Gotham Gazette

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Tax Issues at Center of State Elections, Albany Year to Come

Cuomo taxes

Gov. Cuomo (photo: Don Pollard/Governor's Office)

When the dust settles on the 2018 elections, whoever is governing the state will be faced with problems like what to do about NYCHA and the MTA, and how New York should respond to climate change, among many others. Another pressing issue that has been an area of focus in many campaigns around the state, from the governor’s race through those for the state Senate, is taxes, and what the next governor and Legislature will or won’t do about them in a number of ways, including the ongoing question of how New York must adjust to the new federal tax code.

Though proposals and arguments have often been hazy, the issue of taxes has been among the most discussed this election season and will be a topic of significant debate when the new state government starts doing business in January. The contours of those discussions and the actual proposals put forward will vary greatly depending on the outcomes of the governor’s race and which party controls the state Senate (the Assembly is home to an overwhelming Democratic majority).

Marc Molinaro, the Republican nominee for governor, has pitched his candidacy largely based on a plan that he says will lead to a 30 percent reduction in property taxes for New Yorkers over five years, but the party’s state Senate conference, hoping to cling to a one-seat majority during a promising year for the opposition, has mostly stuck to arguing that Democrats will increase taxes to previously unseen levels if given full control of state government.

For their part, Democrats have been quieter on taxes, with Governor Andrew Cuomo promising to extend the state’s property tax cap and keep state spending to two percent annual increases, even as some members of his party’s Senate slate push for things like state-run single-payer healthcare and a polluter’s tax -- neither of which Cuomo supports. Running for a third term, Cuomo has said little else about taxes, despite the fact that his attempts to thwart the impact of the federal tax reform have thus far not panned out, the state’s current millionaires tax is set to expire next year, the state is facing upcoming budget gaps, and the state-run MTA is in need of tens of billions of dollars to get the New York City subway system functioning properly.

Molinaro has made broad tax reform one of the centerpieces of his campaign, along with restoring trust in government and generally being a governor who isn’t followed by corruption investigations. His tax plan proposes reductions across the board, from the end of the millionaires tax to an expansion of the earned income tax credit to childless workers and noncustodial parents and the indexing the state’s income tax brackets, standard deduction and dependent exemptions to inflation (a move that Molinaro says prevents a filer’s tax bracket increasing due to inflation without any real change in their earning power).

Molinaro wants to limit annual state spending increases to three percent, but wants that cap codified into state law, unlike Cuomo’s two percent cap, which is self-imposed and the governor, despite his claims to the contrary, has not completely kept to.

The Dutchess county executive’s plan has “a lot of good elements in it and establishes some very worthy and desirable goals,” according to E.J. McMahon, the founder and research director of the conservative Empire Center of New York, although McMahon said he didn’t think the math behind the plan added up to the promised 30 percent reduction in property taxes. Asked repeatedly throughout the campaign, Molinaro has not laid out exactly how he would get there, only promising in broad terms to modernize state government, find efficiencies, and more effectively deliver services.

On the Democratic side, clarity also doesn’t come easy. Cuomo’s priorities on socially liberal but fiscally moderate governance can be seen most clearly in something like his Long Island Senate Democratic Agenda, but even that plan lacks specifics and has seemingly competing priorities. On the one hand, the agenda lays out a promise to keep the two percent property tax cap and the two percent spending cap going, while also promising “historic tax cuts.” On the other hand, there are promises to include Long Island in increased infrastructure, education, and economic development funding.

Cuomo has resisted calls for a New York City-based addition to the millionaires tax, recently pitting his philosophy against Mayor Bill de Blasio in sarcastic terms, saying, “'[W]ell, ideally we would like to have a millionaires tax.' Yes, I wish I could be an elected official who lived in the ideal,” at a gathering of the Association for A Better New York, a business group. He also explicitly cast himself as a different kind of politician than legislators and local politicians “who like to spend” at a speech in front of the Business Council of New York, boasting that he has overseen lower year-over-year state spending increases than previous governors including Republicans and his father.

Part of the lack of clarity on the Democratic side has to do with the uncertainty of where the party will be after the general election. A newly won Senate majority may rely on seats outside New York City, which would require a collaboration of city, suburban, and upstate interests that don’t always align perfectly. And even as Democrats in swing districts run on platforms that include single-payer healthcare in New York, they are pledging not to increase the taxes that would fund it, and many are seeking to represent high-tax Long Island and north-of-the-city areas very sensitive to any additional tax increases and another election right around the corner in 2020, when all the seats in the Legislature will again be on the ballot.

“I think out of the gate you're gonna see a Senate Democratic Conference that's gonna correct some of the wrongs, the missed opportunities by the Senate Republicans like voting reform and gun control, women's health,” Democratic state Senate spokesperson Mike Murphy told Gotham Gazette, suggesting the party would focus on progressive social issues at the beginning of the 2019 session if in the majority. And even as the New York Health Act that would establish state single-payer health care emerged as a hot issue for New York City progressives, among other Democrats, they will have the state’s expiring laws around rent control to deal with next year, and candidates outside of the city, like the Hudson Valley’s Pete Harckham, want much of a full two-year term to work out how a single-payer program would look, or to craft a universal health insurance program compromise with Cuomo.

On the issues of the new federal limitations on state and local tax (SALT) deductions, which dramatically affects high-tax states like New York, the state has joined with other Democratic states to sue the federal government over the $10,000 cap that was included in federal tax reform efforts, in part on the grounds that they were targeted after not voting for Donald Trump for president. At the same time, the IRS has blocked efforts by New York and other states to get around the deduction cap by limiting the federal tax credit taxpayers would get by “donating” their property tax payments to charitable organizations designed to accept the taxes.

Cuomo has been otherwise quiet about how he would solve the issue of the SALT deduction problem, which is likely to most acutely hurt high earners as well as suburban middle and upper middle class property owners, though he has said one goal is for Democrats to recapture control of the federal government and repeal the deduction cap.

The governor has been silent on the question of whether the millionaires tax will be allowed to sunset next year as it's currently designed to -- it has been extended multiple times under Cuomo, in partnership with a split Legislature, and there is a significant question around how the state would make up for the revenue if it is not extended. On the other hand, it affects many individuals and families that will be paying higher taxes given the new SALT cap, and Cuomo and others have expressed concern about high-income individuals leaving the state. Cuomo’s campaign did not provide an answer to multiple Gotham Gazette inquiries about the governor’s stance on the millionaires tax.

Molinaro has said he would let the millionaires tax expire.

His plan on the SALT deduction cap is to get rid of New York’s “tax benefit recapture” policy, a practice that charges the highest marginal tax rate for taxpayers above a certain income band, for New Yorkers making between $107,650 and $323,200, thus addressing some of the lost deductions for those earners.

Tax shifts rather than cuts or increases are the most common kinds of plans on the table from both parties. On the Democratic side, Long Island’s John Brooks, running for reelection in a swing district, has offered up a plan that he says would allow areas like Long Island to get out from under high property tax bills related to education spending by capping the amount of school funding coming from property taxes at 50 percent, with any budget needs above 50 percent picked up by the state.

“What Brooks is saying is we need to lower your taxes by finding someone else to pay them. But if you're in Long Island, there is no ‘someone else,’ it's you, you have the higher average incomes,” McMahon said in reaction to the proposal.

For Republicans, requiring the state government to pick up Medicaid costs from local governments is something that Molinaro and state Senate Republicans are running on (to the delight of local editorial boards). It would cost $7 to $8 billion, and require either new or higher taxes or a reduction in the actual delivered services according to a Citizens Budget Commission study on the shift (Cuomo has mocked it as an unserious proposal). But the state Senate conference has also endorsed the idea of exempting seniors from paying property taxes, arguing that since they don’t make use of the schools, they shouldn’t pay to keep them running. It’s a proposition McMahon has panned before and he compared it unfavorably to Brooks’ plan as irresponsible and unfeasible. “How is that fair to a working couple with three or four kids living paycheck to paycheck, and the retired couple next door get to pay no property tax? Are you kidding?”

by Dave Colon, Gotham Gazette

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Without Cuomo, Other Candidates for Governor Present Ideas in Tempered Debate

Cuomo Molinaro Miner Hawkins Sharpe

Cuomo, Molinaro, Miner, Hawkins, Sharpe

New York’s gubernatorial candidates (minus Governor Andrew Cuomo, who declined the invitation) took the stage at Albany’s College of Saint Rose Thursday evening for the second debate of the general election, but, unlike the first, one that did not once summon the name “Trump” and focused more on the intricacies of running the government.

Whether it was because of the four-candidate field, the real target for each seeming to be the missing incumbent, or the pre-debate call for civility from College of Saint Rose President Carolyn Stefanco, over 90 minutes Republican Marc Molinaro, Green Party nominee Howie Hawkins, Serve America Movement’s Stephanie Miner, and Libertarian Larry Sharpe did less back-and-forth debating and more delivering pieces of their platforms and criticisms of Cuomo’s record.

Cuomo’s absence itself was little remarked upon, referred to early on by Laura Ladd Bierman, the lead moderator and executive director of the League of Women Voters of New York State, with a pointed “thank you to the four of you who agreed to participate,” and toward the end, as Hawkins said “Shame on Andrew Cuomo for not coming here” during his closing statement. But he was a convenient punching bag for all four of the candidates, who despite presenting very different governing philosophies were united in blasting the two-term governor’s economic development and gun control efforts, Excelsior Scholarship program, and ability to retain New York State’s population.

After sustained criticism that the gubernatorial debates this cycle didn’t focus on issues of particular concern in upstate New York, the very first question of the night from moderator Josefa Velasquez of Sludge involved how to encourage young people to move upstate.

Hawkins plugged his Green New Deal as antidote to the lack of jobs in the extensive region, after noting that “most of them [that do exist] are crap.” Sharpe called for a simpler tax code and the exemption of small business from “federal regulatory bodies” if they only sell their goods locally. Miner called for the end of Cuomo’s economic development schemes and more investment in local infrastructure. And Molinaro, who debated Cuomo one-on-one in New York City last week, called for respect from government and property tax relief through the State taking on local costs.

And so a template was set for the evening: Hawkins as the full-throated leftist, Sharpe as the bombastic and soundbite-friendly voice of libertarianism, Miner as the upstate-friendly moderate wonk, and Molinaro as an earnest, caring Republican out of step with the callous, hyper-partisan attitude the national party has turned to. But the candidates were also so focused on their agreement that the status quo in the state is so poor that they forgot to overtly point out disagreements with each other.

Along with Velasquez, questions were asked of the candidates by the Daily News’ Ken Lovett, WRVO’s Susan Arbetter and College of St. Rose junior Takora McIntyre. While the League of Women Voters sponsored the debate and Saint Rose hosted it, the League did not find a media partner, so the debate was not broadcast on television or radio; the League instead streamed it over multiple online channels.

The candidates, none of whom are well-known across New York, sought to establish their biographies and experiences with voters. Molinaro brought up his experience as Dutchess county executive when explaining why he knew how to lower property taxes or lead a statewide effort to find ways where counties could share public services, and pitched his life in government as one dedicated to improving the lives of everyday New Yorkers. Miner talked about her infrastructure modernization efforts as (Democratic) mayor of Syracuse and focused her closing statement on emphasising her eight years of experience running the city as a case study in “solving real problems” in a broken system.

Sharpe brought up his military service as a way for him to compare the GI Bill benefits he got to his proposed grants for students after the 10th grade, and pitched himself as a “business guy” trying to make “customers” (voters) happy. Hawkins reminded voters of his life of activism while encouraging political leaders to listen to young people and his time as a construction worker to pitch himself as a man who knew the struggles of a working person.

Every candidate said they had problems with the gun-control SAFE Act and the way it was passed, professed it is important for young people to vote, and argued the governor’s Regional Economic Development Councils should be scrapped and that the state should pay for mandates that fall on the shoulders of local governments.

On rare occasions, like Hawkins’ dismissal of charter schools as corporate profit-seeking in the guise of education or Miner’s measured support of the proposed ‘red flag’ gun control bill Cuomo is behind or Sharpe promoting his plan to end public education after 10th grade, one candidate disagreed with the general tenor of the other three. But whether it was the number of candidates, the insistence on civility, Cuomo’s absence, or a non-confrontational format, the proceedings largely entailed four candidates standing behind lecterns and reciting their platforms one at a time when prompted by a question.

Sharpe jumped out from the civility constrictions by casting the ideologies of both Democrats and Republicans as uncreative failures (and in one bizarre instance claiming Molinaro “stole” the term “Status Cuomo” from him), and managed to stand out if only because ideas like asking Pepsi to fix lead-lined pipes upstate in exchange for the good press and branding they would get out of it, is in fact something no traditional politician has ever brought up.

Though Sharpe (slash government) and Hawkins (socialism) have drastically different political philosophies and policy ideas, they never had, or took, the opportunity to poke holes in each other’s arguments. Likewise, Miner and Molinaro never went back-and-forth about the best ways to invest in infrastructure and where those investments are first needed. If the Cuomo-Molinaro debate was light on substance, the four-candidate conversation just a few days before Election Day lacked open disagreement.

by Dave Colon, Gotham Gazette

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Running for Attorney General, Wofford Promises to Step Up Fighting Corruption, Step Back Fighting Wall Street

wofford podium

Kieth Wofford (photo via @Wofford4AG)

Keith Wofford, the Republican nominee for Attorney General, appears to have a simple campaign message: he’ll make it harder for corrupt government officials to waste taxpayer money and make it easier for New York businesses to thrive.

The first-time candidate for political office who has made a highly-lucrative career for himself as a attorney says that if elected the state’s top legal officer, he would step back what he calls the over-prosecution of corporations, especially financial institutions that have so often been the focus of the last few New York attorneys general. While in the Democratic primary for attorney general candidates competed over who would be the toughest “Sheriff of Wall Street,” as former Attorney General Eliot Spitzer was known, Wofford wants nothing to do with that title. He’d much prefer to be the Sheriff of State Street, in Albany, home to the governor’s office and state Legislature.

Wofford is competing with Democratic nominee Letitia James, currently the New York City Public Advocate, and several smaller party candidates. While James is favored and has led in the public polling, she is not particularly well-known outside of the five boroughs and Wofford has raised significant funds to air the types of television commercials needed to build his own name recognition, which started at virtually zero.

James has attacked Wofford for his vision for the role of attorney general, particularly as it relates to aggressiveness with big firms, and for voting for President Donald Trump, who is deeply unpopular in New York, though Trump won many, mostly less-populated pockets of the state in 2016. Wofford has explained his vote as due to the promise of Trump helping economically struggling people in upstate New York, including his native Buffalo, while attacking James for her closeness to Governor Andrew Cuomo and other Democratic establishment figures.

Wofford’s campaign message starts around his working class roots in western New York. His father spent 32 years working at a Chevy plant near Buffalo, he explains, and his mother was working retail jobs while taking care of two sons. He says he’s running “because the state’s been great to me, and it’s time to give something back,” as he said during a recent appearance on the Max & Murphy show on WBAI radio. He argues the state has veered off course, largely due to corruption among its elected officials, and that as the attorney general, he would focus on making sure that taxpayers are not being ripped off. He also wants to use the position to help create a better business climate in a state that has seen many factories close and residents leave.

“We had an environment where my dad could get study employment and a great job for 32 years. There were good public schools, great public libraries that I spent a lot of time at with my mom, but those underpinnings are going away or in some cases are gone because we have a government that chases jobs away,” said Wofford. State government has been “hopelessly corrupt,” he said, along with attorneys general chasing jobs away through overzealous and politically-motivated enforcement -- work that the officeholders and their supporters, as well as James and her Democratic competitors this year, have said was done to protect New Yorkers’ rights, enforce the law, and hold powerful entities responsible for wrongdoing.

“Let’s just look at all of the strong-arming and settlements,” Wofford said, when asked how attorneys general have hurt the state economy, and referring to settlements reached with financial institutions in the aftermath of the Great Recession. “We got this crazy law called the Martin Act, and it allows you to accuse companies of fraud, but you don’t have to prove that the company intended to fraud anybody.”

“The statue does not serve to protect the people or companies from being harmed, nor does it provide the necessary enforcement to hold the wrongdoers accountable,” he continued, staking out a stance far different from how Democrats have viewed the Martin Act since Spitzer re-established its use in aggressive fashion. “The law does, however, give the Attorney General intimidation powers which they use to twist the companies’ arms behind closed doors and threaten them with criminal liability and make them pay money.”

The result is a hostile environment that keeps companies from creating jobs in New York. According to Wofford the “combination of the hostility to business plus the unremitting corruption” has made the business community lose confidence in New York.

Wofford argues that he can use existing powers of the attorney general to go after public corruption in a more aggressive way than others have in the role.

“There are a number of ways already on the books” to do it, he told Max & Murphy. “I think you really just have to have a re-emphasis on looking, and asking the right questions, and making sure that you find the red flags and try to get ahead of some of this before it gets to be a problem.”

James has also released an anti-corruption plan, that includes using existing powers while seeking new ones to root out malfeasance in state and local governments. She’s also much more focused on Trump and federal policy than Wofford, making such fights perhaps the main focus of her campaign, while Wofford has largely said his focus would be New York. He has argued that the two New York attorneys general during the Trump presidency have been over-eager to attack the president, but has said there are some lawsuits and investigations worth continuing, like the office’s fight against a citizenship question on the 2020 Census.

James says she plans to work with lawmakers to “reform outdated laws to give the Attorney General civil and criminal authority to go after corruption,” while also pledging to use the existing powers of the attorney general to investigate corruption in state government, and “Trump’s corrupt empire.” Regarding the former, the powers given to the attorney general under “Executive Law 63(12), the False Claims Act,” will allow James to “investigate and prosecute legislators, businesses, and charities involved in self-dealing,” as stated in her corruption plan.

Wofford criticized James for “passing the buck to someone else,” arguing that she does not intend to investigate corruption until she receives permission from both the governor and the Legislature. James has stated otherwise in her plan, saying that “until the legislature takes action, I will use the full powers of the office creatively to find new ways to take on corruption, from Albany to Washington, D.C.” However, even in her Democratic primary, James’ opponents pointed out her closeness to both Cuomo and Democratic members of the Legislature.

In Wofford’s plan he names a few of the existing powers that he believes give the Attorney General legislative and investigative authority. According to the definition provided by Cornell Law School, under the auspices of “parens patriae,” the government, or any authority, are to be regarded "as [the] guardian for those who are unable to care for themselves.” The Attorney General’s office can then use this doctrine “to investigate, and if necessary, commence litigation for the benefit of state residents.” Executive Law 63(12), allows the Attorney General to investigate private entities “who conspire with public officials to take advantage of competing bidders or taxpayers,” Wofford notes. Operation Integrity, also listed in James’ plan is, “a pact between the Attorney General and the Comptroller which allows the Attorney General to investigate pay-to-play.” These serve as “a few examples of existing tools that an independent, energized Attorney General can use to combat corruption.”

As Wofford has previously stated, he believes that it takes someone from the outside to come in and clean up Albany. However, according to James, Wofford’s work at the law firm Ropes and Gray LLP, where he is a partner earning several million dollars per year, and his failure to disclose his client list should raise flags for voters. James, who repeatedly called for Wofford to release his tax returns, which he briefly showed The New York Law Journal last week, has said the Republican nominee should also delineate which of his firm’s clients have had business before the Attorney General’s office. While James views Wofford’s work with the law firm as a conflict of interest, Wofford regards it as preparation for what he would be dealing with as Attorney General.

During his time at Ropes and Gray, Wofford’s focus was on bankruptcy and creditors’ rights. In an interview with WAMC, Wofford summed up his job by saying that he was responsible for getting money back to investors after they’d given it companies that would either send it away, waste it, or use it on projects that later failed. Wofford claimed that this is what is happening to the taxpayers of the state who don’t get to see where their money really goes or how well it is being used.

“A man who makes $4.5 million from a law firm that represents the makers of OxyContin, vulture funds that pillaged Puerto Rico, and big banks that caused the subprime mortgage crisis can’t claim to be independent to tackle corruption,” said James spokesperson Jack Sterne, in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “By turning his back on the Martin Act, Mr. Wofford is ignoring the very abuses and criminal conduct that led to the subprime mortgage crisis -- which cost tens of thousands of New York families their homes. If New Yorkers can’t trust him to hold corporate giants accountable, how can they trust him to take on corruption?”

As James called for him to release his taxes, Wofford was calling on her to agree to debates. She agreed to one, which occurred earlier this week on Spectrum News NY1 and hit most of the talking points that each candidate has been putting forth on the trail for months. Both candidates talked about pursuing criminal justice reforms if elected, though their lists of reforms differ somewhat, with Wofford mostly focused on ensuring speedy trials actually occur as guaranteed in the constitution, while James has a more expansive list including bail reform and outfitting police officers across the state with body cameras.

Wofford’s central policy focus is improving the business climate, and he plans to help small- and medium-sized businesses with the addition of small business liaison or assistance office within the Economic Justice Bureau of the Attorney General’s office. Small businesses would be able to make appropriate filings “without having to hire armies of lawyers,” he said.

“It’s long overdue that there’s someone in the state is on their side. So they can focus on growing jobs and growing business, rather than focusing on paying lawyers and which lawyers to hire,” said Wofford.

Wofford’s platform has also focused on creating a plan to deal with the opioid epidemic; he’s stressed that the attorney general’s office needs to be more active and plans to use the Organized Crime Task Force to investigate individuals suspected of bringing drugs into the state illegally. The Medical Fraud Control unit would serve to carry out the investigations of companies that fail to disclose the risks associated with opioids, and of physicians who overprescribed the drugs, he says.

“Time and again, parents and family members cannot find open beds for their loved ones in need of treatment,” Wofford said his press release, where he spoke about his plans to address the opioid crisis. “By creating a dedicated fund administered through the Attorney General’s Office to invest in additional treatment capacity we can help families escape the horrors of opioid addiction and enable patients to receive treatment close to home where they have their families’ support.”

Wofford is also pledging to better equip law enforcement and first responders, and provide victims with access to better treatment options. A part of the funding would come from settlements reached by his office, such the ongoing lawsuit mentioned in his plan, against opioid manufacturer Purdue Pharma L.P. Wofford “plans to pursue this litigation [Purdue Pharma lawsuit] aggressively and initiate investigations into those who have profited from opioid addiction.”

“We have to deal with this opioid crisis, it’s a human tragedy, it’s also secondarily, and much less an economic tragedy and it’s a huge problem for our government,” said Wofford. James also has a plan to fight the opioid epidemic.

Wofford’s agenda as laid out during the campaign also touches on criminal justice reform in terms of addressing issues with “speedy trial” assurances.

“We have an affirmative proposal on reform of speedy trial, that we think if there is a bipartisan dialogue on it, together with discovery reform in criminal cases, we can both maintain public safety and maintain an outcome that the D.A., and the cops, and the people protecting our safety can support,” explained Wofford. With some people held for years without going to trial, Wofford says reforms would “get rid of what is currently an unconstitutional situation.”

[Read: In Attorney General Debate, James and Wofford Contrast Careers, Approaches to Cuomo and Trump]

by Annie Abreu, Gotham Gazette

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Ben Max contributed to this article.

Molinaro Pledges Education 'State of Emergency,' Council of Mayors

marc molinaro on twitter

Marc Molinaro (photo: @marcmolinaro)

Republican gubernatorial nominee Marc Molinaro intends to declare a “state of emergency” for struggling school districts to address a plethora of issues and provide districts with more control over their destiny.

Speaking to Gotham Gazette after his Tuesday speech at the Association for a Better New York, Molinaro said that the dismal status of some school districts, especially in upstate cities, requires extraordinary action and significant facets of educational policy-making devolved to local districts.

“You have failing schools upstate that are generationally failing,” Molinaro said. “Rochester and Syracuse, just generationally failing, and the governor has done nothing to address this. I would declare a state of emergency.”

“I’m willing to declare a state of emergency, allow community school districts and the state to establish latitude within the bureaucratic system to get an education, a school functioning again, so we’re educating kids to compete,” he continued, going on to say he would form a “Council of Mayors” also open to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

The statewide graduation rate for the class of 2017 was 80.2 percent, but the graduation rate in four of the five largest school districts is lower: Yonkers tops the statewide rate, but New York City, Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse all have graduation rates lower than the statewide average.

Of the “big five,” the crisis is most acute in Rochester, where the 2017 on-time graduation rate was just 51.9 percent, though this was a 4.2 percent increase over 2016. Rochester’s schools are highly segregated and nearly 40 percent of students are low-income. Syracuse’s graduation rate is slightly higher, at 60.5 percent, but was the only “big five” district to see graduation rates decline between 2016 and 2017. Buffalo’s 2017 rate was 62.7 percent, New York City’s was 71.1 percent, and Yonkers’ was 82.8 percent. Graduation rates tell only part of the story, of course, but often provide significant insight into broader, more complex dynamics.

Issues exist elsewhere outside of the “big five” districts. In Hempstead, where 97 percent of students are black or Hispanic, just 37 percent of students graduated on-time in 2017, one of the lowest figures in the state.

Molinaro did not go into explicit detail on what exactly a “state of emergency” would entail and what types of state regulations he would like to unshackle districts from. But he did say that he would establish a “Council of Mayors” that would meet to develop plans and targets, apparently organized and run by the executive chamber if he is governor.

“We will meet every single quarter to identify our work plan, benchmarks to address educational failure, generational failure, nutritional issues, safety,” Molinaro said. “And each quarter we will identify whether or not we’ve achieved that and use an actual, real time dashboard to evaluate success.” Molinaro said that de Blasio, a Democrat who famously does not get along with Governor Andrew Cuomo, would be welcome to join the council, but that its “focus” would be on upstate cities.

Education itself has largely been reduced to the sidelines in this election, with issues such as corruption, taxes, transit, and the Trump administration dominating. Nonetheless, Molinaro has outlined contours of an education agenda (though not a detailed plan) that in many ways departs from arguments traditionally brought forward by Republicans.

Molinaro has largely shied away from the perennial issues of charter schools and school choice, both of which he and Cuomo both support. Molinaro has said several times that he supports lifting the state’s charter school cap, though he joined fellow Republicans in voting against doing so in the Assembly in 2010. Nonetheless, he has not discussed the issue much during the campaign -- wealthy charter school backers continue to support Cuomo with campaign donations.

Molinaro criticized the governor and distanced himself from Republican Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan for calling teachers and the teachers union “enemies” or “forces of evil,” respectively. “Neither is acceptable,” he told Gotham Gazette on Tuesday, pledging to work with and re-empower teachers.

The GOP nominee faces long odds taking on Cuomo and will be joined on the ballot by three other challengers, including Green Party nominee Howie Hawkins, independent Stephanie Miner, the former mayor of Syracuse, and Libertarian Party nominee Larry Sharpe, who has outlined his own, somewhat revolutionary education plan.

While he has put forth detailed plans on taking over the MTA, government reform, tax policy, veterans services, economic opportunity, and services for people with disabilities, Molinaro has not published an education plan, though he said elements of his others include education-focused elements.

The crux of Molinaro’s approach to education is to devolve significant amounts of authority over all sorts of matters from state to local control, including decoupling from education policy like the Common Core learning standards and elements of standardized testing, and providing teachers and administrators wider “latitude” over decisions at hyperlocal levels. This includes more local control of teacher evaluations, he said, though he acknowledged the need for some statewide framework that localities would then work within to pursue their own system for teacher evaluation, a hot-button issue that formed a central part of Cuomo’s education agenda until he retreated from it in the face of opposition from the teachers unions and their legislative allies.

“What you need to reestablish is really a partnership between family, community, and school,” Molinaro said. “And the way you do that is by empowering local districts to start to make more curriculum decisions, and then give even individual buildings and administrators the ability to create work-plans for their students, their teachers, their community. And by doing that, you’ll get greater buy-in from family, and you’ll be able to evaluate success much more.”

Molinaro has spoken extensively, at least relative to other education policy areas, on special education and services for those with disabilities, which he has placed particular importance on since learning his daughter was on the autism spectrum and running into challenges getting her proper services.

In Dutchess County, Molinaro’s administration launched in 2015 the “ThinkDifferently” initiative to change perceptions and improve services for and integration of people with disabilities in schools and elsewhere. The project, annually funded by $2 million of federal Community Development Block Grant, supports projects and outreach for businesses to become accessible and for the community to reevaluate its relationship with individuals with disabilities. Molinaro has said ThinkDifferently has been adopted by roughly 100 communities across the state already.

He has put forth a plan to take ThinkDifferently statewide if elected governor, which includes new deputy secretary and ombudsperson positions, and a reevaluation of all services.

“This state has perpetuated a separate but unequal form of education: general ed and special ed,” Molinaro said at his October 23 debate with Cuomo. “I believe in integrating that because those who are living with special education needs, those living with developmental disabilities are being left behind and parents are being forced to advocate, full hand on combat, to receive services. So that’s a way to reinvigorate and to inspire kids to learn.”

Molinaro has criticized the state’s universal pre-K program as being exclusionary towards people with disabilities, and that Cuomo in particular has neglected that cohort of students. And on Sunday, Molinaro characterized Sharpe’s plan not to accept any federal funds for education as one that would “decimate special education” in New York.

by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

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Ben Max contributed to this story.

Max & Murphy Podcast: 'Minor Party' Candidates for Comptroller & Attorney General

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

October 31, 2018 - Max & Murphy Podcast: 'Minor Party' Candidates for Comptroller & Attorney General

voting line in277With Election Day less than a week away, several of the "minor party" candidates for state comptroller and attorney general joined the show to make their cases: Comptroller candidates Mark Dunlea of the Green Party and Cruger Gallaudet of the Libertarian Party; Attorney General candidates Nancy Sliwa of the Reform Party, Chris Garvey of the Libertarian Party, and Michael Sussman of the Green Party.

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

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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Climate Change, and What To Do About It, Largely Missing from Governor’s Race

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Gov. Cuomo and former VP Gore in 2015 (photo: The Governor's Office)

New York’s 2018 gubernatorial election has largely been eclipsed, like so many things in United States politics, by a massive Trump-shaped shadow. Within that shadow, Andrew Cuomo and Marc Molinaro have argued about the health of upstate New York, management of the MTA, and dueling corruption charges, among other topics. But one looming issue, climate change, has seemed to escape the notice of the two candidates, even as news related to it becomes more dire and New York’s Legislature sits on proposals to shift the state to a 100 percent renewable energy environment.

“I would say no, but that's generally my answer for most candidates,” Aracely Jimenez-Hudis, a member of the climate justice organization Sunrise NYC said when asked if she thought either of the major party gubernatorial candidates were talking enough about climate change. And while Jimenez-Hudis works with a group whose main focus is climate change, the fact remains that it simply isn’t an issue either candidate has decided to address this year.

Molinaro doesn’t include a platform on climate change or the environment on his website, but told Gotham Gazette that he accepts climate change as science and that it is a trend impacted by humans; he believes in “the inherent capacity of man to overcome any challenge.” Molinaro also said he agrees with the governor’s idea to get New York to 50 percent renewable energy by 2030, but that rather than the state investing large amounts of money in private companies, government “ought to create an economic climate where the industry can actually compete and thrive.” He doesn’t believe in “cutting checks,” he said, but he is open to the right blend of tax incentives and regulatory changes to encourage a greener economy.

Beyond the question of energy sources, Molinaro said that congestion pricing as a funding mechanism for expanding public transportation and reducing street congestion, and changing zoning codes to reduce damage to the environment and make clean energy use more effective were ideas he’d look to in order to reduce emissions as a whole.

On the trail, though, the Dutchess county executive and Republican nominee for governor has said he’s open to a “pilot program” allowing fracking in New York’s Southern Tier and has expressed a worry that New York is missing out on an economic boom by not allowing the practice. While Molinaro has touted his past endorsements by the Sierra Club as part of his proof that he’s a different kind of Republican, the organization endorsed Cuomo over him this year.

On his own campaign website, Cuomo writes that his administration has made New York a national leader on climate change, casting it through the lens of resisting the Trump administration, writing that he’s “picking up the mantle of climate leadership where Washington is failing.” His office has funded over $20 million worth of flood protection efforts on Long Island this year, and the Sierra Club endorsement for the governor notes his leadership in banning fracking in 2014 and lauds him for committing New York to generating 50 percent of its energy from renewable powers like wind and solar by 2030, but the biggest instance of the governor’s name being attached to the word “climate” this campaign was when he suggested “climate-based” reasons were driving people’s decision to move out of upstate New York.

Cuomo has campaigned little on forward-looking policy of any kind, mostly highlighting past accomplishments and staking out anti-Trump ground. When he has discussed a third-term agenda, climate change is background noise. His Nine Point Pledge for a Stronger Long Island, signed with each of the Democratic state Senate candidates on the island, contains passing references to “resiliency projects” and passing the governor’s bill outlawing offshore drilling in New York.

The governor has faced his own criticism on environmental policy, including an occupation of his Manhattan office earlier this summer by activists with Sunrise over his refusal to sign a pledge to not take fossil fuel-linked campaign donations and for not getting behind the Climate and Community Protection Act. The CCPA, a bill that seeks to move New York to a 100 percent clean energy economy by 2050, with power grid transitions and resiliency efforts paid for by a tax on greenhouse gas emissions, got a boost of media and campaign attention during the primary campaign when Cynthia Nixon threw her support behind it. Nixon called the CCPA the most important work of her campaign at a recent gala for New York Communities for Change, work that got her kudos from environmental activists. But even in the primary’s lone debate, the bill only came up briefly.

There was no discussion of climate change in the single Cuomo-Molinaro debate, which took place last week. It’s an unfortunate turn of events according to Howie Hawkins, the Green Party’s gubernatorial candidate, because New York could set the tone for the way the rest of the country reacts to the issue. “What we do counts,” Hawkins said, citing the size of New York’s economy compared to the economies of entire nations, “and we think what it does for the economy, besides what it does for the climate, will set an example that other people will want to emulate. Just like Franklin Roosevelt did some public employment when he was governor and it became a model for the jobs programs of the New Deal, I think we set an example [with a Green New Deal], we get ahead of the curve and other people are gonna want to follow our lead.”

Hawkins sees a transition to a green economy, part of what he calls a Green New Deal, as one of the many issues residents north of Westchester say have been ignored this year. “The thing about a serious climate action program is it’s a big economic stimulus, particularly upstate where you have to do a lot of energy installation,” Hawkins said, adding that the region could also become a manufacturing hub for green technology that could create jobs and be an example for the rest of the country.

Cuomo has in fact focused some of his energies on creating more affordable forms of power through the Reforming the Energy Vision program, the umbrella strategy to move New York towards 50 percent renewable power by 2030 and reduce greenhouse gasses by 40 percent from their levels in the 1990s. Within that strategy, New York State has partnered with utility companies to work on projects testing out ways to efficiently deliver green energy, has invested in workforce training in green energy and companies related to the field and has taken “a more market-based, decentralized approach” to shifting the state to renewable power. The state also has a high-stakes partnership with Tesla that’s supposed to bring 1,460 jobs to Buffalo, following the company’s acquisition of SolarCity, the solar panel manufacturer the state invested $750 million in (an investment that was later discovered to be caught up in Alain Kaloyeros’ bid-rigging scheme).

The lack of climate change talk has “been the pattern in the presidential debates, and certainly in New York-level debates,” Pete Sikora, an activist with New York Communities for Change focused on environmental issues, told Gotham Gazette. “Climate change is an important issue to voters, but if you're looking at Molinaro versus Cuomo, it hasn't become a defining contrast.” NYCC endorsed Nixon in the primary.

Hudis-Jimenez said that Nixon’s focus on the the Climate and Community Protection Act allowed her and other canvassers to do specific outreach directly to voters through climate canvasses for Nixon, which was helpful to spread the bill’s message, but ultimately not as scalable as something beamed into homes across the state.

“More people will tune into a debate probably than are contacted by canvassing or phone-banking, so the issues that get talked about during a debate are the ones voters will think about when they're going to the polls,” she said. “So the fact that climate change got maybe five seconds [in the Cuomo-Nixon debate] said a lot about the work that still needs to be done getting climate change to be a top electoral issue.”

“I don't know why it's not a huge issue,” Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer told Gotham Gazette. “You would think, considering Long Island and Westchester, so much of the region was underwater, you would think it would be more of a discussion.” Part of the reason for its absence as a front and center issue, Brewer speculated, was that unlike the everyday experience for New Yorkers that is a broken subway, “we don't experience water coming into our buildings everyday.”

It is getting to be more of an issue though, Brewer noted, though there can be a subtlety to it that hides the more dire nature of the crisis. “There's a difference between a big storm and just plain old surge. Even if you don’t get a big storm, the water surge is a different issue. So you could get something like no storm and still a high water situation,” she said, noting she got a high water alert before this weekend’s Nor’easter.

The absence of climate change and what to do about it from the broader gubernatorial campaign also chills questions of whether even the proposals that Nixon pushed go far enough, or if something like the Green Party-supported New York Off Fossil Fuels Act is the right path for the state. That bill, sponsored by Assemblymember William Colton and state Senator Brad Hoylman (who also just wrote an op-ed calling on the state to pass the CCPA), both Democrats, would move New York to 100 percent clean energy by 2030, a necessary step in the face of the continuing climate crisis and what Hawkins said were insufficient proposals by Cuomo and Nixon, whose proposals both called for New York to use 50 percent renewable electricity by 2030.

“They want 50 percent clean electricity by 2030, but electricity is just 28 percent of the carbon footprint, it doesn't deal with transportation, industry, agriculture or buildings,” Hawkins said. You get 50 percent of that reduced, that's 14 percent really,” he said as a critique of both approaches.

Even if climate change hasn’t taken a star turn in any general election campaigns getting media attention, activists like Sikora and Hudis-Jimenez are gearing up to keep fighting after the election. “Working towards a goal of 50 percent renewable energy is half-assing it,” Hudis-Jimenez said, promising to continue to keep the pressure on legislators to be more ambitious.

“Whether the governor is talking about it now or not, what we want is for him to embrace [the CCPA], put it in the budget and pass it,” Sikora said. “We'll have a Senate and Assembly that is Democratic, hopefully, and in that scenario, this legislation should pass and the governor should lead the charge. We'll be coming hard on passage of that kind of legislation.”

by Dave Colon, Gotham Gazette

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In Attorney General Debate, James and Wofford Contrast Careers, Approaches to Cuomo and Trump

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Letitia James and Keith Wofford at NY1 (Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times - pool)

The two leading candidates to become New York State’s next Attorney General faced off in the sole televised debate of the race on Tuesday night, going back and forth about the role of the state’s top legal officer and the degree to which political considerations might affect the way they handle their duties.

New York City Public Advocate Letitia James, a Democrat, is the frontrunner in the race competing against Republican Keith Wofford, a Buffalo-native attorney who is attempting his first run for elected office. The seat became open in May when then-Attorney General Eric Schneiderman resigned in the wake of allegations of physical abuse by multiple intimate partners. His replacement, Attorney General Barbara Underwood, said upon her appointment by the Legislature that she would not seek election.

The hour-long debate, hosted by Spectrum News NY1 and moderated by Inside City Hall anchor Errol Louis and Capital Tonight anchor Liz Benjamin, saw James reiterate her history of public service, addressing the camera directly throughout as she repeated practiced lines from her campaign stump speeches. Wofford, on the other hand, spoke in more relaxed fashion and in the direction of the moderators as he sought to make the case that the next attorney general should not be a career politician but an independent professional. Both candidates are African-American, meaning that whichever wins would make history as the first African-American elected attorney general in New York. Other candidates who will be on the ballot, including Green Party nominee Michael Sussman and Reform Party nominee Nancy Sliwa, were not invited to the debate.

Unlike recent debates in the races for governor and comptroller, Tuesday’s one-on-one faceoff did not take any particularly nasty turns, though there was significant disagreement between the two, and also a few occasions for consensus.

James, who led Wofford by 14 points in the most recent public poll of the race from early October, drew a sharp contrast between her own experience and her opponent’s, pointing to his work as a corporate lawyer, his support for President Donald Trump, and his representation of clients on Wall Street who have an interest in seeing an attorney general’s office less interested in prosecuting financial crimes. “I live by one simple message and that is this, I believe in justice. Simple justice,” James said in her opening statement.

The two candidates differed on whether New York’s attorney general should challenge the policies of the Trump administration, which Schneiderman took an active role in and which Underwood has continued on multiple fronts. James promised to continue each of the lawsuits currently being pursued by the attorney general’s office, while Wofford did not.

“The key issue...is to look at how the policies impact the sovereignty and freedom of New York as a state and the state’s people,” Wofford said, emphasizing that he sees political motivations in many of the lawsuits initiated by Schneiderman and that the office should instead focus on areas that have a legal and economic impact on New Yorkers. For instance, he said the attorney general’s lawsuit against the nonprofit Trump Foundation “pales in comparison to the size and significance” of the potential wrongdoing in Trump’s financial and tax history, as enumerated in a recent New York Times investigation, which he said merits greater attention. He later also said he would drop the office’s lawsuit against ExxonMobil, which he said was an inappropriate use of taxpayer money to protect the company’s shareholders.

James insisted that the Trump Foundation lawsuit, as with others against the Trump administration and Trump family, is “not based on politics, they’re based on violations of the law.” She pledged to further pursue the ExxonMobil suit as well.

Coming so close on the heels of the mass shooting at The Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, James and Wofford also faced questions about whether it would be appropriate to call for the death penalty for the alleged perpetrator and about the president’s role in fomenting hatred across the country.

James struggled with the question. “I oppose the death penalty but in situations like this it’s difficult...to oppose the death penalty,” she said. She said she based her decision in this instance “purely on emotion because my heart is heavy...as a result emotionally I feel the death penalty is the answer, but legally and professionally I oppose the death penalty.” She insisted, however, that New York should not reinstate the practice. And she later blamed Trump’s rhetoric for emboldening white supremacists. “The president should take some responsibility,” she said.

Wofford said it would be “consistent to have the death penalty in the same circumstances that the federal death penalty is allowed.” And though he agreed that Trump should tone down his rhetoric, he downplayed the president’s role in inciting division. “I disagree with putting it at the hands or the feet of the president...Certainly hate groups and white supremacist groups and anti-semitic groups long predate any particular politician on the scene today,” he said.

On the questions of independence and tackling corruption in Albany -- which James faced in the primary and that have largely formed the basis of Wofford’s campaign -- the two presented different visions. Wofford believes the office of attorney general can investigate corruption unilaterally while James has said referrals for many investigations must come from the governor’s office and that she will demand a standing referral to investigate public corruption if elected, while also pursuing legislation to further empower the attorney general.

Wofford listed several ways he would approach the issue, including in partnership with the state comptroller and district attorneys, and said he would also preemptively tackle corruption through the office’s civil authority rather than wait for criminal prosecution. He also criticized James for being the governor’s “hand-picked” candidate who could not sufficiently hold him and his administration accountable. “The fact of the matter is that my opponent Tish James is not going to go after her brethren and sisters who are Democrats, career politicians who have been riding around in limousines, benefiting their contributors and ripping off the public for years,” he said.

James, who insisted that rooting out government corruption is one of her top priorities, has emphasized that she would work with the governor and Legislature to enact ethics and campaign finance reforms, enhance the public integrity office under the attorney general, and work with the comptroller and district attorneys. She said the attorney general’s criminal jurisdiction is “circumscribed” and that she understands the office better than Wofford, having worked there previously. “All of my life, I’ve represented the powerless,” James said. “Mr. Wofford, all of your life you’ve represented the powerful.”

There were a few areas of agreement between the two, even if they argued on the details.

For instance, they both agreed to continue the state’s lawsuit over the inclusion of a citizenship question on the 2020 census and agreed that President Trump could not end birthright citizenship through an executive order, as he has threatened.

But James is a staunch supporter of immigrant rights who pledged to uphold protections for undocumented immigrants and fight Trump’s “regressive” policies. “We have to say loud and clear that immigrants are welcome here,” she said. Wofford, however, expressed clear concerns about illegal immigration and raised questions about the state risking the loss of federal funding by putting in place sanctuary policies to protect the undocumented by refusing coordination between state and federal law enforcement, as has been proposed in the state Assembly. “My view as the top law enforcement officer for the state is that you have to deal with public safety issues first,” he said.

Halfway through the debate, the candidates were given an opportunity to ask each other a question. James, specifically citing Trump’s ‘birther’ lie about President Obama, his bragging about sexual assault on tape, and calling Mexicans “rapists” when he launched his campaign, asked Wofford why he voted for the president. Wofford said his “simple reason” was that Trump spoke of increasing jobs and economic opportunity in struggling parts of America like his native Buffalo. At the same time, he attacked the “out of touch” coastal billionaires that he said largely fund the Democratic Party.

Wofford asked James whether she believes Cuomo’s denials about knowledge of the pay-to-play scandals that have marred his signature Buffalo Billion economic development program, and if she would investigate Cuomo’s administration if elected. James did not have a simple answer. “Andrew Cuomo is not running for attorney general,” she initially said, before defending her independence yet again. “I will follow corruption and I will follow the facts and the evidence wherever it leads me, to the White House, to the State house and to municipal governments all across the state of New York without fear and or favor,” she said, never directly answering the question.

The two also argued over the Martin Act, which gives the attorney general broad jurisdiction over Wall Street fraud and has been used liberally by New York’s recent attorneys general. James said earlier that the law should be strengthened and went after Wofford for taking large donations from Hank Greenberg, a Wall Street executive who has in the past run afoul of the Martin Act and is working to undermine it through the courts.

Wofford dismissed that those donations created any conflict, saying Greenberg’s case was long resolved and that the Martin Act had been used and abused by publicity-seeking officeholders who, instead of fighting for restitution for actual victims of fraud, had instead sought to make a name for themselves. Wofford has previously expressed concerns that recent attorneys general have contributed to a negative business climate in New York, driving away jobs and top earners.

James faced questions about whether she would apply that law to the real estate interests who have donated to her campaign for attorney general. James insisted, in response, that most of her donations have come from small donors and labor unions and pointed to her work as public advocate in taking on bad landlords in New York. She also said she would voluntarily ban donations from individuals with business before the attorney general’s office.

Wofford pounced on her answer, insisting that she already has donors who overlap with the governor and who have business with the state. “Career politicians do this all the time and the voters aren’t buying it,” he said.

Near the tail end of the debate, the two faced a lightning round of questions from the moderators. James said police disciplinary records should be released while Wofford said they should not. Wofford opposed supervised injection sites for those addicted to heroin and opioids, while James simply said she had concerns about them.

On criminal justice reform, the two also held varied positions. James said that cash bail should be restricted or eliminated, while Wofford said it should be reformed but with an eye towards the “dangerousness” of a defendant. Asked about their positions on Kalief’s Law, a form of speedy trial reform -- named for Bronx youth Kalief Browder, who spent years on Rikers Island without being convicted of a crime and later died by suicide -- they both seemed to agree on its intent. But while James said it was a step in the right direction, Wofford said he opposed the law because it did not go far enough and should be replaced with a more comprehensive, bipartisan legislation.

Earlier this year, the Legislature passed and the governor signed a first-in-the-nation bill to create a prosecutorial conduct commission, a move beset with legal questions given opposition from the district attorneys association. James said she supported the bill and that the Legislature could resolve any issues in the upcoming legislative session in January. Wofford mused at the notion. “I think that saying you’re gonna pass a law unconstitutionally and then undo the unconstitutionality is a fool’s errand,” he said.

James and Wofford shared similar views on the recent sexual harassment bills passed by the state Legislature and Cuomo this year. They both said said the new laws were inadequate and that the state should hold public hearings to solicit the input of survivors of harassment and assault to implement stronger protections; hearings that Cuomo and legislative leaders have shown no interest in.

Election Day is Tuesday, November 6.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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This story has been corrected with the accurate names of the Attorney General nominees for the Green and Reform parties.

Two-Tiered Agenda for Democrats If They Take State Senate

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Senate Democrats (photo via @nysenatedems)

State Senate Democrats are already contemplating which policies they will pass under a one-party state government, confident they will win big in the upcoming November 6 elections, keeping control of the governor’s office and Assembly, while flipping the upper house of the Legislature. According to one leader of both the government and campaign agendas, Democrats have a general sense of a two-tiered policy agenda they plan to take up if victorious, prioritizing a long list of stalled progressive demands.

Meanwhile, Republicans hoping to cling to their lone stronghold in statewide government, where they currently hold a one-seat majority, campaign on the argument that their control of the Senate is all that is keeping taxpayers from a massive increase in costs, an even more bloated and intrusive state government, and a state virtually run by New York City interests.

State Senator Michael Gianaris, a Queens Democrat who chairs the party’s Senate campaign committee, outlined the preliminary agenda on the Max & Murphy program on WBAI radio, citing a series of policies where there seems to be clear consensus and Democrats could move quickly on long-sought bills, and then other, more contentious and complicated legislation that will likely need extensive consideration and negotiation.

Gianaris said a unified Democratic state government would make “quick progress” in 2019 on the Reproductive Health Act, which expands abortion rights; a “red flag” gun control bill; and voting and campaign finance reforms.

These are among the policies, Gianaris explained, that have been sidelined by the Republican control of the Senate.

“We have lost that opportunity because an artificial Republican majority in the Senate has stopped us from voting on the types of things we should be voting on,” Gianaris said, in apparent reference to the fact that Republicans only had a majority because of their coalition with the breakaway Independent Democratic Conference (which is no more) and the decision by Senator Simcha Felder of Brooklyn to join the Republican conference, despite the fact that he is a Democrat.

The Reproductive Health Act, which Gianaris mentioned, would essentially pass Roe v. Wade abortion rights into law, something Democrats are especially concerned about given the fear that a new Supreme Court with Justice Brett Kavanaugh will overturn the landmark 1973 abortion decision. The red flag bill would allow teachers and school administrators to petition a judge to remove guns from the homes of students seen as troubled, an additional measure to prevent gun violence in schools.

While he didn’t go into detail on consensus around campaign finance reform, Gianaris did emphasize the need for certain voting reforms.

“We want to make it easier for people to vote,” Gianaris said. “We’re one of the few states that doesn’t have early voting, or automatic registration, or same-day registration or any of the ways that we can improve our democracy.”

Generally, Democrats have been interested in closing the LLC loophole in state campaign finance, reducing individual contribution limits, and creating a system of public campaign financing, perhaps modeled in some way on New York City’s system.

These policies would form at least much of the first wave, according to Gianaris, who said they will be doable prior to or in a deal on the state budget, which generally passes at the end of March. Full Democratic control of the executive and legislative branches would test how well the party can come to agreement on the details of a variety of measures where this is broad support in general terms.

Gianaris, who may be named deputy majority leader to Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins if their campaign efforts are successful, did not indicate he was giving a comprehensive list, and there are several politices that Democrats have appeared eager to pass that he did not mention, such as the Gender Non-Descrimination Act and the Child Victims Act.

Gianaris said the more contentious policies that may require discussion among the Democratic conference and whose chances of passing could depend on how large the conference is, would likely be discussed in earnest post-budget.

Health care and rent regulations were two policy areas mentioned by Gianaris as falling under this category.

“The rent laws expire right around June, if I’m not mistaken, so certainly that is going to create pressure to make those changes before the current laws expire,” Gianaris said, previewing what is expected to be one of the most important issues to New York City residents of the 2019 state session, which will be slated to end in June. In the past, the Democratic State Assembly has passed legislation increasing regulations on landowners in the hopes of helping tenants, while the Senate has generally gone along with extensions of the current laws, with some tweaks.

Part of the MTA Sustainability Task Force, Gianaris and his colleagues are responsible for coming up with recommendations to Governor Cuomo for how to improve the MTA by the end of the year.

Gianaris said the MTA is “obviously something that has bedeviled the state for some time,” and that if Democrats were to win big, it is “hopefully one that we can make some progress on this year.”

A variety of solutions are possible when it comes to dealing with the MTA, with one that comes up in conversation often being congestion pricing, which essentially taxes traffic in hopes of reducing it.

When asked about congestion pricing, Gianaris said it may be a step forward but is not a solution to the entire problem.

“I don’t think that alone is the silver bullet that solves the MTA crisis,” Gianaris said. “So we’ll have some more work to do.” Cuomo has pledged to fight aggressively for congestion pricing to be included in the next state budget, while also saying he’s awaiting the task force’s recommendations and expects New York City to kick in more to fund the MTA’s tens of billions of dollars in needs.

However, as confident as Democrats may be -- Gianaris has said roughly ten seats in the 63-seat Senate could flip their way -- Republicans believe they can hold the chamber, and are arguing that the stakes are incredibly high. In an op-ed written for State of Politics, Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan of Long Island outlined what he believes Democrats would do with complete control of the government, and how it would hurt New Yorkers.

Flanagan said Republican hold of the Senate this year would be the “most important firewall in history between every taxpayers’ wallet and government coffers.”

He labeled Democratic policy priorities as socialist, listing single-payer healthcare, and put to the fore several items that Democrats are not listing at the top of their list, such as supervised injection sites for heroin users, campaign finance reform — which he referred to as “taxpayer funded campaigns” — abolishing ICE and the potential for New York to be a “sanctuary state,” which he wrote would be deportation protections “for illegal immigrants who commit aggravated felonies.”

Flanagan also wrote that New York becoming a sanctuary state would make it difficult to fight the international gang MS-13, and that health insurance for all would “double the state’s budget while taking away Medicare from our seniors.”

“Nobody wants to pay a single cent more in taxes, and only a Republican majority will not allow it,” Flanagan wrote.

For his part, Gianaris on Max & Murphy framed Democratic progress as a necessary response to what is happening at the federal level under President Donald Trump and a Republican Congress. “We have an opportunity to lead the nation in standing up for progressive values and pushing back against what’s coming out of Washington,” Gianaris said, “and we have lost that opportunity, in the bluest of blue states,” because of the Republican majority in the state Senate.

Elections Day is November 6.

by Victor Porcelli, Gotham Gazette

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Top Republican Strategist on Where the New York GOP Went Wrong and What To Do About It

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former Gov. George Pataki at the 2018 NY GOP convention

The New York Republican Party is on the brink -- perhaps not of extinction, but of a certain type of political wilderness -- and one longtime party figure says he knows where things went wrong and what to do about it.

Republicans have not occupied a statewide office since George Pataki left the governor’s mansion at the end of 2006, and barring a massive upset in November, the statewide offices will continue to be occupied by Democrats from 2019 through 2022. Meanwhile, the state Senate, New York’s lone longstanding bastion of Republican power, appears increasingly likely to be captured by the Democrats this year, producing the first unified state government since 2009.

Republicans currently hold a slim one-seat majority in the Senate and Democrats believe they could flip a half-dozen or more seats in what is broadly expected to be a wave year as the party responds to election of Donald Trump and subsequent policies out of Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, GOP gubernatorial nominee Marc Molinaro, currently the Dutchess county executive and a talented politician with a moderate message, is not only behind the Trump eight ball, but severely underfunded and not well-known as he tries to topple a second-generation governor seeking a third term.

“The state has moved farther to the left, and the idea that somehow people are actually saying that Marc could pull an upset, I don’t know what world they’re living in,” said Tom Doherty, a former top aide to Pataki and currently a political consultant, during a recent interview on the Max & Murphy radio show on WBAI.

Trying to unseat Governor Andrew Cuomo, Molinaro has staked out a Pataki-esque Republican platform, criticizing high property taxes, increasing state spending, mismanagement of key state functions, runaway labor giveaways, and Albany’s culture of corruption. Still, the most recent poll from Quinnipiac gave Cuomo a 23-point advantage over Molinaro in the general election.

Doherty, who has been active in Republican state politics for decades and has seen ups-and-downs in the GOP’s fortunes in New York, characterized this poor showing, coupled with the apparently imminent loss in the Senate, as not a failure on the part of Molinaro, but on the existing leadership in the state party. In Doherty’s eyes, leadership, particularly State Chair Ed Cox, has not provided the right vision and execution in the post-Pataki years.

“He’s a wonderful man,” Doherty said of Cox. “But I’ve known a lot of wonderful men who should not be the party leader.”

The manifold problems plaguing the state GOP, according to Doherty and others, include a hard rightward lurch in a heavily Democratic state, a failure to build effective organizations all across the state with geographically applicable messaging and priorities that run good candidates for everything, and, of course, Donald Trump atop a party wherein most of the leadership has embraced the president despite his being deeply unpopular in New York. Cuomo has labeled Molinaro, who has said he didn’t vote for Trump and has criticized some of his immigration and tax policies, a “Trump mini-me.” Though it is not a fair characterization, it is likely effective with much of the New York electorate.

“Elections are always about the middle,” Doherty said. “Where are the independents voting? The problem in New York is, you have so few Republicans in terms of the numbers versus Democrats that you have to get so many of the independents in your corner. Not only do you have to make sure your guys come out to vote, and this year that’s a problem because Democrats seem very energized, extremely energized, it just made it more difficult for him.”

While much of the New York GOP, including Cox and even county leaders in extremely-deep-blue New York City, has embraced Trump, the statewide path to victory for a Republican must include some Democrats and many independents, while also holding onto the Republican base. It’s a tricky equation any year, but especially with a figure as polarizing as Trump involved.

Doherty said Molinaro needed to be better-funded, and that again goes to party leadership and infrastructure. Molinaro is a great candidate with a good message, Doherty said, but he has not had the support needed to get his name and message out to voters, making his very long odds nearly non-existent.

“Marc Molinaro is a phenomenal candidate,” Doherty said on Max & Murphy. “If you were going to take a Republican candidate in the northeast, you need a George Pataki-like, moderate Republican to compete in the places like Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, et cetera. He’s a great guy. He has no state party operation behind him, he has no money behind him.”

“And I keep hearing about these comparisons to George Pataki,” he continued, drawing important distinctions in his eyes. “New York is not the George Pataki New York of 1994, where you were fighting to go get the Conservative Party endorsement, because you needed that. Quite frankly, you don’t want that today in New York State.”

New York is now a more Democratic state, while Pataki also had advantages, perhaps most especially a sitting Republican United States Senator, Al D’Amato, Doherty pointed out, and a very strong finance director and a state party chair, as well as ready-to-help and competent local leaders. “[E]very time we landed a plane somewhere, or got off the helicopter,” Doherty said, local leaders “were there with massive rallies. None of that exists for Marc this time around, and that’s sad.”

by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

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Ben Max contributed to this story.

Gubernatorial Candidate Larry Sharpe Wants to Reinvent New York's Education System

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Larry Sharpe on the trail (photo: @Sharpe4Gov)

Larry Sharpe has a radical plan to reshape New York’s education system. The Libertarian candidate for governor, Sharpe has been campaigning vigorously around the state, making lively and entertaining media appearances, and putting forth substantive policy proposals far different from those typically discussed in mainstream state politics by the two major political parties.

Among those is Sharpe’s education plan. A former marine and University of Maryland graduate who spent some of his youth in the Bronx, Sharpe characterizes the costs of education as unsustainable, and in dire need of reform, both in terms of policy and funding. He proposes several outside-the-box policies and engages only slightly in some of the more traditional education debates, such as over charter schools and foundation aid formulas from the state to localities. He’s thinking of much more sweeping change, detailing his platform during interviews and in a policy paper released by his campaign.

At the core of his plan is a proposal to make mandatory public education in the state end at 10th grade, upon which Sharpe says that “most of the major schoolwork has already been completed and most remaining courses are electives and, for many students, college prep.” Though for too many, he says, 11th and 12th grade have too little academic rigor and purpose, too many gym classes and study halls.

In Sharpe’s proposal, students would graduate upon passing an exam at the end of 10th grade and have a series of options in front of them. With New York spending an average of more than $20,000 per year per pupil, the highest in the nation, this would free up significant funds.

Sharpe would make grants of $20,000 available to each student over the course of several years to spend on a selection of options including prep schools, which would proliferate, he believes, under his plan, to entice that newly available money and help students become ready for higher education. In what he describes as something of a GI Bill for New York youth, Sharpe would also allow the money to be used for trade school or other training programs, or even to start a business. Students could also earn an associate’s degree, he said, then pursue a bachelor’s if college is right for them.

“When we go off to college most of the time, it is 13th grade,” Sharpe said on the Max & Murphy radio show on WBAI. “You can check out all the studies. Ask anyone who has been there, our kids are not ready for college. It takes about six years for the average kid to graduate college, we should be ashamed of that.”

Sharpe also thinks that standardized tests should be done away with prior to high school, to let students learn and teachers teach without the pressure and undue influence of the exams, and that decisions on curriculum, programs, and other facets of education policy should be left at the local level.

He envisions a loss of $4 billion in federal education grant money as a result of abandoning standardized testing and Common Core learning standards, which would allow for greater experimentation in education policy, while the $4 billion deficit would be made up for with the savings from the elimination of 11th and 12th grades, he says.

“So what did I just do? I replaced all of the federal money, plus more, and provided a surplus and allowed local school districts to get rid of unnecessary administrators,” he said. “All of that happened without one extra tax dollar.”

His plan also includes severely cutting administrative staff within the school system, characterizing them as overpaid and contributing little to the system, only drawing a large paycheck and needed only because of all the overbearing federal and state regulations that he plans to either do away with or extricate New York from.

“The average administrator makes over six figures, you can easily let some of these administrators go,” he said. “You let some of these administrators go, what can you do? Teachers will have more freedom, but not just that. Teachers will have more raises, or hire more teachers, or do things that a local district should do.”

In 2016, New York’s highest-in-the-nation spending was roughly $22,366 per pupil, about 90 percent more than the national average of $11,762, according to the US Census Bureau, though numbers vary widely among New York school districts, with rich districts spending far more per pupil. That year, total spending in New York’s public schools, via local, state, and federal money, was $61.4 billion. This year, the state increased its school spending yet again, by $912 million, up to $26.7 billion total in state funds.

The state’s funding formula, Foundation Aid, plays a part in the funding inequality: a USA Today investigation in 2016 found that the formula uses obsolete data and doesn’t reduce aid to a locality, even if migratory shifts take place. A report from the State Association of School Business Officials in 2016 found that rich districts spend about $5,800 more per pupil on average than poor districts. Sharpe has noted these issues and proposes doing away with local spending on schools, having everything go through the state in an effort to make things more equal.

There's been little discussion of K-12 or higher education during the gubernatorial campaign from frontrunners Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat seeking a third term, and Republican Marc Molinaro, though Molinaro recently released a plan for reimagining services for people with developmental and physical disabilities that includes elements related to K-12 and workforce education. In their recent debate, Cuomo and Molinaro both said they believe in expanding charter schools and school choice, hot button education issues that often dominate the conversation. Sharpe says he believes in choices, as outlined above, but as he recently told Susan Arbetter on The Capitol Pressroom, he does not foresee much role for charter schools if his education plan is realized.

by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

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Ben Max contributed to this story.

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