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On Your November Ballot: Stripping Pensions from Corrupt Politicians


silver skelos cuomo sampson

Sheldon Silver & others in 2011 (photo: The Governor's Office)


This November, New York voters will get to decide whether state officials who are convicted of public corruption can be stripped of their pensions.

A government ethics reform bill, jointly passed by the state Legislature Monday for a second time, amends the state constitution and allows the state to reduce or revoke the pension of a public officer that has been convicted of a crime related to his or her official duties.

Under the measure, a public officer convicted of a crime would be subject to a court hearing, which would determine the fate of of the officer’s pension. Current law only allows pensions to be stripped from lawmakers convicted of a crime who joined the retirement system after August 15, 2011, but this constitutional amendment would make the forfeiture apply retroactively to all currently in government.

Because it is a constitutional change, it must pass two consecutive classes of the state Legislature, which this legislation has now done, and then be approved by the voters via ballot referendum.

A public push for the legislation came after it was revealed that disgraced ex-Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and ex-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, as well as other corrupt public officials, were granted pensions despite convictions on public corruption charges. As they face prison sentences, Skelos is to receive $95,832 annually and Silver, $79,224 a year, according to The Daily News.

While many state legislators’ initially appeared content to keep the pension (forfeiture) system as is, a public outcry following news reports on the Skelos and Silver pension packages appears to have changed their minds. A 2015 Quinnipiac University poll found that voters supported pension forfeiture for corrupt officials 76 percent to 18 percent.

The new pension forfeiture measure will appear on the ballot November 7 of this year, as voters go to the polls for the general elections in a variety of local offices. In New York City, elections will include those for mayor, public advocate, comptroller, borough presidents, all of the City Council, and others.

On the flip side of the ballot from candidate choices, alongside the pension forfeiture “yes” or “no” question, will be another somewhat related referendum: whether New York State should call a constitutional convention. That question is required to appear on the ballot every 20 years, but New Yorkers have not called for a Con Con, as it is often referred, in several decades.

A chance to rewrite the state constitution, a constitutional convention could result in the enactment of numerous government ethics reforms, from different pension forfeiture rules to the closure of the infamous “LLC loophole,” term limits for elected officials, and more.

The last time a constitutional convention was on the ballot, in 1997, it did not pass, in part due opposition from labor groups and other special interests, which factor into this year’s vote as well. However, not only is there currently a “take back the government” political moment occurring, but the fact that the constitutional convention question will be accompanied by the popular pension forfeiture referendum could potentially have a “coattail effect,” according to Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG).

“From an advocate’s perspective, I think this makes it easier to get it passed,” Horner said of Con Con. “Any sort of political campaign is difficult to run, when you are telling people vote “yes” on one and “no” on the other, because people forget which is which.”

According to the new measure, a court’s decision to reduce or revoke pension benefits would consider factors such as the severity of the crime and whether a reduction might be proportionate to the offense. Public officers include elected officials, direct gubernatorial appointees, municipal managers, department heads, chief fiscal officers, and policy-makers.

“There must be zero tolerance for public corruption, and these ethics reforms are crucial to holding officials accountable and making sure they don’t profit from abusing their positions,” said Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan in a statement. “Now the measure will go to the voters so that they can have the opportunity to join with us in taking a strong stand against corruption.” Flanagan, a Long Island Republican like his predecessor, replaced Skelos as majority leader when Skelos stepped down amid federal charges.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a New York City Democrat who replaced Silver when Silver stepped down from his long-time speaker post, said similarly. “The Assembly Majority believes that public officials who violate the public’s trust and engage in corruption should face the consequences of their actions including the forfeiture of taxpayer funded pensions,” said Heastie in a statement.

The proposal, sponsored by Assemblymember David Buchwald, a Westchester Democrat, and Senator Thomas Croci, a Republican from Long Island, would also allow the court to order pension benefits to be paid to an innocent spouse, minor dependents, or other dependent family members after consideration of their financial needs and resources.

Good government groups were quick to commend the Legislature’s reform efforts as a step in the right direction. Still, the potential loss or reduction of pension benefits -- a punitive measure -- is less likely to deter corruption than more preventative measures that reformers have called for, like a public campaign finance system and stricter limits on campaign donations. Jail time and other penalties faced by corrupt politicians have appeared to show little effect as state lawmaker after state lawmaker is put behind bars.

“Public officials who break the law shouldnʼt get a taxpayer pension, period. Thanks to Assemblymember Buchwaldʼs and Senator Crociʼs persistent efforts to pass this needed response to our state’s on-going ethics crisis, New York is one step closer to restoring the public’s trust in government,ˮ said Susan Lerner, Executive Director of Common Cause New York, in a statement.

The Legislature also passed a joint resolution Monday that requires any member of the Legislature earning at least $5,000 in income through outside employment to get advisory permission from the Legislative Ethics Commission, to ensure the employment is consistent with the New York State Public Officers Law.

Governor Andrew Cuomo outlined a ten-point government ethics plan earlier this year as part of his State of the State tour and policy plan. Cuomo said he will be pushing reform measures, including campaign finance reform, in budget negotiations with the Legislature. The governor is supportive of the pension forfeiture amendment and has said he is supportive of a constitutional convention, but he did not include it in his 149-plank 2017 policy agenda.

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

Read more by this writer.

The Week Ahead in New York Politics, January 30


New York City Hall

New York City Hall


What to watch for this week in New York politics:

The week begins after many New Yorkers spent portions of the weekend protesting President Donald Trump's executive orders on immigration, which seek to bar for a period of time refugees from Syria and immigrants from several Muslim-majority countries, and increase deportations of certain classifications of immigrants. After a major impromptu protest at Kennedy Airport on Saturday, there was a rally at Battery Park on Sunday, at which Mayor Bill de Blasio and several other elected officials spoke.

As things continue to play out with Trump's executive orders (and other actions), both legally and politically, many New York political eyes are on Albany Monday morning, as Mayor de Blasio travels north for his annual budget testimony in front of the state Legislature. Last year, state lawmakers -- led by Senate Republicans -- ambushed de Blasio on property taxes and the city's exemption from the state's 2 percent cap on annual property tax growth.  

There's a great deal happening this week in New York politics, with many events to be aware of - see our day-by-day rundown below.

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

The run of the week in detail:

Monday
In Albany Monday:
At 10 a.m. on Monday, there will be a joint state legislative budget hearing on Local Government Officials/General Government in the Legislative Office Building in Albany. Mayor Bill de Blasio will testify first, followed by Comptroller Scott Stringer.

At 12 p.m. on Monday, the Assembly Standing Committee on Real Property Taxation will hold a public hearing on “Real Property Tax Relief Credit Programs.”

Family planning advocates led by Planned Parenthood NYC are holding a lobby day in Albany Monday. Governor Andrew Cuomo will speak at a rally at 12:30 p.m. at Empire State Plaza Convention Center.

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

During the 7 and 10 p.m. hours on Monday, Mayor de Blasio will make his weekly appearance on NY1's Inside City Hall.

In New York City Monday:
“On Monday, January 30, at 10:30 a.m., Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) Commissioner Lorelei Salas, Brooklyn Borough President Eric L. Adams, Grow Brooklyn, and partners will remind the roughly 1.1 million New Yorkers who are eligible to claim the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which adds an average of $2,400 to refunds, and file their taxes for free with NYC Free Tax Prep.”

Also Monday at 10:30 a.m., “Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. and U.S. Representative Sean Patrick Maloney (NY-18) will join together with hunger advocates and others at Part of the Solution (POTS) to discuss New York State’s participation in a nationwide pilot program to allow Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) participants to purchase their groceries online.”

At 1 p.m. on Monday, the NYC Planning Commission will hold a review session.

At 1 p.m. Monday, "Brooklyn Borough President Eric L. Adams and City University of New York (CUNY) student leaders, including members of the University Student Senate (USS) and CUNY DREAMers, will speak out in concern for Saira Rafiee, a young woman enrolled at the CUNY Graduate Center through an F1 visa who is being denied reentry into the United States due to President Donald J. Trump's executive order banning the migration of citizens from several Muslim-majority countries...Approximately 120 students from the impacted countries are enrolled in the CUNY system...Borough President Adams will also be joined by members of the New York Immigration Coalition (NYIC) and Professional Staff Congress (PSC)-CUNY, as well as Rafiee's cousin Mina, who will deliver a message on behalf of her relative."

At 6:30 p.m. Monday, Public Advocate Letitia James and City Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez will hold a transportation town hall, at Fort Washington Collegiate Church.

At 6:30 p.m. on Monday, City & State will hold the “50 Over 50 Awards.” This event will be a “celebration with New York’s most prominent leaders in government, business and media over the age of fifty.”

Tuesday
On Tuesday at 12:30 p.m., "Mayor de Blasio will visit Rodman’s Neck Training Complex with NYPD Commissioner O’Neill to tour the facility and discuss the City’s $275 million investment to upgrade the complex." At 6:30 p.m., "the Mayor will appear live on the Dean Obeidallah Show on SiriusXM Radio channel 127."

At the City Council on Tuesday:

  • At 9:30 a.m., the Committee on Housing and Buildings will meet to discuss numerous proposed laws, most of which deal with cranes or construction safety.
  • At 1 p.m., the Committee on Sanitation and Solid Waste Management will meet for an oversight hearing on “expanding New York City’s Extended Producer Responsibility Law,” and for discussion of a proposed law that will deal with the “reuse or recycling of discarded carpeting from commercial units or buildings.”
  • At 1 p.m., the Committee on Consumer Affairs will discuss a proposed law on “authorizing a cure period for certain item pricing violations.”
  • At 1:30 p.m. The Committee on Parks and Recreation will meet on the naming of 41 thoroughfares and public places.
  • At 2 p.m. The Committee on Fire and Criminal Justice Services will meet on a bill “Requiring the fire dept to report on the use and type of smoke detectors and smoke alarms in fire-related deaths.”

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

The NYS Joint Commission on Public Ethics will meet on Tuesday in Albany.

On Tuesday morning at 9:15 a.m., "Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez will announce the kickoff of Car Free NYC 2017, with a countdown to a Car Free Day on Earth Day...at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering's Pfizer Auditorium at 5 Metrotech Center."

At 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, there will be a joint legislative budget hearing on Public Protection at Hearing Room B in the Legislative Office Building in Albany.

At 10 a.m. Tuesday, the New York City Department of Small Business Services will hold a hearing on a proposed rule, which would “continue the program that provides grants to companies that provide school bus transportation.”

At 11:30 a.m. Tuesday, Public Advocate Letitia James will deliver remarks "at the NYC Employment and Training Coalition's Policy Forum: Advancing Advocacy Through Partnerships in Uncertain Times," at The CUNY Graduate Center.

At 2 p.m. Tuesday in Albany, Comptroller Scott Stringer will speak at a "press conference to unveil new legislation and analyses on granting driver’s licenses to undocumented New Yorkers with the New York Immigration Coalition, Fiscal Policy Institute, elected officials and advocates," at the Empire State Plaza.

On Tuesday evening at City Hall, the City Council will host "‘Let Freedom Ring-Commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’, a celebratory event. Counciil Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and several other Council members will participate.

At 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, the New Leaders Council gala will host Assemblymember Michael Blake as keynote speaker.

At 7 p.m. Tuesday, City Council Member Costa Constantinides will deliver his State of the District Address, at I.S. 126 in Astoria. Public Advocate Letitia James will attend.

Wednesday
At 8 a.m. Wednesday, City & State NY will hold “On Public Safety.” This event “will convene government officials and leaders in defense, public safety, security, intelligence, law enforcement, and emergency management at a half day forum covering New York public safety issues.” NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill will deliver the Keynote Address, and speakers on various panels will include Council Member Jumaane D. Williams; State Assemblyman Joseph R. Lentol; Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy T. Howard; and Chief Joseph Pfeifer, the Chief of Counterterrorism and Emergency Preparedness at the New York City Fire Department.

At 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, there will be a joint legislative budget hearing on Economic Development at Hearing Room B in the Legislative Office Building in Albany.

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

At 10 a.m. Wednesday, “New York City Councilman Andy King and the Bronx Youth Empowerment Program kickoff of the first day of Black History Month with the annual “Celebrating Our History” event.” This event will take place at the library of Evander Childs High School in The Bronx.

At the City Council on Wednesday:

  • At 10 a.m., the Committee on Finance will meet.
  • At 1:30 p.m., the City Council will hold a stated meeting. The full-body Council meeting will be prefaced, as usual, by a press conference led by Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito.

On Wednesday at 11 a.m. at City Hall, "Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez will join elected officials, advocates, radio DJs and the family of DJ Jinx Paul, who was killed in a hit and run crash last December, to unveil legislation to create a hit and run alert system in New York City. The legislation would create an alert system through a number of channels, to support the NYPD in capturing perpetrators of hit and runs."

At 3 p.m. Wednesday, there will be a rally on the steps of City Hall protesting Mayor de Blasio’s budget cuts to the Department of Veterans’ Services. State Senator Marty Golden, City Council Minority Leader Steven Matteo, Council Member Joe Borelli, Reverend Michel Faulkner, Anthony Testaverde, elected officials, and veterans will participate.

At 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, New York City Council Member Helen Rosenthal will hold “Fact vs. Fiction: Understanding the News in the Age of Information Overload.” This event is a “community conversation on the current state of the news and what you can do to decipher between fact and fiction.” Rosenthal will host a panel of experts.

At 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, there will be a public hearing on the Greater East Midtown Rezoning at NYU School of Dentistry, Nursing & Engineering.

Thursday
At 8:15 a.m. Thursday, Crain’s New York will hold “Real Estate Law: The Impact of Demographics,” featuring Richard J. Mack, the CEO and Founder of Mack Real Estate Group.

On Thursday at 1 p.m., at Urban Pathways’ Ivan Shapiro House in Manhattan, "the New York City representatives of a statewide coalition of nonprofit organizations will gather to call on Governor Cuomo and the legislature to strengthen the human services sector through efficient investments and systemic change. The Executive Budget, while acknowledging the importance of human services, provided little to strengthen organizations and the sector responsible for lifting families out of poverty." Participants will include Urban Pathways, Human Services Council, FPWA, State Senator Brad Hoylman, Assemblymember Richard Gottfried, and others. "The Restore Opportunity Now campaign is supported by more than 340 nonprofit organizations across New York State."

At 6:30 p.m. Thursday, City Council Member Laurie Cumbo continues her Community Exchange Series. At this event at Medgar Evers College, Cumbo will deliver her first of two parts on the status update of the Bedford Union Armory.

Friday and the weekend
No events on our radar for Friday or the weekend as of Sunday night -- though Mayor de Blasio is expected to make his weekly Friday appearance at 10 a.m. on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show. 

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

***
by Brendan Birth and Ben Max
@GothamGazette

With Trump in Office, New York Democrats Show Urgency, and Infighting, on Women's Rights


cuomo women's equality act

Cuomo in 2013, via The Governor's Office on flickr


With President Donald Trump taking office and Congressional Republicans chipping away at the Affordable Care Act, including a provision that guarantees cost-free birth control, New York’s Democratic lawmakers are scrambling to fortify protections for women on the state level.

Citing the threat of Trump’s administration, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced Saturday that he has instructed the Department of Financial Services -- which regulates insurance companies -- to require commercial insurance providers to cover contraception and “medically necessary” abortions without asking for a co-pay.

The announcement was timed to coincide with women’s rights marches that took place in New York City, Washington D.C., and across the country, as well as the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, which despite efforts from the Democratically-controlled New York State Assembly, is not fully codified into state law. Republicans who control the state Senate have refused to pass such a law, though many abortions would be legal in New York even if the Supreme Court, bolstered by a conservative Trump appointee, were to overturn the landmark 1973 ruling. A 1970 New York law permits abortions until 24 weeks of pregnancy.

Cuomo’s contraception and abortion coverage announcement came on the heels of legislation introduced by Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and passed by the Assembly earlier this month. Called the Comprehensive Contraceptive Coverage Act, the bill, which has not yet been introduced in the state Senate, would codify the co-pay-free contraception provision in the Affordable Care Act.

Cuomo’s women’s health push has received a lot of praise, including from Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, who called the DFS regulation “an important step forward toward ensuring that women have control over their reproductive lives.”

However, members of the Assembly took issue with the governor’s action, saying the regulatory change lacks the permanence of a statute. “We think a law would be the strongest solution,” said Michael Whyland, spokesperson for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.

Assembly Member Kevin Cahill, who sponsored the Assembly version of the legislation, said the DFS regulation falls “very seriously short” of the intentions of the bill’s authors and decreases the likelihood of Schneiderman’s bill being introduced in the Senate, which remains under GOP control.

“We are talking about the contraceptive rights that are now at risk because of actions that are being taken in Washington that could have been thoroughly protected through legislation,” said Cahill, a Democrat representing Kingston. “Now the legislative path is significantly less likely because of [the governor’s] action.”

Cahill noted Cuomo’s regulation does not include coverage for male vasectomies, which can take the onus of contraception off of women, or emergency contraception, otherwise known as the “morning-after pill.” The new regulations also omit language authorizing midwives to prescribe or distribute emergency contraception and an educational component to the bill.

“He didn't consult with us at all, and to the best of my knowledge, the attorney general heard about it in a press report,” Cahill told Gotham Gazette. “While it appears on its surface to be laudable, it may have actually made the situation significantly worse."

In response to Cahill's comments, a spokesperson for the governor, Abbey Fashouer, said, “The Governor is taking immediate and decisive action to secure women’s reproductive rights, regardless of what happens at the federal level. To be clear, this doesn’t preclude legislative action, or apparently, grandstanding. This decisive action may rob some individuals of a headline later, but it does ensure that the reproductive rights of millions of New Yorkers are protected today.”

Cuomo's office also noted that vasectomies are not included in the governor's DFS regulations because they are part of the ACA, but not New York insurance law, where birth control for women is covered.

Democrats will continue to push state legislation as opposed to executive regulations since, as Trump is showing on the federal level, executive actions can be rolled back by a new executive.

While state law already mandates that contraceptives be covered without co-pays and bars insurers from denying any type of surgery -- including surgical abortions -- Cuomo’s version clarifies that the law will not change if ACA is repealed. In addition, the new DFS regulation would ban charging co-payments for abortion and requires that insurers provide coverage of birth control for up to 12 months from the initial prescription.

During his campaign, Trump vowed to “repeal and replace” the ACA, otherwise known as Obamacare, and has said he would appoint a Supreme Court justice who opposes Roe v. Wade -- though he has backtracked on both positions in media interviews.

Two of Trump’s first actions in the Oval Office were a vaguely worded executive order toward repeal of the ACA and another to reinstate a ban on spending for reproductive health services for organizations abroad, which is expected increase infant mortality and maternal death rates around the globe.

Toppling Roe v. Wade, which would require at least two new Supreme Court justices, is more complicated than the president has made it seem, but even if it happened, it is not likely to have as much of an impact in New York as it would in, say, South Carolina, according to a new report from the Center for Reproductive Rights. As Trump has pointed out in interviews when expressing somewhat conflicting support for overturning Roe v. Wade, “if it ever were overturned, it would go back to the states.” During a 60 Minutes interview he added of women seeking abortions in states where it would then be illegal, “they’ll have to go to another state.”

Early this year the state Assembly also reintroduced a second bill, the Reproductive Health Act, which updates New York’s law to align with Roe v. Wade. Abortion has been legal in New York since 1970, three years before the Supreme Court decision. Codifying Roe v. Wade on a state level would remove outdated criminal statutes that apply to abortion practitioners when a woman is more than 24 weeks pregnant, add language that prioritizes for the health of the mother over the fetus, and expand the list of medical professionals that could perform abortion to include 21st Century professions, such as physician’s assistants.

These inconsistencies, and the criminal statutes, continue to result in many women being denied care, according to the NYCLU. Last year, Attorney General Schneiderman issued an opinion, stating that abortion be allowed after 24 weeks if the fetus is not viable or the mother’s life or health is threatened, as specified by Roe v. Wade, but advocates say New York doctors are still deterred from treating women with sometimes life-threatening health conditions who are more than 24 weeks pregnant.

Though Democratic lawmakers have been pushing this bill for years, Senate Republicans have blocked the motion. In 2013, an effort by the Independent Democratic Conference -- a breakaway group of Democrats that caucuses with Republicans -- to move the bill in the Senate failed. In the 63-seat Senate, 30 Republicans and two Democrats, Ruben Diaz Sr. and Simcha Felder, voted it down. Diaz Sr. and Felder, who also caucuses with Republicans, are still in the Senate and unlikely to support the abortion protections, though Diaz Sr., a Bronx minister, may run for City Council this year and leave the Senate if victorious.

Candice Giove, the spokesperson for the IDC and its leader, Sen. Jeff Klein of the Bronx, told Gotham Gazette, "The Independent Democratic Conference is the only Senate conference whose members are 100 percent pro-choice." Giove's comment is an apparent reference to Diaz Sr. Giove did not make clear whether the IDC plans to push the Senate GOP to take up passage of stronger abortion protections into state law this year.

“We are hopeful that the IDC will support the bill and put their action behind it,” Lieberman of the NYCLU said during a press conference call on Thursday morning. “We know from polling that’s been done that New York is 70 to 80 percent pro-choice. New Yorkers overwhelmingly support the codification of Roe v. Wade and women’s’ rights.”

The codification of Roe v. Wade into New York law was the tenth of ten planks in Gov. Cuomo’s Women’s Equality Agenda, which the governor attempted to push over several years. Cuomo said the Legislature must pass all ten planks together, but as the Senate continued to balk on the abortion provision, Democrats including Cuomo and the Assembly majority opted to pass the nine other planks, which include equal pay provisions, protections for domestic violence victims, bans on pregnancy discrimination in workplaces, and more.

Cuomo, a second-term Democrat, has been criticized for not doing enough to flip the Senate to Democratic control, and for creating in 2014 the Women’s Equality Party, which appears to have been mostly an election year gimmick aimed at hurting the Working Families Party.

A spokesperson for Senate Republicans did not return a request for comment about where the conference majority stands on the abortion bill.

Another criticism of the new Cuomo regulatory directives came from Bill Hammond, director of health policy at the Empire Center for Public Policy, a conservative think tank. Hammond said the governor’s move undermines the legislative process and noted that without a provision to address additional expenses incurred by insurance companies, this rule could drive up healthcare premiums.

On the Empire Center’s blog, The Torch, Hammond also questioned why abortions are exempt from co-pays, but other medically necessary procedures, like childbirth, for example, are not.

“If this rule change stands, expect a parade of provider and consumer groups to seek similar consideration from DFS in the months and years ahead,” he writes.

A spokesperson from DFS noted that there will be a 45-day public comment period before the regulations are finalized. The rules will go into effect 60 days later. Trump has promised a Supreme Court nominee next week, but U.S. Senate Democrats, led by New York’s Charles Schumer, have pledged to fight any nominee who is not moderate.

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

Read more by this writer.

Cuomo Embraces Voting Reform Agenda, But Implementation Poses Challenges


Cuomo voting 2015

Gov. Cuomo voting (photo: The Governor's Office on flickr)


During his State of the State tour early this month, Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed a trio of major reforms hailed as important steps toward modernizing New York’s antiquated electoral system and increasing the state’s paltry voter turnout. While they are long-called for proposals that many are pleased to see Cuomo promote, implementing these goals could be more complicated than it may seem.

Two of the three reforms, early voting and automatic voter registration, were outlined in Cuomo’s 2016 agenda, but the initiatives failed to move through the Legislature last year due to opposition from Senate Republicans, who control that chamber. It is a power structure that continues into the 2017 session, meaning the road to passage is uphill, and steeply so.

New York is one of only about a dozen states without some semblance of early voting. While the state already has a form of automatic voter registration through the Department of Motor Vehicles, Cuomo’s proposal is to streamline and expand the practice. If passed, it would amount to more widespread automatic registration, but not universal.

The third electoral proposal from Cuomo, same-day registration, will likely require a constitutional amendment -- meaning approval from two consecutive classes of the state Legislature, then voters via ballot referendum -- a process that would take at least three years. There is some debate among constitutional law experts over whether such an amendment is required for any form of same-day registration, which would allow voters to show up at the polls to both register and vote on the same day.

The three reforms are almost universally seen as long overdue in New York. Voter turnout in New York is especially poor: in 2014, the state ranked 49th of the country’s 50 states. While New York has watched many other states change voting laws to increase access to the ballot, the voter turnout deficit here is growing progressively worse, with just 19.7 percent of eligible voters casting their ballots in the 2016 presidential primaries. Turnout numbers have also consistently declined during gubernatorial elections and, in New York City, during mayoral election years.

“New York is so far behind the curve on election administration that almost anything is an improvement,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of government reform group Common Cause New York. “I think the governor has picked issues that are very good places to start.”

Those with high praise for Cuomo’s 2017 electoral agenda include Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who, after monitoring the state’s four election days of 2016, issued an exhaustive report with areas for reform at the end of the year.

"I commend Governor Cuomo for proposing common sense reforms to our voting system. I look forward to working with Governor Cuomo, the legislature, and everyday New Yorkers across our state to address the systemic problems in New York's voting laws,” Schneiderman said in a statement. “New York must become a national leader in voting rights by expanding and protecting the rights of all New Yorkers to cast their vote.”

In the statement, Schneiderman also recommended consolidating New York's exhausting voting schedule into a single primary. In 2016, there were three: in April for the presidential race; in June for congressional races; and in September for state legislative races.

While it is still early to speculate exactly how the Legislature will respond to Cuomo’s electoral reform agenda, there are key early markers, process details, and implementation questions ahead of whatever policy debate may occur.

One thing is certain: Democrats in the Assembly, where they have the majority, and in the Senate, where they do not, will be behind the election and voting modernization efforts -- including and beyond Cuomo’s three main proposals. What is less clear is whether the governor will fully push for early voting, automatic voter registration, and same-day registration in budget negotiations, which are just beginning; and whether there is any room for passage in the Republican-controlled Senate, perhaps with the help of the Independent Democratic Conference -- the seven-member body that has formed a ruling coalition with the Senate GOP.

Early Voting
When it comes to early voting, New York is one of just 13 states without some window wherein voters can cast ballots before Election Day.

For several years running, an early voting bill has passed the Assembly, only to be blocked in the Senate.

According to Gov. Cuomo’s 2017 proposal, every county would offer residents access to at least one early voting poll site for every 50,000 residents during the 12 days leading up to Election Day. Voters would be guaranteed eight hours on weekdays and five hours on weekends to cast early ballots, and bipartisan county boards of elections would determine locations of the early poll sites.

While high voter participation would ideally be a bipartisan issue, New York Republicans -- who cling to control of the state Senate by a tiny margin -- have calculated that better ballot access and more participation is likely to turn out Democratic voters, according Senator Michael Gianaris, a Democrat from Queens and outspoken proponent of voting reform.

“These reforms are more necessary than ever and I’m glad they were included in the governor’s presentation, but the problem is Senate Republicans seem to have a personal interest in keeping people from voting,” said Gianaris, a co-sponsor of several packages of electoral legislation. “That's been the biggest hurdle to overcome, because voter restrictions tend to benefit them.”

A spokesperson for Senate Republicans did not return multiple requests for comment.

A natural partner of early voting is absentee voting. In his State of the State policy book, Gov. Cuomo, a second term Democrat, also cited the requirement for absentee ballot voters to provide an excuse, which is written into the state constitution and its removal would require a constitutional amendment.

A bill to remove this requirement from the constitution has passed the Assembly and is, like other voting reforms, awaiting Senate approval.

Senator Joseph Addabbo, who co-sponsored the bill and served as chair of the Senate Election Committee in 2009, said his staff has not looked closely at the governor’s plan yet but expressed hopeful optimism about the governor’s electoral reform agenda.

“I’ll say I can embrace a lot of what he’s proposing and now our legal counsel might look at whether and how it can be implemented,” said Addabbo, a Democrat from Queens. “This is a lot of what we’ve worked on and proposed in 2009. We really go through painstaking measures to determine what is going to get voters to vote.”

In addition to persuading the Senate majority, Cuomo and Assembly Democrats will have to hash out the details with counties, which, while supportive of early voting, want the governor to include a provision for who would foot the bill -- approximately $3 million per year, according to one estimate -- for the additional polling options.

"Despite principled visions on the issue, on the fiscal nature of the cost shift it's unconscionable for the state to be shifting and enacting policies these days in the property-tax-cap era. It should be dead on arrival." Stephen Acquario, executive director of the state Association of Counties, told the USA Today Network.

Automatic Voter Registration
Automatically registering voters when they become eligible or when they come into contact with government agencies is a fairly new concept. Since 2015, automatic voter registration -- which can have different forms and meanings short of universal automatic registration of voters once they become eligible -- has been approved in six states with strong bipartisan support and is taking off across the country, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

The idea is to shift the onus of registering from the individual to the government. In addition to increasing voter registration in other states, automatic voter registration has been shown to have significant benefits for administrators, reduce costs, and improve the accuracy of electronic poll books.

Cuomo’s proposal, recycled from last year, would automatically register anyone who comes into contact with a state Department of Motor Vehicles, unless the person chooses to opt out. Currently, eligible voters can register through the DMV, but they must provide additional voting information as they apply for DMV services.

Cuomo’s proposed version of automatic registration is preferable to similar bills passed in Oregon and California, which only registers eligible citizens who apply for or renew a driver’s license. However, Cuomo’s plan is not as inclusive as say, that which is outlined in New York’s Voter Empowerment Act, sponsored by Senator Gianaris and Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh, which would enable a variety government agencies to automatically register voters.

The Brennan Center outlines four ways that states can modernize their electoral systems with automatic registration. The first, of course, is by automatically registering anyone who interacts with government offices, unless the person declines registration. The second is portability, which ensures that registered voters remain on the voter rolls even after they move within the state. The third, online access, allows voters to register, check, and update their registration records through a web portal. And fourth, the state should provide a “safety net,” that allows citizens to correct errors on the voter rolls or register before and on Election Day.

Ideally, automatic registration would occur through many different state-run agencies, reaching well beyond the DMV to the the widest possible segment of eligible voters. There is a sizeable population, especially in urban centers like New York City, that does not drive or interact with the DMV. Broader automatic registration would include:

DMVs; Medicaid and public assistance offices; colleges and high schools; military recruiters and other military offices; unemployment and other public benefit offices; firearm licensing agencies; immigration offices; government-funded job-training centers; law enforcement and corrections agencies that interact with people who regain their voting rights after a criminal conviction.

Some community groups have raised concerns that tying automatic voter registration to the DMV alone may skew registration number in favor of areas with high rates of car ownership, disproportionality impacting upstate voters over New York City, for example.

Researchers at the Brennan Center are exploring whether data can shed light on the concern that automatic registration through the DMV advantages some groups over others.

“We recognize that this is a serious concern for some important groups and we want to take a close look at this question,” said Chisun Lee, senior counsel at the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. “We are hopeful that the net benefits for increasing the franchise, and reaching voters who otherwise wouldn't be enrolled, will be positive for all.”

Same-Day Voter Registration
Same-day voter registration, perhaps the boldest of Cuomo’s proposals, would allow New Yorkers to register and vote on the same day.

Currently, New Yorkers must register to vote 25 days prior to an election, though the state constitution's requirement is only ten days. Depending on how it would be implemented, same-day registration may require a constitutional amendment. However, if early voting is passed, there are legal experts who argue that the constitution would allow same-day registration for those who vote prior to ten days before Election Day.

Again, a constitutional amendment is typically at minimum a three-year process which would require two “yes” votes from consecutive Legislatures and the passage of referendum on the following year’s general election ballot.

Alternately, a “yes” vote on the constitutional convention referendum, which will be on the ballot this November, could provide another avenue to remove restrictions and institute reforms like same-day registration.

At this point, 13 states and the District of Columbia have same-day voter registration, and California, Vermont, and Hawaii have approved the provision, though it has not yet been implemented, according to Cuomo’s office.

The upcoming opportunity to amend the state constitution via constitutional convention, which, for New Yorkers, appears as a ballot referendum every 20 years will be November 7, 2017. A constitutional convention is a four-year public process that could result significant changes to the entire document and laws of the state. If New Yorkers say “yes” to a convention on this year’s ballot, a year later, voters will select delegates to participate in the convention; the following year, in 2019, the convention will convene; and voters will be able to vote on any proposed changes the following Election Day.

Like with the electoral and voting reforms Gov. Cuomo has proposed, he has expressed varying degrees of support for a "yes" vote on a constitutional convention, but whether the governor takes significant action will go a long way toward determining the outcome.

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Early in Albany Session, Plastic Bag Fee Sparks Home Rule Debate


felder bag fee city hall via scott reif

Senator Felder & opponents of the bag fee (photo: Scott Reif)


An attempt by lawmakers in Albany to prevent the New York City Council from imposing a fee on plastic and paper bags at retail stores has reignited a debate over home rule and the state government’s interference in the work of a democratically elected local legislative body.  

The New York State Senate passed a bill on Tuesday that prohibits “the imposition of any tax, fee or local charge on carry out merchandise bags in cities having a population of one million or more.” The bill, sponsored by Sen. Simcha Felder, a Brooklyn Democrat, directly targets a law passed by the City Council and signed by Mayor Bill de Blasio last year that imposes a nickel fee on those bags and is due to go into effect February 15.

The law, which passed with a relatively slim City Council majority, is meant to reduce waste and environmental damage, as New Yorkers send billions of bags per year into the waste stream While it make exceptions for people on public assistance, its opponents argue that it would be a prohibitive burden on New Yorkers, including poor people and families more broadly.

“Many families have a hard time just getting by, paying for groceries, rent and heat, and now the Mayor wants to shake them down every time they shop just for the privilege of using a plastic bag,” Senator Felder, who represents part of Brooklyn, said in a statement on Tuesday. “Mayor de Blasio, please do not nickel-and-dime New Yorkers with another tax. This will hurt lower- and middle-income families who already struggle. I'm asking New Yorkers to stand up and tell the Mayor that this bag tax has to go.”

Although Felder is a Democrat, he caucuses with Republicans to create a Senate majority. His bill was co-sponsored by three Republicans and also two other Democrats, both members of the Independent Democratic Conference, a breakaway group that shares power in the Senate with Republicans. Felder’s bill passed with 42 votes in favor and 18 against.

For the Democratic Senators who opposed Tuesday’s bill, the plastic bag fee at the heart of the issue was not the only thing under threat. They criticized Felder’s bill for violating the state constitution’s principle of home rule that gives local governments the authority over many of their own affairs, and for doing so only in the case of New York City while making no mention of smaller jurisdictions that have passed similar bag fees.

The Senate bill, Democrats insisted, was narrowly targeted and would set a dangerous precedent for the legislative body. Even the word “fee” became a point of contention. Felder, and those who supported him, call it a “tax” instead and argue that the city has no right to impose it. Under state law, only the state Legislature can approve any new taxes. It is considered a fee because the stores keep it, the money is not passed to the government.

Sen. Liz Krueger, a Democrat from Manhattan, arguing on the Senate floor against Felder’s proposal, wondered “why should we override history, precedent, perhaps the constitution...and take an action that overrides a local government’s law applying only to itself?”

Krueger expressed concern that it reflects political developments at the national level, where the incoming federal administration may seek to unduly interfere in the workings of the state. In a statement after the passage of the bill, Krueger said, “If this bill becomes law, it will set a shameful and dangerous precedent that local solutions to local environmental issues will be vetoed in Albany.”

The bill is now with the Democrat-led Assembly and if it passes there, it would be sent to Governor Andrew Cuomo for his signature. “We would like to see if we can get the city come to an agreement with how the Legislature has raised a concern,” said Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, at a Tuesday news conference. “But again, we don’t want to minimize the environmental concern that the city has raised.”

State intervention in New York City’s affairs is not novel and has in the past been a source of tension in the city-state dynamic, at times along partisan lines. The state’s Municipal Home Rule Law provides that the state can intervene in a local jurisdiction’s affairs if the locality sends a “Home Rule message” to the state Legislature requesting that certain laws be enacted or if the state Legislature demonstrates that an issue is a “matter of state concern.” Otherwise, the state Legislature cannot pass laws that apply only to a specific locality. That the bill targets New York City is a given: there is no other municipality in the state with more than a million residents. That might give its opponents an opportunity to challenge it as a “special law” rather than a “general law” that applies statewide.

Courts have in the past cited ‘home rule’ as a basis for striking down laws passed in Albany that affect New York City alone. But the language in Felder’s bill refers to an “open class” of locality, rather than naming New York City, and that argument has been upheld by courts, said Richard Briffault, a professor at Columbia Law School who specializes in state and local government law. “The state most likely has the legal authority to ban local plastic bag fees but it is completely inconsistent with the idea and purpose of local home rule,” he said.

Echoing Briffault, Doug Muzzio, political science professor at Baruch College, emphasized Albany’s “virtually absolute” power over New York City. “Under Dillon's rule, cities are creatures of the state,” Muzzio said, referring to a judgement in 1868 by Judge John Forrest Dillon, then-chief justice of the Iowa Supreme Court, which narrowly defined a municipality’s authority as being derived from the state government. “Their powers, their very existence is determined by the state,” Muzzio added. “Albany's power over the city has long been a source of anguish. In his 1861 address before the Common Council, Mayor Fernando Wood called Albany's power ‘odious and oppressive.’ It remains so.”

Muzzio said Senate Republicans were using the authority within their right to enforce their own goals. Complicating matters, though, is that there are more than a dozen Democrats in the New York City Council who voted against the bag fee. Still, this does not change the fact that the city passed its own law on the matter.

The overarching debate is also somewhat complicated by the fact that the plastic bag fee has pitted senators representing New York City against their colleagues from the five boroughs, making them all stakeholders in the issue serving overlapping constituents. Supporters of the bag fee insisted on Tuesday that legislators from outside the city should not interfere with local matters while opponents of the fee pleaded to those outside legislators to help them avoid imposing a new burden on their constituents.

“There are seven City Council members who represent my district,” said Senator Diane Savino, an IDC memebr and one of the state cosponsors who represents Staten Island’s northern shore and parts of South Brooklyn, during the Senate debate. “Every single one of them voted against [the bag fee bill in the City Council]…What they weren’t able to accomplish in the City Council, they want me to be able to deliver for them up here in Albany. They thought it was bad policy for the City of New York. They lost the fight there but they want us to win the fight here.”

Savino also complained that the Senate had been misled by the City Council. The bag fee would have gone into effect in October last year but the Council delayed its implementation after facing strong opposition in Albany. The Senate voted then, as it has now, to ban any taxes or fees on plastic bags. As a result, the City Council struck a deal with the State Assembly to push implementation to 2017 and to revisit the language in the bill. Those negotiations have yet to produce results, with the fee set to go into effect in less than one month. “They did not negotiate in good faith,” said Savino. “We cannot trust them.”

Senator Jesse Hamilton, another IDC member from Brooklyn, who spoke later, stood up against the Senate bill. “Every time we speak about home rule in this chamber, it never applies to New York City," he said. "For this chamber to say the City Council in New York City, they don't know what they are doing, I find that a little offensive.”

Negotiations between the Council and state lawmakers are still continuing, said City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito at a news conference on Wednesday, in response to Gotham Gazette’s questions. Mark-Viverito expressed her displeasure that the Senate was attempting to thwart legislation that had been extensively debated. “I think it’s unfortunate that New York City is being specifically targeted by the bill that is being presented and that is being discussed and the Senate voted on,” she said.

The day before the Senate took up the bill, Mayor de Blasio vowed to push back against its efforts. In his weekly appearance on NY1, he told host Errol Louis, “I’ll work with the City Council to push this back, because I don’t see an alternative. Do we really want to keep doing something that’s really bad for our environment and takes up lots of fossil fuels as we’re facing climate change. I think the Council was right to pass it and if some of the folks in the state Senate oppose it, what’s their alternative? The status quo is not acceptable.”

A key player in what happens next is a main de Blasio ally: Assembly Speaker Heastie, a Bronx Democrat. Then, there is Gov. Cuomo, not typically a de Blasio friend, who would be forced to decide whether to sign the state legislation if it passes both houses. Cuomo’s office did not return a request for comment about the debate over the bag fee.

City Council Member Brad Lander, a Brooklyn Democrat and one of the prime sponsors of the bag fee legislation, is hoping that either the Assembly will vote down the bill or that Governor Cuomo, known for his positive record on environmental conservation, will veto it.

Lander said it was “mystifying” that the state Legislature would attempt to roll back environmental regulation and dictate a “law of dubious legality” to the city. But he remained open to changing the language in the bill if it meant it could be improved and receive the Legislature’s support. “I’m worried that Albany is going to nullify this very sensible effective environmental policy,” he said. “I assumed that when Suffolk County, not known as a bastion of left-wingers, passed the same bill, and when the City of Long Beach in Nassau County did the same, that that would help members of the Legislature see that this is growing, that there’s support for it, that this is something we should be looking at more broadly.”

Critiquing Felder’s bill, he added, “It is an unconstitutional special law masquerading as a general law. Home rule should be required and I think everyone knows it.”

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Additional reporting by Rachel Silberstein

Largely Inactive Senate Ethics Committee Restructures


gianaris state senate site

Sen. Gianaris (photo: State Senate)


New York state government has had no shortage of ethics scandals, but has had a deficiency in active, effective bodies to prevent, punish, and root out bad behavior among elected and appointed officials.

When the new legislative session began in Albany earlier this month, there was an immediate shake-up of the long-dormant state Senate ethics committee, throwing the always-simmering chamber to a quick boil.

The Senate ethics committee, as well as a parallel committee in the New York State Assembly, in theory, are places where lawmakers review and make recommendations on Senate policies, including travel expenses, time and attendance, sexual harassment, and other aspects of workplace ethics. Like other issue committees, the ethics committee should consider ways within its purview to improve governance, such as limiting legislators’ outside income or requiring greater disclosure of potential conflicts of interest.

Yet, even with much to do, the committees’ actual function is unclear: despite the fact that committee chairs in both chambers earn an additional $12,500 stipend per year, legislative ethics committees have rarely met over the last two decades, allowing misdeeds to go unaddressed in-house.

As the rules were being adopted for the new Senate class that will govern for 2017 and 2018, the majority coalition of Republicans and the Independent Democratic Conference -- a seven-member group of breakaway Democrats -- included changes to the ethics committee.

After a brouhaha over how the committee would be structured, how the political parties and conferences would be represented on it, and, essentially, what it means to be a Democrat in the New York State Senate, the committee’s new shape was established. It will grow by one member, to nine, and will give the IDC significant power to determine what business, if any, the committee takes up.

Initially, Senator Thomas Croci, a Long Island Republican and the previous ethics committee chair, proposed that, at eight members, the committee be split evenly by representatives of the two major political parties, rather than by majority and minority conference, as was previously the case. Ostensibly, this would have meant that the committee could feature four Republicans and four IDC members.

The motion was challenged by Democratic Senator Michael Gianaris of Queens, who, on the first day of the session, January 4, pushed for the body’s continued split between the two major conferences, or three ways among mainline Democrats, Republicans, and the IDC.

Croci argued that an equal split by political party would create parity with a similar body in the New York State Assembly, while Gianaris questioned how committee members would be selected and whether such a makeup would equate to a GOP/IDC power-grab.

“Ethics committees have always been treated differently, regardless of makeup of bodies, because of their very sensitive nature and the possibility of using an ethics overview committee for political reasons,” Gianaris said on the Senate floor.

Though Croci’s resolution passed at that January 4 session, last week Senate Republicans agreed to revisit the issue. They hammered out an agreement with Democrats that satisfied members of all three conferences. The new committee will include nine members — three Republicans, three mainline Democrats, and three IDC members.

Committee members are to be appointed by leaders of the three conferences. While the new structure disproportionately represents members of the Republican-IDC coalition, any investigation proposed by the body must have the approval of one member from each conference to move forward, according to the new rules. Effectively, it remains easy for a conference to kill an internal ethics investigation into one of its members.

The full list of ethics committee members were revealed during legislative session on Tuesday, with Elaine Phillips, a freshman Republican from Long Island, replacing Croci as chair, while former chairs Croci and Andrew Lanza, of Staten Island, remained on the body as Republican committee members. Senators David Valesky, Staten Island’s Diane Savino, and David Carlucci of the IDC also joined the committee, and three mainline Democratic seats will be filled by Gianaris, Brooklyn’s Roxanne Persaud, and Gustavo Rivera of the Bronx.

An aide to Croci said the senator never intended to politicize the committee’s structure, but that he believed strongly that the body should mirror the Assembly’s structure. A spokesperson for Senate Democrats said that Republicans were eager to find a solution at this Tuesday’s session that is satisfactory to all parties.

“We are pleased with the final composition of the Senate Ethics Committee and thank the Senate Republicans for working with us to achieve equal representation for all Senate Conferences,” said Mike Murphy, communications director for Senate Democrats, who are led by Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins.

IDC Leader Jeff Klein, who has been mostly silent on the issue so far, issued a statement through spokesperson Candice Giove: "The original intention of the Ethics Committee makeup was never to be unfair to any Senate conference, but in its new configuration I expect all appointees from each of the Senate's three conferences will carry out their work just the same -- in a fair and ethical manner."

Political affiliations aside, the ethics committees in both legislative chambers have been repeatedly criticized for failing to police their own houses or put forward any ethics reforms. Instead, critics say, they have been focused on protecting lawmakers from scrutiny, despite pervasive corruption and major ethical lapses. There has been a long parade of state legislators who have left office due to corruption scandal, including, recently, the two legislative leaders, Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos.

Blair Horner, executive director at NYPIRG, a government reform group, said this move sets an unusual precedent for legislative standing committees, but said ultimately internal ethics committees are no substitute for meaningful independent oversight.

“It’s understandable where they are going, if that’s how they want to enforce their own rules, but what New York needs is independent oversight, and no one -- except [United State Attorney] Preet Bharara -- is talking about that,” he said.

The Senate ethics committee has not met since 2009, when Senator John Sampson was chair, according to the Senate website. Sampson, ironically, was convicted in 2016 on charges of obstructing justice and lying in relation to a federal investigation into whether he had embezzled state funds, and is expected to be sentenced shortly.

U. S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who has overseen the convictions of more than a dozen state lawmakers, including former Senate Majority Leader Skelos and former Assembly Speaker Silver, told the New York Times that the ethics committee’s blank calendar reveals how ineffectual these bodies are.

“The idea that the chair of the ethics committee has never had the opportunity to mark up a bill, has never had the opportunity to hold a hearing tells you everything you need to know about the enabling nature of all the people in the State Legislature who may not have been convicted of crimes, but seem not to care that they’re going on,” he said.

Senator Tony Avella, a Queens Democrat and former committee chair, testified at Skelos’ 2015 corruption trial, that he was surprised to learn that Senate had never referred a bill to the committee and no bill has ever been produced by the committee for a vote.

“You’d think the standing committee would have the ability to have bills referred to it,” Avella told the Times last year. “I think it would be important, for anything that has to do with ethics reform, that it should go to the Ethics Committee.”

But when Avella tried to call a meeting to try to address some ethical issues plaguing the legislature, he told outlets the meeting was canceled over budget negotiations and was never recalled.

Whether this latest restructuring indicates a sign of life from the defunct committee, or results in yet another year of inaction -- one absent of hearings, bills, or proposed reforms  -- remains to be seen.

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Constitutional Convention Absent from Cuomo’s 2017 Agenda


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Gov. Cuomo (photo: Governor's Office)


Though he has expressed support in the past for a “yes” vote for a constitutional convention on this year’s ballot, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s newly revealed 2017 agenda and 2017-2018 budget provide no indication that such support continues.

Last year, Cuomo backed a constitutional convention in his lone State of the State speech, which was combined with a budget presentation, and he included $1 million in his spending proposal for a preparatory commission. Yet, this year, the issue is notably absent from Cuomo’s $152.3 billion executive budget, unveiled Tuesday, as well as his 149-proposal, 380-page policy book, which was released last week in conjunction with an unconventional, six-speech State of the State tour.

While a spokesperson for the governor told Gotham Gazette that Cuomo still supports a constitutional convention, he made no mention of it during any of his speeches or his budget presentation. In his 2016 speech, Cuomo said, “a constitutional convention that is properly held – with independent, non-elected official delegates – could make real change and re-engage the public.”

On November 7, 2017 – Election Day – New Yorkers who go to the polls will have a ballot question of whether the state should hold a constitutional convention. A majority “yes” vote would lead to a convention that could streamline or significantly modify New York State’s outdated constitutional document and propose changes on issues like campaign finance, redistricting, voter registration, term limits, home rule, and much more. New Yorkers get to vote on whether to hold a constitutional convention once every 20 years.

In his three-day State of the State tour, Cuomo visited cities across New York, touting a populist message aimed at the middle class, delivering his policy agenda directly “to the people” rather than to the state Legislature, as is Albany tradition. At one appearance just before the State of the State tour, he was accompanied by Senator Bernie Sanders – a progressive icon whose 2016 presidential run helped fuel a populist movement – to announce a plan for making city and state colleges tuition-free for middle class New Yorkers.

Yet, Cuomo’s agenda contains nothing on the upcoming constitutional convention vote – just 10 months away – which is a rare opportunity for the public participate in a process that could potentially curb the power of big money in politics. An opportunity for the people to “take their government back” at a time when state government has been plagued by corruption scandals.

Powerful interests -- particularly environmental and labor groups who are fearful that a convention could put at risk environmental protections and public employee pensions -- are already lining up in opposition, as they did in 1997, when the Con Con question was defeated in a landslide.

Meanwhile, legislators have little motivation to implement these reforms, since it is the status quo that effectively put them in office. The $1 million Cuomo proposed last year for a preparatory commission did not make it into the adopted fiscal 2016-2017 budget, likely because of legislative opposition from Assembly Democrats. Such a commission would make process recommendations and examine key issues to be addressed in a constitutional convention, including how delegates are selected and running the convention itself.

Cuomo’s father, former Governor Mario Cuomo, was forced to use an executive order to create a Con Con commission and last year the governor’s office expressed interest in going the executive order route after the money was not included in the budget. None has been announced.

Later last year, in response to criticism that few items in his 11-part plan to clean up Albany passed through the Legislature, Cuomo made the case for a constitutional convention in a New York Times interview, saying it was the only way to close the infamous LLC loophole, which allows virtually unlimited campaign donations from deep-pocketed interests.

Republicans would never agree to such reform, Cuomo said, “because they believe it ends corporate money, and only union money would come into the system, which would help the Democrats.”

He added, “The people are going to have to do it.”

In this year’s State of the State and budget, the governor once again laid out an ambitious plan for government ethics reforms in areas like campaign finance, voter registration, and term limits, but his silence on Con Con may be related to his wanting to maintain the support of labor groups ahead of his 2018 reelection campaign.

A spokesperson for Cuomo did not rule out the possibility of forming a commission through means outside of the budget. “We continue to support a Constitutional Convention and are examining all options and resources available to form a commission,” said Cuomo press secretary Abbey Fashouer.

Bill Samuels, the founder of government reform organization EffectiveNY and a vocal proponent of a Con Con who supported the governor because of his stance on the issue, said he remains hopeful that the governor would identify funds to convene a commission.

“If he is serious about major constitutional change, it's only going to happen through a constitutional convention,” Samuels said. “He clearly has not made a statement ‘I've changed my mind.’ I don't think he’s changed his mind, but he may have changed how active he wants to be,” he added, with a nod toward Cuomo’s looming reelection year.

A major challenge for nonprofits and interest groups pushing for a convention is getting the word out to the public and educating New Yorkers about the issues at stake. Recent polls show that nearly two-thirds of New Yorkers have heard little or nothing about the referendum, though polls also show that the idea does resonate with people. Constitutional convention advocates beyond Samuels expressed dismay over the governor's silence, saying he missed a significant opportunity to engage and educate the public on the upcoming referendum.

“New Yorkers have three chances in a lifetime to get serious attention to the operational structure of their state government and now we have a clear crisis in confidence,” said Gerard Benjamin, political scientist, SUNY New Paltz professor, and longtime advocate for a constitutional convention. “The governor has joined the state Legislature in its efforts to deny the public the necessary info to make the choice.”

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Cuomo Unveils $152 Billion Executive Budget Plan


Cuomo budget presentation

Gov. Cuomo presents his budget (photo: Governor's Office on flickr)


Just before 8 p.m. Tuesday evening, Gov. Andrew Cuomo presented to the public his Executive Budget for fiscal year 2017-2018. Speaking from the Executive Mansion, Cuomo briefed a room full of journalists and his aides in remarks that were live-streamed on the internet and carried by NY1 on television.

As Cuomo explained, the $152.3 billion budget plan followed his State of the State tour, where the governor spent three days giving six speeches across the state. “Our prime focus this year is on addressing the problems of the middle class,” Cuomo said Tuesday evening, picking up where he left off during his State of the State tour, “and all of the problems for the middle class.”

Cuomo led with college affordability, the highlight and lead proposal of his State of the State agenda, and also discussed creating jobs and reducing prescription drug costs as key agenda items for middle class families.

The governor highlighted several other major proposals that he had discussed during his speeches of the prior week: infrastructure and tourism investments, criminal justice reform, expanding ride-hailing outside New York City, government ethics and campaign finance reform, and more.

Importantly, ride-hailing, raising the age of adult criminal responsibility, the Dream Act, ethics and campaign finance reform are all in budget bills, even though they are not all spending proposals. This gives Cuomo additional leverage in negotiating these mostly contentious proposals with the state Legislature.

“I hope for a good legislative session,” Cuomo said toward the end of his initial presentation, before taking questions from the reporters gathered. The governor has been on poor terms with state legislators of late, and his handling of his budget presentation did not appear to help matters. He briefed members of the state Senate on Tuesday afternoon and then scheduling issues created a problem with briefing Assembly members, but Cuomo’s staff briefed Assembly staff, he said.

Soon, weeks of budget hearings will begin, as well as closed door negotiations. A budget for fiscal year 2017-2018 is due by April 1.

As he is wont to do, the governor in his budget presentation extolled that he has some new national firsts in his agenda, like college tuition relief and prescription drug price controls. Cuomo is especially fond of New York being the first state (or first large state) to pass certain policies, like marriage equality or a $15 minimum wage program.

The governor spent a portion of his budget presentation discussing the mechanics of balancing his budget while staying under his self-imposed 2 percent cap on annual state operating spending increases.

“One of the main aspects of this budget is tax policy,” Cuomo said. “We do not cut taxes for millionaires, we do cut taxes for the middle class.” Cuomo is proposing a three-year extension of the state’s “millionaire’s tax,” which, he said, will account for about $4 billion from about 45,000 households. Cuomo explained he is combining that extension with a tax cut for hundreds of thousands of middle class earners that will “cost” the state about $1 billion in revenue.

The $4 billion from the millionaire’s tax -- which is expected to be fought by the Republican-controlled state Senate -- minus the $1 billion for the middle-class tax cut helps create $3 billion Cuomo said is needed to close what was a roughly $3.5 billion budget gap, which existed even with state operational spending growth at just 1.9%.

“The anger is hopelessness,” Cuomo said of middle class people who are frustrated with stagnant wages and increasing expenses, trying to raise a family. Not only is the governor proposing a middle class tax cut and additional public college tuition assistance, but also an expanded child care tax credit.

Cuomo said that his tax and spend plan allows for $1 billion in additional education spending, which is the largest chunk of the state budget. According to the governor's budget book, "Medicaid and School Aid are the State’s largest local aid programs, comprising over 45 percent of the State Operating Funds budget." Cuomo's spending plan includes $25.6 billion in school aid for school year 2018, "an increase of $961 million (3.9 percent)," and $19.5 billion for Medicaid.

The governor’s budget proposal includes $5.6 billion to be spent on debt service, up 4.8% from the current year.

As he usually does, the governor touted the many billions of dollars that are being spent on infrastructure improvements around the state, though much of that spending is not part of the operating budget Cuomo was discussing. He mentioned investment in water infrastructure, explaining that the water quality crisis in Hoosick Falls has been a learning experience for all involved. The governor also explained that the state is continuing to invest heavily in economic development, including in Buffalo, despite the fact that Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion program has seen a major corruption scandal.

Cuomo focused heavily on tourism. “When people see upstate New York, they love it and they come back,” the governor said, explaining his plan for the Empire State Trail, which will connect Buffalo, Albany, New York City, and run north from Albany to the Canadian border. “All we have to do is get them to go the first time, and that’s what ‘I Love New York’ is all about,” the governor explained of the state’s campaign, while also noting that tourism creates much-needed upstate jobs.

As for New York City, Cuomo said “no” four times and nothing else when asked if there were any proposed cost-shifts to New York City like he proposed to the tune of about $800 million last year for CUNY and Medicaid. A full review of budget documents will tell whether the governor has taken any new steps in his ongoing feud with Mayor Bill de Blasio. On Tuesday afternoon de Blasio expressed frustration with not having been briefed by Cuomo about the imminent budget proposal. Cuomo again has a three-year extension of mayoral control of New York City schools in his budget. De Blasio has gotten two one-year extensions in a room.

One area of focus for Cuomo that aligns with de Blasio’s interests is affordable housing. Cuomo explained that his replacement for the expired 421-a program was included in his budget and that with the deal agree to by the building trades union and the real estate lobby, he expected the state Senate to agree to release nearly $2 billion in affordable housing funds allocated last year.

While the incoming Trump administration loomed over the state budget presentation, Cuomo did not indicate he had made any adjustments in anticipation of certain moves by the new federal regime. Cuomo and Trump are set to meet Wednesday in New York City.

[Read: A Cheat Sheet to Governor Cuomo's 2017 State of the State Proposals]

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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Cuomo Proposed New Wall Street Regulation, But Left It Out of NYC Speech


Cuomo state of the state new york city

Gov. Cuomo (photo: The Governor's Office on flickr)


As part of his 2017 policy agenda, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced on Sunday a plan to ban bad actors from the financial services industry. Cuomo’s proposal would empower a state agency, the Department of Financial Services, with the authority to mete out such punishment to those deemed to have violated the public trust.

However, when he launched his three-day, six-event State of the State tour in New York City on Monday morning, just a few blocks from Wall Street, home to the country’s financial industry giants, Cuomo made no mention of the proposal, which his Sunday press release said would ”better help prevent situations like the one seen recently at Wells Fargo.”

Cuomo’s 2017 agenda has been defined by an overarching focus on addressing “middle class anger” stemming from economic anxiety and a lack of inclusion in the state’s overall economic recovery since the Great Recession. In his New York City speech he alluded to perpetrators whose behavior led to that economic downturn, Wall Street bankers and insurance companies responsible for the subprime mortgage crisis.

“In the recession of 2007 the middle class saw their hard earned equity in their homes stolen,” Cuomo said from 1 World Trade Center. “Nearly half the homes of our middle class are not yet back to their pre-recession value. Just think of it. That home equity was their life’s work, their security blanket, the payment for their daughter’s wedding, it was their business loan, and their child’s college tuition. It was taken through no fault of their own. But they never got it back and no one even went to jail. Justice was never done. And that is not the American way.”

The sixth plank from Cuomo’s 2017 policy agenda seeks to address that broader issue by giving the state Superintendent of Financial Services the ability to ban individuals from working in the banking and insurance industries in New York if they are found guilty of egregious wrongdoing.

That the governor didn’t bring it up in his roughly 45-minute speech appears to be an odd omission, given the location of the speech and the fact that parts of it were specifically tailored to New York City. The governor’s entire 2017 agenda does contain 149 proposals, though only 19 had been made public by the end of his two speeches on Monday. Cuomo did not mention every region-specific proposal at its relevant stop on his tour. The governor’s office told Gotham Gazette there is nothing to the fact that Cuomo did not discuss the proposal during his New York City speech.

“Under Governor Cuomo’s leadership, New York has made great strides in establishing a strong financial regulator and protecting consumers from unscrupulous practices,” said Abbey Fashouer, a spokesperson for the governor, in an email. “By banning bad actors from the financial services industry, we are taking another major step forward that will ensure that those who seek to defraud the hardworking people of New York are held accountable.”

The proposal is indeed an aggressive move to regulate the financial services industry and would give the Department of Financial Services (DFS) powers that federal regulators currently possess, a move allowed under federal law. “There is no federal preemption issue,” Department of Financial Services Superintendent Maria Vullo told Gotham Gazette. “National banks and financial institutions must comply with New York State law. The proposal is a New York State statute that would authorize the Department of Financial Services to pursue individuals who commit bad acts that impact New Yorkers.”

How the proposal will be received by state legislators and by those it seeks to regulate remains to be seen. The governor, in the announcement of the proposal, directly referred to the “excesses and systematic abuse” in the Wells Fargo case, where employees used customer information to create fake bank accounts and inflate their figures. A Wells Fargo spokesperson declined to comment on Cuomo’s proposal. Since the scandal broke in September, the bank has been attempting to make amends for its employees’ misdeeds. “We also recognize that aside from the financial impact, we’ve broken trust with some customers and...our priority is to restore trust with our customers,” Wells Fargo executive Justin Thornton told the Wall Street Journal in December.

The governor’s proposal has not been fleshed out entirely and state legislative leaders have yet to weigh in. “We will review it once we see the language,” said Mike Whyland, spokesperson for Democratic Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, in an email to Gotham Gazette. Republican Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Cuomo’s proposal indicates a plan to expand financial services law, but without further clarity or bill language, legislators, industry representatives, advocacy groups, and others have little to go on.

“The New York Insurance Association (NYIA) will be reviewing the proposal and considering whether or not the measures outlined are an appropriate approach,” said Ellen Melchionni, president of the insurance trade association, in a statement.

Cuomo created the Department of Financial Services in 2011, shortly after taking office as governor, in order to create stronger oversight of the industry, which calls New York home. Since, DFS and other state entities, like the Attorney General’s office, have reached billions of dollars in settlements with financial institutions.

Marcus Stanley, policy director for Americans for Financial Reform, a nonpartisan coalition that focuses on accountability in the industry, said the governor’s proposal was a “standard thing” for a state regulator. “I’m surprised they don’t have it already,” he said. He noted that despite numerous instances of misconduct over many years, federal regulators have tended not to use their power to ban individuals from the industry. “It’s a good thing for states to step into the gap,” he said. Although, he added, “It depends on whether they use [that power] and how they use it.”

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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A Cheat Sheet to Governor Cuomo's 2017 State of the State Proposals


Cuomo State of the State image presser

Gov. Cuomo (photo: Governor's Office on flickr)


Breaking with decades of tradition, Governor Andrew Cuomo decided this year to deliver a series of State of the State addresses, making six speeches over three days to outline his 2017 agenda and tout some of his accomplishments during his first six years as governor.

Cuomo began his six-stop tour in New York City on Monday, January 9 and concluded it in Albany on Wednesday, January 11. He tailored each speech and presentation to the particular region, and, in total, his administration announced 37 often broad proposals, most with several sub-planks. For example, there are 10 points to the 35th proposal, which is restoring trust in government through sweeping ethics reform. The governor has a nearly 400-page policy book that he is delivering to the Legislature and has made public. The books contains about 150 proposals in sum.

Some of the proposals are region- or city-specific, many are for the entire state. Various elements will need approval from or compromise with the Legislature. Cuomo starts the year feuding with legislative leaders, especially Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, a Long Island Republican, and Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Westchester Democrat.

After outlining his policy agenda for 2017, Cuomo must release his Executive Budget proposal for the 2017-2018 fiscal year, then negotiate with legislative leaders, particularly Flanagan and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat. Senate Independent Democratic Conference Leader Jeff Klein, of the Bronx, will also be heavily involved in negotiations -- the IDC is again forming a coalition with Senate Republicans. A new state budget is due by April 1.

A cheat-sheet to Cuomo's State of the State proposals:

1. Tuition-free public college for middle-class students:
-Ultimately tuition will be free for families/individuals earning less than $125,000 per year
-This program will be phased in over three years--it’ll be for people and families earning less than $100,000 in Fall 2017, going to $110,000 in 2018 and $125,000 in 2019
-The program, the Excelsior Scholarship, was unveiled by Cuomo with Senator Bernie Sanders
More

2. Transforming Kennedy Airport:
-It would involve improving roadways around the Airport to reduce congestion
-He would also either, 1. Increase the capacity of the AirTrain, or 2. Have a 1-seat ride from Manhattan to JFK
-Cuomo also wants to connect all the terminals at JFK
More

3. Expanded Child Care Tax Creidt:
-Child care tax benefits would increase for those making at least $50,000 a year but less than $150,000 a year
-Those earning between $60,000 a year and $150,000 a year will see their benefits more than double under this plan
-Over 200,000 taxpayers affected
More

4. Protecting New Yorkers from Cyber Attacks:
-Cuomo proposes strengthening cybercrime and identity theft laws
-Cuomo wants to “establish a Cyber Incident Response Team within the office of Counter Terrorism.”
-This team “will serve as a go-to resource for non-Executive agencies, local governments, and public authorities in how to better protect their information technology assets, critical operating systems and data from cyber-attacks, malware and ransomware.”
More

5. Protecting Seniors from Financial Exploitation and Foreclosure
-Establish “an Elder Abuse Certification Program for banks located in New York State, amending the banking law to empower banks to place holds on potentially fraudulent transactions, and strengthening legislation that will protect senior homeowners with reverse mortgages.”
-Several measures to further protect seniors from financial exploitation
More

6. Banning Bad Actors from the Financial Services Industry for Egregious Conduct
-This proposal would “empower the state Superintendent of Financial Services to ban certain bad actors from the banking and insurance industries for misconduct like that seen in the Wells Fargo scandal.”
More

7. Further Strengthen New York’s Efforts to Crack Down on Wage Theft
-“[A]mend State law to hold the top 10 members of out-of-state limited liability companies personally financially liable for unsatisfied judgments for unpaid wages.”
-Such laws apply to in-state Limited Liability Corporations (LLCs) but not out-of-state LLCs.
-“Further, the Governor will advance legislation to empower the Labor Commissioner to directly enforce all wage liabilities on behalf of workers with unpaid wage claims. Combined, these measures will get more money back into the hands of the hardworking New Yorkers who earned it.”
More

8. Install Over 500 New Charging Stations to Promote Electric Vehicle Use
-500 new workplace charging stations
-69 charging stations along the New York State Thruway
-Encourage electric motor vehicle use and cut down on greenhouse gas emissions
More

9. Modernizing Voting in New York to Increase Participation in the Democratic System
-“[A]llow early voting, and adopt both automatic voter registration and same day voter registration.”
More

10. Close Indian Point power plant by 2021
-Unit 2 Reactor to close April 2020 and Unit 3 Reactor April 2021
-End use of a plant with numerous safety violations
-“Current Indian Point Employees will be Offered relocation and opportunities with other plants and utilities within the state; training in renewable technologies"
-“Entergy will provide $15 million in funding for environmental and community benefits"
-Cuomo is working on replacement resources so that there can be no cost increases in electricity after Indian Point closes
More

11. Invest $650 Million to Fuel the Growth of a World-Class Life Sciences Cluster in New York
-$250 million for tax incentives for life science companies
-$200 million for “state capital grants to support investment in wet-lab and innovation space”
-$100 million for “investment capital for early stage life science initiatives”
-At least $100 million for “operating support from private sector partnerships”
More

12. Launch the “New York Promise” Agenda to Advance Social Justice and Affirm New York’s Progressive Values
-Reforms of the Criminal Justice System including “overhauling New York’s antiquated bail system, ensuring access to a speedy trial, raising the age of criminal responsibility, improving witness identification procedures, recording police interrogations for serious offenses, and extending the Hurrell-Harring settlement reforms statewide.”
-Signed two executive orders to make it more likely for people to get equal pay for equal work.
-Help immigrants by “implementing the Empire State Immigrant Defense Project; expanding the naturalization services offered at the state’s Office of New Americans; pressing for passage of the DREAM Act; and convening the New York State Blue Ribbon Panel on Immigrants to make recommendations that support the integration and success of immigrants and their families.”
-Establish a Statewide Hate Crimes Task Force
-Form an Interfaith Advisory Council led by Cardinal Dolan to “help achieve a greater understanding and tolerance of all religions and cultures, promote open-mindedness and inclusivity, and bolster the state’s efforts to protect all New Yorkers.”
More

13. Expand After-School Education to Children in High-Need Areas Across the State
-$35 million pilot program
-“[C]reate 22,000 new after-school slots in high-need areas across the state.”
More

14. Lower Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative Cap by 30 Percent Between 2020 and 2030
-Cuomo “has called upon RGGI states to join New York in an effort to continue to lead the fight against climate change and drive the nation’s transition toward a clean energy economy.” (RGGI = Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative)
-Lowers greenhouse gas emissions in New York and other states
-“By reviewing the RGGI program and adjusting the cap to reflect the progress made in just a few short years, New York and neighboring states will continue to reduce emissions annually after 2020 and ensure that power sector emission reductions continue through 2030.”
More

15. Regional Investments to Move New York City Forward
-Investments in New York City’s outer boroughs
-$50 million investment in the Montefiore Health System
-Transform health and wellness in Brooklyn through measures such as affordable housing with “features such as exercise rooms, rooftop gardens, and health clinics,” the expansion of New York’s Land Bank Program, and the establishment of “Brooklyn as a primary location for the FreshConnect Mobile Markets and FreshConnect Checks program expansion to increase access to healthy foods in the area.”
-Permanent toll reductions at the Verrazano Narrows Bridge for Staten Island residents
-$10 million for upgrading the Orchard Beach Pavilion in Pelham Bay Park
-$108 million for the redevelopment of the Kingsbridge Armory in the Bronx
-“[I]ncorporate the Institute for Basic Research in Developmental Disabilities into CUNY”
More

16. $500 Million Buffalo Billion Phase II ("Buffalo Billion squared")
-“[E]xpansion of the Buffalo Billion initiative to continue building on the renewed economic engines and reinvigorated civic spirit throughout Buffalo and the entire Western New York region.”
-“[I]mplement revitalization and smart growth efforts; improve workforce development and job training; grow advanced manufacturing, tourism and life sciences; and connect communities and economic progress through rail expansion.”
-“[D]evelop a new commuter rail and multi-modal station in downtown Buffalo and completing Buffalo’s light rail extension to University at Buffalo’s North Campus will provide 20,000+ students access to downtown Buffalo and the waterfront, as well as connect urban job seekers with suburban employment centers, helping Buffalo to deliver economic inclusion for all the region’s workers.”
-A Buffalo Blueway, which would “create a network of expanded public access points to waterways and historic, cultural and natural assets to spur revitalization and tourism in the Buffalo/Niagara Region.”
-Investment at the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus
-Doubles down on program with widespread alleged corruption involving Cuomo aides, associates, and donors
More

17. Invest $2 Billion in Clean Water Infrastructure and Water Quality Protection
-“[I]nvestment in drinking water infrastructure, wastewater infrastructure and source water protection.”
-“Funding for projects will prioritize regional and watershed level solutions, and incentivize consolidation and sharing of water and wastewater services.”
-Drinking water and wastewater infrastructure upgraded
-Advanced treatment installed for both drinking water and wastewater, and advanced filtration systems installed for drinking water
-Green infrastructure and open spaces built for source water protection
-“[E]nsuring proper management and storage of common contaminants like manure and road salt to prevent runoff; and increasing the state Superfund to expedite the cleanup of hazardous waste that may impact sources of drinking water.”
-Follows (ongoing) water quality crisis in Hoosick Falls and questions about water quality in other places in New York
More

18. Enable Access to Ride-hailing Apps Throughout New York
-Ride-hailing apps are legal and regulated in New York City but not in the rest of the state
-Legalize and regulate throughout the state
-Create regulatory framework including zero-tolerance policy with drugs and alcohol, DMV licensing and regulating of ridesharing companies, consumer protections for users, and more
More

19. New $10 Million Photonics Venture Challenge in Rochester
-“This business competition will aim to support start-up companies that commercialize these rapidly developing technologies through a business accelerator program and a top award of $1 million to the most promising start-up company.”
-“[M]odeled after Western New York’s 43North, a $5 million start-up competition funded by Governor Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion initiative where cash prizes are awarded to some of the best entrepreneurs and start-ups from around the world.”
More

20. Complete the Empire State Trail by 2020
-“The state will develop 350 miles of new trail in three phases to create a 750-mile pathway for hiking and biking along scenic vistas and through charming, historic communities.”
-“The Empire State Trail will span much of the state, from the New York Harbor up through the Adirondack Mountains to the Canadian border – and from the shores of Lake Erie along the historic Erie Canal to the heart of the Capital Region.”
-Gaps closed in the Erie Canalway and the Hudson River Valley Greenway, as well as connect the two trails
-When complete, “the largest state multi-use trail in the nation.”
More

21. Build the Town of Woodbury Transit and Economic Development Hub
-“[E]xpand the Route 32 corridor, replace the Route 32 bridge over Route 17, reconfigure the ramp leading to the New York State Thruway, and add a solar-powered bus station and a commuter parking lot and an interconnected traffic system to improve access and allow for increased commercial activity.” (Orange County)
More

22. Extend the Empire State Excellence in Teaching Awards
-Honor 60 additional teachers
-“Winners will receive an honor from the Governor, the opportunity to advise education policy makers, and a stipend of $5,000.”
-“The funds can be used for continued learning and professional endeavors.”
More

23. Empower Voters to Reduce Property Taxes and Costs of Local Government
-This plan “requires county officials to develop localized plans that find real, recurring property tax savings”
-Cost-saving plans would be up for voter referendum in the November 2017 elections
-“If the plan is not approved by a majority of voters, the county government must prepare a new plan for approval in November 2018.”
More

24. $160 Million to Transform Long Island
-$80 million for improvements at 16 LIRR Stations
-$40 million will “support economic growth, environmental sustainability and water quality in business districts in Smithtown and Kings Park.”
More

25. Nation's Largest Offshore Wind Energy Project Off Long Island Coast and Unprecedented Commitment to Develop up to 2.4 Gigawatts of Offshore Wind Power by 2030
-Long Island Power Authority to approve of a wind project 30 miles southeast of Montauk, for 90 megawatts of power
-“[A]n unprecedented commitment to develop up to 2.4 gigawatts of offshore wind power by 2030, enough power generation for 1.25 million homes and the largest commitment in U.S. history.”
-“[C]alls on state agencies to ensure a 79,000 acre lease area capable of siting approximately 800 megawatts of offshore wind off of the Rockaway Peninsula is developed cost-effectively and responsibly to customers.”
-Help New York reach its goal of 50% of energy needs met by renewable sources by 2030
-“[T]he Department of Environmental Conservation and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority to undertake a comprehensive study to determine the most rapid, cost-effective, and responsible pathway to reach 100 percent renewable energy statewide.”
More

26. Actions to Combat the Heroin and Opioid Epidemic in New York
-"[E]liminate insurance prior authorization for inpatient treatment to include outpatient treatment.”
-“[T]en 24/7 urgent access centers with crisis intervention on-call services, one in each region of the state.”
-“[R]equire emergency department prescribers to consult the Prescription Monitoring Program Registry to combat “Doctor Shopping"
-"[L]egislation to create New York’s first recovery high schools in regions of the State hit especially by the disease of addiction.”
More

27. "Buy American" Plan will Implement the Nation's Strongest State Procurement Laws Mandating the Preference of American Products
-"[A]ll state entities will be required to give preference to American-made goods and products in any new procurements more than $100,000.”
-Other states have “buy American incentives” and New York is missing out on the opportunity to incentivize people to buy American
-“To qualify as “American-made” under Governor Cuomo’s proposal, end manufacturing processes should take place in the United States and more than sixty percent of the components of the manufactured good should be of domestic origin.” There are a few exceptions to this requirement, though.
More

28. Saab to Establish North American Headquarters for Defense and Security Division in New York State
-Saab is in military defense and civil security, and will invest $55 million to relocate to New York State.
-Saab plans “strongly align with the region’s “CNY Rising” Upstate Revitalization Initiative (URI) plan.”
More

29. New Independent Study of All Possible Options to Replace I-81 Viaduct in Central New York
-This viaduct is in Syracuse and is in need of a replacement
-“The New York State Department of Transportation will engage an independent expert with international tunnel expertise to conduct the study.”
More

30. $45 Million Revitalization of Syracuse Hancock International Airport
-“[W]ide-scale redesign of the grand hall, food, beverage and retail concessions, and the exterior façade. In addition, a new Regional Aviation History Museum, glass pedestrian bridge, and eco-friendly roof will be built along with new flooring and furniture to provide a welcoming atmosphere for travelers from across the world.”
-Expected to create 850 construction jobs
-Additional funding will come from the airport, county, and federal government; with estimated completion date in 2019
More

31. Foster the Industrial Hemp Industry in New York State
-“[T]he Governor has proposed to amend legislation to further grow the industry and authorize farmers to work with the state to conduct hemp research as an agricultural commodity.”
-“[T]he Governor will host the first-ever Industrial Hemp Summit in the Southern Tier”
More

32. $38 Million Revitalization of Plattsburgh International Airport
-Modernize the airport, including “the construction of a new air cargo receiving and distribution center.” This “will allow existing manufacturers to transport their own materials, create jobs, and attract new companies to the region.”
More

33. Protect New Yorkers from Soaring Prescription Drug Prices
-Three-pronged plan. One, to “effectively create a price ceiling for certain high cost prescription drugs reimbursed under the Medicaid program by requiring a 100 percent supplemental rebate for any amount that exceeds a benchmark price recommended by the state's Drug Utilization Review Board.”
-Two, to have “a surcharge on any amount by which the price of these high-priced drugs exceeds the benchmark recommended by the Drug Utilization Review Board in the Medicaid context, when these drugs are sold into the state.”
-Three, to have Pharmacy Benefit Managers register with the State, “and be subject to new regulations requiring disclosure of financial incentives or benefits for promoting the use of certain drugs, as well as other financial arrangements affecting customers.”
More

34. Launch the Empire Star Public Service Award to Recognize the Meaningful Contributions of Public Employees
-Award will go to those who “go beyond simply what is routinely asked of them and display an admirable level of dedication and pride in their work.”
-“Individuals or teams will be nominated by their fellow state employees via the Empire Star Public Service Award website and an Awards Selection Committee will review all nominations and recommend winners to the Governor.”
-Winners get a $5,000 scholarship for professional development.
More

35. Restoring the Integrity and Accountability of State Government Through Comprehensive Ethics Reform
-Ten-point plan: limiting outside income and having a full-time Legislature (imposed through constitutional amendment), term limits (imposed through constitutional amendment), “requiring members of the Legislature to obtain an advisory opinion before earning outside income,” closing the so-called LLC Loophole and other campaign finance reforms including a public-financing system, “subjecting local elected officials to financial disclosure requirements,” reform to the state’s Freedom of Information Law, “expanding the State Inspector General's authority to SUNY and CUNY not-for-profits,” “new Inspectors General for the Port Authority and the State Education Department,” and “ensuring greater oversight of the state's procurement process.”
-Governor Cuomo: “State government must do more to restore the public trust because as public servants we earn the trust of the people we serve. Unfortunately, in Albany there have been a series of breaches of that trust. We must take action to show the people of this state that we get it, and that when someone does something wrong, they are punished to the full extent of the law and we have a system that is going to catch them. We have been doing historic work at the state level – the government is doing more than ever before – but imagine what we could do if we had the complete confidence of the people. If we had that confidence, there is nothing we couldn’t do – and I am not going to stop until I get there.”
More

36. Grow New York's 21st Century Workforce and Advance the Tech Economy
-Ideas including establishing a Tech Workforce Training Fund; starting the the New York Tech Workforce Development Task Force; starting more Early College High Schools, which would “provide high-performing, at-risk students the opportunity to receive hands-on training, a free associate’s degree and first-in-line job opportunities upon graduating; expanding the Master Teacher Program so that more teachers are trained in computer science; and establish what Cuomo calls a “tech workforce training fund.”
-Launch the New York Tech Workforce Task Force, “a body of industry experts, academic leaders, and state officials who will inform New York’s K-12, college, workforce and economic development investments and ensure their continued alignment with 21st century workforce demands.”
-A tax credit for incumbent worker training.
More

37. Encourage Recent College Graduates to Become First-Time Homeowners in Upstate Communities
-“Graduate to Homeownership” program would help recent college grads with homebuyer assistance to purchase homes upstate so that college grads can remain upstate.
-According to the Governor, “This $5 million pilot program will incentivize homeownership with subsidized low interest loans, down payment assistance and homebuyer education courses to encourage young people to stay and continue revitalizing Upstate New York’s downtown areas.”
-This is an initial pilot program of $5 million aimed at keeping upstate students in their home or school communities and reversing population and job losses.
More

Governor Cuomo's full 2017 State of the State policy book

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by Brendan Birth and Ben Max

***
by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been updated.



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