technically abided by it but they’ve only done that by shifting things around and reclassifying things, not necessarily through stringent cost controls,” said David Friedfel, director of state studies at Citizens Budget Commission, a nonprofit watchdog. “The more they play those tricks, the harder they will be to find in the future if that’s how they choose to close the gap.”

The New York State Division of Budget’s mid-year financial update, released in November, predicted that the state will meet its revenue projections by the end of the fiscal year. Even at the state level, budget gaps remain manageable, at about $3.1 billion for fiscal year 2020, a number that is quickly cut if the 2 percent growth is factored in.

State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli released his own financial update in November, estimating that overall tax revenues would decrease by 1.8 percent by the end of the state’s 2019 fiscal year (end of March). Though personal income tax revenues are expected to fall by 2.5 percent, business and consumption taxes are set to increase by a total of 6.5 percent, the report estimated. Tax revenues are expected to increase by 5.9 in the 2020 fiscal year and then at a lower rate, 2.4 percent in the 2021 fiscal year.

Similar to city representatives, officials in DiNapoli’s office said in a background briefing that they expect a soft landing for the economy, despite the volatility in national and international markets. They have yet to determine the full impacts of the federal tax code overhaul, which capped State and Local Tax (SALT) deductions at $10,000 annually, raising concerns that high earners facing larger tax bills would in some cases fold to out-migration pressures, leaving the state and taking their tax dollars with them. Given New York’s position as a high-tax state, even many upper middle class homeowners in expensive New York City suburbs, and in the city itself, will be facing increased tax burdens, though it is not immediately clear that these factors will lead to a significant increase in the number of higher earners leaving the state. New York has consistently seen out-migration each year and has lost a net of 1 million residents since 2010, according to The Empire Center, a think tank. A report issued by the center in March suggested that the state should undertake several reforms to encourage the economic competitiveness which could help reverse that trend.

The state took measures to decouple state tax provisions from the federal tax code, including decoupling from the SALT limit to prevent higher state taxes, and changes to the child tax credit and the single filer deduction. The state also created two new programs -- the Employer Compensation Expense Program and the State Charitable Gifts Trust Fund -- in an effort to limit state taxpayers’ exposure to federal tax changes, but neither program appears to have caught on in any significant way. Officials in the state comptroller’s office said the impacts of the SALT deduction in particular wouldn’t be evident until during next fiscal year, particularly if it encourages people to move out of state.

Other risks in federal funding to the state seen in recent years -- Republican proposals to repeal the Affordable Care Act and make drastic cuts to Medicaid -- have also mitigated, the officials said, since those proposals have failed to come to fruition. But federal funding does remain uncertain as Congress is in the middle of negotiating the current federal budget with President Donald Trump, who has threatened a government shutdown if Congress does not approve funding for a wall along the southern border that he had promised Mexico would pay for. The ballooning federal deficit incurred from the Trump-led tax cuts have also increased pressure on federal spending, which could trickle down to the aid that New York receives for transportation, health care, and education, among other things.

“The state is in decent financial position but not when you consider the fact that we are nine years or so into an economic expansion,” CBC’s Friedfel said. “The state has been gifted with $12 billion in financial settlements and some additional revenues yet the state’s reserves are not where they should be or could be. They haven’t been added to in about four years. And liabilities are still out there.”

As Friedfel noted, the state’s rainy day funds stand at only about $2 billion, a pittance when looked at in the context of a downturn. In the case of a recession, Friedfel estimated, the state could face up to $50 billion in combined losses over a four-year period. “California is doing a very good job on their reserves. They’re gonna have close to 10 percent of state operating spending in their reserves, which is really what New York should be aiming for,” he said. “Instead of $2 billion, we should be closer to $10 billion.”

As with the city, the state’s debt also continues to rise, particularly with the governor having launched an ambitious infrastructure program that includes modernizing existing facilities and building new ones across the state, including bridges, airports and bus systems. The state’s debt service payments for fiscal year 2019 stood at $5.5 billion and are projected to rise to $6.6 billion in 2020. New York currently ranks second-highest in the country, behind California, in outstanding debt.

Year after year, DiNapoli has waved a red flag over the state’s debt obligations and officials in his office are keeping a close eye on whether those will increase in the upcoming year. There will be particularly pressing needs -- the MTA, NYCHA -- where the state will have to work with the city to fund large capital improvements. The current 2015-2019 MTA capital plan remains underfunded and the Fast Forward Plan, proposed by New York City Transit President Andy Byford to modernize the city’s subway and bus systems, may cost nearly $40 billion, with no plan proposed to pay for it in its entirety. A congestion pricing program for New York City has been embraced by the governor and many in the state Legislature as a funding stream, but even if implemented quickly and without carve-outs it would fall far short of meeting the goal.

“That’s one of the biggest questions,” said Gelinas from the Manhattan Institute, “especially if the economy continues to do well. How much does Governor Cuomo go after the city for MTA funding and in multiple billions of dollars...and does that cut into the city’s other priorities?”

IBO’s Lowenstein also echoed that concern. “The state has a great deal of leverage over the city and its own fiscal concerns and it would be unreasonable to expect these issues get resolved without city participation.”

Last time Cuomo and de Blasio negotiated the MTA capital plan, the governor successfully convinced the mayor to significantly increase city funds for the authority. Cuomo has repeatedly stated publicly in recent months that he will be pushing the city to pay “its fair share” for the MTA. De Blasio has called for an added tax on high-earners to provide dedicated funding for the MTA, a proposal that Cuomo has publicly mocked as fantasy on several occasions.

The state Legislature next year will also include several newly-elected Democrats who expressed support for increased education funding, per the Campaign for Fiscal Equity decision, which could add billions to the state budget. The state Board of Regents recently proposed a $2.1 billion increase in education funding for next year, which would be a significant jump from the current fiscal year’s increase.

New York already spends nearly twice the national average on per-pupil funding, said CBC’s Friedfel, but doesn’t necessarily allocate funding to the districts that need it most. CBC has argued for changing the key formula, known as Foundation Aid, noting that many wealthy districts receive it despite already spending more than the national average and more than the already-high state average by leveraging local tax dollars.

Another open question is what the state will do with about $900 million in unspent or unallocated one-time funds from Extraordinary Monetary Settlements, recovered from the financial industry in the wake of the 2008-09 market crash. Since state fiscal year 2015, the state has received nearly $11.2 billion in those settlements.

Though the governor has repeatedly said he will divert those funds to capital investments, and he mostly has, he has also used them for budget balancing purposes, DiNapoli’s office noted.

“The governor should be putting much more money of any one-time revenue sources aside for the MTA, things like court settlements or just better-than-expected revenues,” Gelinas said, noting the dire need to fund the transit agency. “We haven’t put enough of that money aside for the MTA.” Cuomo has, on the other hand, dedicated financial settlement money to his signature infrastructure projects, like the new Mario M. Cuomo Bridge.

Unlikely to impact the next state budget, but certainly on the negotiating table in the new legislative year, is the push to revolutionize how New York provides health insurance and health care. Several legislators, long-time and newly elected, are pushing for the New York Health Act, which would establish a single-payer health care system in the state and could cost nearly $140 billion in additional state expenditure by 2022, according to a RAND Corporation study. Though the act could reduce total health care spending by 3 percent by 2031, the study found. Cuomo has said he supports a single-payer system, but has insisted that it should be implemented by the federal government rather than the state, and said that he does not see it make fiscal sense for New York.

New York already has one of the largest Medicaid programs in the country, comprising a huge chunk of the state budget (education and Medicaid are the two biggest spending programs). But enrollment has been relatively flat over the last three years. If that trend continues, Friedfel said, the state could find more savings in the budget.

Friedfel also noted at least one development on the horizon that could have a significant impact on state tax revenue. “The million pound gorilla in the room is what’s gonna happen with the state’s millionaire’s tax,” Friedfel said. The tax is due to expire on December 31, 2019, and though prominent elected officials have called for extending, and even expanding, the program, CBC’s position is that it should be allowed to sunset to help with the state’s economic competitiveness and to keep high-earners from leaving because of the SALT deduction cap.

While Cuomo has overseen its repeated extension and he has dismissed calls to expand it, during the recent election cycle he was mum about what he wants to do with the current millionaire’s tax.

New York City
The city released its latest budget modification in November, revising spending up by $1.4 billion, for a total of $90.56 billion for the 2019 fiscal year, which ends June 30. That marks a high point for city spending, and an $18 billion increase from before de Blasio came to power in 2014. The city’s Office of Management and Budget projects a manageable $3.17 billion budget gap -- the difference between expected revenues and projected expenditures -- for the 2020 fiscal year starting July 1. OMB expects that gap to rise to $3.36 billion for fiscal year 2022, the end of the current four-year financial plan period, by when expenditures are projected to reach a whopping $99.6 billion.

As City Comptroller Scott Stringer noted in his latest financial report released on Friday, OMB tends to issue more conservative estimates of revenues in upcoming years, allowing the administration more leeway to adjust spending. Stringer’s report estimates the budget gap to be lower, about $2.6 billion in FY2019 and $2.8 billion in FY2022.  

“We’ve come out of a run of a number of years of good economic conditions and good fiscal conditions here in the city...but we’re not seeing anything in the numbers that suggests it’s going to end anytime soon,” said Ronnie Lowenstein, director of the Independent Budget Office, a nonpartisan city-funded agency.

In a background briefing, an official at Comptroller Stringer’s office acknowledged that there’s significant uncertainty, with even the Federal Reserve appearing divided about where the economy is heading. There are mixed signals in the market -- unemployment is markedly low which should lead to higher inflation, but hasn’t.

But the comptroller’s office is cautiously optimistic and no economist currently projects a recession -- though one is never out of the question -- but rather a return to a slower rate of growth by the time 2020 rolls around.

“[We’re] expecting a great deal more softness in economic growth,” said IBO’s Lowenstein. “Not a recession but a much softer U.S. economy. And as far as the local economy’s concerned, we’ve already begun to see the weakening.” She pointed to the drop in job growth over the last few months and also noted that though the job market has diversified with more jobs created outside the financial industry than before the last recession, most of the new jobs have been in lower-paying industries.

But she said that slower growth won’t create out-of-control deficits. “We’re looking at gaps that are readily manageable, of the size that we’ve managed in the past,” she said.

The official from the comptroller’s office agreed that the city has the capacity to manage outyear budget gaps, particularly with a strong budget surplus each year that has allowed the city to maintain a healthy, if not optimal, level of reserves. The de Blasio administration put away added rainy day funds in the current fiscal year, responding to demands from the City Council. The result included a total of $1.25 billion in the general reserve, $4.35 billion in the Retiree Health Benefits Trust Fund, and $250 million in the capital stabilization reserve.

The city’s budget cushion has been increasing over the years and stood at about 11.2 percent at the start of the current fiscal year, though the comptroller has urged the administration to maintain levels between 12 and 18 percent, the lower range of which would have required more than $6.3 billion to hit the upper end.

agenda19v2 aThere are of course various risks that the city must manage. One big vulnerability, according to the official from the comptroller’s office, is the size of the city’s workforce, which has added more than 30,000 workers under de Blasio.

“If you look at the November budget update...the biggest issue is the increased expected spending on labor,” said Nicole Gelinas, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a think tank. She noted that the report increased the labor reserve for fiscal year 2020 by $704 million, for 2021 by nearly $1 billion and for 2022 by about $1.4 billion.

“It just shows that these labor agreements that the mayor is making with the unions are costing a little bit more money than expected,” she said. “So the basic story is if the economy keeps doing well, we can probably squeak by with balancing next year’s budget...but if the economy does fall into a recession, with the higher labor costs making these deficits a little bit bigger over the next few years, they would pose a bigger problem for the city.”

Gelinas said the city must take aggressive cost-cutting measures in labor agreements, particularly health care spending, to help avert layoffs and service cuts in the case of a recession. “Longterm, health care savings have to be much more aggressive,” she said. “The healthcare fringe benefit budget for the upcoming fiscal year will be almost $11.5 billion and it’s continuing to rise. It’s going to $12.5 billion by the end of the financial plan.”

“No mayor has ever gotten through two terms without a recession,” she added on the eve of de Blasio’s sixth year in office.

The city’s debt obligations have also been rising, owing to a massive capital program, which pays for building and maintaining the city’s infrastructure such as roads, parks, schools, and libraries.

“Debt service is one of the two big sources of growth in city spending,” said IBO’s Lowenstein, referring to the annual debt payments that are included in the city’s expense budget. “It’s debt service and healthcare, and they’re both big and they’re both growing very fast.” Debt service -- which is accounted for in the city’s annual operating budget -- is budgeted at a total of $6.8 billion for fiscal year 2019, according to the November update, and is expected to rise to $8.3 billion by fiscal year 2022.

Unlike most other municipalities, New York City’s capital program is funded entirely through borrowing, incurring massive debt that must necessarily be paid off every year, which could pose problems in the long run. “It’s less that we can’t continue to pay the debt service on the commitments that we’ve made but rather that they’re crowding out other things that the city might want to do,” Lowenstein said. “And our ability to expand those capital commitments is not unlimited. Especially in an era when interest rates are rising.”

Rising debt service also gives the mayor and City Council “less leeway to budget for other things ranging from teachers to cops to road repair,” she said.

Stringer has repeatedly raised the issue of rising debt, though it’s not yet out of control. The rule of thumb for his office is that debt service should not exceed 15 percent of tax revenues, a level it is well below currently. And the City Council has also attempted to make changes to the mismanaged capital funding process, creating a new subcommittee this year dedicated to examining the capital budget, finding ways to make it more efficient and reducing cost overruns. Upcoming City Council budget hearings may indicate whether that subcommittee and its focus are having any real impact.

But there are big items that may add significantly to the city’s capital investments and therefore create an additional debt burden. Those include funding for the beleaguered New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) and the state-run Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). In both cases, the city may have no choice but to commit billions more dollars, particularly pending the outcome of negotiations with federal officials over NYCHA and with state officials over the MTA, for which the city typically kicks in significant capital funds.

“The city may not have choices so the speed with which this occurs may be out of our hands,” Lowenstein said.

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

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - This article has been updated to ntoe that the Capital Stabilization Reserve is $250 million, not $250 billion. 

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Agenda 2019: City & State Budgets on Mostly Solid Ground, with Major Questions Looming Sun, 16 Dec 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Secretive Amazon Deal Should Have Us Rethinking Subsidy Programs and More http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8137-secretive-amazon-deal-rethinking-subsidy-programs-scott-stringer http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8137-secretive-amazon-deal-rethinking-subsidy-programs-scott-stringer Stringer de Blasio press conference

Comptroller Stringer, the author, at a press conference (photo: NYCHA)


What if I told you that moving your business to New York City could land you $3 billion in subsidies? Even better, what if getting those billions didn’t even require publicly disclosing key information required to qualify for the money in the first place?

If that sounds like a great deal to you, you’re in good company because Amazon is taking advantage of secrecy and subsidies baked into our outdated system of tax incentives. We all know the Amazon deal to place a “headquarters” in Long Island City was negotiated in the dark, circumventing a comprehensive public review process and leaving an entire community with more questions than answers. Meanwhile, as residents grapple with strained infrastructure and skyrocketing home prices, one of the largest and most profitable companies in the world will receive nothing short of a taxpayer-funded entitlement program.

The total package could approach nearly $3 billion when state and city benefits are included -- with an unprecedented $1.3 billion in city incentives alone. The Amazon deal has made it abundantly clear that many aspects of our current tax incentive programs – two in particular – need to be more closely scrutinized, changed or eliminated.

First, let’s take a look at the city’s Relocation and Employment Assistance Program, or REAP, which was originally designed to help attract employment outside of Manhattan’s business core. Amazon stands to receive some $900 million in tax credits for bringing its employees to Long Island City under REAP. To put this into perspective, REAP benefits totaled $32 million last year to 205 firms – but because there’s no cap on the program, Amazon alone stands to gain an unprecedented $75 million per year. In fact, REAP doesn’t just lower Amazon’s tax bill – because it’s a refundable tax credit, the city might actually have to cut a substantial refund check to Amazon.

Also, because REAP doesn’t require recipients to meet performance goals, Amazon can still receive benefits regardless of whether it eventually hires the 25,000 it promised, or just 25; or pays its employees an average of $150,000 as promised, or just $30,000.

Lost in the discussion is that our economy is already doing the work of REAP. Indeed, from 2007 to 2017, 83 percent of new jobs in New York City were outside of Manhattan, raising the question of whether the REAP program is needed in a city where businesses are already spreading across the five boroughs on their own.

Second, we need to pay close attention to the other benefit offered to Amazon, the Industrial and Commercial Abatement Program, or ICAP, which offers tax subsidies to companies that renovate or build on properties in boroughs outside of Manhattan to spur economic development. That may have sounded like a great idea when ICAP’s predecessor was originally launched in 1984, but today, at a time when Long Island City is booming, Amazon could benefit from nearly $400 million in property tax abatements for constructing its new “headquarters” in the neighborhood.

What’s worse, programs like REAP and ICAP are “as-of-right,” which means there’s no discretion in determining eligibility. If you check the boxes, you get the benefit – whether you’re a startup in need of help or Amazon, which is valued at $1 trillion.

The final insult in all of this is that there is little to no publicly available information on the particulars of these deals. In the absence of real detail, it’s impossible to do any serious evaluation of the effectiveness of these programs in the neighborhoods they are supposed to lift up. How can we determine if future incentives are a responsible investment if we do not know who received the benefit, how much they received, or if the subsidy even helped create new jobs? It’s a fiscal black hole.

We need legislation that answers these questions by requiring companies to waive their rights to privacy regarding the terms of deals in exchange for receiving benefits. It’s the right thing to do, and it’s not without precedent – the city’s Industrial Development Authority, which provides low-cost financing and other benefits, already requires this of its beneficiaries. And like those agreements, the details of REAP and ICAP deals should be reported annually.

Would Amazon have come to New York without the benefit of REAP and ICAP? Clearly, New York City was at the top of Amazon’s list, regardless of the subsidies. But we cannot allow Amazon to be the only winner amid such great need, whether it’s the residents of Queensbridge Houses, seniors struggling to stay in the neighborhood, or local kids yearning to gain the skills that Amazon professes to value.

It’s time we re-evaluate these programs and stop doling out billions of tax dollars without knowing what we’re getting in return. Instead we should focus our resources in ways that actually serve to improve the lives of the New Yorkers and not as a handout for wealthy corporations. Above all, New York City taxpayers deserve transparency and accountability for the use of their money, and it’s a price any employer – including Amazon – should be willing to pay to do business in New York.

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Scott Stringer is the New York City Comptroller. On Twitter @NYCComptroller.

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

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Secretive Amazon Deal Should Have Us Rethinking Subsidy Programs and More Tue, 11 Dec 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Criticizing De Blasio's Approach, Stringer Releases Alternative Affordable Housing Plan http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8111-criticizing-de-blasio-s-approach-stringer-releases-alternative-affordable-housing-plan http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8111-criticizing-de-blasio-s-approach-stringer-releases-alternative-affordable-housing-plan stringer housing presser1

Comptroller Stringer (photo: @NYCComptroller)


City Comptroller Scott Stringer unveiled an ambitious plan on Thursday to address New York’s affordable housing crisis, criticizing Mayor Bill de Blasio for not doing enough and calling for investment of hundreds of millions of dollars in additional funds, increasing the share of affordable housing units for homeless and very low income people, and funding it by shifting tax burdens towards the wealthiest New York homeowners.

The plan, entitled “NYC For All: The Housing We Need,” is intended, Stringer said, to address issues with the affordable housing program embraced by not only the de Blasio administration, but administrations going back to the days of Mayor Ed Koch. Stringer characterized the proposal as a “war on poverty.”

“I believe it's time to change our approach,” Stringer said at a press conference announcing the plan. “We need to break the mold.”

Stringer noted that despite New York’s record number of jobs, low unemployment, and high population, the city’s aging housing stock has not kept up with demand, and rents have consequently risen in price dramatically, particularly in the past ten years. Most left behind, Stringer explained, are extremely and very low-income New Yorkers who face severe housing pressure, numbering 515,000 people, according to an analysis by his office, who are severely rent-burdened, meaning they pay more than 50 percent of their income in rent.

“Behind the numbers are real people,” Stringer said. “They’re actually working New Yorkers. The home health aides for our aging parents, the cashier at the local supermarket, the person who empties the trash and vacuums the office floors late at night. People we see and rely on every day.”

According to the report released on Thursday, the majority of units under de Blasio’s 300,000-unit affordable housing plan are being allocated for households with incomes of up to $75,120, which is categorized as “low-income” by the Stringer report, while far fewer units are allocated to very low and extremely low-income households. Extremely low-income households, which are characterized as those making less than $28,170 per year, are allocated about the same number of units under the plan as “middle-income” households, where household income reaches up to $154,935.

The report notes that this allocation does not accurately represent those who are actually in need of affordable housing, the main thrust of Stringer’s argument that the city’s plan is not appropriately calibrated to need, a point he and a variety of other elected officials and advocates have stressed for years but de Blasio has regularly challenged, saying he believes the plan must include segments for a broad spectrum of New Yorkers looking for affordable places to live.

The 515,000 extremely and very low-income households who are severely rent-burdened represent the vast majority of the 580,000 households citywide that are severely rent burdened or living long term in a shelter. However, only 75,000 units, or 25 percent of the proposed units under the de Blasio plan, are intended for those households.

“The current plan is simply out of line with where we need to build,” Stringer said.

To ameliorate the problem, Stringer’s plan calls for $500 million in additional annual funding for extremely and very low-income housing, including $375 million in capital costs and $125 million in operating subsidies. This would support the construction and maintenance of affordable units for the poorest New Yorkers, for whom construction is more expensive if landlords are going to charge lower rents.

The number of units would remain the same as under de Blasio’s Housing New York 2.0 Plan, which calls for building 120,000 new affordable units as part of the larger plan for 300,000 affordable units, most of which are those being “preserved” under affordable rent regulations. Stringer’s report noted that 34,000 apartments were already completed or are underway, and 85,000 remain to be built. Under the Stringer plan, 98 percent of those 85,000 units would be constructed as deeply affordable.

The plan also calls for tripling the number of units set aside in the Housing New York plan for homeless New Yorkers, from 5 percent to 15 percent, echoing a push by homeless advocates and a recent City Council bill introduced by Council Member Rafael Salamanca of the Bronx; and applying that percentage to both new construction and preserved units. Stringer cited statistics from the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), stating that the city has not even met its 5 percent stated goal, with only 1 percent of units allocated to homeless families.

“Mayor Koch, as our research showed, set aside just 10 percent of units in his housing plan for the homeless,” Stringer said. “And the shelter population went down by more than a third in just three years. We can do that again.”

De Blasio has repeatedly opposed such calls, including when recently challenged by a homeless woman, who is an activist with Vocal New York, at his gym and on the radio.

Stringer’s plan also calls for at least 20,000 additional units to be developed on 600 plots of vacant, city-owned land by community land trusts or land banks controlled by non-profit entities.

To pay for these reforms, Stringer is proposing a sweeping change to the city’s property tax system that he says would increase annual city tax revenues by $400 million, through a more progressive tax system that raises rates on wealthy homeowners and eliminates a “double tax” on the middle class.

His plan would involve scrapping the “mortgage recording tax,” which Stringer characterized as being an extra tax on middle class homeowners.

“This system is patently unfair,” Stringer said. “It’s a penalty on the middle class who can’t pay all cash to buy a home.”

The current property tax scheme provides for both a tax on the cost of the transaction, and a tax on the value of the mortgage, with three brackets: under $500,000, between $500,000 and $1 million, and over $1 million. This system favors those who purchase apartments in cash, who tend to be wealthier and buy more expensive units, and do not have to pay the mortgage tax. Under the system, middle class homeowners often pay more than wealthy condo owners.

Stringer noted that in 2016, 80 percent of condo sales and 90 percent of townhouse sales in Manhattan were all-cash deals. Those cash deals escaped being subject to the MRT. The greater percentage of a transaction that is financed with borrowed money, the higher the tax incidence, putting a greater burden on buyers without the resources to do a cash deal.

While ditching the MRT, Stringer proposes creating a more graduated, progressive taxation system based only on the value of the transaction, taking into account high prices of some real estate by upping the top echelon from $1 million to $10 million. For properties over $10 million, the tax rate would be increased to 8 percent. Below $500,000, the rate would be 1 percent. Stringer hopes that, beyond funding affordable housing, the reformed tax structure could help encourage more middle- and working-class homeownership in the city.

The tax reforms would have to be approved by Albany. Stringer, who is widely expected to run for mayor in 2021, said that the new Democratic majority of the state Senate set to take power in January means that the tax reform is, for the first time in a long time, a possibility.

“We are beginning the conversation with legislators,” he said in response to a question. “And they are going well. Again, I want to stress that the state of play has fundamentally changed, we all know it’s changed. I believe that, obviously there are priorities like renewing and strengthening the rent laws, and they have a lot on their plate, but this can get done now because we have like-minded people who understand the housing crisis.”

Getting the mayor on board with the plan may be a different story. Stringer said that de Blasio has recognized some issues with the housing plan, but noted that City Hall has not given a firm answer on certain things.

“He has recognized that the plan originally put forth was not meeting the needs of the people who need the housing the most,” Stringer said, referring to the fact that de Blasio has made some tweaks to the plan, even while resisting some of the other calls for more sweeping changes.

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by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

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Criticizing De Blasio's Approach, Stringer Releases Alternative Affordable Housing Plan Thu, 29 Nov 2018 05:00:00 +0000
De Blasio Pushes 'Yes' Vote on 3 Ballot Proposals http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8040-de-blasio-pushes-yes-vote-on-3-ballot-proposals http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8040-de-blasio-pushes-yes-vote-on-3-ballot-proposals de blasio 3 ballet

32BJ's Hector Figueroa, with Mayor de Blasio and others (photo: @32BJSEIU)


Mayor Bill de Blasio on Thursday continued his eleventh-hour push for the ballot proposals put forth by his Charter Revision Commission, with a rally at the headquarters of labor union 32BJ SEIU, where he was joined by other unions, elected officials, and advocates in favor of the three reforms that will appear on New York City voters’ ballots on Election Day.

De Blasio, who announced the commission in his 2018 State of the City address to examine and propose revisions to the city’s charter, characterizes the three proposals as ones that will strengthen democracy in New York City. Broadly speaking, though each has numerous accompanying details, the proposals are to lower individual campaign contribution limits and increase the public match ratio; create a civic engagement commission that would run a citywide participatory budgeting program and do other tasks to promote civic involvement; and, most controversially, term limits for community board members and other changes to the community board membership process.

After saying virtually nothing about them for weeks, the mayor has been on something of a last-minute whirlwind tour in favor of the proposals. On Sunday, the mayor stumped for them at two Manhattan churches. On Tuesday, he conducted a telephone town hall and published an op-ed in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle supporting the measures. He and his team have been urging allies, including Senator Bernie Sanders, to promote “yes” votes, and the mayor’s social media feeds have been promoting the measures and expressions of support for them.

The Thursday rally, backed by the “Democracy Yes” coalition of unions, advocates, good government groups, and community groups that support the proposals, is the latest in de Blasio’s campaign sweep through the city in favor of the charter revisions.

The mayor and the assembled crowd characterized the measures as a way to wrest control of the democratic process away from old, wealthy, white men and towards more democratic control and greater representation for young people, people of color, immigrants, and low-income people.

“If what young people hear from everyone else around them is, ‘wait your turn,’ that is not a way to create a healthier, stronger democracy,” de Blasio said, referencing opposition to the community board term limit proposal. Critics say term limits would lead to a brain drain on community boards to the benefit of real estate developers, though the real estate lobby itself is against term limits. The proposal would limit members to four consectuve two-year terms, but those term-limited from reapplying would only have to sit out one two-year term before being eligible for reappointment by their borough president.

The borough presidents, aside from Brooklyn’s Eric Adams, and Comptroller Scott Stringer (the former Manhattan borough president) have led the charge against Proposal 3.

“Our message needs to be the opposite,” the mayor continued.

“Imagine if the system was not rigged against everyday people, but actually strengthened the hand of everyday New Yorkers so we could lead our own city,” de Blasio said.

The Rev. Al Sharpton also spoke in favor of all three proposals, making racial justice arguments and calling the measures models for the country and bulwarks against voter suppression nationwide, invoking the memory of civil rights movement protesters.

“These measures that we’re voting in New York is what they fought for to give us the right to vote,” Sharpton said. “They did not fight, and some die, to give us the right to vote for only people with rich friends to be able to run for office.”

The city’s public campaign financing system, whereby the first or up to $175 of a donation is matched 6-to-1 by public dollars, is often considered a model for the nation for how to achieve sustainable public financing of campaigns. Proposal 1 would increase the match to 8-to-1, and match donations up to $250. It would also lower campaign contribution limits for all city offices. Advocates say that it would allow more people to run for office and lower prospective candidates’ reliance on wealthy people for funding.

“When we consider running for office, we encounter barriers so difficult to overcome, many feel defeated,” said Hercules Reid, the former student government president at the New York City College of Technology and current legislative director for the CUNY University Student Senate. “It is a herculean task trying to get elected in this city.”

“Barriers to office are real, and a real big one is that not a lot of us know a ton of rich people,” Reid continued. De Blasio later echoed this point, though the mayor has raised significant funds from large donors, both for his election campaigns and outside groups. It was fundraising for those outside groups -- nonprofit advocacy organizations -- that led to investigations of de Blasio and his associates that resulted in no criminal charges but sharp criticism from law enforcement leaders and good government advocates, among others, as well as new city laws meant to curb the type of fundraising de Blasio did.

The second ballot question would establish a “civic engagement commission” to increase participation in New York’s civic life, including voting. The mayor noted improving translation services at the polls as a particularly important item for the commission to take up, while City Council Member Brad Lander discussed increasing community engagement with and knowledge of community boards, PTAs, and other institutions. The most significant job of the commission, however, would be to expand participatory budgeting citywide.

Practiced in 31 of the 51 City Council districts this year, participatory budgeting allows community residents to suggest and vote on specific projects within their districts that they would like to fund with tax dollars allocated through the local Council member’s capital funds.

“A little over half the city now has it, but almost half does not, and most New Yorkers don’t yet know about it, because we’ve not been able to invest real citywide resources in it,” Lander said. “Participatory budgeting functions like a gateway drug to democracy.” Some projects funded in Lander’s district in the last cycle include replacing “derelict Kindergarten sinks at PS 282,” replacing a broken gate at the PS 118 schoolyard to make it accessible, and building a “playground” for seniors.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Comptroller Stringer both take issue with the civic engagement commission, which Stringer characterizes as a power grab by the mayor, who would appoint a majority of its members. Brewer, who has formed an independent expenditure committee in opposition to questions 2 and 3, asserts that the commission’s outreach and assistance efforts with community boards would be an encroachment by the mayor on a duty typically performed by borough presidents.

“A ‘Civic Engagement Commission’ controlled by any Mayor also puts communities at a disadvantage and won’t enhance democracy in our neighborhoods,” Stringer said in a statement released soon after the mayor’s rally. Asked for a response, de Blasio said that the commission’s structure as proposed is “organized for effectiveness” but didn’t elaborate, and noted that he supports a “professionalized” Board of Elections.

On the third and most controversial proposal, which is centered on term limits for community board members, the mayor and advocates claim that term limits have been successful for elected city officials, and instituting them for community boards would free up space for new voices where older and whiter ones than the communities they represent typically reign. The proposal would also require borough presidents to seek people of “diverse backgrounds” for appointments, to make the boards more accurately represent their communities, and provide more public information.

“If the door’s not open, that’s not democracy,” de Blasio said. “Community boards have to be for everyone, every community, every background, young, old, everyone needs a chance to serve. Term limits for community boards is simply the way of saying ‘let’s give everyone a chance to participate.’”

Opponents of term limits, such as Brewer and Stringer, have charged that an exodus of longtime, experienced community board members would cause both a brain drain and a diminution of influence on complex land use decisions, allowing developers to run roughshod over them.

“It would have the effect of allowing developers and their lawyers—who are never term limited!—to dominate development negotiations, because those long-time members will be gone,” Brewer wrote in an email to supporters in October signaling her opposition to Questions 2 and 3. “And on long-term city projects like street redesign or sustainability, newly-appointed community board members would have little influence over long-term projects. Every Board’s institutional memory would be wiped out.”

De Blasio did not buy the arguments. “I have term limits, my colleagues in the City Council have term limits, the President of the United States has term limits,” he said. “I think there’s something healthy about the notion that all public servants have an opportunity to turn over the reins once in a while.”

“Let’s say someone served for 20 years on their community board,” he continued. “Under this ballot measure, they will get to serve another eight years, they would take a two year break, and if they wanted to come back and there was a seat, they could have that seat. I think there will be plenty of institutional knowledge preserved. But honestly, what we’re missing right now is new voices, we’re missing diversity, we’re missing young people.”

Another charter revision commission, empaneled by the City Council through legislation pushed by Brewer and Public Advocate Letitia James, started while the mayor’s commission was underway and is working to produce its own ballot measures for 2019. The mayor told Gotham Gazette that the commissions are not rivaling each other, and that his office is working with the 2019 commission, on which he has several appointees.

Some issues were considered and rejected by the mayor’s commission, including independent redistricting of City Council districts and ranked-choice voting. The mayor told Gotham Gazette that he hopes the 2019 commission continues looking into ranked-choice voting, in particular.

“There was a very vibrant discussion in this charter revision commission, for example, about ranked-choice voting,” he 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 certainly 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. That’s the kind of thing that deserves a really thorough airing of all the facts.”

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by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

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De Blasio Pushes 'Yes' Vote on 3 Ballot Proposals Thu, 01 Nov 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Prominent Elected Officials Oppose De Blasio Charter Revision Proposals http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8026-prominent-elected-officials-oppose-de-blasio-charter-revision-proposals http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8026-prominent-elected-officials-oppose-de-blasio-charter-revision-proposals Mayor de Blasio

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read more by this writer.

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

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Prominent Elected Officials Oppose De Blasio Charter Revision Proposals Mon, 29 Oct 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Elected Officials Present Broad Proposals to 2019 Charter Revision Commission http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7990-elected-officials-present-broad-proposals-to-2019-charter-revision-commission http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7990-elected-officials-present-broad-proposals-to-2019-charter-revision-commission stringer charter testimony

Comptroller Stringer testifies at the 2019 Charter Revision Commission (photo: @NYCComptroller)


The charter revision commission created through New York City Council legislation concluded its first round of public hearings last month, receiving dozens of suggestions about improving the functions and structure of city government. Unlike the commission established by Mayor Bill de Blasio, which has three proposals on this November’s ballot, the Council-created commission is set to propose changes to the city’s central governing document via the 2019 election.

Among those who testified at the 2019 commission’s initial hearings were several elected officials who presented their own broad proposals that could significantly change how the city conducts its business and how those who hold power can wield it. They included City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, Comptroller Scott Stringer, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, Staten Island Borough President James Oddo, and several City Council members from the five boroughs.

Johnson -- who appointed the commission’s chair Gail Benjamin, the former head of the Council’s land use division, and three other members -- sees in the commission an opportunity to fix the balance of power in the city, which tilts toward the mayoralty and at times can diminish the oversight and accountability role played by the 51-member Council.

In testimony at the September 27 hearing held at City Hall, Johnson noted the Council’s limited ability to review mayoral appointees to head city agencies, and that the body cannot remove an agency head. He also suggested that the commission examine whether the budgets for certain offices “which are uncertain and subject to political considerations as opposed to substantive need, should be fixed or independently set.”

Johnson also recommended the commission look at the structure of the Law Department and the Corporation Counsel. “One lawyer attempting to serve two separate branches of government is an invitation for confusion and disruption and may not be in the best interests of the City,” his testimony reads, in reference to representation of both the executive and legislative branches of city government, an issue that has come to the fore as Council members have sought to join a lawsuit against the city’s property tax system.

Johnson is also pushing for changes to the city’s budget process to give the Council a greater voice and to tie budget allocations more closely to city programs, and also argued in favor of instant runoff voting, also known as ranked choice voting.

The most sweeping reforms that Johnson proposed, however, deal with the city’s land use process, which is almost always contentious and has been recently as Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has moved to rezone several neighborhoods -- mostly low-income, communities of color -- to increase density and create more affordable housing. Johnson and other members of the Council’s Progressive Caucus have advocated for a citywide planning framework that gives communities greater say in land use decisions and balances equity with development. They have also called for an independent City Planning Commission, as opposed to the one currently composed largely of mayoral appointees. Council Members Diana Ayala, who co-chairs the caucus, Keith Powers, a vice co-chair, Brad Lander, and Adrienne Adams each testified on those proposals at separate borough hearings. “The status quo of ad hoc planning is just not working…We need a larger vision based on equity, a vision in which low-income communities do not have to slowly bear the brunt of the city’s every housing and infrastructure need,” Ayala said at a September 12 hearing in the Bronx.

Those goals are also in line with a report released in January by the Regional Planning Association, a prominent think tank, in partnership with community advocacy groups, academic experts and partners in city government. The RPA report, titled “Inclusive City”, was also presented to the charter commission and cited by elected officials, including Brewer, who also testified at the Sept. 27 hearing. Brewer, along with Public Advocate Letitia James, was the driver behind the legislation that created the commission and has expressed hope that it can bring a sea change the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the 1989 charter commission fundamentally altered the structure of city government, giving it its present form.

In her testimony, Brewer emphasized a more thoughtful process for land use decisions that includes early input from community boards and elected officials before applications are certified through the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP). “With pre-planning we can do more than merely react—we can shape a project,” she said.

She also pushed for more technical improvements to zoning and permitting procedures, in the context of a long-term citywide approach. “There needs to be a citywide comprehensive plan every ten years,” she said. “This planning process could distribute new development equitably across the city, rather than concentrate rezonings in communities of color.”

Similar to Johnson’s testimony, Brewer advocated for increased transparency in the city budget. She also said the Civilian Complaint Review Board should be strengthened and its budget tied to the NYPD’s, to ensure that the watchdog agency has sufficient resources to deal with a growing police body. Additionally, she noted her opposition to term limits for community boards, which have been proposed in a ballot question by the mayor’s commission. Borough presidents appoint most community board members.

Comptroller Stringer’s ideas, in number at least, outpaced other elected officials. In an exhaustive report presented at the City Hall hearing, Stringer recommended 65 revisions to the charter ranging from proposals on city budgeting and procurement to housing, cybersecurity, children’s services, campaign finance and voting reforms.

“Since the last major charter revision nearly thirty years ago, New York City has grown by 1.2 million people and the world has changed around it, yet its charter is not prepared to meet the needs of today’s challenges,” Stringer said in a statement. “The Charter Review Commission is an opportunity for us to build a better government that takes aim at our affordability crisis and builds a fairer city by giving a voice to New Yorkers.”

Chief among Stringer’s proposals was a push for a Chief Diversity Officer in the mayor’s office and in each city agency, to ensure diversity in hiring and in contracting. Stringer has advocated for increased investment in Minority- and Women-Owned Business Enterprises (M/WBEs) and he noted that though New York City spends nearly $20 billion on goods and services each year, less than 5 percent of the contracts are given to M/WBEs.

He also proposed a new Office of Inspection independent of the Department of Buildings and the Housing and Preservation Department, which he said play conflicting roles since they both approve new construction and development and are also charged with enforcing housing and construction codes. In line with his role as the city’s chief fiscal officer, Stringer also pushed for reforms to the capital budget, which funds infrastructure projects in the city. He said it should be transparent enough so the public can identify the cost of specific projects and be informed when those costs change.

Several other City Council members also weighed in on proposed charter revisions.

Council Member Ben Kallos, also co-chair of the Progressive Caucus, proposed 72 ideas in total, in updated testimony, including a citizen “Bill of Rights to free higher education, affordable health and mental health care, and, access to parks, libraries, public transit and affordable internet.” He stressed that any revisions to the charter brought about through a ballot referendum should go through further changes only after being presented to voters again. He pushed to give the Council and borough presidents the ability to make appointments to mayoral boards that have land use authority and said the charter should be amended to allow city residents to propose legislation and be heard before the Council. “Our City’s Charter is truly a living document,” he said in a statement, “but it is up to us to make sure it remains alive.”

Council Member Helen Rosenthal pushed for the charter to formally adopt the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against
Women (CEDAW), and also advocated for reforms to the city's contracting process to ease burdensome requirements on non-profits that provide early childhood
education, homeless services, senior services, and mental healthcare.  

At the September 20 hearing in Queens, Council Members Adams and Francisco Moya, who is not a Progressive Caucus member, supported improvements to ULURP. “Displacement in our neighborhoods is no longer a possibility but a fact of life,” Moya said, according to written testimony. He called for the charter to mandate assessments of displacement brought about by proposed development. “We cannot view our city and its neighborhoods in a vacuum,” Moya said.

There were, of course, elected officials with more borough-specific agendas. At the September 24 hearing on Staten Island, testimony by Borough President James Oddo, and Council Members Steven Matteo and Joseph Borelli (all three Republicans, unlike all of the other aforementioned officials, who are Democrats), advocated for greater freedom for the borough from “bureaucrats in Manhattan,” as Oddo and Matteo put it.

Oddo and Matteo, in submitted testimony, said that city agencies should be restructured to give borough commissioners more power over local issues. “Agencies should be restructured in such a way that the chain of command within the agency is clear, and that one individual on the local level is not only responsible and accountable, but specifically empowered within the agency to act,” they wrote.

Borelli similarly pushed for more decentralization of power, expressing concern that the priorities of Staten Islanders are often ignored by city government and that new changes to the charter could adversely affect the borough. “We don’t want to be laboratories for the latest experiments in social engineering as too often seems the case on issues ranging from buses to composting,” he said. He largely argued for giving the borough president greater jurisdiction over local issues, similar to a county executive outside New York City.

He also criticized the city’s public matching funds program for campaign financing, calling on the commission to negate the potential expansion of the program that could happen through a ballot proposal put forward by the mayor’s commission. And, he advanced several other proposals -- mandating that the Independent Budget Office study the fiscal impact of every piece of City Council legislation; reducing duplicative roles played by different city agencies; making it harder to raise taxes in the city; improving the process for holding special elections; and curbing the power of the Board of Standards and Appeals.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - This article has been updated to include testimony from Council Member Helen Rosenthal and updated testimony from Council Member Ben Kallos.  

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Elected Officials Present Broad Proposals to 2019 Charter Revision Commission Thu, 11 Oct 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Advancing an Inclusive Approach to School Meals http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/7956-advancing-an-inclusive-approach-to-school-meals http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/7956-advancing-an-inclusive-approach-to-school-meals school food rally

School food inclusivity rally (@safest)


We as faith leaders are most privileged to cooperate on a project that will benefit our respective communities. For far too long, students who follow religious dietary guidelines have found their public school cafeteria lacks sufficient accommodation in the food offered. Typically students who require a kosher or halal meal have very limited options in school lunch offerings, often choosing to eat nothing. At this time in history, with persistent and growing incidents of discrimination based on religious and racial animus, New York City needs to embrace every possible opportunity to show compassion, inclusivity, and accommodation for all students – and to ensure no child needs to leave the school cafeteria hungry.

It is impossible to know for sure how many students follow religious dietary restrictions. However, with roughly 38 percent of public school students identifying as Muslim or Jewish, it is possible that thousands of students do not participate in current Department of Education School Food programs because of their religious customs. And with 72 percent of the city’s public school students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches – a potential indicator of food insecurity – it is clear that the number of students who could benefit from a halal or kosher meal in school is significant.

Many of us in the Muslim and Jewish faith communities, joined by community groups, have been advocating for years for the Department of Education to offer halal and kosher food options in schools. We know accommodating this request is not easy, given the complexities of a food distribution network that serves meals to approximately 600,000 students each day, second only to the U.S. Military.

Now, after years of advocacy, we are celebrating a key milestone: this year, $1 million has been allocated in the city budget to pilot halal and kosher school lunches in four schools. Thanks to the leadership of City Council Members Chaim Deutsch and Rafael Espinal and Speaker Corey Johnson, this historic funding will provide a solid foundation to pilot halal and kosher food options in city schools.

But funding the pilot is just the beginning. Our campaign is now facing a critical moment to ensure that the city designs and executes a halal and kosher pilot program responsibly, with full inclusion of parents and school communities who will benefit from halal and kosher school lunches.

Comptroller Scott Stringer has already laid forth a blueprint, detailing several options for how such a pilot could be structured. Now that funding for a halal and kosher lunch pilot has been secured, we believe these recommendations merit real consideration by the Department of Education as it plans how to implement the pilot program.

A central element of the Comptroller’s blueprint for piloting halal and kosher school lunches includes the establishment of an advisory committee. This group would include leaders from faith communities, community advocates, school food content experts, food service workers, parents, teachers, and students. The advisory committee could advise and support DOE when selecting schools for inclusion in the pilot, evaluating kitchen space retrofitting needs, developing training programs for food service workers in schools, and coordinating opportunities for community engagement to both raise awareness of the new food offerings and to build trust among parents that halal and kosher food offered in school cafeterias is a legitimate option that meets religious dietary guidelines. An informed advisory body is crucial for successfully serving halal and kosher lunches to students.

Our communities have already been working, informally, in this capacity. Over the past several months, over 50 advocates and leaders from Muslim and Jewish communities have convened in Comptroller Stringer’s office to weigh the complexities and challenges for this campaign and to consider how best to guide and influence this conversation. Now it is time to formalize this role, and become true partners in advancing this important work.

Offering halal and kosher school lunches will benefit all school children by fostering diversity and inclusivity, and ensuring that all children have every opportunity to learn and excel in school. As halal and kosher school lunches are about to become a reality, it is vital that community voices that have been successfully advocating for this cause for years, be recruited to help to make it a reality. All parties want this pilot to be a thoughtful and efficient program, one that will both inform future decision-making on this topic, and positively impact the lives of children who will benefit from a much needed mid-day meal. We are most grateful to Comptroller Stringer and his staff for bringing our faith communities together to demonstrate that unity and diversity can work together. Now it is time to move the work further ahead.

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Rabbi Joseph Potasnik is Executive Vice President, New York Board of Rabbis. Imam Al-Hajj Talib Abdur-Rashid is Chairman, the Association of African American Imams.

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

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Advancing an Inclusive Approach to School Meals Tue, 25 Sep 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Fixing the City's Broken Approach to Nonprofit Contracting http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/7801-fixing-the-city-rsquo-s-broken-approach-to-nonprofit-contracting http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/7801-fixing-the-city-rsquo-s-broken-approach-to-nonprofit-contracting scott stringer

Comptroller Scott Stringer, a co-author (photo: @NYCComptroller)


From housing for homeless families to meals for our seniors, non-profit organizations are on the front lines of our city, supporting our most vulnerable neighbors. Yet these groups are surviving hand-to-mouth when it comes to funding and often it’s our own city government that’s stalling the contracting process and delaying payments that thousands of nonprofits rely on.

In a new report, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer’s office looked at thousands of human service contracts, and found an astounding 90 percent were submitted to the Comptroller’s Office for registration by a City agency after the contract start date had already passed, with half of them arriving six or more months late. Some agencies, including the Department of Homeless Services and the Department of Education, submitted over 99% of their contracts late.

The consequences of the City’s chronic lateness are huge. Because vendors don’t get paid until their contracts are registered, widespread delays in the contracting process force cash-strapped nonprofits to take out loans, miss payroll, or potentially cut services, just to deal with the shortfall in cash. In the last fiscal year alone, nonprofits took 751 City-issued bridge loans worth $149.9 million in total to keep the wheels turning as the City slowly processed their contracts.

It’s unacceptable. The burden of the City’s sluggish procurement process shouldn’t fall on our non-profit partners. That’s why we’re calling for common-sense reforms to break through the bureaucracy.

The City should build a public tracking system for contracts. If you can track a package as it moves across continents, you should be able to track contracts as they move through City agencies. Moreover, the City must develop clear metrics and strict timeframes throughout the procurement process, which will bring a basic level of transparency and accountability into this system.

Consider this: a non-profit is awarded a City contract to provide job training, with a specific start date for summer programming. That contract then goes through multiple layers of bureaucracy at the contracting agency before going over to some, if not all, of the following oversight agencies for review: the Mayor’s Office of Contract Services, the Law Department, the Office of Management and Budget, the Department of Investigation, and the Division of Labor Services at the Department of Small Business Services.

These levels of review are crucial and help to safeguard the integrity of the City’s public procurement process, rooting out waste and fraud. But as these agencies are not held accountable to deadlines, the full process can take months or even years to complete before the contract arrives at the Comptroller’s Office for registration.

In the end, the non-profit is left waiting for its contract and subsequent payment, without information on the process. This forces hundreds of non-profits into an impossible catch-22: wait to begin work, which can stall vital services and drive up costs – and in reality is rarely possible – or begin work without a registered contract, which can jeopardize the organization’s finances.

But with strict time-frames and a tracking system, non-profits might be spared this turmoil and gain some control in a process that currently treats their ability to function and help thousands of New Yorkers as an afterthought.

What we’re putting forward is a blueprint for the City to do better. Making these fixes will bring the contracting process in line with the City’s priorities, because behind these contracts are people who need food to eat, a roof to sleep under, or someone to care for them. These people are our neighbors, our relatives, and our friends. And right now, the snail’s pace of City agencies is putting their care at risk.

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Scott Stringer is New York City Comptroller and Jose (Joey) Ortiz, Jr., is the Executive Director of the NYC Employment and Training Coalition. On Twitter @NYCComptroller and & @JoeyOrtizJr of @NYCETC_org

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

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Fixing the City's Broken Approach to Nonprofit Contracting Thu, 12 Jul 2018 04:00:00 +0000
New York Democrats’ Season of Choosing http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7798-new-york-democrats-season-of-choosing http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7798-new-york-democrats-season-of-choosing corey johnson jessica ramos robert jackson cityhall

Corey Johnson endorses IDC challengers (photo: Gotham Gazette)


As progressives aggressively attempt to wrest control of the Democratic Party from the hands of those they call centrists and establishment politicians, elected Democrats across New York find themselves in an unenviable position. Abiding by their self-professed progressive values to support insurgent Democratic primary challengers could mean bucking the state party establishment and its leader, Governor Andrew Cuomo, while, on the other hand, toeing the party line risks opening them up to accusations of hypocrisy and betrayal -- and perhaps even a future primary challenge -- levelled by an enraged and engaged base.

A battle that played out during the 2016 presidential primary between Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State and New York Senator Hillary Clinton has only intensified since Donald Trump’s victory. The 2018 election cycle is offering many opportunities across the country for Democrats, elected officials and otherwise, to decide between what is essentially two wings of the party. The Democrats’ season of choosing is easier for some than others, but many prominent party figures find themselves in uncomfortable situations. At stake is nothing short of political careers, the fate of activist organizations, the policy agenda and future of the Democratic Party, the outcomes of current and prospective elections, and their aftermaths in terms of government policies that affect millions.

At the center in New York is Cuomo, his lieutenant governor, Kathy Hochul, and the state Senate’s erstwhile Independent Democratic Conference, eight senators who chose power over party for as many as seven years by empowering Republican control of the legislative chamber, what has been the GOP’s only stronghold in state government. In April, the renegades returned to the fold with assurances from Cuomo, who long tolerated and allegedly enabled their infidelity, that their seats were secure, at least from other Democrats. Under the accord brokered by the governor just after a new state budget was passed, the state Democratic Party machinery, fellow state-level electeds, and prominent labor unions would support these former IDC members -- who were time and again blamed for obstructing the passage of progressive legislation -- and would refuse to aid their challengers.

Though Cuomo and the former IDC members have professed support for progressive priorities -- voting, elections and campaign finance reform, criminal justice reform, women’s reproductive rights, stronger rent regulations, immigrant protections, to name a few -- they have failed to pass legislation along those lines, blaming staunch opposition by Senate Republicans. Their progressive challengers instead say they have been the obstacles to progressive bills by empowering Republicans.

Cuomo, at the top of the Democratic ticket, faces an aggressive challenge from actress and activist Cynthia Nixon in the primary. Nixon’s candidacy, from the left of Cuomo, parallels Fordham Law professor Zephyr Teachout’s unsuccessful gubernatorial bid four years ago, except it comes in a more heightened atmosphere of displeasure on the left following Trump’s election, amid disappointment with Cuomo’s relatively centrist record, and with increased awareness of the IDC. Nixon also has other advantages Teachout lacked, like name recognition and fundraising prowess, though Cuomo has worked over the past four years to make amends with some of his past critics, such as those in certain labor unions.

A similar fight is being replicated in the race for lieutenant governor, between incumbent Democrat Hochul and her progressive challenger, Jumaane Williams, a City Council member from Brooklyn.   

All eight former IDC members face primary challenges ahead of the September 13 vote. Five of those districts fall squarely in New York City while another is split between the Bronx and Westchester, with two others upstate.

In District 13, in Queens, Jessica Ramos is taking on Sen. Jose Peralta; in Brooklyn’s District 20, Zellnor Myrie is challenging Sen. Jesse Hamilton; on Manhattan’s west side, Robert Jackson is going up against Sen. Marisol Alcantara; in District 23, which spans Staten Island’s north shore and parts of Brooklyn, Jasmine Robinson is confronting Sen. Diane Savino; in District 11 in Queens, Sen. Tony Avella will again face former city Comptroller John Liu, who earned 47 percent in a losing 2014 bid to unseat Avella; and in District 34 that covers Westchester and the Bronx, Alessandra Biaggi is attempting to unseat the leader of the what was the IDC, Sen. Jeff Klein, who now serves as the deputy leader in the unified Senate Democratic Conference.

Outside the city, in District 38 that spreads across Rockland and Westchester, Sen. David Carlucci faces a challenge from Julie Goldberg; and in District 53 covering Madison County and parts of Onondaga and Oneida, Sen. David Valesky faces Rachel May in the primary.

For Cuomo and the state party, maintaining what Democratic seats they have in the Senate is paramount as they seek to flip the chamber by picking up more. Republicans have recently held control of the 63-seat chamber by a one-seat margin thanks to their own ranks and a single rogue conservative Senator from Brooklyn, Simcha Felder, a registered Democrat who won his most recent reelection on the Democratic, Republican, and Conservative Party lines -- Felder is also facing a Democratic primary this year, from Blake Morris.

But while they also want to see Republican seats flipped in November, many progressive activists insist that the party needs to elect better, “bluer Democrats” than Cuomo, Hochul, and the former IDC members. Nixon has explained that it is her motivation to run for governor, saying that in the age of Trump not any Democrat will do. Cuomo and his supporters argue that not only has the governor been a progressive powerhouse, but that Democratic energy of all kinds would be better spent working in concert to flip red seats to blue.

That argument has largely fallen on deaf ears among those displeased with Cuomo, Klein, and other Democratic incumbents.

The shiny veneer of the Senate Democrat reunification deal and its accompanying pact of nonaggression has seemed to be wearing off as challengers to the IDC senators pick up endorsements from top Democratic incumbents and, in one candidate’s case, from an influential labor union that helped broker the merger of the Senate Democrats. Meanwhile, Nixon and Williams have picked up far more support from elected officials and organizations than Teachout and her lieutenant governor running mate, Tim Wu, achieved in 2014.

Democrats across the spectrum are taking sides, and others will be expected to do so over the next few months, in decisions that could be determinative for those they endorse, for their own political trajectories, and for the larger map of New York’s Democratic world currently dominated by one set of elected and appointed officials, consultants, labor leaders, and the networks of power they control.

Mayoral Hopefuls
On June 28, New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson announced his endorsement of Biaggi, Jackson, Ramos, and Myrie, providing them a boost at a time when progressives were already feeling emboldened by the congressional primary victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez earlier that week.

A declared democratic socialist with a deeply progressive campaign platform, Ocasio-Cortez defeated Democratic giant Rep. Joe Crowley, a ten-term incumbent and the powerful boss of the Queens Democratic Party who was among the chief drivers of the Senate Democratic reunification and a possible next speaker of the House of Representatives. The stunning upset shook the foundations of the Democratic Party and undercut the conventional wisdom of the primacy of incumbents and machine politics, and its ramifications will likely be dissected for years. In New York, it’s immediate effects were quickly felt. Johnson, who had endorsed Crowley in the race, insisted the result did not affect his decision to endorse the four IDC challengers, which he said was in the works for months, but that did not stop observers from drawing a connection.

“Whether it’s in Washington, D.C., or in Albany, the status quo isn’t working and that is why I’m here today in supporting four amazing candidates,” Johnson said at the steps of City Hall. “They are Democrats, they are progressive Democrats, they will caucus with the Democrats and they will support all the issues that Democrats support.” On Saturday, Johnson said on Twitter that he was ready to fully support Liu. At a Tuesday event in support of Biaggi, Johnson said, “It feels really good to be able to tell the truth and for too long, people were not telling the truth about the IDC and the damage that they’ve done to the state of New York. And that damage was all in their own self-interest, putting their own self-interest above the entire state of New York.”   

In a statement following Johnson’s endorsement, Barbara Brancaccio, a spokesperson for Klein, said, “Frankly we are surprised that our opponent would accept the endorsement of such a radioactive figure coming on the heels of his endorsement of Joe Crowley. We are sure that Johnson will do for this challenger, exactly what he did for Joe Crowley."

At the same time, Johnson has also endorsed Governor Cuomo for reelection over Nixon, who continues to criticize the governor for supporting the IDC and whose platform largely resembles those of the IDC opponents. She shares stark similarities with Ocasio-Cortez and others seeking to upend incumbent Democrats who insurgents believe are too close to big-money interests and not in touch with their constituents who most need them. Nixon has begun to align herself more closely with those IDC challengers, cross-endorsing with Ramos earlier this week, for example.

The same day as Johnson’s endorsement of the IDC challengers, 32BJ SEIU, the prominent building workers union, endorsed Biaggi, though their president Hector Figueroa had months ago been among those who proposed the Democratic reunification deal and the union is among several that have endorsed Cuomo and had also backed Crowley. “Jeff Klein and the IDC have empowered obstructionist Republicans set on blocking key reforms for too long,” Figueroa said in a statement announcing the endorsement. “Never again.”

And just one day prior, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer also endorsed Biaggi, a few months after he had already announced his support for Ramos and Jackson. The endorsements by Stringer, well before the Ocasio-Cortez win and its initial fallout, have won him much praise from liberal activists.

Since his union came out for Biaggi, Figueroa has also addressed the Democratic split in New York, writing on Twitter, “Dems upset about IDC folks being primaried ‘for it may lead to the GOP winning a majority of NY Senate’ do not blame the ‘left’. The ones to be blamed are IDC incumbents themselves & those STILL defending them. IDC betrayed voters creating a big political mess. Time to clean up.”

Along with the number and strength of the progressive primary challengers to established incumbents and Ocasio-Cortez’s win, these endorsements, headlining still others, are the clearest cracks in the Democratic foundation that Cuomo and other state leaders have tried to set.

“I think it’s fascinating because we do see a lack of cohesion as to whether or not people are going to support the IDC members or their challengers,” said Dr. Christina Greer, a political science professor at Fordham University. “And I think this debate is sort of reflective of a larger debate that’s going on in the Democratic Party, for the soul of the Democratic party…‘Are we centrist, conservative-leaning Democrats or are we progressive?’”

To some, these moves may smack of political opportunism, particularly in the case of Johnson, who is supporting progressives on the one hand while propping up establishment centrists like Crowley and Cuomo on the other. But in the New York political landscape, Greer said these endorsements are equally driven by philosophical considerations as they are by pragmatic ones. “These are politicians…I think that they can genuinely care about an issue and I think that they can also be calculating and strategic about it,” she said.

For some, there is also a difference between backing a less experienced candidate for state Senate based on ideological reasons as opposed to the chief executive of the state.

Both Johnson and Stringer are widely expected to run for mayor in 2021, the next city election cycle, when Mayor Bill de Blasio will be term-limited out of office, and tapping the progressive energy that Ocasio-Cortez rode to power, and that is now propelling Nixon, Williams, the IDC challengers, and others, would likewise boost their own political fortunes.

“I think in the Democratic primary, the progressive energy in the city, that’s what you want to tap into if you’re running for mayor,” said Eric Koch, managing principal at Precision Strategies, a Democratic consulting firm, and former director of communications for City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. “So it makes sense to endorse the folks running against the IDC people because in terms of the activists and the people who are organizing against the IDC versus who is a Democratic primary voter in a mayoral election, there’s a pretty big overlap there.”

It’s important to note that the IDC incumbents themselves have powerful backers, including unions like 1199 SEIU, many of which are in Cuomo’s corner as well.

While Stringer and Johnson have decided to buck Cuomo and those involved in the unity deal, other likely 2021 mayoral candidates have not. Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. is a Cuomo ally and closely aligned with the Bronx Democratic Party apparatus, led by its chair, Assemblymember Marcos Crespo, and its former chair, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, who signed onto the unity deal.

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams has been critical of Cuomo over the course of years, but has not made endorsements yet. His approach is complicated given his alliance with Senator Hamilton, formerly of the IDC. Adams did invite Nixon early in her campaign to tour a Brooklyn NYCHA complex and the two went to Albany Houses together. The Brooklyn borough president has voiced strong criticism of Cuomo, but has not embraced Nixon beyond the NYCHA visit, nor has he weighed in on Williams’ challenge to Hochul or the IDC races.

“They’re looking at these challengers and their districts, I’m sure, to sort of see what kind of coalition they would need to put together,” Greer said. “When they run for mayor, Andrew Cuomo may or may not still be in office...but a great campaign marketing slogan is, ‘We fight Albany. We fight Albany to make sure that New York City gets the money and resources we need.’”

“Sure they care, but it’s also a very strategic move,” Greer said, “to make sure that they’re distancing themselves from the status quo to say that, ‘When tough decisions needed to be made, I didn’t just go along to get along.’”

Statewide Case
Public Advocate Letitia James, who is running in the Democratic primary for attorney general (and had been a likely 2021 mayoral candidate), is charting a course similar to Diaz, Jr., but with a much higher profile given her bid for statewide office. James quickly jumped at the opportunity when Eric Schneiderman resigned the post after facing allegations of physical and emotional abuse by several intimate partners. Seen as an early frontrunner, with the blessing of the state Democratic Party and the governor, James rejected the possible endorsement of the progressive Working Families Party that had helped launch her political career as a City Council member.

The WFP has been closely aligned with the IDC challengers, as well as Nixon and Williams, supporting their insurgent bids for office, while James has in the past supported at least one member of the IDC, Senator Alcantara, though she has come to criticize the IDC and called for reunification well before her attorney general bid.

“I would essentially argue, if I were in these progressive groups that used to support Tish very openly, well what now gives you progressive bonafides?,” said Greer. “So her messaging has to be very clear for her supporters. Because they have progressive choices.”

“Two days after Schneiderman resigned, it was essentially reported that Tish would be heir apparent and that’s the way much of the press is writing about the race...and I don’t necessarily see that to be the case anymore,” she added.

James faces three other primary contenders: former Cuomo aide Leecia Eve, congressional Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, and Fordham Law professor Zephyr Teachout, who challenged Cuomo in the 2014 Democratic primary and lost, but managed to get a significant share of the vote, at 34 percent. Teachout, like Nixon, has been severely critical of the IDC and endorsed five IDC challengers as part of the TrueBlueNY coalition months before the attorney general position became available and she decided to run. When Schneiderman resigned, Teachout was at the time Nixon’s campaign treasurer, a position she has since vacated to run for attorney general.

Among the four Democratic attorney general candidates, Teachout is undoubtedly furthest to the left. At the WFP nominating convention, delegates chose Nixon and Williams, and opted to install a placeholder for attorney general until, they hope, either James or Teachout emerges from the Democratic primary victorious and is offered the additional ballot line for the general election. James has expressed her love for the WFP despite initially shunning its endorsement and has said she believes everyone will coalesce again in the near future.

While James has aligned herself with Cuomo and his unity deal, Teachout, who endorsed Ocasio-Cortez in May, is staunchly behind IDC challengers and has recently campaigned alongside Williams.

Koch doesn’t believe her endorsements will give her a significant edge, however. “I do think that there might be some benefit in endorsing some of the folks against the IDC because that’s where the progressive energy is,” he said, “but at the end of the day, people who are voting for attorney general aren’t basing their votes on just the issue of the IDC, they’re coming at it from a much more holistic spectrum.”

The experts who spoke with Gotham Gazette noted the significance of the ‘Ocasio effect.’ Both Teachout and Nixon had endorsed Ocasio-Cortez in the run up to the congressional primary and seized on her victory to emphasize that progressive challengers can defeat machine-backed incumbents. “There’s very much a movement that’s energizing the left and politicians who ignore it or who fall too far behind are really doing so at their own peril,” said a Democratic consultant who wished to remain unnamed so he could speak freely.

“There’s certainly a lot of parallels between Cuomo and Crowley, you know, representing the old guard, like white-working class Democrats,” said the Democratic consultant. “But that being said, I wouldn’t read too much into the Ocasio win as portending a loss for Cuomo because Cuomo’s still extraordinarily popular among African-Americans, particularly African-American women, and Cynthia Nixon hasn’t to this point been able to show the ability to break into that base of support, which is really what you’re seeing here. It’s a combination of minority voters and very young, progressive voters.”

For their part, top Nixon campaign aides cite Ocasio-Cortez’s victory in expressing their belief that public opinion polls can no longer be trusted to capture the progressive energy that has largely emerged since the 2016 election of Donald Trump.

Koch said activist pressure against the IDC and its supporters has been building but “at the state level, people are gonna hedge their bets a little bit more because, one way or another, they’re gonna have to work with some of these folks.”

Greer seemed more bullish about how far the momentum behind Ocasio-Cortez would carry into state elections. She conceded that Democrats across New York are not as progressive as they are in New York City, but that the win gave a much-needed confidence boost to IDC challengers as well as Nixon and Teachout, not to mention obvious opportunities to add volunteers and donors. “It’ll be fascinating to see if, all of a sudden, Cynthia and Zephyr can ride the coattails of Alexandria,” she said, a notion that, before the congressional primary, “would’ve sounded like crazy talk.”

“But the reality here is...Alexandria’s getting national attention for the message that Cynthia and Zephyr have been championing,” she said.

Other Democrats Choose
Virtually every elected Democrat in New York is expected to pick sides: Cuomo or Nixon; Hochul or Williams; James or Teachout or Eve or Maloney; Klein or Biaggi; and so on.

Mayor Bill de Blasio, one of the most powerful Democratic officials in the state by virtue of his position, has so far stayed on the sidelines, regularly declining to comment on the 2018 New York elections, but promising to weigh in at some point. Given that Nixon was a fervent supporter during his winning 2013 campaign for mayor and again supported him for reelection in 2017, and his ongoing feud with Cuomo, de Blasio’s decision in the gubernatorial race is especially interesting. In 2014, before their feud had really escalated, de Blasio backed Cuomo for reelection, even helping broker him the Working Families Party nomination. He has indicated it did not work out as planned.

Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, not facing a primary challenge himself, has backed Cuomo and Hochul, but says he’s likely staying out of the attorney general primary, even though the state party is behind James.

While many Democratic officials have already or are expected to back Cuomo, there are local electeds who, beholden neither to the governor nor their respective Democratic machines, have chosen to break from the pack. New York City Council Member Carlos Menchaca was the first of his colleagues to endorse Nixon’s bid for governor, and Council Members Jimmy Van Bramer and Antonio Reynoso later followed suit. Williams, running for lieutenant governor, is also an apparent Nixon backer, but the two have not formally linked up as a ticket, so to speak (the two positions are elected separately in party primaries, but together in the general election).

Reynoso and Menchaca, and Council Members Brad Lander, Adrienne Adams, and I. Daneek Miller have also backed Williams for lieutenant governor. Williams has also announced the backing of state Senator Kevin Parker, and across the state he has picked up endorsements from legislators in Albany and Syracuse, while Nixon was recently endorsed by more than a dozen Hudson Valley elected officials.

Nixon’s most prominent recent endorsement came from the former City Council Speaker, Mark-Viverito, a progressive in the same vein who drew parallels between Nixon and Ocasio-Cortez. “These two boldly progressive women share the same values and priorities,” Mark-Viverito wrote in the New York Daily News. Nixon also cross-endorsed with Ocasio-Cortez the day before the congressional primary, and in the last week, has done so with Ramos, who is seeking to unseat Senator Peralta, formerly of the IDC, and Julia Salazar, a democratic socialist challenging Democratic state Senator Martin Dilan in northern Brooklyn.

On Wednesday, Senator Hamilton's challenger, Myrie, announced four new endorsements from Assembly Members Walter Mosley, Diana Richardson, Jo Anne Simon and Robert Carroll, who represent Central Brooklyn.    

Democratic Unity?
“It goes back to the basic tenet: a house divided against itself can’t stand,” said Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the Senate Democratic leader, in a recent appearance on the Max & Murphy podcast hosted by Gotham Gazette and City Limits. The senator was addressing the Senate unity deal and whether Klein would be loyal to it. “How are we gonna do this?...I’m not gonna be sitting there having people somehow undermine the efforts that we have to be a team. That’s always been the case.”

Sen. Michael Gianaris, the chair of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, has ruled out endorsing the former IDC members, according to the Daily News -- Gianaris has had a long running feud with Klein, the IDC head -- and has been noncommittal on whether he may support their opponents. “Everyone seems to be on their best behavior on both sides and there seems to be genuine effort to work cooperatively and get to where we’re trying to go, so hopefully that continues,” Gianaris said in a separate Max & Murphy interview.

Lieutenant Governor Hochul, in her own appearance on the podcast, said Democrats attacking each other only serve to polarize voters and that the party would be better off expending that energy against Republicans. “We can all be purists about everything when we have a Democrat in the White House, when we have the House and the Senate, and when we have New York State Legislature,” she said. “Then we can fight each other on the nuances.”

Along with the decisions facing them now about who to back in the primaries, one major question for New York Democrats is what happens after September 13, and whether party members can coalesce for the general election. Republicans have completely avoided primaries for all four state-level statewide races of governor, lieutenant governor, comptroller, and attorney general, and in virtually every state Senate district held by an incumbent.

“I don’t think [the Democratic Party] fractures,” said the Democratic consultant who didn’t want to be named. “I think that’s the evolution of the party. That’s the direction that you’re seeing the party, and it’s largely driven by a local reaction to federal issues. It’s very largely a reaction to Trump on a number of things, on immigration, on labor, on health care, on taxes, on women’s rights.”  

The frustration with Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress, the consultant said, means that Democrats want “a much more aggressive stance and debate” from their own leaders.

Koch from Precision Strategies said the party will likely come together in the face of a larger enemy to sweep the major statewide races -- governor and lieutenant governor, attorney general, and comptroller. “The Democratic Party has always been a very big tent party, it’s always run the ideological spectrum from the progressive wing through to a more centrist wing,” he said, “and that’s why the party has been successful…After these primaries are done, Democrats will come together and unite because there are bigger threats and what unites us is definitely stronger than what divides us.”

“I think the relationships will by and large repair themselves,” Koch added, “I suspect that after the primary, folks will get together and hash out whatever needs to be hashed out.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - This story has been updated to include mention of endorsements received by Zellnor Myrie from four state Assembly members.

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New York Democrats’ Season of Choosing Wed, 11 Jul 2018 04:00:00 +0000