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Why is Governor Cuomo Attacking a Longtime Labor Ally?


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Gov. Cuomo speaks at a 32BJ rally (photo: Fred Pollard/Governor's Office)


Governor Andrew Cuomo, a third-term Democrat, has in recent weeks repeatedly lashed out at state legislators from his own party and a long-time labor ally, 32BJ SEIU, as he points to the role of independent expenditures in state politics amid questions about his own fundraising habits and commitment to campaign finance reform.

The prominent building services workers union was in Cuomo’s corner when he was running for reelection in 2018 and also supported his attempt to push through the deal that would have brought a new Amazon campus to Queens, among other initiatives. But Cuomo seems to have soured on that relationship because of the union’s push for public financing of state elections and its ties with State Senator Alessandra Biaggi, a young progressive who has been a vocal critic of the governor’s fundraising tactics after unseating a long-time ally of the governor, Jeff Klein, the former senator and leader of the Independent Democratic Conference.

Last month, Biaggi was among three state legislators who criticized Cuomo for holding a big-dollar fundraiser as the state budget for the new fiscal year was being negotiated. As reported by the New York Times, several attendees of the fundraiser were seeking favorable state action in the budget and Cuomo even invited his budget director, Robert Mujica, to the Manhattan event. To Biaggi and others, it reeked of impropriety or at least the appearance of it.

Cuomo, in turn, lambasted Biaggi and the others, as well as the Senate Democratic conference at large, for holding its own fundraisers during budget season. In the backdrop were negotiations around campaign finance reform, including creating a new system of public financing, which eventually was not included in the adopted budget though the Legislature and governor created a commission that would issue recommendations to create such a system. 32BJ was one of the leading voices in a large statewide coalition called Fair Elections for New York, which made a major push for public financing, including protests outside the governor’s office.

On April 9, appearing on WAMC’s Roundtable with Alan Chartock, Cuomo made his displeasure clear. “The hypocrisy is, the members who have stood up and criticized the fundraising, they themselves are doing fundraising,” he said, pointedly calling out the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee. And taking a veiled shot at Biaggi, he continued, “Many of those members were funded with millions of dollars of dark money, from unions like 32BJ. Where is the public financing spirit, you know?”

He went on to repeatedly name 32BJ, and only 32BJ, as he talked of the corrosive effect of outside spending in elections.

There’s much more context behind Biaggi’s election, a former lawyer in the Cuomo administration who ascended by emerging victorious in a September 2018 primary election against then-Senator Klein, the powerful former leader of the breakaway Democrats who helped keep the Senate under Republican control for years. Klein’s conference reunited with the mainline Democrats in April last year, in a deal brokered by Cuomo, only for six of its eight members to be defeated in the primaries by challengers like Biaggi.

As part of the reunification deal, Cuomo and sitting Democratic senators agreed not to support primaries against fellow Democrats, meaning Cuomo and Klein supported each other’s reelection. Klein, running while under investigation for allegedly having forcibly kissed a former aide (he denies the accusation), used an image of himself and Cuomo on campaign literature, though the governor never offered a formal endorsement.

The IDC under Klein’s leadership played a moderating effect on legislation, which allowed Cuomo to pursue an agenda of compromise between Democrats and Republicans and push through many of his own priorities. Biaggi’s victory over Klein -- in which he spent nearly ten times the money her campaign did -- was boosted massively by 32BJ, whose endorsement was seen as a crack in the unity facade.

The union donated thousands of dollars to her campaign, sent volunteers to her district, and also supported her with a nearly $80,000 independent expenditure campaign through its Empire State 32BJ SEIU PAC. That political action committee, and its spending to help elect Biaggi, appears to have Cuomo perpetually bristling, especially given the union’s role in the Fair Elections campaign.

“Unions like 32BJ are fighting for fair wages and safe working conditions. Big businesses and real estate interests often act to protect profits over people,” Biaggi said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “We all know the true political currency of our time is people. I'll stand with the hard-working people of 32BJ every time.”

Cuomo doesn’t seem as willing. At an unrelated news conference last Wednesday, according to a New York Daily News report, Cuomo’s ire again seemed to have been provoked as he addressed recent tweets by State Senator James Skoufis, the new chair of the committee on Investigations and Government Operations, who said that state contracts were regularly being handed out to firms that made large campaign contributions to the governor. Cuomo, in turn, implied that independent expenditures to state legislators’ campaigns were directly linked to legislation being introduced in Albany, which seemed to be directed at Skoufis’ support for a bill regarding home-rental services like AirBnB, which spent half a million dollars to help Skoufis get elected.

Cuomo said, “I don’t think there’s any difference between Airbnb and 32BJ and charter schools or REBNY or the teachers unions, but this is where the money is coming from and it’s coming for a very specific purpose.”

The governor’s repeated sling at 32BJ, which has more than 160,000 members across the country, mostly in New York, was again an odd inclusion among multi-million dollar firms and business interests, not to mention the teachers unions that he has often warred with during his tenure, finding something of a ceasefire in recent years.

32BJ was one of Cuomo’s most prominent backers in his reelection race last year, crediting him with “a long and strong record of progressive policies” including the passage of a $15 minimum wage, paid family leave, and a $19 minimum wage for airport workers. The union donated the maximum $65,000 to his reelection race, and has contributed almost $150,000 to his campaigns since 2007.

A week after the union endorsed him in early April 2018, it also withdrew from the Working Families Party, which was backing Cuomo’s primary opponent at the time, education activist and actor Cynthia Nixon. That same week, Cuomo spoke at a 32BJ rally in Manhattan.

“32BJ is one of the best unions in the United States of America,” Cuomo proclaimed on stage, praising its leaders for helping pass the policies that earned him their endorsement. “You have to deal with the real estate industry, which is one of the toughest industries in this country, and 32BJ is up to the fight...and what I love about 32BJ...they don’t just talk, they deliver.”

In February, Cuomo was championing New York’s winning bid to bring Amazon and its projected 25,000 jobs to the state by building a new campus in Long Island City. Despite the tech firm’s checkered history of opposing unionizing efforts by employees, 32BJ was behind him, seeing the promise of jobs for its union members through building service contracts and the potential for broader unionization gains. After Amazon cancelled its plans, 32BJ President Hector Figueroa called it “a missed opportunity to engage one of the largest companies in the world and to create a pathway to union representation for one of the largest groups of predominantly non-union workers in our country.”

The governor’s office denied any ulterior motives behind his more recent comments and declined to further explain the specific targeting of 32BJ. “I know you guys have trouble fathoming this, but not everything is some conspiracy. Sometimes the truth is the truth,” a Cuomo spokesperson said in an email, before not responding to additional inquiries.

Amity Paye, a 32BJ spokesperson, said the union was surprised by the governor’s remarks. “We weren’t clear what prompted him to do this,” she said in a phone interview. “We responded on social media to the comments but we haven’t had any direct conversations about this with the administration. We wouldn’t presume to guess why this happened.” She also pushed back against the union’s mention among groups like REBNY and AirBnB as independent spenders. “There’s not a comparison. We’re not a multimillion dollar corporation. The money we invest literally comes from thousands of members pooling their money. It’s entirely different,” she said.

As Paye noted, Alison Hirsh, political director of 32BJ, called the governor’s comments “perplexing” in a tweet on April 17, just after he railed against the union at the press conference, and Figueroa also responded that same day. “Any Dem leader should understand there’s a world of difference between worker organizations such as unions and corporations/employer associations & that it isn’t hypocritical to push for campaign finance reform while benefitting from IE. Both NY Senate Dems AND @NYGovCuomo have.”

Biaggi retweeted him.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Film Studio, Tech Park, Yoga Retreat: Some Shuttered New York Prisons See New Life While Others Await Development


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Former Camp Georgetown Correctional Facility is expected to soon become Camp Brihat Yoga Retreat (photo: Madison County IDA)


As New York continues to drastically reduce its incarceration rate, many prisons have become surplus. The state prison population has fallen from its peak of approximately 72,600 in 1999 to 47,400 this year.

Governor Andrew Cuomo, under whom 24 prisons and juvenile detention centers have already been shuttered, introduced and passed legislation as part of the new state budget that would allow him to shut down two or three more prisons, depending on the number of beds in the prisons chosen. While the overall trend is a positive sign to many given the fight against mass incarceration and, according to executive chamber estimations, the additional closures could save state government tens of millions of dollars every year, prison closures can leave local economies vulnerable.

Some areas have historically relied on prisons for employment and as commerce centers. Local elected officials often fight prison closure plans, fearful of what a shuttered prison may mean for local jobs and economic activity. When prisons close, guards and administrators are often transferred to other facilities, meaning jobs remain but they change location. Local businesses lose customers and towns look for other means to boost their economies.

Repurposing prison facilities can cushion the loss of a ‘prison economy,’ and with the growing number of shuttered prisons around New York, the effort to spin prisons into new uses has become an enticing endeavor for both the public and private sectors.

Some former New York prison facilities have already found new life -- a film studio, an office park, a planned yoga retreat -- while others sit vacant, some for sale. One has been been converted into a venue where nonprofits serve formerly incarcerated people. Empire State Development (ESD), the state’s economic development wing, has been tasked with offloading the closed correctional facilities that have been shut down, as well as supporting the redevelopment of the communities they were located in. They have funded projects in all the regions where prisons were shut down.

While former downstate prisons are flourishing anew, the state faces challenges with many others. Most prisons successfully repurposed are within New York City, where there is more limited space and high demand for real estate, and a thriving economy. Repurposing prisons upstate is more often than not an uphill battle.

On the south shore of Staten Island, the former 900-bed Arthur Kill Correctional Facility was bought from the state for $7 million, with an additional $20 million also invested, by Broadway Stages, a film and television production company that has been part of Emmy winning shows like Master of None and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. The company has converted the facility into a studio to film shows set in prisons like Orange is the New Black, also an Emmy winner. Previously, Broadway Stages filmed prison scenes upstate.

The purchase of the prison has brought roughly 1,000 jobs to the facility itself thus far, with that number expected to triple once the second phase of the facility is refurbished, according to Samara Schaum, a spokesperson for Broadway Stages.

Other prisons in New York City have been taken over by not-for-profit companies.

In the Bronx the former Fulton Correctional Facility was handed over by the state to the Osborne Foundation, which repurposed it as a community re-entry center, providing temporary housing and job training to former prisoners. About $9.5 million was required to refurbish the old building, for which Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr.’s office and Empire State Development provided financial support.

The NoVo Foundation is also in the process of converting the closed Bayview Correctional Facility in Chelsea into “The Women’s Building.” which “will bring diverse organizations together, as they envision and build a better world for girls and women,” according to its website.

In a phone interview, a spokesperson for Empire State Development explained the two processes by which the state offloads prisons: through auction and requests for proposals.

Auctions are handled by the state’s Office of General Services, with prisons sold to private bidders. When a prison becomes private property through auction, it has to go through environmental review and the applicable municipal land use approval process.

ESD prefers to put out requests for proposals to ensure that the sites are repurposed in ways that benefit the surrounding communities the most, according to the ESD spokesperson. “We try and figure out a use that is compatible with the community and compatible in terms of creating jobs,” said the spokesperson, who requested anonymity.

Last year, ESD put out a request for proposal for the shuttered Mount McGregor Correctional Facility in Saratoga, for which there has been one proposal to turn the facility into a resort. The Camp Chateaugay Correctional Facility was up for auction last year too. It appeared as though a Canadian company bought it for $600,000 to turn it into a Jewish summer camp. However, the deal fell through. The state tried selling it again, but the last date to submit a bid was November 8, 2018.

Some prisons change ownership but don’t see new life particularly quickly.

Gilbert Rybicki, a Canadian business person, bought the Lyon Mountain Facility, in remote Dannemora, New York through a 2013 auction for $140,000. The prison continues to sit vacant today.

“He bought the prison to influence the town of Dannemora,” said Town Supervisor Bill Chase. According to Chase, Rybicki has been in business with Dannemora indirectly for one of the town’s resources, ore sand -- a byproduct of iron ore mining, used in construction. Chase believes that Rybicki was hoping to obtain a contract for Dannemora’s ore sand himself, and bought the prison to turn it into an ore sand processing center. However, he was outbid at an auction for the ore sand contract.

Chase believes that the facility has a lot of potential and can be turned into a variety of things, including a car repair center in the garage the prison left behind, a gym using the prison’s old gym facility, or a drug treatment center. “I’ve even had some people try and help him do something with the building, but all he has done is put a sign out there trying to rent it,” said Chase.

Contacted by Gotham Gazette, Rybicki said he is still not sure what he will do with the facility, and will likely wait for the summer before making a decision.

Another prison buyer has ideas, but has had trouble making his vision a reality because of state bureaucracy, he said. Also in 2013, Shekhar Patel bought the former Camp Georgetown facility located an hour from Syracuse. He originally intended to turn it into a technology summer camp for middle and high school students. However, he changed his mind and now hopes to turn the facility into a yoga retreat, called Camp Brihat. But in order to make it functional for his purposes, Patel said he had to modify a wastewater treatment plant.

In April 2017, Patel requested a permit from the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to modify the wastewater treatment plant and has spent the past two years following up, trying to get the state to act on his permit, he said. Patel finally received a response from the DEC on March 25 of this year.

The email from a DEC representative, Tara Blum, said, “Unfortunately due to other priorities, I have not had time to work on your SPDES permit modification. However, today I was directed by my supervisor, Tom Vigneault (he is copied on this email) to work on your facility, the Camp Brihat draft permit immediately.”

Patel was given a tentative acceptance for his permit request on April 11. He must now advertise the modification of the wastewater treatment in the local paper for a month and allow the public to comment on the modifications. The DEC will grant him the permit within the next month based on community reaction.

Patel was apparently lucky to have completed his purchase. Other prison sales are hindered by bureaucracy and conflict. In Franklin County, the sale of the Camp Gabriels Correctional Facility has been stalled as the facility belongs to one government agency while the land belongs to another. Camp Pharsalia, in Chenango County, lies on Forest Preserve land.

Because some of these facilities have not been sold or repurposed, the state has attempted to provide a cushion to the towns in which they reside.

In 2012 and 2014, Governor Cuomo introduced tax incentives and capital funding as part of the Economic Transformation Program (ETP) to aid communities impacted by prison closures. Roughly $82 million was expected to go to 15 communities impacted by prison closures.

In the Mohawk Valley, funds are going towards the Mohawk Valley Regional Economic Development Council, Marcy Nanocenter, Griffiss International Airport, and a river walk in the city of Rome. So far, almost $60 million of the ETP funding has been committed while almost $40 million has already been disbursed.

There are some hopeful signs for prison refurbishment upstate. The former Mid-Orange Correctional Facility in the town of Warwick was closed in 2011 and transferred to the Warwick Valley Local Development Corporation. The site is perhaps the most successful prison rehabilitation upstate, as several innovative companies have decided to build and invest there.

The site’s previous main occupier, Yard Sports Village, filed for bankruptcy, but new investors have been swarming in, according to Warwick Town Supervisor Michael Sweeton. The new businesses include the Hudson Valley Sports Complex, Craftify, a craft brewer has a production facility with a tasting room on site, Eden Restorations, which provides custom building restorations, Transtech, a company that puts bodies on buses, and Citiva, a medical marijuana producer whose site is currently under construction.

“It’s taken a little bit, but it is really rolling now and we really believe we are going to have it built out in the next year or two and we are really excited about that,” said Sweeton. “People are employed in the town and people are coming to the area as well.”

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by Ashad Hajela, Gotham Gazette

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New York May Soon Reverse 1992 Ban on Having Children Through Surrogacy


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Sen. Hoylman, middle, with his husband & daughter, & Gov. Cuomo, right  (photo: governor's office)


When Marisa Horowitz-Jaffe and her husband, Doug Jaffe, wanted to have a baby, they faced numerous obstacles before the birth of their twins via a surrogate in a Dallas hospital eight years ago.

Their twins were born in a Texas hospital because the couple was forced to travel out of state in order to use a surrogate. New York is one of only two states in the country to criminalize surrogacy, a fact Horowitz-Jaffe was unaware of when her fertility issues began.

“Finding out surrogacy was illegal where I live, I was like, ‘What?’ It was like New York state giving me a middle finger,” she said. Paying for airfare, hotels, and other incidentals on top of fertility treatments, as well as the logistics of shipping temperature-controlled medications and transporting their premature twins back to New York added to an already stressful experience, she said.

The couple was not able to conceive a baby through intercourse. Determined to have a child, Horowitz-Jaffe went through rounds of in vitro fertilization (IVF) and embryonic transfers, including using egg donors. She went through multiple failed procedures and a miscarriage of a 20-week-old fetus before she and her husband made the decision to use a surrogate through an agency, which matched them with a woman in Texas.

Five years later, with 12 total rounds of IVF, and $250,000 spent out of pocket, Horowitz-Jaffe and her husband finally had not one child, but two. It would have been far easier, she said, if their surrogate had lived in the next town over, instead of thousands of miles away.

Now, a four-year-old bill in Albany could soon become law and prevent New Yorkers from having a similar ordeal. The bill would not only legalize surrogacy but add protections for surrogates, including health insurance provided by the intended parents. Called the Child-Parent Security Act and sponsored by Senator Brad Hoylman, a Manhattan Democrat, and Assemblymember Amy Paulin, a Democrat from White Plains, the bill aims to repeal the state’s 1992 ban on surrogacy, which specifically prohibits parents from hiring or compensating a person for carrying a child to term for them.

Bans in New York and elsewhere, many since reversed, came soon after a famous 1980s case. In 1985, Mary Beth Whitehead of New Jersey agreed to be a surrogate for a male-female couple and do so using her own egg, as the wife in the couple was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Whitehead was paid $10,000 for her role in the pregnancy, but after the birth decided to keep the baby and return the money. Conflict ensued, turning the incident into the famous ‘Baby M’ case, in which New Jersey’s Supreme Court ruled that paying women to bear children was illegal. Since then, surrogacies across the country have been gestational, meaning both a donor egg and donor sperm were used.

Marc Solomon, an LGBT activist who spent 15 years working on marriage equality, is overseeing a campaign in support of the Child-Parent Security Act through the Family Equality Council, a nonprofit organization.

Solomon mentioned ways in which lesbian parents or single women are not protected under current New York law, such as non-biological parents having to go through a costly adoption process to be legal parents of their children. Single women, according to Solomon, have no legal recourse if they have a child with a known (non-anonymous) sperm donor, as the donor could sue for custody of the child. Both of these scenarios would be avoided with the passage of the bill.

If the bill passes, it would allow non-biological parents to go through the court to get a certificate stating their legal parentage of a child carried by a surrogate. “[The bill] would put New York in the caliber of states that it’s usually associated with, like California, Washington state, Connecticut, other progressive states where surrogacy is allowed under certain circumstances, where everyone is protected,” said Solomon.

The bill was originally introduced in 2015 and, according to Paulin, could not pass the state Senate due to the Republican majority, which acted as a counterweight and oppositional force to the Assembly Democratic majority for most of the past several decades, until this year. Senate Minority Leader John Flanagan’s office did not respond to multiple inquiries for comment for this story. With the Senate now controlled by Democrats after last year’s elections and Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo showing support for the bill in his 2019 state of the state policy book, the chances of it passing are greatly improved as the spring legislative session moves ahead.

“It’s never had as much traction as it’s had this year,” said Paulin.

With a new state budget in place as of April 1, the legislative session will now deal with a variety of other policy matters until its scheduled conclusion in mid-June. It’s unclear which of a long list of issues – including surrogacy legalization, rent regulation reform, marijuana legalization, and more – will find resolution.

An attempt to pass the Child-Parent Security Act was made earlier in the year with its inclusion in Cuomo’s 2019-2020 budget proposal. It was ultimately excluded from the budget deal that emerged among Cuomo and the legislative majorities. Hoylman, whose two children were carried by a surrogate in California, said changes had been made to the bill’s text and there was not enough time in the budget process to address them before it was voted upon.

Those changes, according to Hoylman, include ensuring surrogates have legal counsel and health insurance provided by the intended parents and were implemented following some opposition from advocacy groups. Cuomo’s policy statement also stipulates surrogates be allowed to make their own health care decisions, which would include their right to an abortion. Surrogates and intended parents would enter into a legal contract, ensuring what the governor’s policy proposal called “fully-informed consent.”

“The Governor believes New York surrogacy laws are antiquated and discriminatory against same-sex couples and couples struggling with fertility,” a Cuomo spokesperson said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “That’s why he proposed righting this wrong by creating a new and long-overdue path for these New Yorkers to have children that provides legal protections for the parents-to-be and the women who choose to become surrogates. We look forward to working with the Legislature to address this issue."

“Overall, we need to make certain that wellbeing of surrogates and donors is the centerpiece of any legislation,” said Hoylman. A revision of the bill is expected to be made available in the next week or two. Both Hoylman and Paulin said they expect the legislation to be voted on this spring.

Even if the legislation becomes law, the surrogacy process itself will remain expensive, as it is not covered by health insurance. To Solomon, that’s an additional reason to legalize surrogacy in New York. “The expense of having to go in and out of state, and have a surrogate fly in and go to doctor’s appointments, and go to the delivery and travel back, adds thousands of dollars to the process,” he said. “If you’re concerned about making the opportunity of having a child available to people of lower means, it’s a case for legalizing and having surrogacy in New York.”

Horowitz-Jaffe hopes the bill will pass sooner rather than later, so other families do not experience what she went through to have her twins. “I don’t know why [politicians] have to make things harder. Going through infertility itself sucks,” she said. “And when they throw this on top of it? It doesn’t have to be this way.”

 

After Major Tax Revenue Drop, a ‘Positive Note’ & Much Uncertainty for State Fiscal Picture


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Budget Director Mujica, Gov. Cuomo, Comptroller DiNapoli (photo: governor's office)


New York’s tax revenue fell by $3.7 billion, a 4.7% decline, in the 2019 fiscal year that ended March 31, according to the cash report released Friday by State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli. A drop was expected in projections made last year, but not to the degree it occured, setting off alarm bells earlier this year as the state started to see apparent effects of New York taxpayer behavior resulting from the new federal tax code. The state's latest projections from February did, however, more accurately account for the decrease in revenue as the fiscal year came to an end.

The drop in revenue largely stemmed from lower personal income tax receipts, though the comptroller said the year ended on “a positive note” because revenues came in higher than expected in March. Part of the decline was also related to the MTA payroll tax, which brought in $1.4 billion last year, being shifted out of the budget as a revenue source, and the new federal tax law led to many filers and employers moving their payments to the 2018 fiscal year, creating the appearance of a  drop in payments that doesn't reflect the larger economy, according to the state Division of Budget. But fiscal watchdogs are nonetheless concerned that the state could quickly face a cash crunch if revenue is lower than expected in April, the month that not only starts the new state fiscal year but is also home to the tax filing deadline.

The drop in personal income tax was first evident in data from December and January, raising a red flag for the state economy and creating uncertainty about future spending as Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state Legislature negotiated the budget for the 2020 fiscal year. In a February news conference called to discuss the startling numbers, Cuomo and DiNapoli pointed to the 2017 federal tax overhaul as the culprit, chiefly a provision that capped the deductibility of State and Local Taxes (SALT) at $10,000 and how New Yorkers may be responding to it. They said much more would become clear in the following months.

The governor and Legislature had to take that uncertainty into consideration when making revenue projections for the new fiscal year and that if those projections are significantly off they may need to restructure the state budget. 

The comptroller’s latest report noted that personal income tax revenue by the end of the fiscal year declined by $3.4 billion in total, or about 6.6% from the previous year, though other forms of tax revenue increased, including consumption tax, business tax, and miscellaneous revenue that included massive monetary settlements with financial and other corporations. March was a good month, with taxes coming in about $812 million higher than the state Division of Budget had projected in February.

“After months of concern over lower-than-expected tax collections, the state ended the fiscal year on a positive note,” DiNapoli said in a Friday statement. “The sharp revenue declines in December and January, however, remind us to take nothing for granted. With expectations of a slowing economy and ongoing concerns regarding federal fiscal policies, a strong commitment to building robust reserves in preparation for the next economic slump is essential.”

After a recent allocation of $250 million, the state’s current rainy day reserves stand at $2 billion, and are expected to increase to $2.5 billion by the end of the 2020 fiscal year. This sum pales in comparison to the recently-adopted $175.5 billion state budget for the fiscal year 2020.

The crucial period lies ahead as the state begins to take stock of tax returns that New Yorkers file in April. In February, the governor and state DOB projected that April would show an additional $1.4 billion in personal income taxes, and total collections of about $8.2 billion. In comparison, the state averaged between $5 and $7 billion in April tax revenues between 2016-2018. It’s not totally clear why the projection is so optimistic.

“When they made that adjustment in February, they said, we came in really low for January, but some of that money we think is gonna come in in April. And we don’t know if it’s going to or not,” said Dave Friedfel, director of state studies at Citizens Budget Commission, a nonprofit watchdog. “If it doesn’t, if they made a mistake in making that assumption, then suddenly the fiscal year 2020 budget could be in trouble only one month into the fiscal year.”

Should revenues come in below projections, the state could be in for tough times ahead.

“Depending on how that number comes in, if it’s significantly short, the state may need to tighten its belt a little bit further,” Friedfel said, noting that at minimum it would put a damper on conversations around increasing capital spending as the rest of the legislative session progresses. Cuomo and legislative leaders passed the new state budget without adding new capital expenditure plans, though many were carried over from prior plans.

E.J. McMahon, research director of the Empire Center for Public Policy, a think tank, agreed that if the April revenue doesn’t meet expectations, it would be “a sign of trouble.”

“However, even if it’s above the forecast, it’s not necessarily solid proof that things are much better because...the real number to watch this year, that has a bigger reflection of the economy, will be the quarterly estimated payments in June and especially September,” he said, pointing out that higher-earning New Yorkers have more complicated tax returns and may be filing for extensions.

The new budget does give the state Department of Budget, which is under the governor, the ability to make mid-year changes to spending in case of a $500 million deficit below projections, in which case the Legislature would have 30 days to respond or the DOB adjustment would take effect.

But a bigger issue is the state’s paltry reserves. CBC’s Friedfel said the state should at bare minimum have 10% of the operating budget in reserves, closer to about $10 billion. “That would be enough to really absorb the shock for one year and even more than that would be beneficial,” he said.

“The state has gotten about $12 billion in monetary settlements over the last six or seven years, certainly during the governor’s tenure, and they’ve put very little of that into reserves,” Friedfel continued. “They’ve actually used some of that for operations which sets up kind of a higher base of spending, which makes it harder to fill those gaps in the future.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Note - This article has been updated to clarify that the state Division of Budget's latest projections did expect revenues to drop as much they did though they did not originally. Additional context was also added about the MTA payroll tax and early filing of payments in the 2018 fiscal year.  

Uncertain Future for Secretive State Pork Program Tied to Renegade Democrats


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Cuomo and Klein (photo: governor's office)


Few New York residents have probably heard of the State and Municipal Facilities Program, or SAM, but in recent years, it has been one of the top avenues by which state lawmakers “bring home the bacon,” providing many millions of dollars in funding for district projects. Otherwise known as “pork,” these projects include things like new or renovated parks, schools, libraries, and more, with far greater funding going to legislators based on their political power.

However, in this year’s recently-adopted state budget, there are no new appropriations for SAM. And SAM is also different because it is lump sum appropriation, with specific project funding decided outside the budget process by the governor and legislative leaders.

Started in 2013, SAM is a creation of Governor Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders. It is controlled by the Dormitory Authority of the State of New York (DASNY), one of the state’s many public-benefit corporations, responsible for assisting state and local governments, as well as non-profits and colleges, with construction, financing, and other services. Currently-planned SAM projects include everything from renovations to the Brooklyn Public Library to creation of a skateboard park in Albany to new fire trucks and patrol vehicles in Poughkeepsie.

DASNY’s board consists of five gubernatorial appointees, an appointee from the President of the State Senate, another from the Assembly Speaker, and four ex-officio members: the State Comptroller, Education Commissioner, Health Commissioner, and the Budget Director.  The health commissioner and budget director are both appointed by the governor and the education commissioner is appointed by the state’s Board of Regents.

The program has long been criticized as an unnecessary discretionary fund -- in other words, a politically advantageous “slush fund.” SAM is one piece of the state’s larger capital budgeting, mainly for construction projects.

In his assessment of the 2018 state budget, Comptroller Tom DiNapoli criticized “the state's use of lump-sum appropriations that leave broad discretion for use of funds with limited disclosure.” He specifically cited SAM, which received a 25% increase in appropriations that year, saying “the need for additional discretionary spending authority was not made clear.”

Criticism has also come from good government and fiscal watchdog groups. E.J. McMahon, research director for the Empire Center for Public Policy, said last year that state lawmakers were “basically like teenagers with credit cards” when it comes to using SAM.

“It’s just pork. There is nobody even pretending that there is statewide importance to any of these,” McMahon told The Buffalo News. “There is no process. No airing. There’s complete discretion.”

David Friedfel, the director of state studies for the Citizens Budget Commission, told Gotham Gazette “these lump sum appropriations are not a wise investment of state resources. The allocations are a product of political expediency instead of a thorough analysis of the state’s needs. It’s nice for the communities that receive these grants, but the state taxpayers shouldn’t be footing the bill.”

Surprisingly, in this year’s state budget, there were no new appropriations for SAM. However, Friedfel notes that state lawmakers “have not allocated all of the money previously appropriated so they may have decided to just spend down existing appropriations this year.” There still remains over $1.9 billion in SAM appropriations that have gone unspent since the program’s creation in 2013, and that money is carried over into the new fiscal year 2019-2020 budget that took effect April 1 of this year.

As of April 8, 2019, there are over 1,800 grants currently administered by DASNY under SAM that amount to over $900 million in planned spending. This leaves a little over a $1 billion in discretionary funds for state lawmakers to access, which is more funding than SAM has ever spent in a single year.

Freeman Klopott, a spokesperson for the state’s Division of the Budget, which is under the governor, said in a statement “there were no capital additions to the Budget and, as we have said already, additional capital funding will be addressed in June at the end of legislative session when we have a better sense of the State’s fiscal picture.”

There has been little indication from Albany leaders if there will be additional SAM funding in the capital budget when it is decided. The state’s current fiscal outlook, the availability of reappropriated funds, and the demise of the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) all appear to make additional SAM appropriations unnecessary or unlikely.

The program’s 2013 introduction coincided with the first state budget following the 2012 state legislative elections, in which Democrats won a majority of State Senate seats. However, the IDC partnered with Senate Republicans to maintain the Republican-led majority. The addition of a new discretionary spending program a few months after the deal was struck was suspicious to many. There has been reporting to indicate, as well as widespread belief, that Governor Cuomo, now a third-term Democrat, preferred and encouraged the creation of the IDC and its coalition with Republicans.

SAM was utilized over the years to benefit members of the IDC handsomely, while the funding also benefited Senate Republicans and Assembly Democrats.

Several years after its creation, in the 2018 budget, an additional $90 million was added to SAM’s annual appropriations. This was a few weeks before the IDC’s dissolution -- a deal Cuomo brokered -- and five months before that year’s primary elections, when six of the eight IDC members were defeated by Democratic challengers.

Former State Senator Jeff Klein, who had been the leader of the IDC, was one of the primary beneficiaries of SAM projects before his loss to Alessandra Biaggi in the 2018 state legislative elections. A 2015 article in Politico New York explained “Jeff Klein’s alliance with Republicans has paid off.” Klein received almost $12 million in earmarks, much of which came from SAM, over three years between 2013 and 2015, according to Politico. Klein’s earmarks were triple that of any other state senator at the time, though other members of the IDC also reaped significant benefits, as did other legislators.

In an April 1 interview with WAMC Northeast Public Radio, Cuomo acknowledged that the capital budget and capital projects were not “fully included” in the recently-passed state budget. He said that “we have to negotiate on the capital side and we’ll do that in the coming weeks.” He also reiterated that the state’s $150 billion infrastructure plan “is the most aggressive infrastructure plan in the United States of America.”

While Cuomo’s major infrastructure projects continue apace, it is unclear what the fate of the SAM program will be, whether the reallocated money will be spent down or whether new money will be added.

On April 12, Cuomo issued 123 line-item vetoes to cut $44 million in capital spending added by the Legislature, in order “to maintain a properly balanced budget,” the governor wrote, and for technical reasons, such as being duplicative or were unnecessarily held over from several years prior.

While SAM is among the largest sources of funding legislators can use for capital projects in their districts, it is not the only source. And according to Friedfel, the final state budget also took out a provision that would have given the state’s inspector general greater oversight of discretionary spending.

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by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette

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Max & Murphy Podcast: Senator Jessica Ramos on the Adopted State Budget & Upcoming Albany Agenda


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(photo: @RamosforStateSenate)


April 17, 2019 - Max & Murphy Podcast: State Senator Jessica Ramos on the Albany Agenda

jessica ramos 150State Senator Jessica Ramos of Queens joined the show to discuss her first budget season in the state Legislature -- accomplishments, disappointments, lessons learned -- and what lies ahead on issues including marijuana legalization, rent regulations, and her farmworkers' rights bill.

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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2010 Change to How New York Prisoners are Counted is Part of Upcoming Census and Redistricting Puzzle


govcuomo meadow

(photo: Mike Groll/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo)


As focus on the 2020 Census intensifies, one key aspect of the discussion is how the population count will impact legislative representation and redistricting. Along with new congressional districts -- New York stands to lose at least one if not two seats in the House of Representatives -- the state will also redraw its legislative districts for the State Senate and State Assembly, along with local legislative bodies.

One important and controversial element in both the population count and the subsequent redistricting in the 2010-2012 cycle was the location of state prisons and how prisoners were counted in the Census; specifically, whether prisoners are counted as residents of the location of the prison they are held in or of their prior home address.

Prison populations had significant impact on local counts and therefore district lines, particularly in some of the more rural areas where most state prisons are located. At the same time, state prison population in New York has been on the decline since 1999, when it was at a peak of 71,649 prisoners. Now, that number has fallen to 46,973 prisoners, according to a press release from Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Up until 2010, the Census counted prisoners in the districts they were incarcerated in, despite most of them coming from New York City and Long Island, according to data from the New York State Legislative Task Force on Demographic Research on Reapportionment (LATFOR), which has oversight of the redistricting process.

The prison count has had a significant impact on redistricting within New York, adding to the population of certain regions of particular importance for State Senate seats. While the Assembly has been dominated by Democrats for decades now, the Senate has largely seen a very close split between Republicans and Democrats. Republicans controlled the Senate for most of the past decade, including during the 2012 redistricting, until this year -- Democrats won a fairly large majority in last year’s elections.

When Democrats last had control of the Senate, briefly in 2009-2010, a controversial bill was passed amid the 2010 Census mandating that prisoners are counted based on their last known home addresses.

While counting prisoners at their prior addresses is likely to remain the case going forward, some redistricting experts are concerned that this method of counting prisoners may not be deployed because newer legislation does not address it. In 2014 and after much criticism of the 2012 redistricting process as overly political, New York voters approved a ballot measure creating a new, more independent redistricting process for 2022 and beyond.

The 2020 Census count will begin in April of next year, without full clarity on the prison count question. Prison populations can have significant impacts on how district lines are drawn, and those lines can greatly influence legislative balances of power.

How did prisons impact redistricting?
For State Senate and Assembly redistricting, the Census is taken, then the total number of people in the state is divided by the total number of districts -- 150 Assembly districts and 63 Senate districts. District lines are then drawn necessitating that a similar number of people are counted within each district.

In 2010, many State Senate districts in upstate New York were underpopulated relative to other districts, giving upstate voters more influence over their representatives than voters in overpopulated districts downstate, including in New York City, where voter power was deflated. When taking away the prison population of seven of those upstate districts, they became severely underpopulated, further inflating upstate voters’ power, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.

Senate District 45, which includes Clinton, Essex, Franklin, Hamilton, Warren and Washington Counties, had one of the highest prison populations, 14,161, as of 2007, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. Taking away that prison population, the district had almost 30,000 fewer residents than the 2010 average population per district of 312,550, according to the Center for Urban Research at the CUNY Graduate Center.

Prison population counting also affected redistricting on a local level in places like Rome, New York. According to information from the Prison Policy Initiative, in Rome’s second ward, half the population counted in the census was incarcerated, inflating the local non-incarcerated population to double its actual size. Thus voters in Rome’s second ward had roughly twice the influence they would otherwise demand; prisoners are not allowed to vote in New York.

Some upstate populations inflated by prisoners meant that more funding and political attention was allocated to predominantly Republican communities, in part through districting, helping the party hold a firmer grasp over the State Senate.

New York changes how the census counts prisoners
In 2010, several non-profit groups including The Brennan Center, The Prison Policy Initiative, and Demos rallied against the way prisoners were being counted, calling it “prison-based gerrymandering.”

They strongly advocated for a bill (S6725A) sponsored by then-State Senator Eric Schneiderman, a Manhattan Democrat (who went on to become New York Attorney General, a position he resigned from in 2018 amid a domestic abuse scandal). The bill required incarcerated people to be counted based on their home residence and not based on the address of the prison where they are incarcerated.

This legislation was passed, along with a provision postponing the deadline for prisons to report inmates’ home addresses from July 1 to September 1. It was introduced as an amendment to the New York State revenue budget bill in August 2010 -- four months after the 2010 Census count had begun in April.

Almost 80 percent of the state’s prison population was then successfully recounted based on inmates’ last known addresses. The state prisoners whose addresses were not identifiable, as well as all federal prisoners, were not taken into account when determining legislative districts.

The legislation mostly stopped upstate communities from gaining additional political influence and resources based on housing prisons. At the time, the move was hotly contested, but it has not been discussed much since.

Justin Levitt, currently a law professor at Loyola Law School, who then served as counsel at The Brennan Center for Justice, believes redistricting was made fairer as a result of the legislation. “In the districts where there are prisons, the surrounding communities are represented by their representatives, but the people who are artificially stuck in that neighborhood are represented by legislators in the areas where they are from,” he said in a phone interview.  

Opponents of the change
The legislation faced fierce opponents, many of whom were legislators in districts home to prisons. Senator Betty Little, a Republican representing counties including as Clinton, Franklin, Essex and Washington Counties in Northern New York, was one of the senators most strongly against the legislation.

Senator Little’s district housed 13 state and federal prisons in 2009, although three of those have now been shut down based on New York Department of Corrections’ prison maps. The new method of counting prisoners meant that her district would have to be redrawn to accommodate more people so that it was not severely underpopulated.

Little filed a lawsuit in April 2011 against the Legislative Task Force for Research and Reapportionment (LATFOR), a task force set up by minority and majority leaders of the Senate and Assembly to determine district lines. The lawsuit aimed to strike down the prisoner counting legislation. She lost in Little vs LATFOR.

The plaintiffs argued that the legislation was unconstitutional, did not correctly count inhabitants, and that the method of counting inmates did not line up with what was recommended by the U.S. Census Bureau. The New York Supreme Court ruled that the legislation did not obstruct the constitution beyond a reasonable doubt. It also determined that prisoners’ addresses at the prisons should not be viewed as permanent. The ruling also quoted Census Bureau Director Robert M. Groves, who said that states may count prisoners however they please.

Today, Senator Little still argues her case. “My contention has been that incarcerated individuals should be counted where they are serving their sentence, their 'usual residence,' not where they are from and may or may never return," Little told Gotham Gazette via email. "Where they utilize services is where they should be counted because the allocation of resources for these services is often apportioned based on representation and population."

Efforts Since 2012 Redistricting
Jeffrey Wice, who has served as counsel to Democrats during state legislative redistricting, and is currently a fellow at SUNY Rockefeller School of Government, is concerned that New York may go back to counting prisoners in the districts where they are incarcerated as 2022’s redistricting process approaches.

Wice points to the redistricting amendment made to the New York State constitution in 2014, based on popular vote after passage by the Legislature. It stated that a ten-person redistricting commission would be appointed to determine district lines in the redistricting cycle of 2020-2022, and refined the criteria for commissioners and that the commission would take into account when determining district lines.

“The constitutional amendment is silent on that,” Wice said of how prisoners are counted. “And several of the commissioners could question whether the state is still required to reallocate prisoners because the constitutional amendment is silent.”

However, a spokesperson from Governor Andrew Cuomo's office sounded definitive, saying of prisoners: “They will be counted as part of their home districts.”

What next?
The impact of counting prisoners in the census, wherever they are located or tallied, is decreasing as the prison population is decreasing.  In the new state budget, the Legislature agreed to allow Cuomo to shutter up to three more prisons, the number will depend on which prison beds are identified for elimination given the declining inmate populations. It’s unclear how the closure of two or three prisons may impact the populations in other prisons, where some inmates may be transferred.

Meanwhile, the budget also included new criminal justice reforms that promise to significantly reduce jail and prison populations, including bail, speedy trial, and discovery reforms.

The likely continuing reduction in prison population across the state, plus the prison population-counting legislation passed to apply to the 2010 Census and beyond, and the new redistricting process set to take hold based on the constitutional amendment that was passed in 2014, may ultimately ensure counting of prison populations will play less of a role in determining legislative district lines in the 2020-2022 redistricting cycle.

[READ: New York's New, Untested Redistricting Process Set to Unfold After 2020 Census]

***
by Ashad Hajela, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

A Busy Week at the City Council & MTA, Brooklyn Special Election Debates & More: The Week Ahead in New York Politics, April 15


New York City Hall

New York City Hall


What to watch for this week in New York politics:

We may get the answer this week as to whether Mayor Bill de Blasio is indeed running for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States. The mayor has been visiting early primary/caucus states and saying for weeks that a decision will be coming "sooner rather than later." He stayed in the city this weekend, perhaps preparing for an announcement one way or the other. Stay tuned. De Blasio begins his week with events related to NYCHA and the city's jails plan, as well as his usual NY1 Monday evening appearance (see below for details).

While the state Legislature is now on its usual mid-April break, the City Council will be very busy this week with committee hearings and a full-body Stated Meeting, at which new bills are introduced and bills that have passed committee are voted on by the full Council. This week's passed bills are expected to include a major package of environmental policy including mandates for many large buildings to become more eco-friendly. Some of the committee hearings this week will also consider new or updated legislation for the first time, with no vote expected, but signifying possible movement toward eventual passage.

It's the first week since the Council released its response to de Blasio's preliminary budget plan. Public and private negotiations over the city budget will continue this week as the mayor is set to release his executive budget proposal later this month, leading to another round of Council hearings and an evenutal budget agreement by the July 1 start of the next fiscal year.

[READ: City Council Response to De Blasio Budget Includes Investment in Workers, Cut to ThriveNYC, & Ferry Spending Transparency]

[LISTEN: Max & Murphy Podcast with City Council Speaker Corey Johnson]

This week will also feature an MTA Board meeting, a meeting of the city's Panel for Educational Policy, a speech by Port Authority Executive Director Rick Cotton, two debates among candidates vying in the special City Council election to replace Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, and more. As always, there's a lot happening - see our day-by-day rundown below.

And, perhaps this will be the week that the mayor, City Council speaker, and borough presidents name the inaugural members of the new New York City Civic Engagement Commission, which was supposed to be named for April 1.

***Do you have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics?
e-mail Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.***

The run of the week in detail:

Monday
On Monday at noon at the Williamsburg Community Center in Brooklyn, "Mayor de Blasio will make an announcement regarding NYCHA’s lead prevention efforts. This event is open press. There will be Q-and-A. Later, the Mayor and Council Member Levin will meet with community leaders to discuss the City’s borough-based jail plan. This meeting is closed press. In the evening, the Mayor will appear live on NY1’s Inside City Hall with Errol Louis."

At the City Council on Monday:
--The Committee on Environmental Protection will meet at 10 a.m. for an oversight hearing regarding “the environmental impacts of the proposed Williams Pipeline.” City Council Speaker Corey Johnson will deliver remarks.
--The Committee on Public Housing will meet at 10 a.m. for an oversight hearing regarding “NYCHA management of Tenant Participation Activity funds.”
--The Committee on Governmental Operations will meet at 1 p.m. to discuss a proposed law to increase the cap on public funds available to participants in the city’s public financing system, and to implement the charter revisions approved by city voters in November.
--The Committee on Fire and Emergency Management will meet at 1 p.m. for an oversight hearing regarding “FDNY ambulance costs,” as well as to discuss a proposed law requiring the FDNY to report on the cost of ambulance transport.
--The Subcommittee on Landmarks, Public Siting, and Maritime Uses will meet at 1 p.m.

Monday is MTA Board committee meeting day for April.

On Monday at 10 a.m. on the Lower East Side, "the NY Renews coalition and member organizations including the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, Demos, and Make the Road NY will release a new report: Justicia Climática: How the Climate & Community Protection Act will Increase Resiliency for New York's Latinx Communities. The report details the ways in which Latinx communities are both disproportionately impacted by both the toxic effects of extracting and burning fossil fuels, and more likely to suffer damage to homes, person, and property from severe weather caused by climate change."

On Monday at noon in Chinatown, the city's Small Business Services department "will announce that registration is now open for new business courses in multiple languages, available to over 5,000 entrepreneurs. The courses will offer new culturally-competent curricula tailored to the needs of immigrant communities. The first new courses will be available in Spanish, Mandarin, and Russian."

Tuesday
At the City Council on Tuesday:
--The Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises will meet at 9:30 a.m.
--The Committee on Sanitation will meet at 1 p.m. to discuss the implementation of a 5 cent fee on paper bags, opting the city into a new law passed in the adopted state budget alongside the near-ban on plastic bags.
--The Committee on Parks and Recreation will meet at 1 p.m. for an oversight hearing “examining water quality at the Parks Department’s beaches.”
--The Committee on Contracts will meet at 1 p.m. to discuss proposed laws related to increased reporting requirements for contract modifications and to city contracts with non-profits.

At 8:30 a.m. Tuesday, City Council Member Ben Kallos will speak to the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce at Fortis Lux Financial in East Midtown.

At 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Brooklyn College’s CLAS Student Government and the Young Progressives of America will host a forum for candidates for the 45th Council District seat at the Brooklyn College Student Center. The participating candidates will include Farah Louis, Anthony Beckford, Jovia Radix, Monique Waterman, Hercules Reid, and Xamayla Rose.

Wednesday
At the City Council on Wednesday:
--The Committee on Land Use will meet at 11 a.m.
--The Committee on Juvenile Justice will tour the Crossroads Juvenile Detention Center in Brownsville at 1 p.m.
--The Committees on Transportation, Economic Development and Governmental Operations will meet jointly at 1 p.m. to discuss the potential creation of an “Office of the Waterfront,” which would coordinate among agencies on waterfront-related issues and would be tasked with “implementing the New York City Comprehensive Waterfront Plan,” as well as the potential creation of a “Director of Ferry Operations” within DOT.

At 9 a.m. Wednesday, the MTA will hold a board meeting.

At noon Wednesday, State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli will speak at the Monsignor Hartman Memorial Luncheon at Crest Hollow Country Club in Woodbury.

At 5 p.m. Wednesday on WBAI radio, this week’s Max & Murphy show will air. Tune in at 99.5FM or wbai.org. This week’s show will focus on the latest out of state government in Albany.

At 6 p.m. Wednesday, the Panel for Educational Policy will meet at Murry Bergtraum High School in Chinatown.

At 6 p.m. Wednesday, LatinoJustice PRLDEF Lideres will host “Latinx: Political Power Rising” at the Black Gotham studio in the Financial District. Panelists will discuss the ascension of Latinx politicians and candidates and issues facing the community. Panelists will include Assemblymember Catalina Cruz, Senior Political Strategist for the Center for Popular Democracy Natalia Salgado, and Associate Counsel for LatinoJustice PRLDEF Jorge Vasquez.

At 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, City & State will unveil its debut “Higher Education Power 50” list at the Battery Gardens restaurant in Battery Park City. Maya Wiley, Senior Vice President for Social Justice at the New School and former counsel to Mayor de Blasio, will give keynote remarks.

At 7 p.m. Wednesday, City Comptroller Scott Stringer will hold a town hall meeting at the Elmhurst Hospital in Queens. The town hall is being organized in partnership with U.S. Reps Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Grace Meng, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, State Senators Jessica Ramos and Toby Ann Stavisky, Assemblymembers Catalina Cruz and Michael DenDekker, and City Council Member Danny Dromm.

At 7 p.m. Wednesday at Brooklyn Law School, "Brooklyn Voters Alliance and Brooklyn Law School, along with local partners, will host an educational forum on the restoration of voting rights for people on parole and universal voting. We will hear from legal experts, advocates, and most importantly, New Yorkers who have felt the impact of our arcane and discriminatory voting laws as we engage in a dynamic, educational, and emotional discussion concerning the history of felony disenfranchisement...Speakers from the ACLU, Parole Preparation Project, National Action Network, the Brennan Center, Hour Working Women, and more."

Thursday
The City Council will hold a stated meeting at 1:30 p.m. Thursday. It will be prefaced by the usual pre-stated press conference hosted by Speaker Corey Johnson.

Also at the City Council on Thursday: the Committee on Finance will meet at 10 a.m.

At 8 a.m. Thursday, the Association for a Better New York will host Port Authority Executive Director Rick Cotton at the Mezzanine in the Financial District, discussing an “updated progress report on the redevelopment projects at the region's airports in a presentation titled "From Vision to Reality: Rebuilding New York's Airports for the 21st Century".”

At 9:30 a.m. Thursday, the Rent Guidelines Board will meet at the Landmarks Preservation Commission offices in the Manhattan Municipal Building.

At 10 a.m. Thursday, the Campaign Finance Board will hold a board meeting at 100 Church Street.

At 1:30 p.m. Thursday, U.S. Rep Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will speak at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s Gerald Lynch Theater.

At 5:30 p.m. Thursday, activists will rally and march from City Hall across the Brooklyn Bridge to protest the proposed Williams Pipeline.

At 6 p.m. Thursday, candidates for City Council in District 45 will participate in a debate at the Pakistani American Youth Society in Kensington. Bklyner's Kadia Goba will moderate. Participating candidates include Victor Jordan, Anthony Beckford, Monique Waterman, Farah Louis, Jovia Radix, Xamayla Rose, Adina Sash, Jean Similien, Rickie Tulloch, and Hercules Reid.

Friday and the weekend
Beginning at 8 a.m. Friday, the Regional Plan Association will host its 2019 Assembly at the Grand Hyatt New York in Midtown. Speakers “will address ways to promote both prosperity and community health—and how to put those policies and projects into action.” The keynote speakers will be Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, and Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont. A variety of local officials will also participate.

Mayor Bill de Blasio may make his weekly appearance on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show on Friday at 10 a.m.

Friday is Good Friday and the first night of Passover, and Sunday is Easter.

***
Have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics? E-mail Gotham Gazette executive editor Ben Max any time: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. (please use "For Week Ahead" as email subject).

New York’s New, Untested Redistricting Process Set to Unfold After 2020 Census


state map

NY State Senate Districts (image via Google Maps)


Following the 2020 Census, New York will kick off the decennial redrawing of its state legislative and congressional districts to ensure equitable representation based on population. But the next redistricting process is untested so far, having been approved after the 2010 Census when New York saw a severe undercount, contributing to the loss of one congressional seat, followed by a redistricting that many observers and elected officials criticized for creating overly complicated state legislative districts on partisan lines.

Looking ahead to the upcoming process, experts are hopeful, though uncertain, that the new redistricting method -- approved by voters via 2014 ballot referendum -- will lead to cleaner, more representative districts that improve the state’s democratic process once they take effect in 2022.

New York currently has 150 Assembly districts, 63 Senate districts, and 27 for the U.S. House of Representatives, all of which could change with the next redistricting when a new advisory commission of mostly legislative appointees will recommend the new boundaries for districts. That commission is meant to reduce political influence, though its proposed maps will not be binding.

Democrats now control the entire state Legislature, though they will have to keep control, especially of the Senate, through the 2020 elections. Republicans held the state Senate when the last round of redistricting took place, with a split Legislature in part leading to heavily gerrymandered district lines. At least in theory, legislative leaders will be less able, and therefore likely less inclined, to manipulate the next redistricting process, which offers a degree of parity and safeguards against partisan politics.

The census is the first big next step, and with the subsequent redistricting it determines representation of a state’s population in Congress and, for New York, the state Senate and Assembly. Besides the threat of billions in lost federal funding, an inaccurate census count can set the stage for a skewed drawing of legislative and congressional districts. New York has seen a net out-migration of more than a million residents since 2010 and stands to lose at least one seat in Congress, if not two, if the state’s population is not adequately counted.  

Following the last census, in 2010, the state’s redistricting process came under heavy scrutiny for lacking transparency and for creating state Senate districts that seemed designed to advantage Republicans and upstate and suburban districts, diluting the power of New York City residents who tend to lean Democratic. The process also strengthened Democrats’ control over the Assembly, though that chamber has traditionally been dominated by the party.

Governor Andrew Cuomo approved of the redistricting plan, which was put forward by the state’s Legislative Task Force on Demographic Research and Reapportionment (LATFOR) after 23 hearings across the state. At the last LATFOR hearing, one member, then-state Senator Martin Dilan, a Democrat, said he had considered boycotting the meeting because “the entire process has been a farce, a sham, has been a waste of money, and I believe that we have not listened to the citizens of the state of New York, and the plan that's being presented today to the Legislature is something that's putting the cart before the horse.” The redistricting plan, he said, was presented to the public and to the Legislature without LATFOR voting on it first.

But as the Legislature adopted the redistricting plan, it moved forward with an amendment to the state constitution, approved through voter referendum, which mandated the creation of a new “independent redistricting commission” to redraw district lines.

In 2021, that commission will be created for the first time, composed of ten members -- two each appointed by the Assembly Speaker, Senate majority leader, and minority leaders in both houses; and two chosen by a majority of those eight appointed members. The legislation set restrictions on who can be members, prohibiting anyone who has been in the previous three years a state legislator, congressional representative, statewide elected official, legislative or state employee, lobbyist, or political party chair. It also restricts the spouses of legislators, representatives, and statewide officials from serving. The commission will have two co-executive directors, representing the Democratic and Republican parties. LATFOR, chaired by Assemblymember Marcos Crespo, a Bronx Democrat, is meant to provide assistance to the commission. Crespo’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story.

The new commission will be guided by clearer safeguards and criteria than its predecessor as it spends months holding public hearings across the state. The authorizing legislation requires the commission to hold at least one hearing in the cities of Albany, Buffalo, Syracuse, Rochester, and White Plains, and in counties including the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, Manhattan, Nassau, and Suffolk.

The law mandates that districts should not be drawn in a way that could lead to “the denial or abridgement of racial or language minority voting rights.” It requires the commission to create equally populated districts as far as possible and to provide explanations in case of deviations.

The law also protects against the party in power from exploiting its position. If the leaders of the two legislative chambers represent different parties, the newly drawn maps recommended by the commission must be approved by a majority vote of each house. But, if both chambers are controlled by the same party, approval would require a two-thirds majority vote.  

“What we have this time around is the largest amount of uncertainty that we’ve ever had in redistricting in the last 40 years,” said Esmeralda Simmons, founder and executive director of the Center for Law and Social Justice, at Medgar Evers College, CUNY. “There’s a big question mark about what exactly is going to happen and how in this precedent-setting year, how this commission and the state Legislature will actually behave under these circumstances. It’s a test of whether or not elected officials, when their self interest collides with democracy, will choose democracy.”

Experts agree that an effective redistricting can only take place if the state carries out a thorough census effort and counts each and every resident of New York, and that the process is as free of politics as possible.

The 2020 Census is expected to be particularly challenging for several reasons -- the federal government is underfunding the Census Bureau; the count will be carried out largely through digital methodology for the first time; the Trump administration is attempting to add a citizenship question (which is being challenged in court) amid already rising concerns among immigrant communities, particularly undocumented immigrants, that they could fall under the federal government’s scrutiny; and the state has only allocated $20 million for community outreach though advocates called for twice that amount.

“Right now, the focus has got to be on the census because a bad census is going to result in a lack of fair representation,” said Jeff Wice, Fellow at the SUNY Rockefeller Institute of Government, who is a veteran of four cycles of legislative redistricting in New York City and State. “The state commission won’t be created until 2021 so it is not going to be a frontburner issue now, but people do need to learn about the process.”

As Wice and the others noted, an inadequate census would raise questions about the equitable reapportionment of districts. Undercounts, particularly of hard-to-count communities, can lead to redrawing district boundaries in ways that would create overpopulated districts, effectively watering down their representation, while over-representing others.

“Given there are communities that tend to not appear on the population count combined with the fact that there are districts that are disappearing, is potentially worrisome in terms of the reality of representation on the congressional level,” said Yurij Rudensky, counsel with the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, “particularly for parts of the city like Queens and Brooklyn and the Bronx where lower-income communities, communities of color tend to live.”

There also remain several other open questions about the process, including how independent the redistricting commission will really be and whether the districts it draws will ultimately be approved by the Legislature and Governor. In the last round of redistricting, the Legislature deadlocked on congressional maps and a judicially appointed special master ended up drawing the maps that were later adopted. 

“Maps that are drawn by courts perform well from a partisan fairness standpoint,” said Rudensky, “and of course courts are also sensitive to racial implications and have for a long time considered Voting Rights Act challenges.”

The independent commission’s recommendations will not be binding and the Legislature can, after rejecting the commission’s plans twice, adopt its own plan. “There’s no guarantee that this is how things will play out but it is possible as the proposal is written right now,” Rudensky said. “That is a reality, that is a shortcoming. It doesn’t mean it will happen, it doesn’t even mean that it’s likely because I think the way that it was designed, it will make it harder. Because the public has this increased role, it would look bad at the very least. That’s not to say that that will stop any sort of funny business.”

The 2021 redistricting process will be the first to be carried out without certain protections of the Voting Rights Act, which were struck down by the United States Supreme Court in 2013. Those protections required certain states and counties -- including the Bronx, Brooklyn and Manhattan -- to get approval from the federal Department of Justice to make changes to election laws, including the drawing of districts. Without those protections, “the only way to challenge something that hurts racial minority voters would be to go to court after the fact, not stop it before it goes into effect, and that’s a real major difference,” Simmons said, “the fact that they don’t have the hammer of the Justice Department hanging over their heads to reject racially discriminatory voting lines.”

Simmons is eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision, expected this summer, in a separate case that could bring an end to extreme partisan gerrymandering, which she is hoping will strengthen the state redistricting process as well.

The state Legislature passed a law in 2010 requiring that prison populations be counted based on inmates’ previous residence, but the constitutional amendment creating the redistricting commission does not address the issue. Prison populations can especially bolster upstate area population counts if prisoners are counted based on their prison location.

“The commissioners could question whether the state is still required to reallocate prisoners because the constitutional amendment is silent on that,” Wice said. “It is an open question because they could argue that the constitutional amendment preempts a chapter law that was enacted prior to the constitutional amendment...That could be a major debate.”

Nonetheless, there’s hope that the state can set a better standard with the new process. “I believe that elected officials can redistrict responsibly if they have a fair, transparent, objective process, and that’s very doable,” Wice said. “You don’t want to have plans…that are enacted through backroom machinations….[The commission’s] got to do things more in the open that will lend itself to more credibility and trust.”

Simmons admits that she has a “deep-seated fear” that the Legislature could exploit the loophole in the law that allows it to draw districts and reject the commission’s proposal. But, she said, “I do have hope that this process will be real and not just subterfuge, wasting taxpayer dollars by giving some people some busy work while the Legislature draws its own districts and simply rejects out of hand anything suggested by the commission.”

Rudensky said the public eye will keep the Legislature honest. “There’s gonna be a lot of attention on it, focus on it and hopefully that will help make sure that the reform is a success,” he said.

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

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Note - this article has been updated to clarify that congressional maps were drawn by a court-appointed special master in only the previous round of redistricting, not the previous two rounds. 

Report Undercuts Cuomo and DiNapoli Claims of Outmigration Because of Federal Tax Law


governor and cuomo salt rev

Gov. Cuomo, middle, and Comptroller DiNapoli, right (photo: Governor's office)


In the last few months, Governor Andrew Cuomo and State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli have raised red flags about the impact of the 2017 federal tax overhaul ushered through by President Trump and Republicans in Congress. Chiefly, they said that a new $10,000 cap on the State and Local Tax (SALT) deduction has led to a massive drop in revenue and is likely being accompanied by increased outmigration of high-earning New Yorkers to states with lower taxes.

But Cuomo and DiNapoli never provided concrete proof of the alleged trend and a new report undercuts their claim, to an extent, showing that New Yorkers have not been leaving the state because of the SALT cap but rather as part of continuing demographic trends and shifts in job markets.

Moody’s Investors Service, a leading ratings agency, released a report on Monday that said there are “no discernible signs” that the change in the SALT deduction is leading to people moving out of high-tax states, and notes that the impact of the new cap “will be felt widely for the first time this tax season and possibly spur some out-migration, but jobs and demographic trends will continue to influence relocation patterns more than tax burdens.”

The initial findings, based on 2017 data, fly in the face of the governor’s more definitive claims that the federal tax reforms -- which largely benefited corporations and wealthy individuals -- were leading to outmigration from high-tax Democratic states like New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey, where high-income earners make up a large part of the revenue base.

“We hope Moody’s is right, but with the first filing deadline post-SALT still upcoming, we are in the first inning of a long game,” said Freeman Klopott, a spokesperson for the state Division of the Budget, which is under Cuomo. “By the federal government’s own calculation, the cap on SALT is a more than $600 billion tax hike that will be borne overwhelmingly by New York and similarly situated states, making it an attack on the work we have done to strengthen New York State’ economy with a 2 percent limit on annual State spending growth, a cap on local property taxes, and a tax cut for every New Yorker.”

Brian Butry, a spokesperson for DiNapoli, said in an email, “As New Yorkers finalize their taxes, some are learning for the first time the impact of the SALT cap. The jury remains out on what the long-term effect will be.”

At a February 4 news conference, Cuomo and DiNapoli made a dire announcement that personal income taxes had come in $2.3 billion lower in December and January than the prior year, warning that even a small amount of outmigration of high-income residents would have a significant impact on state revenue. The SALT cap, they said, cost the state $14.3 billion in total.  

“SALT encourages high-income New Yorkers to move to other states,” Cuomo said, using his typical and misleading shorthand of “SALT” to mean the new cap on SALT deductions (the governor also regularly says that SALT was ended, when it has been capped). “And what you have to remember is even if a small number of high-income taxpayers leave, it has a dramatic effect on this tax space.”

He continued, “Taxpayers are adjusting in response to SALT....We have been hearing all along from the major accounting firms, to major individuals, that this is going to be the tipping point and that people now will be making a decision to make a geographic location change. And the SALT provision, remember, did not go into effect yesterday. It had over one year to adjust, so you didn't have to move on 24 hours' notice. You had one year to start to plan a move. And it goes into effect this April, so if you had to move or decided to move, now is the time that you would do it.”

DiNapoli was less forceful in making that argument that day. “We certainly have all heard anecdotally, as the Governor pointed out, people who say they're going to change their legal address, and I think these numbers show that in fact that is probably a big part of the picture,” he said, while acknowledging that several other factors, including volatility in the financial markets were to blame for the recent revenue decrease.

In a March 13 interview on WBAI radio with Gotham Gazette’s Ben Max and City Limits’ Jarrett Murphy, DiNapoli continued that line of reasoning while maintaining that he would need to examine months of data from the Department of Taxation and Finance before coming to a firm conclusion. “I do think that is a piece and probably a very significant piece, of what’s happening,” he said of the alleged SALT cap impact on taxpayer behavior and state revenue. “We’re gonna need more months of data....My instinct tells me the governor was on the right track, that the biggest piece of the shortfall was the response to the adjustment in federal tax reform.”

[LISTEN: Max & Murphy Podcast: Comptroller Tom DiNapoli (March 2019)]

The Moody’s report, however, points out using Census Bureau data that migration rates between 2012 and 2017 in the five states where “the SALT deduction represents the largest share of total federal adjusted gross income” -- California, Connecticut, Maryland, New Jersey and New York -- “are below pre-recession levels and generally follow the US as a whole.” The report notes that it is too early to gauge if the federal tax law has affected migration, contrary to what Cuomo and, to a lesser degree, DiNapoli have said. The report also said that people are generally moving from one high-tax state to another.

“In 2017, 25%-30% of people who moved out of New York, Connecticut and New Jersey moved to another one of the five high-tax states,” the report reads. “The most popular destination for people moving out of New Jersey and Connecticut was New York.”

The report does confirm long-running concerns from Cuomo and others about migration of New Yorkers to Florida, a state with far lower taxes. Moody’s noted that 14% of people who moved out of New York in 2017 went to the Sunshine State. But, those who moved were not primarily driven by lower taxes but rather by job opportunities, climate, and housing costs, the report said. The trend of New Yorkers moving to Florida is nothing new, however. Overall, New Yorkers have consistently been leaving the state since at least 1961, according to the Empire Center, a think tank, and the state saw a net loss of more than 1 million people between 2010 and July 2017.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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