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Despite Concerns, BOE Commissioners Call De Blasio Referral Valid

de blasio testifying

De Blasio (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

Mayor Bill de Blasio and his allies are under investigation for using a common fundraising tactic employed in legislative races across the state. Risa Sugarman, the state Board of Elections enforcement counsel hand-picked by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, kick-started the investigation with a criminal referral to Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance. Now, as controversy swirls around the mayor, the degree to which he and his team exploited state election law could be what the case hinges on, experts say.

Sugarman’s memo, which was leaked to the New York Daily News and the New York Post, alleges that de Blasio’s allies funnelled millions of dollars through county party committees to specific Democratic candidates in a 2014 bid to flip control of the state Senate. Sugarman’s referral raises questions about de Blasio’s team’s practices, but also about why their use of the campaign finance system in such a way is under scrutiny when the practice appears routine.

“There is nothing novel about the 2014 Democratic Party campaign to elect Democratic candidates to the state Senate, other than your attempt to selectively criminalize it,” Laurence Laufer, an attorney for de Blasio and others targeted by the investigation, wrote in response to Sugarman. Laufer’s letter was made public over the weekend as de Blasio and his allies sought to respond to the news of the leaked memo and ongoing investigation.

Laufer continued, claiming: “Beyond the legal and regulatory issues implicated by your office’s memorandum being improperly leaked to the press, your memorandum reflects either a shocking lack of understanding or a complete disregard of the most fundamental aspects of the state’s election laws.”

While making this claim, however, neither Laufer nor de Blasio has explained how the mayor’s attempt to flip the Senate was legal. Laufer did not return a request for comment and when answering a series of questions from reporters on Monday at an unrelated news conference, de Blasio did not go into a detailed justification. Instead, the mayor said that others have done similarly while asserting “unequivocally” that he and his associates did not break any laws.

A look at the fundraising practices of candidates from both sides of the aisle involved in tight elections across the state generally reveals large donations from party campaign committees. State election law limits donations to candidates to $10,300, but the cap to state and county political committees is $103,000. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg used his fortune to bolster the Senate Republican Majority by large donations to their party accounts, which made their way to individual candidates. Assembly Democrats routinely use the tactic and Senate Democrats and Republicans have done the same during recent special elections. Donors are usually aware that their large donations to party accounts will be quickly sent out to candidates in tight races.

The question for many becomes: What is different about this case?

Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, said he believes the case, as raised by Sugarman, rests on the ability to show coordination by de Blasio’s allies. He is not sure whether that will meet a legal test.

“The New York State campaign finance laws are such a disgrace already, but then they’ve created the ability to use the party committee to circumvent campaign limits. My understanding is the more explicit you are in how the money is to be spent the closer you get to trouble,” Horner said. “It's going from implicit, where everyone knows this is how things work, to being explicit and writing instructions on checks. But in the end it will be up to prosecutors to decide whether they think it is criminal.

Sugarman’s memo details that some checks being sent to county committees were labeled “per mayor” and alleges de Blasio’s allies effectively took over party committees, ensuring the large donations they solicited would go into a party account and then quickly out to a candidate.

“Based on the evidence that these transfers were pre-arranged, reasonable cause exists to believe that all the contributions were made to the county committees simply as straw donors. Therefore, they should be considered contributions to the candidates and subjected to the candidate’s contribution limits,” reads the memo.

Sugarman cites election law that states “willfully” collecting and coordinating donations “for the purpose of evading contribution limits” is a Class E Felony.

“It is my understanding that what makes this different was that donations were specifically earmarked for certain campaigns. That there was explicit coordination,” Richard Briffault, professor of law at Columbia, told Gotham Gazette. “How do you prove it? You have to get the right testimony to make the case.”

On Monday, de Blasio told reporters that all of his fundraising activities are vetted by lawyers and he is confident he violated no laws. "It's outrageous and, again, I don't know what's motivating it,” de Blasio said of Sugarman’s accusations, which had to be approved by BOE commissioners. “I think Mr. Laufer's letter raised a number of good questions about what might be motivating it, but the facts that he lays out about the consistency in our state law and the fact that my predecessor and so many other people live by those exact same standards, I think it speaks for itself."

Sugarman’s position was created in a 2014 deal between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state Legislature that saw the end of the Moreland Commission on Public Corruption. The idea behind it is to give more teeth to enforcing election law.

Since starting at the BOE in September, 2014, just around the time de Blasio’s efforts to flip the Senate kicked into high gear, Sugarman has repeatedly butted heads with BOE commissioners who have expressed concerns that she has neglected routine enforcement - including reminders and fines for candidates that neglect their filings - and has refused to explain to them the standards by which she pursues investigations. Sugarman did not return a request for comment.

“I agree with Laufer’s memo and his concerns about selective prosecution,” Douglas Kellner, one of two Democratic BOE commissioners, told Gotham Gazette. “All four commissioners have been complaining Sugarman has not explained standards by which she refers criminal complaints or why she has abandoned the civil process of fining people who violate disclosure.”

Gregory Peterson, one of two Republican BOE commissioners, echoed Kellner’s concerns. “Every time we ask what her standards are she tells us it is her business,” Peterson told Gotham Gazette. “Selective enforcement is a slippery slope where you have to wonder whose agenda are you riding on? This case may have been selective enforcement, but I think she was right on.”

Despite their concerns about Sugarman’s approach, both Kellner and Peterson indicated they believe her take on de Blasio’s efforts to switch the Senate may be correct and warrant further examination.

“Without commenting on any particular case I can say there is nothing wrong with giving to a party committee. There is nothing wrong with transferring from a party committee to a candidate,” Kellner told Gotham Gazette. “But you can’t have an agreement to do all of the above.”

Peterson said similarly. “You can’t do indirectly what you can’t do directly,” said Peterson. When asked what makes the de Blasio case different from any of the many other instances of donors using party accounts to boost candidates, Peterson responded: “I think this one timing wise...it was done one, two, three, boom! A lot of times a union donates to a party account and it sits there for a while. In the mayor’s case you have a note saying ‘per the mayor’ and the money goes in and it goes out just as quickly.”

It will be up to investigators at DA Vance’s office to decide whether the tactics of de Blasio and his allies amounts to a prosecutable offense. Vance, a Democrat like de Blasio, works closely with the mayor’s administration. On Monday, as de Blasio repeatedly questioned Sugarman’s motivation, he said defiantly, “we welcome a full airing of the facts. I want all the facts out there because I’m quite convinced the facts will show that everything was done legally and appropriately.”

Regardless of whether the case comes to court a number of observers believe Sugarman’s memo could lead to more scrutiny of the use of party accounts in general.

“She may be inadvertently opening an attack on all committees and be setting a precedent,” said Horner. “How do you stop at just one?”

Still, Horner admits there is another possibility: “This may come down to the way people in Albany operate implicitly rather than explicitly. It may be possible for one to see the way things are done in Albany and out of ignorance act explicitly. Maybe you’re just not supposed to say the magic words.”

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Will for Water Contamination Hearings Nearly Vanishes

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Cuomo tours a water filtration area in Hoosick Falls (photo: Governor's Office)

A number of state legislators once eager to hold hearings into drinking water contamination by a cancer-causing chemical in the small town of Hoosick Falls now seem loathe to even discuss the matter. The change in tune by some seeking to hold the Cuomo administration accountable and ensure a public discussion of the issue appears to have accompanied the passage of the new state budget.

The Assembly, which is controlled by Democrats, announced in February that hearings would be held into the matter in April. Assemblymember Richard Gottfried of Manhattan, chair of the health committee, and Assemblymember Steve Englebright of Long Island, environment committee chair, were set to oversee them.

Several lawmakers stressed the importance of using the hearings to discuss the state’s decaying water infrastructure and dealing with and preventing the kind of contamination found in Hoosick Falls, a village in Rensselaer County not far from the Vermont border. Others were interested in examining why it took the state a year to warn residents about the safety of their water after being contacted by concerned residents and the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The topic of drinking water protection and infrastructure was put forward by some Assembly Democrats and their allies as one of the issues that needed more funding and could be provided for by the millionaire’s tax being proposed by Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.

With the budget resolved at the end of March and April nearing an end, hearings have not been scheduled and lawmakers who were supposed to be involved don’t want to discuss them. The offices of Gottfried and Englebright failed to return inquiries into the status of the hearings. Neither did the offices of Senate health committee Chair Sen. Kamp Hannon of Long Island nor Sen. Kathy Marchione, who represents Hoosick Falls.

A number of legislators and advocates are concerned the hearings were traded away in a budget deal, a concession won by the Cuomo administration. The Hoosick incident has proven embarrassing for Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his team - the administration was slow to respond and has sought to downplay criticism of how it handled the matter. The Cuomo administration did not respond when Gotham Gazette asked if the governor supports hearings.

Assemblymember Steve McLaughlin, a Republican who represents Hoosick Falls and surrounding areas, originally pressed for hearings and said he is concerned the hearings and, in turn, his constituents were used during budget negotiations. “I told them in February: ‘Don’t use my constituents as leverage,’ and it looks like that is exactly what happened.” McLaughlin said he wouldn’t be surprised to see federal hearings on the matter before the state takes action because Congressional Rep. Chris Gibson represents the area. Gibson’s office did not return an inquiry into whether he would support federal hearings. (Gibson has indicated he exploring a run for Governor in 2018.)

Concerns were raised in 2014 about the possibility of contaminated drinking water leading to increased cancer rates in Hoosick, a town of about 4,000. Emails obtained by The Times Union and Politico New York show that the state Department of Health resisted pressure from the Environmental Protection Agency to warn residents about the safety of their water for nearly a year. It wasn’t until December 2015 that the EPA issued a warning to residents notifying them that their drinking water was testing well above acceptable levels of a chemical known as PFOA. The state declared it a disaster area and has since begun installing filters on local wells. Residents, meanwhile, are still scared that they face an increased risk of cancer.

Cuomo has lashed out at the EPA, criticizing the agency for not establishing the amount of PFOA safe to consume over the long-term. "Just pick it, you have the scientists, EPA," Cuomo said on March 14 during his first visit to Hoosick Falls since the water crisis began. "We want a national standard because this shouldn't be a question for anyone.

Cuomo came under considerable criticism for failing to visit the town for months after declaring its water unsafe to drink. Then, his Sunday morning visit was only announced to the press a few hours ahead and local officials were left in the dark.

“If this happened in Westchester there wouldn’t have been any hesitation to hold hearings,” said McLaughlin, who said he plans to press the Assembly to reschedule hearings immediately. “This is just shameful. I may just hold hearings myself. I don’t know who would show, but it can’t be ignored.” McLaughlin said he hasn’t been told directly the hearings are not happening. Heastie’s office did not respond when Gotham Gazette asked if the speaker still supports holding hearings. In February, Heastie’s spokesperson told Politico New York that the Assembly was planning April hearings.

McLaughlin’s counterpart in the Senate, Marchione, is considerably less troubled by a lack of hearings. She told Susan Arbetter on the Capitol Pressroom radio program in February, “We will discuss that [hearings] because whether the state didn’t move quick enough or whether they thought they moved fast enough, sometimes you have to hear from the other perspective why they moved slowly, when did they actually know?”

Marchione told Politico New York last week that she doesn’t want hearings until the Department of Health completes blood testing of Hoosick Falls residents. Her message echoes that of Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, who said in February he thought hearings should wait until after the problem is fixed. Fixing the problem is more important than figuring out who to blame,” Flanagan told Politico New York.

Flanagan’s office did not return request for comment on whether the majority leader still supports hearings.

McLaughlin said he is dubious of assertions that hearings should not be held while the problem is being solved. “The people of Hoosick Falls deserve clean water, but they also deserve the truth,” McLaughlin said.

Advocates say New York could lead on what has become a national focus by setting new drinking water standards, and holding hearings to examine the events in Hoosick Falls to determine how to best prevent and respond to contamination in other areas of the state.

“There is no doubt government needs to be held accountable,” said Liz Moran of Environmental Advocates of New York. Senator Marchione publicly called for hearings and now she says we don't need them. This is very high stakes for her constituents and they will hold her accountable.”

In a March op-ed in The Times Union, Moran’s group wrote that ”Public hearings can also address the root causes behind such contamination: America's broken chemical policy of calling things safe until someone gets sick, and the lack of strong regulations and enough cops on the beat to keep people safe.”

While Moran said she is disappointed by the lack of hearings, she noted that the state budget does include some items that deal with the overall issue of ensuring clean, reliable, and safe drinking water across the state.

“Water safety is definitely something that is in the spotlight because of Flint [Michigan]. It is much more on the minds of New Yorkers,” Moran told Gotham Gazette, with an additional nod to Hoosick Falls. “There are lines in the budget to provide funding to detect water quality and a grant program to help repair aging water infrastructure. More can always be done but it's a positive step.”

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

The Week Ahead in New York Politics, April 25

New York City Hall

New York City Hall

What to watch for this week in New York politics:

The week starts with controversy swirling around Mayor Bill de Blasio and allegations that he and his team may have broken state campaign finance laws during 2014 attempts to flip the state Senate to Democrats. There has been a steady stream of recent news about several investigations related to both de Blasio’s administration and campaigning, the removal of deed restrictions on a Manhattan property, bribery of NYPD officials, and the relationship between donations to a de Blasio-attached nonprofit and city action.

On Friday, The Daily News broke the news that the special counsel at the state Board of Elections had referred a criminal probe to the Manhattan District Attorney’s office around the 2014 state Senate fundraising that de Blasio and his team spearheaded, possibly breaking laws by funneling donor money through Democratic county committees to individual candidates in order to skirt donation limits. On Sunday, a lawyer for de Blasio and his allies released a letter to the BOE counsel, Risa Sugarman, refuting her allegations and criticizing her behavior (including the possibility that she leaked her referral to the Daily News). De Blasio will hold a press conference on another matter Monday, but is due to take questions from the press - see below for details. The mayor has not been charged with a crime and has maintained that both he and his team have acted legally.

Meanwhile, de Blasio will present his fiscal year 2017 Executive Budget on Tuesday. In January, the mayor presented his preliminary budget, which outlined $82 billion in spending, which then led to a month of City Council hearings, and the Council’s formal budget response. Essential in the meantime was a fiscal 2017 state budget agreement, which was reached in principle on March 31. De Blasio will release his executive budget, which will kick off another round of Council hearings and behind-the-scenes negotiations leading to a deal by June 30.

In other news, there is a great deal of attention being paid to the New York City Board of Elections and New York voting-related rules, including party registration deadlines, early voting, and more. The New York presidential primaries that took place last week shined a bright light on New York’s antiquated voting laws and long-standing city BOE dysfunction. There will be multiple press conferences on these subjects Monday at City Hall - see below for details. Gotham Gazette has learned that the City Council plans to hold an oversight hearing, and, for yet more information, read our new rundown of the many voting-related proposals that New York could adopt in efforts to increase election access and participation.  

As always, there's a great deal happening all over the city this week - see our day-by-day rundown below - though do note that there are no City Council hearings scheduled this week.

***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:

On Monday at 9 a.m. “First Lady Chirlane McCray will deliver remarks regarding the mental health workforce at the NYU Silver School of Social Work and the Latino Social Workers Organization's "Sí Se Puede: Social Workers United for Latino Advancement" Conference.”

On Monday at 10 a.m., “In the wake of the powerful earthquake that recently devastated Ecuador, with a death toll of over 600 victims and still rising; Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr.; New York State Assembly Member Marcos Crespo and members of the Ecuadorian community will host a “Day of Solidarity” press conference to highlight ways to provide aid to Ecuador.”

On Monday at 11 a.m. at City Hall, “social justice advocates, immigrants’ rights advocates, community-based organizations, organizing groups, and good government organizations will hold a press conference...to call for improved voting systems and a more transparent Board of Elections, in light of the massive, inexcusable voter roll purges that affected the Presidential primary elections this past Tuesday, as well as several special local elections.”

At noon, the Campaign for Children will rally on the steps of City Hall with Council Member Mathieu Eugene, elected officials including Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, parents, teachers and students to save summer camp programs for children throughout New York City, and call for salary parity for child care workers. The rally will advocate for the restoration of summer camp funding, which was not included in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s preliminary budget.

Also at noon Monday, city Comptroller Scott Stringer will attend the New York Daily News / CUNY, Citizenship NOW call in center, at Guttman Community College in Manhattan.

At 1 p.m. Monday in Brooklyn, “Mayor de Blasio will host a press conference to make an announcement on utilities,” according to his public schedule.

Also at 1 p.m. Monday at City Hall, “Assembly Member Sepúlveda and Senator Diaz to hold a news conference to announce they will introduce legislation to make it a felony for boards of elections to dump or archive voters from registration rolls, requiring that such removals only be made upon confirmation either of the death of a voter or the out-of-state relocation of a voter, and to require boards of elections to notify voters by email, whenever possible, of changes in polling sites. Sepúlveda and Diaz will also announce their support of legislation to provide for automatic registration of voters when they apply for or renew their driver’s license or non-driver ID (with the option for persons to opt out of becoming registered) and to allow voters to change party registration as easily and under the identical criteria applicable for new voter registration.”

At 2 p.m. Monday at NYPD headquarters, Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton and other officials will announced charges in an interstate gun trafficking case.

The Times Square Alliance annual meeting will be Monday at 4 p.m. Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer is among those who will speak. The Alliance will surely discuss (and celebrate) recently enacted laws to change how pedestrian plazas are governed in New York City, which will give Times Square new commerce and flow zones to create more order.

At 6 p.m., City Council Member Laurie Cumbo will present her “Vision for the 35th District.”

At 8 a.m. Tuesday, City Council Member Dan Garodnick will host a panel discussion on family leave in light of the recent passage of the New York State budget, which includes a policy that will eventually call for 12 weeks of paid family leave to be available to most workers. At “Fathers and Family Leave: Making it Work,” speakers will include Garodnick; Dr. Kenneth Matos, of the Families and Work Institute; Christopher Persley, of the Center for Parental Leave Leadership; Anil Dash, entrepreneur and activist; Simon Isaacs, Co-Founder of Fatherly.com; Professor Michael Kimmel, Director of the Center for Studies of Men and Masculinities at Stony Brook University; and Michael Neuwirth, Senior Director of Public Relations at Dannon North America.

On Tuesday at 10 a.m. at City Hall, City Council Member Mathieu Eugene, chair of the Youth Services Committee, "will rally with Campaign for Children and other youth advocates to urge Mayor Bill de Blasio to expand the funding for the Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP) and to add more job opportunities for disconnected youth."

At 2:30 p.m. Tuesday, Mayor de Blasio will present his Executive Budget for Fiscal Year 2017. [Read our preview here.]

At noon Wednesday, the Manhattan Institute’s The Beat will host “Getting From Here to There: Unclogging NYC’s Transportation,” featuring Pat Foye, executive director of the Port Authority of NY and NJ; David Weprin, Assembly member from Queens; Sam Schwartz, founder and president of Sam Schwartz Engineering; and Nicole Gelinas, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

Also at noon Wednesday, the Assembly Standing Committee, the Assembly Subcommittee on Workplace Safety, and the Assembly Commission on Skills Development and Career Education will hold a public hearing in Manhattan to examine best practices for workplace safety programs and evaluate additional opportunities for worker training.

At 8 a.m. Thursday, Community Voices Heard Power will host a panel, featuring elected officials who have been endorsed by CVH Power in the past, to discuss democracy, civic engagement, advocacy, community building, and providing resources to those in need. The panel will include New York State Senator Gustavo Rivera, New York State Assemblymember Michael Blake, New York City Council Members Carlos Menchaca and Ritchie Torres, Yonkers City Council Member Christopher Johnson, and Newburgh City Council Member Karen Meijia, and will be moderated by Christina Greer, associate professor of political science at Fordham University.

At 6 p.m. Thursday, WE ACT for Environmental Justice will host a candidate forum in the race to replace Rep. Charles Rangel to discuss a variety of issues facing residents that impact their health and the environment, and give voters the opportunity to ask District 13 congressional candidates about their stances on environmental policy.

Friday and the weekend
At 8:15 a.m. Friday, Robert L. Capers, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District, will speak at a CityLaw breakfast event, sponsored by the Center for New York City Law at New York Law School.

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 Kelly Fan and Ben Max

There's a Long List of Voting Reforms New York Can Pass

voting AG april 2016 

AG Schneiderman votes (photo via @AGSchneiderman)

Voter participation has been on the decline across the country for decades now, but is especially poor in New York, where only 29 percent of those eligible cast their votes in the 2014 general elections for state-level positions, including Governor. Whether you measure by eligible or registered voters, the New York numbers are bleak, though they always look worse when using “eligible” - there are nearly 2 million citizens of voting age not registered to vote in New York. In some countries, even states in this one, citizens are automatically registered to vote when they become eligible, so the two numbers are virtually one and the same.

Automatic registration is among a long list of voting reforms that advocates for more participation in the political process want to see passed in New York and elsewhere.

Forty-two years ago, in 1974, 75.4 percent of registered voters cast their vote for Governor of New York, according to the State Board of Elections.

This week, as a competitive presidential primary arrived in New York for the first time in decades, only 19.7 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot Tuesday, according to data from the Election Project, making New York turnout second-lowest for the presidential primary so far.

Nationwide, New York ranks 46th in voter turnout. Worldwide, the United States also ranks next-to-last in voter turnout among similar developed democracies, according to data from the Pew Research Center. In the 2012 presidential elections, voter turnout in the U.S. reached 53.6 percent of voting age population, while in Sweden, it was 82.6 percent in 2014 general elections. Sweden automatically registers voters once they become eligible, as do many other countries that have higher voter turnout, while in most of the United States, the onus is on the citizen to register.

There are a number of factors that contribute to New York’s abysmal voter turnout: registration deadlines far in advance of the election (two of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s own children were unable to vote for him in the primary on Tuesday, because, in Trump’s words, they were “unaware of the rules and they didn’t register in time”); long lines at the polls due to a short voting window; a lack of voter engagement; and voter fatigue (especially of concern with four separate New York election dates this year).

Legislation has been introduced time and again in Albany to improve accessibility and participation by making both registering to vote and casting one’s vote as easy as possible, yet hardly any legislation to enact meaningful reform to New York’s voting system has been signed into law in recent years.

Meanwhile, not only does New York have restrictive voting laws, but in New York City, persistent problems with the Board of Elections came to a head during Tuesday’s primary election after the BOE confirmed that more than 125,000 Democratic voters in Brooklyn had been removed from the voter rolls between since November (2015). This year’s primary election gave rise to a record number of complaints ranging from issues with poll site opening hours late, poorly staffed polling sites, and confusion over poll site locations.

The problems led city Comptroller Scott Stringer to launch an audit of BOE operations and management, announced on primary day, when he called the agency “consistently disorganized, chaotic, and ineffective.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio expressed support of the audit, saying that the BOE’s repeated errors make it clear that “major reforms will be needed to the BOE and in the state law governing it,” as the BOE’s unexplained voter purge “undermines the integrity of the entire electoral process.”

New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has also opened an investigation into the BOE. "I am deeply troubled by the volume and consistency of voting irregularities," Schneiderman said in a statement. "That's why we have opened an investigation into alleged improprieties in yesterday's voting by the New York City Board of Elections.” Schneiderman said his office's voter complaint hotline "received more than one thousand complaints" on Tuesday - about six and a half times more complaints were received on Tuesday alone than during the 2012 general election (150 complaints total in 2012).

A significant issue that the primary shined a light on is New York’s registration deadlines - in order to vote in the party primaries, registered voters had to change or declare party affiliation before a deadline in October of last year; while anyone registering anew had until March 25 of this year - reasonably recent, but not the up-to-and-including day-of registration that some want to see enacted.

The state Legislature is now in session, and with three more elections coming up this year, lawmakers could take action on a number of reforms that may help modernize the voting process and improve voter turnout.

Bills have been introduced in the Senate and the Assembly to make voter registration automatic, expand online voter registration, improve New York’s confusing ballot design, allow for early voting, extend registration deadlines, consolidate the state and federal primary election dates, and more. Several resolutions have been introduced in the New York City Council calling on the state to pass some of these reforms, including consolidating election dates and allowing a period of in-person voting prior to election day.

“Voting is the most basic and essential act in our democracy - but the truth is, too few of us bother to do it,” City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said during her Feb. 11 State of the City address, at which time she called on the state to enact several voting reforms, including automatic registration, early voting, no-excuse absentee voting, and same-day registration. “Part of the blame for low voter turnout rests with antiquated voting laws that have failed to keep up with improvements seen in other states,” Mark-Viverito said.

It is entirely within the state government’s power to make voting easier and more accessible, and most of the proposed reforms would also make the voter registration system more accurate and efficient and would reduce costs involved with maintaining the voter rolls and administering elections. Still, the political will has not been there.

Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh, a Manhattan Democrat, believes many of the problems with Tuesday’s primary “stem from bad, outdated election laws.”

“We ought to modernize the election laws so that both registering initially and maintaining and updating the registration can be done online and automatically,” Kavanagh told Gotham Gazette, “both to give voters more control over the process and to minimize the extent to which there are errors in the rolls resulting from clerical errors from paper applications.”

Kavanagh has sponsored several voting reform bills in the Assembly, including legislation that would enact automatic voter registration, extend registration deadlines, and allow for same-day voter registration. Though year after year some of these bills have been introduced and passed in the Democrat-led Assembly but not the Republican-controlled Senate, Kavanagh is optimistic that “what has happened leading up to the presidential may be a spur for many real changes.”

Increasing voter engagement and education is as important as increasing accessibility, some say, and a number of initiatives to do just that are underway in New York. There are also efforts that combine the two, including National Voter Registration Day and Student Voter Registration Day - the latter took place in New York City on March 18 this year and got 8,500 students registered to vote.

Besides enacting commonsense voting reforms, officials looking to increase voter turnout should be studying what factors have led to the higher participation rates that exist in certain areas of New York, says Gerald Benjamin, professor of political science and director of the Benjamin Center at SUNY New Paltz.

“There are places in New York that have very high turnout - what can we learn from those places?” Benjamin said. “They’re mobilizing organizations to get out to vote, the issues are passionately held and very important to people, so we get highly competitive elections. That’s what gets people to vote.”

“It has to do with old fashioned competition,” Benjamin continued, “meaningful elections, high stakes stuff going on - that drives participation.” Perhaps the most effective ways to increase voter turnout, Benjamin says, are to “increase competitiveness, make the issues locally relevant, and create mobilizing institutions to turn out voters.”

Improving Voter Registration

Voter Empowerment Act
One of the more comprehensive voting reform efforts that has been introduced in the state Legislature in recent years is the Voter Empowerment Act, which seeks to make the antiquated registration process more efficient by expanding online registration and modernizing the way voter information is collected, processed, stored, and shared.

The Voter Empowerment Act would allow certain government agencies that interact with voters to automatically register citizens to vote (unless they opt out); require the state Board of Elections to make certain registration information available to voters online so they may update their information over the internet; automatically update registrations of New Yorkers who move within the state; allow people to register or change their party later in the election cycle (10 days before an election); and permit pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds.

Democratic State Senate Deputy Minority Leader Michael Gianaris, the bill’s sponsor, has pushed for the Voter Empowerment Act to be passed in the Senate for years, as has Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh, who has sponsored the Assembly bill to enact the VEA. While one bill to enact the act failed in committee when the Senate Elections Committee voted against it in May of 2014, the latest versions of the bills are currently awaiting committee action in both the Senate and the Assembly.

“Our current voter registration system makes it far too difficult for New Yorkers to get themselves registered and get to the polls,” Kavanagh said in a press release. “Handwritten forms, data entry errors, arbitrary deadlines, and other defects in the system all too often make it difficult or impossible for voters to vote.”

Should the Voter Empowerment Act pass, the legislation would improve the accuracy of New York’s voter rolls by reducing the number of outdated or duplicate registration records. Additionally, switching to a modern voter registration system that transmits voter registration information electronically would save the state and counties money by reducing the costs involved with processing voter registration and maintaining an accurate list with the current error prone paper-based voter registration system.

Automatic voter registration
Automatic voter registration would be major step for New York that could dramatically increase the number of registered voters and, likely, the number of ballots cast. In March 2015,Oregon became the first state to pass legislation to automatically register eligible citizens who interact with the DMV to vote (unless they opt out), and California’s governor signed a bill modeled on Oregon’s law not long after.

Speaking with City and State last year, Senator Gianaris said automatic registration “would register over 2 million people in the state who are eligible but unregistered right now. By way of comparison, in [the 2014] gubernatorial election, a little over three-and-a-half million people voted, so you can imagine what kind of an impact adding over 2 million people to the rolls might have in a situation like that.”

In January, Governor Cuomo announced a proposal that would make New York the third state to adopt automatic voter registration through the DMV. “Why do we make it so difficult for the people to participate? Voter registration should be a presumption, not a hurdle,” Cuomo said during his State of the State address. “Let’s flip the paradigm and automatically enroll voters when they get a driver’s license. They can always opt out.”

Yet concerns have been raised about how the automatic voter registration through the DMV could "skew the electorate in ways that are not desirable or fair," as Kavanagh told the Daily News, since it would significantly increase the number of registered voters in more suburban areas of the state and upstate New York, but would do relatively little to increase the number of registered voters in New York City, where car ownership rates are lower.

That issue could be fixed by expanding the number of state agencies, including social service and health-related agencies, that offer voter registration, so that New Yorkers could be automatically registered to vote through a variety of government interactions. The Voter Empowerment Act would include the State University of New York, City University of New York, the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, public housing authorities in the state, and the Division of Military and Naval Affairs as agencies that offer automatic voter registration.

New York City Council Member Ben Kallos has sponsored a number of bills aimed at increasing voter access, including bills that were signed into law by Mayor Bill de Blasio in December 2014 that expanded the number of city agencies required to offer voter registration forms.

Yet ultimately, the power to decide how and when citizens may register to vote and cast a ballot mainly rests with the state.

Separate bills to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to pre-register to vote passed in the Assembly in 2014 and have since been reintroduced during this legislative session, but are awaiting committee action in the Senate. These bills would also require local education boards to adopt policies that promote student voter registration and pre-registration. A resolution calling upon the New York State Legislature to pass, and the Governor to sign the bills (A2529/S857) has been introduced in the City Council.

City Council Member Helen Rosenthal, with colleagues, community organizations, NYC Votes, and others, launched the city’s first Student Voter Registration Day on March 20, 2015, during which time 17- and 18-year-olds were encouraged to register to vote in their schools. After large year two growth, 10,500 students have registered to vote through the program.

Pre-registration is an important part of increasing voter turnout, advocates say, because allowing young people to access the voting system can help to form a lasting habit of civic engagement.

“We know that the earlier you start voting, the more likely you are to maintain that practice,” said Umair Khan, ‎Deputy Counsel to Public Advocate Letitia James and member of the New York City Campaign Finance Board’s Voter Assistance Advisory Committee, during the committee’s Dec. 15 public hearing.

Same-day registration
Same-day registration allows eligible voters to register to vote and cast their ballots on the same day. In New York, eligible voters must register at least 25 days before the election date in order to cast their vote.

Currently, eleven states and the District of Columbia allow same-day voter registration (also known as Election Day registration), and three other states have passed same-day registration laws that have yet to go into effect. Voter turnout is much higher in states that have same-day registration than in those that do not. According to a report on voter turnout in the 2014 midterm elections by Nonprofit VOTE, voter turnout in states with same-day voter registration averaged 12 percent higher than states that do not have such an option.

Making same-day registration a reality in New York would require a change to the New York State Constitution, and bills have been introduced by Gianaris and Kavanagh in the Senate and the Assembly, respectively, to do so. Legislation to implement same-day voter registration is also needed, and bills Gianaris and Kavanagh have introduced legislation to allow same-day registration (in addition to other reforms) in the Senate and the Assembly a number of times. Both bills were referred to their respective election committees at the beginning of this year.

In New York City, meanwhile, the City Council’s Committee on Governmental Operations recently laid over a resolution calling upon the state Legislature to pass and the Governor to sign legislation amending the Election Law to establish same-day and online voter registration.

Lowering the voting age
A nationwide campaign to lower the voting age to 16 was launched in December by the nonpartisan group Generation Citizen, which promotes youth participation in civic affairs. In New York, that would require a change to state law (though city-specific enabling legislation may be a possibility).

A number of other countries, including Argentina, Germany, and Norway, allow 16-year-olds to vote. Two cities in Maryland have already lowered their voting ages to 16 in recent years, and efforts to do the same are currently underway in San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

Across the United States, 16- and 17-year-olds pay taxes on income and can drive in most states. In New York, they are tried as adults in criminal courts. A white paper from Generation Citizen suggests lowering the voting age to 16 could drive demand for better civic education in schools and could ultimately help America’s voter turnout problem.

“We know from our work with young people throughout the City that many of them are eager to have their voices heard when it comes to public policy debates and who is going to represent them in government,” said David Pechefsky, New York City site director for Generation Citizen, at an April 8 rally calling for state lawmakers to enact election reform.

One key argument to lowering the vote age is to help young people develop the habit of voting before they go to college, which often takes them to another geographic area. Voting before college may make people more likely to vote during college, whether by absentee ballot or another means.

Restoring voting rights to paroled felons
Fourteen states and the District of Columbia automatically restore voting rights to individuals convicted of a felony upon their release from prison (the state legislature in Maryland narrowly overturned Governor Larry Hogan’s veto of a bill to extend voting rights to felons before they complete probation and parole in February, restoring the right to vote to some 40,000 recently released Maryland felons). Four states permanently disenfranchise citizens with a past felony conviction, and require a petition to the government to get the right to vote restored.

In New York, voting rights are restored automatically upon discharge from parole after those who have been convicted of a felony have been released from prison (those on probation can vote). Yet legislation currently awaiting committee action in Albany could change that, by amending election law and correction law to allow convicted felons to vote upon their release from prison, even while serving parole.

Bills to restore voting rights to felons out on parole were referred to election committees in January in both the Assembly and the Senate. According to the New York Civil Liberties Union, as of 2010, “an estimated 122,018 people with felony convictions are barred from voting in New York,” with 46 percent of those disenfranchised out on parole. That disenfranchisement, supporters of restoring voting rights to felons say, disproportionately affects communities of color and hinders the reintegration process.

Proponents of a change say that allowing voting while in prison and upon release would aid in reintegration and that loss of voting rights has never been a deterrent to committing a crime.

In New York City, a resolution calling on the state Legislature to pass and the Governor to sign the Assembly bill related to voting rights for convicted felons was laid over by the Committee on Governmental Operations in February.

Improving the Voting Process & Election Day Operations

Open primaries
New York is one of the eleven states that have closed primaries, meaning voters must be registered with a political party in order to cast a primary election vote, which excludes independent voters and those who failed to realize they must be registered with a party.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders criticized New York’s closed primary system during a rally in Washington Square Park on April 13, saying, "We have a system here in New York where independents can't get involved in the Democratic primary.”

“Young people who have not previously registered and want to register today just can't do it,” Sanders continued in front of a crowd of many young people, “So this is going be a tough primary for us."

According to the state Board of Elections, out of 10.7 million active voters in New York state, nearly 3 million are not registered with either major party.

New York also has the earliest change-of-party deadline in the country among states with closed primaries. New York is the only state where the deadline to change one’s party does not even fall within the same calendar year as the primary (this time the deadline was October 9), forcing voters to make a critical choice regarding their party enrollment long before many have even had much of a chance to get to know the candidates.

Independent voters protested New York’s closed primary system on April 14, gathering on the steps of City Hall at a rally organized by nonpartisan groups like IndependentVoting.org and Open Primaries to call on lawmakers to adopt an open primary system.

bill to establish an open primary system for all state and congressional elections is awaiting committee action after first being introduced in the Assembly. Legislation to shorten the change-of-party deadline to 25 days before any election has been introduced in both the Assembly and the Senate.

Better ballot design
New York ballots can often be confusing, causing voters to make mistakes which in turn render their votes invalid. The Voter Friendly Ballot Act, sponsored by Assemblymember Kavanagh, would set clear requirements for how ballots should look and create a ballot layout that is easy for voters to read and use.

In 2010, tens of thousands of votes cast in New York were voided after voters filled out their ballots incorrectly. Statewide, roughly 20,000 votes for Governor were thrown out and between 30,000 and 40,000 votes for other candidates were voided, according to a report by Sundeep Iyer and Larry Norden from the Democracy Program at NYU's Brennan Center for Justice.

The Voter Friendly Ballot Act has passed in the Assembly three times, but “died in Senate” in January and has returned to the Assembly.

Early voting
Early voting allows eligible voters to cast their ballots before election day. The small window of time voters have to get to the polls on Election Day, which typically falls on a Tuesday, can result in long lines, and can exclude a number of New Yorkers who simply cannot make it to the polls while they are open.

New York is one of the few states that completely prohibits early voting in any form - 34 states and Washington D.C. allow in-person early voting. Early voting can begin as many as 45 days ahead of an election in some states or simply the weekend before an election in others. According to a report from New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer’s office, in 2012 “approximately 31 percent of all votes nationwide were cast prior to Election Day in November.”

A number of bills to enact early voting are currently pending in Albany. Assemblymember Kavanagh and Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins have sponsored bills that would establish a 12-day early voting period that ends the Sunday before election day. Another bill, sponsored by State Senator Tony Avella, would change the days of voting for primary and general elections from Tuesdays to the first Saturday and Sunday after the first Friday of September and November, respectively.

“While early voting does require some investment and a change in the way resources are allocated, analysis of data in early voting states shows a number of gains that ultimately eased pressure on Election Day,” said Art Chang, member of the New York City Campaign Finance Board and chair of the Board’s Voter Assistance Advisory Committee, during testimony before the Assembly Election Law Committee on Dec. 10.

“Allowing an ample early voting period allows poll workers to gain more experience and troubleshoot problems that occur at the polling place, such as malfunctioning voting machines or bottlenecks in line management,” Chang added. Early voting typically designates a smaller number of polling places that are open during the run-up to election day.

According to a poll conducted by the Census Bureau, 28 percent of those registered voters who did not vote in the 2014 midterm elections said they failed to do so because they were “too busy” (this was the answer with the most frequent response). Early voting and other measures to expand the amount of time citizens have to cast their vote could help to alleviate chronically low voter turnout.

In fact, expanding voting before Election Day was recommended by Presidential Commission on Election Administration in 2014. The report suggested that, “in order to limit congestion on Election Day and to respond to the demand for greater opportunities to vote beyond the traditional Election Day polling place, states that have not already done so should expand alternative ways of voting, such as mail balloting and in-person early voting.”

“Virtually everywhere early voting has been enacted, voter participation has increased significantly,” Chang said during a Dec. 15 Voter Assistance Advisory Committee public hearing.

Currently, New Yorkers can vote early by submitting an absentee ballot, but voters are only allowed to do so if they meet certain qualifications, like begin absent from the county on Election Day, or physically unable to get to the polls due to a disability.

The Vote Better NY coalition has launched a petition calling on Governor Cuomo and the state Legislature to pass the Voter Empowerment Act, the Voter Friendly Ballot Act, and legislation to allow early voting in New York.

Cuomo is supportive of early voting, and included a proposal for early voting in an outline of his 2016 agenda. The proposed legislation to require every county to offer access to at least one early voting polling place that will allow New Yorkers to cast their vote for 12 days leading up to Election Day for every election.

“I think we have a reasonable shot” to get some voting reforms passed this year, Kavanagh said during an April interview, adding that ”the governor effectively put my early voting bill in the budget this year...the governor is on board with some of this.”

Absentee voting
Similar to early voting, absentee voting allows citizens to cast their votes ahead of election day, though without necessarily making a trip to the polls. Absentee voting can reduce long lines at the polls and increase accessibility by making it possible for citizens who, for lack of time, transportation, or physical ability, simply cannot make it to the polls.

Currently, 27 states and D.C. allow no-excuse absentee voting.

Twenty states allow absentee voting only if the voter can provide an excuse that meets the state’s requirements for allowing absentee ballots. New York is one of those states.

With absentee voting, the voter may turn in their ballot by mail or in person. Voting reform advocatessupport allowing no-excuse absentee voting in New York, which would require a state constitutional amendment in addition to legislation, though bills to enact no-excuse absentee voting have yet to pass in either the Assembly or the Senate.

Voting by mail
Voting by mail is on the rise in some Western states, with supporters arguing that voting by mail is a more cost-effective way to administer elections and improves voter participation by making it more convenient to vote. Washington, Oregon, and Colorado conduct their elections entirely by mail, and 19 other states allow some elections to be held by mail.

Oregon has one of the highest voter turnout rates in the country, with 69.5 percent of registered voters casting their vote in the 2014 general election. Both Washington and Oregon saw significant increases in voter turnout after transitioning to “all-mail” elections, according to the Washington Post: “In Oregon, turnout rose from 59 percent in 1998, the midterm election before the state went all-mail, to 69 percent in 2002. Washington’s turnout rose from 64.5 percent in the 2006 midterms to 71.2 percent in 2010, the first year elections were conducted entirely by mail.”

bill sponsored by Senator Liz Krueger, also a Manhattan Democrat, to instruct the state board of elections to study the feasibility of voting by mail, and authorize a pilot program for such voting during the study is currently awaiting committee action. Legislation to allow qualified voters to vote by mail in New York has also been introduced in the Senate.

Consolidating election dates
Frequent elections can result in voter fatigue and decrease voter turnout. New Yorkers dedicated to casting their vote will make four trips to the polls in 2016 (five for those living in New York City’s 17th City Council District, where a special election occurred in February).

As the New York Times editorial board wrote in December, “There is no reason the state primary can’t be held on the same day as the congressional primary, thus eliminating the extra election and saving the state $50 million.” Congressional primaries are slated for June, state-level primaries for September.

There has been support for consolidating the state and federal primaries in the Assembly, as Assemblymember Cusick pointed out at a Dec. 10, 2015 State Assembly hearing on enhancing the voter experience. “We do have a bill that we have passed almost every year in the Assembly to combine [the dates]...That is the goal of our committees, to get the primaries in one day, so we can save the state and municipalities money.”

Holding so many separate elections is not only fiscally wasteful, but also reduces voter turnout. For years, Assembly Democrats have repeatedly introduced legislation to move the primary elections for state-level offices from September to June. In February, the Assembly passed a bill to designate June 28, 2016 as the state’s primary election date for state and federal offices.

One month later, the Republican-controlled Senate passed a bill designating Aug. 19, 2016 at New York’s primary election date for state and federal offices, to the dismay of Democrats, who questioned why Republicans would move the primary to a month typically used for vacation time by many people.

Instant Runoff Voting
Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) allows voters to rank candidates by order of preference. If no candidate passes the minimum threshold needed to win the election, the candidate in last place is eliminated, and votes are redistributed according to the preferences on the ballots. The process repeats until a candidate passes the threshold.

IRV is already used in mayoral elections in cities like San Francisco and Oakland, and even London. Ireland uses IRV in its presidential elections. Supporters of the process say that IRV saves taxpayers millions of dollars by eliminating the need to hold runoff elections, which are typically even more poorly attended than the original election.

In 2013, the Democratic primary for New York City Public Advocate resulted in a runoff which cost New York City $13 million and had significantly lower voter turnout than the initial primary itself - only 5.7 percent, or 345,089 registered Democrats turned out to cast their vote in the runoff election.

A bill to allow instant-runoff voting in primary elections for Mayor, Public Advocate, and Comptroller of New York City passed in the Senate last year before it “died in Assembly” in January. A similarbill, sponsored by Assemblymember Kavanagh, is awaiting committee action in the Assembly.

Better training and conditions for poll workers
Difficulties at New York City poll sites was an all-too-frequent occurrence during Tuesday’s primary, with reports of poll sites opening late, jammed ballot scanners, and poll workers instructing voters to fill out affidavits when ballots weren’t scanning. Some problems can be traced to the fact that the city BOE struggles to recruit and train the 30,000 plus workers necessary to run the city’s poll sites during election days.

Although New York passed a law allowing poll workers to serve “half day” or eight hour shifts years ago, the “BOE has been very reluctant to implement it,” Assemblymember Kavanagh said, due to the “sincere but misguided belief that it will make their lives harder and not easier.” According to Kavanagh, the BOE is now piloting half-day shifts in some places.

It is understandably difficult to find 30,000 people who are willing and able to remain at poll sites from about 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. and accept $200 for about 17 hours of work on one or a few individual days in a given year.

Because of this, few meet the criteria for a recruitable poll worker, creating a situation where, after poll workers are given a “competency test at the end of the training, and [the BOE] often ends up having the poll workers who passed the test and the ones who failed the test work the polls anyway because they don’t have enough people,” Kavanagh says.

A bad experience at the hands of incompetent poll workers can discourage voters from casting a ballot again in the future, or worse - “if that problem is widespread, it can actually affect the outcome of an election,” Kavanagh said.

Comptroller Stringer and others have suggested that the BOE should implement half-day shifts, improve training for poll workers, and raise the wage from $200 per day ($12.50 an hour) to at least $240 ($15 an hour) to improve election day operations.

Reforms to improve engagement
Promoting civic engagement and voter education is also a critical component of improving voter turnout. Bills have been introduced in the City Council that would require the New York City Board of Elections to provide email and text reminders about poll site locations, hours, and upcoming elections; mail voter’s their voting histories, place notices on all discontinued poll sites to direct voters to the proper poll site, and provide a voter guide for all elections.

NYC Votes, the New York City Campaign Finance Board’s voter outreach and engagement arm guided by its Voter Assistance Advisory Committee, runs a number of programs with community partners and city agencies designed to engage with voters in the hopes of increasing civic participation.

Some of those programs include National Voter Registration Day, the city’s official nonpartisan Voter Guide, Student Voter Registration Day, the Youth Poet Laureate program, “I Voted” stickers for city poll sites, NYC Votes Advocacy Day at the state Legislature in Albany, and the citywide Debate Program.

Other election-related reforms
The huge amount of money spent on election campaigns in the United States has led many voters to become frustrated with the corrupting influence of money in politics. In New York, the many calls to close the LLC loophole - which allows limited liability companies to circumvent New York’s campaign donation limits and give large sums of money to candidates through various LLCs - have not yet led to reform.

New York City is moving ahead on reforms to its campaign finance system, which already offers public matching funds and is seen as a state and national model. A package of eight bills was introduced to the City Council in November and will be discussed at a hearing in May. The legislation aims to strengthen the system and adjust it to recent developments outside of city control.

Restrictions on gerrymandering would also help remedy issues with New York’s voting processes, as less gerrymandering would encourage more competition in elections, and thus more engagement. Through a ballot referendum, New Yorkers did pass a new redistricting process last year that will go into effect after the next census.

State Senator Tony Avella and Assemblymember Luis Sepulveda have also introduced bills that would give voters the power to recall elected officials. Nineteen states and Washington, D.C. currently allow voters to recall state officials if a significant number of voters are dissatisfied with the job their elected official is doing.

by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Special Election Results Buoy Hopes for Reform

kaminsky voting april 2016

Todd Kaminsky votes for himself Tuesday (photo via @toddkaminsky)

The polls may be closed but the heated race to replace convicted former Republican Senator Dean Skelos is far from over. Late Tuesday night Assemblymember Todd Kaminsky, a Democrat, declared victory while Republican candidate Chris McGrath refused to concede, saying the race would be decided by absentee ballots. Only 780 votes separate Kaminsky from McGrath and there are over 2,000 outstanding ballots to be counted. Regardless of the results the pair may face off again in November when the seat will be up for grabs again.

Despite the unresolved nature of the affair, good government groups and legislators who back major ethics reforms, have been buoyed by Kaminsky’s performance. A former federal prosecutor, Kaminsky ran with cleaning up government corruption at the top of his agenda.

"Whatever the outcome, the race shows the power of the ethics reform message,” said Blair Horner, executive director of the non-partisan New York State Public Interest Research Group. “Continuing to ignore the public's demand for Albany to clean up its act will only lead to incumbents putting themselves in political peril."

Doug Muzzio, professor of political science at Baruch, said he believes a Kaminsky win could in fact spark major reform. “If Kaminsky wins it’s a real signal voters were upset about indictments. Republicans held that seat forever,” said Muzzio. “A Kaminsky win could signal a larger rebellion against the establishment and endanger the Republican [Senate] majority. Of course he could win now and lose in November.”

Kaminsky campaigned in part by condemning the culture that led to the convictions of Skelos and his counterpart, former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Manhattan Democrat whose seat was also being filled Tuesday night. The Kaminsky campaign sought to tie his opponent to the disgraced Skelos.

McGrath, on the other hand, remained silent on major reform initiatives and Skelos’ conviction. His campaign focused on tying Kaminsky to Mayor Bill de Blasio and a progressive agenda favoring New York City over Long Island. Nassau County, a former Republican stronghold, has seen a surge in Democratic voter registration over the past few years.

“Reform won tonight and corruption lost,” said Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, as Kaminsky declared victory. “Kaminsky championed reform and won, McGrath was silent on reform and lost.”

That take on the race was echoed by a spokesperson for Senate Democrats: “Kaminsky ran on a platform of cleaning up Albany and won their former leader’s seat. Senate Republicans should get the message, stop stalling, and work with the Senate Democrats to enact ethics reforms to better the public trust.”

As ethics reform efforts have stalled in Albany even in the wake of the Skelos and Silver convictions, many have pointed to Senate Republicans’ limited support for enacting new laws to prevent and punish corruption. Some, however, say that even though Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his fellow Democrats who control the Assembly have put forth more robust ethics reform platforms, lawmakers of both parties are largely disinterested in actually enacting them.

Democratic control of the Senate would change the conversation.

A long recount and/or lawsuit could prevent either Kaminsky or McGrath from being seated before November, but if Kaminsky does come out as a clear winner, Democrats will technically have the majority. In the 63-seat Senate, Republicans currently hold a majority through 31 elected Republicans and Democrat Simcha Felder, who caucuses with them. They have also partnered with the five-member Independent Democratic Conference to keep the majority in the past.

Now, Democrats are confident the numbers add up in their favor and that a recount will be brief and any legal action would simply be forestalling the inevitable. Senate Republicans did launch a lawsuit that drew out the seating of former Sen. Cecelia Tkaczyk in 2012 when she narrowly defeated now-incumbent Republican Senator George Amedore. (Amedore took the seat in 2014.)

Kaminsky has sought to make his election about both Long Island issues and reform, while pushing back against attacks tying him to de Blasio and even in some cases his role as someone who would shift control of the Senate.

During an April 13 interview with Brian Lehrer of WNYC, Kaminsky stressed his work as a federal prosecutor under now U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, where he said he took a bipartisan approach to prosecuting corruption and noted he spent two years on the prosecution of former Democratic Sen. Pedro Espada. “People are fed up. They’re absolutely sick of their government. They blame both parties. They know something stinks,” Kaminsky told Lehrer.

When Lehrer asked Kaminsky if he was running for Democratic control of the Senate Kaminsky demurred. “I try not to look at it that way. I don't think anybody knows what happens. There certainly are a group of Democrats who caucus with Republicans. I try not to look at the chessboard,” Kaminsky said.

Dadey said he sees Kaminsky as standing out from the party fray.

“This victory is Kaminsky’s, not the Democrats’,” said Dadey. “Kaminsky is seen as a serious person with purpose, that's what voters supported.”

Leaders of both the mainline Democrats and the IDC issued statements congratulating Kaminsky on his victory.

The race may rank as one of the costliest senate contests in state history with the United Federation of Teachers spending heavily on independent expenditures for Kaminsky while McGrath was supported by a pro-charter school PAC that spent nearly $1 million.

Government reform groups have struggled to get any traction this legislative session. Cuomo’s ethics package, outlined during his January State of the State address, was quickly removed from budget negotiations and since then the Legislature and governor have been preoccupied by the presidential primary and the special elections.

Many assume the Legislature is looking to run out the clock on the post-budget session and return to their districts to prep for the upcoming elections where all legislative seats will be up for grabs.

Reformers hope that the special election results will force legislative leaders to take some action on ethics to prevent public backlash in November.

The Manhattan special election to replace Silver would on its face seem not to hold any encouraging news for those looking for a repudiation of politics of usual. Silver’s chosen successor, Alice Cancel, won the race with just over 40 percent of the vote - her closest challenger, Working Families Party-backed Yuh-Line Niou won about 35 percent.

However, reformers do see some bright spots in the results. “Sixty percent of those who voted, voted against the handpicked candidate of Sheldon Silver,” said Dadey. A Republican candidate, Lester Chang, got about 25 percent of the vote.

Muzzio noted that Cancel’s victory was sealed when Silver’s allies helped her win the Democratic line. “People just aren't used to voting Working Families or Republican,” said Muzzio of the lower Manhattan district.

Cancel will head into the fall election as the incumbent, but she is likely to face a number of challengers in the Democratic primary. Niou indicated in a post-election announcement that she plans to stay involved in the district and perhaps run again, and district leader Paul Newell announced Tuesday night that he plans to run in the primary. A number of other Democrats have expressed interest in the seat.

Niou enjoyed the backing of a number of elected Democratic officials, some of whom expressed great distaste for how Silver supporters orchestrated Cancel’s candidacy. It isn’t clear if those same electeds will look to oust Cancel in the fall.

But the fairly narrow margin of her victory combined with Kaminsky’s apparent victory have energized reformers and could lead to a larger push for ethics-minded candidates in the fall.

“I think this sends a big message that the status quo is not to be tolerated,” said Dadey. “This is a repudiation of Dean Skelos and Sheldon Silver...voters supported change.”

[Related: Legislative Days Quickly Dwindle, Intensifying Worry Over Ethics]

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

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

New York Voting Results: Presidential Primary and Special Elections

boe vote here sign

image via the NYC BOE

With New York relevant in the presidential primaries for the first time in decades and both major political parties coming into the state's vote with competitive races, much of Tuesday was dominated by problems with the New York City Board of Elections and criticism of New York State's antiquated voting rules.

Even as New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer announced an audit of the city BOE and many New Yorkers complained about laws keeping them from casting their ballots, more than 2 million voters across New York State made their choices Tuesday.

Hillary Clinton won about 58% of the Democratic primary vote to Bernie Sanders' 42%. The delegate split will be closer than the popular vote margin because of how the party allocates those tallies, using the votes within each congressional district to determine much of the allotment. Clinton did extremely well in New York City, while Sanders won many districts elsewhere in the state. Clinton will add about 135 delegates; Sanders will add about 104. There were about 1.6 million votes cast in the Democratic primary.

Donald Trump won about 60% of the Republican primary vote and almost all of the delegates at play because he did so well everywhere - he'll add about 89 delegates to his total. Ted Cruz took about 15% of the vote, but no delegates, and John Kasich about 25% of the vote, with three delegates after winning the vote in Manhattan. There were about 800,000 votes cast in the Republican primary statewide.

Clinton and Trump hold commanding leads in their respective party primary races as the candidates head to the next wave of states, including Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Maryland.

Meanwhile, the many New Yorkers were also focused on special elections taking place for vacant seats in the state Legislature. All four of these elections are akin to general elections, open to all eligible registered voters. The seats will be up for election again this fall when the entire Legislature is on the ballot.

The most prominent of these is the race to replace former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, a Long Island Republican who left office after being convicted on federal corruption charges. Democrat Todd Kaminsky, a sitting Assembly member, declared victory late Tuesday night, but his Republican opponent, Chris McGrath, has not conceded. McGrath's campaign released a statement saying that the race is "too close to call" and that "all the votes will have to be counted in the coming days." With all precincts reporting, Kaminsky has an 800 vote lead as of Tuesday night, but there are a reported 2,000 absentee and affidavit votes to be counted.

The race is especially important because it could help tip the balance of power in the state Senate to the Democrats. If Kaminsky is indeed able to move the seat to Democratic hands, and he caucuses with mainline Democrats, that would give the 63-seat chamber 31 Republicans, 26 mainline Democrats, 5 Independent Democrats, and Simcha Felder, who is elected as a Democrat but caucuses with Republicans.

There were also three special elections for vacant state Assembly seats being voted on Tuesday - one each in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Staten Island. The Manhattan race had the most intrigue as it was both to replace former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat who left office after being convicted on federal corruption charges, and a competitive race. (The Brooklyn and Staten Island races were foregone conclusions, with a Democrat cruising to victory in the former and a Republican running uncontested in the latter.)

To replace Silver, the Democratic candidate, Alice Cancel, a Silver loyalist selected to run by others aligned with the former speaker, was victorious with 39% of the vote in a tight contest over the Working Families Party nominee, Yuh-Line Niou, who earned 34%, and Republican Lester Chang, who received 19%. There were about 18,500 votes cast in a district with 65,766 active registered voters, according to the BOE.

Republican Ronald Castorina, Jr. will be the new Assembly member from Staten Island's 62nd district. Democrat Jaime Williams will be the new Assembly member from Brooklyn's 59th district.

The day saw quite a bit of drama in New York City as voting problems became evident, including errors at polling places and issues with voters being purged from the rolls in Brooklyn. City Comptroller Scott Stringer announced that he is launching an audit of the city Board of Elections. Tuesday was actually the first of four election days for New Yorkers this year - Congressional primaries will take place in June, state legislative primaries in September, and the general election for everything, including President, in November. There are concerns of voter fatigue and that there will be miniscule turnout in June and September.

An advisory to members of the media went out from Stringer's office on Tuesday afternoon. It read, "With the New York City Board of Elections confirming that more than 125,000 voters in Brooklyn were removed from voter rolls and widespread reports of voters having trouble accessing polling sites and other polling irregularities, New York City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer announced today that his office would undertake an audit of the operations and management of the Board of Elections."

Stringer's statement reads, “There is nothing more sacred in our nation than the right to vote, yet election after election, reports come in of people who were inexplicably purged from the polls, told to vote at the wrong location or unable to get in to their polling site. The people of New York City have lost confidence that the Board of Elections can effectively administer elections and we intend to find out why the BOE is so consistently disorganized, chaotic and inefficient. With four elections in New York City in 2016 alone, we don’t have a moment to spare.”

Soon after, a statement from Mayor Bill de Blasio was released:

“It has been reported to us from voters and voting rights monitors that the voting lists in Brooklyn contain numerous errors, including the purging of entire buildings and blocks of voters from the voting lists. I am calling on the Board of Election to reverse that purge and update the lists again using Central, not Brooklyn borough, Board of Election staff. We support the Comptroller’s audit and urge its completion well in advance of the June elections so corrective action can be taken. These errors today indicate that additional major reforms will be needed to the Board of Election and in the state law governing it. We will hold the BOE commissioners responsible for ensuring that the Board and its borough officers properly conduct the election process to assure that voters are not disenfranchised. The perception that numerous voters may have been disenfranchised undermines the integrity of the entire electoral process and must be fixed.”

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

The Week Ahead in New York Politics, April 18

New York City Hall

New York City Hall

What to watch for this week in New York politics:

This week will be a fun one as New York votes in consequential presidential primaries on Tuesday. Expect a whole lot of last-minute campaigning and getting out the vote. All five major party presidential candidates are focused on New York, with Tuesday's results sure to have a significant impact on the races thereafter. Also Tuesday, several special elections for vacant seats in the state Legislature. Most importantly, the Long Island state Senate race to replace Dean Skelos, which will significantly affect control of the chamber now held by Republicans. There are also three New York City-based vacancies in the Assembly being filled, including Sheldon Silver's old seat.

Polls are open in New York City 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Tuesday. You can look up your voter registration status and poll site here.

This week we're also watching for Mayor Bill de Blasio's first Staten Island town hall, set for Wednesday evening. And, any new information that may surface around the issues that have been dogging de Blasio and his administration of late: investigations into the handling of a deed restriction removal on a Lower East Side property; bribery of NYPD officials; and the mayor's fundraising.

And, it's Earth Week, leading up to Friday's Earth Day, watch for a variety of environment-related events and announcements.

As always, there's a great deal happening at the City Council and all over the city, with many events to be aware of. See below for our day-by-day rundown.

***Do you have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics?
Email 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:

On Monday, Mayor de Blasio will appear on Hot 97’s Ebro in the Morning to discuss the presidential primary at 9:30 a.m. At 1:30 p.m. "the Mayor will host a press conference related to the mosquito season and Zika preparedness...Prior to the press conference, the Mayor will tour a mosquito lab at the Public Health Lab." And at 5 p.m. the Mayor will appear on PIX 11 News to discuss the presidential primary.

On Monday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo will appear at two phone-bank kick-off rallies in support of Hillary Clinton for President. At both events, one in Buffalo and one in Rochester, Cuomo will join former President Bill Clinton.

City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito will attend an 11 a.m. Verizon workers strike march and rally, 230 West 36th Street. At noon, Mark-Viverito will present an award at a Girl Be Heard luncheon at One Time Warner Center.

At the City Council on Monday:

  • 9:30 a.m., the Subcommittee on Zoning and and Franchises will meet to address two land use applications.
  • 10 a.m., the Committee on Transportation will meet to examine the City’s actions taken toward reducing vehicle emissions, to consider a bill requiring that the Department of Transportation establish a pilot program for street parking electric vehicle charging stations, and to vote on a (non-binding) resolution to make Earth Day 2016 car-free for private and all non-essential city vehicles.
  • 10 a.m., the Committee on Housing and Buildings will meet to consider seven bills, including a bill to alter permit filing fees for new buildings and alterations, a bill to create a real-time enforcement unit in the Department of Buildings responsible for enforcing construction codes, a bill imposing additional penalties for performing construction work without a permit, and others.
  • 11 a.m., the Committee on Rules, Privileges and Elections will meet to receive several communications from the Mayor regarding the appointment of individuals to the Taxi and Limousine Commission, the Landmarks Preservation Commission, the Art Commission, and the Civilian Complaint Review Board.
  • 1 p.m., the Committee on Civil Rights will meet to vote on a resolution recognizing March 5 as the official annual “Three-Fifths Clause Awareness Day” and a resolution calling upon Congress to amend Article 1, Section two, Paragraph 3 of the Constitution of the United States, known as the “three-fifths clause.”  
  • 1 p.m., the Subcommittee on Planning, Dispositions and Concessions will meet to address several land use applications.

At 8 a.m. Monday, “Brooklyn Borough President Eric L. Adams will lead local leaders and dozens of Brooklynites on his second annual Bike-to-Work ride, as he kicks off Earth Week celebrations in and around the borough. The event will highlight the positive impact that New Yorkers can have on their local environment by using pedal power to get around the city.”

At noon, Borough President Adams “will cut the ribbon on a free legal services clinic operated in collaboration with the Brooklyn Bar Association Volunteer Lawyer's Project, Brooklyn Legal Services, the Veteran Advocacy Project and the Domestic Violence Project of the Urban Justice Center, and Legal Information for Families Today (LIFT) at Brooklyn Borough Hall.”

At noon on the steps of City Hall, City Council Member Andy King will lead a rally calling on the City Council to pass the aforementioned resolution calling on the federal government to add an amendment to the U.S. Constitution negating the Three-Fifths Compromise. Participating organizations will include the NAACP, the National Action Network, the Justice League, The Black Institute, and others.

On Monday at 1 p.m., schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña will visit a literacy pilot program for students with print-based disabilities at PS 57 on Staten Island. At 6:15 p.m., Fariña will deliver brief remarks at AP Para Todos family event at George Washington Educational Campus in Manhattan.

Also at 1 p.m. Monday, Comptroller Scott Stringer will deliver remarks at Communications Workers of America Verizon strike rally and march, at Verizon Wireless, 125 West 42nd Street.

At 5:30 p.m. Monday, the Queens Borough Board, chaired by Borough President Melinda Katz, will review details and vote on whether to recommend approval of the creation of the JFK Industrial Business Improvement District, which would support the many air cargo and service-related business near John F. Kennedy International Airport. Also present at the event will be Kris Goddard, executive director of the Neighborhood Development Division at the Department of Small Business Services, Barbara Cohen, consultant to the JFK IBID, and Dennis Walcott, president and CEO of the Queens Library.

At 6:00 p.m., City & State will be recognizing 50 of New York’s most prominent leaders in government, business, and media over the age of 50 during a reception and dinner at Federal Hall. The ceremony will be moderated by Betsy Gotbaum, former Public Advocate.

At 6 p.m., Council Member Helen Rosenthal will hold her third annual Town Hall, featuring representatives from over a dozen city agencies who will be available to answer questions from the public. Council Member Rosenthal will also announce the year’s winning Participatory Budget project at this event.

At 6:30 p.m. Monday, Fordham University will host “What Is Happening? Part II: A Discussion of the 2016 Primaries” with Alexis Grenell, political strategist and City and State columnist, Jessica Proud, Republican strategist and partner at the November Team, and Dr. Christina Greer, political science professor at Fordham, who is organizing and moderating the discussion.

Tuesday is presidential primary day in New York. Registered Democratic and Republican votes, who registered by certain deadlines, are able to vote in their party primary.

Also, Tuesday will see several special elections - open general election votes for registered voters in the relevant districts - in the races to replace both former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (downtown Manhattan) and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (Long Island) will take place on Tuesday. There are also two other New York City-based special elections for vacant Assembly seats.

At the City Council on Tuesday:

  • 10 a.m., the Committee on Health will meet on a bill requiring the City to provide defibrillators at youth-league baseball fields on City-owned land at no cost.
  • 10 a.m., the Committee on Youth Services will hold an oversight meeting for elementary and middle school summer programs.
  • 11 a.m., the Committee on Civil Service and Labor will meet on a bill amending the 2002 Displaced Building Services Worker Protection Act, so that it includes a broader set of employees protected under the law. The law requires that employers evaluate and retain eligible employees of a building that has just been sold.
  • 11 a.m., the Committee on land use will meet.
  • 1 p.m., the Committee on Consumer Affairs will meet on three bills requiring that the Department of Consumer Affairs provide outreach and education on consumer protection issues for women, seniors, and immigrants.
  • 1 p.m., the Committee on Mental Health, Developmental Disability, Alcoholism, Substance Abuse and Disability Services will meet jointly with the Committee on Education to conduct an oversight meeting addressing the needs of students with dyslexia and related learning disabilities, to vote on a resolution requiring the Department of Education to include climate change lessons in K-12 schools’ curriculum, and to vote on a resolution requiring the certification of teachers, administrators, and instructors in the area of dyslexia and related disorders.
  • 1 p.m., the Committee on Sanitation and Solid Waste Management will hold an oversight hearing addressing the reduction of food waste in New York City.

At 9 a.m. Tuesday, NYC Human Resources Administration Chief of Staff Jennifer Yeaw will host a panel of community respondents to discuss HRA’s efforts to improve ease of access for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) during one in a series of CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute spring 2016 forums. Speakers include Brady Koch, COO of the Food Bank for New York City, and Maureen Lane, co-director of the Welfare Rights Initiative at Hunter College; the moderator will be Jan Poppendieck, Professor Emerita of Sociology, Hunter College and Senior Faculty Fellow, CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute.

At 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, the Urban Democracy Lab will host an event, “Insights into Housing New York: A Five-Borough, Ten-Year Plan” with Daniel Hernandez, Deputy Commissioner for Neighborhood Strategies at the Department of Housing, Preservation, and Development. The event will discuss Mayor de Blasio’s housing plan, and Hernandez will be joined by Michael Ralph, Director of Metropolitan Studies at NYU.

At 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jarrett Murphy, Executive Editor of City Limits, will be moderating a Brooklyn Historical Society panel of experts on “The Changing Face of Brooklyn’s Latino Community,” featuring Nisha Agarwal, Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs; Laird Bergad, Executive Director of CUNY’s Center for Latin American, Caribbean and Latino Studies; and Javiér Valdes, Co-Executive Director of Make the Road NY.

At the City Council on Wednesday:

  • 10 a.m., the Committee on Finance will vote on a resolution approving designation changes of certain organizations to receive funding in the Expense Budget.
  • 1:30 p.m., the City Council will meet for a full-body Stated Meeting, which, as usual, will be prefaced by Speaker Mark-Viverito’s pre-stated press conference.

Starting at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, City and State NY, Albany Law School, and Rockefeller College host a one-day government ethics conference and training seminar. The event will give executive training for professionals and government officials on the theory and practice of ethics in state government, and will feature Richard Ravitch, former Lieutenant Governor of New York; Alphonso David, counsel to the governor; Eleanor Randolph, veteran New York Times editorial writer; Frederick A.O. Schwarz Jr.; Blair Horner, New York Public Interest Research Group; and others.

At 6 p.m. Wednesday, the Department of Education will host a public meeting for the Panel for Educational Policy.

At 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Fordham University will host a discussion, “Should there be Quotas for Female Representation,” featuring Mary Wilson, founder and president of Ms. Foundation for Women and The White House Project; Zenaida Mendez, director of the MNN El Barrio Firehouse Community Media Center; Alexis Grenell, political strategist and City and State columnist; and Dr. Christina Greer, Fordham political science professor and organizer and moderator of the event.

At 7 p.m. Wednesday, Mayor Bill de Blasio will be holding a town hall on Staten Island, at PS 48 in Concord. It will be a “Working for Our Neighborhoods” town hall, open to all local concerns.

On Thursday morning, "New York City Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia will address a breakfast meeting of Trustees of the Citizens Budget Commission" (CBC). "She will discuss her priorities for the Department of Sanitation, including improving waste management, recycling, and environmental impact."

At the City Council on Thursday:

  • 9:30 a.m., the Committee on General Welfare will hold an oversight hearing on the Department of Homeless Services’s 90-day review.
  • 10 a.m., the Committee on Higher Education, jointly with the Committee on Health, will hold an oversight hearing to review the status of nursing programs at the City University of New York (CUNY).
  • 1 p.m., the Committee on Public Housing, jointly with the Committee on Environmental Protection, will hold an oversight hearing examining NYCHA’s record in removing mold from public housing, and on a bill establishing a local licensing requirement for workers who do work on mold removal.
  • 1 p.m., the Committee on Veterans will vote on a resolution calling on Congress to pass, and the President to sign into law, the Toxic Exposure Research Act, which would establish in the Department of Veterans Affairs a national center for research on the diagnosis and treatment of health conditions of the descendants of veterans exposed to toxic substances during their service in the Armed Forces.
  • 1 p.m., the Committee on Economic Development will hold an oversight hearing evaluating opportunities for women entrepreneurs in New York City.

At noon, the New York Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights groups will rally at City Hall in support of the Right to Know Act, which would require NYPD officers to identify themselves and would aim to protect New Yorkers against unconstitutional searches.

Friday and the weekend
Friday is Earth Day, and includes the Car Free Day initiative led by City Council Transportation Committee Chair Ydanis Rodriguez.

At 8 a.m. Friday, NACOLE and John Jay College will host "Building Public Trust: Generating Evidence to Enhance Police Accountability and Legitimacy", which will feature research in the area of civilian-led law enforcement accountability, place scholars in conversation with practitioners and funders, and begin a conversation about the use of law enforcement data now becoming publicly available. NYPD Inspector General Philip Eure will be offering commentary on the civilian-led accountability field, among others speaking.

At 8 a.m. Friday, U.S. Senator Charles Schumer will be speaking at the Innovation Breakfast Series, hosted by Civic Hall and NY Tech Meetup. The series offers prominent New Yorkers working in technology, civic and social innovation an opportunity to hear from leaders in government and industry.

Have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics? Email 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 Kelly Fan and Ben Max

A Post-Budget Test of the Governor’s Commitment to a Constitutional Convention

cuomo desk legislation signing

Cuomo signs legislation (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of the Governor)

In terms of the state’s nearly $150 billion budget, $1 million isn’t a lot of money. But for reform advocates the $1 million Gov. Andrew Cuomo had committed in his executive budget plan for a commission to prepare for a constitutional convention was both functionally and symbolically crucial to their belief that the governor and the Legislature would actually commit to reforming state government - or at least giving “the people” an opportunity to do so.

The funding was dedicated by the governor for supporting and reforming the process of running a constitutional convention, which voters will have the opportunity to approve on their November 2017 ballots. A convention, government reformers say, would allow voters to consider major changes to the state constitution including things like public financing of election campaigns, term limits for legislators, and redistricting of legislative domains. It was a sign to many eager to see a more ethical, democratic government that Cuomo, a Democrat who many advocates see as having abandoned a number of previous reform efforts, was on board for real change.

However, the funding was nowhere to be found when a budget deal was reached.

Advocates for both a constitutional convention and good planning for the possibility of one now say it is up to the governor to act to prepare for the convention without the help of the Legislature. As a sign of how complicated the constitutional convention politics are, two prominent convention supporters are split on who is to blame for the funds being taken from the budget.

“The fact that he can't find $1 million in a $150 billion budget is shocking,” said Bill Samuels, a con-con supporter and head of reform group Effective New York. “Here we go again where [Gov. Cuomo] says one thing and does another just as he bowed out of [the] Moreland [Commission to Fight Public Corruption] and countless other examples, like redistricting reform, where he did one thing and said another.”

Gerald Benjamin, a dean and political scientist at SUNY New Paltz who is involved in a public education campaign surrounding the 2017 constitutional convention vote, disagreed. “The Legislature isn’t off the hook,” Benjamin said in an interview. “This was a hostile act designed to thwart reform. This isn’t about pressuring anyone to act, this is about the public taking an opportunity for the public good.” State of Politics first reported that the $1 million was not included in the state budget after Benjamin notified the outlet.

The Cuomo administration says it is fully committed to supporting a constitutional convention and says the legislative leaders simply weren’t interested.

“We continue to support a constitutional convention and are examining all options and resources available to form and fund a commission,” Cuomo spokesperson Rich Azzopardi told Gotham Gazette.

Scott Reif, spokesperson for the Republican Senate Majority, said that his conference wasn’t satisfied with Cuomo’s proposal. “There were no specifics provided by the Executive about the proposed appropriation,” Reif explained.

Reif’s counterpart for the Democratic Assembly Majority said similarly. “There was no structure around the proposal as to how the money would be used, so as defined in our one-house budget and approved in the final budget we thought a better use of the funding would be for the Women's Suffrage Commemoration Commission,” said Assembly spokesperson Michael Whyland.

The Legislature is capable of calling a constitutional convention at any time, but the Constitution mandates voters get to decide whether to call one every 20 years. The next referendum is scheduled for Nov. 7, 2017. If approved by a majority of voters a convention would be held in April 2019, but first voters would have to select delegates in November 2018.

A major concern for supporters and detractors of a convention is the current selection process for convention delegates, the people who would actually negotiate constitutional changes. In the past, many delegates have been elected officials or people with close connections to them, which raises fears that the process will be stacked in the favor of the establishment instead of voters. A number of fixes to the problem have been floated inside and outside the Legislature, but so far no action has been taken.

Cuomo’s 2016 policy book that accompanied his budget provided the following explanation: “From ethics enforcement to the basic rules governing day-to-day business in Albany, the process of government in New York State is broken. Governor Cuomo believes a constitutional convention offers voters the opportunity to achieve lasting reform in Albany. The Governor will invest $1 million to create an expert, non-partisan commission to develop a blueprint for a convention. The commission will also be authorized to recommend fixes to the current convention delegate selection process, which experts agree is flawed.”

Samuels dismissed the notion that the Legislature was responsible for removing the proposal from the budget. “You can't put [Carl] Heastie and [John] Flanagan on the hook,” said Samuels of the current Assembly Speaker and Majority Leader, respectively. “They have no interest in the whole thing. They think [U.S. Attorney] Preet [Bharara] is done going after the Legislature.”

Benjamin rejected Reif’s assertion that there wasn’t enough “detail” in the governor’s proposal, noting that the state has routinely prepared for constitutional conventions over the past century. “A good reason to do this is because the Legislature is against it,” Benjamin said with a laugh.

Republican Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, a longtime supporter of a constitutional convention, told Gotham Gazette that he feels the onus is on Cuomo to move the process forward. “My guess is the majorities aren’t too wild about a constitutional convention,” said Kolb. “Like a host of other things, if the governor really wants it he can obnoxious until he gets what he wants.” However, Kolb said he could understand the hesitation of the legislature to approve $1 million for a convention voters might reject.

Some groups are loathe to open up the process because they worry it is corrupted - convention delegates tend to be politically connected, including some state legislators themselves - and some groups worry the convention process could lead to a rolling back of good government reforms or environmental or labor protections.

Advocates for the process have been trying to change how delegates are selected to reduce political cronyism. They saw Cuomo’s preparatory commission as assurance that the lead up to a referendum and convention would be open and orderly.

Legislative leaders, on the other hand, have very little interest in a process that would allow the public to vote on reforms that could reduce their grasp on the majority, or otherwise weaken their power.

Samuels said securing the $1 million was on Cuomo and his failure to do so reflects his lack of commitment to truly reforming Albany. “Believe me, this is all on Cuomo,” said Samuels, “This is just another bait and switch. Andrew’s father [former Gov. Mario Cuomo] used an executive order to start a preparatory commission, and I don’t see Andrew doing that. Andrew isn’t following in his father’s footsteps.”

Cuomo administration officials said that in fact they are considering using an executive order as Mario Cuomo did in 1993. The Goldmark Commission received some funding from Rockefeller College and helped plan how a convention would be held and what issues should be put before voters.

Kolb said he supports executive action by the administration to jumpstart the convention process. “He’s formed all kind of commissions through executive order, he just formed one today, so why not for this?” Kolb said, referring to a new panel the governor announced Thursday that will study the state’s business climate. “I didn’t think he should end the Moreland Commission.”

Still, Samuels is distrustful of the administration’s intentions. He said that in 2010, Cuomo aides promised him that if elected governor he would move up a constitutional convention to 2011. “Joe Percoco gave me a memo with all the things Cuomo would do to reform Albany and at the heart of it was a constitutional convention and all sorts of reforms that would be passed,” Samuels said. “He didn’t do any of it and yet he still has the nerve to say he supports it.”

Cuomo administration officials note Cuomo’s 2010 campaign policy book contained a commitment to having a constitutional convention. The issue took up four pages of the 252-page book, which is no longer available on Cuomo’s campaign website.

“In order to achieve lasting reform in many areas, we need to amend our State’s Constitution,” it reads. “Specifically, a Cuomo Administration would work to enact into law important reforms at a constitutional convention including an overhaul of our redistricting process, ethics enforcement, and succession rules, among others.”

Benjamin says now is the time for the governor to seize the chance to advocate and prepare for a convention: “This is a an opportunity for the governor. In a time dominated by such rage at the political status quo, this is an opportunity to look at the system and give the public a chance to participate.”

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Legislative Days Quickly Dwindle, Intensifying Worry Over Ethics


Rally in the capital

For the past two weeks state legislators have been preoccupied by the New York presidential primary. They’ve been charmed by candidates like Hillary Clinton and John Kasich who’ve come to the capital to pitch their campaigns and ask for support; and by Donald Trump and Ted Cruz who’ve invited them to attend large rallies.

Legislators have been so distracted that the first two weeks of post-budget session have slipped by without much real legislative action, despite the fact that there is a long list of high-profile issues unsettled in the budget. The point was driven home on Tuesday when both the Senate and Assembly agreed to cancel session scheduled for Wednesday, leaving only 21 meeting days until the session’s calendared end in June.

Not only is New York at the center of contested presidential primaries on both sides of the aisle, but there are impending special elections resulting from the convictions of two legislative leaders - and one of those races could help decide which party controls the Senate next year. Legislative staffers are expected to swarm Long Island ahead of the April 19 special election between Republican Christopher McGrath and Democrat Todd Kaminsky, a sitting Assembly member, to fill the seat vacated by former Republican Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos’ conviction. That race has so far been dominated by a debate over ethics.

As session days quickly dwindle, advocates on various issues are concerned that the Legislature has no intention of taking up more controversial topics or cutting any deals, especially on ethics reforms. On Tuesday, the Senate dealt with no legislation during its session. The Assembly passed some resolutions, honored a few guests and voted on a number of bills in honor of “National Crime Victim’s Rights Week.” Several have no companion bill in the Senate, or do not enjoy any Republican backing.

Last Wednesday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo told reporters in Binghamton: “We have a relatively light agenda because we did so much work in the budget.” With major wins on the minimum wage and paid family leave, Cuomo is in a celebratory mood, it seems, and appears little concerned with getting more done at this time.

When asked for his priorities for the remainder of the session during a lunch event hosted by the Association for a Better New York on Tuesday in Manhattan, Cuomo responded jokingly, “No, I’m done...I think I’m good.” He went on to list ethics reform, heroin abuse, cancer screening, and the 421-a property tax break program meant to spur affordable housing as his major priorities.

While the magnitude of the recently passed budget and the presidential primary may seem like valid excuses for a light session, the truth is that the state Legislature has a history of taking little action in the post-budget session until the last few weeks in June. Last year the Legislature cancelled session days following the arrests of both former Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Skelos. This year the lack of session days is particularly concerning to reform advocates worried that ethics is being ignored.

"It’s disappointing. There is so much we could be doing like passing real ethics reforms. But unfortunately the Senate GOP have decided to take an extended vacation,” said Mike Murphy, spokesperson for Senate Democrats, of the decision to cancel session on Wednesday. Neither the Assembly Majority Democrats nor the Senate Majority Republicans responded when asked for a reason for the cancellation.

Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Group said he is concerned that while Gov. Cuomo continues to list “ethics” as a top priority he hears the governor speaking more about two particular ethics reforms - pension forfeiture for convicted public servants and the closure of the LLC loophole - rather than the entire legislative package contained in his executive budget proposal. “That’s moving the goal post closer to the kicker and not addressing what got Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos in trouble,” said Horner.

Cuomo’s ethics package includes limiting legislators’ outside income to 15 percent of their salary; the creation of a voluntary public campaign finance system; the closure of the LLC loophole; stricter fundraising disclosure; requiring bundlers to disclose their identities; putting a $25,000 limit on donations to party housekeeping accounts; strengthening the Joint Commission on Public Ethics; pension forfeiture; and increasing the scope of the state’s freedom of information laws.

Meanwhile, as session days slip by the convictions of Skelos and Silver drift further from public memory. Government ethics reform polls well with voters, but it isn’t clear how long that will remain true. Advocates worry that legislators are simply trying to run out the clock to make it back to their districts for reelection this fall, betting that their incumbency will protect them from public dissatisfaction. Polls do show that while about 9 in 10 New Yorkers believe state government corruption is a serious problem, many do hold favorable views of their local representatives sent to Albany.

“So they're losing April,” said Horner of lawmakers and session, “but what worries me is, what is the governor going to do with the time he has left on ethics? We know when he goes from rhetorical support to real support he can move mountains. What is he defining as success? It doesn’t sound like it is the same as what was in the budget. How does he visualize victory?”

A Cuomo administration official said the governor is interested in passing the ethics measures contained in his budget proposal. Many are waiting for Cuomo to give ethics reform a full-throttled effort, as he did with the minimum wage leading up to a budget agreement. Neither Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan nor Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie appears to have a sense of urgency around ethics reform - Flanagan has said he doesn't see the need for much, if any, such legislation.

“There’s no question we’ve made significant progress on reform over the past ten years,” said Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, a government reform group. “But the time has past for incremental reforms. We need a comprehensive solution to deal with legislators who enrich themselves at the cost of the public good and that solution must include [increasing] legislative compensation and [limiting] outside income.”

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: Gotham Gazette is published by Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union.

Cuomo’s 2016 Wins Shaped by Progressive Forces, Electoral Lessons

cuomo clinton et al celebrate

Gov. Cuomo celebrates new progressie policies (photo: Don Pollard, Governor's Office)

Gov. Andrew Cuomo launched himself onto the national political stage this month by orchestrating a budget deal that made New York the first state to pass a $15 minimum wage and a paid family leave program. With Vice President Joe Biden at his side the governor pushed family leave; weeks later, Cuomo signed the package of “economic justice” legislation at a celebratory rally with Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton. He was subsequently congratulated by President Obama.

All the while, labor union members cheered the governor who had, finally, made their agenda his.

Unlike other major policy wins from earlier in his tenure that sprung the governor into the national spotlight, like marriage equality and gun control, the minimum wage and family leave bills speak directly to socioeconomic issues that some of the state’s liberal base felt Cuomo, a Democrat, had been insensitive to. Cuomo had indeed rejected as flights of fancy those very policies only months before announcing campaigns to support them, first saying that they would be non-starters with Republicans controlling one house of the Legislature, then pursuing them with the intensity Cuomo has given to his must-wins.

Cuomo’s path to his moment as progressive trailblazer on economic issues was a winding one, mystifying some, including those calling political opportunism, while others point to the influence of four powerful figures: Mayor Bill de Blasio, gubernatorial challenger Zephyr Teachout, former Gov. Mario Cuomo, and Democratic voters who could deliver the governor a third term in 2018.

On the way to a second term, Cuomo found himself in positions generally foreign to him: out-leveraged and outworked. First, Cuomo was humbled by the Working Families Party as it sought a 2014 alternative to a governor many of its members felt had betrayed their union members and progressive mission. Aided by de Blasio and making promises many now feel he did not intend to keep, Cuomo convinced the WFP to call off its third party challenge from Fordham Law Professor Zephyr Teachout.

But then, the unknown, liberal Teachout, took Cuomo on in the Democratic primary, where the incumbent governor lost 30 counties and took home only 60 percent of the vote. Cuomo entered term two significantly weakened.

For Cuomo, known for crippling his rivals and bullying major organizations into submission, these were positions he never wanted to be in again.

It's a situation that insiders, pundits, and elected officials see as having given birth to the 2016 political environment in which Cuomo would fully embrace the Fight for $15 minimum wage campaign and launch his own paid family leave push, invoking the name of his recently deceased father, former Gov. Mario Cuomo, in both efforts. Cuomo traveled the state in an RV plastered with the Fight for $15 slogan, picking up the mantle of an effort led by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and its labor and liberal allies that Cuomo has often distanced himself from on economic issues.

“The original policy rests with de Blasio,” said Douglas Muzzio, professor of political science at Baruch College, of a liberal agenda. “The timing coincides with Teachout. But it leads to the governor deciding to tack left.”

Critics, even some supporters, see the governor’s leftward lurch as evidence of political opportunism.

“He doesn't give a damn about getting people out of poverty,” said Ed Cox, the chair of the New York Republican State Committee. “He cares about his own power. He had to do it to secure his political power, but in the end that kind of governing comes back to bite you.”

Cox is speaking at a time when state Senate Republicans went along with Cuomo’s minimum wage program, albeit a “calibrated” one, as Cuomo called it, where they were able to lengthen and regionalize the phase-in.

Congressional Rep. Chris Gibson, a Republican who has announced an exploratory committee for a 2018 gubernatorial run, also noticed the governor’s very public change of opinion. “You would have to talk to him to understand his motivation, but arguably the most persuasive critic against a $15 minimum wage is Governor Cuomo five minutes ago,” Gibson said.

As Gibson prepares a potential bid to unseat Cuomo, the governor appears to have a clearer picture of the base he needs to withstand such a challenge.

In Spring 2014, heads of the union-backed, left-leaning Working Families Party were ready to hand the powerful incumbent governor their endorsement but they had underestimated rank-and-file party members, activists turned off by what they saw as a fiscally conservative, transactional governor who cozied up to Senate Republicans, tussled with public employees unions, and generally thumbed his nose at the Democratic base.

The governor appeared by video during the WFP convention in late May 2014, acceding to a list of party demands in an endorsement deal brokered by de Blasio. When party members weren’t satisfied Cuomo was forced to follow up with a phone call promising to back a Democratic Senate, a higher minimum wage, and a push to enact the DREAM Act.

Cuomo looked forward to an easy reelection, whether he actually planned to follow through on his pledges to the WFP or not. But Teachout and many in the WFP didn’t get the memo, and the Democratic primary that followed was bruising and embarrassing for Cuomo as his campaign took on a bunker mentality while Teachout worked the base across the state.

“If you needed any more evidence that in New York state leaders of organizations have no control over their followers you just need to look at that situation,” said Kenneth Sherrill, professor emeritus of political science at Hunter College. “The governor thought he was dealing with an interest group and he had won their support, but a lot of their members weren’t happy with the governor and in fact an awful lot of voters shared their view.”

And what was that view exactly? “People’s lives aren’t good and they want them to be better,” said Sherrill, referring to working class voters.

It was a message that Cuomo appeared slow to pick up on - he backed a variety of wage increases but balked at de Blasio’s plan to raise the minimum wage and allow the city to set its own in February of 2014, saying it would be “chaotic” to have different wages across the state. “God bless them — shoot for the stars,” Cuomo said sarcastically in March, 2015, dismissing the Assembly Democrats’ plan to raise the state minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2018. During a public cabinet meeting in February, 2015, Cuomo said the Legislature had “no appetite” for paid family leave.

Cuomo ran in 2010 as a leader who could provide competence to a capital that had seen one gubernatorial term split between Eliot Spitzer’s partisan bickering and scandal and David Paterson’s chaotic tenure characterized by a power struggle in the Senate and more scandal. The state was still reeling from the financial crisis and accustomed to late budgets and tax increases. Cuomo used his first term to prove he had a firm hand on the state’s finances and operations, negotiating tough deals with unions, delivering on-time budgets, instituting a property tax cap, and even delivering on socially liberal policy like marriage equality. But pundits say Cuomo missed a sea change in the electorate.

“There's some academic research that indicates legislators misestimate their constituents’ thinking,” said Sherrill. “They tend to believe they are more conservative than they really are. So when confronted with public opinion from their district they are shocked how further left [constituents] really are. I think that’s what happened to the governor. He had no idea public opinion had shifted the way it had - and it was not just the governor. The good politician that he is, he made a wise strategic adjustment.”

Howie Hawkins, who challenged Cuomo on the Green Party line in both 2010 and 2014, said he agrees with Sherrill. “I generally think constituents are more liberal than their representatives think, and I think the poll in this case being the votes in the primary and general elections showed [Cuomo] his mistake.”

Cuomo’s “adjustment” involved a change in agenda and messaging. Suddenly the governor who was known for dismissing the “poetry” of campaigning that his father so embraced took to the stump using lines from his father’s famous speech from the 1984 Democratic National Convention:

“But the hard truth is that not everyone is sharing in this city's splendor and glory. A shining city is perhaps all the President sees from the portico of the White House and the veranda of his ranch, where everyone seems to be doing well. But there's another city; there's another part to the shining the city; the part where some people can't pay their mortgages, and most young people can't afford one; where students can't afford the education they need, and middle-class parents watch the dreams they hold for their children evaporate.”

The younger Cuomo used the speech excerpt in a television campaign for his wage push, leading to the official Mario Cuomo Campaign for Economic Justice, launched by Cuomo and labor leaders. The language and imagery mirrored the “Tale of Two Cities” motif de Blasio used for his 2013 mayoral campaign.

Hawkins, who told Gotham Gazette he is prepared to run for Governor again depending on the circumstances, said he doesn’t believe Cuomo has changed his general approach to governing. “I think he’s making gestures, but look at the budget - it is still fiscal austerity, especially cities and towns. There are unfunded mandates and lack of aid from the state, and while he has provided more money for education it is less than the Campaign for Fiscal Equity settlement,” Hawkins said, referring to the 2006 court decision by which New York City is still owed billions according to advocates. “When [Assembly Speaker Carl] Heastie proposed a slightly progressive income tax he just rejected it. So he is not dealing with basic fiscal structure.”

Hawkins said he believes Cuomo’s action on minimum wage and paid family leave will protect Cuomo from a challenge from inside the Democratic Party if the governor runs for a third term in 2018. Hawkins, who performed best in the Capital Region where Cuomo went to war with public worker unions early in his term, said he isn’t so sure the anger is going to be there again in 2018. “I don’t know that people are going to be that upset with him,” he said.

Cuomo’s Republican opposition sees the governor’s support of the $15 minimum wage as a political calculation designed to undercut his Democratic rival, de Blasio, while boosting his national standing. They imagine the governor has sapped de Blasio’s momentum and hopes to use it to land the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention this year, or perhaps even the Vice Presidency or a major cabinet position.

Political analysts call these scenarios unlikely. Cuomo has gone on the record saying he plans to win and serve a third term as Governor, unless, he says, he keels over from a heart attack induced by the Albany press corp. The governor’s office declined to comment for this story.

“In 2010 he understood he had to run as a fiscal conservative,” said Cox, the chair of the New York Republican State Committee. “In 2013 Bill de Blasio wins saying he is the progressive leader of the free world. In 2014 Cuomo’s running in his own primary and he has to beg to get the backing of the Working Families Party and he only gets 60 percent as a sitting Governor in his own party’s primary.”

Cox said that Cuomo slowly began taking on de Blasio’s positions, “just as Mrs. [Hillary] Clinton has done with Bernie Sanders.” And eventually “adopted the SEIU’s ‘Fight for 15’ campaign whole hock” to “avoid insulting his very important constituents in labor.”

Meanwhile, Cox points out that Cuomo made a number of his major policy announcements alongside Vice President Joe Biden, who was very much thought to be a presidential contender at the time.

Cox believes the governor’s minimum wage plan that embraces different phase-ins across the state - in direct contradiction to his previous statement calling such a system “chaotic” - will not only hurt the economy but leave the governor vulnerable to a Republican challenger.

Rep. Gibson, the most likely such challenger at this point, said he would have liked to see a less “politicized process” that tied the wage to inflation and focused on growth across the state. “When my dad was out of work it was devastating,” said Gibson. “People want to work. But I believe this wage increase will prevent people from working. It will kill jobs.”

Noting that a number of counties in his Congressional district border other states, Gibson said he believes businesses will soon flee across the border to avoid new mandates. Asked if he would look to slow the increase of the minimum wage should he be elected, Gibson said, “I need to look at any kind of action like that. I think it’s important to listen and to get the facts.”

There are still some Albany observers who believe Cuomo is looking past re-election and is ready to enter the national scene on the back of his victories on minimum wage and paid family leave. Cuomo has embraced the praise of both Hillary Clinton and President Obama, who commended the passage of paid family leave. “There’s no doubt he has national ambitions, he wants to win with big numbers and not be embarrassed in his primary,” said Sherrill. “So he is relocating himself, perhaps more to his own feelings or maybe not. It is very difficult, especially with [U.S. Attorney] Preet Bharara watching, to satisfy the Senate Republicans he helped elect and his Democratic base.”

Cuomo remains opposed to tax increases - he beat back an Assembly proposal for a new millionaire’s tax, passed a series of tax cuts this year, and is extremely sensitive to the notion that New York has some of the highest taxes in the nation. But Sherrill believes by being on the forefront of a $15 minimum wage and paid family leave the governor is part of a developing national trend that gets big business to pay without actually raising taxes. The paid family leave program also rests upon employee contributions.

“Cuomo, like his father, supported very big liberal policies that don’t cost money - marriage equality, gun control doesn't cost money,” said Sherrill. “He chalks up these kind of wins in an age where you can’t raise taxes.”

“A substantial number of voters want politicians to make their lives better, but they can't raise taxes,” Sherrill continued, explaining the broader political climate. “At some point the sheer number of voters outweighs the people with lots of money. You can't raise taxes, but you can do other things to make the wealthy pay, like raising the minimum wage. However, a lot of programs de Blasio and Cuomo are advocating are in fact ways to get money into people’s hands while raising the cost on the people who refuse to pay taxes,” said Sherrill. “At some point I think the business community just asks for its taxes to be raised because it will be better for them.”

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

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