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10 Burning Questions After Cuomo’s State of the State and Budget


Cuomo budget presentation 2018

Gov. Cuomo during his budget presentation (photo: The Governor's Office)


Governor Andrew Cuomo unveiled his executive budget for the next fiscal year on Tuesday, centering his presentation around the threat to New York posed by the new federal tax code and possibilities for combatting it and other policies from Washington, D.C. The budget address came almost two weeks after Cuomo’s State of the State speech, at which he presented his 2018 policy agenda.

In both cases, Cuomo left unsaid key aspects of major proposals -- most notably on reforming the state’s tax code and instituting a congestion pricing scheme in New York City -- indicating that details would be forthcoming through imminent state reports and worked out in discussions with experts, stakeholders, and lawmakers. How the state will deal with those two issues are among a number of big questions unanswered after Cuomo set the table for the 2018 state budget and legislative session.

The state is facing a $4.4 billion budget gap. Even if the state adheres, as expected, to the 2 percent spending growth cap that Cuomo has implemented each year, there would still be a $1.7 billion gap to be reckoned with. The state is also expecting millions of dollars in federal cuts to state healthcare programs, though the extent is not yet clear as federal negotiations continue.

Also troubling Cuomo and legislators who will negotiate the new state budget is the recently passed federal tax code overhaul, ushered in by the Republican-controlled Congress and President Donald Trump, which severely limits the state and local tax deduction, disproportionately burdening many New Yorker taxpayers. These changes do not necessarily immediately cut into state funds, but they pose significant threats to the New York economy and could risk out-migration of middle- and upper-income New Yorkers, as Cuomo said when presenting his budget and possible ways to dodge the “economic missile” coming at New York.

The fixes, painted in broad strokes on Tuesday by Cuomo and elaborated on by his budget director Robert Mujica in a post-address session with reporters, include the implementation of a statewide employer-based payroll tax to replace some income taxes and opportunities for charitable contributions that would be deductible from federal adjusted gross income. Addressing the deficit would involved various cuts -- especially to transportation, social services and mental hygiene -- cost shifts, including to New York City, and more than $1 billion in revenue generated by new taxes and fees.

The proposed budget would raise total spending by 2.3 percent, including a 3 percent increase in school aid, a $769-million bump. This includes a $338 million increase in foundation aid, which supplements local funding for school districts to ensure students’ rights to a “sound education,” $50 million for high-needs “community schools,” and $15 million more for universal pre-kindergarten programs.

Also in Cuomo’s spending plan are a number of policy initiatives with little or no financial component, including the Child Victims Act, anti-gun, anti-gang and anti-sexual harassment legislation, electoral reform, and criminal justice reforms.

There is a great deal of policy and budget negotiation to come before the April 1 start of the new fiscal year. Here are ten of the outstanding questions:

1. How will Cuomo close the budget deficit if the Senate GOP is opposed to any tax increases?
The executive budget relies on a slew of new taxes to balance the budget including a tax on opioid manufacturers, internet sales, and e-cigarette products. It also proposes capturing the windfall coming to certain insurance companies -- who benefit from the new corporate tax rate under the federal tax overhaul -- by imposing a 14 percent surcharge on those gains, and the creation of a new pre-licensing course for beginner drivers which will cost $8 each.

“You can’t possibly get anywhere near where you want to be on education and health care unless you raise revenues. It’s just too big a deficit and the choice of cutting education or cutting health care, I don’t think is a place anyone wants to go to this year. So you have to raise revenue,’’ said Cuomo.

When asked by a reporter if he would approve the new taxes, Republican Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, of Long Island, replied with a simple, “No.” How Cuomo will sell some or all of them to the Senate majority remains to be seen.

2. What will Cuomo’s congestion pricing plan actually look like?
Cuomo has said that he supports some version of congestion pricing, which would mitigate traffic congestion by charging fees to drivers entering the busiest parts of New York City and would generate revenue for the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA). While the governor alluded to some general principles, he also said he’s waiting for recommendations from the “Fix NYC” panel he assembled, which is due to present its report at the end of this week. He did indicate that he won’t be proposing tolls on the East River bridges, explaining that the system can be targeted differently.

“The technology exists, we have to define the zone, we have to determine the fees, we have to determine the hours, and it's literally an on-going spectrum of options. You can change the hours, different rates for different vehicles, different rates for different trucks, and you'll get that full report at the end of this week,” Cuomo said on Tuesday. “My point is, it has to be fair to all people in all industries. You have yellow cars, now black cars, green cars, blue cars, purple cars they all have to be treated the same. I don't want anyone saying they had a competitive advantage or this advantage because we put a surcharge on one versus the other.”

3. What will the state tax code rewrite actually look like? Will a focus on the deficit and the tax scheme make almost everything else deprioritized?
On Tuesday, Cuomo announced the New York State Taxpayer Protection Act, but presented it as possible options, including restructuring the state tax code by shifting from an employee-paid system to an employer-paid system through a new payroll tax. There would be many details to work through in making such a change, as Cuomo indicated the state would not totally eliminate the personal income tax system.

“Restructuring the tax code is complicated, there's no doubt about it, but it's also simple at the same time,” said Cuomo. “Washington hit a button and launched an economic missile and it says ‘New York’ on it and it's heading our way. You know what my recommendation is? Get out of the way before it lands. They want to shoot at our tax code the way it was? We change the tax code and we change it in a way that thwarts their attack.”

On Wednesday the Department of Taxation and Finance issued a preliminary report highlighting options for the state. The administration would have to figure out how to convince employers to opt into the new payroll tax system if it wants to move forward with that reform as part of the overhaul.

Making up for the local property tax deduction will be more complicated, Cuomo acknowledged. Localities will have to find innovative ways to share services and cut costs. Governments can also potentially circumvent the cuts by setting up charitable organizations for education and healthcare, which taxpayers could contribute to in order to receive deductions.

4. How will the sexual harassment claim rocking the IDC impact budget talks over sexual harassment legislation?
Earlier this month, there seemed to be consensus in Albany that the issue of workplace sexual harassment must be addressed legislatively, both in government and the private sector. Republican and Democratic lawmakers in both houses acknowledged a need for comprehensive protections for women following a national outcry over the issue. 

In his State of the State and executive budget, Cuomo called for consistent sexual harassment guidelines for all levels of government and said public funds should not be used in settlements. Furthermore, Cuomo proposed banning confidential settlements and said that any entities with business before the state would be required to disclose how many sexual harassment cases they have settled.

These proposals and the negotiations to come will also be informed by a recent claim by a former Senate staffer, Erica Vladimer, who told a Huffington Post reporter that in 2015 she had been forcibly kissed outside a bar by Independent Democratic Conference Leader Jeff Klein, her boss at the time. Klein will be one of the ‘four men in the room’ who decide what goes into the final budget bills at the end of March. He and members of the IDC have vehemently denied Vladimer’s claim, and Klein has requested an investigation by the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) while proclaiming his innocence.

Klein has continued to express support for pushing ahead with new sexual harassment laws. It is unclear how and when the investigation will unfold, or what effect it will have on the legislative negotiations.

5. Is there any real hope for bail and other criminal justice reforms Cuomo is seemingly prioritizing as a big-ticket issue this year?
Cuomo’s executive budget builds on last year’s passage of legislation to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18 years old with a comprehensive package on pretrial justice reform. The governor’s plan includes a significant reduction of the use of cash bail, discovery reform to ensure that defendants’ lawyers have access to all evidence cited in a case, and speedy trial enforcement.

“These changes will build on the reforms enacted during my tenure as governor. Last year, we raised the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18, affecting thousands of young people who will have a brighter future,” he said.

Certain advocates called the governor’s bail, discovery, and speedy trial bills “good starting points for progressive reform,” but criticized the bail bill for its broad allowance of “preventative detention” -- when a judge determines that a person’s release would impede an investigation -- which would still require people to pay for their supervised release. Some also took issue with the speedy trial proposal, which they said does little to address structural problems created by New York’s prosecutorial readiness rule, which starts the “speedy trial” clock from the time of the prosecution’s declaration of trial readiness rather than from the start of the defendant’s case.

“The governor’s budget bill is a starting point and we look forward to working with the administration and the state legislature to push for the reforms necessary to make sure that in New York, as the governor noted in his State of the State speech, ‘Race and wealth should not be factors in our justice system,’” said Gabriel Sayegh, co-executive director of the Katal Center for Health, Equity, and Justice.

Bail reform has been a point of contention in Albany for years, and given how contentious the “raise the age” debate was during the 2017 budget negotiations, getting the Senate Majority on board with these ambitious criminal justice initiatives may be especially difficult for Cuomo. While the governor is known for pushing through his top priorities, it is not clear how much political capital he is going to put into seeing these reforms passed.

6. Will Cuomo and the IDC be able to get electoral reform of some kind passed?
Electoral reform groups rejoiced when the budget estimated that the implementation of early voting would cost counties approximately $6.4 million, though it stopped short of providing funds for the initiative. Early voting has passed the Democrat-controlled Assembly multiple times, but has been stalled by the Republican-led Senate.

The “Let NY Vote” coalition of grassroots groups applauded the governor in a statement. “This is a bipartisan, no brainer: New Yorkers should be able to exercise their basic democratic rights without unnecessary barriers. We are looking forward to negotiating with the state legislature to ensure early voting receives adequate funding," they wrote.

IDC leader Klein, whose group of breakaway Democrats forms a ruling coalition with Senate Republicans, has also said that early voting will be a priority this year, but expansion of voting rights is something Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan has so far not buckled on. Early voting is one of a handful of electoral reforms being pushed by Cuomo and other Democrats, also including same-day voter registration and no-excuse absentee voting.

7. What impact will Cuomo not calling special elections have on the budget process?
The days available for Cuomo to call a special election for the 11 vacant Senate and Assembly seats, to ensure that these districts have representation during budget negotiations, are quickly evaporating. While Cuomo could have called the special election as soon as January 1, he has declined to do so, having previously raised questions around ‘politicizing’ the budget process. There is a chance that if the two Senate seats -- previously held by George Latimer and Ruben Diaz, Sr. -- are filled by Democrats, it could shift the balance of power in that chamber.

The election may be held no less than 70 days after the governor’s proclamation, which means Cuomo has approximately a week left to have the seats filled before March 31, when the state’s $160-billion plus budget is due. Aside from the questions around Senate control, government reform groups and others have pointed out that New Yorkers in the 11 districts at hand do not currently have equal representation during budget and legislative business.

8. How will MTA funding play out?
In his executive budget, the governor did outline his plan for stabilizing the ailing transit system that serves the New York City area, but the fine print included swelling New York City’s responsibility for the MTA’s capital improvements, as first noted by Politico New York.

Citizens Budget Commission, an independent fiscal watchdog, termed the measures an “unjustified shift” of costs to the city. “The Executive Budget asserts the responsibility for funding New York City subway and bus capital improvements should rest solely with the City of New York, which would require a sevenfold increase in City capital contributions,” said CBC President Carol Kellerman, in a statement on the proposed budget. “In addition, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) would be authorized to establish Transportation Improvement Districts within New York City that capture revenues from rising property values - without the City's approval. These proposals are an attempt to impose an onerous cost shift onto New York City residents and businesses, who already pay an estimated 72 percent of MTA dedicated taxes and subsidies.”

An unnamed state official told Politico that the state was reinforcing a 1981 law that already requires the city to fund its subways, a claim that has been called dubious by a number of experts. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio will no doubt raise the question of MTA funding when he testifies at a legislative budget hearing in Albany on February 5.

9. Will Cuomo's pledge to continue all his economic development programs be scrutinized?
During previous budget negotiations, Cuomo faced little pushback for inclusion in the budget bills of his signature economic development programs, despite corruption trials and questions about their transparency and effectiveness.

“All the investments continue, all the upstate investments, all the projects continue upstate and downstate, economic development. We would have another round of our REDCs of URIs and Downtown Revitalization,” said Cuomo, referring to his Regional Economic Development Councils and Upstate Revitalization Initiatives.

Budget watchdogs, like CBC, noted that once again the governor introduced funding for programs without accompanying them with meaningful reform. “Despite a lack of tangible success, the Governor continues to propose excessive spending on economic development initiatives, including a $300 million High Technology Innovation and Economic Development Infrastructure Program and $600 million for a life sciences laboratory in the Capital District,” said CBC's Kellermann. “The Governor and Legislature need to adopt significant reforms to the State's economic development program.”

Senate Majority Leader Flanagan has vowed to push back this time, particularly against Cuomo’s Regional Economic Development Councils, which have been criticized for lack of transparency and favoritism. “I think there’s questions that should be rightly asked about the councils, their independence, what type of disclosure they should have to do,” Flanagan told reporters on Wednesday at the Capitol. “I guarantee you this, whatever is done will be done legally and in the full discourse publicly.”

Still, Flanagan made similar statements last year, and yet virtually all of the governor’s economic development projects were pushed through with little scrutiny during the budget process. What did not pass, were any of the contracting or transparency reforms that were being pushed by outside watchdogs or members of the Legislature.

10. Will Cuomo push for marijuana legalization?
The executive budget proposes funding a taskforce to examine the economic, health, and public safety impact on New Yorkers of marijuana legalization happening in neighboring states of Massachusetts, and likely soon, New Jersey.

Cuomo is a known detractor of the drug, though he reluctantly allowed the state to pass a limited medical marijuana program in 2014. It’s unclear what he will do with the data collected by the study, but his interest in looking at marijuana legalization appears to be in some small part a rebuke against the recent moves by the federal government to step up marijuana regulation and enforcement.

“Marijuana — things are happening. New Jersey may legalize marijuana. Massachusetts already has. On the other hand, Attorney General Sessions says he's going to end marijuana in every state,” said Cuomo, later adding. “It'd be nice to have some facts in the middle of the debate once in a while.”

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Cuomo Omits Design-Build for New York City from Budget Plan


Cuomo construction

Gov. Cuomo at a construction scene (photo: The Governor's Office)


Governor Andrew Cuomo has repeatedly extolled the virtues of design-build, a process that allows state authorities to seek combined design and construction bids for infrastructure projects from a single entity, saving billions of dollars and valuable time. Streamlining procurement and construction, it is a tool currently employed by five state agencies.

But, even as design-build is praised as a commonsense measure to ensure government savings, the state continues to deny New York City the authority to implement it. Cuomo’s $168 billion budget proposal, unveiled Tuesday, makes no mention of extending design-build to the city despite support for it from a bipartisan group of state legislators, persistent pleas from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, and the governor’s own repeated contention that the city should be allowed to use the process.

Design-build is one of de Blasio’s top priorities for the legislative session in Albany and his administration has made it clear to the governor’s office that they are seeking its authorization for several city agencies. A bill passed by the state Assembly last year, sponsored by Assemblymember Michael Benedetto, would have authorized the process for eight infrastructure projects in the city, including the reconstruction of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway and the overhaul of the NYPD’s training facility in Rodman’s Neck. The bill failed in the Republican-controlled state Senate.

According to estimates from the mayor’s office, design-build would save about $158 million from the $2.5 billion budget for the eight projects and, on average, has reduced project completion for state projects by 18 months.  

“We’ve been asking for the ability to use Design Build in New York City for years,” said mayoral spokesperson Freddi Goldstein, in an emailed statement. “At a time when the federal government is taking every swing they can at New York City, it’s critically important for us to be able to use all the tools available to save money, complete projects faster, and minimize disruptions to residents and businesses – clearly, the State agrees when it comes to its own projects.”

State agencies such as the Port Authority, the Department of Transportation and the State Thruway Authority have used design build in more than 30 projects, including the Tappan Zee Bridge and the Long Island Rail Road, saving billions over the years. “The Governor is the single biggest proponent of expanding design-build because it saves time and taxpayer money on major infrastructure projects,” said Peter Ajemian, a spokesperson for Cuomo, in an email. “His budget proposal includes design-build for state agencies to fund the state’s capital plan, and we will have discussions with the legislature about expanding it to all local governments.”

The Citizens Budget Commission, a city-based independent fiscal watchdog, called the exclusion of city agencies from design-build authorization “disappointing” news, in a tweet on Wednesday morning. CBC estimated in 2016 that the city could save as much as $2 billion over ten years by employing design build for city bridges.

Last week, a group of state Senators and Assembly members wrote to the governor, stressing the urgency of design-build for the BQE and emphasizing that “prolonged reconstruction could damage the region’s economy,” according to a New York Daily News report. The letter noted that the city’s Department of Transportation faces a Spring deadline to begin procurement for the BQE rehabilitation if they want to use design-build. The effort was led by Senator Brian Kavanagh and Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon.

“We know this reconstruction project isn’t going to be easy for our communities and New Yorkers from Carroll Gardens to Brooklyn Heights to Downtown Brooklyn to Williamsburg to Greenpoint will be on the front lines,” said Kavanagh, in a statement to Gotham Gazette, “but design-build could lessen the burden.”  

Kavanagh also said it was “disappointing” that the governor’s executive budget proposal did not include authorization for the city and that he would continue to make the case for it. “This streamlined process would save taxpayer dollars and shorten the project timeline. Most importantly, design-build would help keep trucks off local roads and ensure that while we’re fixing the BQE, we do as little damage as possible to Brooklyn’s neighborhoods,” he said.

db graph

[Related: De Blasio Lays Out Initial 2018 Albany Priorities]

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Graph provided by the de Blasio administration.

Four Years Later, 2014 State Campaign Finance Pilot All But Forgotten


Cuomo ethics agenda

Gov. Cuomo unveils an ethics agenda (photo: The Governor's Office)


With the four statewide positions up for election again this year, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s ill-fated 2014 public campaign financing experiment, in which candidates for state comptroller were eligible to test-run a pilot program, appears all but forgotten.

New York State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, like Cuomo a Democrat running for another four-year term, has long been a proponent of a comprehensive program to match certain private campaign donations with public dollars, as a way to curb real or perceived influence of money in government and the possibility of pay-to-play politics. DiNapoli would support a program that only targeted his office, he said, restating his views during a question-and-answer session last week at the Albany Times Union’s Hearst Media Center.

In 2014, DiNapoli briefly saw a version come to fruition, when a last-minute budget deal between Cuomo and the leaders of the Senate and Assembly instructed the State Board of Elections to quickly create a public funding program for the comptroller race in the middle of the election cycle, just eight months before Election Day -- a proposal many immediately saw as cynical and doomed to fail.

Recalling that pilot program nearly four years later, DiNapoli told the Times Union’s Casey Seiler he believes the state is long overdue for publicly financed elections for all state-level offices -- including candidates for the state Legislature -- given the numerous corruption trials involving former lawmakers, former state officials, and others that are looming over this legislative session. DiNapoli marveled at the state’s immensely lax campaign finance laws, including the infamous loophole that allows limited liability corporations (LLCs) to pour virtually unlimited funds into candidate campaign accounts.

"I don’t say it’s a panacea, but I do think public financing of elections will create more access for people to run for office,” said DiNapoli, adding, “Democracy works when there is a competition of ideas.”

In 2013 and 2014, there was a lot of momentum in New York and nationally around campaign finance reform, including a significant push for Cuomo to take the issue up the way he did other progressive initiatives in prior budget negotiations, where Cuomo is known for getting his top priorities passed. Newspaper editorial boards, government reform groups, and others continued to call on Cuomo to usher through a new campaign finance system, something he had repeatedly called a priority. And, it was a gubernatorial election year, and leaders of the left-wing Working Families Party indicated that they would withhold their endorsement of the Democratic governor, then seeking a second term, unless he pushed for comprehensive campaign finance reform.

Notably, the governor’s own Moreland Commission on Public Corruption -- a bipartisan panel primarily made up of district attorneys rather than politicians -- recommended public funding of all elections as the key component in reforming the state’s porous campaign finance system to prevent the type of scandals that had rocked state government in recent years. In addition, the panel recommended lower contribution limits and closure of loopholes, tighter guideline for how campaign account monies can be spent, and increased disclosure on outside spending, such as spending on ads that could be “reasonably considered’ campaign ads.

When at the end of March 2014 a budget deal came together between the governor and legislative leaders, Cuomo squeezed through the pilot program, passed as part of the last-minute horse trades that occur annually during the final hours of budget negotiations.

At the time, Republicans controlled the Senate -- as they do now -- and the compromise was notable given the Republican leadership’s vehement opposition to spending any state funds on public campaign financing, which they typically see as likely to bolster Democrats and a questionable use of state funds for campaign purposes. But then-Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos agreed to include in the final budget bill the pilot, limited only to the comptroller’s office. While it could open the door to larger campaign finance reforms, the pilot would benefit DiNapoli’s Republican challenger more than the incumbent, who had already raised significant funds. Some saw Cuomo’s use of the comptroller’s race as a way to frustrate DiNapoli, who Cuomo has at times sought to undermine. 

“The pilot program for public financing of the comptroller’s election is a poor excuse to avoid real reforms New Yorkers deserve. At this point, I cannot participate in this pilot,” DiNapoli said in a statement at the time.

As surprising as it was to some that Senate Republicans had agreed to even the pilot, Cuomo had the leverage of the Moreland Commission, which had begun to irk the Legislature (and the governor himself), according to those familiar with budget negotiations. On March 31, 2014 -- about two days after the proposed pilot program had been announced -- Cuomo abruptly shut down the commission, just halfway through its planned 18-month duration, citing inclusion in the new budget of reforms aimed at addressing bribery and corruption and enforcement of election law, which he said would eliminate the need for the panel.

DiNapoli had been surprised to learn of the pilot, having not been informed “even by his friends in Legislature,” the former assemblymember said last week. According to the pilot, statewide candidates would need to raise $200,000 in donations above $5 from at least 2,000 New York State residents. For each eligible donor, every dollar donated up to $175 would be matched with $6 of public money.

"The process was flawed,” DiNapoli said at the time, just after the pilot proposal was announced and before it was voted through as part of the 2014-2015 state budget. “I was excluded from the negotiations, and it appears a historic opportunity was missed for comprehensive campaign finance reform and public financing for all statewide and legislative offices.”

Unlike DiNapoli’s own proposal -- which would create a seven-member board, appointed by a variety of offices, to create guidelines and procedures to ensure that the public funds are appropriately spent -- Cuomo's proposal entrusted the state Board of Elections to administer the program. The Board was instructed to issue payments "as soon as it is practicable," write advisory opinions, and create new regulations as needed. Civic groups opposed the program, writing in a letter to the Cuomo administration that, “the Board is ill-suited to take on such as task, much less set up an entirely new administrative system for an election cycle which has already begun.” They noted that Cuomo’s Moreland Commission had investigated the Board and found a great deal of dysfunction at the agency in its preliminary findings.

Good government groups also raised concerns about the timing of the pilot -- which would launch just months from Election Day and not easily provide candidates with adequate time to organize their campaigns in a way that would allow them to opt in. They noted that the program did not need to be piloted; New York City already has a successful public matching system.

Indeed, DiNapoli, who had already done significant fundraising, chose not to opt in to the pilot, and his severely disadvantaged Republican opponent, Robert Antonacci, the Onondaga County comptroller, did not meet the $200,000 threshold to qualify for public matching funds. DiNapoli wound up winning the election, 60 percent to Antonacci’s 36.6 percent.

Blair Horner, executive director of New York Public Interest Group, recalled the 2014 push and the budget compromise, and called the program a “kamikaze pilot” that was designed to fail.

“Despite the fact that the governor said it was a pilot project, we never heard about it again,” said Horner. “If it was a serious proposal, [a comprehensive public campaign finance system] would have gone into effect within months.”

Cuomo, in a May 2014 op-ed in the Huffington Post, “Finishing the Job Teddy Roosevelt Started: Public Financing of Elections,” acknowledged that the deal was not sufficient, but said critics should recognize the significance of Republicans conceding “the crucial ideological point they had resisted for decades.”

“We crossed the ideological Rubicon and the world did not stop spinning — now it’s time to finish what we started and pass a full-fledged program of public financing for state campaigns,” Cuomo wrote. “If you can use public funds for a demonstration program then you can use public funds for a full program.”

The Board of Elections did briefly review the failed pilot, recommending that a future version of the program allow two years for implementation and coordinate better with other agencies. “It is important to note that the 2014 program was to be implemented nearly 3 ½ years into the election cycle for this office,” the report’s authors wrote.

Now, four years later, the four statewide offices -- governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, and comptroller -- are again up for election, with Democratic incumbents in each position likely to seek another term. As they are every two years, all the seats in the state Legislature will also be on the ballot this year. While Cuomo, who is sitting on a $30 million warchest, including millions in dollars from LLCs, put provisions for a small-donor public matching program and closure of the LLC loophole in his State of the State policy book again this year, the proposals were only briefly mentioned in his 92-minute address on January 3.

"We should increase trust by closing the LLC loophole and open up the electoral process with public financing, but not our current public financing system that has public financing but private loopholes,” Cuomo said. “I mean a true public financing system in which the exception does not swallow the rule. That's what we need to do to regain the trust of the citizens in this state and across this nation."

There’s no indication that Cuomo will prioritize campaign finance reform this year, especially given the difficult budget situation the state is in, with a $4.4 billion deficit to close and a new federal tax code to react to. While the Democratically-led Assembly appears to continue to support campaign finance reform, it is not evident as a top priority in the lower house. Senate Republicans regularly dismiss the idea of campaign finance reform, and when discussing the LLC loophole typically point to the influence of labor unions in donating to Democratic candidates.

The state’s broken campaign finance system will likely be on display during the upcoming corruption trials of eight men, including Cuomo’s former top aide Joe Percoco and former SUNY Polytechnic Institute President and CEO Alain Kaloyeros, whom Cuomo regularly praised and empowered. The massive bid-rigging scheme associated with the governor’s signature Buffalo Billion program benefited developers who contributed generously to Cuomo’s re-election campaign. After the scheme came to light, Cuomo vowed to instruct his campaign to turn away donations from those bidding for state projects, but ultimately did not follow through on that promise.

Karen Scharff, executive director of left-leaning advocacy group Citizen Action of New York, who was involved in the negotiations of 2014, said advocates sensed they had hit a wall with the Republican-controlled Senate after their major push to pass comprehensive public financing system failed. Despite this, she said, nothing has changed in Albany and these reforms are needed more than ever.

“We continue to see a donor-driven culture where critical policy is determined based on who the biggest donors are. And who can run for election and who can win is also heavily based on who can raise money from real estate and hedge funds,” she said. “We’re not going to have a real democracy in New York State until we have publicly funded elections.”

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

City Council Member Jumaane Williams to Explore Run for Lieutenant Governor


Jumaane Williams city council

City Council Member Jumaane Williams (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


At the end of stirring and emotional remarks on Martin Luther King Day, City Council Member Jumaane Williams announced that he is exploring a run for Lieutenant Governor. Williams, who was just re-elected to a third Council term and was unsuccessful in his pursuit of the speakership of the city’s legislative body, gave the keynote address at Salem Missionary Baptist Church in Brooklyn on Monday, passionately discussing the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and explaining how it informs his activism, legislating, and possible pursuit of the state-wide position that is on the ballot this fall.

In order to become Lieutenant Governor, Williams would likely first have to prevail in the Democratic primary over incumbent Kathy Hochul, who ran on the 2014 ticket with Governor Andrew Cuomo. While Hochul is expected to again be Cuomo’s running mate, the positions of Lieutenant Governor and Governor are elected separately by statewide popular vote in the primary. If victorious in the primary, Williams and Cuomo, assuming he wins any Democratic primary he faces, would run as a connected ticket in the general election.

During his Monday remarks, Williams spoke broadly about civil rights, injustice, protest, and making government respond to the people, and made some mention of the apparent reasons he is exploring a run for the statewide post that comes with minimal statutory power and a relatively small budget. The campaign for Lieutenant Governor and holding the position if victorious would give Williams a bully pulpit to shape statewide public discourse and have some effect on policy. Most immediately, he could create significant headaches for Hochul and Cuomo, whom Williams has been critical of over the past several years on issues like affordable housing, transportation, and criminal justice.

Williams said when reflecting on King’s legacy, he often thinks about the saying, “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” He discussed the importance of agitating for what is morally right, no matter the political ramifications, and how public protest moves government to act.

It takes a great deal of “energy,” more than people realize, to “move the needle,” Williams explained. “You move the needle with moral disruption to a status quo that is unjust.”

“Government does not move unless we make it move. They respond to protest,” Williams said. “I understand that because I’m in those halls seeing how my colleagues respond.”

Before announcing that he was forming “an exploratory committee” to possibly run for Lieutenant Governor, Williams pointed to some of the problems around the state that appear to be motivating his exploration. He said “we need people in government who will continue to push forward on progress” and cited “homelessness in New York City, housing in Rochester, gun violence in Brooklyn, gun violence in Syracuse, the relief of opioid crisis in Staten Island,” and more, adding, “these issues are not unique to one area.”

Williams said his job on the inside of government is to make sure his colleagues are moving on what people are bringing to their attention and what is “morally correct.”

“We need leaders will forcefully advocate for progress no matter the political winds,” Williams said, in one of several references to doing what is right over what is politically expedient.

Williams also discussed the “need for diversity in government,” echoing an argument he made during the City Council speaker race, when he insisted a person of color should be elected to the role. Williams is black. Corey Johnson, a white man, prevailed.

On Monday, Williams listed the many city, state, and federal offices in New York that are held by white people, a list that includes Cuomo and Hochul.

A challenge to Hochul by Williams would be from the left, as he would almost certainly offer a more progressive platform on the whole, and he would likely aim much of his fire at Cuomo. It is unclear who might challenge the governor from the left, but there is a good deal of unrest among progressives who see Cuomo as too centrist and enabling of a Republican-led state Senate. Williams endorsed Senator Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary.

Former state Senator Terry Gibson appears to be the only Democrat currently actively exploring a gubernatorial bid. Like Williams, Gibson has a state-level campaign account open. Now a professor at SUNY New Paltz, Gibson has been traveling the state meeting with progressive groups, spending a lot of time in the five boroughs, and trying to gauge how much initial support he can garner for a full-fledged run.

There are other potential challengers from Cuomo’s left, including former Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner and actor and education activist Cynthia Nixon.

In 2014, Cuomo sought a second term and had to fend off a surprising challenge from Zephyr Teachout, a little-known, underfunded professor who embarrassed Cuomo by winning 34 percent of the primary vote. Teachout’s running mate, Lieutenant Governor candidate Tim Wu, did even better against Hochul, who was running for the post for the first time, winning 40 percent to Hochul’s 60.

Williams is likely to be at a significant financial disadvantage to Hochul, depending on how much money he can raise and how much Cuomo and his political apparatus come to Hochul’s aid. Williams’ ability to win votes in New York City could pose a major challenge to Hochul, who is from western New York. Williams’ potential candidacy is quickly going to put other Democrats like new City Council Speaker Johnson and Mayor Bill de Blasio in tricky positions. De Blasio recently declined to give an opinion when Gotham Gazette asked him if Cuomo deserved to be challenged from the left.

On Monday, Williams did not get into any details of a potential campaign, though he will have to decide relatively soon if he is going to make a full run for the position. The Council member explained that he sees his role as “a molder of consensus” like King and part of ruckus upsetting the status quo. Williams credited King for being a “disruptive, righteous agitator” and discussed the need to put in the work of activism to make the change you believe must occur in the world.

“If you don’t understand the protests of today, I suggest you keep ‘Martin Luther King’ from out of your lips,” Williams said at one point.

He cited King’s “fierce urgency of now,” and asked the church crowd to think about why society is still struggling in 2018 with the same major problems of King’s era, the 1950s and ‘60s, such as jobs, police abuses, and justice. He cited some progress, noting that there are not segregated water fountains and there are fewer lynchings.

Williams explained that he has tried to do what he can as a member of the City Council, and now believes that he may be able to take on new challenges and “do more” through the potential run for Lieutenant Governor.

Notably, the Council member clearly stated his support for LGBTQ individuals, which has been a point of contention for him as he has personally held views against marriage equality. Williams has also held a personal view against abortion, citing personal experience. But, he has repeatedly tried to argue that he does not legislate or vote to advance those personal beliefs and taken steps to show that he supports the LGBT community and women’s reproductive rights. The issues could be at the center of attacks from Hochul and Cuomo toward Williams, given that Cuomo has prided himself on passing marriage equality in New York and touts himself as a champion of women’s rights.

***
by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been corrected to clarify that the Governor and Lieutenant Governor run as a Democratic ticket in the general election, but are elected separately in the party primary.

The Week Ahead in New York Politics, January 15


New York City Hall

New York City Hall


What to watch for this week in New York politics:

This week begins with celebrations and rememberances of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Tuesday will see Governor Andrew Cuomo present his Executive Budget for the 2018-2019 fiscal year that begins April 1. We'll be not only watching the presentation and the details of the budget, but how Mayor Bill de Blasio and others in the city react to Cuomo's fiscal plan, which is a starting point of hearings and negotiations with the state Legislature.

There are filing deadlines this week for the final period of the 2017 city election cycle and the first period of the 2018 state election cycle.  

As always, there's a lot happening all over the city - see our day-by-day rundown below.

***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
Monday is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. There are celebrations across the city honoring Dr. King.

At 11 a.m. Monday, City Council Member Jumaane Williams “will deliver the keynote address at the Salem Missionary Baptist Church 'Making the Dream a Reality' event...Williams will make a major announcement.”

At about 12:15 p.m., Mayor Bill de Blasio will deliver remarks at the annual BAM tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr.

There will be a mid-day rally on Monday at Judson Memorial Church to support immigrant and activist Ravi Ragbir, who is now facing deportation.

At 1 p.m. Monday, Governor Andrew Cuomo, Mayor Bill de Blasio and many other top Democrats will appear at the National Action Network’s event with Reverend Al Sharpton. Participants will include Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand; a number of members of Congress; Comptroller Tom DiNapoli and Attorney General Eric Schneiderman; Comptroller Scott Stringer and Public Advocate Letitia James; City Council Speaker Corey Johnson; State Senators Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Jeff Klein; and others.

Public Advocate James is speaking at seven Martin Luther King Day events across four boroughs on Monday.

There will be a rally on Monday at 2:30 p.m. in Times Square to protest President Trump and his recent remarks about Haitians, African countries, and others. The rally is being organized by labor unions, progressive groups, activists, and others. Several top elected officials will participate; Mayor de Blasio and Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul will be among those delivering remarks.

At 4 p.m. Monday, Assemblymember Michael Blake will host his State of the District speech for the 79th District, at the Concourse Village Community Center in the Bronx.

Tuesday
Tuesday is the deadline to file for the final campaign finance period of the 2017 New York City election cycle -- for December 1, 2017 to January 11, 2018 fundraising and spending. The City Campaign Finance Board has already begun posting filings of campaigns that filed before the deadline.

The State Legislature will be in session on Tuesday in Albany.

The Assembly Standing Committees on Local Governments and Cities will meet jointly at 10 a.m. in Albany for a budget oversight hearing to “examine the implementation of County-Wide Shared Services Property Tax Savings Plans as required in the State Budget for Fiscal Year 2017-2018.”

At 11 a.m. Tuesday, ""Mayor de Blasio will deliver keys to a senior signing his lease and moving into a new affordable housing development. The Mayor will host a media availability to discuss progress on building and protecting affordable housing and tenants across New York City." This will occur in Cypress Hills, Brooklyn. In the evening, the Mayor will appear on NY1's Inside City Hall, during the 7 and 11 p.m. hours.

On Tuesday at 11 a.m., Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul will attend the inauguration of New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy.

At 1 p.m. Tuesday, Governor Cuomo will deliver his 2018 Executive Budget Address at the New York State Museum in Albany.

At 1 p.m. Tuesday the City Council will have a full-body Stated Meeting at City Hall. Prior to that, the Committee on Finance will hold an 11 a.m. hearing.

At 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, the New York City Board of Elections will hold a commissioners’ meeting.

On Tuesday at 5 p.m., Comptroller Scott Stringer will host a Staten Island "Workforce Forum" at Brighton Heights Reformed Church. Then, at 7:30 p.m., Stringer will deliver remarks at the Staten Island Community Board 2 Full Board Meeting, at Sea View Hospital.

At 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, the Brooklyn Historical Society will host “45 Years after Roe v Wade,” discussing the legacy of the landmark Supreme Court case, which established the constitutional right to get an abortion. Panelists will include NARAL Pro-Choice America President Ilyse Hogue, writer Rebecca Traister, and author Katha Pollitt.

Wednesday
The State Legislature will be in session on Wednesday in Albany.

At 10 a.m. Wednesday, the City Planning Commission will hold a public meeting at Spector Hall.

At 7 p.m. Wednesday, Mayor de Blasio will host a town hall meeting at East Side Middle School 114 on the Upper East Side with City Council Member Ben Kallos, U.S. Rep Carolyn Maloney, State Senator Liz Krueger, and Assemblymember Rebecca Seawright. (The event was originally scheduled for December but was cancelled when the Mayor caught the flu.)

At 7 p.m. Wednesday, the Museum of the City of New York will host “Only in New York: Gender and Justice,” moderated by Sarah Maslin Nir of the New York Times and featuring Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Lucy Lang and Vivian Nixon of the College & Community Fellowship, discussing the “fraught relationship between gender and justice in New York City.”

Thursday
At 10 a.m. Thursday, the New York City Campaign Finance Board will hold a board meeting at 100 Church Street in Manhattan.

At 7 p.m. Thursday, the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) will host its 122nd Annual Banquet at the Midtown Hilton. The guest of honor will be U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer, who will be given the John E. Zuccotti Public Service Award.

The organization Stop REBNY Bullies will be protesting outside the REBNY banquet, accusing REBNY of being “leaders in gentrifying NYC, ending rent stabilization, bankrolling the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) in Albany, bulldozing historic buildings and neighborhoods, busting construction unions and blocking passage of the Small Business Jobs Survival Act (SBJSA).”

Friday and the weekend
Mayor de Blasio is expected to make his weekly appearance on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show at 10 a.m. Friday.

At 11 a.m. Saturday, women and allies will converge in New York and cities across the country for the 2018 Women’s March, one year after millions of people protested against Donald Trump the day after he was inaugurated. In New York, the march will begin at 72nd and Central Park West and end in a rally at Columbus Circle, featuring #metoo founder Tarana Burke and several other speakers.

At noon Sunday, newly-elected City Council Member Keith Powers will be inaugurated in a ceremony at the CUNY Graduate Center in Midtown.

At 1 p.m. Sunday, newly-elected City Council Member Justin Brannan will be inaugurated in a ceremony at Xaverian High School in Bay Ridge.

At 1 p.m. Sunday, newly-elected City Council Member Mark Gjonaj will be inaugurated in a ceremony at the Herbert H. Lehman Educational Complex in Westchester Square, the Bronx.

At 3 p.m. Sunday, newly-elected City Council Member Carlina Rivera will be inaugurated in a ceremony at Middle Collegiate Church in the East Village.

***
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).

***
by Ben Brachfeld and Ben Max
@GothamGazette

Troubles Ahead as 2018 Legislative Session Kicks Off in Albany


Cuomo legislative leaders Albany

Gov. Cuomo and legislative leaders (photo: Darren McGee/Governor's Office)


Since the 2018 session began last week, Governor Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders have outlined their agendas for the year, and addressed or hinted at some of the significant challenges facing state lawmakers.

In particular, threats from the federal government were acknowledged by Cuomo during his state of the State address and in remarks from legislative leaders in the Assembly and Senate, from the potentially harmful environmental policy of President Donald Trump’s administration to the new federal tax code -- passed by the Republican Congress and signed by the Republican president in December -- which is expected to disportionately burden New York taxpayers. Cuomo has said New York will sue, while his team is also exploring an overhaul of the state tax code to blunt the impact of the federal reforms.

The governor and the Legislature must also sort out the state’s larger-than-usual budget deficit, with a new spending plan due by the April 1 start to the new fiscal year, and while tackling the expiration of federal funding to various programs in healthcare and beyond.

Conflicts, some of them repetitious from past years, are clearly brewing over taxes, MTA funding and an expected congestion pricing proposal by Cuomo, reforming child abuse laws, voting reform, women’s reproductive rights, and more.

Also looming are the trials of several close former aides and donors to Cuomo and the retrials of two former legislative leaders, Dean Skelos and Sheldon Silver, both of whom were removed from the Legislature in 2015 following their initial convictions, which were later overturned due to a new Supreme Court ruling. Nevertheless, government ethics and campaign finance reform got barely a mention in the governor’s address and in opening day remarks by legislative leaders.

At the Assembly’s opening day on Monday, before outlining his legislative agenda, Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, offered an overview of the conference’s past legislative accomplishments, such as passing paid family leave and raising the age of criminal responsibility, and then dove into his concerns over “radical policies” coming from Washington.

“We must push back wherever necessary to protect the interests of our citizens,” said Heastie. “Among other things, Congress just enacted a law to scale back the deductibility of state and local taxes—a provision of law that predates the federal income tax itself. This shift will increase New Yorkers’ already sizeable contributions to the federal treasury while increasing our cost of living and disrupting our housing market—all to finance huge giveaways to the rich and to large corporations.”

Heastie cited affordable healthcare and childcare, domestic violence and sexual harassment, environmental protections, and gun control, including the banning of bump stocks, as issues on the top of his majority conference’s legislative agenda.

Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, a Republican representing Canandaigua and Geneva Counties in the Finger Lakes region who has announced he is running for governor this year, spent his initial floor time calling on his colleagues to put politics aside and face the crises in front of them. Essentially outlining his platform for the gubernatorial race, Kolb painted a bleak picture of New York State, which he noted could not be blamed on the federal government, highlighting New York City’s crumbling subways, Upstate New York’s chronic outmigration and poor job growth, as well as lack of movement on ethics reform in Albany as evidence that government was failing the voters of the state.

A poignant moment unfolded when Kolb expressed condolences to Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Morelle, whose daughter Lauren died last year following a battle with breast cancer, and praised his commitment to the job in the face of those challenges.

Meanwhile, looming over the State Senate’s opening day, which took place on Wednesday, January 3, was the news that there may be a Democratic reunification deal in place, provided that two vacated Senate seats remain Democratic through upcoming but not-yet-called special elections, granting the party the requisite 32 votes to pass legislation.

Currently, eight Democratic senators known as the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) form a ruling coalition with the Republican conference and nominal Democrat Simcha Felder, of Brooklyn, a Democrat who conferences with the GOP to form a majority even without the IDC.

During his opening comments on the Senate floor, Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, a Republican from Long Island, expressed pride in his conference and his colleagues across the aisle, noting that collectively they had served in the Senate for 593 years.

“I am not going to apologize. I am going to speak proudly of this institution and the fact that we all are engaged in public service, because last time I checked, I don’t have to canvas all 62 members to know that we’re not doing this for the money,” he said, seemingly referring to Cuomo’s call in his annual address for a ban on outside income.

Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Westchester Democrat, urged the governor to call a special election to fill the two vacant Senate seats “as soon as possible.” Cuomo had the discretion to call for special elections to fill a total of 11 vacant legislative seats, with nine in the Assembly, as early as January 1, but he has declined, indicating he does not want the Senate seats filled before a budget deal is reached. An election would take place 70 days after Cuomo makes the call.

IDC Leader Jeffrey Klein of the Bronx also rattled off his conference’s legislative priorities, including voting reform measures, universal pre-kindergarten expansion, a student loan forgiveness proposal, improvements to the subway system and a method to pay for them, and a completely state-funded Child Health Plus program.

On Monday, Stewart-Cousins spoke from the Senate floor wearing black in solidarity with all women, echoing the statement made by Oprah Winfrey and others at the Golden Globes a day prior, and vowed that her conference is committed to battling workplace sexual harassment, which she said “every woman in the Senate has experienced.”

Outlining her conference’s priorities, she highlighted legislation to tip workers’ rights, voting reforms, women’s health policies, healthcare, tightened gun laws, MTA investments, and more.

On Tuesday, Senate Republicans elaborated on their “affordability agenda,” making clear that their vision does not include higher taxes of any sort, including the additional payroll tax floated by Cuomo as a possible way to compensate for the reduction of the state and local tax deduction from federal taxes that is part of the new tax code. Rather, the Republican conference is pushing their usual message of controlled spending, including a cap on annual state spending growth, plus a slew of bills to slash income, property, energy, and retirement taxes.

Presiding over a press conference to outline the agenda, Flanagan did not provide information about how the state, which is facing immense budgetary challenges, would pay for the additional tax breaks and cut the press conference short as reporters asked repeated questions about curbing discretionary spending in members’ districts. Flanagan defended the practice, which he was being asked about because of the news Tuesday morning that Democratic Assemblymember Pamela Harris had been indicted on public corruption charges.

Another point of conflict was apparent at the Senate’s opening last week, when Timothy Cardinal Dolan, New York’s archdiocese, offered a prayer to launch the session. Advocates for the passage of the Child Victims Act, hopeful for movement on the bill that makes it easier for victims of childhood sex abuse to file charges, criticized Flanagan and IDC Leader Jeffrey Klein for inviting Dolan to give the benediction.

Critics said Dolan, who leads the Catholic Conference, which has spent millions on lobbying to prevent the passage of the Child Victims Act, should not have been invited when the bill is such a hot item of debate.

"Majority Leader Flanagan has refused to meet with victims and buried the Child Victims Act in the rules committee for years," stated Gary A. Greenberg, founder of Fighting for Children PAC. "The is a new low to rub salt in our wounds and invite the person who has stopped victims of child sexual abuse from receiving justice in New York. Flanagan has refused to meet with victims and I have turned down another meeting with his staff."

New Members and Vacant Seats
If Cuomo does not call a special election soon, nearly 1.8 million New Yorkers will be without representation during budget negotiations, according to calculations from the New York Public Interest Group.

The Assembly has welcomed two new members from the city, Daniel Rosenthal, of the 27th Assembly District in Queens, and Al Taylor, who replaced former Assembly Ways and Means chair Denny Farrell in Upper Manhattan’s 71st District, both of whom were selected by local Democratic party leadership. Rosenthal, a former aide to City Council Member Rory Lancman, is the youngest sitting member of the state Assembly at age 26. Taylor is a pastor and community organizer who served as chief of staff to his predecessor, Farrell, who retired last year.

In the Senate, former Assembly member turned Senator Brian Kavanagh, of lower Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn, took Daniel Squadron’s former seat in the Democratic conference. Kavanagh was the party-leader-picked successor to Squadron, who resigned abruptly last fall, citing disillusionment with his ability to affect change in the Senate and a new opportunity to go national. Kavanagh led a press conference on Tuesday calling on the governor to include funding for early voting in his executive budget proposal, due out next week.

Klein, in his remarks, also briefly addressed Assemblymember Luis Sepulveda of the Bronx as a “senator in waiting.” Sepulveda has announced his candidacy for the vacated seat of now-City Council Member Ruben Diaz, Sr.

Heastie also announced a shuffle of leadership positions. Replacing Farrell at the helm of the Ways and Means committee is Brooklyn Assemblymember Helene Weinstein, marking a first for the Assembly, as no woman has previously held the post that runs budget proceedings.

Corruption Trials Loom
Hanging over this session will be the upcoming trials of former State Senator George Maziarz, which begins in February, as well as those of the former Cuomo aides and associates -- including his former top aide Joe Percoco and former SUNY Polytechnic Institute President and CEO Alain Kaloyeros -- and those of Skelos and Silver. Good government groups gathered at the capital this week to highlight this climate, attempting to put pressure on legislative leaders and Cuomo to move forward legislation on clean contracting, LLC loophole closure, outside income limits, and other reforms.

On Tuesday morning the news of Assemblymember Harris’ multi-count indictment broke, putting added focus on government ethics and other reforms. Harris, who represents Bay Ridge and Coney Island, was indicted on fraud charges for allegedly diverting City Council funds designated for the non-profit she ran before taking office and for fraudulently obtaining Hurricane Sandy relief funds for her home, as well as witness tampering. Legislative leaders reacted to the news with surprise and disappointment but downplayed the need for reforms.

Flanagan expressed surprise as he learned of the news from reporters, during the press conference on the Senate Republicans’ agenda. “I’m actually very disheartened to hear that. But it is an indication that our laws are actually working. We have more disclosure, more transparency, more limitations of what people can do in the Legislature,” said Flanagan, adding that her indictment is “bad for everyone, because it paints the Legislature with a broad brush.”

Heastie, when cornered by reporters outside his chamber, also shrugged off the need for additional ethics guidelines. “I don’t want to get so much into it, because I haven’t read the indictment, but there are certain things you can and cannot do in this life. I’m not sure how another ethics reform makes this better or worse.”

In contrast, Democratic Senator Todd Kaminsky, a former federal prosecutor, released a statement calling for “crucial ethics reform in Albany” after learning of Harris’ indictment.

“Today’s indictment is the latest chapter in a sordid book about the need for crucial ethics reform in Albany,” said Kaminsky. “In particular, the legislature needs to immediately focus on the outside income of legislators, as demonstrated by this latest case. We can’t let Albany shrug this one off — we must prioritize those reforms and others to restore voters' trust and confidence in the government.”

***
by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

What’s The [Data] Point? 374, with Laura Nahmias


whats the data point


What's The Data Point? Episode 25 -- 374, with Laura Nahmias [You can download What's The [Data] Point? wherever you get your podcasts, including on iTunes]

nahmias wtdp 1 all 33030

It's been a very busy start to the New York political year. No better guest to recap and analyze the first week of 2018 in New York politics than Laura Nahmias of Politico New York. Laura joined the podcast to discuss Governor Andrew Cuomo's State of the State agenda and his larger political outlook; Mayor Bill de Blasio's re-inauguration and what's ahead for him; and the new City Council Speaker, Corey Johnson, who will be a key political figure for the next four years. The conversation touches on a variety of policy and political dynamics, as there's no shortage of substance and intrigue to start 2018.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think: Ben Max of GG (@TweetBenMax), Maria Doulis of CBC (@MariaDoulis), and guest Laura Nahmias (@nahmias). Listen below or download wherever you get your podcasts!

***
by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

The Week Ahead in New York Politics, January 8


New York City Hall

New York City Hall


What to watch for this week in New York politics:

This week we'e continuing to examine Governor Andrew Cuomo's 2018 State of the State speech and policy book, which were delivered last week. Cuomo's 2018 agenda includes fighting the new federal tax code, a variety of proposals that affect New York City, and a 'reform' agenda that largely resembles past years since little on election, campaign finance, and government ethics reform has been done.

Action will continue this week in Albany as the state Legislature kicks more fully into gear. There are two session days this week as well as several committee hearings.

We're also watching the first full week for Corey Johnson as Speaker of the City Council, and the developing relationship between Mayor Bill de Blasio and Johnson as speaker. Johnson is expected to continue getting settled into the job, figuring out some of his staffing, and working out plans for Council committee chairs and members. Johnson spent the first few days after being elected speaker on Wednesday, Jan. 3, meeting with almost all of the 50 other members of the Council to gauge their interests and priorities. Johnson will be on WNYC radio Monday morning discussing his new role.

Meanwhile, de Blasio begins his week with three public events -- see below for details.  

There are several events to be aware of this week around the city and state - see our day-by-day rundown below.

***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
The State Legislature will be in session on Monday in Albany. At 2 p.m., Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie will deliver remarks to kick off his chamber's year (the Senate held introductory session briefly last week).

At 10:30 a.m. Monday, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson will appear on WNYC's The Brian Lehrer Show.

On Monday morning at 10:45 a.m., Mayor de Blasio will be in Woodside to "join the Department of Transportation and NYPD to announce the latest progress under the City’s Vision Zero initiative." The mayor will not be taking press questions.
At 4:30 p.m. at City Hall, "the Mayor will hold a public hearing for three pieces of legislation: Intro. 1619-A requires DYCD to report on shelter access for runaway and homeless youth, Intro.1705-A streamlines intake from youth shelter to DHS adult shelter, and Intro. 1653-B establishes new decibel levels for construction and authorizes DEP to issue stop work orders in response to certain noise violations. The Mayor will also hold a public hearing and sign seven pieces of legislation: Intro. 1036-A relates to a census on vacant properties, Intro.1039-A studies opportunities to develop affordable housing on certain vacant property, Intro. 54-A requires DOT to study the feasibility of using alternative fuels for the City’s ferries, Intro. 880-A requires a review of the use of biodiesel for school buses, Intro. 1465-A expedites the phasing out of higher grade oil city power plants, Intro. 1629-A requires periodic recommendations on energy efficiency requirements for certain buildings, and Intro. 1632-A relates to energy efficiency scores." The mayor will not be taking press questions.
In the 7 and 10 p.m. hours, the Mayor will appear on NY1’s Inside City Hall with Errol Louis.

At 11:30 a.m. Monday, schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña will make "an announcement on arts education" at PS 51 in Manhattan.

Tuesday
The State Legislature will be in session on Tuesday in Albany.

The State Senate Majority will hold a press conference on Tuesday at 10:30 a.m. in the Capitol in Albany "to unveil a 2018 Affordability Agenda that focuses on broad-based tax relief for families and seniors. Senate Majority Leader John J. Flanagan will be joined by members of the conference to detail the first part of the Senate’s “Blueprint for a Stronger New York” that focuses on making the state less costly and more attractive for hardworking New Yorkers."

On Tuesday morning, Comptroller Tom DiNapoli will discuss the state’s fiscal challenges as 2018 begins, during an event in Albany with The Times Union’s Casey Seiler.

On Tuesday, the Alliance for Quality Education will bring “500 parents, students, and community members to Albany to demand full and fair funding for our schools.”

At 9 a.m. Tuesday, the New York City Board of Correction will hold a public board meeting at 125 Worth Street in Manhattan.

At 10 a.m. Tuesday, the Board of Standards and Appeals will hold a public hearing at Spector Hall in Manhattan.

On Tuesday at about noon outside the state Senate chamber, "State Senator Brian Kavanagh will join with good government groups and legislators to call on Governor Cuomo to fund early voting in his Fiscal Year 2018-2019 Executive Budget proposal. Thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia have already implemented this critical reform, and the press conference will highlight why including funds in the state budget is essential to ensuring early voting becomes a reality." Participants will include Kavanagh and other elected officials, and representatives from The Brennan Center for Justice; Citizen Action; Citizens Union; Common Cause/NY; The League of Women Voters of New York State; The New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG); and Transportation Workers United Local 100 (TWU 100).

On Tuesday at 3 p.m. at City Hall, "Mayor de Blasio and First Lady McCray will deliver remarks on Intro. 1241, which relates to diaper changing stations." They'll be joined by City Council Member Rafael Espinal, sponsor of the bill, and others. The mayor will not be taking press questions.

City Council Member Margaret Chin will hold a re-inauguration ceremony on Tuesday at 5 p.m. City Council Speaker Corey Johnson will give remarks.

At 6 p.m. Tuesday, City & State will host its annual “State of Our State” reception at the Albany Capital Center. The main event will be a panel discussion regarding “the top policy issues and how and where the state should invest in this year’s budget.” The panel will consist of Assemblymembers Dick Gottfried, Michaelle Solages, and David Weprin, as well as John Maggiore, policy director for the New York State Executive Chamber.

At 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Chancellor Carmen Fariña will attend a town hall meeting of District 9’s Community Education Council at PS 555 in the Bronx.

Wednesday
At the State Legislature on Wednesday:
--The Assembly Standing Committee on Racing and Wagering will meet at 10 a.m. in Albany to examine “interactive fantasy sports in New York State.”
--The Assembly Standing Committee on Libraries and Education Technology will meet at 10:30 a.m. in Albany for its “Annual Budget Oversight Hearing on funding of libraries in New York State for fiscal year 2017-2018.”

At 6 p.m. Wednesday, the New York City Bar Association will host a panel discussion on the economic impact of federal tax reform and potential passport revocation by the State Department for those who owe more than $50,000 in back taxes, penalties, and interest. The panel will consist of David Kamin, of NYU Law, and Drita Tonuzi, Deputy Chief Counsel for the IRS.

At 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, the Civilian Complaint Review Board will hold a public board meeting at the Queens Library in Long Island City.

Thursday
At the State Legislature on Thursday: The Assembly Standing Committees on Codes, Health, and Alcoholism and Drug Abuse will meet jointly at 10:30 a.m. at 250 Broadway in Manhattan to “examine the potential impacts of the legalization and regulation of marijuana and its effects on New York’s criminal justice and public health care systems.”

Friday and the weekend
At the State Legislature on Friday: The Assembly Standing Committee on Insurance will meet at 10 a.m. in Albany to “evaluate whether the new title insurance regulations are successfully lowering consumer costs while also ensuring that the title insurance market remains healthy and competitive in New York State.”

Mayor de Blasio is expected to make his weekly appearance on WNYC radio’s The Brian Lehrer Show at 10 a.m. Friday.

The weekend will extend into Martin Luther King, Jr. Day on Monday, January 15.

***
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).

***
by Ben Brachfeld and Ben Max
@GothamGazette

As Trump Pushes Deportations, Volunteers Intensify Immigrant-Accompaniment Program


jericho walk 1

a New Sanctuary Coalition "Jericho walk" (photo: Katrina Shakarian)


The day before Thanksgiving, a group of volunteers met Manuel, an asylum seeker from El Salvador, in back of the Dunkin Donuts at 321 Broadway in Manhattan, to accompany him to his immigration court hearing at 26 Federal Plaza.

The volunteers were part of the New Sanctuary Coalition’s accompaniment program, which trains people to accompany undocumented immigrants on check-ins with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and to immigration court hearings. The program aims to support people caught in deportation proceedings by creating a community that is present with them and bearing witness to the process.

“I think it’s really important that people that show up for a hearing or a check-in know that there are people supporting them,” said Denise Rickles, a retired teacher from Manhattan, who attended Manuel’s accompaniment. “I try to come once a week and I’ve been doing it for a number of months.”

The New Sanctuary Coalition of NYC, founded in 2007, is an interfaith network of congregations, organizations, and individuals that stand in solidarity with the city's undocumented residents facing deportation. The coalition receives funding through Judson Memorial Church, its fiscal sponsor. In addition to organizing accompaniments, the coalition hosts immigration clinics and leads weekly prayer walks around Federal Plaza in protest of deportations.

In 2017 -- as the national conversation around immigration and deportation reached fever pitch after the election and inauguration of President Donald Trump, who has regularly demonized immigrants and promised crack downs on immigration -- the coalition organized about nine accompaniments a week, said Managing Organizer Sara Gozalo.

Volunteers go on three types of accompaniments: ICE check-ins and court hearings for non-detained individuals at 26 Federal Plaza, and hearings for people who are detained at a location on Varick Street.

“Advocacy without confrontation,” is how Gozalo described the program at a recent volunteer training in a hall of St. Boniface Church in Brooklyn, speaking to about 60 attendees. “Even if you feel like you’re not doing anything, your presence there means a lot. I promise you. It’s much harder to deport someone when people are watching.”

Gozalo’s reassurance, and the support of the coalition’s volunteers, comes at a time of sweeping rhetoric from the White House and increased immigration enforcement by the federal government under President Donald Trump.

Arrests by ICE are at a three-year high, although total deportations are actually down from fiscal year 2016. The discrepancy is due, in part, to the backlog of cases in federal immigration court. There are more than 650,000 pending cases nationally, about 85,000 of which are being heard in New York City courtrooms, according to data from the Transition Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University (TRAC).

While President Obama was not seen by many immigration advocates as adverse enough to deportations, one of Trump’s first acts as president was signing an executive order that sought to increase enforcement of federal immigration laws.

ICE explicitly attributes its increase of administrative arrests to the direction set forth in Trump’s order. The agency made 143,470 administrative arrests in fiscal year 2017, which it describes as the highest number of such arrests over the past three fiscal years. Fiscal year 2017 ended on September 30, and according to its latest Enforcement and Removal Operations Report, the uptick in arrests began after Trump’s inauguration.

On November 23, seven people followed Manuel out of the Dunkin Donuts and through security at the Worth Street entrance of 26 Federal Plaza. The group piled into an elevator and rode to the twelfth floor where Manuel was scheduled for a Master Calendar hearing -- a short and preliminary hearing at the very beginning of deportation proceedings, months and sometimes years before a final determination is made and enforced.

On this day, Manuel, whose last name is being withheld at the request if New Sanctuary Coalition leadership, intended to bring his asylum application, completed with the help of the coalition, and those of his wife and children, to the attention of a judge.

An undocumented immigrant detected by the federal government is served with a Notice to Appear in federal immigration court by the Department of Homeland Security. The Master Calendar hearing is that person's first appearance in front of a judge, during which they confirm having received the notice and acknowledge the government's case against them.

During Master Calendar hearings, judges inform defendants that they can obtain legal counsel. However, since deportation proceedings are considered civil cases and not criminal, the right to counsel guaranteed by the sixth amendment does not extend to immigrants facing deportation. Many people end up facing government attorneys, litigating their status alone.

On one side of the twelfth floor, the names of judges line a black bulletin board with the day’s caseloads and room numbers printed on white sheets of paper underneath. On the other side are the courtrooms, which on this day had waiting rooms so packed that appointment holders and their families overflowed into the grey and windowless hallway.

At least 30 people lined the walls. One woman held a baby across her chest, others had toddlers in strollers, and some were grown children and teens plopped onto the floor with their backs against the wall. Sections of the hallway’s fluorescent lights had blown out, so most of the crowd waited in the dark.

“The waiting is the worst part,” said Melvyn Stevens, a retiree from Manhattan on his sixth accompaniment with the coalition. “When I got up this morning I already had anxiety. It’s manageable, but given everything, it’s not a good environment. The building is made to make you feel small.”

People showing up for ICE check-ins and hearings often do it alone and with little to no English language proficiency. So, coalition volunteers help them navigate their appointments.

Upon arrival, the volunteer group leader confirms their appointment on the bulletin board, and helps them locate their courtroom. Others on the accompaniment offer small gestures like conversation during the wait, and making a run to the sixth floor cafeteria to buy them a bottle of water or a snack.

The New Sanctuary Coalition’s accompaniment program is “very reassuring for people,” said Anne Pilsbury, director of Central American Legal Assistance (CALA) in Brooklyn. “[26 Federal Plaza] is a very confusing place and it’s hard to get information from anyone. The accompaniments humanize a very inhumane process.”  

CALA sends its overflow of asylum seekers to the New Sanctuary Coalition’s weekly immigration clinics for assistance completing applications.

On accompaniments to Master Calendar hearings, such as Manuel’s, volunteers can sit in the courtroom during the hearing. When his case was called, volunteers in the room made their presence known to the judge by standing up when he walked to the respondent’s table, and sitting down when he did.

This is different from accompaniments to ICE appointments, on which volunteers are not allowed in ICE’s waiting room on the ninth floor. Instead, the group waits in the sixth floor cafeteria, and one by one they take turns going to the ninth floor and briefly checking in on the person until they’re called into the appointment. If the outcome is detainment, the volunteers spring into action, contacting the detainee’s family, launching a letter writing campaign in their defense, and in some cases, rallying the press and other organizations in their support.

Back in the courtroom, Manuel’s hearing was brief. His lawyer was not present. An in-house Spanish interpreter translated the judge’s every word, and in turn, Garcia’s responses were translated into English. He submitted a printed copy of his asylum application to the judge and now waits for a decision.

According to TRAC, across the country in fiscal year 2017, “asylum grants increased, [but] denials grew faster.” Its report shows that roughly 60 percent of asylum applications were denied, making it the fifth year in a row that denial rates increased nationally.

The same report cites an increase in the proportion of asylum seekers who go through the process without a lawyer. Ten years ago, only 13 percent of applicants were unrepresented, while in 2017 the figure shot up to 20 percent. Asylum seekers who are not represented by an attorney are denied 90 percent of the time.

There aren’t enough immigration lawyers to keep up with demand, and some people can’t afford them even when they are available.

Recently, in New York City, Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio and the heavily Democratic City Council, under the leadership of former Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, sought to bridge that gap and counter the Trump administration’s immigration policies, by allocating $30 million for immigrant legal services in the city’s budget for the current fiscal year.

The money will pay for legal representation of immigrants, both documented and undocumented, at all stages of the process, whether they are applying for asylum, fighting deportation, or have been detained. De Blasio and the Council have expanded the counsel program, known as the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project (NYIFUP), over the past few years, with additional urgency since Trump’s election.

Immigration proceedings are hardly straightforward. Someone can have one or multiple Master Calendar hearings over the course of several years. Eventually, a hearing for a final judgment does takes place, once a determination on asylum is made, or for those not seeking asylum, once they’ve made some other case for remaining in the United States.

If a judge rules to deport, the case can be drawn out further, as people have the option to file several rounds of appeals.

All the while, ICE has broad discretion over requiring check-ins. For some, check-ins start before or during the Master Calendar Hearing process. For others, there are no check-ins until a final judgement to deport is made.

While a person cannot be deported before an order of removal is final, they can be detained. People in deportation proceedings who are convicted of crimes are generally detained. Those convicted of less serious crimes, however, may be given an opportunity to post bond, explained Edward Cuccia, the attorney representing Riaz Talukder, a beneficiary of the New Sanctuary Coalition’s accompaniment program.

Talukder came to the United States from Bangladesh in the 1980s. Today, he is the sole breadwinner for his family of two American-born children and a wife, who is battling thyroid cancer.

In 2010, he discovered there was an 11-year-old deportation order against him stemming from a failed application for asylum years before. That year, he was granted a stay of deportation, and has been checking in with ICE annually every since.

During Obama’s presidency, such deferments of deportation were a courtesy to thousands of people like Talukder who had been living in the United States for many years, abiding by the law, forming families, and establishing their lives.

Under Trump, the directive has changed. ICE officers are under tremendous precious to ratchet up numbers. There are no more courtesies, everybody is a priority, explained Cuccia, the lawyer.

On November 20, Talukder showed up for his second appointment in four weeks. He was granted a temporary stay of 6 more months, an apparently lucky outcome.

"There are a lot of factors determining decisions made by ICE,” said Cuccia.

“Certainly, having a community presence with a client, even a small one, has the potential to influence the outcome positively. For my client, the volunteer accompaniment, the massive press response, and the overwhelming community support, was, in part, what resulted in a favorable decision at his last check-in,” he said.

Similarly, organizers and volunteers at the New Sanctuary Coalition say that the vast majority of judges are happy to see community support in the courtroom. Some judges will acknowledge them during the hearing, and commit their presence to the record.

“For our friends,” as the coalition refers to the undocumented immigrants they support, “often times, for the first time since they’ve entered the whole removal process, people are treating them with respect and dignity,” said Carol Scott, a self-defense instructor in Brooklyn who was the volunteer leader of Garcia’s accompaniment on the twenty-third.

“We’ve had friends send notes after. One person who was in detention said, you didn’t send people, you sent seven angels,” said Scott. “So, the language is just beautiful. Not being alone in a hostile environment is a powerful balm to the soul.”

Earlier in the day, while Manuel waited for his hearing, he was approached two times by people waiting for their own names to be called, inquiring about his entourage. At the end of  each conversation, he handed them a New Sanctuary Coalition business card with a smile on his face.

***
by Katrina Shakarian for Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette

New York City Takeaways from Governor Cuomo's 2018 State of the State


Cuomo State of the State podium

Gov. Cuomo delivers his 2018 State of the State (photo: Philip Kamrass/Governor's Office)


Governor Andrew Cuomo unveiled his full policy agenda for the 2018 legislative session on Wednesday, returning to his traditional State of the State format: a single address at the Empire State Convention Center, chock full of slideshow-aided proposals and lofty rhetoric, with legislative leaders of all five conferences and other statewide elected officials accompanying him on stage.

During the 92-minute speech, Cuomo gave considerable attention on his women’s rights platform -- a timely legislation package in the face of international outcry over sexual misconduct in the workplace — as well as criminal justice reform proposals like significantly reducing the use of cash bail. Cuomo also focused a good deal on policies coming out of Washington, D.C., especially the recent tax overhaul program that will hit New York hard. He said the state will sue while also exploring other ways to blunt the impact of the drastically reduced ability for New Yorkers to deduct their high local and state taxes from their federal burden.

The second-term governor outlined a wide variety of proposals for the state and some that apply to different geographic areas. He touched on only a portion of the proposals listed in his 374-page policy book. The next three months will determine which Cuomo can accomplish through some combination of executive action, the regular legislative process, and a grand budget deal, due by the April 1 start to the new state fiscal year. After that, there will be another three months of legislative session.

Many of Cuomo’s broader proposals, like on criminal justice reform, workforce development, and protecting the environment, impact New York City, while several are aimed directly at the five boroughs, such as the creation of a subway station in Red Hook, Brooklyn, the creation of a new park in Brooklyn, and proposals to address the state’s homelessness problem, which is concentrated in New York City.

Mayor Bill de Blasio was in attendance for Cuomo’s speech and, in a news conference afterward, praised certain aspects of it, such as Cuomo’s promise to fight the federal tax overhaul, while taking a wait-and-see approach as the governor still did not unveil a congestion pricing scheme, and outlining a few of the city’s top priorities for the upcoming state budget, like more funding for the mayor’s plan to extend pre-school to all three-year-olds.

The Democratic governor wields an enormous degree of power over the state’s $160 billion-plus budget. He’ll unveil his executive budget proposal within the next few weeks, which will show at least some detail of how he plans to fund the initiatives in his State of the State while also balancing the roughly $4 billion deficit for next fiscal year.

As he alluded to during his speech, touting his ability to lead the state to bipartisan compromise, Cuomo is again negotiating with a split Legislature. While Democrats handily control the 150-seat Assembly, with most New York City lawmakers sitting in the majority, the 63-seat Senate is controlled by the Republican conference, made up of many members representing suburban and Upstate areas, that has formed a ruling coalition with the eight-member Independent Democratic Conference and rogue Democratic Senator Simcha Felder, of Brooklyn. As a result, downstate and left-leaning interests often rely on the governor to take up their policy items, and watch his annual address closely for signs that he will make them a focal point of the coming budget negotiations.

During his Wednesday remarks, Cuomo took slightly different approaches to two hot-button issues, important to many in New York City, that are also indicative of the political moment Cuomo finds himself in. Democrats in New York want to see Cuomo fight for Democratic takeover of the state Senate, including through special elections for two Senate seats that the governor has not yet called, despite being able to as of January 1. A long list of progressive legislation has been blocked in the Senate, with many believing Cuomo largely prefers to deal with a split Legislature so that he can better control spending and policy.

Advocates have been turning up their pressure on Cuomo to push for the Child Victims Act, legislation that makes it easier for people who were victims of childhood sex abuse to bring charges. The legislation has overwhelmingly passed the Assembly, but stalled in the Senate.

Those pushing for the the bill were disheartened by the governor’s omission in his State of the State speech, though it is included in his policy book, as it was last year.

"In the #MeToo moment it’s especially disappointing to see the Governor fail to mention child victims of sexual abuse in his State of the State address, even as he correctly prioritizes the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace,” said Michael Polenberg, VP of Government Affairs at Safe Horizon, and survivor and advocate Bridie Farrell in a joint statement. “Survivors of childhood sexual abuse, advocates, and elected officials have been fighting to pass the Child Victims Act (CVA) for over a decade.”

Meanwhile, the governor did give a brief shoutout to the New York Dream Act, which would allow undocumented college students who arrived here as children to obtain student financial aid as part of a comprehensive immigration package. Cuomo mentioned the Dream Act, which has also easily passed the Assembly but stalled in the Senate, when discussing the next phase of his Excelsior Scholarship, the middle-class college-tuition supplement he announced and passed last year.

Women’s Rights
Cuomo released more than 20 planks of his 2018 agenda in the lead-up to his speech, including his proposals related to fighting sexual harassment in workplaces.

The governor’s full women’s right platform is wide-ranging, from policies Democrats have pushed each year like the codification of Roe v. Wade into state law and the Comprehensive Contraception Coverage Act, to his new call to criminalize “sextortion” and non-consensual pornography, often known as revenge porn, under state law, as well as legislation to remove firearms from domestic abusers.

In addition, the governor is proposing legislation to prohibit public dollars from being used to settle sexual harassment claims against individuals, and a proposal to void forced arbitration policies in employee contracts. He vowed that any companies doing business with the state would be required to disclose the number of sexual harassment adjudications and nondisclosure agreements they have executed. There appears to be a good chance that some, possibly most, of these measures will pass, as Republican and Democratic lawmakers in both houses have introduced legislation aimed at tightening sexual harassment laws.

“No taxpayer funds should be used to pay for any public official’s sexual harassment or misconduct – period. It is the bad act of the individual, let the individual pay,” said Cuomo.

Cuomo is also proposing that state pension funds only be invested in companies that have “adequate” representation of women and people of color on their boards of directors. And Cuomo is calling for the reauthorization and expansion of his Minority and Women Business Entrepreneurship program.

Criminal Justice Reform
In a dramatic moment, Cuomo addressed Akeem Browder, the brother of Kalief Browder, the young man who took his own life after being held for three years at Rikers Island jail complex, awaiting a trial for allegedly stealing a backpack that never came. “Akeem, I want you to know that your brother did not die in vain,” Cuomo said, with the audience giving Akeem a standing ovation.

Referencing Kalief Browder’s ordeal, Cuomo announced a comprehensive package including bail and speedy trial reforms, and improving the disclosure of evidence in the discovery process.

“To begin, our jails are filled with people who should not be incarcerated,” said Cuomo. “Race and wealth should not be factors in our criminal justice system.”

Many, including Public Advocate Letitia James and Tina Luongo, attorney-in-charge of the criminal defense practice at The Legal Aid Society, commended the governor.

“This comprehensive package of criminal justice reforms places a spotlight on the current system’s flaws and the need for strong reforms to New York’s criminal discovery, bail and speedy trial statutes. Reforming these core issues is required to end mass incarceration, avoid wrongful convictions and, for New York City, expedite the closing of Rikers Island,” said Luongo. Mayor de Blasio has pointed to state-level bail reform as key to the goal of closing the Rikers jails by continuing to help reduce the city's detainee population.

New York Civil Liberties Union’s Donna Lieberman noted that the initiatives could have gone further, including the passage of Kalief’s Law, which ensures the right to a speedy trial, and the STAT Act, which would disclose policing data to improve transparency and accountability.

Affordable Housing
Cuomo lamented the state’s homelessness crisis, noting that he began his work in public service running a non-profit aiding homeless families, but critics say his proposals to address the crisis are slim.

“Homelessness is on the rise in our cities and worse than ever before. It pains me personally to acknowledge this reality,” he said. “It has become a part of our new normal, but it is abnormal and it is wrong,” he later added.

Cuomo vowed to build on the $20 billion investment made in 2016 on a five-year plan to combat homelessness, including thousands of supportive housing units that provide stable housing and social services. The governor said he would instruct the appropriate state agencies to expand street outreach, homelessness prevention activities, rapid rehousing, and ongoing housing stability for the formerly homeless.

He said he would direct the state’s mental health and substance abuse agencies to increase access at homeless shelters across the state. He also implored localities to do more to help mentally ill homeless people, saying that some claim their hands are tied. He vowed to “change the law this session.”

In a variety of directions, affordable housing and homelessness policy has been a topic of conflict between Cuomo and de Blasio.

During his post-speech press conference, de Blasio said one major area the city wants to see more from the state is affordable housing. He called for the delivery of NYCHA funds allocated two years ago, among other items.

“The supporting housing plan – as everyone knows, the City of New York is committed to, and is funding, and is acting on and implementing a plan for 15,000 supportive housing apartments. The State has a plan for 20,000. We need to see that plan take off and start to have an impact on the ground in New York City so it can help us address homelessness,” said de Blasio.

“And then the broader affordable housing plan that was put together at the end of the legislative session – again, we’re looking for action, we’re looking for results that will help us address the huge affordability challenges in New York City.”

In her statement reacting to Cuomo’s speech, Public Advocate James praised Cuomo on several fronts, but pointed to a need for Cuomo to improve his commitment to creating and preserving affordable housing. “I urge the Governor to push Albany legislators to adopt vacancy decontrol, make preferential rent permanent and repeal the twenty percent vacancy bonus and introduce a housing bond act to create more affordable housing,” she said. “In order to truly protect New Yorkers, we must ensure that everyone has access to safe and decent housing. It is the most critical step to creating a New York that is just and inclusive for all.”

Public Transportation
While Cuomo suggested that there is a congestion pricing plan in the works, he did not provide details, saying that he is waiting for his Fix NYC commission to "present options" to the Legislature. Any plan would be intended to create revenue for the MTA and reduce congestion into much of Manhattan, likely would add tolls on the East River bridges and other access points to the “Manhattan business district.”

He also appeared to take one of several jabs at de Blasio, who opposes congestion pricing and wants to see an added tax on high earners to additionally fund the MTA.

“These are difficult choices, but difficult choices do not get easier by ignoring them,” Cuomo said. “They only get harder. And in the meantime, cheap political slogans are just that—cheap political slogans. It's not a real policy or policy discussion. And that's what we need. Santa Claus did not visit the State Capitol this year. I was watching. Funding must be provided in a very tight budget and funding must be provided this session because the riders have suffered for too long, politics has gone on for too long, and we can't leave our riders stranded anymore -- period.”

Speaking with reporters, de Blasio reiterated that he believes passing an additional millionaires tax to pay for subway system repairs is achievable because his proposal only impacts New York City residents, not the main constituents of the Senate Republicans outside the city.

“It’s a way that we can solve our own problems. So, I’m going to keep working for that because I think it’s the right solution,” de Blasio said, adding, “No, I don’t think we’ve seen enough now to know what any congestion pricing option may look like.”

Public Safety
Cuomo opened his speech by noting the growing threats of terrorism, extreme weather, rising anti-semitism, and increasingly divisive politics. He proposed a number of initiatives aimed at making New York City, which is often a target for attacks, safer.

“Looking back, 2017 was a tough year by any measure, but New Yorkers once again rose to the occasion. We had frightening incidents of terrorism in New York City -- as Mayor Bill de Blasio well knows -- but we have the best police and first responders in the country and some of them are here today,” said Cuomo.

To address gang activity, Cuomo has proposed a plan to cut off the recruitment pipeline to eradicate MS-13, which has a strong presence in Long Island and parts of the five boroughs. Cuomo’s five-point plan would improve access to social programs -- including after-school education and job training for at-risk youth -- additional support for unaccompanied minors and bolstered law enforcement in gang hotspots.

He also introduced a number of counter terrorism initiatives, such as the construction of a new firefighter training facility to support the city’s first responders, expanded vehicle rental regulations, and a terrorism tip line.

“[T]he state owns many of the places of potential vulnerability, our bridges, tunnels, trains, buses and airports, our transit hubs like Penn Station and Grand Central,” Cuomo said. “Our transportation system must be better protected, and we must do it now. We have had warning.” He specifically cited Penn Station as vulnerable and said he already has plans in motion, while also referencing the possible use of eminent domain to make the surrounding area more secure.

Voting and Other Reforms
Leading up to his speech Cuomo unveiled parts of his “Democracy Agenda,” which aims to protect the integrity of elections, requires transparency for digital advertisements, and enact voting reforms.

Reform advocates, like Common Cause/NY’s Executive Director, Susan Lerner, welcomed the proposals but said that “the Governor proposed a high tech blanket to protect an antiquated election system that cries out for common-sense low-tech improvement.”

“It's not enough to simply pitch the idea of early voting – a crucial change that will bring New York in line with 37 other states- as well as same day voter registration, and no penalty absentee voting,” she said. “The Governor must put money behind it. Initiatives like automatic voter registration, electronic poll books, flexibility to change parties, and parolee voting rights are pivotal upgrades to our current system of elections administration that can not be ignored.”

The governor did not give much airtime to his government ethics and campaign finance initiatives this year, many of which are recycled from past years in his 2018 policy book. On Wednesday he talked briefly about ending outside income for lawmakers, and “spent less than a minute total discussing his remaining reforms,” said Jennifer Wilson, of The League of Women Voters.

Education
The governor put forth several education initiatives, including to expand the availability of early childhood care, pre-kindergarten education, and afterschool; a proposal to guarantee free food for school children; and supports for teachers.

He also introduced a slew of measures to address the student loan debt crisis. Planks include appointing a Student Loan Ombudsman; requiring colleges to provide simple 'truth in lending' facts for students; and increasing consumer protection standards throughout the student loan industry.

De Blasio, after the event, told reporters he hopes to see a boost in education aid in the governor’s 2018-2019 budget proposal, which would help fund the city’s 3-K for All initiative.

Infrastructure 
Cuomo said he would call on the Port Authority and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to study potential options for relocating and improving maritime activities and enhancing transportation access to Brooklyn's Red Hook neighborhood and harbor. The plan would include the creation of a new subway line extending into the South Brooklyn neighborhood “to stimulate Red Hook’s community-based development.”

Citing the Trump administration’s efforts to scale back national parks, Cuomo vowed to open the largest state part in New York City, a 407-acre plot of land on Jamaica Bay.

He vowed to finally complete the Hudson River Park on Manhattan’s west side, a project started by his late father, former Governor Mario Cuomo, and Mayor David Dinkins.

“It was supposed to be finished in 2003. It was derailed by ongoing disputes. We now have settled the disputes. We now have a full completion plan that completes the park from Battery Park City to 59th Street,” said Cuomo.

Next Steps
Along with congestion pricing recommendations, Cuomo is also awaiting the results of a study he’s ordered of the possibility of eliminating a separate minimum wage for tipped workers, which could have significant impact in New York City.

Threats from the federal government loomed large at the State of the State, as the governor, who is facing reelection in 2018 and has presidential aspirations, painted himself as a unifying leader in the face of a divisive and hostile president.

While Cuomo prepares to release his executive budget plan in the coming weeks, he will continue to fight the federal tax overhaul and deal with other ways in which federal policies are cutting funds to New York. Still, Cuomo spoke in grand terms, saying that New York can accomplish anything it puts its mind to, as his tenure has shown.

“Ladies and gents I am a realist,” Cuomo said. “I know that this an ambitious agenda and I know it is probably the most challenging agenda that I have ever put forth. But these are challenging times, and we have to rise to the challenge for the very survival of our state.”

***
by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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