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A Closer Look at the Tax Incentives in the Amazon Deal


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Cuomo, de Blasio & an Amazon rep celebrate (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)


Amazon’s decision to put a corporate campus in Long Island City after a year-long, somewhat-public search for a host city and a series of incentives from New York City and State has drawn skepticism and outrage in Queens and beyond for a number of reasons.

Some activists and elected officials oppose the secretive process by which Amazon got its land, tax breaks and grant, others feel like the company isn’t a corporate entity the city and state should be welcoming because of labor, political and other practices. But all of the opponents to the Amazon deal seem to agree that that package of roughly $3 billion in incentives the trillion-dollar corporation is getting from New York is out of bounds, an inappropriate giveaway based on old economics, in the midst of both a strong overall city economy with low unemployment on one hand and affordable housing, public housing, and transportation crises on the other.

And while a look at the programs in question reveals that Amazon doesn’t appear to be getting tax incentives or breaks that wouldn’t be available to other large employers who set up shop in New York, economists and budget watchdogs suggest the outrage over the tax break package Amazon is getting presents an opportunity to reexamine New York’s use of subsidies to entice companies. (Note: there is one discretionary capital grant in the deal for roughly $500 million that is separate from the $2.5 billion in city and state tax incentives.)

Where does the money come from?
The three largest incentives Amazon is getting from New York come from three as-of-right (that is, incentives available to any company that meets the requirements) programs: the Excelsior Jobs Credit Tax Program, the Relocation and Expansion Assistance Program (REAP) and the Industrial and Commercial Abatement Program (ICAP). The latter two tax breaks are incentives established by the state government that affect the city tax rolls, while the former program affects state tax rolls.

“They’re state created, like 421-a,” John Kaehny, the Executive Director of Reinvent Albany, told Gotham Gazette about ICAP and REAP, with reference to the tax break known as 421-a that seeks to incent housing development with some affordability included. “So the New York City Department of Finance administers them, but they have to, they're made to by state law. Basically it's money that the state is directing be taken out of the city's tax revenue.”

Along with their as-of-right nature, all three programs require a company actually delivers jobs in order to take advantage of the breaks. In that sense, Amazon is no different from a hotel company or mobile phone infrastructure company or real estate company in applying for the programs. In the case of the Excelsior program, Amazon is taking advantage of a refundable tax credit equal to 6.85 percent of the total wages per new full-time job they create, and a capital investment credit equal to 2 percent of a company’s total qualified investments that result in new jobs.

For the city tax breaks, ICAP is a tax abatement program that may last up to 25 years, available to companies who undertake new commercial construction in areas outside of some exempted sections of Manhattan. It appears Amazon will be eligible for a 15-year ICAP that begins to decline in year 12. REAP is a per-job tax credit in which companies from either outside New York City or below 96th Street in Manhattan get a $3,000 per employee credit for 12 years for each employee that moves into the new office outside the REAP area.

In addition to the above programs, Amazon is also getting a cash grant from the state called an Empire State Development Capital Grant that’s potentially worth $505 million and is supposed to help defray some of the costs from building the new corporate campus. And because New York State is taking over the land where the office will be located and making it tax-exempt, Amazon will make payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs) that the city has said will be equal to the property tax bill the company would pay on the land otherwise. Half of the money from the PILOT will go to the city’s general fund, and half of it will go towards infrastructure improvements around Long Island City.

All told, the tax breaks from the jobs credit, ICAP and REAP and the capital grant could wind up adding up to $3 billion in incentives to Amazon, if the company delivers the 25,000 jobs it’s promised over the course of 10 years.

What’s the problem exactly?
In his media appearances and statements to defend the incentive package, Governor Cuomo has suggested that these kinds of tax breaks are just the cost of doing business in America. But some economists, like James Parrott, the Director of Economic and Fiscal Policies at the Center for New York Affairs, say the programs are working off of a somewhat dated economic model, especially since he found that the city gave up almost $6 billion in tax revenue in Fiscal Year 2018 thanks to a stew of incentive programs like ICAP and REAP.

The predecessors to ICAP and REAP arrived in “a different historical economic context, coming on the heels of the 1970s when there was a lot of corporate headquarters movement out of New York City,” Parrott told Gotham Gazette. “With the loss of 600,000 jobs between 1973 and 1979, it was a really difficult economic period for the city. So in the 1980s the city put in place, and ramped up its commitment to subsidize corporations to stay in New York City, to relocate to New York City and to add employment.” But these days, Parrott says the city’s economy is healthy enough to function without massive incentives.

“We're now at a point where the total employment level in New York City is 4.3 million, almost 700,000 to 800,000 higher than it's ever been before,” he said. “Arguably New York City doesn't need to do anything to subsidize new economic development investments, given the very rapid employment growth we've had in recent years.”

Though he continues to stress that his administration refuses cash grants to companies, de Blasio also continues to defend the Amazon deal, including the use of the subsidies involved, again doing both during his weekly NY1 appearance on Monday. “[W[hat we need to move towards is a society where it’s not about cities competing” over companies, the mayor told host Errol Louis. “The specific incentives were automatic and part of state law,” was also part of his defense, and he suggested that if people want to see an end to the as-of-right programs, people should debate that in the future.

Parrott said he could understand the use of the Excelsior programs upstate, given the region’s struggling economy and what he said was a better oversight process than the program’s predecessor, the extremely troubled and criticized Empire Zone program. But the entire program also has an annual cap ($183 million in 2019 and steadily decreasing to $36 million in 2024 per the Citizens Budget Commission) that will have to be raised by the state Legislature if Amazon creates all of the jobs it’s promised, leaving Parrott to wonder, “why on Earth, if you have these limited tax credit resources, you spend those in New York City? The one place in the state that that least needs economic development subsidies?”

Kaehny sees some self-promotion as a motivating factor in giving state money to Amazon, specifically on the part of the governor. “Cuomo wants to create a narrative that shows that he had some agency, that he was the one that closed this deal with Amazon, that he did something that caused this deal to happen,” Kaehny said. “If Amazon says, ‘Well we don't care about the subsidies at all, we really just wanted New York City and this terrific dynamic place with a huge job market of talented people, the kind that we want working for Amazon and we don't really need subsidies,’ well then what's Cuomo’s role in landing the deal?”

It’s an especially pertinent question according to Kaehny and others who insist that Amazon was probably going to come to New York anyway. Both before and after identifying Long Island City as one of its landing spots, Amazon officials said that the ease of recruiting tech talent was the key ingredient in their search. A request for information that Amazon sent to Somerville, Massachusetts included one question about the incentive package the city could offer, but multiple questions about quality of life and the area’s working populations.

That in turn raises the issue of where New York should actually invest, in businesses or in infrastructure, according to Jonas Shaende, the chief economist at the Fiscal Policy Institute. “Should we just give [companies] tax subsidies outright or should we invest in what makes New York so attractive and so vibrant and so great? In the things that that are the real factors in in their decision making, things like the transportation system, the affordable housing the access to to labor, to education facilities those kinds of things.”

Shaende wasn’t alone in that line of thinking, as redirecting state subsidies from corporations towards local infrastructure was a centerpiece of the Marc Molinaro and Stephanie Miner campaigns for governor.

It’s real money
Another one of the governor’s defenses of the incentive package is that New York isn’t actually paying Amazon anything at all, but rather is letting the company pay slightly less in taxes than it would otherwise. In his “op-ed” published to the governor’s official website, Cuomo writes:

“Our proposal offered that, when and if those revenues are realized, the government would effectively reduce their $1 billion payment by about $100 million for a net to New York of approximately $900 million. New York doesn't give Amazon $100 million. Amazon gives New York $900 million.”

It’s a rhetorical sleight of hand that doesn’t pass muster with any expert Gotham Gazette spoke to. “I mean, that's just fundamentally wrong because essentially all economists left, right, wherever agree that a tax abatement or tax credit is a form of expenditure by government and is rightly called a subsidy,” Kaehny said, pointing out that the Governmental Accounting Standards Board (which sets the rules for financial reporting by government entities) now has a rule that counts subsidies as expenditures.

And in the case of the capital grant Amazon is getting, the cash is very much real. “It's clearly a case where it's a budget choice [Cuomo's] making, here's $500 million in taxpayer resources we're going to give to Amazon rather than use it for something else,” Parrott said.

“[Cuomo] happens to have a reserve of resources, out of which it’s very likely that this money is going to come,” Parrott said, talking about New York settlements reached with banks who are alleged to have committed mortgage securities and other financial fraud. “Although there wasn't anything said in the memorandum of understanding with [Empire State Development] and the state and the city that said where the capital monies are going to come from, my guess is it will come out of the reserve,” he said. Cuomo has indicated he does not need legislative approval for the capital grant, but legislators, especially those opposing the deal like Queens state Senator Michael Gianaris, are exploring all their options to block or change the deal.

The Citizens Budget Commission was measured in its critique of the grant, comparing the reimbursement-style payments as better than upfront costs the state has taken on with, for instance, the $750 million solar panel plant it built in Buffalo. But CBC still criticized the ongoing lack of oversight for where the money would come from. The grant has also been criticized in multiple corners as a sop to Cuomo-friendly construction unions, with critics charging the state is essentially paying Amazon to use union labor.

And the subsidies also open New York up to the double whammy of even more companies asking for the kinds of tax breaks Amazon is set to receive while at the same time trying to provide services and pay for them in a state budget operating under the governor’s self-imposed 2 percent cap on annual spending increases.

“It’s not a fiscally responsible way of running government,” Shaende said. “It could be potentially highly problematic for the state, because the state still relies on taxes. And we have the 2 percent spending growth cap, we have all sorts of measures that that the governor adopted to show that he's running a very fiscally responsible shop. He saves money, let's say, by cutting services, by finding efficiencies, in joint services between municipalities. So he saves, you know, a couple of nickels here a couple of dimes over there, and then he just splurges like this.”

Could this spur change?
As lawmakers scramble to find a way to stop or change Amazon’s incentive package, there’s at least some hope among reformers that the publicity surrounding the deal can lead to a change in how the state and city use tax incentives. The incentives all going towards one company has already brought more attention to the ways New York uses them than their use for the Hudson Yards development, Parrott said, despite the fact that “the total cost of the Hudson Yards tax breaks rival the amount of the city and state subsidy to Amazon.”

The surrounding outrage may also give new life to the proposed subsidy tracker known as the “Database of Deals,” an idea that Reinvent Albany’s Alex Camarda pointed out “is not rocket science” in Assembly testimony for more accountability in the state’s economic development funds last year. It is a transparency measure Comptroller Tom DiNapoli has called for but Cuomo has opposed; it passed the Republican-led state Senate earlier this year, but was not given a vote in the Democrat-led Assembly.

According to Shonede, the database not only could provide transparency to what’s going on in the state, but a better template for future spending.

“As a community of experts, we need to stress some basic accountability, how many jobs we get per dollar spent, and what kind of jobs they are,” Shoende told Gotham Gazette. “And if we do that, in a consistent and serious way, a basic accounting of these efforts, it’s going to be obvious that the best way to improve the situation with income inequality, and lack of good jobs in vulnerable communities and improving the business climate have to do with what the traditional role of the government is supposed to be. And that is making sure that people are safe, that they are well prepared for the market, and that the infrastructure is such that it minimizes the business costs for the businesses that you see operate in the neighborhoods,” he said.

And so in his own way, despite resisting intensive oversight of the state’s economic development initiatives, the governor may have inadvertently dragged the state’s subsidy programs further towards daylight. “This is kind of a like peeling the onion of Albany dysfunction and scurviness in a microcosm, this deal,” said Kaehny. “Because there's all this stuff baked in here that's been going on for a long time time. But it's like for the first time people in New York City were like ‘Oh s***,’ but reality is they've been doing this for many, many years.”

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by Dave Colon, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been updated with more clear description of Amazon's eligibility for ICAP.

As Democratic Senate Becomes Reality, Unclear How Hard Assembly Majority Will Push Prior Agenda


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Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (photo via the Governor's office}


This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

As New York lurches out of election season and looks to what issues the state legislative session in 2019 could tackle, the Assembly is in an unfamiliar position as something more than a purgatory for progressive priorities. For years, the lower house of the Legislature was a place where progressive goals like criminal justice and voting reforms, the DREAM Act, the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act, the New York Health Act, and the Climate and Communities Protection Act could reliably be passed thanks to a huge Democratic majority. And every time those bills passed the Assembly, the state Senate, controlled by either Republicans or an alliance of Republicans and breakaway Democrats, would almost always keep the companion legislation in committee, far from a floor vote.

But with Democrats about to take control of the state Senate in addition to the governor’s mansion, the Assembly will in 2019 have a chance to actually see bills they’ve passed every year get a real debate in Albany. And advocates and activists are waiting expectantly for just that scenario to happen, their sense of urgency heightened in the Trump era, which led their efforts to help flip the state Senate so it is no longer a roadblock.

While the state Senate Democrats will not be in the same political universe as the outgoing Republican majority, the conference will still need to sort out its priorities, including how those of some of its tax-averse suburban and upstate members, who’ll need to win re-election in 2020, align with the city-dominated Assembly. One-party rule may not be the rubber stamp that Republicans warned it would be during the election, especially as the new state Senate majority will have to get its footing under a dominating and fairly moderate governor. Cuomo also campaigned for the newly-elected state Senators from Long Island, as well as the Hudson Valley’s Peter Harckham and Brooklyn’s Andrew Gounardes, which in theory, and his own telling, gives him some sway over them that may counteract the influence of grassroots activists who worked to elect a Democratic Senate.

By appearances, a wave of progressive legislation bursting out of Albany and washing over New York would be an expected natural occurrence. Democrats are in possession of a supermajority in the Assembly and Senate, one whose membership stretches from Suffolk County to upstate and western New York and whose new members did not shy away from embracing far-left progressive priorities like single-payer healthcare. Carl Heastie, once found to be one of the most liberal legislators in all of America, remains the Assembly Speaker, and Democrats have a 106-43 advantage in the chamber. One significant question now hanging over state government: how hard left will the Assembly push?

Their long-sought situation in the Legislature leaves progressive activists like Jonathan Westin, the executive director of economic justice organization New York Communities for Change, feeling hopeful for the session to come. “I think the Assembly has been committed to a lot of progressive legislation for a long time and we expect them to continue to do that,” Westin told Gotham Gazette. “A lot of the grassroots base is ready to push but at the same time we feel pretty confident that the Assembly is gonna go forward and pass a lot of these bills.”

In his first year as speaker, Heastie laid out a series of now-familiar priorities for the 2015 Assembly Democrats. Passing the DREAM Act, raising the state’s minimum wage, reforming the state’s rent laws in a more tenant-friendly direction. While the DREAM Act has still not come to the floor of the state Senate since a failed 2014 vote and the state’s rent stabilization laws were renewed but not drastically changed in 2015, progressives did see a victory when Cuomo prioritized and pushed through the Republican Senate a $15 minimum wage program of sorts in 2016.

Heastie used the 2018 legislative session to again push for the DREAM Act to become law, and also highlighted Assembly legislation to alter a suite of rent regulations essential to hundreds of thousands of units of affordable housing in New York City. Assembly Democrats also passed the New York Health Act, which would institute single-payer health care, for the fourth straight year in 2018, GENDA for the tenth straight year, major climate change fighting legislation (the CCPA) for the third straight year, and the Reproductive Health Act , which would codify Roe v. Wade into state law, for the fifth straight year.

What’s different about the upcoming legislative session is not only have Democrats captured the state Senate, but a good chunk of the new legislators going to Albany are staunch progressive voices who were sent to office by furious left-wing organizing both old and new.

Democrats like Zellnor Myrie and Jessica Ramos made things like major overhauls of the rent laws and repeal of the Urstadt Law, which keeps New York City from setting its own rent-stabilization laws, centerpieces of their insurgent state Senate campaigns. In the Hudson Valley, newly-elected Senators Harckham and Jen Metzger both embraced the New York Health Act as feasible and worthwhile, and DREAM Act-supporting activists from Make the Road Action, the immigrant and working class advocacy organization, helped power Long Island state Senator John Brooks and state Senator-elect Jim Gaughran to their swing-district wins.

On the other hand, there are already powerful figures in the party suggesting that long-sought leftist priorities are toxic outside of New York City, leadership in the Legislature will have to tamp down enthusiasm for any bills that might raise taxes, and Cuomo said in an interview that he thinks something like single-payer health care will get bottled up by the governing processes that separate campaign rhetoric from reality.

Incoming Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins herself said “We’re not coming in there to raise people’s taxes,” in an interview on WBAI’s Max & Murphy. But she did also lay out priorities for the conference to start, naming things like reproductive rights, the Child Victims Act, and said, “I’m sure that will be able to do something about that early on” when it comes to instituting early voting in New York.

In the Assembly, Heastie sent out a list of priorities just after the election, a mashup of specific socially liberal and more vague fiscally liberal policies that are familiar to many. Called out by name for passage are the Child Victims Act, the Reproductive Health Act, banning gun bump stocks, speedy trial reform, and electoral  and campaign finance reforms like no-fault absentee voting, closing the LLC loophole, and early voting.

But while the speaker wrote that New Yorkers “deserve a healthcare system that guarantees coverage for all,” there’s no mention of the New York Health Act or the state-run single-payer system it would create. No specifics are listed for the rent reforms while Heastie states “The Assembly Majority is ready to pass legislation to extend and strengthen programs that protect low and middle income tenants to keep them from being priced out of their homes and communities,” (though Heastie reportedly told a pair of real estate representatives at the Somos conference that vacancy decontrol and preferential rent are history) and the DREAM Act is nowhere to be found, nor a mention of any environmental policy (though that isn’t a total aberration). Heastie's office declined an interview request, pointing Gotham Gazette to the speaker's post-election missive.

And even though some of the more famous liberal priorities aren’t mentioned by name, the focus on electoral reform appears to be a place where the base and the Assembly line up perfectly, with the upcoming Senate majority and Cuomo apparently in the same mindset, too, though the details will need to be hammered out.

Working Families Party political director Bill Lipton told Gotham Gazette that he doesn’t expect the Assembly’s “long, progressive history” to change under Carl Heastie and a new Albany order, and that he’s happy to see people willing to tackle electoral issues.

“We can't repair the damage unless we face head on the contradiction of financing election campaigns with wealthy donors who want tax cuts, contracts and loopholes for themselves,” Lipton wrote to Gotham Gazette in a statement. “The result both nationally and here in New York has been disastrous,” Lipton wrote, while highlighting a small-donor matching funds program that he hopes the state institutes now that there’s a Democratic trifecta. Campaign finance reform is something Cuomo has long-pledged support for, not moved through the Republican Senate, and promised to deliver with a fully Democratic Legislature.

Westin also endorsed a starting focus on electoral reform: “the one thing that's been in common in New York is the influence of real estate money and we have to clean it up once and for all. Carl and the Assembly have a real opportunity to do that, and I think is one of the biggest things that needs to happen quickly,” he said.

agenda19v2 aThere is some reason for progressives to have concerns in the Assembly though, according to Sean McElwee, the co-founder of progressive think tank Data for Progress. While McElwee pointed to the progressive wave that elected a large piece of the Democrats’ state Senate majority, that energetic mandate wasn’t seen in Assembly elections. “In the Assembly you've basically had a bunch of Democrats who were like the [Republican] House of Representatives under Obama. They kept passing an Obamacare repeal, and once it was time to pass it for real, there were some cold feet. I worry about that dynamic with the Assembly. When I've talked to the New York Renews coalition about the CCPA, they've said silently, ‘Yeah we're gonna have real problems in the Assembly when it comes time to pass this,’ and the same for Medicare for All advocates.”

It’s not an out-of-hand fear for progressives, who can look to neighboring New Jersey and the fact that legislators backed away from pledges to tax the rich and didn’t get a slam dunk on legalizing recreational marijuana despite Democrats having total control of the government.

But those activists who powered the anti-IDC candidates and Long Island Democrats to victories aren’t planning on sitting on their hands. “We may see some Assemblypeople who previously voted for some things be hesitant about putting their votes behind them,” Mia Pearlman, the co-founder of progressive grassroots organization True Blue New York, told Gotham Gazette. “So if it comes to that, we fully plan to be lobbying in Albany and on the ground in the district of any elected representative who we feel can be swayed, needs to be swayed, needs support, needs pressure to vote for legislation that we're supporting.” Pearlman did say that even though there might be some hesitant members, she felt that there were also plenty of members of the Assembly who were ready to get to work on passing the bills that had died in the Senate in past years.

While Pearlman echoed the call to tackle an issue like electoral reform early on, she also said she and her allies very much expect the Assembly to make reasonable progress on the other bills that have been stymied in previous years. On something like the New York Health Act, for instance, she said that while the bill doesn’t have to be passed for the sake of being passed, she wants to see an actual debate move forward on it to find the best way possible to provide universal comprehensive healthcare coverage, a line of thinking that aligned with Harckham’s call for hearings and passing a bill by the end of his first two-year term.

“The idea that it's somehow a victory for the Assembly to have such a big majority solely so they can say ‘Yay we have a majority’ is sort of absurd,” Pearlman said. “The purpose of having a big majority is to actually do something with it, to pass legislation, not just pat ourselves on the back and say ‘Look how many members we have.’ So we expect after all these years of waiting that they'll use that majority to write legislation and get things done.”

The Assembly could, in theory, pass the existing version of all of the bottled up left-leaning bills that haven’t made it out of the state Senate for years, and put the onus on the new Senate, as well as the governor. But it seems needlessly adversarial for the Assembly to get off on that kind of footing with a more ideologically similar Senate conference, which in all likelihood they’ll need in negotiations with a governor more prone to triangulation, political centrism, and describing his progressive opponents as “dreamers not doers” than he’s known for bold leftism.

The new situation in Albany is also an opportunity for government to work differently, Pearlman suggested, opening things up and making it more transparent, especially during the budget season. “We don't have to have three men in a room or two men and a woman in the room, that is not written in our state constitution that the budget has to be written at the last possible minute behind closed doors,” Pearlman said. “What we're hoping is that the conference leaders will look at the process of how things are done in Albany and demand they're done in a more transparent and more equitable and better way.”

At the moment though, Stewart-Cousins doesn’t seem keen on blowing up the process, as she told Max & Murphy, “I’m interested to see how this thing really works as well. I’m sure I’ll have a lot of opinions once I’ve actually been part of it,” in response to whether she plans to make the budget process more transparent.

Cuomo also campaigned on keeping state spending tethered to the (somewhat rhetorical) two percent cap he instituted during his first term, and has flatly said an additional tax on high-earners to raise revenue for the MTA will not be happening, even speaking for the Legislature before the next session has started. So as for what might make it through the budget, McElwee said he predicts progressives can get “one big budget-buster” through the process each year, and if he had to play favorites, he’d pick the Climate and Communities Protection Act. “For me and I think a lot of millennials, climate change is the biggest existential threat we change. And I think a policy that can mitigate that while also creating jobs and infrastructure would be a sort of progressive model for the county,” he said.

But ultimately, progressive activists say they aren’t taking anything for granted, even as people talk about the Democratic majority in the state Senate as a permanent one. “Politics is all about waves and momentum, and if you don't capitalize on the momentum you never know where you're gonna end up in the future,” Westin told Gotham Gazette. “I think our belief is we need to pass all the priorities this cycle, as you see even on the federal level and clearly in the state too, you never know what the next configuration is going to look like, and we don't want to waste this opportunity.”

This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

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by Dave Colon, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Max & Murphy Podcast: Congestion Pricing & the MTA in 2019


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


November 21, 2018 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Congestion Pricing & the MTA - Looking Ahead to 2019

This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

alex m dana rubenstein wbaiAlex Matthiessen of Move New York joined the show to discuss congestion pricing -- the policy details, political landscape and prospects for passage in 2019 -- and Dana Rubinstein of Politico New York joined the show to discuss the MTA -- subway service, leadership, and funding.

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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This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Agenda 2019: Long List of Transit Questions Starts with Saving the Subways


gov an cuomo littering

Gov. Cuomo on the tracks (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)


This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

2019 will be a pivotal year for New York City transportation, unlike any this city has seen in decades. Not only is there near-universal agreement that the city’s transportation landscape, from the subways to the buses to the traffic and everything in between, is fundamentally broken, there is also a growing consensus on many of the steps needed to fix it, starting with—but by no means limited to—congestion pricing.

The problems start, of course, with the subways. For the first time in a generation, there is a leader at the MTA, New York City Transit President Andy Byford, that activists, politicians, and the riding public believe in. And he’s getting results, at least enough of them to instill confidence in new-found competence. On-time subway performance has been steadily rising since a low of 58.1 percent in January to 70.3 percent in October. Overall delays are also trending in the right direction. The $836 million Subway Action Plan work has mostly been done, which also seems to have had an effect in reducing the number of “Major Incidents” that snarl commutes.

Byford and his management team are always quick to admit there’s still much more work to do, but his efforts to improve “the basics” by reducing train dwell times, making sure all of the safety equipment in the system works properly so trains can go as fast as safely possible, and other “safe seconds” initiatives appear to be paying off.

On top of that, the state Legislature, which has final say on many of the key issues facing the city’s transportation landscape, turned solidly Democratic in November, opening the door to changes that may otherwise have been off the table. Some legislators at least appear eager to tackle the transportation issue head-on. Plus, Corey Johnson, the City Council speaker, has made transportation a key tentpole issue of his early tenure by passing a temporary Uber/Lyft cap and the Fair Fares program for discounted MetroCards. In many ways, the stars are very much aligned.

But the challenges are just as monumental as the opportunities. The MTA has a precarious financial situation, ridership is declining, and some miscalculations now such as cutting service or raising fares too high could have dire consequences. Congestion pricing still has its detractors, particularly in the outer boroughs who, reasonably, want commitments to better bus service in exchange. They need to be convinced. The city’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, is still curiously indifferent to all things transit with the exception of his beloved ferries, a tiny, heavily-subsidized slice of the overall pie, and his still-far-off BQX streetcar.

And the single most important person in this conversation, Governor Andrew Cuomo, has been too selective regarding what MTA issues he’s interested in and when, resulting in a revolving door of MTA leaders, whom Cuomo appoints. The agency needs a consistent, dedicated head who can team with Byford for long-term fixes. Cuomo will soon nominate someone for the position after Joe Lhota’s departure.

A year from now, we’ll probably have a pretty good idea of what the future of the city’s transportation will look like. Perhaps decades from now, New Yorkers will look back on 2019 as the year the tide finally turned towards real fixes for the beleaguered transit picture, with a reliable subway system, buses that move, and other essentials. Or, despite the crises and challenges New York faces, maybe it will be perceived as a missed opportunity.

The L Train Shutdown
Believe it or not, the L train shutdown, that dark specter of fear and misery looming in the distance for years, is finally upon us. Starting on April 27, the L train will run at a reduced frequency and only in Brooklyn, diverting almost 300,000 riders per day. The MTA and NYC DOT have created an elaborate mitigation plan they claim can accommodate every rider. The agencies anticipate four out of every five displaced L riders will use other subway routes (most notably the J, M, Z, G, 7, E, A, and C) and the rest will use some combination of special bus services across the Williamsburg Bridge, ferries, or bikes; 14th Street will become a busway for most of each day and the Williamsburg Bridge will be HOV-3 to accommodate all those buses.

But there is simply no way to have hundreds of thousands of commuters change their habits all at once in an orderly fashion. The big question, then, is how the MTA and DOT adapt.

“We'll be watching closely to see whether the MTA and DOT can work together to adapt to real-world transportation needs on the ground,” said Hayley Richardson of TransitCenter. Some of the adjustments they’ll keep an eye on: will the HOV-3 window on the bridge, from 5 AM to 10 PM, be sufficient? Will HOV-3 in general be restrictive enough, given that their modeling largely uses assumptions from crises before Uber and Lyft had shared-ride options and thus could easily meet the HOV-3 restriction? Perhaps they’ll need to institute pop-up bus lanes created with standard issue road cones.

Another looming question is whether the HOV-3 restriction and bus lanes will be properly enforced. Given the volume of buses the MTA expects to run across the bridge and 14th Street—one or two buses per minute in some cases—even one blocked bus lane could be catastrophic during peak hours. It’s up to the NYPD to enforce it, and there has been little indication that the department prioritizes such work.

Whatever the case, riders—whether former L commuters or those on the lines that will be swamped with more passengers—are going to be dealing with a lot of changes. Will the MTA be able to communicate effectively? It, too, has left a lot to be desired in that department.

There’s a lot riding on the MTA and the city to get this right. Aside from the obvious need to get people where they need to go, it is a huge opportunity for the MTA to show riders it is improving, deserves more taxpayer and rider money, and will use it wisely because it is a competent, efficient organization. Because, well, the MTA is going to be asking for a lot of money.

Sorting Out the MTA’s Budget Mess
Earlier this month, MTA Chief Financial Officer Bob Foran presented a sobering financial picture to the MTA Board. In short, the MTA projects a $991 million deficit by 2022 even with biennial fare and toll increases. Foran argued the MTA needs a new, recurring revenue stream in order to balance the budget beyond 2020. And this is just the MTA’s costs of providing day-to-day service; the next five-year capital plan—which would include Byford’s Fast Forward Plan to revitalize New York City Transit, plus the needs of LIRR and Metro-North—is estimated to cost around $60 billion, or nearly double the current capital plan. Who will pay for it and how is the single biggest question facing New York City transportation this year.

For his part, Cuomo has been consistent on one MTA issue: he wants the city to pay more. He wanted the city to pay more in 2015 towards the current capital plan, he forced the city's hand into paying half of the Subway Action Plan, and he regularly pledges—and had suburban state Senators sign on—to make the city pay its “fair share” going forward.

Before Lhota resigned as MTA chair earlier this month, he stated the Board would not take a position regarding preferred revenue streams until the MTA Sustainability Advisory Working Group, created by this year’s state budget, issues its report on this topic, which is expected by the end of the year. That report will likely set the tone for discussions in Albany once the new legislative session begins in January, which is largely dictated by the governor’s State of the State address and Executive Budget presentation.

In the meantime, Governor Cuomo declared on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show on Monday that “the MTA is going to be a top priority for me this year” and that he favors congestion pricing as the additional revenue stream in need.

Congestion pricing, which would charge drivers who enter Manhattan’s Central Business District, will accomplish far more than give the MTA additional money (perhaps more than $1 billion per year depending on what the exact model looks like). It will also address one of New York’s other major transportation issues: traffic. According to the FixNYC panel convened by the governor last year to study congestion pricing, vehicles in the Central Business District moved at a mere 6.8 miles per hour in 2016, and only 4.7 miles per hour—a brisk walking pace—in the “Midtown Core.” By reducing the number of vehicles in Manhattan, congestion pricing would help speed things up.

Because of the MTA’s dire financial outlook and Manhattan’s desperate need for traffic relief, congestion pricing is a two-birds-one-stone type deal. Combined with a revamped state Legislature more amenable to congestion pricing, there’s a growing consensus it will pass this coming session.

“We certainly expect to see congestion pricing done this year in the budget process,” Tri-State Transportation Campaign executive director Nick Sifuentes predicted, before adding “and we also know additional resources of funding will be necessary if we’re going to see Fast Forward fully funded.” What those additional revenue sources might be is a question the MTA Sustainability Advisory Working Group will presumably address.

MTA Cost Control
But that’s just the revenue side of the equation. The MTA also has a highly-publicized cost control issue, spending orders of magnitude more on big projects than comparable cities. It’s a problem Cuomo has finally vowed to tackle. “There is inefficiency that goes on at the MTA that has to end,” he told Lehrer. Easier said than done, especially for a governor who has been extremely tight with the Transportation Workers Union and taken little apparent interest in how MTA contracting is managed.

While the MTA has said that tackling high capital costs is a key goal for almost a year now, there has so far been very little payoff. Presentations by the MTA Board’s procurement and cost containment task forces in June have been the only public-facing initiatives within the authority to keep the ball moving forward. Nor has there been any transparency on why, exactly, the Fast Forward Plan will cost $40 billion, how that number was arrived at, or whether the cost can be lowered by prioritizing some initiatives over others.

The MTA will also be re-negotiating its biggest labor contract with TWU Local 100 and its more than 40,000 members, whose contract expires in May. Payroll, health care, and pensions account for more than half of the MTA’s $16.7 billion 2019 budget.

The main question is to what degree lawmakers will push the cost control issue when determining new revenue streams in the upcoming state budget. Will they insist on rigid cost containment guards to make sure the money is spent wisely? Or will they throw a bunch of money at the MTA and hope the problem doesn’t present its ugly head again until they’re long gone from office?

The latter approach may be the more cynical one, but it’s also the historically preferred one in Albany. Nevertheless, Assemblywoman Amy Paulin has already vowed to break form and “conduct [a] rigorous, public oversight during the legislative session” on the MTA. Danny Pearlstein of the Riders Alliance expects lawmakers this time around to take a more active approach in ensuring the MTA is doing something about outsized construction costs. “Lawmakers and fare, toll, and taxpayers want to know that the money they raise and set aside for transit will be used efficiently and responsibly,’ Pearlstein said. “Ramping up toward the next MTA capital plan, look for the authority to articulate and implement new cost control measures.”

Get Buses Moving Again
For all the talk of fixing the subway for tens of billions of dollars, fixing the city’s bus service—which serves almost two million riders a day but has seen ridership plummet by almost 10 percent since 2012—is a relatively cheap and easy proposition by comparison. Instead of a matter of dollars, it’s largely a matter of will.

Congestion pricing would likely help speed up bus service in some parts of Manhattan, but more needs to be done to make bus service throughout the five boroughs an attractive option, say both Sifuentes and Pearlstein, whose organizations have partnered with other advocacy groups to form the Bus Turnaround Coalition. The coalition calls for, among other measures, redesigning the city’s bus routes, which in many cases have not been touched in decades. The MTA just finished redesigning Staten Island’s express bus network and plans to tackle the Bronx next.

But it’s not just an MTA problem. The roads and traffic signals are controlled by the city DOT and monitored by the NYPD, and thus far Mayor de Blasio has not made speeding up bus service a priority—or even a topic—of his administration’s efforts. “The city (DOT) really needs to step up its commitment on buses,” Sifuentes urged, which he says ought to include more bus lanes and more robust and expanded transit signal priority, which gives buses as many green lights as possible.

There is something Albany can do, which is probably the most important thing to speed up buses. Both Pearlstein and Sifuentes plan to pressure the state Legislature to drastically expand the use of camera enforcement for bus lanes rather than relying on the NYPD to write tickets. For his part, Byford wants those cameras mounted on the front of buses, ensuring anyone who blocks a bus lane gets a ticket regardless of whether or not there’s a cop nearby.

agenda19v2 aNew Fare Payment System
The Bus Turnaround Coalition also calls for all-door boarding to speed up loading times, which can only be done with a new fare payment system. Luckily, the MTA is mere months from introducing this.

Starting in May, riders will be able to use contactless payment such as Apple Pay, Google Pay, or contactless-enabled credit cards that Chase and Visa will be rolling out in the coming months, to pay their fare on the 4/5 subway line between Grand Central and Atlantic Ave/Barclays as well as Staten Island express buses. The MTA plans to roll out contactless payments to every other bus and subway station by October 2020. By the time MetroCards are no longer accepted in 2023, riders who don’t have credit cards or smartphones will be able to purchase NFC-enabled transit cards like the ones in Chicago, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, London, and pretty much every other major city from new station vending machines and local stores.

This new payment system will not only make bus boarding faster if implemented properly, it can also accommodate a more sensible fare structure that eliminates the need to face the existential question of adding value or adding time. This model, known as fare-capping, means people pay per-ride until they hit a pre-determined maximum for a period of time, perhaps a day, week, or month, at which point each additional ride is free for that time period. This ensures nobody pays more than the “unlimited” amount and further incentivizes folks to use public transportation no matter how many trips they plan to make.

Although fare-capping can’t happen until every subway station and bus has the new fare payment system in 2020, the 4/5 line rollout will be something to watch next year, particularly in concert with the city’s Fair Fares program that gives half-priced MetroCards to low-income New Yorkers. Going forward, contactless payments would make implementing that system simpler and cheaper. Although it’s not getting nearly as much attention, the New Fare Payment System may well be the most transformative change for the city’s transportation next year.

Other Important Transportation Issues on the Table, But with Less for 2019
-With the House flipping Democratic, there is slightly more reason for optimism that something—anything—might develop in securing funding for the $30 billion Gateway project, although President Trump would have to renege on his vow to veto any federal funding for the project. It would be nice if they also found ways to reduce that price tag, too.

-2019 will likely see a series of “announcements” by Cuomo about progress on Penn Station’s redevelopment, but none of the major renovation projects such as the Moynihan extension are scheduled to be completed until 2020.

-Placard abuse continues to run rampant throughout the city, with little attention from Mayor de Blasio, who has repeatedly vowed to crack down on the widespread practice and repeatedly failed to do so. Reining in this overtly corrupt practice would do wonders for city streets, but there’s no reason at this point to believe 2019 will be any different than previous years.

-Returning to Fair Fares, which is designed to provide half-price MetroCards to low-income New Yorkers, the program is set to begin in 2019. It’s widely seen as a major step forward for the city, but some questions linger, such as how smoothly the implementation will go and whether there will be an option for single-ride Fair Fares down the road, since the initial program will be limited to seven-day and 30-day passes, an issue advocates and some elected officials have said needs to be solved.

-For Long Island commuters, two massive improvements are on the distant horizon—East Side Access and Third Track—but both are still years away, with scheduled completion dates of December 2022. Again, progress worth monitoring along with and aside from inevitable Cuomo “announcements.”

-That point also applies to LaGuardia Airport, which will still be a lot of trouble in 2019 and probably for much beyond, too. Terminal B, the center of the new design, won’t open until 2020 and Concourse A won’t be done until 2022, but work is ongoing the governor will be there.

-And the city’s much-maligned streetcar project, the BQX, is still technically alive despite needing $1 billion in federal funding to become a reality, according to city officials who have changed their tune on funding since de Blasio announced the BQX in 2016. Don’t expect much if anything to change in 2019, as the Friends of the BQX’s own timeline says the city won’t complete its Environmental Impact Statement process until September 2020.

This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

***
Aaron Gordon is a freelance journalist and founder of Signal Problems, a weekly newsletter about the subway. On Twitter @A_W_Gordon

Assemblymember Walker, Sponsor of Bail Reform Bill, Optimistic About 2019


assembly sponsor bail

Assemblymember Latrice Walker (photo: Kevin Coughlin/Governor's Office)


This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

Assemblymember Latrice Walker, a Brooklyn Democrat, has been pushing for criminal justice reform in New York, and believes that 2019 will hold long-sought progress. Among the several pieces of legislation introduced in the Democrat-dominated Assembly that address criminal justice reform, one of the most significant proposals is Walker’s bail reform bill, which passed the Assembly in June but did not move in the Republican-controlled state Senate.

With Democrats having taken the majority in the state Senate through this month’s elections, next year could bring sweeping changes to the criminal justice system in New York, with bail reform atop the priorities for many elected officials, advocates, and others, including Walker, soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, and Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat entering his third term. The two legislative majorities and governor will have to work out the details of any reforms, of course, and there are different bail reform proposals.

The need for such reform is evident in Walker’s district, she explains. Representing neighborhoods such as Brownsville and Ocean Hill, Walker, a Brownsville native herself, has seen the current system’s effects first-hand. During a recent appearance on the Max & Murphy show on WBAI radio, Walker explained the “billion-dollar blocks” in her district, which is home to significant poverty, and elsewhere, as areas from which many people have gone to jail or prison, with government spending totaling billions of dollars to detain those people. It’s a way of both pointing out the high costs of mass incarceration and the lack of investment in those same communities for helping people escape poverty and related problems.

Walker believes the current criminal justice system is based around punishing people, and that bail should not be part of that picture, but one area for reform that can then stop feeding the larger problem.

“Bail is supposed to just ensure a person’s return to court. We know that the constitution declares that it’s not supposed to be cruel, unusual, and it’s not supposed to be punishment. And I think that that’s the term that many people forget about New York’s bail system,” Walker said. She’s observed that there has been a rubric of sorts set up in courts where there is more focus on the type of crime allegedly committed, the individual, and the neighborhood in which they live, to determine whether a person is required to post bail.

With her proposal, Walker aims to make the system what it was supposed to be, she says. “It bewilders me when I see attorneys, judges and the like say to me, even across the state of New York, ‘well there has to be some system or something put in place that will ensure that bad people don’t get put back into the streets,’ but that’s not what bail is about, and that’s what I’m here to defend.”

Of course there are certain alleged crimes where the defendant should either have conditions put on their release or not be released at all, argue Walker and others pushing for bail reform, especially major changes or an end to cash bail, but there are many, many others where bail has simply become a punishment of poverty, leading many poor people to spend time in jail for lower-level offenses.

“The bail bill that I introduced allows for an automatic release on a person’s own recognizance in certain situations where their violations, misdemeanors -- other than sex offense misdemeanors, non-violent felonies, and two categories of violent felonies,” Walker explained. A person is not released on their own recognizance if they’ve committed sex offense misdemeanors or most violent felonies. However, the two categories of violent felonies the bill does exempt are burglary or robbery in the second degree, as well as falsely reporting an incident in the second degree.

Walker’s proposal was developed by looking at bail “in the context of speedy trial” and “discovery reform,” she said, which are two other major categories of criminal justice reform Democrats pledge to pursue in Albany next year, where state Senate Republicans had largely disagreed with the bills put forth by Assembly majority and Senate minority Democrats.

The bill would also allow for a defendant to be released on non-monetary conditions but with court-ordered monitoring. Depending on what the court decides, the defendant could be monitored by a pre-trial services agency, the imposition of travel restrictions, and as mentioned by Walker on WBAI, through the use of electronic monitoring systems.

In the cases such as violent felonies, sex offense misdemeanors, and situations where the person released on recognizance or under non-monetary conditions fails to follow through with the conditions of their release, monetary bail can be set. In cases where a person is charged with sex offense felonies, terrorism crimes, class A felonies, witness intimidation, or felonies involving intent to causes injury or death, monetary bail may also be set, though remand without bail (no pre-trial release at all) is also an option.

Cagenda19v2 aourt-ordered electronic location monitoring would be applicable to defendants when "no other realistic conditions (would) suffice to reasonably assure the defendant's return to court" or when they are charged with a felony, misdemeanor domestic violence, a misdemeanor sex offense, or other crimes outlined in the bill.

Walker recognizes that there are opponents of her plan to her right and her left, and says she’s taken into account the concerns some may have with parts of her proposal. The non-monetary condition situation, as she put it, brings about the question of whether mass incarceration is going to be allowed to be replaced by mass surveillance.

“I wanted to be able to protect that because this new electric monetary system is a new iteration of the billion dollar blocks. Now instead of incarcerating people, you’re got everyone in the ankle bracelets,” said Walker. The widespread use of ankle bracelets is a secondary set-up that Walker said “sets up a system that we’re trying to do away with.”

There have been other versions of bail reform introduced in the Assembly, one of them by Assemblymember Daniel O’Donnell of Manhattan. When asked if there are any significant differences between the two versions of bail reform, Walker highlighted only one.

“In my bill, where a person is still required to be remanded in pre-trial jail, you have discovery reform procedures that kick into play. There is a certain number of time, I believe it’s five days, by which the defense is able to request of the prosecution a discovery evidence or any evidence that might lead to that person being acquitted at the end of a trial,” she explained. This component of her plan gives the person being charged with a crime other mechanisms to “put forth a formidable defense.”

According to the listing of Walker’s bill in the Assembly legislation database, the purpose of the bill is to significantly amend “New York's antiquated cash bail system” for the first in “nearly fifty years.”

“This legislation would move our state toward a more intelligent, individualized system of pre-trial release, monitoring and, when necessary, detention,” the bill states. “The bill is designed to end the current, reflexive overreliance on monetary bail, which each year results in the unnecessary and expensive pre-trial jailing of thousands of persons simply because they cannot afford a modest sum as collateral.”

The Assembly passed Walker’s bill in June as part of a broader criminal justice reform package. O’Donnell’s bill, known as the "bail elimination act of 2018," would fully eliminate the use of cash bail while also ensuring “provisions for pretrial detention,” but has not been voted on in the Assembly.

However, O’Donnell’s bill does have a “same-as” bill in the Senate, whereas Walker’s does not. That may well change come January when the new Legislature begins its work.

Walker said she remains “blindly optimistic,” though she is aware that there are other things that may take priority when the new legislative session begins and Democrats in control of the legislative and executive branches start getting to a long agenda, and that Democrats are not a “monolithic body.”

“I anticipate that bail reform, and criminal justice reform will remain an in-vogue topic,” she said.

[Listen to the full conversation: Assemblymember Latrice Walker on Max & Murphy Nov. 14 2018] 

This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

***
by Annie Abreu, Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette

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Andrea Stewart-Cousins on Taking the Senate Reins, the Democratic Agenda & Getting Inside 'The Room'


stewart cousins senate

Andrea Stewart-Cousins (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo)


This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

After the election results from earlier this month, Andrea Stewart-Cousins is set to become majority leader of the state Senate and, beginning in January, to preside over the chamber as it works with Democrats in charge of the Assembly and Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat headed into his third term, to address a long-delayed liberal agenda. Stewart-Cousins, who represents parts of Westchester, will become the first woman and first woman of color to lead a legislative chamber in New York.

Appearing on the Max & Murphy program on WBAI radio, Stewart-Cousins discussed her approach to leading the Senate, outlined a few priorities for the upcoming session, explained some ways in which Democrats will differ from Republican who have led the upper chamber, and commented on becoming one of three people who will be in “the room,” ultimately making major decisions about the state budget and legislation along with Cuomo and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.

When asked, Stewart-Cousins mostly demurred about what issues would be at the top of the Senate agenda, saying that, especially with 15 new members in her roughly 40-member majority conference, senators would first need to meet and discuss how they will approach the upcoming legislative session.

“I have avoided that ‘my first hundred days will look like this’ and ‘this is the batting order,’” Stewart-Cousins said, repeating the terms of the question from one of the hosts. “Because I think the first and foremost thing we’re going to do is [create] the type of conference and senators that people have frankly been voting for again and again and not been getting.”

However, some policies she did mention were those that had already been set as first-order-of-business and seemingly non-controversial among virtually all Democrats: early voting, the Child Victims Act, and the Reproductive Health Act. These are among many policies Stewart-Cousins said “have not been able to move under Republican leadership for so many years” that Democrats plan to get to.

Stewart-Cousins noted that she has faith in the new members of the Senate, some of whom are part of a younger and more progressive movement that successfully claimed many of the seats formerly held by members of the Independent Democratic Conference, a breakaway group that had formed a coalition with the Republicans, at times giving them the seats for a majority. While these new members certainly won’t cut deals with Republicans, they still may not be on the same page with more senior members of the body, perhaps pushing for different, more progressive priorities like single-payer health care.

“We have 15 brand new members and we have to make sure everyone is up to speed,” Stewart-Cousins said. “I am so impressed with every single one of them that I have no doubt that the leadership they will provide, along with my current members, will be absolutely outstanding.”

Stewart-Cousins was also hesitant to name specifics when asked what legislation she sees as being tougher to pass, suggesting with a laugh that there could be conflict about anything and everything.

“I almost want to say all of the above because, you know, we’re Democrats,” she said with a chuckle. “I think everyone agrees on the outcomes we want, it’s just how to get there.”

Stewart-Cousins stressed her belief that Democratic takeover of the Senate is a major step forward for the state, as rather than having to debate over why policies that, for example, raise the minimum wage or ensure access to quality affordable healthcare, are necessary, the new Democrat supermajority will only have to decide on how to best design said policies.

“We’re not starting at convincing people that these things are important,” she said. “Now we’re starting a conversation where we understand [what] the objectives are.”

“Guess what, we’ll have a conference that is willing to acknowledge climate change and therefore, work towards ensuring our planet’s future,” she continued.

agenda19v2 aWhile expectations are high about addressing climate change, criminal justice reform, gun control, voting and campaign finance reform, tightening rent regulations, and more, there have been concerns that if Democrats were to flip the Senate and full control of state government that taxes would go up in order for the new regime to pay for all its new programs. But, during the campaign and since, Stewart-Cousins and others in her incoming majority have said they have no plans to raise taxes, an approach in line with Cuomo’s, but not necessarily Assembly Democrats.

Asked on Max & Murphy if she is indeed committed to not raising taxes, Stewart-Cousins reiterated her stance, and pointed to the federal tax reforms passed in late 2017 that are likely to negatively affect many New Yorkers due to the new cap and local and state deductions from federal tax obligations.

“We are not coming in there to raise people’s taxes,” Stewart-Cousins said. “We understand that New York is a big state and we understand that we need to make sure that it is affordable. I’m personally concerned about the impact of this federal tax bill on the New York taxpayers, and I think most people in our position are.”

Taxpayers will find out if Democrats stay true to their promise in their first big test: the next state budget, which Stewart-Cousins and her conference will have significant influence on, as the new Senate majority leader negotiates with Cuomo and Heastie. As the first woman to lead a legislative majority, she will be entering that negotiating room that has been male-dominated. When asked what that may mean, Stewart-Cousins said it shows progress made and more to do.

“I think it means that people see that once again another glass ceiling, marble ceiling, whatever you want to call it, has been broken,” she said. “We make certain assumptions about how far we’ve come, and we have in many ways, but I think everyday we’re also being reminded that there is more ground that has to be covered more ceilings to break.”

When asked if she has any plans on how to change the backroom process that often leads to major budget and legislative agreements that are voted on with virtually no public review, Stewart-Cousins said she couldn’t yet say.

“It’d be impossible to say, because I’ve never been in it,” she said, pausing to laugh. “I’m interested to see how this thing really works as well. I’m sure I’ll have a lot of opinions once I’ve actually been part of it.”

When it comes to those outside the Democratic conference, Stewart-Cousins said that she has not spoken to any Republicans who want to switch conferences, but would be happy to meet with Senator Simcha Felder, a Democrat who previously gave Republicans a one-seat majority in the Senate, about his role in the upcoming session. She said Felder had reached out and they would set something up, though he is not expected to command any special perks as he had from Republicans for helping give them the majority.

Of the former IDC members who kept their seats, Senators Diane Savino and David Carlucci, Stewart-Cousins said they have been and continue to be part of the Democratic conference, which they returned to in an April deal reached by Governor Andrew Cuomo.

[Listen to the full conversation: Soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins on Max & Murphy Nov. 14, 2018]

This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

***
by Victor Porcelli, Gotham Gazette

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What's the [DATA] Point? 1981, New York's Property Tax System


whats the data point


What's The [Data] Point? Episode 59 - 1981 [You can download What's The [Data] Point? wherever you get your podcasts, including on iTunes]

tempsnip

The data point for today is 1981, the year in which the State Legislature enacted S7000A, the landmark bill that formalized the current property tax system for New York City. A response to the Hellerstein case, which found the system was in violation of State law, S7000A essentially codified the status quo.

In doing so, it established a system of property classification, fractional assessments, caps, phase-ins, and class shares that is still with us 37 years later. These structural features and statutory requirements are the root of the system’s inequities and complexities. A home worth $500,000 can face the same tax bill as a home worth $1.5 million, while the value of a condominium unit, according to the City, is a fraction of its sale price. In fact, some buildings have values that are below the sale price of individual units. And commercial and rental property faces a higher average property tax burden than 1-, 2- and 3-family homes.

These inequities and problems have led to repeated calls for reform, including pending litigation. This past May, Mayor de Blasio and Speaker Johnson formed the Advisory Commission on Property Tax Reform. In September, the Citizens Budget Commission, the Regional Plan Association, and NYC Robert Wagner School of Public Service held a panel to discuss the problem, inequities and potential reforms

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

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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Assembly Committee Examines Election Administration, Eyes Voting Reforms in 2019


voting booths

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


Come January, Democrats will control both houses of the New York state Legislature and the governor’s office, and they have declared that after years of being stymied by state Senate Republicans, voting reform will be at the top of the 2019 agenda. But even before that new governing reality comes to fruition, Assembly Democrats, already in the majority by a wide margin, examined both voting administration and the broader laws at play during a hearing on Thursday in Manhattan.

Though with looming new political dynamics as a backdrop, the Assembly Election Law Committee and Election Day & Voter Disenfranchisement Subcommittee held what is a typical post-election hearing to discuss how to improve voting in New York, where for years the state has had some of the most regressive laws in the nation. The legislators present and those testifying focused specifically on early voting and no-excuse absentee voting as key reforms on the table, but often deviated towards criticism of the state’s entire election structure, with accompanying calls for comprehensive reform.

New York is one of only a small number of states that does not have early voting or no-excuse absentee voting, and has the strictest party registration deadline in the country. There appears to be unanimity among Democrats about moving ahead with early voting. And while research on whether it improves turnout is mixed, it would likely foster a more diverse group of voters, who would not have to take off work to vote, and would allow election administrators to diagnose and correct problems, such as the two-page ballots that led to problems at the polls in New York City last week, at an early stage in the process.

“People working multiple jobs, people in the gig economy or with unsteady work, are often forced to choose between selecting their representatives in government and making a living,” said Ethan Geringer-Sameth, of government reform group Citizens Union, in testimony to the committee. “For many New Yorkers, early voting and no-excuse absentee ballots would provide the first real opportunities to vote.”

New York’s voting laws once again came to the forefront on Election Day, when issues at the polls led to long lines and numerous people leaving before voting. The fiasco renewed calls for reforms, particularly early voting, which some argue could have made a significant impact, as well as better election administration through professionalizing the city Board of Elections.

“Early voting would have also mitigated the impact of broken scanners and its cascading effect of long lines, overcrowded poll sites, and compromised ballot security and privacy,” said Alex Camarda of Reinvent Albany, another good government group. “By holding voting on days other than Election Day, voters are distributed across many days and volume is reduced on Election Day. The Board can troubleshoot problems in advance before Election Day.”

The Assembly has on numerous occasions passed voting reforms such as one week of early voting, and Governor Andrew Cuomo included a two-week early voting period in his budget proposal last year, but efforts have annually been stopped by the Republican-controlled State Senate.

With control of the Senate turning over to Democrats based on last week’s election results, early voting appears poised to become reality in the state. Committee Chair Charles Lavine said, given the new dynamics of state government, the Legislature has a “unique opportunity to enact meaningful reforms,” including early voting and no-excuse absentee voting.

Two commissioners and two executive directors of the State Board of Elections testified on Thursday, and all adopted a reformist tone, though the Board is not known as particularly progressive with regard to pushing changes to make voting easier in New York.

Robert Brehm, one of two executive directors, said that New York’s unusually high turnout this year put a strain on the voting system, and that early voting would mitigate the stresses of high turnout and other factors such as inclement weather and a complex ballot.

“Where many other states were using some series of days leading up to election, to allow early voting, we all had to accomplish it in one day,” Brahm said. “Certainly, we could’ve provided a better customer service process if we were able to stretch it out over a period of time.”

Brehm and the commissioners noted several elements of early voting and absentee voting that need to be addressed for them to work, including making sure that voting rooms are adequately staffed and have enough equipment, and that the use of snail mail for absentee votes doesn’t prevent votes from being counted, as it has in the past. On the mail front, Brehm endorsed a bill in the Assembly that would allow voters to apply for absentee ballots online.

Andrew Spano, one commissioner, signaled support for early voting while also casting aspersions on the entire system writ large.

“Our system is basically a de facto voter suppression system, because we have all these hurdles that we have to get through,” said Spano, who served as Westchester county executive for 12 years. “There’s no motivation for the voter in some of these elections to come out. Midterm elections, village elections, school elections. They’re all decided by a fraction of the voter population.”

The commissioners noted that early voting was not a “panacea” solution to the problems afflicting New York elections, but that as part of a package, it could help improve the situation. Other proposals included electronic poll books and the abolition of election districts, to be replaced by poll sites as an administrative unit with books organized alphabetically instead of geographically. They also signaled support for automatic voter registration, despite possible issues with implementation regarding individuals who relocate.

The hearing was also an opportunity for Assembly members to unload on Michael Ryan, the embattled executive director of the New York City Board of Elections who has shouldered much of the blame for the administrative failures on this past election day and others.

Assemblymember Robert Carroll of Brooklyn told of his experience on Election Day. At his polling place, 350 people were stuck in line for several hours after each machine at the site broke, he said. After Carroll contacted the board, a tech was sent to fix the problem, but the machines continually broke throughout the day, leading to scores of people leaving poll sites without voting.

“I am very hopeful that New York State and New York City have early voting, have electronic poll books, voting on demand,” Carroll said. “But why should we, as elected officials, think that the New York City Board of Elections will be able to administer any election, and especially an updated election process in the future after such a terrible track record in the last year?”

Ryan argued that the issues this year were a result of both unusually high turnout (though it was still under 40 percent in the city) and other aggravating factors, including inclement weather, and a perforated two-page ballot that led to jams when voters didn’t submit them correctly. He noted education efforts were designed on short notice and inadequate, and endorsed ideas for improving the process such as having workers from municipal agencies act as poll workers or better storage for emergency ballot procedures, as well as early voting.

Carroll was not convinced.

“Yeah I get it: there’s a lot of people in New York City. Guess what? That’s always been true,” Carroll said. “We need to actually make sure that we can run an election. So how are we gonna change that?”

[Read: Voter Turnout Booms in New York]

[Read: 3 Big Reasons Elections in New York City are So Poorly Run]

***
by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

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

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


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Rory Lancman (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

agenda19v2 aMcFarlane said that advocates have “new hope” that progressive reforms will soon pass in the state Legislature and that Brown’s replacement will be someone who institutes reform rather than punishment. “We’re looking for candidates that will end the prison pipeline out of [our] neighborhoods, we’re looking for candidates that will end mass incarceration, we’re looking for progressive candidates that will implement bail reform,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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


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


This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

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

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

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

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This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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