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Max & Murphy Podcast: Concerns About Marijuana Legalization, with Nassau County Executive Laura Curran


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


March 20, 2019 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Opposition to Marijuana Legalization, with Nassau County Executive Laura Curran

dav carlucci senateAs Governor Cuomo has made legalization of adult-use marijuana a top priority this year, he also has said he believes that local governments should be able to decide if they want to opt out of allowing marijuana dispenseries. Though negotiations in Albany around legalization have slowed, Nassau County Executive Laura Curran recently announced that Nassau plans to opt out, citing a variety of concerns from key stakeholders based on a task force that she had assembled. Curran joined the show to discuss her concerns and the path ahead.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or wbai.org

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Max & Murphy Podcast: Getting to Yes on Marijuana Legalization, with Assemblymember Richard Gottfried


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


March 20, 2019 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Support for Marijuana Legalization, with Assemblymember Richard Gottfried

assemblymember richard gottfried 150Assemblymember Richard Gottfried was a co-sponsor of a marijuana legalization bill in the 1970s. In 2019, he's still pushing for allowing adult-use marijuana in New York, which is now supported by Governor Andrew Cuomo and, at least in principle, both Democratic majorities in the Legislature. But, there is no deal yet. Gottfried joined the show to explain his support, discuss some of the related details, and respond to critics of legalization.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or wbai.org

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Advocates and Senators Refute Assembly Democrats' Concerns with Campaign Finance Reform


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Senate Democrats push campaign finance reform (photo: @zellnor4ny)


With less than two weeks until a new state budget is due, Governor Andrew Cuomo and the Legislature have yet to come to an agreement on a public campaign financing model for state elections. But the conversation around the measure, which advocates and experts say is a long-due reform in a state beset with repeated corruption scandals, has taken a turn since Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie raised several doubts about the viability of public campaign financing, some of which Cuomo has echoed.

They’ve voiced these concerns despite the fact that the Democrat-led Assembly and Cuomo, a third-term Democrat, have annually supported such campaign finance reform and Cuomo included a plan in his 2020 executive budget proposal. This is the first year in Cuomo’s tenure that Democrats control both houses of the Legislature, having won a Senate majority in November.

At a Wednesday hearing of the state Senate’s Committee on Elections, which was also attended by several Assembly members, experts and advocates sought to rebut those concerns as they pressed legislators to act sooner rather than later.

Earlier this month, Heastie said there weren’t enough votes in his chamber for the public financing proposal, which would create a voluntary system with significantly lower individual contribution limits and public matching of the first $175 of all qualifying contributions at a 6-to-1 ratio.

Heastie cited mostly debunked concerns about independent expenditures being able overwhelm candidate campaigns , large budget gaps the state is facing, and criticisms of the public financing model used by New York City, which the state is looking to emulate in principle, particularly the regulatory aspects.

The Assembly did end up including a statement of support for the proposal in its one-house budget resolution last week, but without specific details. In a March 15 interview on New York Now, Heastie denied that he and his members were getting “cold feet.” He pointed to the city’s public funds program, which caps spending for participants, and said independent expenditures could dominate, while inaccurately saying that IEs are not an issue in New York City elections.

“I think that no one wants to exclude everyday individuals from participating in democracy. We think it’s a good thing but people also have to understand you don’t want to open the door to having IEs pretty much pick your legislator,” he said. He also questioned how the system would work with fusion voting, which allows candidates to run on multiple party lines, though the city’s has not encountered this as an issue and the state program would emulate that a candidate receives matching funds only based on their fundraising, no matter how many ballot lines they have.

Cuomo has raised similar concerns about independent expenditures and fusion voting, though he insisted recently that public financing must be included in the state budget.

“How many races are we potentially talking about? How much does it cost? Who's doing the compliance on all these issues? The Board of Elections - which has nowhere near this capacity now? What is the effect of the multiple lines and multiple races? Do you fund all those multiple lines in the primary and then all those multiple lines in the general? So it's necessary, it's right, but it's complicated,” Cuomo said at a news conference outlining his budget priorities on March 11. He did, however, mention the possibility that the Legislature could pass a budget that includes general support for and legalization of public campaign financing and then “figure out the details afterwards” in the post-budget session.

The Senate’s one-house resolution supports “establishing a publicly financed small donor matching system in order to curtail the corrosive influence of money in politics in addition to other necessary campaign finance reforms.” Unlike their Assembly counterparts, senators have not equivocated about implementing the system. Senator Zellnor Myrie, chair of the elections committee, is an ardent supporter of the proposal and, prior to the hearing on Monday, he led a news conference with several colleagues, including many fellow newly elected senators, and government reform advocates to push for it.

“We should be listening to the everyday New Yorker and not big donors,” Myrie said at the news conference, where he was joined by Senators Alessandra Biaggi, Rachel May, Brad Hoylman, Brian Kavanaugh, Todd Kaminsky, Julia Salazar, David Carlucci, Jessica Ramos, John Liu, Andrew Gounardes, and Gustavo Rivera, as well as Assembly members. Myrie also brushed aside questions about funding the program. “To me, this is not a cost, this is an investment. It is an investment in the integrity of our democracy and I think not until people have trust in their government will they trust the process.”.

For government reform advocates, campaign finance experts, and some legislators, the concerns expressed by Heastie, and to a lesser extent Cuomo, are broadly unfounded.

For one, the governor’s proposal does not limit candidate spending like New York City’s program, and also does not cap fundraising from private sources, which together would blunt the effect of independent expenditure campaigns while boosting the impact of small donors.

Additionally, as the Brennan Center for Justice’s Lawrence Norden noted, concerns about the program becoming exorbitantly expensive because of fusion voting “reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of the way the policy works.” Candidates in New York City already run on multiple party lines but public funds are not disbursed for each party but rather for each candidate. “The number of parties on the ballot is irrelevant to all of this. And a candidate doesn’t get more money because she’s listed on more than one ballot line,” Norden wrote.

There are indeed some logistical concerns with instituting public financing statewide, which legislators raised at Wednesday’s hearing.

New York City’s program is administered by the New York City Campaign Finance Board (NYCCFB), an independent, nonpartisan agency, and the state BOE lacks the resources or expertise to do that kind of work, as Cuomo indicated. City candidates, some of whom are now sitting legislators, have also critiqued what they see as the CFB’s overly punitive policies, which they say lead to yearslong audits and burdensome fines for relatively minor violations. Lawmakers also worry that public funds could entice candidates to run frivolous campaigns to raise their own profiles or to otherwise accrue some private benefit.

Those arguments were also repeatedly refuted by individuals testifying before the committee on Wednesday in Albany, though many did acknowledge that New York City’s program is far from perfect.  

Amy Loprest, executive director of the NYCCFB, and Rick Schaffer, chair of the Board, noted that the city’s disclosure laws around independent expenditures are stronger than the federal government’s, and that candidates in local races have prevailed despite facing massive independent expenditures campaigns.

Loprest also argued that the system has thresholds that preclude candidates from abusing it for personal gain, though any assessment of the issue is subjective. Candidates must show a level of community support that validates their campaign, she said, and their spending is strictly audited after the election to ensure public funds are not misused. “We are always improving our system and that was built into the law,” Loprest said, when Assemblymember Robert Carroll, a Brooklyn Democrat, asked how the city balances monitoring of both independent expenditures and complaints from candidates about “picayune problems.”

Schaffer also insisted that the CFB has taken efforts to aid candidates and to prevent them from making mistakes that could end up costing them later. “We’re not interested in ‘gotcha.’ Our job is to help candidates follow the rules which admittedly are complex because it’s a complex system,” he said. The CFB’s audit processes, Loprest noted, are also being consistently improved to ensure candidates do not have to wait years for results.

But Assemblymember Harvey Epstein, a Manhattan Democrat, seemed unconvinced, particularly when considering that audits of every campaign at the state level -- four statewide races and 213 state legislative races -- would be a monumental task. State Board of Elections officials did downplay that worry later in the hearing, noting that the governor’s proposal only calls for fully auditing all statewide campaigns but not every legislative one, instead using a random sampling.

The State BOE has not taken a formal position on the program but at least two commissioners, a Democrat and a Republican, support its implementation. Other commissioners have insisted that if the program is passed, it should be accompanied with sufficient funding and that it should first go into effect after the 2022 elections, the next statewide cycle.

A state program, said BOE co-executive director Robert Brehm, would be about 3.67 times larger than New York City’s and would cost between $20-$60 million each year in administrative costs if fully scaled. According to a December 2018 report from the Washington D.C.-based Campaign Finance Institute, the program would disburse about $140.5 million in public funds over a four-year election cycle. For context, the governor’s state budget proposal for 2020 is about $175.1 billion.

At Wednesday’s hearing, Chisun Lee, senior counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center pointed out the importance of establishing a public financing program. She noted that in last year’s election, 100 donors gave more to candidates than 137,000 small donors altogether, and small donations only accounted for 5 percent of all contributions to state campaigns. She cited the example of other jurisdictions with public financing programs, such as Connecticut, and said the state should create a culture of assistance rather than punishment at any entity charged with overseeing its implementation.

And though she admitted that the governor’s proposal is not flawless, “In great part...it is a workable, effective small donor matching system,” she said.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Candidates for Queens District Attorney Profess Similar Values, Stake Out Different Positions


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3/12 Queens DA debate (photo: @alyssaguilera)


The candidates for Queens District Attorney are becoming increasingly clear about where they stand on key criminal justice issues and how they would run the office if elected later this year. Queens is home to its first competitive district attorney election in decades, with long-time District Attorney Richard Brown set to retire and a crowded Democratic primary set for June 25. The general election will be in November.

There are seven candidates currently running, all in the Democratic primary, and six of them met last week for a fast-paced and detail-oriented debate sponsored by the “Queens for DA Accountability” coalition, made up of many community and advocacy groups, hosted at CUNY Law School in Long Island City, and moderated by Fordham Law Professor Zephyr Teachout and Gotham Gazette executive editor Ben Max.

The candidates for the borough’s top prosecutorial and law enforcement position spoke to roughly 200 attendees and others watching a live-stream, explaining their qualifications for the job and stances on a wide variety of policy issues, some of which they would have control over as district attorney, others that they would be able to influence. Queens, home to more than 2.4 million people, is known as the most diverse borough in the most diverse city in the country.

Several questions at the forum were asked by community leaders, on topics ranging from the school-to-prison pipeline to police accountability, such as Valerie Bell, the mother of Sean Bell, who was killed by police in Queens, and Jennifer Orellana, a transgender former sex worker, who have affiliations with groups in the sponsoring coalition.

Six of the seven candidates were in attendance. Mina Malik was sick and unable to participate in the forum, though she released a video on Twitter saying she was sorry to miss it and looked forward to engaging with those participating in the event. The six candidates present at the debate were Tiffany Cabán, Melinda Katz, Rory Lancman, Gregory Lasak, Betty Lugo, and Jose Nieves.

[For background on the candidates and the race, read: ‘We’re in a New Era’: Inside the Crowded Race to Become the Next Queens District Attorney and Reset the Borough’s Prosecutorial Agenda]

As they have at other race events, in their campaign materials, and during interviews, the candidates largely agreed that the Queens District Attorney’s office is in serious need of change, in a general sense of modernizing its practices and culture, but also on key practices. The candidates also mostly found broad agreement at the debate that change is needed on a wide variety of topics like cash bail, sex work prosecutions, Rikers Island, and what to do about police misconduct, but the candidates often disagreed on the solutions. In an email exchange with Gotham Gazette, Malik provided her answers to debate questions, which are also included below.

[LISTEN: Queens District Attorney Candidate Debate (3/12/19)]

Vision for the Office
At the start of the forum, the candidates were asked how they envision the DA’s office and how it would work under them.

Cabán, a public defender, said she would change the “metrics of success” for the office, claiming there is currently “a system based on gamesmanship” favoring convictions over justice. Instead, she would focus on lowering incarceration and recidivism. Katz, the Queens borough president, envisions the district attorney’s office as a leadership position and that her primary responsibility would be implementing policies and reforms.

Lancman, a City Council member, called the office “more than just a place that processes cases that police bring” and “responsible for public safety in Queens.” He said he would decline to prosecute people with mental illnesses and drug addiction and focus on preventing crime.

Nieves, a prosecutor in the attorney general’s office, said the DA’s job is to protect residents and know how and when to prosecute cases. Lugo, an attorney and former prosecutor, cited her campaign theme “true justice for all,” and said the officeholder needed to understand “complexities of the whole system” and “prioritize prosecutions.”

Lasak, who worked in the Queens DA office for many years before becoming a judge -- a position he resigned from to run this year -- called the DA the “chief law enforcement officer for the borough,” and a position that works with the police department.

Violent Crime
The candidates were asked how they would handle prosecutions of violent crime if they were to become the Queens District Attorney, and how that approach may or may not fit into larger calls to reduce the jail population. Teachout noted that the number of people incarcerated in New York for non-violent crimes has steadily dropped over the past two decades, while the number of people incarcerated for violent crimes has remained stagnant.

Cabán took the strongest stance in favor of change, saying that her office would “think of criminals as victims of trauma themselves” and that she considers violent crime to be a “public health problem.” Lancman similarly said that it is imperative to “confront the issue of violence” to achieve decarceration, and that prosecutorial reform “cannot exclude violent crimes.”

Katz noted that disparities in violent crime prosecution have a “disproportionate effect on people of color” and that her office would work for “fair and equitable prosecutions.” She also said that she would focus resources on diversion programs and access to mental health care, working with the community.

Nieves said prosecutors often overcharge defendants to secure a plea deal and that he would end that practice, in addition to engaging in “alternatives to incarceration,” such as diversion programs. Lugo said that the process should focus on care for the victim and the DA’s office should hire social workers for victims of violent crime, but she did not directly answer the question.

Unlike the other five candidates at the debate, Lasak cautioned against changing how the office handles violent crime. He said that the DA’s “main job is public safety” and that “we have to be careful when dealing with violent crime.” The statement was one piece of a pattern throughout the debate, and the broader race, where Lasak has staked out more moderate positions in the field, though at times he is joined by other candidates and he consistently says he would make some progressive changes.

All candidates present answered affirmatively when asked if they thought current sentences for violent crime were too long in general.

By email, Malik said, "Ensuring that violent criminals are held accountable must be a top priority for any District Attorney, but it must be an accountability that keeps our communities both safe and whole." She highlighted her experience in Queens prosecuting "human traffickers, serial rapists, child molesters and violent, repeat offenders," but said she also has "the reform experience of having implemented restorative justice, diversion programs and alternatives to incarceration, particularly for first-time violent offenders, so that one mistake doesn’t take a person further down the wrong path."

Domestic Violence Prosecutions
The six candidates were asked whether they would commit to not prosecuting victims of domestic violence and interpersonal conflict for self-defense or acts of survival. All six candidates present committed, with Katz asking “who wouldn’t?”

Malik also made that commitment, and added: As a former Special Victims prosecutor, I worked with countless women who were victims of abuse and assault and I am adamantly committed to ensuring the Queens DA’s Office protect victims, not retraumatize them."

[LISTEN: Queens District Attorney Candidate Debate (3/12/19)]

Police/Prosecutorial Misconduct
Representatives from the grassroots organization Vocal NY asked what the candidates would do the deter police and prosecutorial misconduct and what would be the career consequences for Assistant DAs that commit misconduct, such as withholding evidence. Later, Valerie Bell, the mother of Sean Bell, asked what the candidates would do to ensure fair prosecutions of crimes involving police officers -- like the trial involving officers who shot and killed her son -- and that misconduct investigations were swift, thorough, and unbiased.

Cabán said that public defense offices already have lists of “bad officers” and that as DA she would publish these lists and not rely on those officers’ testimony in cases. She also said that prosecutors should undergo retraining to prevent misconduct and that “anyone who wears a badge and commits a crime should be held accountable independent of conflicts of interest.”

Katz vowed that misconduct “won’t be stood for in my office” and that prosecutors would have to follow her reform policies. She also said that the state attorney general’s office should investigate police brutality accusations, not just police killings of unarmed individuals as is currently the case based on an executive order from Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Lancman cited the City Council hearings that he has held on police misconduct and the history of misconduct in the Queens DA office. He asserted that “reforms prevent wrongful convictions” and that he would implement a broader code of conduct. He would use personnel in the DA’s office to investigate police misconduct, he added.

Nieves said that Assistant DAs that commit misconduct “would be fired” and that he would create a civil rights bureau within the office to investigate police misconduct with personnel from the DA’s office. He also said that police officers who commit perjury should be prosecuted. Lugo said that her office would have “no tolerance for discrimination” and “firm but fair prosecutions.” On the issue of investigations, she said that Assistant DAs “should know the communities they’re prosecuting in” and this would make investigations more equitable.

Lasak brought up his previous experience in the DA’s office, saying that “prosecutors under me knew they couldn’t [commit misconduct]” and that his leadership would set the example for his office. He also said he would use the DA’s investigators in police misconduct cases, not the NYPD.

Malik wrote that she will work to prevent prosecutorial misconduct. "As District Attorney, I will institute agency-wide trainings on Brady, discovery, witness interviews and preparation, suspect interviews, implicit bias, cultural competency and anti-racism." She promised a DA's office that is "for the first time, representative of the community it serves at the leadership level and hire a dedicated ethics officer to assist in ensuring our attorneys are always above reproach when practicing law."

Sex Work Decriminalization
Jennifer Orellana, a transgender former sex worker and member of Make the Road New York, asked the candidates for their views on the decriminalization of sex work. The Queens DA would potentially be able to decline to prosecute sex workers, as well as their customers and others involved in sex work, like landlords. Most of the candidates agreed that the DA’s office needs to change how it handles sex work crimes, mostly with a focus on the sex workers themselves, though they spoke about sex work in varied terms.

Cabán committed to declining to prosecute sex work-related offenses, including sex workers and those that participate in the sex work industry. She also said that the trans and sex work communities need to be protected. Katz said that sex work offenses should be “diverted into human trafficking courthouses.” She would not prosecute and make resources available to prevent recidivism, she said, while also indicating a belief that all sex workers need to be helped to find a different line of work and path in life.

Lancman would also decline to prosecute and would direct sex workers to diversion programs, in addition to focusing on sex trafficking and human traffickers.

Nieves would similarly decline to prosecute, calling sex work “a non-violent and consensual crime” and that he “won’t waste resources” on it. He would also create a human trafficking unit.

Lugo would consider declining to prosecute and instead implement a diversion program. She also brought up the need to focus on sex trafficking. Lasak was the only candidate against fully declining to prosecute, saying that “the impact on the broader community needs to be looked at” and that sex work lowers the quality of life for residents in affected neighborhoods.

Malik wrote her "position to decline to prosecute for sex workers and to vacate prostitution records is informed by a career of defending women suffering sex abuse and working with victims to come forward. We should be investing in resources to help sex workers get treatment and services where needed, while diverting enforcement toward those who profit off of, prey on and traffic sex workers."

[LISTEN: Queens District Attorney Candidate Debate (3/12/19)]

Bail Reform
The topic of bail reform also generated a wide consensus among the candidates. Though there are ongoing negotiations in the state capital around major bail reform that could impact the next Queens District Attorney, the candidates were asked about what their policies would be if no changes are made at the state level.

All the candidates agreed to reduce the use of cash bail for at least minor and non-violent offenses, with some candidates saying that they would end the practice entirely.

Cabán pledged to end cash bail “to the fullest extent” and that her office would “release people as often as possible,” including on some violent alleged crimes. Katz agreed to end cash bail for misdemeanors and non-violent felonies automatically, but for violent felonies supervision should be looked at as an alternative. Lancman committed to never asking for cash bail and would expand eligibility for release “to the maximum extent of the law,” noting that Kalief Browder was kept on Rikers Island after not being able to post bail upon being arrested for what is essentially a non-violent crime of stealing a backpack, for which he never formally faced charges and was eventually released, later killing himself.

Nieves committed to no cash bail for all offenses and that he would use appearance bonds instead of cash bonds. Appearance bonds usually stipulate that a defendant would pay a fine if they do not appear for their court date. Lugo said she would handle the issue on a case-by-case basis and that non-violent crimes would not have cash bail, except for “major drug cases,” like El Chapo.

Lasak agreed to no cash bail for minor offenses, but would keep the policy in place for other charges.

Rikers Island Closure and Proposed New Jail in Queens
The candidates were asked if they support the closure of Rikers Island and also if they support the proposed new community jail in Queens.

Cabán was the only candidate to support the closure of Rikers Island and also oppose the new community jail in Queens. She said that she did not support building new jails because she “doesn’t want them filled.” Perhaps along with Lancman, she has outlined the most aggressive decarceration plan in the race, though he said that Rikers must be closed and also supports the new community jail.

Katz supports closing Rikers Island and also the construction of a community jail in Queens.

Nieves supports the closure of Rikers and opposed the construction of “mega-jails” in Queens. Lugo said she wants to see the current facilities on Rikers Island closed, but wants new facilities on the island that would separate violent and non-violent offenders. Lasak wants to keep the jails on Rikers Island open.

Malik wrote that she believes "it is critical that the community in Queens has its voice and concerns fully heard" but that "the closing of Rikers should also be taken as an opportunity for us as New Yorkers to totally reject the violent culture of Rikers by designing new detention facilities that treat everyone with dignity and aggressively support their reentry. Community detention centers that treat people with dignity and allow people to have more regular contact with their loved ones and support systems have proven to result in reduced recidivism."

[LISTEN: Queens District Attorney Candidate Debate (3/12/19)]

Police in Schools/School-to-Prison Pipeline
The candidates were asked about their views on police in schools and the school-to-prison pipeline by an activist with the Rockaway Youth Task Force.

Cabán asserted the “need to get police officers out of school” and that “students of color have been criminalized.” Her position is that her office would “decline to prosecute children whenever possible,” and instead “engage in restorative justice.”

Katz said “police officers aren’t the only answer to school safety,” but may be necessary in some cases. She believes that diversion programs could work better and that there are currently “too many officers” in schools. Lancman committed to not prosecuting “low-level offenses from schools” and that these would be handled in schools and youth court.

Nieves compared over-policed schools to Rikers Island and said his office would give students opportunities instead for low-level offenses and deal with felonies in family court. Lugo said that low-level offenses “should be handled in school,” but supports police being present in schools.

Lasak also said that he wants police in schools and that his office would instead focus on “bridging the gap between the community and the courthouse,” through education programs involving young people.

[LISTEN: Queens District Attorney Candidate Debate (3/12/19)]

Immigration
On the topic of immigration, candidates were asked if they would consider mitigating immigration consequences in prosecutorial decisions. Immigrants, including legal residents, could face deportation for certain offenses or even based on what prosecutors say in court statements.

Cabán vowed to “keep ICE out of courthouses” and “make sure the DA’s office doesn’t do anything to further deportation,” including taking immigration status into consideration for pleas, charges, and court statements. Katz promised to have “deportation-neutral” charges and pleas. Lancman suggested that the office would hire a “collateral offense officer” to look at mitigating the immigration consequences of prosecutions.

Nieves noted that immigration is an important factor for both victims and suspects, saying that victims and witnesses are often afraid to come forward for fear of being deported. Similar to other candidates, he committed to mitigating the immigration consequences of the office’s prosecutions. Lugo vowed to block ICE from courts and to set up an immigration affairs bureau, which would include interpreters. Lasak promised to mitigate immigration consequences only for minor offenses.

Malik wrote that she "will implement an immigrant hardship plea policy. Whenever compatible with public safety, I will direct prosecutors to consider collateral consequences when charging noncitizens. We have to ensure the sentence matches the offense and that we are not tearing families apart or leveling disproportionate sentences."

[LISTEN: Queens District Attorney Candidate Debate (3/12/19)]

***
by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this article.

Note: this article has been updated with Mina Malik's responses.

State Budget Crunch Time, City Council & Charter Revision Hearings, & More: The Week Ahead in New York Politics, March 18


New York City Hall

New York City Hall


What to watch for this week in New York politics:

The week begins with Mayor Bill de Blasio again returning from a trip to an early presidential primary state as he continues to tease a potential run for president. He's not a candidate at this time but he's not ruling it out, he regularly says. This weekend he was in New Hampshire, after a trip to South Carolina last weekend, and Iowa before that. De Blasio has also repeatedly said he will decide on whether to enter the Democratic primary fray sooner rather than later, which would, one assumes, mean fairly soon.

Meanwhile, the City Council will continue this week to examine the mayor's $92.2 billion preliminary budget, with another series of committee hearings.

More pressingly, Monday marks just two weeks until a state budget is due on April 1. The Legislature will be in session in Albany three days this week, with public and private budget negotiations expected among representatives of Governor Cuomo, the Senate majority, and the Assembly majority. It's unclear when Cuomo, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie may meet themselves.

Key issues on the table include exactly how much to spend and on what, which revenue-raising policies to keep/add/end/enhance (like a new pied-á-terre tax), and specific issues like marijuana legalization, congestion pricing and MTA reform, criminal justice reform, environmental and energy policy, campaign finance and ethics reforms. Cuomo has said he won't approve of a budget that doesn't include criminal justice reforms (to bail, speedy trial, and discovery) and a permanent 2% cap on annual property tax increases everywhere outside New York City, which has been exempt to the current cap, which expires in 2020. The Senate has approved of the cap, the Assembly has not, but Heastie has not explicitly said the Assembly is against doing it -- it appears it may be more of a bargaining item at this point. Cuomo, who continues to criticize Senate Democrats for the loss of the Amazon deal, has said that he and the legislative majorities are further apart on marijuana legalization and criminal justice reform than legislators have indicated.

Also to watch are the extension of mayoral control of New York City schools, which isn't due to expire until June, but could be done in the budget, perhaps with tweaks to the system to empower local communities and parents, and the cap on charter schools -- all of the slots allowed in New York City under the current cap have now been filled -- among additional issues that are at times flying under the radar. As usual, state school aid to localities is a key topic of negotiation, as well as health care funding, namely through Medicaid, again from the state to localities.

We're also watching this week as the 2019 Charter Revision Commission continues to do its work, hearing from experts on various focus areas and considering proposals to change the city charter. Whatever the commission decides is worthy of possible change to the charter, the city's foundational legal document, will go before voters in November.

There are a variety of events to be aware of this week - 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 New York State Legislature will be in session on Monday in Albany.

On Monday at 4:30 p.m. at City Hall, "Mayor de Blasio will hold public hearings and sign three pieces of legislation—Intro 1329-A to give BIC the authority to register unions and union representatives operating in the trade waste industry; Intro. 1373-A which requires BIC to refer labor and wage violations to the proper state or federal authorities; and Intro. 1368-A which requires BIC to share workers’ rights information to the employees of the trade waste industry...In the evening, the Mayor will appear on NY1’s Inside City Hall."

There will be a preliminary budget hearing Monday at the City Council on health at 10 a.m., regarding the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the Medical Examiner.

Also at the City Council on Monday:
--The Committee on Small Business will meet at 10 a.m. to discuss several proposed laws, including laws requiring SBS to perform an assessment of the “state of storefront businesses” in the city every five years, requiring developments receiving city financial assistance to provide affordable retail space, providing legal services to small business owners facing eviction, and requiring property owners to register vacant storefronts with the city.
--The Committees on Oversight & Investigations and Economic Development will meet jointly at 1 p.m. for an oversight hearing regarding the New York Works jobs plan.
--The Subcommittee on Planning, Dispositions, and Concessions will meet at 1 p.m.

On Monday at 10:30 a.m., Comptroller Scott Stringer will appear on WNYC's The Brian Lehrer Show. In the evening, Stringer will be in Queens to host a "roundtable with South Asian Community Stakeholders."

At noon Monday, the Association for a Better New York will host MTA Chief Development Officer Janno Lieber for a lunch discussion on “rebuilding and expanding New York's transit system to make it faster, better, and more affordable.” The event will take place at CBRE’s Midtown offices at 200 Park Avenue.

At 6 p.m. Monday at City Hall, the 2019 Charter Revision Commission will hold its fifth “issues forum” featuring experts on the specific focus topic at hand and potential charter revisions. This forum will focus on the city’s governance and elections, with topics to include the role of the Public Advocate and the “appointment and removal powers of city officials.”

At 6:30 p.m. Monday, U.S. Rep. Max Rose will hold a town hall meeting at St. Philips Baptist Church in Port Richmond, Staten Island.

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

At noon Tuesday, the New York State Board of Elections will hold a commissioners’ meeting in Albany.

The following City Council committees will hold preliminary budget hearings on Tuesday:
--Public Safety at 10 a.m., regarding the NYPD and the Civilian Complaint Review Board.
--Justice System and Public Safety jointly at 2:30 p.m., regarding district attorneys, the special narcotics prosecutor, the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, the Office of Civil Justice, and legal aid.

Also at the City Council on Tuesday:
--The Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises will meet at 9:30 a.m.
--The Subcommittee on Landmarks, Public Siting, and Maritime Uses will meet at noon.

At 6 p.m. Tuesday, the MTA will host the third of four open houses for community members regarding the “revised” L-train rehab project. This open house will take place at the Grand Street Campus High School in Williamsburg.

At 6 p.m. Tuesday, the Association for a Better New York will host City Planning Commission Chair Marisa Lago at a happy hour at the Beekman Pub in the Financial District. Lago “will discuss her career path, experience as the City Planning Commissioner Chair, and vision for New York City.”

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

The following City Council committees will hold preliminary budget hearings on Wednesday:
--Education at 10 a.m., regarding the Department of Education and the School Construction Authority.
--Immigration at 2 p.m., regarding the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs.

At 7 p.m. Wednesday, the state’s Census commission will hold the third of six public hearings to discuss the upcoming 2020 U.S. Census and the myriad related issues. The hearing will take place at SUNY Sullivan in Loch Sheldrake, Sullivan County.

Thursday
At 9 a.m. Thursday, City & State will host its 2019 “Diversity Summit” at National Geographic Encounter in Midtown. Leaders in government, business, and academia will discuss diversity within civic spaces. Keynote remarks will be delivered by U.S. Rep. Nydia Velazquez. Other speakers include State Senator James Sanders; City Council Members Robert Cornegy, Helen Rosenthal, and Rafael Salamanca; Lourdes Zapata, Chief Diversity Officer in the Governor’s office; Jonnel Doris, Director of the Mayor’s Office of MWBE; Victor Calise, Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities; Gregg Bishop, Commissioner of the Department of Small Business Services; Michael Garner, Chief Diversity Officer for the MTA; Lorraine Grillo, President of the School Construction Authority; and others.

At 9 a.m. Thursday, City Comptroller Scott Stringer will host an “Irish Heritage Breakfast” at his offices in the Manhattan Municipal Building.

At 6 p.m. Thursday, the 2019 Charter Revision Commission will hold its sixth “issues forum” at City Hall to discuss potential charter revisions. This forum will focus on the city’s land use process.

At 6 p.m. Thursday, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer will hold a public hearing at the Cooper Union to hear from Manhattan residents on the issue of congestion pricing.

At 6 p.m. Thursday, Assemblymember Latrice Walker, State Senator Zellnor Myrie, and the Let NY Vote coalition will host “The New York Voting Rights Agenda: The Challenges Ahead” at Brooklyn Law School. The speakers will discuss the reforms recently passed by the state and other reforms that have yet to pass, including automatic registration, codifying the restoration of voting rights to felons into state law, and reenacting the protections afforded by the Voting Rights Act.

At 6 p.m. Thursday, U.S. Rep. Nydia Velazquez will hold a community town hall meeting at the Manny Cantor Center on the Lower East Side.

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

The following City Council committees will hold preliminary budget hearings on Friday:
--Housing and Buildings at 10 a.m., regarding the Department of Buildings.
--Housing & Buildings and Capital Budget jointly at 11 a.m., regarding the Department of Housing Preservation and Development.
--Public Housing and Capital Budget jointly at 2 p.m., regarding NYCHA.

At 1 p.m. Friday, the Senate Standing Committees on Corporations and Transportation and the Assembly Standing Committee on Transportation will meet jointly at Onondaga Community College for a public hearing regarding the effectiveness of the state’s transit network in Syracuse.

At 3 p.m. Saturday, U.S. Rep. Max Rose will hold a town hall meeting at Fort Hamilton High School in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.

***
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

State Comptroller Discusses Fiscal Picture as Budget Season Heats Up


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


With a state budget due April 1 and several major question marks hanging over negotiations between Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state Legislature, State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli gave his latest assessment of New York’s economic outlook and key aspects of the budget picture. Appearing on WBAI radio’s Max & Murphy show on Wednesday, DiNapoli reiterated the concern over dips in state revenue, which he and Cuomo have attributed to impact from the new federal tax code and related taxpayer behavior.

The state’s chief fiscal watchdog also said more data is essential before making any final declarations, acknowledging that everyone will know a lot more once most of the tax returns are in next month. Yet, amid more uncertainty than in recent years state leaders must craft a new budget well before the April 15 tax deadline, a fact that has prompted some, including Cuomo, to revisit the notion of moving the state fiscal year to start in June or July, something DiNapoli said is worth taking a serious look at.

On that question and others, DiNapoli gave his typically cautious answers, not taking a definitive stand on several issues on the negotiating table. DiNapoli noted that he does not have a seat at that table, but that his job is to evaluate the budget that is agreed upon by those who do, namely the governor and the two houses of the Legislature.

In January, DiNapoli and Cuomo announced that the state fell short of its projected revenue by $2.3 billion. He partly blamed geopolitical uncertainty regarding President Trump’s tumultuous trade war with China, turbulent Brexit negotiations, and stock market fluctuation. But more so, DiNapoli held the 2017 federal tax overhaul responsible, which instituted a cap on individuals’ ability to deduct state and local taxes from federal taxes and significantly impacts New York due to the high taxes at the state and local levels.

Much of dip in state revenues “had to do with a change in taxpayer behavior,” DiNapoli said. “Particularly the cap on local and tax deductibility.” He added that the state has already regained losses from down financial markets in December, but advised waiting to draw definitive conclusions.

“We probably need more data from the Department of Tax and Finance,” he said. But DiNapoli also attributed some losses to ultra-wealthy residents fleeing the state, echoing Cuomo, but, also like Cuomo, not yet able to offer definitive proof. “One percent of New York taxpayers carry 46 percent of the personal income tax revenue that comes to the state,” he reminded.

“If you lose even a handful of those billionaires or multi-millionaires,” the state will feel the difference, he said.

“The next time we’ll have more solid numbers is in April and the budget is supposed to be done by April 1,” he said. “Which begs the question of whether to change the fiscal year.” While DiNapoli admitted “there’s a logic to it,” considering most other states either begin on July 1 or run on a calendar year, he said “the likelihood of that reform happening anytime soon is probably wishful thinking.”

“New York is still in a strong position,” he said. “I would hope that April would see some rebound in the collections. We don’t know that for sure.”

As the state budget is finalized, DiNapoli voiced moderate support for a pied-à-terre tax system, which would tax high-value homes in New York City that are not the owners’ primary residences. “We’re setting a threshold at $5 million,” he explained. “If you can afford a $5 million pied-à-terre, you can probably handle additional levels of taxation.”

He spoke to indecision in the state legislature regarding further measures to raise revenue and the notion that a plan to legalize and tax recreational marijuana may not be included in this year’s spending plan. “There was never an expectation that marijuana legalization was going to bring in money in the coming fiscal year,” he said. The hosts and the comptroller also noted that congestion pricing for Manhattan’s central business district may also not happen, despite widespread agreement that it is needed, both to help declutter the streets and to raise revenue for mass transit.

“At this point, you have some very different sets of priorities about how to” raise revenue within the state legislature, DiNapoli said. He emphasized that under a plan put forth by Assembly Democrats, upper income New Yorkers would pay higher taxes, but the Senate majority and Cuomo appear against that path, though all agree on extending the current “millionaires’ tax” that is soon to otherwise expire. “Under the Assembly’s proposal, they would add three new higher tax brackets,” he explained. “They estimate that would raise $1.3 billion, in addition to that pied-à-terre tax.”

The question of how Cuomo and legislators will raise new revenue and cautiously budget based on the projected revenue forecast will continue to be essential to budget negotiations over the next two weeks or so.

On the always contentious topic of education aid from the state to localities, DiNapoli said agreement is often challenging because “what is equitable very much sits with the eye of the beholder.” He said it is indeed worth considering recommendations from the Citizens Budget Commission and like-minded experts who say that the state should not continually increase aid to all local school districts, but only target aid to the neediest districts.

DiNapoli was also asked about the status of work he’s overseeing to use the state pension fund toward the fight against climate change.

DiNapoli said that he had had a conference call that day with individuals involved in his Decarbonization Advisory Panel, which is evaluating ways to further use state investments to influence the world’s biggest polluters. DiNapoli, who has resisted calls to divest the pension fund from fossil fuel companies, said a plan will be forthcoming in the next couple of months. The panel’s stated goal is “how to best decarbonize the pension fund in a way that will secure retirement for hardworking New Yorkers and help support the overall health of the state’s economy and protect our environment for generations to come,” according to the governor’s office. DiNapoli said that this week based on pressure from the pension fund, Dollar General and Under Armour both agreed to formulate plans to reduce their carbon footprint.

[LISTEN: Max & Murphy Podcast: Comptroller Tom DiNapoli]

Max & Murphy Podcast: Comptroller Tom DiNapoli


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


March 13, 2019 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Comptroller Tom DiNapoli

tom dinapoli 150With the state budget deadline of April 1 fast approaching, state finances in challenging position, and a wide variety of issues on the table as the governor and legislature negotiate, Comptroller Tom DiNapoli joined the show to give his perspective on the state's economic outlook, budget picture, and key aspects of fiscal debate.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or wbai.org

***
by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Max & Murphy Podcast: The Push for Criminal Justice Reform, with Tina Luongo of Legal Aid Society


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


March 13, 2019 - Max & Murphy Podcast: The Push for Criminal Justice Reform, with Tina Luongo of Legal Aid Society

tina luongo 150With major criminal justice reforms being debated and negotiated in Albany, Tina Luongo of the Legal Aid Society joined the show to discuss the details of bail, speedy trial, and discovery reform that public defenders and other advocates want to see from state government.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or wbai.org

***
by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

State District Attorneys Association Targeted as Roadblock to Reform


city council justice preli budget

District Attorneys (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


Advocates who are pushing to reform the criminal justice system by focusing on the powerful role that district attorneys play as enforcers of the law often cite Larry Krasner as a model. Krasner was elected the district attorney of Philadelphia in 2017 on a comprehensive reform platform and in November last year, just 11 months into his first term, he pulled out of the statewide Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association. Krasner blamed the association for holding back much-needed reform and advocating for overly harsh prosecutorial policies.

Reformers and advocates in New York hailed Krasner’s withdrawal as an example to follow. They’ve long argued that the District Attorney’s Association of the State of New York (DAASNY) is one of the biggest roadblocks to criminal justice reform making its way through the state Legislature. DAASNY essentially acts as a lobbying group for prosecutors, critics say, and attempts to water down legislation to maintain the already significant discretionary authority that individual district attorneys enjoy.

“Ultimately this is about power not wanting to lose power,” said Erin George, statewide Criminal Justice Campaigns Director for Citizen Action of New York. “The DA’s association is set against reforms that would threaten the unbridled power they have in the current pretrial system to railroad New Yorkers and drive the case outcomes and convictions that they’re looking to secure.”

It’s a harsh assessment backed by years of seeing DAASNY oppose efforts to change New York’s drug sentencing laws, early release policies, criminal charges for gravity knife possession, and a commission to investigate prosecutorial misconduct. This year, with Democrats in full control of the Legislature, advocates are again seeing the largely invisible hand of DAASNY guiding legislation to reform the state’s discovery, bail, and speedy trial laws. George said the association’s “fear mongering narratives and dog whistle tactics” become “the political narrative that has to be responded to and the issues sort of avalanche.”

Last month, a coalition of advocacy groups including Citizen Action, VOCAL-NY, New York Communities for Change, and JustLeadershipUSA formally sent letters calling on several sitting district attorneys who call themselves progressives to step down from DAASNY, publicly disavow the association and support reform legislation in Albany. The letters were sent to Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez, Manhattan DA Cy Vance, Erie County DA John Flynn, Suffolk County DA Timothy Sini, and Nassau County DA Madeline Singas.

“DAASNY is once again, the primary opposition to passing legislative changes that would advance justice, equity and an end to mass incarceration in New York State,” the letter reads. Early last month, Citizen Action also sent a similar letter directly to Albany DA David Soares, a Democrat and the current president of DAASNY.

Soares was elected as a reformer himself but has since disappointed activists who say he has acted more in DAASNY’s interests than in the interests of justice. But he rejects their criticism.

“There is an unfortunate misperception that DAASNY is opposed to reform. This is far from the truth," Soares said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “For decades DAASNY has been at the forefront of alternatives to incarceration programs. We supported legislation to allow the sealing of past criminal convictions and to help convicted offenders obtain a second chance.”

He said that DAASNY supports both discovery and bail reform but does not support “discovery measures that threaten the safety of victims and witnesses” or “bail reform measures that undermine the safety of domestic violence and sexual assault victims.” Soares was among 15 prosecutors who recently wrote to Governor Andrew Cuomo, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie to profess support for ending cash bail and overhauling the state’s bail system. “The only people who should be detained pretrial are those who a judge finds pose a specific, clear and credible threat to the physical safety of the community, or who are a risk of intentionally evading their court dates,” they wrote.

For advocates like George, the issue at hand is DAASNY’s “unbridled power, unequal power” in Albany. Just as individual DA’s leverage their authority to win favorable pleas, even if it means withholding evidence that could be beneficial to defendants until just before trial, they say DAASNY leverages its authority to impact bills that have been moved through grassroots efforts.

Nick Malinowski, civil rights campaign director of VOCAL-NY, said DAASNY’s role has become all that more apparent this year. In past years, Republicans held the state Senate and were more often than not opposed to the types of progressive bills being championed by Democratic legislators and advocacy groups. Yet, DAASNY has continued to push back against reform. “What we’re seeing is the impact of DAASNY, which traditionally had been influencing Republicans. It’s having a similar influence even with a Democratically-controlled Senate,” Malinowski said. “They’re doing the same type of fear-mongering.”

Malinowski cited outright misinformation being put out by the association. For instance, in an op-ed in the Times Herald Record, Orange County DA David Hoovler, the vice president of DAASNY, argued that the governor’s discovery reform proposal being considered in Albany would open up witnesses to intimidation and threat since it would make their addresses public. “That’s not actually what’s in the bill and these guys know that,” Malinowski pointed out, noting that the bill allows prosecutors to provide “adequate alternative contact information” of witnesses instead of addresses. That could include an email or phone number, Malinowski said. Bills introduced in the state Legislature similarly contain witness protections.

“DAASNY, which is a lobbying group for prosecutors, like any other advocacy group, they are in Albany lobbying legislators to increase the power and influence of their constituents, which are prosecutors,” he added. “Their constituency is not crime victims, it’s not voters, it’s not the public. It’s prosecutors.”

While DAASNY does influence legislation and the legislative process, its leaders are not registered lobbyists. Soares opposes use of the term lobbyist group, instead calling DAASNY a trade organization.

Vance’s office declined to comment for this story. The Albany Times Union reported that he and others targeted by the coalition of advocates did not plan to leave DAASNY.

Advocates are hoping to make membership in DAASNY a litmus test for progressives, as is evident in Queens. Seven candidates are hoping to secure the Democratic primary nomination for Queens DA June 25 as DA Richard Brown, who has been in office for nearly three decades, is retiring as of June 1. His term ends this year. In the mix are several candidates trying to out-progressive each other. Most, if not all, have said they will reform the office, which has jurisdiction over the city’s most diverse and second-largest borough.

Two of the candidates, City Council Member Rory Lancman and public defender Tiffany Cabán, have pledged that they will not join DAASNY. Lancman has said he has seen DAASNY’s obstructive efforts firsthand when he was a member of the state Assembly. “I'm not joining DAASNY. And I plan on having a *robust* legislative affairs office to lobby for real reform in Albany & NYC (and Washington where necessary),” he tweeted in October last year. “If you're an elected official fighting for reform, I'm going to have your back.”

Similarly, Cabán called out DAASNY in a tweet last month for lobbying against the open discovery bill. “The DA Association of the State of New York is wrong to oppose it, which is why I will exit DAASNY & work instead with DAs who share our values,” she wrote.

Soares did not seem to take kindly to those pledges. “My advice to those District Attorney candidates who are pledging to not join DAASNY as part of their campaign tactic is this: Rejecting DAASNY may make you a political darling amongst a small segment of supporters, but it won't make you a better prosecutor.”

The other candidates in Queens haven’t been as willing to shun DAASNY, even as they say they disagree with the association’s positions on certain reforms. Among them are former State Supreme Court Judge Gregory Lasak, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, former prosecutors Mina Malik and Betty Lugo, and Jose Nieves, a former senior prosecutor in the Brooklyn DA’s office. (Emma Whitford reported for Gotham Gazette that Lugo and Nieves intended to join DAASNY, even though both have expressed reservations about the association’s position on discovery reform).

Lasak said in a statement that he intends to implement or advocate for several reforms after joining DAASNY, including creating a Conviction Integrity Unit, expanding diversion programs, and ending cash bail on low-level, non-violent offenses. “I’ve always believed that the best way to change an organization is from within,” he said. “It’s easy to throw stones from the outside but it won’t effect [sic] real change.”

Malik, similarly, argued that it would be “misguided” to leave Queens’ 2.4 million residents “without a voice in the room” even as she said she disagrees with DAASNY on bail and discovery reform. “My role with DAASNY would be to advocate for Queens and to organize from within to empower progressive DAs. I would keep all options on the table, including withdrawal, if membership in DAASNY proves fruitless to those aims,” she said in a statement.

Katz said she intended to “export” the progressive policies she implements in the Queens DA’s office to the association’s other members. “You can’t be heard if you’re not at the table,” she said in a phone interview. “I think you can institute the policies that we care deeply about here, like no cash bail, like discovery reform...I can do all of that without legislation in Albany. I’m strong enough to believe that should I be sitting on an organization that has the other DAs on it, that I can help move them in that direction too.”

Advocates, however, are hoping their collective clamor will make DAASNY a pro.minent enough issue for voters who are increasingly beginning to pay attention to how district attorneys wield their power. Malinowski issued a simple warning. “You can’t say that you’re a progressive prosecutor and then at the same time be part of a lobbying group that is trying to kill every piece of progressive legislation.”

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

Read more by this writer.

Note - This article has been updated to clarify a quote from Erin George of Citizen Action 

New York Nurses Threaten Major Strike Over ‘Understaffing’


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(photo: @nynurses)


During one night shift at the children’s hospital where she worked as a nurse, Nicolette Mabeza‘s unit filled up with intubated children. She and the other nurses were frantic.

“It was just the entire floor running around,” said Mabeza, who worked in the intensive care unit at NewYork-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital in Washington Heights. “Some nurses had two intubated patients and they weren’t even right next to each other.”

Nurses stretched to the limit by understaffing would regularly cry on the job, she said.

“Not only does it make you feel that you’re being a terrible nurse,” said Mabeza. “You also wonder, why should patients come here if nurses can’t give the adequate care that they deserve?”

Feeling that she could no longer do her job in good conscience, she quit last April after less than a year at the hospital.

After years of complaints, understaffing has become a major point of conflict between the nurses union and private hospitals in New York City.

Around 13,000 nurses could strike this month if negotiations fail between the New York State Nurses Association and a group of three major hospital systems, union leaders say.

Nurses from Montefiore, Mount Sinai, St. Luke's-Mount Sinai West, and New York-Presbyterian hospitals authorized a strike last week and announced a rally for safe staffing on Monday, March 18 at Mount Sinai Hospital in East Harlem.

“We’re saying enough is enough,” said Carl Ginsburg, a spokesperson for the union, which represents 37,000 nurses. “No sooner do we make a deal than we drift back into this danger zone.”

He said contract negotiations have slowed to a crawl with the New York City Hospital Alliance, an informal bargaining group of private hospitals that includes Montefiore, New York-Presbyterian, and Mount Sinai hospitals.

On the bargaining table is an increase in nurse-to-patient ratios in emergency rooms and intensive care units. Staffing levels have reached dangerously low levels, putting the safety of both nurses and patients at risk, Ginsburg said.

“Sometimes where a nurse should be caring for five patients, she’s caring for eight or 10,” said Ginsburg. “Make no mistake – it’s dangerous.”

In 2018, more than 12,000 nurses signed “Protest of Assignment” forms to complain about unsafe conditions at Montefiore, Mount Sinai, and New York Presbyterian.

A spokesperson for the NYC Hospital Alliance said that hospitals are financially stretched because of state Medicaid cuts. He added that the recent “Protest of Assignment” forms account for a negligible portion of the total number of nurse shifts.

Understaffing at hospitals forces nurses to make tough choices, said Anthony Ciampa, a nurse at New York Presbyterian for the last 14 years.

“I had to make the decision whether to hang blood or to help an elderly patient eat,” said Ciampa. “No nurse should be forced to make these types of decisions.”

The elderly patient sat in front of the food – unable to eat – while Ciampa took care of the blood transfusion, he said. By the time Ciampa was able to help, the patient’s food tray had been removed, untouched.

“I’m still upset about that,” said Ciampa, who is currently representing the union in contract negotiations. “It was like torture to sit there with the meal in front of you and not be able to eat it.”

Outside Brooklyn Hospital Center last month, nurses were reluctant to talk about staffing conditions, fearing retaliation from their employers.

“Everybody’s understaffed,” said a medical assistant who requested anonymity and said she has worked at the hospital for more than 20 years. “The patients are not getting adequate care.”

But the NYC Hospital Alliance denied reports that understaffing is leading to unsafe conditions, and said that enforced staffing ratios would be costly and ineffective.

“The reality is that the union’s rigid, mandated staffing ratios would lower the quality of patient care by overriding the professional judgment of nurses and healthcare professionals and crowding out other members of the care team,” said Linden Zakula, a spokesperson for the group.

Zakula said that state budget cuts to Medicaid have resulted in a loss of $240 million in expected funding for the three hospital groups combined.

“Alliance hospitals respect our nurses and are committed to bargaining in good faith,” said Zakula. “We are doing everything we can to reach an agreement that is fair, reasonable, and responsible for all parties.”

In the last few years, several New York City Council members have shown support for more staffing regulation at hospitals.

“Nurses are some of the most important people in the hospital,” said New York City Council Member Carlina Rivera. “It’s important that they feel they have the resources they need to be supported in some of the most stressful environments.”

Rivera, who chairs the Council’s Committee on Hospitals, cosponsored a resolution in 2018 that called on the state Legislature to pass the Safe Staffing for Quality Care Act.

The bill would set specific nurse-to-patient ratios by hospital unit, and would ensure that nurses can’t be assigned to more patients than specified.  Hospitals that break the law would be fined.

But there is no vote in sight for either the Council resolution or the state bill, which are both stuck in committee.

For many years, safe staffing legislation was met with resistance from Republicans who controlled the New York Senate.

Last week, New York Assemblymember Karines Reyes said she was confident that the Senate’s new Democratic majority would bolster the bill’s chances of passing.

“Apart from the Republican Senate’s pushback in past years, the primary obstacle posed to the legislation stems from the conflicting opinions of hospital administrators,” said Reyes, who is also a registered nurse in the Oncology Department at Montefiore Einstein Hospital. “These points of view fail to acknowledge that safe staffing is about saving lives. The legislation is paramount to the safety and outcomes of patients while not only providing adequate staffing to nurses, but to ancillary staff as well.”

While several states have laws that address nurse staffing, California is the only state that requires hospital units to maintain a minimum nurse-to-patient ratio.

Under that law – in effect since 2004 – critical care units in California must have at least one nurse for every two patients. The required nurse-to-patient ratio varies by department, with 1-to-4 for labor and delivery units and 1-to-6 for psychiatric units.

A 2010 study published by the National Institutes of Health found that mandated nurse-to-patient ratios resulted in fewer patient deaths and better morale for nurses compared to other states without similar legislation.

***
Gaspard Le Dem is a freelance journalist. On Twitter @GLD_Live.
@GothamGazette

Note: this story has been updated to change $300 million to $240 million based on corrected information provided by Zakula of NYC Hospital Alliance.



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