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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]

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by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

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

Agenda 2019: Queens District Attorney Race Will Center on Push for Reform


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Rory Lancman (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


Off-year elections in New York City, like the one next year, tend to hold little significance and command minimal attention, with few positions on the ballot and no headlining executive race like mayor or governor. But in Queens, next year will offer a momentous opportunity for voters to make a decision that could dramatically affect the lives of residents of the country’s most diverse county and potentially establish a new paradigm for criminal justice there, with reverberations beyond.

In 2019, Queens District Attorney Richard Brown, a Democrat who has held his seat for 28 years, is not expected to run for reelection, and those seeking to replace him have made clear that they would break from his tough-on-crime policies that they say have disparately and adversely affected low-income communities of color and modernize the office. As the top prosecutor in each county, district attorneys hold substantial authority over how the law is enforced, working in conjunction with the police. They have broad investigatory powers and can bring both criminal charges and civil litigation.

The Queens DA’s office under Brown is among the last to embrace a shift in the conversation around criminal justice away from a punitive system to one focused more on rehabilitation and restoration. Brown, 85, has done little to break from the conservative practices of what appears to be a bygone era, especially in New York City and other big cities around the country. The race to replace him is likely going to be a contentious competition to see who can promise the most drastic shifts toward progressive prosecutorial conduct.

Unlike the district attorneys in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the Bronx, Brown has been slower to ease the prosecution of low-level offenses, including for marijuana arrests and fare evasion, largely ignored calls for reducing or ending the use of cash bail, and has rejected funding that would allow his office to set up a dedicated unit to investigate wrongful convictions. Following the lead of other district attorneys and after repeatedly declining to do so, his office did move to clear hundreds of thousands of outstanding warrants for low-level offenses.

In the first half of this year, Queens disproportionately accounted for the number of pre-trial detainees in jail accused of misdemeanors, according to a Gothamist report. Those prosecutions additionally impact undocumented immigrants, who could potentially face deportation stemming from low-level charges. And as the city moves to close the Rikers Island jail complex, Brown’s office has indicated that it would prefer it remain open.

Having remained in office for the better part of three decades, and with his well-documented struggle with Parkinson’s disease, Brown is widely expected to finish his time in office at the end of next year (he hasn’t said if he will resign before his term ends). “My present term does not expire until December 2019 and I will make no decision about the future until sometime next year,” Brown said in a statement.

“He’s been a tough as nails prosecutor. He doesn’t seem to want to implement any progressive reforms to the laws under his jurisdiction and under his authority,” said Jon McFarlane, a Queens resident for 40 years and a volunteer at Court Watch NYC, a collaboration among three advocacy groups aimed at monitoring cases that makes their way through the criminal courts. “He’s had tremendous power over the last two, two-and-a-half decades and he’s only used that power to criminalize black, brown and Latino people.”

McFarlane said that advocates have “new hope” that progressive reforms will soon pass in the state Legislature and that Brown’s replacement will be someone who institutes reform rather than punishment. “We’re looking for candidates that will end the prison pipeline out of [our] neighborhoods, we’re looking for candidates that will end mass incarceration, we’re looking for progressive candidates that will implement bail reform,” he said.

Two Democrats have already declared their intentions to seek the office. The first to jump into the race was New York City Council Member Rory Lancman, who is running as a progressive diametrically opposed to the office’s current policies. “The criminal justice system is broken,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s racist. It’s discriminatory against poor people. It fails to protect working people and we’re gonna reform it from top to bottom.”

His only opponent right now is retired Queens Supreme Court Justice Gregory Lasak, a veteran prosecutor who says he alone knows how to reform that office since he worked there for 25 years. “The district attorney is not a job for a politician,” Lasak said in a phone interview. “You have to have the experience and the skill because you’re making decisions that affect people’s lives...and I think there’s nobody that has the wealth of experience that I have in doing that and I will continue to do that.”

Queens Borough President Melinda Katz has long been rumored to be considering a bid as well but has yet to make any announcements. A nongovernmental spokesperson for Katz declined to comment. And Mina Malik, a Harvard professor and former Queens assistant district attorney, might also jump into the race, according to a Queens Daily Eagle report. Malik declined to comment in an email to Gotham Gazette.  

Advocates for criminal justice reform have made clear that no matter the candidates, they believe there must be changes in how the office treats the people of Queens, particularly the communities of color that have suffered the ill effects of a system of mass incarceration. On October 30, advocates from several organizations rallied outside the Queens Criminal Courthouse, demanding those reforms from the district attorney’s office now.

Andrea Colon, community engagement organizer at the Rockaway Youth Task Force, said the next district attorney should not be “a factor” in mass incarceration. “I think anyone can see that [DA Brown] is a defender of the status quo,” she said in a phone interview. “There’s a lot of work to be done.”

Colon said the diversity of the borough should be reflected in the DA’s office and that the next officeholder should move away from a punitive approach to the job. “It’s also about being an advocate, making sure that role is not just simply about prosecuting people who come through your door,” she said. “It’s about advocating for things like legislation up in Albany or in the city that will impact the people of Queens.”

Lancman has spent years doing just that, he said in the interview, previously as a member of the State Assembly and as a Council member for the last five years — in his first term, he chaired the Committee on Courts and Legal Services, which was redesigned by the new Council speaker this year to create a separate Committee on the Justice System which Lancman now heads. He believes he is the most progressive of any candidate in the race, even if those rumored to join the race do so. “As a government official I’ve expressly taken on the responsibility of trying to reform the criminal justice system and have used the governmental tools at my disposal to reform the criminal justice system.”

Though he has spent years in government, Lancman does not have any prosecutorial experience, having worked as an attorney in private practice and teaching at St. John’s University in Queens. He holds a law degree from Columbia Law School.

A vocal critic of Mayor Bill de Blasio and the NYPD, Lancman has attempted to pass bills that would make policing more transparent and accountable and has been successful in small ways, in lieu of state action, in making it easier to pay bail. He has tried to make the use of a chokehold by police illegal -- it is currently only banned by department rules — and, after the NYPD refused to release data on arrests for fare-beating as required by a law that Lancman sponsored, he sued the city.

As district attorney, Lancman said he would unilaterally implement many of the reforms that have languished in the state Legislature for years, but which are expected to finally pass with both legislative chambers heading to Democratic control come January -- Republicans who have controlled the Senate blocked many of the bills. Lancman said he wouldn’t prosecute a “laundry list” of low-level offenses “that are giving black and brown kids records for the rest of their lives,” would not ask for cash bail “under any circumstance,” would end the so-called “ready rule” practice that DAs use to deny defendants a speedy trial and implement full open-file discovery. He also expressed support for a bill passed this year by the state legislature and signed into law by Governor Cuomo establishing a first-in-the-nation commission on prosecutorial misconduct.

“There’s nothing that’s out of the DA’s hand,” he said, before making a somewhat veiled reference to Lasak. “That’s the important thing to understand. The people who built the Queens DA’s office are not the ones to reform the Queens DA’s office and every criminal justice reform that matters to people can be accomplished by having the right person as Queens DA.”

He continued, “It’s not merely to confront the racism and discrimination against poor people that permeates the criminal justice system but also to refocus the office’s priorities to help working people.” He said he would focus on issues such as wage theft and unsafe workplace conditions, predatory housing practices and tenant harassment, and sexual assault. “We waste all this time and energy prosecuting these low level offenses, fighting to keep people in jail just because they don’t have money, playing games with the discovery rules that make it impossible for people to defend themselves in court, instead of focusing on things that are really making working people unsafe,” he said.

“The DA’s office is unique in that it requires serious preparation and a very detailed understanding of the office and a detailed commitment to the issues the office confronts,” Lancman said, “and I will put that level of demonstrated commitment, experience and planning up against any candidate in the race.”

Of course, Lasak believes he is the candidate who brings the most experience to the table, not Lancman. “There’s no comparison in terms of experience,” he said in a phone interview. A hard-nosed prosecutor with more than two decades experience in the Queens DA’s office, Lasak became chief of the homicide division when he was 30. When Brown took over, Lasak was the executive assistant DA of the major crimes division and was later in charge of the homicide investigations and homicide trial bureaus and the special victims bureau, and he set up the office’s domestic violence bureau. “Most of my career’s been dedicated to combating violent crime,” he said.

Heading up homicide prosecutions for nearly two decades earned Lasak the moniker “Mr. Murder.” He wasn’t sure where it originated from — a New York Times profile from 2003, when Lasak was elected State Supreme Court Justice, offered little about the origins of the name — but how does he feel about it? “Doesn’t bother me,” he said with a chuckle.

Lasak’s argument is that he can reform the office because he is intimately familiar with how it works. “To reform the place, you can’t sit looking at it from the outside if you don’t know how it works on a day-to-day basis,” he said.

Though his background smacks of the type of stern policies Brown’s office is known for, he is making a softer pitch as a candidate, similar to Lancman’s. He wants to reform bail procedures, ensure speedy trials and discovery reform.

“I’ve been out of that office nearly 15 years. The world has changed, Queens has changed, but the office has to change too,” he said. “The assistant district attorneys in the office should reflect the changing demographics of Queens County, the most diverse county in the world, and the office has not changed along those lines. I want it to reflect the diversity of our population here in Queens, including at the highest levels of the office.”

He said he’d take a “good hard look” at how the office handles low-level nonviolent offenses and bail. “My rule when I was there was, if you’re not gonna ask for jail time at the end of the case, you have no business asking for bail at the beginning of the case, and I will make sure that is a policy of the office,” he said, particularly cognizant of how the enforcement of small marijuana possession cases has impacted communities of color. “Once you stick a criminal record on a young man, you scar him for life. I don’t want to do that. We’re losing too many young men, especially in the minority community...I want to give them another chance,” he said.

He also stressed that, as DA, he would ensure any potential wrongful convictions are reviewed by senior prosecutors and detectives, as he said he used to do when he worked there.

There is, however, greater daylight between Lasak and Lancman on the proposed plan for the closure of the Rikers Island jail complex. In September, Lancman publicly debated a Queens assistant district attorney about the closure of the jails on the island -- the Queens DA and Staten Island DA are the only two in the city opposing the plan. Lancman, who supports it, said he will make it a central campaign issue “because where you stand on Rikers and where you have been on Rikers tells us everything we need to know about where you stand on reforming the criminal justice system and what kind of DA you will be.”

Lasak said he has not closely studied the Rikers plan, which includes demolishing the current Queens detention facility and building a newer, more modern one so detainees can be housed closer to their homes and to the courthouse. Lasak pointedly refused to take a position on it, despite being repeatedly asked. “Rikers Island is really not an issue for the district attorney,” he said. “My concern is that people who are on Rikers Island, make sure they belong on Rikers Island. I don’t want anyone sitting on Rikers Island that doesn’t belong there.”

Advocates intend on holding the candidates, whoever should win, accountable for their words.

“I think it’s one thing to say that you’re for criminal justice reform,” said Colon from Rockaway Youth Task Force, “and it’s another to actually act on that.”

Nick Malinowski of VOCAL-NY, one of the groups that make up Court Watch NYC, put the Queens DA’s race in the context of a national movement and growing awareness around prosecutorial accountability and the discretionary powers that district attorneys have at their disposal. “I think there’s a growing understanding across the country about the impact that prosecutors have and that kind of movement and understanding is definitely coming to Queens,” he said.

Malinowski pointed to the recent elections of progressive reform-minded district attorneys in other states -- Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, and Rachael Rollins in Suffolk County, Massachusetts -- as an example of where Queens should be headed. Considering the size and diversity of New York City’s second-most populous borough, he said that this election could be one of the most consequential in the city, if not the entire nation -- the Bronx and Staten Island DAs are up for reelection next year, but Queens is expected to be the lone ‘empty seat’ race.

“I think there’s a good case for the Queens DA to be the single-most progressive DA in the country,” Malinowski said.

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by Samar Khurshid, Senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Max & Murphy Podcast: Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins


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


November 14, 2018 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins

asc andreastewartcousinswbai crpDemocrat Andrea Stewart-Cousins is on the verge of becoming the majority leader of the New York State Senate -- and she'll be the first woman and first woman of color to lead a legisative chamber in New York. Just more than a week after Democrats dominated Election Day in New York to flip the upper chamber of the state Legislature and ensure full Democratic control of state government, Stewart-Cousins joined the show to discuss her vision for the path ahead.

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
     

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Max & Murphy Podcast: Assemblymember Latrice Walker


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


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

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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With Full Democratic Control, Sponsors of New York Single-Payer Health Care Hopeful About 2019


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


Though Governor Andrew Cuomo has not expressed support for instituting a single-payer health care system in New York, his fellow Democrats campaigned on the issue as they flipped control of the state Senate, landing all of state government into Democratic hands and providing a significant boost of optimism to the lead sponsors of the New York Health Act, which would create a government-administered single-payer health care system.

The bill has passed the Democrat-dominated state Assembly several times and all the members of Senate Democratic conference signed on as co-sponsors at the end of last legislative session in a unified show of support for the program heading into the election season.

Cuomo has said he supports a Medicare for all-type system at the federal level, but cast doubts on the cost and complexity of doing it in New York, and since their resounding wins on Election Day, the incoming leaders of the Democratic Senate majority have indicated that the massive undertaking of single-payer is not at the top of the agenda.

Still, with Democratic control of the Senate and the Assembly by wide margins, single-payer healthcare could be passed as early as the 2019 session, according to Assemblymember Richard Gottfried, chair of the Assembly Health Committee and lead sponsor of the New York Health Act.

“It was clear in the country and New York that healthcare was the number one issue on voters’ minds,” Gottfried said, before pointing to his legislation. “A solid majority of the new state Senate has either been a cosigner, voted for it in the Assembly, or campaigned on it. So I think we’re on track to get it passed in the Assembly and state Senate.”

The New York Health Act would replace health insurance companies with New York state government as the payer of healthcare costs for all New Yorkers. It has been passed in the Assembly four years running but has yet to be voted on in the Senate, where Republicans have held control. All of the other 30 Democratic senators joined lead sponsor Senator Gustavo Rivera of the Bronx to co-sponsor the legislation, though the Senate Democratic conference is seeing significant turnover due to primary wins by insurgent challengers. But, those challengers have in general been even more vocally supportive of single-payer health care than their more moderate predecessors. These facts give Gottfried confidence that the New York Health Act will pass during the 2019 session, which begins in January.

But the bill still faces an uphill battle, in part because of the massive changes it would institute, and the fact that though it might reduce overall individual and business healthcare costs after implementation, for the state to run the system it would require raising taxes significantly, something many Democrats have promised not to do and Cuomo is vehemently opposed to. It would also drastically impact the state’s private and public hospitals, the health insurance industry, and more. Some of the changes would of course be beneficial to New Yorkers, but the undertaking is complex and the New York Health Act as currently written leaves a lot of detail undetermined, including funding.

The governor has repeatedly opposed single-payer healthcare at the state level, suggesting that it would be more rational and financially feasible if administered by the federal government. Cuomo questioned in the past how a single-payer system could be put in place without doubling the tax burden, and cited California’s and Vermont’s debates over single-payer — which both ended when supporters were not able to answer one question: where would the funding come from? — as paragons of the impracticality of state-level single-payer.

Gottfried, a Manhattan Democrat, is confident that with his fellow lead sponsor Senator Rivera, who is likely to be the Senate health committee chair come January, and other legislators, he will be able to sway Cuomo to support the legislation.

“He’s obviously not on board yet, but he and his staff are very open to working with the Legislature on the issue,” Gottfried said. “I’m convinced we can satisfy their concerns.”

And after a recent study by RAND Corporation concluded that the New York Health Act would result in a reduction of administrative costs, provide all New Yorkers with healthcare, and reduce healthcare costs for most, Gottfried says the financing of the bill will not be a problem.

“New Yorkers are all going to have to think about what they will do with the hundreds of thousands of dollars that will end up in their pockets, and that’s a nice problem to have,” Gottfried said.

The study has a caveat, however, stating in its conclusion that “the estimated effects depend heavily on the assumptions about provider payments, administrative costs and drug prices.” Politico highlighted these assumptions as well as the likely tax increases that have largely been brushed aside by Democrats supporting the legislation. Wealthy people leaving the state, companies restructuring, the cost of hospital expenses rising at a faster rate or the Trump administration not issuing a federal waiver to redirect all healthcare-related funds to the new state entity are all possible events that could result in RAND’s conclusion falling apart.

For it to work, while health care costs drop, taxes would undoubtedly increase significantly for many New Yorkers. As cited by Politico, “a household reporting $150,000 in income would see its state tax rate increase from 6.45 percent in 2017 to 18.3 percent,” under one model scenario. Additionally, those who receive Medicaid or fall under the state’s Essential Plan, which subsidizes health insurance for low-income New Yorkers, have less to gain from the expansion. According to RAND, though, 1.2 million New Yorkers would gain health coverage.

It is likely that funds for New York single-payer health care would partially come from a new payroll tax, which RAND projects to fall largely on employers. However, RAND suggests the health act payroll tax would cost less for businesses already contributing toward employee health insurance and the Medicare payroll tax, estimating decreases in employer costs fairly quickly.

Concerns about businesses and high-income individuals leaving the state persist, with a tax atmosphere in New York that many, including Cuomo, acknowledge is already burdensome and became more so for many taxpayers, especially top earners, under the new federal tax code.

Senator Rivera, aware that cost is the primary argument against single-payer health care, repeatedly emphasized the need to work towards a version of the bill that would reduce the financial strain.

“I will continue working diligently with Assembly Member Gottfried, Senate Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins and the Senate Democratic Conference to make the New York Health Act a bill that is not only fiscally responsible, but that provides comprehensive coverage to all New Yorkers,” Rivera wrote in an email to Gotham Gazette.

The bill and its potential ramifications have been studied closely by Bill Hammond, director of health policy at The Empire Center, a think tank. "Regardless of which party controls the state Senate, the New York Health Act remains a wildly unrealistic idea," Hammond said by email. "It means putting New York's entire health-care system — representing one-fifth of the economy — in the hands of the same state government that struggles to run the subways. It requires massive, draconian tax hikes, enough to roughly triple total state revenues."

"Plus, a true single-payer plan would need federal waivers that the Trump administration has vowed to block," Hammond continued, also noting a political angle -- that if Democrats spend great sums of money and political capital on a health care overhaul of this magnitude, what will they ignore, like fighting climate change or improving mass transit.

"It was easy to cast a symbolic yes vote for a single-payer bill that had no chance of passing," Hammond said. "Now that that it might actually happen, supporters are going to be forced to confront the practical realities. Then, hopefully, they’ll focus on helping the 6% of New Yorkers who still lack insurance, rather than disrupting coverage for those who already have it."

Rivera acknowledged that moving to single-payer would not satisfy everyone, especially those who benefit from the current system, and that there are negotiations to come that will likely adjust the bill to make it more palatable to holdouts.

“The biggest challenge will be to reach a consensus among stakeholders that the NY Health Act is feasible [and] fiscally responsible,” Rivera wrote.

Citing “healthcare practitioners, prescription drug companies, healthcare providers, employers, unions and New Yorkers,” as the various groups involved, Rivera also mentioned courting Cuomo as an important step to take in the coming legislative session.

“Our main priority for the next legislative session is to continue shaping the bill so that it is feasible, affordable, that the Governor is willing to sign, and that primarily, provides quality healthcare for everybody,” Rivera wrote. “During the next legislative session, we will focus on making the necessary amendments to the bill so that it truly reflects the different healthcare needs affecting all New Yorkers.”

For now, it is very difficult to imagine Cuomo coming on board, especially given the pains he’s taken to keep state spending increases at around 2 percent per year and to lower taxes. Asked about single-payer health care during a Thursday appearance on The Capitol Pressroom with host Susan Arbetter, Cuomo painted it as unrealistic given budget constraints. He said Democrats are generally in agreement on the concept, but legislators will have to deal with reality in working with him on a state budget next year, while he also said he thinks it's much more workable on the federal level. “Single-payer health plan, for example," Cuomo said, "conceptually I think it’s the right way to go in. I believe it’s more feasible financially on the national level. No state has been able to finance the transition costs.”

A variety of factors, including the challenge of getting Cuomo’s support and not wanting to come into power quickly pursuing something as revolutionary as single-payer health care, may be why the likely next Senate majority leader, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, and her likely deputy, Senator Michael Gianaris, have not highlighted it as top priorities for the coming session.

Assemblymember Gottfried noted that state Senators’ public approval of the bill gives him no reason not to “take them at their word,” and said he expects the legislation to move through the Legislature. He knows that private health insurers are certain to vehemently oppose the continued push.

“The insurance industry will be fiercely lobbying against the bill and they have a lot of money, going up against their lobbying will take a lot of work,” Gottfried said. “but I’m convinced with so many senators on the record in support of the bill, we will prevail.”

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by Victor Porcelli, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

This article has been updated with Cuomo's comments from 11/15/18 on The Capitol Pressroom.

More Formerly Incarcerated New Yorkers Were Able to Vote This Year, But Barriers Remain


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Lymus Rivera and family (photo: Beatrix Lockwood)


Advocates say misinformation and lack of education can suppress votes

Lymus Rivera brought his whole family to the polls on Election Day. His wife and daughter were there, and his son even brought his grandson along. They took pictures and stood proudly alongside him as he cast his ballot.

“It was a celebration,” Rivera said. “When I think about voting, I think about redemption. I think about being a part of society where I was once part of the problem.”

Rivera was one of the roughly 35,000 people re-enfranchised by Governor Andrew Cuomo as part of an April executive order granting voter restoration pardons to people on parole.

The move was celebrated by criminal justice reform advocates as a step toward equal constitutional rights for all citizens. Still, significant barriers stand in the way of the ballot box for formerly incarcerated people. Out of the tens of thousands of people granted voting pardons by Cuomo, only an estimated 1,000 had registered by early October, according to data compiled by the Brennan Center for Justice and presented at a City Council hearing.

That small number points to “miseducation and misinformation,” said Isabel Zeitz-Moskin of the National Action Network at an October City Council hearing, “not a lack of interest among justice-involved people.”

“People still don’t believe that they have the right to vote as a justice-involved individual,” Zeitz-Moskin said. “And it is no wonder they have this skepticism with the amount of misinformation that is originating from the state itself.”

New York law, which allows people who are on probation to vote, but not people who are on parole. The executive order restored the voting rights to people who are on parole, meaning they have been released from prison before their sentence is finished, on certain conditions. The executive order was not a change to the law, but created a process in which people on parole could apply for “voter restoration pardons” from the governor’s office.

Six months after Cuomo signed his executive order, the New York City Campaign Finance Board website and its voter guide failed to include information about the voter restoration pardons. The CFB did not update its materials until late October, just days before New Yorkers headed to the polls.

Advocates like Zeitz-Moskin say mistakes like this are sometimes the result of confusion among BOE employees. On multiple occasions, she and people she knew were told by Board of Elections employees that in order to register, people on parole needed to turn in their pardons along with registration forms, despite the fact that this was not BOE policy. New York law, which allows people who are on probation to vote, but not people who are on parole, also leads to confusion among BOE staff, many of whom are not well-versed in criminal justice terminology and fail to differentiate between the two.

Although the office has granted thousands of pardons, voter enfranchisement for this population has not been codified in state law. Confusion remains among formerly incarcerated people, many of whom fear violating the terms of their parole, or simply do not know they are eligible to vote.

“Some people on parole are distrusting of the system that incarcerated them and do not want to engage with it,” said Nick Encalada-Malinowski, the Civil Rights Campaign Director at Vocal New York. “And some people think that if they have a felony conviction they are not eligible.”

“There is very little effort by the government to actually ensure that people are re-enfranchised,”   Encalada-Malinowski said. “This is why people should never lose the right to vote to begin with.” He said that his organization had heard from poll workers that some people on parole showed up to vote on Tuesday, not realizing that they had to be registered. “They heard from the news that people on parole could vote, and showed up, only to be denied.”

“These are people who never voted in their life,” said Vidal Guzman, a Community Organizer at JustLeadership USA. “You just give them a ballot and they don't know what's next.”

“There’s a lot of people who don’t vote because of the fear of being embarrassed and not knowing how to vote,” he said. “And they don’t believe they can make a difference in their communities.”

Howard Harris, who works for the Fortune Society’s Alternatives to Incarceration Program, says he doesn’t think the information about voter pardons is being disseminated to people just coming out of prison. “I have had a couple of clients who didn’t realize that they had the opportunity to vote.”

Harris, who himself was re-enfranchised by Cuomo’s executive order, said he was “mesmerized” by the experience of voting for the first time in the New York primary.

Harris said that during his first two years home from prison, he was angered by the fact that he had to pay taxes but wasn’t able to vote. “It was discouraging to think I’ve served my time for the crime that I’ve committed and now I’m not even allowed to do my civic duty.”

“There are 36,000 parolees in New York state who have the opportunity to vote now,” he said. “That’s a little voting bloc. That could change the course of an election and I want to be a part of that.”

According to the Sentencing Project, two percent of black New Yorkers are disenfranchised by New York State law, a population that could, conceivably, swing a local election.

For that reason, some on the other side of the aisle saw Cuomo’s executive order as a cynical move in an election year. Some Republicans even argued that that the move endangered public safety by granting “secretive pardons to cop killers, sex offenders, and violent felons.”

Cuomo’s Republican opponent Marc Molinaro seized on the governor in a campaign ad featuring the widow of Herman Bell, who was released on parole this year after spending 40 years in prison for the murder of two New York City police officers. “Governor Cuomo and his parole board set this cold-blooded killer free,” she says in the ad. “Then Governor Cuomo gave him the right to vote.”

But criminal justice advocates say it’s especially important for people who have been in the justice system to have the right to vote, to participate in civic life as they work to reintegrate. “Voting is a categorical good, but especially for people who are formerly incarcerated or involved in the criminal justice system,” Perry Grossman, Voting Rights Project Attorney at the New York Civil Liberties Union said. “They have unique issues that they are dealing with that provide the electorate with the perspective they can’t get elsewhere.”

It’s also a population that is especially important to hear from in an election, said Perry Grossman, Voting Rights Project Attorney at the New York Civil Liberties Union. “Voting is a categorical good, but especially for people who are formerly incarcerated or involved in the criminal justice system,” he said. “They have unique issues that they are dealing with that provide the electorate with the perspective they can’t get elsewhere.”

“Civic engagement and political participation are important aspects of rehabilitation,” he added, which is one reason law enforcement agencies like the American Probation and Parole Association have advocated for re-enfranchisement of all people on parole. “The more connections people on parole have with their community, the less likely they are to engage in behavior that can lead to recidivism.”

“You can’t hurt anybody with the right to vote,” Grossman said. “All you can do is help people become better citizens.”

***
by Beatrix Lockwood for Gotham Gazette
@BeeLockwood

Cuomo's Third Term Agenda Takes Shape


Governor Cuomo third term

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


Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, was comfortably reelected to a third term on November 6, priding himself on having won a strong mandate from voters to carry out his agenda. But that agenda was far from clear during the campaign as Cuomo declined to articulate a cogent vision for the next four years and instead largely touted accomplishments from his first two terms in office and focused on fighting President Donald Trump and other Republicans in Washington, D.C.

At times, Cuomo also expressed support for broad progressive proposals that have languished under his watch for years, failures due to Republican control of the state Senate, he said, while campaigning for Democratic takeover of the upper chamber and thus entire Legislature, which occurred in convincing fashion when the votes were cast.

In the closing weeks of the election and in interviews afterwards, Cuomo has more directly laid out a policy roadmap and, with the state Senate soon to be in Democratic hands and an overwhelming Democratic majority in the Assembly, he will have even more ability than in the past to advance his priorities. On the other hand, the more moderate Cuomo may also have new battles on his hands with a Legislature controlled by his party-mates as opposed to the split control that allowed him to triangulate.

During two radio interviews that, along with his Trump-focused election night speech, made up his victory lap this past week, Cuomo asserted that his win margin and the help he gave to Senate candidates would give him more weight in Albany next year. “When you have a larger mandate electorally, the other elected officials know you’ve literally come into government with a stronger hand, and having a larger victory helps you governmentally, I believe that,” he said in a WVOX interview with Bill O’Shaughnessy. “It’s not determinative, but it does.”

Ahead of the September primary, facing a spirited challenge from actor and education activist Cynthia Nixon, Cuomo said little about concrete ideas for a third term. But early indications are that he will likely move ahead on a raft of socially progressive bills while maintaining his centrist approach to fiscal and economic policy. “We are going to be the most aggressive state in terms of progressive measures and the most intelligent and aggressive in terms of economic development,” Cuomo said in the WVOX interview, touting that he is able to be the best of both Democratic and Republican principles. As Cuomo suggested, most legislation will likely sail through both chambers of the state Legislature with ease. But there will undoubtedly be some issues that will prove divisive even among Democrats, particularly between suburban and upstate legislators on one hand and those representing New York City on the other, or between what legislative majorities get behind and what Cuomo prizes.

In the recent radio interviews, Cuomo spoke of several policies that he wants to advance immediately at the start of the legislative session in January, which will coincide with his annual State of the State address and Executive Budget presentation, setting out in much more concrete terms his priorities for the year. For now, Cuomo has highlighted measures including codifying new abortion protections into state law, passing voting and ethics reforms, expanded gun control measures, the DREAM Act, and the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act. During the campaign, appearing with state Senate candidates in Long Island, the Hudson Valley and New York City, Cuomo signed several pledges along those lines as well.

“[N]one of these things could get done with a Republican Senate,” he said on WVOX. “We can now get them done with a Democratic Senate. And they are significant, they are issues that frankly have bothered me and a lot of other New Yorkers for years.”

During Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation proceedings to the Supreme Court, amid a national outcry over how it could affect abortion protections across the country, Cuomo promised to pass the Reproductive Health Act, which would codify the protections of Roe v. Wade, within the first 30 days of the legislative session. “I am going to do everything possible. I'm going to send up the bill as soon as the session starts,” he told radio host Alan Chartock on The Capitol Connection.

He also pledged to push for voting, government ethics, and campaign finance reforms. Though he has benefited greatly from campaign donations from limited liability companies, which do not have to disclose their ownership and are used to circumvent contribution limits, he has repeatedly expressed support for closing the LLC loophole and has promised to prioritize that measure. He also said he would push to make legislative positions full-time, banning outside income, which he has attempted to leverage over the Legislature in the past when an outside commission was exploring pay raises for state elected officials. A new commission created by Cuomo and legislative leaders last year is due with binding recommendations in the coming weeks, meaning the conversation around reforms attached to pay raises will be ripe for the start of the year.

Cuomo has expressed support for a public campaign finance system in the past, as have Democrats in the Legislature, so it is expected that he will also work to enact such a system in the new session.

Following another election administration debacle in New York City, there’s also expected to be quick movement on voting reforms, including establishing early voting and no-excuse absentee ballots, both items that Cuomo has pledged to advance. Cuomo even sought to fund a pilot program for early voting earlier this year, proposing $7 million in funding prior to the passage of the state budget, but the idea did not gain much traction, particularly among Senate Republicans.

Gun control has been a signature policy issue for Cuomo, who acted quickly following the 2012 Sandy Hook mass shooting to pass the SAFE Act in New York. He has proposed new measures for the next legislative session, including a Red Flag Gun Protection bill that would allow courts to order the seizure of guns from the homes of individuals deemed a safety risk to themselves or the public, and to prevent those individuals from purchasing any firearms. Cuomo attempted to pass the measure this year, launching a cross-state bus tour to advocate for it, but was unsuccessful. He’s also pledged to alter the background check wait period for gun purchases from three to ten days.

Cuomo has also been vocal about passing the Child Victims Act, which gives victims of child abuse greater legal recourse when they are adults by expanding the statute of limitations to bring civil lawsuits against their abusers or institutions. The legislation has repeatedly failed in the Republican-controlled Senate while passing in the Democrat-led Assembly.

Other criminal justice reforms are also expected to be on the docket as Cuomo has pushed for bail and speedy trial reform. A bill to eliminate cash bail and Kalief’s Law -- a speedy trial bill named for Bronx youth Kalief Browder who spent two years on Rikers Island without being convicted of a crime and later died by suicide after being released when the charges were dropped -- both passed the Assembly this year and would likely be approved by a Democratic Senate next year.

The governor prides himself on being a builder, in the vein of Robert Moses, and in two speeches ahead of the election to the Association for a Better New York and the Business Council of New York State, he touted his plan to invest $150 billion in infrastructure -- in state, local, federal, and private funding -- in projects spanning into his third term (he raised the estimate by $50 billion as he eyed the next four years and new investments). He pegged $66 billion to transportation projects and $32 billion to environmental facilities. The investments are meant to build on a $100 billion program that is already underway which includes modernizing airports, train and bus stations, and repairing and building bridges around the state. One essential goal of the coming years for Cuomo is figuring out funding for the Gateway project, the new tunnels to connect New York and New Jersey. Cuomo has recently pleaded with President Trump to return federal money to the table to fund half the project, with New York and New Jersey set to split the other half, after Trump had reneged on an Obama era commitment. 

Environmental conservation issues are also on the governor’s list and he has promised to advance his “Save Our Waters” bill to prohibit offshore drilling and exploration, and drilling infrastructure off the Long Island coast. Like on other issues, there are pending battles between Cuomo and legislators (and advocates) over environmental policy, including how quickly the state is moving to renewable energy and other efforts to take on climate change.

On the fiscal front, Cuomo, who prides himself on having passed eight on-time or nearly on-time budgets, has repeatedly vowed to continue the state’s 2 percent property tax cap and to keep state spending increases from going beyond 2 percent each year. Though Cuomo has used some budgeting gimmicks to account for the 2 percent annual growth, which has at times really been closer to 3 or 4 percent, he is largely praised by fiscal watchdogs for his restraint. Tax rates will, as always, be a topic of discussion in Albany in 2019, and while Cuomo is likely to insist on little movement and Democratic legislators are already explaining that they do not plan to raise taxes, as has been the warning about them from Republicans, the parties will at least have to deal with whether to extend the expiring “millionaires tax” that Cuomo and a split Legislature have passed multiple times, while reducing other rates over the years. The state is facing projected budget deficits and the impact of federal tax reform is yet to be seen in full. Cuomo's initial attempts to mitigate the negative effects of the tax overhaul and, specifically, its new cap on state and local tax deductions from federal taxes, have not panned out.

Cuomo will likely also revive legislation for a speed camera program in New York City that lapsed in the face of Republican recalcitrance in the Senate. The governor and elected officials in the city implemented a workaround for the program which required an executive order but Cuomo has since promised to push the bill, which provides for cameras in school zones, through the Legislature.

There are several issues on which Cuomo might find himself at odds with one or both houses of the Legislature, even if there is widespread agreement on overarching goals.

Cuomo has pushed for a comprehensive congestion pricing program to fund the MTA, arrest the decline of New York City’s subway system, and reduce the clog of Manhattan streets. But Democrats, particularly in the outer boroughs and in suburban areas around the city, are far from unanimous on the proposal. Cuomo seemed to recognize these differences in appearances in early October on Long Island and South Brooklyn. In Long Island, he pledged to make the city “pay its fair share for the MTA,” while at the Brooklyn event, he pledged to secure funding for the beleaguered transit authority through congestion pricing.

The fight for increased education funding occupies Albany each year and Cuomo has been criticized as failing to fully comply with the Campaign for Fiscal Equity court ruling that would require billions more in state funds being sent to struggling public schools (he and his administration argue that they are in compliance and due funds have been allocated). Several Democrats elected to the Senate this year made fair student funding a part of their platform and will probably push for increased funding for urban districts from the governor, who has insisted each year that his administration is funding schools at record levels. There may be a more vigorous discussion this year about the exact formulas used for state school aid.

Charter schools, privately-run public schools, are an additional aspect of that debate. Senate Republicans hold a more favorable position on charters and have clashed with Democrats in the Assembly over providing them with increased per-pupil funding, not to mention increasing the cap on the number of charters that can be awarded to start new schools. But Cuomo has long been a charter school champion, and the charter sector has also donated large sums of money to his campaign, as much as $130,000 in the days leading up to the election. Cuomo has repeatedly stated that he supports charter schools and has in the past done a great deal to ensure their growth. The charter cap will be a subject of negotiation in 2019, and it may again be tied to mayoral control of New York City schools, which is again set to expire next year.

Perhaps the most contentious debate in next year’s session will come near the tail end when rent stabilization laws are set to expire. Real estate interests have been another particularly generous segment of donors to Cuomo, as well as to many state legislators, and though the governor has pledged to “protect and expand rent stabilization in New York City,” he’s likely to face strong lobbying and opposition from the industry. Within his own party, a slate of newly elected progressive Senators refused real estate donations when they ran for office and have promised to fight for stronger tenant protections and more affordable housing. As on many topics, the discussion among Cuomo and his fellow Democrats is likely to come down to how far they can agree to go as they move in a progressive direction.

While there will be a lot of like-mindedness in Albany come January, along with some of the contentious issues mentioned, there may also be more protracted battles over whether the state should move toward a single-payer health care system, legalize recreational marijuana, and provide driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. There may also be conflict around Cuomo's economic development spending with regard to how much influence the Legislature seeks and whether the Democratic majorities demand additional transparency and accountability in how the money is spent.

In January, Cuomo will present his State of the State address, setting the stage for the year ahead. It remains to be seen how ambitious he will be with his party controlling the entire state government and with no Republican obstruction that he can scapegoat for any failures.

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by Samar Khurshid, Senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Agenda 2019


Agenda 2019 


With the dust not yet settled after the 2018 elections, it is time to start looking ahead to next year. In AGENDA 2019, Gotham Gazette and City Limits are partnering to preview the key issues at hand for 2019 in New York City and State politics. Over the course of eight weeks, we will provide in-depth reporting and analysis on essential political and policy issues driving the agenda in what promises to be an intense and important year in New York, from newfound governmental power and always-interesting city-state dynamics, from saving the subways to criminal justice reform, and much more. Through reporting and opinion, radio and television, we will provide essential information and thoughtful discussion as New York heads toward a 2019 that will be full of decision-making of great magnitude.

Introduction and Overview
Agenda 2019: Major Policy Tests for State and City by Gotham Gazette & City Limits (11/9/18)

Cuomo's Third Term Agenda Takes Shape by Gotham Gazette (11/11/19)

Max & Murphy Podcast: Soon-to-be Democratic Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (11/14/18)

Week of November 12 - Criminal Justice
Agenda 2019: Eyes on Senate Democrats and 3 Key Criminal Justice Reforms by City Limits (11/12/18)

The Right to Know is Law - Will the NYPD Abide by It? opinion in Gotham Gazette (11/13/18)

More Formerly Incarcerated New Yorkers Were Able to Vote This Year, But Barriers Remain by Gotham Gazette (11/14/18)

Mayor's Commission Must Probe Link Between Over-Policing and Low Turnout opinion in City Limits (11/14/18)

Max & Murphy Podcast: Assemblymember Latrice Walker on criminal justice reform and more (11/14/18)

2019 is the Year to Totally Change Policing in New York City opinion in City Limits (11/15/18)

Queens District Attorney Race Will Center on Push for Reform by Gotham Gazette (11/16/18)

Enact Sweeping Criminal Justice Reform Responsibly opinion in Gotham Gazette (11/16/18)

Week of November 19 - Transit

Week of November 26 - Housing

Week of December 3 - Political Reform (Voting, Campaign Finance, Government Ethics)

Week of December 10 - Health

With Full Democratic Control, Sponsors of Single-Payer Health Care Hopeful About 2019 by Gotham Gazette (11/14/18)

New York Votes for a State Senate that Trusts Women opinion in Gotham Gazette 11/16/18

Week of December 17 - Budgets

Week of December 24 - Biggest questions for the year ahead

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Agenda 2019: Major Policy Tests Ahead for State and City


cuomo stewart-cousins democrats

Byron Brown, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, Andrew Cuomo (photo: NY Democratic State Party)


This is the opening story in a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project: AGENDA 2019
Find the rest of the series here

The voting machines are back in storage, the “Vote Here” signs are gone, and politics in New York have entered the interregnum between Election Day and the start of the new term in Albany, when a newly-Democratic State Senate and a re-elected Democratic Assembly majority and Democratic governor will begin to set the direction of the Empire State in 2019 -- while a new Democratic majority in the U.S. House of Representatives vies with a Republican U.S. Senate and President Trump over where and how to steer the nation.

The rhetoric, posturing, and proposals of the campaign will give way to the rhetoric and posturing -- and, ultimately, policymaking -- of government. It’s too early to know how the new balances of power will play out, but some of the newly powerful or electorally emboldened are already giving indications of some of their priorities, which, in combination with campaign trail promises, form the outline of what to expect in Albany in the year ahead. Governor Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders have quickly provided a sense of what they plan to tackle first and what might be on the backburner as the state governing session begins in January.

“I did better than I had done in my previous election which is normally unheard of,” Cuomo said the day after the election, on WVOX radio, “but we also won the Senate, which is very important and I worked very hard to make that happen, which it allows me to get all sorts of things done that we haven’t done before.”

As is always the case, so much of what happens in the state capital will impact New York City, and though there were no elections for city-level positions this year, those who live and work in the city have a great deal at stake as the new state government takes shape. Mayor Bill de Blasio and others are already laying out their priorities for 2019 in Albany, where the mayor and other city Democrats hope the atmosphere will be more friendly toward the five boroughs than in the past.

“[T]he fact that we not only have a Democratic majority in the State Senate but a resounding Democratic majority is going to allow for a host of progress for this state and going to allow some really important initiatives to finally be acted on that we’ve been waiting for, for years and in some cases decades,” de Blasio said on Wednesday. “Most especially reform to our election process, campaign finance reform, finally getting a solution for the MTA. Huge changes could come from the fact that we now have a strong, clear Democratic majority in the State Senate.”

Still, much will happen at the city level in the year ahead that is not necessarily a product of Albany decision-making. Even as he seeks legislative and funding changes in the state capital, de Blasio has city challenges to address, programs to implement, and major decisions to make. There is a Charter Revision Commission exploring sweeping changes to how city government operates, and there will be a handful of elections in the city, starting with a special election for Public Advocate, likely in February.

There will be a great deal at stake in 2019. Advocates, organizers, strategists, and elected and appointed officials have already provided a long list of topics and decisions that will come to the fore next year. So City Limits, Gotham Gazette, and other partners are teaming up over the next eight weeks to explore major policy issues where action is expected over the next 12 months.

Each week we will bring you an in-depth look at one issue area with comprehensive reporting, broadcast interviews, opinion columns, and other features to provide insight into the policies, politics, and people involved and set the stage for what will be an incredibly important year in New York City, New York State, and national politics.

First, an overview of what’s on hand.

Albany
The story begins in Albany. The 2019 landscape in the state capital will be unlike anything seen in roughly a decade: full Democratic control of the executive and legislative branches. This time around is likely to be far more functional than last, when the Senate Democratic conference quickly devolved into chaos and a weak governor was unable to keep his party-mates from disgracing themselves (several of those involved have served time in jail) and bringing legislative business to a long halt.

In 2019, Cuomo enters a third term with wind at his back, major infrastructure projects in motion, and a long to-do list; while Democratic majorities in the Assembly and Senate finally get the opportunity they’ve been waiting for to pass an agenda repeatedly stalled by Republicans in the upper chamber.

The questions that hang over this new arrangement include to what extent various Democrats with varied priorities are able to agree upon an order of operation and the specific details of policies they’ve championed but never actually had the power to pass into law without compromising with Republicans. Expected Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and others have already given indication of what they see as the top priorities with widespread agreement.

Cuomo, who has appeared mostly happy with a split Legislature, now faces the challenge of dictating terms to legislative majorities that may want to move faster and further left than he’s comfortable with, though Democrats also know that the next legislative elections are now less than two years away and their members from swing suburban districts need to be especially careful with ‘pocketbook’ issues. Taxpayers across the state will soon be adjusting to the full new reality of federal tax reforms, which capped state and local deductions and are of great concern to suburban homeowners. Plus, the state’s current “millionaires tax” is set to expire in 2019 and Cuomo hasn’t yet indicated his stance on renewing it, even as he faces upcoming budget deficits.

“I am a suburban legislator,” Stewart-Cousins of Westchester told Long Island-based Newsday. “I am very proud that New Yorkers have elected many great suburban legislators to take their place in the Senate Democratic Majority.”

Cuomo has been clear that he plans to continue the fiscal restraint and center-left governance of his first two terms. At the same time, he’s poised to push through many significant policies his critics have blamed him for not delivering, while addressing the twin crises of his second term: the failing New York City subways and the corruption that has continued to plague state government, recently in the governor’s own inner circle.

Cuomo wants to keep state spending increases to roughly two percent annually, to keep an annual cap on property tax growth everywhere outside New York City, and to take steps to mitigate the effects of federal tax reform, especially the new cap on state and local deductions. But he also has a lengthy professed agenda for 2019 and his larger third term, including voting reform, additional gun control regulations, the Child Victims Act, codifying Roe v. Wade abortion protections into state law, the Dream Act, the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA), and more. For the most part, the policy agenda Cuomo has laid out, which is noticeably light on new spending, should not be a heavy lift in either house of the Legislature with both under Democratic control.

There may very well be areas of conflict, however, even if legislators stay away from raising taxes or pursuing policies like single-payer health care that Cuomo has thrown cold water on. These include government ethics and campaign finance reform, funding the MTA, rent regulations, education funding, charter schools, criminal justice reform, and others. How to move the state ahead in combating climate change may also be a source of disagreement in terms of degree.

The governor knows he must -- and has promised to -- move ahead with congestion pricing for Manhattan travel as part of funding the MTA and the Fast Forward subway modernization plan that is ballparked at around $35 billion. It’s unclear where the rest of the needed money will come from, though Cuomo has already indicated he expects the New York City government to kick in more (de Blasio continues to call for an additional tax on high-earners, which Cuomo has mocked). The governor even got several Senate candidates on Long Island to sign a pledge that they’d squeeze the city for more transit money -- not the only episode of the fall campaign to raise the possibility that Cuomo is readying to continue to hold sway over policy-making in Albany no matter how other pieces may shift.

The governor is also frustrated with hearing about his failures on government ethics and campaign finance reform, and will likely look to put that talk to bed by the time a new state budget is passed at the end of March. The details of any such deals will be closely examined for whether they truly advance the causes of good government and provide the best possible circumstances for both preventing and punishing corruption.

A major unknown is whether some of the newly elected State Senate Democrats, especially those on Long Island, will feel more beholden to Cuomo than to the conference itself, and help him restrain the larger group. On the other hand, it is unclear how the new group of state senators who defeated members of what was the Independent Democratic Conference, some of whom cross-endorsed with Cynthia Nixon in her challenge to Cuomo, will approach the governor and raising their voices within the Senate majority.

During a Wednesday appearance on Spectrum’s Capitol Tonight, Stewart-Cousins was asked about unifying her new conference and finding agreement. “So people understand that there’s a lot of great hope in our ascension to power,” she said, “and in order to really fulfill those hopes, we have to move as a body. That means we’re going to have to find ways to get to the desired end...We must consider that it is one New York, but there are a lot of different places, a lot of different regions and areas and needs and interests, and if we do our job right we will be able to manage and take care of all of it.”

Democrats in the state Assembly, which is dominated by New York City members and led by Speaker Carl Heastie of the Bronx, may be itching to enact an agenda they have repeatedly passed that has not had Cuomo’s full support and that is not necessarily the same agenda as the new Senate Democratic majority. Assembly Democrats have spent years passing one-house bills and budgets advancing progressive priorities, including things like single-payer health care, higher taxes on top earners, tighter rent regulations, and sweeping criminal justice reforms.

Still, there is much that Democrats in the Assembly, Senate, and governor’s mansion agree on and will all-but-certainly find common ground to pass, starting with a handful of policies that Cuomo, Stewart-Cousins, and Heastie have already mentioned since the election results came in: voting reform, women’s reproductive choice, gun control, and more.

“There have been measures that I could not get done with a Republican Senate and I believe they were short-sighted,” Cuomo said Wednesday. “...And I worked so hard for a Democratic Senate, because these are pieces that I believe are essential to really move this state forward.”

“We need ethics reform and there's no reason not to pass it,” he continued, mentioning making legislative positions full-time with no outside income, campaign finance reform (including closure of the LLC loophole), and voting reform, including early voting.

“The women's right to choose has to be protected,” Cuomo said, referring to the Reproductive Health Act, which would codify Roe v. Wade into state law. He also mentioned the Dream Act, “gun safety” legislation, which would likely include a “red flag bill” to remove guns from the homes of potentially troubled young people and extending the background check wait time from three to ten days.

All of the issues listed by Cuomo are ones that Stewart-Cousins, members of her conference, and Heastie have mentioned in the first days after the election as top priorities.

While Cuomo appears ready to knock down any criticism that he is not a ‘real Democrat’ and create additional buzz around a possible presidential run, he always wants to move on his terms. A deal-maker who leverages his counterparts, the governor has clearly been sizing up the new dynamics he’s facing ahead of the state budget session that will kick off in January with his State of the State speech and Executive Budget presentation. Discussing the facts that he received the most votes of any governor ever and won this year by a bigger margin than in 2014, Cuomo said Wednesday that it “helps practically in governmentally when you have a larger mandate electorally, the other elected officials know you’ve literally come into government with a stronger hand, and having a larger victory helps you governmentally, I believe that.”

And even as Cuomo has pledged to serve another four-year term and there are very serious questions about his viability as a presidential candidate, he has regularly stoked the flames and after another resounding electoral victory, may be poised to flirt even more explicitly with a run for president.

One possibility is that Cuomo focuses intently on moving an aggressive progressive agenda through in the first few months of the Albany year, then takes his new list of accomplishments to a few of the necessary stops on a presidential exploration tour, such as New Hampshire.

Another uncertainty for the year ahead is exactly how Attorney General-elect Letitia James approaches her new role. James, a Democrat who is currently the New York City public advocate, will vacate that position and take charge of a vast and immensely powerful legal office. She has promised to continue the aggressive approach the office of attorney general has taken to President Trump, his administration and his other enterprises, while also taking on criminal justice reform in New York and working to root out public corruption, among other aspects of the role she has said she will embrace. In the face of skepticism about her closeness to Cuomo and other Democrats, James has promised to be an independent voice and to pursue wrongdoing wherever it may be.

There is no speculating that much of New York City’s policy agenda depends on legislative action in Albany. Speedy trial and bail reform legislation seen as vital to the effort to close Rikers island jails will be a top priority for progressives in the capital and City Hall. And the renewal of rent regulations presents a major opportunity to reduce the displacement pressures that dog de Blasio’s rezoning and development plans. There is almost guaranteed to be city-state tension in 2019 over funding the MTA, among other policy and budget issues.

Asked the day after the election about his top priorities for the Albany year ahead, de Blasio said, “One: strengthen rent regulations, protect affordable housing. Two: fix the MTA, provide a permanent funding source for our subways and buses. Three: continue our progress on education funding and on having the power to keep fixing our schools.”

New York City
Under normal circumstances, 2019 would be a quiet year in city politics—an off-year between the 2018 statewide elections and the presidential race in 2020, with municipal elections a full two years off in 2021.

But circumstances are not normal. A a citywide official is leaving her office vacant, a veteran district attorney is retiring, and big decisions on everything from charter revision to jail-siting and neighborhood rezoning are due.

As is always the case in the years after statewide elections, three district attorney races are on the docket in the city. All five of the city’s sitting district attorneys are Democrats. Incumbent Darcel Clark in the Bronx, who was elected in 2015 with 80 percent of the vote, is unlikely to be threatened. Staten Island's Michael McMahon won his post in 2015 with 55 percent of the vote, and could face a more competitive re-election contest. But the Queens DA's race is shaping up to be the most dramatic affair, with incumbent Richard Brown—who ran uncontested in '15 and has held his post since '91—likely to step down and a roster of well-known names (City Council Member Rory Lancman, former Council Member Peter Vallone, Jr., Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, State Senator Michael Gianaris) in the mix of declared or potential candidates.

Letitia James' victory in the race for attorney general means there'll be a special election to fill the post of public advocate. Brooklyn Council Member Jumaane Williams, fresh off his campaign for lieutenant governor, and Bronx Assembly Member Michael Blake are already in the mix for that post, along with a couple of others like Nomiki Konst and David Eisenbach, and a host of other names are considered possible candidates.

The special election to select an interim public advocate will be a nonpartisan affair held in early 2019; the winner of that could then face a primary in September before a general election in November 2019 to decide who serves the remainder of James' term. Worth noting: If someone currently in elected office wins the special election for public advocate, there will need to be another election to fill the slot the winner vacates. It could be a very special year.

Also expected to be on the ballot next November: the proposals from the City Council's 2019 charter revision commission. The hearings and meetings (and behind the scenes machinations) that will shape those proposals will be a significant story to watch in the city next year, because the changes on the table next November could be the most significant in 30 years. Already, the commission has been asked to consider ambitious alterations to how the city does budgeting and land-use planning.

Critical housing policy decisions will come throughout the year. The city's "Where We Live NYC" fair-housing planning process—a landmark examination of whether city housing programs have reduced or exacerbated segregation—is supposed to wrap up by the fall of 2019. A decision could come in the lawsuits over the fairness of the community preference policy and the property-tax system, and the property-tax reform commission empaneled by de Blasio and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson is holding its final first-wave meetings in later November and December and could issue a report soon—with whatever plan emerges subject to intense debate, as well as legislation at both the city and state levels.

Major neighborhood rezonings of Bushwick, Gowanus, and Bay Street are likely, with action on Long Island City and the Southern Boulevard area of the Bronx also possible. And the Council and mayor will render decisions on the plans to build new jails to replace the facilities on Rikers Island.

Meanwhile, the NYCHA settlement with federal authorities awaits approval—and NYCHA families await another winter and the potential for heat and hot-water problems. The federal criminal investigation of NYCHA and its decision-makers is not over and could produce more news, and some housing advocates will bring more pressure on the mayor to build new senior housing on NYCHA land rather than market-rate units. De Blasio may name a permanent head of NYCHA, or keep the interim leader, Stan Brezenoff, in place. The city will also be looking to Washington for more funding help for public housing, and may put forward a revamped long-term plan for NYCHA that accelerates the pace of development on under-utilized NYCHA land as a way to bring in revenue.

2019 is the year when the hit from the Trump tax plan's capping of federal income tax deductions for state and local taxes will start to affect high earners—and it will be interesting to see if that encourages calls to rein in spending during the city's budget process. As one business advocate notes, "Only a relatively small number of high earners have to relocate to lower tax states for NYC to suffer major revenue losses." People in the top 1 percent – those in the 38,000 households making more than $713,000—earned about 35 percent of the city's income and contributed roughly 44 percent of total income-tax revenue in 2016. But keeping budget growth modest will be challenging, with the MTA, NYCHA, and the public hospital system in need of major investment.

The city's ability to implement the Fair Fares Metrocard subsidy program will be tested, and bus riders should get a glimpse of the newly redesigned bus routes coming under the MTA's Fast Forward plan. The rollout of the school desegregation effort in District 15 will continue as New Yorkers get more of a sense of whether and how Richard Carranza will put his stamp on the school system.

The x-factor in all these stories is how much power Bill de Blasio will have to shape these critical policy decisions, all of which will help sculpt his legacy.

The mayor did little to define a second-term agenda before he was re-elected in a landslide a year ago, and he's not done much to fill in those blanks over the past 12 months. His signature policy idea of 2018, the democracy initiative, has not had an auspicious start, though de Blasio did see the three ballot proposals from his charter revision commission approved by voters on Election Day. While the mayor has made substantive policy moves, on cybersecurity and guns for instance, they have been drowned out by a torrent of dreadful headlines about NYCHA, his school renewal plan, his beef with the Department of Investigations commissioner, and, of course, the "agent of the city" emails.

Some of that static is merely what comes with the territory of a second term in one of the toughest jobs in the country. But de Blasio's unusually acrimonious relationship with the press, his feud with a governor who was just resoundingly elected for a third time, the rise of a less-cooperative City Council and the pre-2021 positioning that is already taking place among his partners in government could combine to irreversibly weaken the mayor years before he ought to look like a lame duck. While that might sound like good news to those who dislike de Blasio, the fact is the city's interests in Albany or Washington depend on there being a strong figure in City Hall. Other players might claim some spotlight and gain some juice, but Bill de Blasio is alone at New York City's helm for another 1,150 days. That would be a long time to be adrift.

Washington, D.C.
And then there’s Washington. The new Democratic House could move a legislative agenda to try to limit the impact of the limitations on SALT deductions, support infrastructure spending, shore up the Affordable Care Act, and take steps to thwart the president’s harshest moves on immigration -- all of which would have direct impact on New York City and State. But with Republicans maintaining control of the Senate and the White House, Democrats will not be able to move anything through Congress without major compromise. It’s unclear who will lead the House Democrats or what their strategy over the next year will be: seeking a deal with centrist Republicans, or even with the mercurial president himself, to create new policy, or instead maintaining a more combative posture until the 2020 presidential election resets the country.

The Iowa caucus, after all, is only 15 months away.

This is the opening story in a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project: AGENDA 2019
Find the rest of the series here

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by Ben Max of Gotham Gazette & Jarrett Murphy of City Limits. Part of "Agenda 2019," a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project to get New Yorkers ready for the political year ahead.

***
by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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Agenda 2019

Voter Turnout Booms in New York


voting booths

(photo: mayoral photography office)


In concert with national trends, turnout in the 2018 presidential midterm election in New York smashed that of previous elections by significant margins. In a highly unusual development for a non-presidential election, statewide turnout approached 50 percent in the race for governor, in which Governor Andrew Cuomo easily defeated Republican challenger Marc Molinaro and others to win a third term.

As of Wednesday morning, the total statewide turnout (number of votes out of total registered voters, active and inactive) stood at 45.57 percent with 99.5 percent of precincts reporting, and a total of 5,790,035 votes cast for governor out of 12,706,050 registered voters across the state.

This marked a significant increase from turnout four years ago, which stood at 33.2 percent. Turnout did not, however, approach the levels seen in the 2016 presidential election, when it reached as high as 62.5 percent.

The nearly 5.8 million New Yorkers tallied to have voted by the state Board of Elections, a number only expected to go up as the final precincts report results and absentee ballots are counted, makes for a roughly 33 percent stronger turnout than in 2014, when 3.9 million voters showed up to the polls.

In New York City, as of Wednesday morning, the Board of Elections had logged 1,951,714 votes with 5,849 out of 5,901 precincts across the five boroughs reporting. This results in a citywide turnout of 38 percent; as typically occurs, this is lower than the statewide turnout. Nonetheless, turnout in the city increased significantly from the 22.7 percent seen in 2014, despite significant problems encountered at poll sites concerning ballot-reading machines that caused extensive waiting periods.

Michael Ryan, chair of the City Board of Elections, blamed inclement weather for dampening ballots, higher turnout, and the two-page ballot that many city voters had to use as a result of the number of elections and the charter revision questions. City Council Speaker Corey Johnson called on Ryan to resign, while Mayor de Blasio called for “top to bottom” reforms at the BOE.

Staten Island, with its high profile, competitive congressional race, saw the highest turnout of the five boroughs, at 42.8 percent. The heavily-Democratic Bronx, home to virtually no competitive local races, saw the lowest, at 32 percent. Those who did vote in the Bronx overwhelmingly went for Cuomo.

In the key State Senate race in District 22, the southern Brooklyn constituency where Democrat Andrew Gounardes appears to have narrowly defeated longtime Republican Senator Marty Golden, turnout stands at 36.5 percent with all precincts reporting -- roughly 62,600 voters turned out at initial count. Turnout in this district decreased significantly from Golden’s and Gounardes’ previous matchup in 2012, when 74,451 voters showed up to the polls and turnout stood at 48.25 percent. But 2012 was, of course, a presidential year, when turnout is nearly always higher.

Democrats identified the seat, situated in a longtime Republican stronghold that has become significantly more diverse in recent years and has been represented by Democrats in the City Council for years, as key to their quest to wrest control of the state Senate from Republicans. Democrats pulled that feat off in fairly spectacular fashion, going from a one-seat deficit to what might turn out to be a seven-seat majority.

Turnout was higher outside the city, as is typically observed: 3,838,321 non-city voters cast a ballot on Tuesday, for a turnout rate of 50.7 percent. This bested the 2014 non-city turnout rate of 39.9 percent by nearly 11 percentage points. Molinaro won most rural upstate counties by significant margins, losing in urban upstate counties and Tompkins County, where Ithaca is located. Cuomo won the suburban counties of Nassau, Suffolk, Westchester, and Rockland, all of which saw increased turnout rates similar to the state writ large. Suffolk, on Long Island, was fairly close, but Cuomo won it by about 20,000 votes. He even appears to have won on Staten Island, by about 1,000 votes.

Turnout in congressional races was down from 2016, owing to 2016 being a presidential election year, but was up across the board from 2014. The Staten Island-focused race, which had been a target for national Democrats and had seen an influx of outside cash and volunteers, had a 40.8 percent turnout, and Democrat Max Rose unseats incumbent Republican Rep. Dan Donovan but a surprising 53-47 percent margin. The race in the Hudson Valley 19th district, where Democrat Antonio Delgado dispatched incumbent Republican Rep. John Faso, saw a 55.2 percent turnout. The 19th was also a major target for national Democrats.

The unusually high turnout for a midterm election was undoubtedly largely fomented by President Donald Trump, the sting of his election for many Democrats and some independents, and the events of his nearly two years in office. Beyond reelecting the governor to a third term, the state elected an Attorney General who has promised to use the law to go after Trump, swapped several incumbent Republican members of Congress for Democrats, and decisively flipped the State Senate from Republican to Democratic control, largely thanks to Long Island seats home to many independent voters and giving Democrats unified control of state government for the first time in a decade.

And New York City decisively voted in favor of all three of de Blasio’s charter revision proposals: to lower campaign contribution limits and increase the public match, create a civic engagement commission, and implement term limits for community boards.

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by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

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