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Opinion

A New Deal for CUNY This State Budget: Close the TAP Gap and Freeze Tuition


first lady chi

(photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayoral Photography Office)


While the national admissions bribery scandal rocks the country, another, less sensational, legal -- but still incredibly important -- higher education crisis is unfolding before our eyes in New York. The City University of New York (CUNY), where the majority of the student body comes from underserved communities of color, is in the midst of a financial crisis, putting public higher education at risk for thousands of New Yorkers who want and deserve opportunity.

In 2017 the New York Times reported that CUNY propels “almost six times as many low-income students into the middle class and beyond as all eight Ivy League campuses, plus Duke, M.I.T., Stanford and Chicago, combined.” Despite its success in doing so, CUNY deals with consistent flat funding and underfunding from state government in Albany, and “predictable” and “rational” tuition hikes have increasingly placed the burden of keeping the University afloat on the backs of students. Tuition hikes are only a band-aid fix to an underlying problem of state divestment in public higher education.

To solve this crisis, the state must prioritize and increase funding towards higher education, starting with the new state budget that is due by Monday, April 1.

CUNY accepts all and recognizes the potential of all, which makes it the right investment. Investing in CUNY means ensuring all New Yorkers, regardless of income or status, can pursue an excellent and affordable education.

My story is the story of many CUNY students. I attended Queensborough Community College with the financial and academic support provided by CUNY’s ASAP program. The opportunity program, like SEEK and ACE, recognizes that access to resources like Metrocards, textbook vouchers, and dedicated advisors can make a world of difference to financially-struggling students. As a new immigrant to the United States, these resources helped provide stability for me and my family.

Mid-way through my college career, we lost my father, the family breadwinner, to cancer. My family relocated to Texas; I was able to stay in New York and continue my education at City College thanks to merit-based scholarships I won given my performance in community college as a straight-A student, propelled by the resources ASAP provided. However, these very same resources that helped me succeed in college are the frequent targets of budget cuts, and others are severely underfunded. For example, at City College, I was only allowed six sessions with a mental health counselor because of budgetary limitations, despite needing more help with navigating the sudden changes in my life.

At the Board of Trustees Public Hearing in January on the fiscal year 2020 budget request, student leaders pointed out that the messaging in Albany around CUNY is inconsistent. How can we herald programs to make college more affordable or provide food pantries, but still choose to burden these same students with a tuition hike of $200 each year, which is more than “modest” for CUNY families?

Predictability of a tuition hike doesn’t change its unaffordability. Another tuition hike also goes against the vision of Governor Cuomo and the tuition-free promise he made to New Yorkers two years ago with the Excelsior Scholarship, which only helps a little over 2 percent of CUNY students. Furthermore, an increase in tuition -- which could and should be rolled back by state lawmakers -- will further widen “the TAP Gap,” the growing difference between the state’s tuition assistance program funding for students and actual tuition costs. As of now the maximum amount of TAP that can be awarded to a student each year is $5,165, while the annual cost of attendance at a four-year college is $6,730, leaving a yearly gap of $1,565 that colleges need to fund by slashing existing programs and services.

The looming financial crisis faced by many of CUNY’s close to 500,000 students is an equity issue, one that disproportionately affects colleges where students of color and those from low-income families are the majority population. For a university once called the “free academy” and the “poor man’s Harvard,” this is disheartening.

Many state legislators were beneficiaries of CUNY’s opportunity programs and support services -- some even went to CUNY for free -- and should recognize the value of investing in higher education. Shifting the burden of funding from the public to students is a betrayal of New York’s commitment to college affordability and we in the CUNY Student Senate call on leadership to take the necessary measures to end disinvestment in public higher education and protect that commitment instead.

The Legislature and Governor Cuomo must provide $32 million to reinstate a tuition freeze across all public colleges like they did in 2016, provide the $74 million needed to fill the TAP Gap, and commit funds to expand opportunity programs and support services, not just simply restoring proposed cuts.

On Sunday, over 100 students marched from City Hall, across Brooklyn Bridge, to Brooklyn Borough Hall, with Borough Presidents Gale Brewer and Eric Adams, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, and State Senator Robert Jackson joining in solidarity, for a new deal for CUNY. The needs of CUNY students are not mutually exclusive to the needs of New Yorkers, and rather than short-changing higher education, Albany leaders should support the university, whose mission is synonymous with the state’s mission of providing all New York families a pathway to a better life.

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Haris Khan is the chairperson for the CUNY University Student Senate (USS) and the only student member of the CUNY Board of Trustees. He also sits on the NYS Higher Education Services Corporation Board of Trustees and studies Politics, Diplomacy, and Law in the CUNY BA program at The City College of New York. On Twitter @hariskhan97.

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Rep. Serrano’s Retirement and a Looming Rumble in the Bronx


rubendiazjr richie torres cm

Rep. Serrano, BP Diaz Jr., CM Torres (l-r) (photo: @rubendiazjr)


It’s time for a rumble in the Bronx. After 29 years in Congress and 44 years in elected office, Congressional Rep. José Serrano has decided to retire from office. Together with the likes of Herman Badillo, José Rivera, Robert Garcia, Gerena Valentin, and Ramon Velez in the Bronx, Serrano has been a pioneering figure within the Latino/Puerto Rican political landscape in New York City.

Serrano fought at the frontlines for Latino political representation at a time when Puerto Ricans were left out of the political equation despite their burgeoning numbers. Serrano, and the rest, fought arduously for this long-sought-after recognition. Their hard work paid off. Serrano won an Assembly seat in 1975.

While Serrano’s early work to gain Latino political representation is not debatable, the rest of his legacy is more dubious. Serrano has not been known for any sort of legislative prowess. The South Bronx, which he represents, has long been a poverty stricken area that has seen scant federal resources for decades, despite Serrano’s long tenure in Congress.

As a result of this record, observers like long-time political operative Mike Nieves had surmised that a formidable and credible candidate could defeat Serrano. No one ever did.

Serrano’s legacy notwithstanding, the eyes of our political world will now turn to the 15th Congressional district in the Bronx to see who will succeed him in Congress.

The timing of Serrano’s retirement announcement coincides with City Council Member Ritchie Torres’ own recent announcement that he would challenge the incumbent representative for the seat. In a previous column, I mentioned that Torres would be one to watch as we eye the future of Latino politics in the city. His intellectual abilities, grasp of public policy, and ability to articulate his view have deservedly caught people’s attention.

Torres is clearly a formidable candidate for the “open” congressional seat. Most of his Council district, which he first won in 2013, lies within Serrano’s Congressional district. After six years in the Council, Torres has been able to gain some recognition among voters for his work on behalf of his constituents, particularly in areas affecting NYCHA residents.

Various other names are being floated at this nascent stage. Among them are former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. Mark-Viverito has just come off a dismal showing in her race for the citywide position of public advocate. Yet she still holds some name recognition, particularly among Latinos.

Her home congressional district is currently represented by Adriano Espaillat but since there are no in-district residency requirements for a congressional seat, she could still make a play for the Serrano seat.

Then there is Assemblymember Marcos Crespo, who is also the Bronx Democratic leader. Crespo’s Assembly district lies entirely within Serrano’s Congressional district and he would therefore potentially go into a race of this sort with a natural base of followers. Some will question his alliance with Council Member Ruben Diaz, Sr., who has been challenged for repeated homophobic statements and positions. But given Crespo’s potential to capitalize on some of the resources that would naturally come his way by virtue of his party position, he would quickly be considered a leading candidate for the position.

Yet another recent public advocate candidate might also throw his hat in the ring. Since Michael Blake’s election to the Assembly, and then his appointment to be a vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, rumors have swirled that he would one day challenge José Serrano.

That day never came. But this opening can provide an opportunity for Blake. Despite losing the public advocate race, Blake won his home borough of the Bronx and did fairly well in the portion covering Serrano’s Congressional district.

And if he’s the only African-American in the race, that could also create a path to victory for Blake. With multiple formidable Latino candidates, a strong African-American candidate could win the seat.

Almost a third of the Democratic electorate in this Congressional district is African-American. Over 55 percent is Latino. If the race takes an ethnic path, that could lead to a split Latino vote and a more consolidated African American vote.

Then there’s state Senator Gustavo Rivera. Rivera, first elected in 2010, represents a swath of Serrano’s district in the state Senate. He has earned admiration from many progressives for standing up to the Bronx political machinery and for policies that progressives have long championed.

Lastly, if he were to step up, one elected official who could clear many if not all in the field would be Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. Diaz, Jr. is known throughout the borough and remains popular among many voters. Furthermore, this district has always been his home district -- he represented parts of it in the Assembly for 13 years.

Diaz Jr.’s capable communications guru, John DeSio, has tweeted that the borough president is not interested in the position. The borough president appears focused on launching a mayoral bid. But politics is practical and a congressional run could be an easier path to victory than a citywide mayoral race.

All this is conjecture, of course. What’s certain is that we can expect a free-for-all for the position ahead of the 2020 vote, and thus another rumble in the Bronx.

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Eli Valentin teaches political science at Monroe College and is a frequent guest political analyst on Univision NY. On Twitter @EliValentinNY.

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Mayoral Control of City Schools Helps Students Succeed in a Global Economy - It Must Be Extended


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(photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office)


In 2007, I was honored to chair the Commission on School Governance, a body appointed by then Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum to make recommendations on the future of New York City’s mayoral control law, which was about to come up for renewal.

I brought a unique perspective to the deliberations. I had served two terms as president of the New York City Board of Education during the 1970s, and had fought hard to preserve the board’s role in hiring and monitoring the performance of NYC school chancellors—as well as the independence of the board from direct political takeover.

Why? Because I believed the system worked.

As in any large, urban school system, there were some bad apples, but most of the central and community school board members impressed me as dedicated, hard-working people who wanted to make a difference in the lives of children.

Two decades later, I had what I like to call “an epiphany of mayoral control.”  

When it came time to made recommendations about the future of the legislation in 2008, I enthusiastically added my signature to the commission’s findings. Our overarching conclusion: “Mayoral control of the schools should be maintained so that the mayor can remain the principal public official who charts the direction of the school system and through the Chancellor is ultimately responsible for operating the schools on a day-to-day basis.”

I am more convinced than ever that a three-year renewal of mayoral accountability is the best thing we can do to move all our students to excellence and the futures they deserve.

Instead of dispersed authority and a rigid bureaucracy, we now have clear lines of accountability and responsibility. This has enabled mayors to allocate unprecedented resources to the city’s public schools and has empowered more parents to become involved in their children’s education.

Since its inception, mayoral accountability has enjoyed the robust support of business leaders like myself, for good reason. As a senior advisor to a global public relations and communications agency, I know that an educated population is essential for any company to compete in the 21st-century. An education that gives all students access to the most in-demand skills will also go a long way toward bringing equity to the workforce. Business leaders have a real interest in shrinking racial and gender gaps in fields such as computer science, where jobs are growing at twice the national average.

The Department of Education’s (DOE) Computer Science for All (CS4All) initiative is an example of mayoral accountability at its best. This $81 million public-private partnership will enable all city public school students, with an emphasis on female, black, and Hispanic students, to learn computer science by 2025. Mayor Bill de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza are laser-focused on empowering more young women and students of color to pursue careers in computer science, where they are currently under-represented.

Now, New York City is leading the nation in ensuring more young women and students of color have access to, and are excelling in, advanced computer science classes. In the past two years, the DOE has seen a nearly six-fold increase in the number of girls taking an Advanced Placement (AP) Computer Science test—up from 379 in 2016 to 2,155 last year. I was especially impressed to learn that girls represented 42 percent of these test-takers, versus 28 percent nationwide. An increasing number of girls are also passing an AP computer-science exam: 1,266 in 2018, up from 177 in 2016. The number of black and Hispanic students taking an AP Computer Science exam has also increased by 55 percent and 46 percent, respectively, since 2017. 

CS4All and the city’s other Equity and Excellence for All initiatives would have been difficult, if not impossible, to achieve when I served on the Board of Education. Mayoral control has created and fostered major policies at a much faster pace than we ever saw previously—while keeping responsibility and accountability focused where it belongs: with the Mayor.

I believe New York State legislators understand the benefits of having a mayor at the helm of our school system. They should include a three-year extension of mayoral control in the budget due by Monday, April 1.

It is time to make our collective epiphany a reality.

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Stephen R. Aiello is a senior advisor at Hill+Knowlton Strategies in New York City, and served as president of the NYC Board of Education between 1977 and 1979.

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For Real Democracy, Demand Small Donor Matching for New York State Elections


govandcuomo votes

(photo: governor's office)


Eighty percent of New Yorkers voted to fortify the way campaigns are financed in New York City through question 1 on the November 2018 ballot. Limiting big money in our local elections clearly resonated with voters, who agreed to increase the public matching dollar amount in the city and reduce individual contribution limits.

And for good reason! Big donations from real estate companies, healthcare corporations and Wall Street can quickly add up and drown out the power from everyday voters on decisions that we care about most like rent stabilization, public school funding, and affordable healthcare.

Today, government leaders in Albany are deciding whether to institute and fund a public matching system at the state level. It’s timely and necessary. The Senate has blocked the reform for years. Now the state Legislature finally has the opportunity to enact real change, but politicians are backtracking. We have just a few days to convince them -- a new budget is due by April 1.

Our system is skewed toward big donors and special interests. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, in New York state elections in 2018, “the top 100 donors gave more to candidates than all of the estimated 137,000 small donors combined.” That’s a tiny, very wealthy fraction of the voting public that isn’t representative of you or me gaining too much influence.

As it has in New York City, small donor matching would enable candidates for state elections to opt into a program that puts limits on large donations but matches small ones. The policy on the table for the state would see the first $175 of each individual’s donations matched at a 6-to-1 rate. With small donor matching, your $10 contribution becomes $70. This reform puts everyday people on the same playing field as the big donors and ensures that our voices are heard over corporations and special interests.

After years of that system, New York City voters just approved increases to $250 and 8-to-1 while lowering the contribution limits.

We’ve had small donor matching in New York City for 30 years, and the population funding city campaigns looks more like the city itself than the group contributing to the legislators who represent the city in Albany. Per the Brennan Center’s analysis, “almost 90 percent of the city’s census block groups were home to someone — and often, many people — who gave $175 or less to a City Council candidate in 2009. By contrast, the small donors in the 2010 State Assembly elections came from only 30 percent of the city’s census block groups.”

And candidates who are elected in this manner may be more likely to create and pass legislation that is representative of their small-donor constituents. For example, after Connecticut passed its Citizens’ Election Program, legislators from the new cohort of small-donor-supported candidates passed a paid sick leave law that had been blocked by special interests for years.

If you believe that corporations and special interest groups shouldn’t be allowed to buy elections, tell your Assembly Member and State Senator that you want small donor matching included in this year’s budget. And do it now!

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Teri Hagedorn is a volunteer for the New York chapter of Represent Us.

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How to Earn Support for Marijuana Legalization from New York Legislators of Color


legalize marijuana new york rally

(photo: Jake Plowden)


The cannabis industry has expanded dramatically in recent years. The state of California led the way on the legalization of medical marijuana with the first dispensaries opening there more than 20 years ago. Colorado legalized recreational marijuana in 2014, and has since been joined by nearly a dozen other states and the District of Columbia.

Yet in the midst of this cannabis market boom, communities of color have too often been left watching from the sidelines, excluded from the opportunity to create jobs and build wealth in their own neighborhoods. In these same neighborhoods, many black and Latino individuals are paying the price for the misguided War on Drugs, marked by criminal convictions for acts that are now perfectly legal in many states.

As legislators in New York, New Jersey, and other states debate the legalization of marijuana and other cannabis products, we must urge them to adopt policies that rectify the harmful impact of the War on Drugs and allow all aspiring entrepreneurs to participate in this growing and potentially lucrative market.

In the next five years, experts predict the global market in legal marijuana will approach nearly $150 billion in sales. We simply cannot afford to leave that kind of money on the table.

There are several key policies that we believe will bring equity to the cannabis market:

First, we need to start with the immediate and automatic expungement of criminal convictions related to the use, consumption, or sale of marijuana and other cannabis products.

Second, when legislators develop cannabis policies they should prioritize the licensing of individuals with prior criminal convictions related to marijuana to open cannabis businesses.

Third, we need empowerment zones, in neighborhoods that were disproportionately targeted by the War on Drugs, with policies in place on day one to encourage community members to open and expand cannabis businesses.

Fourth, states should mandate that the agencies regulating cannabis continually monitor the demographics of cannabis businesses, and issue regular reports on whether the industry accurately reflects the population as a whole.

We know from experience what happened in Colorado, where fewer than one in five marijuana dispensaries are owned by people of color. Similar figures have been reported in other states that have legalized marijuana.

We understand the structural barriers that now exist. Centuries of federal, state, and local policies continue to undermine wealth formation in our communities. In addition, stereotypes persist in the cannabis industry, privileging the experience of white, male entrepreneurs and too often ignoring the reality that all kinds of people have something to offer as this market expands and enters the mainstream.

We believe that remedial policies that actively and forcefully address existing disparities have the potential to overcome the structural barriers and allow communities of color to assume the position of leadership in this exciting new industry. Those policies will be enacted (or not) in Albany, Trenton, and a dozen other state capitals in the next few years, as well as in Congress. We need to make our voices heard.

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Steven Phan is a first generation Asian-American and co-founder of the CBD retail store Come Back Daily, with two locations in Manhattan.

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The Answer to More Diversity at Specialized High Schools is Tutoring Programs Like Ours


student tutor reading

(photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)


Last week, 27,000 eighth-graders and their parents opened exam results, hoping they had won a coveted seat at one of New York City’s eight specialized high schools. Unsurprisingly, this year’s offers followed trends of past years, with only 10.5 percent of offers going to black and Hispanic students, who comprise 68 percent of the overall public school system. At Stuyvesant High School, a mere seven black students and 33 Hispanic students were offered one of the 895 seats.

These disparities have long prompted debate about how to create more racial and ethnic equity in the specialized high schools while maintaining their quality. Although the test is open to all, few students in lower-income areas are able to afford test preparation, or even know about the exam. Those who do sit for it often can’t compete due to subpar educations in their poor neighborhoods.

Mayor de Blasio wants to abandon the test in favor of holistic assessments based on student grades, test scores, and class rankings. Over the course of a three-year phase-out of the test, his plan would have the number of students admitted based on class rank increase incrementally until 90 percent of offers go to the top 7 percent of students at each middle school. The remaining 10 percent of seats would be subject to a lottery open only to those with a minimum grade average of 93 percent. During the transition period, the Discovery Program, which offers admittance to low-income students who just missed the cutoff score on completion of a summer enrichment program, would expand to 20 percent of all seats.

Although diversity should be paramount to admissions, I fear that Mayor de Blasio’s proposal trades systems of exclusivity. In order to evaluate students based strictly on their scores, the test doesn’t compensate for inequities in early education. By contrast, assessments based on class rankings ignore the merit of individuals below the 7 percent line to overcompensate for inequities. Without the test, however, the student bodies of specialized high schools may be no different than others because the plan places unequal middle schools on an equal playing field.  

Moreover, students’ abilities set the pace in classrooms and determine the quality of discussions. An undistinguished student body removes the challenges meant to be integral to a specialized high school education.

Rather than reform the system to the advantage of all New Yorkers, Mayor de Blasio proposes to lower the bar. The substandard education that students of color often receive will remain in place in elementary and middle schools. Programs designed to prepare students for the entrance exam will disappear, and with them the enrichment opportunities offered to students regardless of the results.  

The diversity problem I’ve witnessed firsthand at the High School of American Studies at Lehman College, a specialized high school in the Bronx where I’m a junior, persists. Some of my classmates are first-generation immigrants who overcame the disadvantage of a non-English speaking or low-income household to gain a seat. They’re the exception. In fact, they’re often among a handful of students at their middle school to be admitted to a specialized high school. In contrast, the graduating class of my Upper West Side middle school received 150 offers from specialized high schools. I had a scholarship to a tutoring program for the test, but this isn’t an option for most students of color.

Recognizing this lack of resources, a new student-run tutoring program was created at my high school to prepare local Bronx middle school students for the SHSAT. A team of upperclassmen create and teach English and math lessons twice weekly to a class of seventh-graders. We plan activities, explain the high school process to ensure that the middle school students see admittance to our school as attainable, and provide snacks.

But teenagers can only tutor 30 kids at a time when thousands more deserve enrichment opportunities. All specialized high schools and other schools should host tutoring programs. These programs can and should reach more students and at a younger age, so that fairness and diversity are ensured long before incoming students walk through the door.

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Jade Lozada is a junior at the High School of American Studies at Lehman College and a second-generation Hispanic American. Through a student-run tutoring program, she teaches local Bronx middle-schoolers English Language Arts in preparation for the SHSAT exam.

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Crafting a State Budget to Enhance Nurse-Family Partnership and Support Vulnerable New York Families


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(photo: John McCarten/NY City Council)


We live in a state with enormous resources, and a $175 billion annual budget—yet many New Yorkers still lack access to adequate maternal care. New York's maternal mortality rate is higher than the national average, and even worse in communities of color. Black women are over three times more likely to die from complications during childbirth than their white counterparts.

All too often, the outcome of a woman's pregnancy has less to do with her health than with the quality of care she receives over the course of those nine months. For many women across our state, poverty and a lack of resources can be the decisive factor in determining the outcome of a pregnancy. That's unacceptable. We need better services and a standardized level of care to ensure that all women, regardless of their income level, race, or geography, can experience a safe and healthy delivery.

It’s time for New York to get serious about these issues, and address these startling trends. That’s why I pushed for the New York State Senate to increase funding in our chamber’s state budget plan for maternal health care – and why I’m now calling for that funding to remain in the final budget, to be agreed on by the Governor and the Legislature by April 1.

With expanded funding, we can better support the essential work being done through New York’s Nurse-Family Partnership programs. These programs, located throughout New York City and the state, connect the most high-risk first-time mothers in poverty with their own personal registered nurse through pregnancy and the baby’s first 1,000 days.

These nurses provide more than home visits to assess mom’s health and baby’s development; they offer social support and guidance on many critical facets of a woman’s life. They connect new moms with services to help find stable employment and housing, resources to make ends meet, like local food banks, and healthcare services during pregnancy and beyond. Their visits set the stage for a lifetime of healthy development. In fact, the program has seen significant improvement in pregnancy outcomes, including a reduction in preterm births and healthier pregnancies in New York state.

As the proud parent of two young daughters, I know how important it is that we support families through pregnancy and early childhood. And as a policymaker, I believe that New York has a responsibility to ensure that every family has access to the care they need.

Furthermore, every dollar invested in Nurse-Family Partnership yields $5.70 in return to government. Additional funds will guarantee the program can operate at its current level and potentially reach more vulnerable New Yorkers—something all of my colleagues should support. Investing in future generations isn't just the moral thing to do, it’s smart public policy.

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State Senator Brad Hoylman represents parts of Manhattan. On Twitter @bradhoylman.

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State Leaders Must Follow Through on Their Promise of a More Fair New York


got ga si gov

(photo: Governor's office)


As we near the final days of state budget negotiations, a familiar anxiety is growing as advocacy groups and everyday New Yorkers await the fate of critical policy and funding decisions.

Despite a fast start to the legislative session and optimism abounding from a Democratic trifecta that seemed focused and committed to delivering on campaign promises, the realities of the same-old behind-closed-doors budget process are setting in ahead of the April 1 deadline.

For far too long, the state budget has contributed to growing inequality and deteriorating services across the state. While state budgets tread water or move us backwards, the continuing “strength” of the economy has further tipped to the wealthiest among us.

The recently re-elected Governor and newly-elected members of the Assembly and the Senate ran on the promise to chart a new course.

Make no mistake: It is THAT vision of a fairer, cleaner, kinder, and more equitable New York that helped take down the Independent Democratic Conference, strengthen the Democratic majority in the Assembly, and elect 39 Democratic Senators for a new majority that voted to put Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins into her rightful place as the leader of the Senate.

Grassroots organizations like ours, Empire State Indivisible, have spent the first three months of 2019 in the streets organizing in support of that vision. But strangely it’s now many of these same elected officials who are pushing back against the fight for fairness and democracy.

Exhibit A: the continued resistance from many members of the Assembly to finally pass through both houses legislation for publicly-funded elections.

For years, the Assembly championed this issue: 88 current members are on the record for past support. Yet, now that there’s a viable path to passage, many of those former champions now claim there are too many open questions.

Grassroots organizers across the state have reported consistent questioning from many of their electeds like “how would the program be implemented?”, “what would be the model of oversight?”, and “where would the funds come from?”  

It turns out these reasonable questions already have incredibly thoughtful and effective answers. Organizations like Citizen Action and the Brennan Center for Justice have been bending over backwards to work with the conferences in the Senate and the Assembly to answer the questions and make the legislation as effective as possible. It’s disingenuous to claim that last-minute questions are the reason support for the measure is lacking.  

The fact is that our elected officials are sent to Albany to solve complicated problems with conviction.

They are the ones responsible to design policies that solve the challenges New York faces.  The irony of elected officials refusing to participate in the process of crafting the details of policy they claim to support is lost on no one.

Exhibit B: skittishness among many lawmakers on establishing fair tax and fiscal policies.

Governor Cuomo’s budget proposals consistently create a battle for funds amongst the most critical services. His penchant for “horse trading” (as many insiders refer to it) pits public school funding against healthcare spending, support of clean energy and municipal infrastructure projects against investments in affordable housing, and so on and so on.

We and many other New Yorkers have been asking legislators about increasing revenue through new fair-share tax proposals like the “ultra millionaires tax,” which extends the current millionaires tax and adds brackets for people whose annual income exceeds $5million, $10 million, and $100 million.  

Too often, the answers have been truly dismissive and patronizing -- particularly from the new Senate majority and the Governor. The pushback is a status-quo run-around: lawmakers fear that raising taxes -- even on multimillionaires and billionaires who got huge new tax breaks from President Trump --  might cause them to lose elections in 2020.

The numbers and the polling suggests otherwise.

Insisting that the ultra-rich pay their fair share of a burden that has for too long been shouldered by the poor, the middle class, and the upper middle class will in fact be answering to the will of the people. It will allow all the members of the Democratic majorities in both the Assembly and the Senate and the Governor to deliver on the promises that galvanized voters to elect such a strong slate of Democrats in the first place -- and will inspire us to do so again.

The ask is simple: No more excuses. We simply can’t afford them.

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Ricky Silver is co-lead organizer of Empire State Indivisible. On Twitter @es_indivisible.

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Madrid Demonstrates Successful Civic Engagement. Let’s Pay Attention as We Launch New York City Commission


decide madrid

(photo: @decidemadrid)


Madrid turns its residents’ collective passions and intelligence into tangible improvements to city life. New York should do the same.

New Yorkers had until February 22 to apply to join the Civic Engagement Commission (CEC), a new entity that city voters approved last election to manage civic engagement processes throughout the city. The commission, which will be officially named in April by a variety of elected officials including the Mayor, has a broad mission and three specific mandates: to improve language access at polling places, expand participatory budgeting citywide, and help nonprofits with civic engagement efforts.

Even though these three mandates might seem disjointed, the commission could still be a success. But what does successful civic engagement look like? It looks like Madrid.

History won’t explain why Madrid is so good at civic engagement, but Decide Madrid (decide.madrid.es), the city’s official participatory decision-making website, will. Decide is a custom-built, open-source website developed by Madrid’s city council to provide a single online location for the city’s public decision-making processes: participatory budgeting, resident petitions, legislation feedback, and more.

By placing all these civic processes into one software platform, Madrid reduces the costs of organizing for government, and streamlines participation for users. Over 400,000 of Madrid’s 3 million residents have accounts, making it the largest system of its kind in the world - and the most impactful.

proyecto xDecisions made on Decide are genuinely important. If a resident’s petition reaches a certain threshold, then the city government is required by law to come up with an implementation plan that will then go up for a city-wide referendum vote. The participatory budgeting projects are funded to the tune of $100 million a year, making it one of the world’s largest participatory budgeting processes. Every comment made on legislation posted to the platform gets a response from a city staffer. And Madrid is beginning to leverage the system for more complex tasks like decisions related to land-use and public-space renovations.

The recent multi-phase process for redevelopment of Plaza Espana, one of the city’s most important public spaces, was a major milestone. The process began with an 18 question survey filled out by over 20,000 people. The results were made public and then used to inform resident proposals, which anyone could post to the website. The public then gave feedback on each proposal via comments, and indicated opinions by clicking a thumbs-up or thumbs-down icon. The most popular projects advanced to the next round where they were evaluated by a jury of experts who worked with the finalists to merge the most popular features into two final proposals, which went up for public referendum where residents picked the winning design.

in general terms

Whether you're looking at big processes like the Plaza Espana redevelopment, or the thousands of resident-generated participatory budgeting project proposals posted to the site for the 2018 funding cycle, one thing is abundantly clear: Madrid has found a way to turn its residents’ passions and intelligence into tangible improvements for the city. And the public loves it.

proyectos local geo

Polls for the upcoming mayoral election show Mayor Manuela Carmena, who made the development and use of Decide a central piece of her first campaign and mayoral administration, is ahead by a wide margin and has never been more popular. The conservatives, who ruled Madrid from 1991 to 2015, are in disarray and the traditional socialist party, which ran against her in the last election, has offered her leadership in their party. She has refused.

This leads to an obvious question: is the key to improving the quality of life in a city giving residents the power to make more direct decisions about their government’s actions? Fortunately, Madrid wants us all find out.

The software powering Madrid’s Decide website was built by Madrid’s Office of Civic Participation. It turned the code into an open source project called Consul that anyone can download for their own use. And that’s exactly what has happened: over a dozen cities in Spain and nearly 100 governments around the world, including large cities like Buenos Aires and Quito, are using Consul for participatory processes. Software developers in these cities are also contributing code back to the project, enabling Madrid to benefit from the global public’s collective intelligence.

And we in New York City can too - but only if we commit to using best practices and open source tools from around the world to do so. Madrid shows us how. We should leverage their success and follow in their footsteps. The soon-to-be-named Civic Engagement Commission that was popularly approved by voters last year is a perfect opportunity.

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Devin Balkind is the president of Sahana Software Foundation, founder of Sarapis.org, and a former candidate for New York City Public Advocate. He speaks regularly at conferences around the world about using technology to overcome environmental and political crisis. On Twitter @DevinBalkind.

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Rep. Nydia Velázquez: My Campaign Finance Pledge


city council reyna puente cm

Rep. Nydia Velázquez (photo: William Alatriste/NY City Council)


When I first ran for Congress, I faced what observers said were impossible odds. No Puerto Rican woman had ever served in Congress, the incumbent was sitting on a $2 million war chest, and I was taking on a powerful party machine determined to stop me. Yet, I won.

What guided me in that first race, and every election since, has been my neighbors’ voices, which I have continued to rely on—from town halls to street corners to knocking on doors. My opponent back then spent close to $6 million in today’s dollars, much of it coming from big corporate backers, but it couldn’t outweigh the importance of person-to-person conversations with real voters in our community.

Like anyone running for office, I’ve had to raise money over the years, but I’ve always prioritized community organizing and constituent contact over fundraising. While it has long been apparent that our campaign finance system is far from ideal, its problems have grown exponentially worse since Citizens United. That ruling set the stage for an unprecedented influx of corporate money in our political system. It also helped undermine our national political culture. The sheer volume of money aimed at influencing electoral outcomes has bred a degree of distrust among voters more severe than I can ever recall since entering public life.

This growing cynicism is bad for our city and our nation. Over the long term, I worry that corrosion of voters’ trust in government threatens our democracy’s health, weakens our civic institutions, and makes policy-making worse.

For these reasons, I have made the decision starting this year to stop taking corporate PAC money. What was true before, will be transparent forevermore: the decisions I make and the work I do is on behalf of New York’s working families; not those with a corporate ledger.  

It is my belief that we are in a unique moment in our political history, making this decision the appropriate step for my campaign, right now. I am proud to join the many Democrats elected in 2018 who have already taken this pledge. Over half (36 of 62) of the Democrats newly elected to Congress last year have committed to do this, but only seven returning incumbents have joined them so far. That needs to change—and as a longtime progressive leader in Congress, I hope others will join this call.

In my fights for progressive values here in New York, I have been blessed to build community support for allies who have taken similar steps. In 2013, again facing a predatory party boss, we elected a slate of reformers to the City Council who stood against big-moneyed special interests. In 2018, we took on corporate-backed Democrats who sided with Republicans and real estate interests to elect a crop of reformers to the New York State Senate.

Throughout my time in public office, I have always taken on entrenched interests, whether it is party bosses trying to impose a chokehold on local politics or big companies seeking to undermine environmental and consumer safeguards or profit off the sick and the vulnerable. My commitment to those core values has not and never will waver. But, it is my hope that no longer accepting corporate PAC money will send a powerful message to my constituents and my Congressional colleagues that the time for additional change has come.

Make no mistake: curing what plagues our political system will require more than elected officials foregoing corporate PAC money. That’s just one piece in a complicated puzzle. For instance, I will also push for the passage of a statewide public campaign finance system in New York that bans corporate money and emphasizes small-dollar, individual contributions.

Another problem: since Citizens United, so-called Super PACs injected more than $1 billion into federal elections in 2016 alone, without meaningful transparency. Fixing that problem will almost certainly require legislation. Likewise, we need to be working at both the state and federal levels to reduce voting obstacles. Faith in government didn’t erode overnight and won’t be immediately fixed either. Nonetheless, greater transparency in campaign finance and boosting voter participation can help. Those goals will require more work, but they are certainly worth pursuing.

For now, turning away corporate PAC dollars is the right decision for me, my campaign, my community and, most of all my constituents. Ultimately, we are elected to lead and, as more members of Congress follow suit, this can be a modest, but meaningful step toward restoring trust in public service.

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Rep. Nydia Velázquez represents parts of Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens in Congress. On Twitter @ReElectNydia.

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Are the Votes There to Pass Congestion Pricing Through the State Legislature?


gov cuomo mta fare increase

(photo: governor's office)


It’s decision time for the New York State Legislature on the State budget, due March 31, and it’s still not clear congestion pricing has the votes to pass. I’ve been an advocate for congestion pricing since Mayor Bloomberg first proposed it in 2007 and I know that this is the year to get it done.

The two houses of the State Legislature each pass a “one-house” budget resolution in early March to outline their budget priorities: this year the State Assembly one-house budget articulates that the Assembly majority supports a new long-term source of revenue for the MTA but does not specifically endorse congestion pricing. The State Senate one-house budget contains an articulated statement of support for congestion pricing. But no bill for congestion pricing has actually yet passed either house as the budget deadline approaches.

I was fortunate to serve in the Democratic majority my entire 32 years in the State Assembly, from 1985 through 2016; a legislator in the minority party frequently has little chance of getting many of their bills to pass. There are 150 members of the State Assembly and the Democratic majority frequently exceeded 100 in my years there; it is 107 right now.

The rule of thumb for putting a potentially controversial but important bill to a floor vote for passage in the Assembly has been that it needed 76 guaranteed Democratic votes, just over half the chamber, and today that means 76 out of the 107 Democrats, without relying on any Republican support. Usually this wasn’t a serious problem, in fact many bills are noncontroversial or routine and frequently pass with large numbers of Republicans voting for them too. A bill without that kind of support going to the floor has been quite rare.

Substantial opposition to congestion pricing has been the reason the proposal was never brought to a vote in the Assembly when Michael Bloomberg was Mayor in 2007 and 2008, or when Governor Cuomo announced he was backing it last year. It is why the governor, the Assembly, and the Senate have yet to announce a deal on this concept with less than 10 days before the budget deadline. If Speaker Heastie determines a congestion pricing bill might have 32 Democratic votes against, and therefore at most 75 Democratic votes, he probably wouldn’t put it on the floor for a vote, especially if there was a risk that all 43 Republicans would vote against it.

Are 32 Democratic Assembly votes against congestion pricing a real possibility? The answer is yes - a real possibility - or it could be extremely close to 32, with a number of members on the fence or not wanting to be forced to take a vote on the issue. There is substantial opposition in Queens, where there are 17 Democratic members, and, to a lesser extent, Brooklyn, which has 20 Democratic members, where opposition in the southern and furthest east sections of the borough was substantial at the time I was serving just a few years ago.

There are ten Democratic members from Long Island, including several just recently elected who might be concerned about taking a risky vote, two Democratic members from Staten Island, and four Democratic members from Rockland, Orange, and Sullivan counties where many people who work in the city drive in and where mass transit options north and west of the Hudson River to New York City are not good. There are seven Democratic members from Westchester and there is no guarantee all of them will vote for congestion pricing, nor is there a guarantee that all 22 members from Manhattan and the Bronx will vote yes.

One possibility is that the language authorizing congestion pricing will simply be put into a bigger budget bill, such as the main bill authorizing the transportation and economic development budget as a whole. Since there would be tens of billions of dollars of general road, bridge, and mass transit financing in such a bill, a member would have to vote against the whole package, including things he or she might want, just to vote no on congestion pricing. This is always the dilemma of large authorizations for funding packages, but effective for accomplishing a result despite opposition inside the majority party.

Should congestion pricing fail, there are plenty of alternatives but they might face other political problems. Revenue from state taxes is $80 billion a year, three-quarters of which comes from the metropolitan area, and New York City tax revenue is $60 billion a year. Governor Cuomo was seeking about $1 billion a year from congestion pricing - just a fraction of the revenue base of the metropolitan area. However, without congestion pricing, some fraction of a broader-based tax would likely have to be enacted. The new Senate Democratic majority, however, is aware Republicans are gunning for them in the next election, and might be reluctant to consider any tax increase that is broad-based.

If congestion pricing passes, it will be a major victory for mass transit, and I remain hopeful. The list of other severe challenges for the MTA is large and will hardly go away, but that can be the subject of another discussion.

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Jim Brennan was a member of the New York State Assembly for 32 years, where he chaired four committees. On Twitter @JimBrennanNY.

 

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