Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/508 Thu, 24 Jan 2019 11:38:58 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Commission Recommends Pay Increases and Ethics Reforms for State Legislators http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8125-commission-recommends-pay-increases-and-ethics-reforms-for-state-legislators http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8125-commission-recommends-pay-increases-and-ethics-reforms-for-state-legislators senatechamberalbany2

(Photo via Wiki Commons)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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by Dave Colon, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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As Democratic Senate Becomes Reality, Unclear How Hard Assembly Majority Will Push Prior Agenda Sun, 25 Nov 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Assemblymember Walker, Sponsor of Bail Reform Bill, Optimistic About 2019 http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8084-assemblymember-walker-sponsor-of-bail-reform-bill-optimistic-about-2019 http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8084-assemblymember-walker-sponsor-of-bail-reform-bill-optimistic-about-2019 assembly sponsor bail

Assemblymember Latrice Walker (photo: Kevin Coughlin/Governor's Office)


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

Assemblymember Latrice Walker, a Brooklyn Democrat, has been pushing for criminal justice reform in New York, and believes that 2019 will hold long-sought progress. Among the several pieces of legislation introduced in the Democrat-dominated Assembly that address criminal justice reform, one of the most significant proposals is Walker’s bail reform bill, which passed the Assembly in June but did not move in the Republican-controlled state Senate.

With Democrats having taken the majority in the state Senate through this month’s elections, next year could bring sweeping changes to the criminal justice system in New York, with bail reform atop the priorities for many elected officials, advocates, and others, including Walker, soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, and Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat entering his third term. The two legislative majorities and governor will have to work out the details of any reforms, of course, and there are different bail reform proposals.

The need for such reform is evident in Walker’s district, she explains. Representing neighborhoods such as Brownsville and Ocean Hill, Walker, a Brownsville native herself, has seen the current system’s effects first-hand. During a recent appearance on the Max & Murphy show on WBAI radio, Walker explained the “billion-dollar blocks” in her district, which is home to significant poverty, and elsewhere, as areas from which many people have gone to jail or prison, with government spending totaling billions of dollars to detain those people. It’s a way of both pointing out the high costs of mass incarceration and the lack of investment in those same communities for helping people escape poverty and related problems.

Walker believes the current criminal justice system is based around punishing people, and that bail should not be part of that picture, but one area for reform that can then stop feeding the larger problem.

“Bail is supposed to just ensure a person’s return to court. We know that the constitution declares that it’s not supposed to be cruel, unusual, and it’s not supposed to be punishment. And I think that that’s the term that many people forget about New York’s bail system,” Walker said. She’s observed that there has been a rubric of sorts set up in courts where there is more focus on the type of crime allegedly committed, the individual, and the neighborhood in which they live, to determine whether a person is required to post bail.

With her proposal, Walker aims to make the system what it was supposed to be, she says. “It bewilders me when I see attorneys, judges and the like say to me, even across the state of New York, ‘well there has to be some system or something put in place that will ensure that bad people don’t get put back into the streets,’ but that’s not what bail is about, and that’s what I’m here to defend.”

Of course there are certain alleged crimes where the defendant should either have conditions put on their release or not be released at all, argue Walker and others pushing for bail reform, especially major changes or an end to cash bail, but there are many, many others where bail has simply become a punishment of poverty, leading many poor people to spend time in jail for lower-level offenses.

“The bail bill that I introduced allows for an automatic release on a person’s own recognizance in certain situations where their violations, misdemeanors -- other than sex offense misdemeanors, non-violent felonies, and two categories of violent felonies,” Walker explained. A person is not released on their own recognizance if they’ve committed sex offense misdemeanors or most violent felonies. However, the two categories of violent felonies the bill does exempt are burglary or robbery in the second degree, as well as falsely reporting an incident in the second degree.

Walker’s proposal was developed by looking at bail “in the context of speedy trial” and “discovery reform,” she said, which are two other major categories of criminal justice reform Democrats pledge to pursue in Albany next year, where state Senate Republicans had largely disagreed with the bills put forth by Assembly majority and Senate minority Democrats.

The bill would also allow for a defendant to be released on non-monetary conditions but with court-ordered monitoring. Depending on what the court decides, the defendant could be monitored by a pre-trial services agency, the imposition of travel restrictions, and as mentioned by Walker on WBAI, through the use of electronic monitoring systems.

In the cases such as violent felonies, sex offense misdemeanors, and situations where the person released on recognizance or under non-monetary conditions fails to follow through with the conditions of their release, monetary bail can be set. In cases where a person is charged with sex offense felonies, terrorism crimes, class A felonies, witness intimidation, or felonies involving intent to causes injury or death, monetary bail may also be set, though remand without bail (no pre-trial release at all) is also an option.

Cagenda19v2 aourt-ordered electronic location monitoring would be applicable to defendants when "no other realistic conditions (would) suffice to reasonably assure the defendant's return to court" or when they are charged with a felony, misdemeanor domestic violence, a misdemeanor sex offense, or other crimes outlined in the bill.

Walker recognizes that there are opponents of her plan to her right and her left, and says she’s taken into account the concerns some may have with parts of her proposal. The non-monetary condition situation, as she put it, brings about the question of whether mass incarceration is going to be allowed to be replaced by mass surveillance.

“I wanted to be able to protect that because this new electric monetary system is a new iteration of the billion dollar blocks. Now instead of incarcerating people, you’re got everyone in the ankle bracelets,” said Walker. The widespread use of ankle bracelets is a secondary set-up that Walker said “sets up a system that we’re trying to do away with.”

There have been other versions of bail reform introduced in the Assembly, one of them by Assemblymember Daniel O’Donnell of Manhattan. When asked if there are any significant differences between the two versions of bail reform, Walker highlighted only one.

“In my bill, where a person is still required to be remanded in pre-trial jail, you have discovery reform procedures that kick into play. There is a certain number of time, I believe it’s five days, by which the defense is able to request of the prosecution a discovery evidence or any evidence that might lead to that person being acquitted at the end of a trial,” she explained. This component of her plan gives the person being charged with a crime other mechanisms to “put forth a formidable defense.”

According to the listing of Walker’s bill in the Assembly legislation database, the purpose of the bill is to significantly amend “New York's antiquated cash bail system” for the first in “nearly fifty years.”

“This legislation would move our state toward a more intelligent, individualized system of pre-trial release, monitoring and, when necessary, detention,” the bill states. “The bill is designed to end the current, reflexive overreliance on monetary bail, which each year results in the unnecessary and expensive pre-trial jailing of thousands of persons simply because they cannot afford a modest sum as collateral.”

The Assembly passed Walker’s bill in June as part of a broader criminal justice reform package. O’Donnell’s bill, known as the "bail elimination act of 2018," would fully eliminate the use of cash bail while also ensuring “provisions for pretrial detention,” but has not been voted on in the Assembly.

However, O’Donnell’s bill does have a “same-as” bill in the Senate, whereas Walker’s does not. That may well change come January when the new Legislature begins its work.

Walker said she remains “blindly optimistic,” though she is aware that there are other things that may take priority when the new legislative session begins and Democrats in control of the legislative and executive branches start getting to a long agenda, and that Democrats are not a “monolithic body.”

“I anticipate that bail reform, and criminal justice reform will remain an in-vogue topic,” she said.

[Listen to the full conversation: Assemblymember Latrice Walker on Max & Murphy Nov. 14 2018] 

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

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by Annie Abreu, Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette

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Assemblymember Walker, Sponsor of Bail Reform Bill, Optimistic About 2019 Sun, 18 Nov 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Assembly Committee Examines Election Administration, Eyes Voting Reforms in 2019 http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8075-assembly-committee-examines-election-administration-eyes-voting-reforms-in-2019 http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8075-assembly-committee-examines-election-administration-eyes-voting-reforms-in-2019 voting booths

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


Come January, Democrats will control both houses of the New York state Legislature and the governor’s office, and they have declared that after years of being stymied by state Senate Republicans, voting reform will be at the top of the 2019 agenda. But even before that new governing reality comes to fruition, Assembly Democrats, already in the majority by a wide margin, examined both voting administration and the broader laws at play during a hearing on Thursday in Manhattan.

Though with looming new political dynamics as a backdrop, the Assembly Election Law Committee and Election Day & Voter Disenfranchisement Subcommittee held what is a typical post-election hearing to discuss how to improve voting in New York, where for years the state has had some of the most regressive laws in the nation. The legislators present and those testifying focused specifically on early voting and no-excuse absentee voting as key reforms on the table, but often deviated towards criticism of the state’s entire election structure, with accompanying calls for comprehensive reform.

New York is one of only a small number of states that does not have early voting or no-excuse absentee voting, and has the strictest party registration deadline in the country. There appears to be unanimity among Democrats about moving ahead with early voting. And while research on whether it improves turnout is mixed, it would likely foster a more diverse group of voters, who would not have to take off work to vote, and would allow election administrators to diagnose and correct problems, such as the two-page ballots that led to problems at the polls in New York City last week, at an early stage in the process.

“People working multiple jobs, people in the gig economy or with unsteady work, are often forced to choose between selecting their representatives in government and making a living,” said Ethan Geringer-Sameth, of government reform group Citizens Union, in testimony to the committee. “For many New Yorkers, early voting and no-excuse absentee ballots would provide the first real opportunities to vote.”

New York’s voting laws once again came to the forefront on Election Day, when issues at the polls led to long lines and numerous people leaving before voting. The fiasco renewed calls for reforms, particularly early voting, which some argue could have made a significant impact, as well as better election administration through professionalizing the city Board of Elections.

“Early voting would have also mitigated the impact of broken scanners and its cascading effect of long lines, overcrowded poll sites, and compromised ballot security and privacy,” said Alex Camarda of Reinvent Albany, another good government group. “By holding voting on days other than Election Day, voters are distributed across many days and volume is reduced on Election Day. The Board can troubleshoot problems in advance before Election Day.”

The Assembly has on numerous occasions passed voting reforms such as one week of early voting, and Governor Andrew Cuomo included a two-week early voting period in his budget proposal last year, but efforts have annually been stopped by the Republican-controlled State Senate.

With control of the Senate turning over to Democrats based on last week’s election results, early voting appears poised to become reality in the state. Committee Chair Charles Lavine said, given the new dynamics of state government, the Legislature has a “unique opportunity to enact meaningful reforms,” including early voting and no-excuse absentee voting.

Two commissioners and two executive directors of the State Board of Elections testified on Thursday, and all adopted a reformist tone, though the Board is not known as particularly progressive with regard to pushing changes to make voting easier in New York.

Robert Brehm, one of two executive directors, said that New York’s unusually high turnout this year put a strain on the voting system, and that early voting would mitigate the stresses of high turnout and other factors such as inclement weather and a complex ballot.

“Where many other states were using some series of days leading up to election, to allow early voting, we all had to accomplish it in one day,” Brahm said. “Certainly, we could’ve provided a better customer service process if we were able to stretch it out over a period of time.”

Brehm and the commissioners noted several elements of early voting and absentee voting that need to be addressed for them to work, including making sure that voting rooms are adequately staffed and have enough equipment, and that the use of snail mail for absentee votes doesn’t prevent votes from being counted, as it has in the past. On the mail front, Brehm endorsed a bill in the Assembly that would allow voters to apply for absentee ballots online.

Andrew Spano, one commissioner, signaled support for early voting while also casting aspersions on the entire system writ large.

“Our system is basically a de facto voter suppression system, because we have all these hurdles that we have to get through,” said Spano, who served as Westchester county executive for 12 years. “There’s no motivation for the voter in some of these elections to come out. Midterm elections, village elections, school elections. They’re all decided by a fraction of the voter population.”

The commissioners noted that early voting was not a “panacea” solution to the problems afflicting New York elections, but that as part of a package, it could help improve the situation. Other proposals included electronic poll books and the abolition of election districts, to be replaced by poll sites as an administrative unit with books organized alphabetically instead of geographically. They also signaled support for automatic voter registration, despite possible issues with implementation regarding individuals who relocate.

The hearing was also an opportunity for Assembly members to unload on Michael Ryan, the embattled executive director of the New York City Board of Elections who has shouldered much of the blame for the administrative failures on this past election day and others.

Assemblymember Robert Carroll of Brooklyn told of his experience on Election Day. At his polling place, 350 people were stuck in line for several hours after each machine at the site broke, he said. After Carroll contacted the board, a tech was sent to fix the problem, but the machines continually broke throughout the day, leading to scores of people leaving poll sites without voting.

“I am very hopeful that New York State and New York City have early voting, have electronic poll books, voting on demand,” Carroll said. “But why should we, as elected officials, think that the New York City Board of Elections will be able to administer any election, and especially an updated election process in the future after such a terrible track record in the last year?”

Ryan argued that the issues this year were a result of both unusually high turnout (though it was still under 40 percent in the city) and other aggravating factors, including inclement weather, and a perforated two-page ballot that led to jams when voters didn’t submit them correctly. He noted education efforts were designed on short notice and inadequate, and endorsed ideas for improving the process such as having workers from municipal agencies act as poll workers or better storage for emergency ballot procedures, as well as early voting.

Carroll was not convinced.

“Yeah I get it: there’s a lot of people in New York City. Guess what? That’s always been true,” Carroll said. “We need to actually make sure that we can run an election. So how are we gonna change that?”

[Read: Voter Turnout Booms in New York]

[Read: 3 Big Reasons Elections in New York City are So Poorly Run]

***
by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

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Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. ]]>
Assembly Committee Examines Election Administration, Eyes Voting Reforms in 2019 Thu, 15 Nov 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: Assemblymember Latrice Walker http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8072-max-murphy-podcast-bail-reform-with-assemblymember-latrice-walker http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8072-max-murphy-podcast-bail-reform-with-assemblymember-latrice-walker mxm logo

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


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

November 14, 2018 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Bail Reform with Assemblymember Latrice Walker

latrice walker wbai orgAssemblymember Latrice Walker, a Brooklyn Democrat, joined the show to discuss her push for criminal justice reform, among other issues, including the prospects for a wave of Democratic legislation to pass through the state Legislature in 2019 after the state Senate flipped and will potentially work with the long-standing Assembly majority to pass long-stalled bills.

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

agenda19v2 a

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

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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Max & Murphy Podcast: Assemblymember Latrice Walker Wed, 14 Nov 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Assembly Race Poses Another Test for Queens Machine http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7805-assembly-race-poses-another-test-for-queens-machine http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7805-assembly-race-poses-another-test-for-queens-machine catalina cruz parade Queens

Catalina Cruz (photo: @CatalinaCruzNY)


Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Democratic primary victory over Rep. Joe Crowley last month in New York’s 14th congressional district sent shockwaves throughout the country and signalled a monumental shift in Queens politics, where the Crowley-led county party has held significant sway in local elections for many years. The effects of Ocasio-Cortez’s win and Crowley’s loss, both nationally and locally, are still developing, but reverberations are certainly being felt in the already-competitive Democratic primary for New York Assembly District 39, where a county-backed incumbent is facing an independent challenger.

The district -- part of the 150-seat lower house of the state Legislature, all of which are on the ballot this fall, first in September 13 primaries -- covers the immigrant-heavy neighborhoods of Corona, Elmhurst, and Jackson Heights, and large parts of those fall within Crowley’s congressional district. It is currently represented by Assembly Member Ari Espinal, who was elected in a low-turnout special election barely three months ago, with fewer than 800 votes. Espinal was previously an aide to Francisco Moya, who held the Assembly seat before being elected to the New York City Council last year.

Espinal’s challenger in the primary is Catalina Cruz, an attorney with government experience who most recently served as chief of staff to former City Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland.

Espinal, whose cousin is Brooklyn City Council Member Rafael Epsinal, ran unopposed for the Assembly seat, having been endorsed by the Queens Democratic Party, which is chaired by Crowley and has played an influential role in not just Queens, but city and state elections for decades, as well as the selection of the powerful City Council speaker and a variety of other appointed positions. For a special election to the state Legislature, there are no party primaries, instead the party county committee selects its candidate for what is a singular public vote. In a heavily Democratic district like most in New York City, the party’s nominee is virtually  assured victory in a special election, and therefore gains at least some of the benefits of incumbency ahead of any subsequent intra-party challenges.

But the power of the Queens County Democrats’ endorsement is under question following Crowley’s landslide defeat to Ocasio-Cortez as he finishes his tenth term in the House. Queens Democratic insiders say Cruz is in important ways a stronger candidate than Espinal and that the Queens county machine -- a descriptor some take issue with -- is playing a minimal role in the race and has a far less threatening presence in the immediate aftermath of last month’s election. Some also point to the fact that the Queens county party has been defeated in a number of elections over the years by strong insurgent candidates, such as the victories of current City Council Members Daniel Dromm and Jimmy Van Bramer, as well as Ferreras-Copeland’s first win. Moya, meanwhile, helped orchestrate Espinal’s ascension and is actively campaigning on her behalf in an area where he has won several recent elections.

For her part, Espinal is confident about the race. “I welcome any challenge,” she said in a phone interview. “I’m from Corona, Queens. I was raised in this neighborhood. I welcome any challenge and it’s exciting. I feel like it’s the Democratic process, too. Why wouldn’t you want a challenge? You would want your voters to get engaged. This is how they get engaged more when they have to pick, to choose and say, ‘Who’s going to represent me the way I want to be represented?’”

Having been in office just under three months, Espinal has been prime sponsor on one bill that was passed by both legislative chambers, to extend a labor law relating to unemployment insurance proceedings, and another, called Carlos’ Law, which enacts punishments for developers that put workers at risk of injury or death, which passed only the Assembly. Espinal has also allocated hundreds of thousands of dollars to her community, she said. She signed on to the Dream Act, which aims to provide state financial aid to undocumented immigrants seeking higher education. She’s received support for her reelection bid from Moya, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, Bronx Rep. Jose Serrano, and the Working Families Party.

Espinal is relying on her experience as a longtime community organizer and former Democratic district leader, promising voters that she will bring resources back to her community. She has pledged to fight for immigrant protections, affordable housing, school funding, small businesses, and workers rights, and other locally-important issues. And she pushed back against the notion that she is the establishment candidate in the race. “Quite so often you have politicians who are not from the area and just want to run for office because they just want the power. I’m not looking for the power,” she said. “What I’m looking for is to actually engage my community and tell them, ‘I’m here. I’m here for you because I’ve lived here and I know the issues...because I’m your neighbor.’”

Cruz, Espinal’s opponent, strikes a similar chord with her campaign pitch. “My entire life is a spectrum of the people of Jackson Heights, Corona and Elmhurst,” she said in a phone interview. But one thing that sets her far apart from Espinal is that Cruz herself is a “Dreamer,” a child of undocumented immigrants who came to New York at the age of nine and who only recently gained permanent resident status in 2009. “I went from being an undocumented child who picked cans in the street with her mom to survive, to being a Dreamer who was going to undergrad and paying for school for herself to a working poor lawyer...to being a middle-class New Yorker, which is basically the spectrum of the people who are here in our community,” she said.

After graduating law school and working as a housing attorney, Cruz joined the Attorney General’s office, then headed by Andrew Cuomo, before he was elected governor. Cruz served afterwards in the Department of Labor as counsel in the division of immigrant affairs. She worked with former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito -- who has endorsed her -- to write the legislation that kicked ICE agents off Rikers Island. She also returned to working for Cuomo, heading up his Exploited Workers Task Force, after which she joined Council Member Ferreras-Copeland’s staff. Her former boss has endorsed her, as have Council Members Dromm and Van Bramer, Helen Rosenthal, and Margaret Chin.

“We’re a people-driven campaign,” Cruz said of her approach to the race. “We start with people and we end with people. We start with the idea that all of our policies should be informed by people.” Though her policy platform largely resembles Espinal’s, Cruz says she sets herself apart by virtue of her independence, experience, her focus on the residents of the district who cannot vote, and her pledge to refuse corporate and luxury developer money (the latter a promise like one made by Ocasio-Cortez, who attacked Crowley for the large corporate donations he received).

“We are running a campaign that’s very much driven by people that live in the district and we’re independent from any ties to a political organization,” Cruz said.

Those ties or the lack thereof may not be determinative in the Assembly race that does again put the power of the Queens County Democrats in the spotlight, observers who spoke with Gotham Gazette said. One former Assembly candidate from Queens said the path to victory lies in a robust ground game and organization. “You knock on enough doors, you meet enough people, and you raise enough money, and the barriers to entry are very low,” the former candidate said. “How many people are gonna vote in an Assembly race? A few thousand? How much money do you need to raise for an assembly race? $100,000? How many doors are you gonna knock on?...You put your walking shoes on and you can do it. So I think party power is very limited and Ari and Catalina will win or lose on the strengths of their own organic, local operation.”

Democratic insiders pointed out that the Queens Democratic Party’s endorsement comes with political validation but not necessarily the resources to bolster a campaign, such as funding or boots on the ground. It’s why they disputed the characterization of the county party as a machine that can determine the course of campaigns. The party does, however, pressure potential contenders against considering a challenge to an incumbent and often brings with its endorsement a slew of loyal elected officials who coalesce around the county’s candidate and use their own resources and networks to boost them. The party also has connections at the Board of Elections and often attempts to knock challengers off the ballot and at times activates a network of district leaders and county committee members to help with ballot petition signature-gathering, door-knocking, and flyering.

“It seems like [Cruz] has real momentum and...everyone’s going to attest the strength of her campaign to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez but I think the reality of it is the dynamics of that race were shaped well before the congressional race,” said a Queens Democratic operative who asked to remain anonymous to discuss things freely.

“I think people have an impression of the Queens county organization as a faulty machine,” the operative said, insisting that a loss by a county-backed candidate did not mean the so-called machine is faltering. “I think the reality is that’s not what the organization is...In my experience, they support somebody and their support will provide the significant assistance of validation from other elected officials. That’s very helpful...but it was never designed to overcome bad campaigns or great opposing candidates.”

If the incumbent candidate backed by the Queens Democrats loses to an independent challenger, the optics are far from ideal coming so close on the heels of Crowley’s loss. But the county has invested little in the race, said another Democratic insider from Queens who knows both Espinal and Cruz and who decried the term “machine” as a “loaded expression” for a county party that simply tries to elect its own members to office.

But the Queens county organization is undoubtedly powerful. The “machine” moniker stems from the fact that the party holds sway over more than just candidate endorsements -- its backing often also means a candidate will not receive a primary challenger. The county organization selects judicial nominees, and allies of Crowley have made hefty profits from being appointed as guardians in Surrogate’s Court. The party’s executive secretary is Michael Reich, whose partner Gerard Sweeney in the law firm Sweeney, Reich and Bolz, has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of Surrogate’s Court business. The county also selects one of the ten commissioners on the New York City Board of Elections, who decide which candidates qualify to appear on the ballot.

The City Council speaker’s race has more often than not also been decided by the influence of the Queens and Bronx county parties; Council central staffers are frequently picked from the county’s ranks; and Council committee chairs are influenced by county allegiances. And though Crowley may no longer represent the House next year, City & State reported that he’s expected to be reelected county chair by district leaders for another two-year term in September. The county organization did not return a request for comment for this article about its support for Espinal.

“I don’t think it would be a fair characterization to say this is a test of the county organization because I’m not sure they have all hands on deck for this one,” the insider said. The insider insisted that neither candidate needs the county party’s help to win the race, which would be won on the merits of their candidacies, and that Crowley’s fall is more likely to have an effect on the state Senate District 13 race, where Jessica Ramos is challenging Senator Jose Peralta, formerly of the rogue Independent Democratic Conference, which empowered Republicans. “I don’t think the Catalina-Ari race is affected by the Crowley result as much,” the insider said. “I just don’t get the sense that that changed everything...They weren’t dependent on Crowley for the win. Peralta was kinda depending on the county guys propping him up, keeping him strong and I feel like that has turned and now Ramos, if I had to bet, will win that race.”

Cruz herself drew a parallel with Ocasio-Cortez’s win, noting that voters turned out in higher numbers for the progressive challenger than Crowley in his own backyard, which encompasses large parts of the Assembly district, to vote out the incumbent. “[Ocasio-Cortez] believed in the everyday person and the everyday person believed in her so much that they went out and overwhelmingly voted for her,” she said. “And that’s where we find ourselves, in the exact same situation.”

But even she denied that she was poking the bear through her candidacy. “I wouldn’t call it testing their power because I never said I’m running against the machine,” Cruz said. “I’ve always said I’m running for the people. We have an organization that was just shown what people powered campaigns can do and we’re about to show them a second time.”

If anything, the race may show that the Queens party’s once-coveted support has turned sour, seen by some as a signal of establishment politics that has been too out of touch with regular voters. “I think it definitely suffered,” said the Democratic insider of the county party’s endorsement. “It’s very raw and very recent, the whole Joe thing...I don’t know if this is a permanent problem or just a temporary one. But the timing right now is bad for those people.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Assembly Race Poses Another Test for Queens Machine Mon, 16 Jul 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Passed by Senate, Bill Would Allow Public to Call State Agency Hearings http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7750-passed-by-senate-bill-would-allow-public-to-call-state-agency-hearings http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7750-passed-by-senate-bill-would-allow-public-to-call-state-agency-hearings sengianaris press

Senator Gianaris (photo: @sengianaris)


New Yorkers may soon have a new tool to influence their government. A bill in the state Legislature would allow members of the public, given enough support, to compel state agencies to hold public hearings on proposed rules.

The bill (S2397), sponsored in the state Senate by Senator Michael Gianaris of Queens, would establish a three-year pilot program ordering seven regulatory agencies — the Workers' Compensation Board and the Departments of Education, Environmental Conservation, Health, Financial Services, Labor, and Family Assistance — to hold public hearings if at least 125 New Yorkers petition them to do so.

Senator Gianaris told Gotham Gazette that these agencies were selected for being those that “the public would benefit the most from opening up.” The agencies listed craft rules that directly impact ordinary New Yorkers.

The legislation, which passed the Senate unanimously on June 11 and now awaits action in the Assembly, where it has been stuck in committee since early February, also authorizes agencies to use “innovative means” of enhancing public participation in the rulemaking process, including establishing a designated time for public questioning of agency officials, organizing roundtable discussions, and using teleconference technology.

New York could join several other states that require public rulemaking hearings upon petition. California, Arizona, Idaho, New Hampshire, Illinois, and Utah all have similar rules, though none require as many petitioners as New York might. In California, for instance, state agencies are required to host public hearings upon “request of any interested person.”

Similar legislation passed both houses of the State Legislature in 2008, but then-Governor David Paterson, citing “technical flaws,” vetoed the bill. In response to this previous legislative failure, this bill included the Workers’ Compensation Board within its ambit and established a timeliness clause. If a petition is received later than the twentieth day before the last date for public comment, the public hearing becomes optional.

Senator Gianaris told Gotham Gazette that “agencies come out with regulations that have the force of law and [New Yorkers] don’t know anything about it or how the process happened.”

He expressed hope that the legislation would “force agencies to opine on issues that they’d like to ignore and sweep under the rug.” When asked to specify such issues, he named transportation and healthcare, but added that there’s “no limit to the type of thing that people can now have open up to public discussion.”

Anticipating that “one of the main things that will come out of this [legislation] is related to housing issues,” Gianaris called the state’s Housing and Community Renewal agency “completely inaccessible.”

The Senate bill and its companion in the state Assembly, A9737, appear to be identical. The Assembly bill, however, has not progressed beyond its February 5 introduction and referral to the Assembly’s Standing Committee on Governmental Operations. Until it is passed by committee, approved by the full Assembly, merged with S2397, and approved by Governor Cuomo, the aforementioned measures will have no bearing on the functionings of New York state agencies. It’s unclear if Cuomo supports the bill, which would place the burden of implementation upon executive branch agencies under his purview.

Through a spokesperson, Assistant Assembly Speaker Felix W. Ortiz, of Brooklyn, said the bill should be considered next year. The legislative session is scheduled to end for the year on Wednesday.

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by Daniel Yadin for Gotham Gazette

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Passed by Senate, Bill Would Allow Public to Call State Agency Hearings Tue, 19 Jun 2018 04:00:00 +0000
After Hacking Revelations, Assembly Examines New York Election Security http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7340-in-aftermath-of-2016-assembly-examines-new-york-election-security http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7340-in-aftermath-of-2016-assembly-examines-new-york-election-security Cuomo voting election integrity

Gov. Cuomo votes (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)


Is New York ready for an election cyber-attack? Are the state’s voting systems vulnerable to hacking?

The New York State Assembly’s Election Law Committee heard testimony on Tuesday from state and local election board officials and cybersecurity experts on the systems in place to protect the state’s election processes from the types of coordinated cyberattacks that were carried out by Russian actors who sought to influence the 2016 presidential election.

The hearing was prompted by developments in September, when the Department of Homeland Security informed officials from 21 states that their election systems, including their registration databases, were targets of the coordinated Russian hacking effort that also attacked the Democratic National Committee and members of Hillary Clinton’s campaign last year. Although New York was not among them, the news raised concerns among state officials that similar incursions could be levelled against New York election infrastructure.

With the local elections of this year over and a state-level election cycle coming up in 2018, when all of the state Legislature and the four statewide positions will be on the ballot, Assembly members spent four hours Tuesday seeking clarity on how election data is managed, results are counted and recounted, and how the state works with federal and local authorities to detect and prevent cyber attacks like the ones seen last year.

“These attacks were not aberrations, they were not isolated incidents and only the most naive and or the most corrupt would believe that they will not continue into the future,” said Assembly Member Charles Lavine, a Democrat from Nassau County and chair of the committee, in his opening remarks.

Officials from the New York State Board of Elections seemed to put fears at rest almost immediately, even as they acknowledged that certain changes are required and that existing regulations need to be implemented more stringently.

“New York actually has one of the most secure systems in the country,” said Douglas Kellner, co-chair of the state BOE. He noted that the Help America Vote Act passed by the United States Congress in 2002, which enacted reforms to voting systems and provided federal funds for new voting equipment, did not first establish standards for that equipment. New York was one of the last states to comply, but in doing so years later implemented it correctly, he said, “in a manner that provides voters with secure and verifiable elections.”

The state has strict laws requiring certification and testing of both election software and hardware, Kellner said, as well as independent outside reviews of software. Wireless connections and networking capabilities are prohibited in voting equipment and even the computers used to program ballot scanners must be standalone devices without internet connectivity. “That isolation of the system used to set up the voting machines is something relatively unique to New York and it substantially reduces the possibility for the introduction of malware into our voting machines,” Kellner said.

The state also prohibits county boards of elections from contracting with outside vendors to program voting machines, which Kellner did concede could be cumbersome for smaller county boards with limited staff.

Finally, the state requires an audit of three percent of the voting machines used in each county after every election. The audit requirements were a particular focus of the hearing, with good government advocates and cybersecurity experts advocating for a new, more efficient method, called risk-limiting audits, developed in recent years.

Risk-limiting audits randomly choose which ballots to audit for comparison with the paper record, and determine the statistical level at which one can be confident that election results are correct. It results in a changing standard for the number of ballots that have to be audited, depending on the closeness of election results. The closer the race, the more ballots would be examined, for instance. Kellner generally endorsed the idea and recommended that the committee explore legislation to enact the improved system.

Kellner did have his own points to make during his testimony, noting that the law dealing with extremely close contests is “flawed” since escalating from a three percent audit to a full audit requires consensus from election commissioners representing opposing political parties, which is not easy to come by.

As an aside, Kellner, a Democrat, noted that New York would not be able to implement online voting any time soon since “the best technical minds around the world have not solved the problem of maintaining the secret ballot while at the same time ensuring that the ballot is cast and counted in the manner intended by the voter.”

Robert Brehm, co-executive director of the state BOE, said though the board is unaware if New York was directly targeted during the 2016 election, hackers consistently attempt intrusions into their systems and none have significantly affected election administration. The BOE takes a three-pronged approach to cyber-preparedness, he said, which involves developing a comprehensive risk assessment strategy, a strategy for county cyber-readiness, and bolstering plans to respond to individual incidents of cyber-intrusion.

Brehm said state officials cooperate with a slew of federal authorities and are striving to ensure that the information shared between them is also given to county election boards, which lack a strong cybersecurity apparatus and are more vulnerable.

The Assembly members present for the hearing at 250 Broadway in Manhattan, seven Democrats and two Republicans, had a broad range of inquiries. They asked about the board’s experiences with cyber attacks in the past, conclusions on trusted vendors who can work with county boards, and the mechanisms for keeping the legislative and executive branches of government in the loop. They asked about recommendations on electronic poll books (BOE’s Kellner said they had yet to thoroughly examine the proposal, though legislation to implement e-poll books has appeared close to passage in the Legislature), plans to update equipment, and cyber-readiness training for county BOE staff.

At the county level, Brehm conceded, “there’s much more work that’s needed to be done....The voting machines are isolated and very much the voter registration systems are not. They’re part of county infrastructure.” The BOE has full authority, he said, “to promulgate regulations that we are considering with regards to improving our security posture and requirements at the county level, but implementing them is going to be very difficult.”

Assembly Member Robert Carroll of Brooklyn raised the prospect of hackers attempting to purge voters from the rolls, asking the BOE officials how they monitor county BOE rolls. Brehm insisted the board conducts real-time monitoring of voter rolls and is working on updating its system. Carroll also mentioned the infamous purge of nearly 120,000 voters in Brooklyn ahead of the 2016 presidential primary, which Brehm said was due to a procedure being inaccurately followed rather than a failure in the system. He later emphasized the need for greater resources for county boards, and said the BOE would make a more substantial funding request in the upcoming state budget session.

Michael Ryan, executive director of the New York City BOE, also insisted during his testimony that “money is always a critical thing,” although he did praise the cooperative attitude of the state BOE and federal officials.

Ryan said there were initial missteps in communication with federal authorities following the 2016 election cyberattack but the city was prepared for the eventuality. “The good thing is it was the type of circumstances that were built into the protections that were already in place,” he said. He insisted that the board had administered the 2016 and 2017 elections “without an issue of consequence,” but would need to be more vigilant for next year, when there will be congressional, state legislative, and statewide elections in New York. “We’re in pretty good shape...but we’re only in good shape until October of 2018,” he said. “So we really need to take a look at that critically and say, ‘how are we going to plan this out?’”

There were numerous recommendations made to the Assembly committee, some of which involved administrative solutions while yet others require legislative fixes.

Dustin Czarny, commissioner from the Onondaga County BOE said the current voting and election system leaves little time to identify and remedy issues with ballots. He encouraged the Assembly members to pursue electoral reforms such as early voting and no-excuse absentee voting. The two are among a slate of election reforms that have stalled in the Republican-controlled state Senate, with minimal objection from Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo or the Democratic-led Assembly.

Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, a good government group, and Susan Greenhalgh, vice president of programs at Verified Voting, a nonprofit focused on voting system technology, both argued for risk-limiting audits of voting machines.

Lerner pointed out that the current election auditing method looks at the process rather than results -- by testing vote totals from machines instead of directly examining ballots. She insisted that the state must constantly inspect paper ballots for accuracy, must never allow online voting, and must do away with the current system of election audits. “A flat three percent audit really, we feel, doesn’t hit the mark,” she said, agreeing to help legislators and election administrators in crafting legislation on risk-limiting audits.

“We have to look at ways to protect [the election system] as a national security asset,” Greenhalgh said, “and this is something that’s being run at county levels by people who are not in the federal national security space typically.”

Greenhalgh said the focus in computer security was increasingly on “resilience,” allowing a system to function even after it has been hacked. “If we’re looking at resilience in election systems, we want a system that would ensure that voters can vote,” she said, “that their votes get counted correctly...and that the proper outcome is realized.” She also supported the continued use of paper ballots as the simplest means of maintaining physical records, and reiterated the need for risk-limited audits.

“There is a limit to what our security practices, as good as they are in New York, can do,” she said.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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After Hacking Revelations, Assembly Examines New York Election Security Tue, 28 Nov 2017 05:00:00 +0000
Assembly Takes Stock of State Economic Development Programs Ahead of Next Negotiations http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7321-assembly-takes-stock-of-state-economic-development-programs-ahead-of-next-negotiations http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7321-assembly-takes-stock-of-state-economic-development-programs-ahead-of-next-negotiations 34868772685 4a41dee04d z

Howard Zemsky in Buffalo (via Governor's Office)


Ahead of the 2018 legislative session, the New York State Assembly’s Economic Development Committee held a hearing Monday in Albany to evaluate the progress of the state’s multitude of economic development programs and hear testimony from companies and organizations that have benefited from state grants.

Taking center stage was Howard Zemsky, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s economic development czar as president and CEO of Empire State Development, who defended the state’s jobs programs and was grilled for nearly an hour by members of the committee. Committee members, led by chair Robin Schimminger, a Democrat from Erie County, raised concerns about the effectiveness of Buffalo’s annual 43North competition and Regional Economic Development Council grants; lower-than-expected job production; and increased regulatory burdens on small businesses.

Cuomo has staked much of his legacy and devoted billions of state dollars to revitalizing the upstate economy. The state has infused $8 billion a year into economic projects since he took office in 2011, according to a Gannett Albany review. But as Cuomo’s economic development programs have multiplied each year, the Legislature has failed to pass any meaningful oversight measures to ensure transparency, that beneficiaries are meeting job creation goals, or that grants and incentives are going to well-vetted recipients. While some efforts, such as those aimed at farms and breweries, have been successful, others, like Cuomo’s Start-Up New York program, have fallen short of job creation goals.

At Monday’s hearing, Zemsky noted that upstate cities have seen a boom in tech sector jobs, which on average pay more than non-tech sector jobs, and touted a dramatic increase in venture capital investment throughout the state. The Empire State Development head said that ESD takes a “holistic” approach, pointing to the success of its downtown and waterfront revitalization efforts, which aim to attract a younger, more vibrant talent base, and investing in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education.

He briefly defended the Regional Economic Development Councils, which have been accused of favoritism and conflicts of interests, and touted Buffalo as a success story -- a city that has been a major focus for Gov. Cuomo and transformed from a financially depressed post-industrial town to a vibrant hub of entrepreneurship.

“A lot of what we have done in Buffalo we have used as a template in many other parts of the state and I’m proud that we took some risks and took some chance,” said Zemsky. “Every year we improve and make adjustments.”

Schimminger cited an article noting that three-quarters of companies that are attracted to Buffalo by the 43North program have since left the city and inquired about whether the residency requirements, currently a year, could be extended.

“We’re only a few years into the program, but after every year the 43North board reassesses and reevaluates what went right, what didn’t go right, just like we do in government. Is it possible that we might change the regulations, that we might change the time frame? That’s under active discussion,” said Zemsky, noting that many companies retain active connections to Buffalo even after they leave.

Zemsky’s presentation rang hollow for at least one committee member, Assemblymember Raymond Walter, a Republican from Amherst, who told Zemsky to provide hard data about the returns delivered by the state’s Buffalo investments rather than “offering platitudes.”

“Our job here is to draw a direct connection between what we are doing with taxpayer dollars to that renaissance and I’m not convinced you can do that,” said Walter. “If we could focus on that, rather than the platitudes, that would be great.”

Zemsky pointed Walter to ESD’s progress report, insisting the number of new firms has grown and jobs have dramatically accelerated in Buffalo, by “almost any metric,” particularly when compared to other struggling cities.

The conversation quickly turned personal, with Zemsky, who is a Buffalo businessman, accusing the Assembly member of opposing the state’s efforts to spur Buffalo’s economy, and demanding, “Do you go to any of the REDC meetings, do you know anything that is actually going on?”

At one point during the heated exchange about interpreting Buffalo’s jobs data, which Walter said mostly highlights low-skill jobs growth, Zemsky snapped, “You don’t know anything about the innovation economy.”

The biggest indicator of Buffalo’s growth, Zemsky pointed to the rise of the area’s millennial population over the last decade. “Turning the corner on that is the most important thing we can do,” he said.

After Zemsky, the Assembly panel was addressed by various industry leaders and experts, who described how programs like the Start-Up New York jobs program and the Southern Tier Startup Alliance (NYSTAR) have created or retained thousands of jobs and spurred both investment and innovation.

A representative of watchdog group ReInvent Albany then presented the positions of good government organizations, calling for the passage of a number of bills introduced in the Legislature last year, which would increase oversight of and transparency in the state’s economic development programs.

Among the legislative fixes proposed by Reinvent Albany and others is the creation of a “database of deals,” which would digitally list every entity receiving funds from the state along with where each dollar is going; a bill to restore the powers of the state Comptroller to review procurement contracts for SUNY, CUNY, and Office of General Services; and campaign finance restrictions to curb the appearance or reality of pay-to-play politics.

At least two bills, including the database of deals and one requiring nonprofit organizations affiliated with government entities to be subject to the freedom of information law and the open meetings law, are sponsored by Schimminger, but did not make it to the Assembly floor. Legislation related to procurement reform appeared to gain steam early this year in light of a major bid-rigging scandal that will see close associates of and donors to Cuomo on trial for corruption in 2018, but nothing was passed as the Legislature acquiesced to the governor’s objections.

“The only thing the Legislature did do is write a check for $1.8 billion in the extender budget passed in April, a blank check granted by the Legislature to Governor Cuomo for economic development projects with no additional oversight,” said Alex Camarda, senior policy advisor for Reinvent Albany.

Schimminger welcomed Camarda’s comments, saying that  good government groups are “preaching to the choir” when they call for increased accountability and oversight.

“Not a single one of those bills that you mentioned have been blocked by the committee, in fact, many of them -- the database of deals, the Start-Up fix -- have come out of the committee but are delayed elsewhere,” said the Assembly member, referring to the fact that the legislation had been held up in other legislative committees.

The wisdom behind Start-Up New York, which creates tax-free zones for new businesses, local development corporations and other economic development programs is the finding that startups create significantly more jobs than companies that have matured 10 to 30 years and drive economic development. But critics say these programs continue to fall short of the job creation goals and many beneficiaries of these state incentives have failed to report on sufficient or any progress made through their grants.

Despite the fact that several members of Cuomo’s circle are set to appear in court next year for their roles in the bid-rigging scandal involving the state’s Buffalo Billion program, a second round of cash investment to the project was approved in this year’s budget, with no new accountability measures.

While Schimminger acknowledged these problems in his opening remarks, the hearing was primarily an information-gathering session, and those outstanding issues will be addressed during the next legislative session, he told Camarda. The governor will unveil his next executive budget in January, leading to months of negotiations and hearings.

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Assembly Takes Stock of State Economic Development Programs Ahead of Next Negotiations Tue, 14 Nov 2017 05:00:00 +0000
Departure of Assembly Ethics Official Prompts Calls for Broader Reforms http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7294-departure-of-assembly-ethics-official-prompts-calls-for-broader-reforms http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7294-departure-of-assembly-ethics-official-prompts-calls-for-broader-reforms Carl Heastie Assembly

Carl Heastie (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)


When ethics expert Jane Feldman’s departure from the New York State Assembly, and her appraisal of the experience as “as waste of money,” was first reported by the Times Union last week, many saw it as another blow to reform efforts in Albany.

Feldman told the outlet she she “didn’t do anything” and called her hiring as executive director of the Office of Ethics and Compliance in September 2015 a “P.R. move.” The office itself, according to Feldman, was a windowless space on the ninth floor of the Legislative Office Building with airflow problems that had been carved out of a larger conference room.

Two years ago, the office was created by Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie as part of the newly-selected speaker’s larger commitment to introduce more ethics and transparency measures to the 150-seat chamber. Promises were made, in part, to appease critics frustrated by the backroom speakership appointment process, and to signal a new era after that of infamous former Speaker Sheldon Silver.

Heastie, a representative of the Bronx, created a working group on rules reform, led by Assemblymembers Brian Kavanagh, of Manhattan, and Gary Pretlow, of Mount Vernon, and vowed to choose an “independent” advisor who could offer guidance to members and offer suggestions for improving Assembly processes. Feldman, who previously headed the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission for six years, was chosen by a six-person team following a nationwide search, and was seen as a fresh and independent perspective, someone from outside Albany’s long-standing and secretive power structures.

But during her two years in Albany, Feldman says she rarely spoke to Heastie and found even members who were interested in reforming the Albany process rebuffed her suggestions.

"There are so many things that are so entrenched,” said Feldman, in an interview with Gotham Gazette. “There are a lot of good members who I think want to see ethics reforms, but when I would tell them how other states do things, the attitude was, 'well, that would never work here.'"

Heastie’s office chalked up her experience to a misunderstanding about the job description, saying in a statement, “there was a disconnect between our expectations for the office and this individual’s view of her responsibilities.”

But good government watchdogs say the larger problem is that no in-house advisor could make much of a dent in Albany’s ways, including how the legislative houses operate, the loophole-riddled campaign finance system, an opaque budget negotiation process, and flawed oversight structures.

“Internal oversight is sort of an oxymoron,” said New York Public Interest Group’s Blair Horner. “The fundamental problem is you can’t really self-regulate when it comes to ethics. It’s like self-policing. An honor system only works for the honorable.”

While it might have been helpful to have a person for members to go to for advice, Feldman’s described duties essentially duplicated the role of the Legislative Ethic Commission (LEC), a bi-partisan entity comprised of senators, Assembly members, and outside experts that provides advice to lawmakers on outside income, fundraising, and other conflict of interest queries. In at least one instance, this created a conflict, when the LEC offered one lawmaker different advice than Feldman did about whether the lawmaker could accept a speaking engagement, Feldman told the Times Union.

It would be difficult to reconcile the two interpretations of the law given that opinions produced by the LEC are not made available to the public, and even Feldman said she could not access them. Legislative ethics advisory bodies in other states all make their opinions available to the public, and some of them even tweet out their opinions, she noted.

Even the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE), which acts in an advisory role for the executive branch, and its predecessor agencies have made opinions public and publishes a bulk of information online.

By many accounts, the Assembly has become more democratic under Heastie. The majority Democratic conference is consulted more frequently during budget negotiations, leadership opportunities are created for new members, and more hearings for legislation are held. Silver’s extremely intense grip on power has been loosened by his successor. But these strides are “infinitesimally small compared to the needs of the state, which is for radical overhaul of ethics oversight in New York,” according to Horner. “To have an office in the Assembly -- even if it doesn’t have any windows -- to sort of generate recommendations and answers to people’s questions is sort of in the chicken soup category. It doesn’t deal with the cancer of corruption that has plagued the Capitol.”

John Kaehny, executive director of ReInvent Albany, said that the biggest problem plaguing state government is its rampant pay-to-play culture. But while the overwhelmingly Democratic Assembly has repeatedly passed legislation that would curb the notorious LLC loophole, which allows wealthy interests to attempt to influence lawmakers with virtually unlimited campaign donations, the bill has been blocked from consideration in the Republican-controlled Senate. Other efforts at campaign finance reform, including instituting lower caps on individual donations and a public-matching system, have also stalled.

“If it were up to the Assembly, they would probably pass a New York City-style small donor matching campaign finance system, but that’s not the law, and they have to exist within a system that is really corrupt and just a complete swamp of money,” said Kaehny. “So the question of what exactly Jane Feldman was supposed to do is a little elusive.”

When Heastie announced a 2016 ethics reform package -- which included a bill limiting outside income for lawmakers and closure of the LLC loophole -- Feldman said she learned about it viewing the roll-out on T.V., and it became obvious that the job was not as she felt it had been described to her during interviews with the search committee and with the Speaker.

In a statement, Heastie spokesperson Mike Whyland said, “the office was created as a training and expertise resource for members and staff and independent of the Speaker’s office. It was never meant as a position that would craft policy and take part in negotiations, something that would obviously compromise the independent nature of the office. This is an independent, bipartisan office that serves both the majority and the minority and thus has no responsibilities to negotiate laws.”

According to Heastie's own press release, the Feldman was supposed to be involved in "reviewing best practices in legislative ethics to make recommendations for improvements." 

But Feldman said the Assembly was resistant to changes as small as publicizing on its website the times that it would go into legislative session. She said she was told that the parties go into conference so it was impossible to predict. “To me this is kind of archaic, but the way members learned what time session would be, is they would get a phone call that said ‘session is going to be at 11.’”

“I was told many times by people that I saw my job as much more important than it was intended to be,” said Feldman.

In 2015, good government groups sent a series of proposals to Kavanaugh and Pretlow for how the Assembly rules could be improved. The letter, signed by Common Cause, Citizens Union, NYPIRG, ReInvent Albany, and the Brennan Center for Justice, recommended that rank-and-file members be able to independently bring legislation with majority support to the floor -- even over objection of leadership -- that allocation of resources be more equitably distributed among members, as well as other transparency and efficiency measures.

“There was resistance to our recommendations, because they didn’t like anything that encroaches on the power of the speaker,” said Horner. “They did make some changes, but I still think there’s a long way to go.”

The working group was criticized for not holding any public hearings and for failing to include input from members of the minority conference, but it did produce a lengthy list of recommendations. The fixes were technological and procedural, with an eye on more transparency and communication, such as ensuring wi-fi service throughout the Assembly chamber, increased use of text alerts for staff and members, improvements to the Assembly legislation database, and livestreaming more committee meetings. There were a handful of notable changes to the committee process, such as one that would allow all members five opportunities to force a bill to be voted on in committee.

“I think there were 90 suggestions that we made, some of them take a longer time than others to be addressed, and most of them were accepted by the speaker,” said Pretlow.

But helping to craft the Assembly’s internal rules reform also, apparently, did not fall under Feldman’s purview. Pretlow said Feldman was not at all involved, adding that he did not interact with her during her time in Albany. Feldman, in an email, clarified that the working group met and had decided on recommendations shortly before she arrived in Albany.

Whyland did not respond to a request for comment on whether any candidates have emerged to replace Feldman or whether the role would be redefined, but he told the Times Union that the Assembly is looking to fill her former post with "someone who understands New York law, truly grasps the serious responsibilities of the office and its independent and bipartisan nature, and is willing to carry out its mission in full."

Clarification: The article has been updated to indicate that decisions about rules reform in the Assembly were made prior to Feldman's arrival.

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Departure of Assembly Ethics Official Prompts Calls for Broader Reforms Thu, 02 Nov 2017 04:00:00 +0000