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In State Budget, More on Voting, Little on Ethics, and Half-Baked Campaign Finance Reform


Cuomo presentation budget

Gov. Cuomo (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/governor's office)


The 2020 state budget agreement between Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state Legislature is one of the most consequential legislative packages to have passed in several years and enacts sweeping changes to the state’s criminal justice system, mass transit in New York City, voting laws, health care, environmental protections, and more. But government reform advocates are disappointed by what they see as half-measures on campaign finance reform and the exclusion of broader improvements to state procurement processes and government ethics reforms.

Over the last three months, the state Legislature, under Democratic control for the first time in nearly a decade, quickly acted to pass several voting and campaign finance reforms that Democratic elected officials and candidates, including Cuomo, have backed and campaigned on for years.

The Legislature approved early voting, consolidated the state and federal primary into one day in June, enacted pre-registration of 16- and 17-year-olds, and reduced contribution limits for limited liability companies to $5,000, greatly narrowing the infamous “LLC loophole.” Cuomo signed those bills into law. The Legislature also passed resolutions to amend the state constitution to allow no-excuse absentee ballots by mail and same-day voter registration -- the resolutions will have to be passed again by the next Legislature seated in 2021 and will then have to be approved by voters in a referendum.

The budget deal passed early Monday morning included additional measures and funding for voting, election, and campaign finance reforms approved in previous months. The headline, though, was the compromise to mandate a binding commission that is meant to create a public financing program for state elections and must issue a report by December 1. The commission’s recommendations will become law unless the Legislature overrides it during a special session before the end of the year.

[Read: Cuomo, Legislators Agree to $175.5 Billion Budget with Congestion Pricing, Criminal Justice Reform and Commitment to Public Campaign Financing]

“On public integrity and anti-corruption issues, the governor and the Legislature have fallen short because they failed to put reforms in statute,” said Alex Camarda, senior policy advisor at Reinvent Albany, a government reform group. “On voting, they’re making very good progress in modernizing the state’s voting system...the Legislature and the governor have exceeded expectations I’d say. That’s really the lone bright spot on good government in the budget.”

Campaign Finance
The governor and Legislature couldn’t come to an agreement on implementing a public financing system with lower contribution limits for candidates and a small-donation matching program, owing largely to opposition in the state Assembly where Speaker Carl Heastie publicly raised doubts about having enough votes to approve the proposal, despite prior support for such a program when Republicans controlled the Senate.

In the end, the budget agreement sets the state on the road to creating a system through a commission, which will have binding authority and $100 million in appropriations (the Legislature can still amend the commission’s recommendations within 20 days of the report being released). “It is too complicated,” Cuomo said at a news conference on Sunday of approving a public financing model. “It’s not a simple system to put in place, it’s especially not simple statewide.”

Advocates say there isn’t enough clarity in the commission’s guidelines and have vowed to hold the feet of the governor and Legislature to the fire. The Fair Elections for NY coalition called the budget a “missed opportunity” to enact reform. The coalition of advocacy, community, and labor groups organized a massive push for a public financing program modelled on the one used in New York City, calling for a 6-to-1 match in public funds for every qualifying dollar that a candidate raises through the program (the city’s program was recently expanded to an 8-to-1 match).

“The value of this commission will be determined by the quality of its appointees and the public process it offers to allow every day New Yorkers and experts to shape the outcome,” the coalition said in a statement. “We intend to hold our elected officials accountable to their promises and make sure New York actually delivers a historic victory without poison pills.”

Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, said a public financing program should have been included in the budget, considering that Democrats have been pushing it for years. “Now that the task is put to a commission, the leaders must act swiftly to appoint qualified, independent members with a track record of public service, and a commitment to creating a robust small donor public financing program,” he said in a statement. “All must ensure a participatory process that is transparent to the public. Nothing less is required to secure the public’s trust.”

Nine commission members will be appointed -- two each by the governor and majority and minority leaders of both legislative chambers. The final appointee must be chosen through consensus by all of the appointing parties and approved by the governor. Camarda from Reinvent Albany noted that the commission will have to approve a system through a majority vote, which is not guaranteed, nor is a 6-to-1 match or any independent enforcement of a new system. Camarda also pointed out that New York’s sky-high contribution limits for those who do not opt in to the program won’t be lowered, disincentivizing candidates from participating.

When laying out his 2019 agenda late last year, Cuomo had called for completely banning corporate donations to political candidates, but that measure did not make it into the budget.

Another Cuomo proposal that was not included in the budget was a complete closure of the so-called LLC loophole. LLCs allow individuals to circumvent contribution limits by shielding the identities of donors and, until recently, had the ability to donate as much as $65,000 to gubernatorial candidates. The Legislature brought those donation limits down to $5,000, in line with limits for corporations, but that does not completely preclude the loophole from being exploited.

The governor had also proposed greater donor disclosure requirements for 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) nonprofit organizations, which he said were contributing to a plague of independent expenditures in state elections, but some charged was another attempt by the governor to target groups that have been critical of him. Those proposals were left out of the final budget as well.

Voting and Elections
The final budget agreement includes $10 million in funding to localities to implement a 10-day early voting program, approves three hours (up from two) of paid time off on election day, authorizes electronic poll books with $14.7 million in funding, and expands voting hours at upstate polling sites to bring them in line with New York City and its surrounding suburbs (6 am to 9 pm).

The budget also mandates that the Board of Elections create an online voter registration system that allows voters to submit applications with electronic signatures. Advocates and elected officials had also tried to push the Legislature to approve automatic voter registration for the state, but to no avail.

Ethics
Though the governor had proposed several government ethics reforms in his executive budget proposal, barely any made it into the enacted budget. The proposals included mandated disclosure of tax returns by candidates for elected office, expanding the state’s Freedom of Information Law to the state Legislature (it currently covers the executive branch), banning state employees from volunteering on their employers’ election campaigns, and a “Lobbying Code of Conduct” to penalize violations of lobbying laws among other lobbying restrictions.

But the only proposal that was approved was one that prohibits lobbyists, political action committees, labor unions, and a person registered as an independent expenditure committee from giving loans to candidates and political committees. What remains to be seen is whether the governor will follow through on a pledge to unilaterally ban those who do not voluntarily follow the code of conduct from lobbying the executive chamber.

‘Clean Contracting’ and Economic Development Accountability
The budget leaves in place weaknesses in state contracting processes that advocates say led to recent pay-to-play scandals, and corruption convictions, in Albany, particularly among officials and donors in Cuomo’s inner circle.

Though Cuomo had proposed several procurement reforms in his executive budget proposal, “Nothing got done in statute,” said Camarda. The governor reached a deal to restore the state comptroller’s pre-audit authority over certain state contracts -- powers stripped in Cuomo’s first year as governor -- but did not give it the backing of law in the budget and legislators do not appear to have fought for it to be in statute.

Cuomo had also expressed support for stronger oversight powers for the state inspector general over SUNY- and CUNY-affiliated nonprofits, which were not passed with the budget. SUNY-affiliated contracts were at the center of a major bid-rigging scandal that led to the corruption conviction last year of Alain Kaloyeros, a former top economic development aide to Cuomo, and prominent donors to Cuomo’s campaign.

The budget does appropriate $500,000 to administratively implement a “database of deals,” which is meant to outline projects receiving state economic development benefits. But the appropriation does not detail whether the database would be created in a way that would make it transparent or easily accessible. Advocates have pushed to make it downloadable and machine-readable for easy analysis. “None of the functionality that we would want to see in a database is specified,” Camarda said. “A bigger problem is there are no requirements as to what information should be included and there are no definitions.”

Cuomo did include a specific provision in the budget that expands his authority over the Public Authorities Control Board, a direct response to the undoing of the deal to bring an Amazon campus to Queens. Cuomo has repeatedly blamed the failure of the deal on the state Senate’s nomination of Amazon-opponent Senator Mike Gianaris to the PACB, which would have final approval of a portion of the subsidies offered to the tech giant. The new budget allows Cuomo to remove a member of the PACB who oversteps, or threatens to overstep their authority.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

State Budget Fallout & More: The Week Ahead in New York Politics, April 1


New York City Hall

New York City Hall


What to watch for this week in New York politics:

This week will be dominated by dissection of and fallout from the new state budget, a $175.5 billion spending and policy plan agreed to by Governor Andrew Cuomo and the Legislature over the weekend. The budget, which takes effect to start the new fiscal year on Monday, April 1, makes a wide variety of spending decisions, including on the always-important topic of education aid to localities, which comprises a large portion of the budget, and a number of new policy changes, including on criminal justice. Items like a new congestion pricing plan for New York City and making permanent the 2 percent annual property tax cap for all areas outside the city span both fiscal and policy areas.

Governor Cuomo will likely speak to the new budget earlier, but on Thursday he is set to address a Manhattan audience at length. The Legislature is due to be in session three days this week, but it’s not clear the two houses will have much of an agenda.

The City Council has a quieter week after just having wrapped up an intense month of hearings on Mayor de Blasio’s $92 billion preliminary budget. The Council will soon issue its formal preliminary budget response. The mayor’s executive budget, which will take into account the Council hearings and response, as well as the new state budget, and more, is due toward the end of this month.

There are some City Council hearings this week, plus other events around the city -- see our day-by-day rundown below.

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

The run of the week in detail:

Monday
At 8:15 a.m. Monday, NYC Health + Hospitals President Mitchell Katz will speak to the Citizens Budget Commission at the Yale Club. Katz will discuss the “transformation of H+H, the largest municipal health system in the United States, and give an update on progress on its long-term plan to reinvent itself.”

At 9:45 a.m. Monday, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson will deliver remarks at the "dedication of The Shed" at the The Bloomberg Building.

The State Legislature is scheduled to be in session Monday in Albany.

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

At the City Council on Tuesday:
--The Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises will meet at 9:30 a.m.
--The Committees on Transportation and Civil Service & Labor will meet jointly at 1 p.m. to discuss proposed laws banning on-call scheduling for utility workers working on underground infrastructure and requiring all workers working on a project to open a street to be in compliance with safety training.

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

At 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, New York City Department of Cultural Affairs Commissioner Tom Finkelpearl will address the “Crain’s Arts and Culture Breakfast” to discuss the “successes and challenges to continue to increase museum traffic and drive tourism numbers for New York City.” Afterwards, there will be a panel discussing similar issues, consisting of Concetta Anne Bencivenga of the New York Transit Museum, Deborah Cullen of the Bronx Museum of Arts, Brett Littman of the Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, and Daniel Weiss of the Met. The event will take place at the Con Ed Building in Union Square.

At 11 a.m. Wednesday, Mayor de Blasio will speak to the Atlantic’s “Renewal Summit” at CNVS in Midtown, discussing “how cities like New York can keep growing, while staying true to those who have long called it home.”

At the City Council on Wednesday:
--The Subcommittee on Landmarks, Public Siting, and Maritime Uses will meet at 10:45 a.m.
--The Committee on Land Use will meet at 1 p.m.

Thursday
At the City Council on Thursday: The Committee on Technology will meet at 1 p.m. for an oversight hearing regarding “automated decision systems used by agencies.”

At 9:30 a.m. Thursday, the Rent Guidelines Board will meet at the Landmarks Preservation Commission Conference Room in the Manhattan Municipal Building. This will be the board’s first meeting of 2019.

At 11:30 a.m. Thursday, Governor Cuomo will speak to the Association for a Better New York at Cipriani Wall Street.

Friday and the weekend
At 8:30 a.m. Friday, the Regional Plan Association, the Center for New York City Affairs, and the Independent Commission on Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform will host “The Future of Rikers and the Inner Sound” at the New School, discussing how Rikers Island can be repurposed after its prison facilities are closed. Speakers will include former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, Queens Council Member Costa Constantinides, Ben “Cincere” Wilson of the New School, Moses Gates of the RPA, Melissa Iachan of NYPIRG, and Claire Weisz of WXY Studio.

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

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

***
by Ben Brachfeld and Ben Max
@GothamGazette

Cuomo, Legislators Agree to $175.5 Billion Budget with Congestion Pricing, Criminal Justice Reform and Commitment to Public Campaign Financing


Cuomo top aides new budget deal 2019 2020

Cuomo and top aides announce budget deal (photo: Mike Groll/Governor's Office)


Governor Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders agreed on a $175.5 billion state budget for fiscal year 2020, which begins Monday, that includes several significant policy changes for New York, including a congestion pricing program for New York City, a plastic bag ban of sorts, major criminal justice reforms, and a commitment to enact through a new commission a campaign finance program that includes public matching funds.

The deal, first announced by press release from the governor’s office just after midnight Saturday and discussed in some detail by Cuomo at a Sunday press conference, also includes an agreement to make permanent the governor’s signature 2% cap on annual property tax increases that applies everywhere outside New York City, as well as an MTA management reform plan tied to congestion pricing, and a $1 billion increase in overall education aid to localities, bringing the total up to $27.9 billion, with a new “education equity formula to ensure funding for poorer schools” that Cuomo had pushed for, though it does not appear to make significant immediate changes to how education aid is distributed.

The announcement also indicated that the parties -- Cuomo and the two legislative majorities, controlled by Democrats for the first time in the governor’s more than eight years in office -- had kept in place planned middle class tax cuts.

“This is probably the broadest, most sweeping plan that we’ve done,” Cuomo said during the Sunday press conference where he was flanked by his three top aides, held as the legislative houses debated and voted on the actual bills involved (the final bills were voted through in the early hours of Monday morning). Cuomo called it a strong progressive statement that includes several nation-leading initiatives, such as first-in-the-country congestion pricing.

While there is a great deal of detail still to discover in the budget language and both funding and policy decisions to dissect, the broad strokes of the overall agreement do point to a successful budget for Cuomo, who largely got what he wanted. As the governor noted Sunday, he has accomplished, at least in some form, most of the “first 100 days” agenda he set forth for the start of his third term during a December speech.

On several policy issues, advocates see too much compromise, and debate will surely play out over the coming days and beyond over the details of the deals reached. Republicans are also attacking Cuomo and his fellow Democrats for instituting several new taxes and fees.

Cuomo called for “perspective,” saying it is “a difficult time for government, a difficult time for New York State” given federal actions, especially tax reform, the loss of the Amazon deal, climate change, and long-standing struggles like congestion in New York City, a flawed MTA management system, and a calcified, discriminatory criminal justice system in need of change.

The Democratic governor on Sunday gave a powerpoint presentation going through his “first 100 days” agenda and said he had accomplished “virtually” everything he set out to do, either prior to or in the budget deal, with marijuana legalization the biggest omission, though there are others. And some accomplishments are a matter of degree that will need to be assessed in the coming days and weeks.

Cuomo highlighted several from earlier in the year when the new all-Democratic Legislature quickly passed a series of bills, some of which Cuomo has signed, and discussed those at the top of the budget announcement sent out the night before, as well as other areas where he believes the state is making progress, such as environmental and health care policies.

"I thank Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie for their partnership, and look forward to achieving the most productive legislative session in history,” Cuomo said in a statement on the budget deal.

The governor, who effectively controls the MTA, said his 12 principles for MTA reform had been approved and would overhaul the inefficient state authority, leading to better performance and return-on-investment for taxpayers, including those who will be paying more given the new congestion pricing plan and other new taxes and fees in the budget, including a so-called mansion tax on home sales in New York City and an internet sales tax across the state.

The details of the congestion pricing scheme will be fully fleshed out by a committee and set to take effect in 2021 -- after the next state legislative elections.

Mayoral control of New York City schools is set to be extended for three more years, through the end of Mayor Bill de Blasio's second term, though the extension has some limited strings attached, with greater parental voice involved in the city's Panel for Educational Policy (PEP).

“[W]e funded school districts, not schools” Cuomo said when discussing education aid, but by mandating transparency in where the money was going, something approved last year, the state found that districts were not funding their poorer schools as much as they should have been, he said. This year’s budget deal, with an increase in overall education aid, includes a mandate that districts prioritize funding to poorer schools and show they’re doing so. The governor appeared especially happy with the outcome on this issue, among a handful of others where he said he had ushered through major progress.

One other area of particular importance to the governor is criminal justice reform. The budget eliminates cash bail for misdemeanors and non-violent felonies, creating a more just justice system, the governor said, allowing roughly 90% of defendants charged to avoid jail as their legal process unfolds. Cuomo indicated he still wants to address in some way bail for those charged with violent felonies, but the parties were able to get to agreement on all other charges and went ahead with that. He also noted speedy trial and discovery reforms have been approved.

The governor said he is “very excited about” what is being called a plastic bag “ban” though there are a number of carve-outs for single-use plastic bags. They will be banned from use by grocery and other retail stores, though they will be allowed for food delivery. The plastic bag limitations are accompanied by a five cent fee on paper bags, part of the push to encourage New Yorkers to carry reusable bags with them. 

"This year’s State budget represents very real progress in addressing some of the most pressing needs of New Yorkers," said Mayor de Blasio in a statement, broadly praising extension of mayoral control of city schools, the passage of congestion pricing, criminal justice reforms and the plastic bag ban. But, “The news from Albany wasn’t all good," he added, noting that the budget includes several funding cuts to New York City, including $125 million in cuts to funding for assistance to low-income families and $59 million cut from public health services. 

Along with bail reform and congestion pricing, the other apparently most difficult issue to find compromise on was campaign finance reform, with a public matching system. The agreement reached shows agreement on some principles but punts the actual decision-making to a new commission, which will soon be established and have until December 1 to produce results. Those results will then be binding unless the Legislature convenes to overturn them before the end of the year.

Asked during his Sunday press conference why the parties created a commission to get the details of campaign finance reform done, Cuomo said “it’s too complicated” and ran through a series of challenging questions involved, including whether candidates for state offices running in different localities would receive the same matching funds considering that there are different media markets.

“What we’re hearing is that the deal lacks a number of key elements we said would be critical if we went with what was already a compromise to have a commission handle legislative details: there seems to be no solid guarantee that we’ll have a public financing of elections system on the books with lower contribution limits, independent enforcement or a 6-to-1 match,” said Dave Palmer, Campaign Manager for the Fair Elections campaign, in a Sunday statement. The Fair Elections campaign is a broad coalition of groups that have been pushing for voting and campaign finance reforms.

In the wake of the agreement being finalized, the campaign issued a statement blaming Assembly Democrats for the half-a-loaf, and calling for “timely,” “expert,” and “independent” appointees to the commission.

“A massive grassroots effort came together this year to demand a new day in Albany, with a small-donor matching system that would give everyday New Yorkers a real voice in our political system. Despite the inclusion of public financing in the Governor’s Executive Budget and the efforts by the Senate Democrats and Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins to get it done, the Assembly’s unwillingness to come through on its decades-long promise has left us with a Commission that will offer a way to yet again pledge reform with no guarantee of delivering. In addition, the Governor is using a public financing commission as a way to attack fusion voting, something that has nothing to do with a public campaign financing system.”

The new commission will also look at New York’s fusion voting system, whereby political parties can nominate the same candidate for the same office. Cuomo, who appears to support an end to fusion voting in part because of his long-running feud with the Working Families Party, said that fusion voting and public campaign financing may not be compatible, though there has been no problem for both in New York City, where it is candidates who receive matching funds no matter how many ballot lines they appear on.

A variety of other decisions were made in the budget, some more quickly discovered or publicized than others. The budget appears to include funding for the Dream Act and for localities to implement early voting, both of which were passed into law earlier this year, legalization of electronic poll books, and the state codification of elements fo the federal Affordable Care Act and health exchange.

Budget language will be pored over for days and weeks to come -- as is annual tradition in Albany, lawmakers were voting through dense budget bills without having had the time to fully review them.

Also on Sunday Cuomo talked about three issues he plans to work with the Legislature on over the next two-plus months until the end of the legislative session: marijuana legalization, rent regulations, and expansion of the prevailing wage on construction projects that receive public benefits.

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - This article has been updated with comment from Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Key Issues to Watch as New State Budget is Finalized


Cuomo state budget briefing

Gov. Cuomo and top aides (photo: governor's office)


The deadline for the state’s 2020 fiscal year budget is midnight on Sunday and state legislators are expected to work through the weekend as they negotiate a variety of thorny issues with Governor Andrew Cuomo, finalizing the details of policies that have been agreed to in principle, fighting over other issues that are less settled, and determining exactly how much to spend on what in the new fiscal year that begins Monday.

Some of the budget bills are already public, with key details emerging, while the final of the series of bills, together commonly referred to as “the budget,” is likely to hold many of the major policy compromises that may come together in the final hours. Some high-profile deals already appear in place, including a ban on plastic bags (with some carve-outs) and an accompanying fee on paper bags. Ultimately, “the budget” will be a long list of compromises on spending, taxing, and policy priorities.

The new budget is expected to come in at roughly $175 billion.

The governor has been touting his top priorities -- congestion pricing, criminal justice reform, and a permanent property tax cap -- but there are a slew of other issues he cares about and those being pushed by the Senate and Assembly majorities, and even with Democratic control of both houses and the governor’s office, it’s hard to predict which ones will be included in the final budget bills.

If the governor does not get his way, he has threatened to let the deadline pass without signing a budget, though legislative leaders have said they’re committed to ensuring they will get it done on time. (The first pay raises for legislators in roughly two decades hang in the balance, though it’s not exactly clear how on time the budget needs to be for those pay raises to stay on track.)

In the mix are also several cost shifts and funding cuts to New York City, which Mayor Bill de Blasio has warned about and is lobbying against. As has been the case over the years, it’s not likely that he’ll be successful in pushing back each and every one.

Cuomo’s Priorities
The governor has made it clear that the Legislature must agree to his three top priorities, without which he says he won’t sign a budget before the deadline. He has been rallying to make the 2 percent cap on annual property tax increases permanent -- the cap is in place in counties outside New York City and will expire next year. He also says he fears that the Legislature will punt on criminal justice reforms -- changes to bail, speedy trial, and open discovery laws -- and believes the budget provides the right pressure to get to a deal, especially on the contentious and complicated details of bail.

On congestion pricing, Cuomo has attempted to corral all the stakeholders, even winning the support of Mayor de Blasio, who had been a long-time opponent of the policy. Like with others, the details must be worked out and there are a variety of stakeholders who want a say. Long-term funding of the MTA is at stake, not to mention trying to reduce traffic in Manhattan.

Cost Shifts to New York City and Education Aid
De Blasio warned in his own preliminary budget proposal in February that the governor’s budget would impose a $600 million burden on the city in cost shifts and cuts to existing programs. A large part of that total stems from $300 million in less-than-expected education funding, with the governor proposing a new school funding formula to reach the poorest schools in the neediest districts. The details of that formula remain a mystery.

Education aid across the state is the largest portion of the budget and always one of the most contentious issues. State legislators, advocates, and local officials always want a larger increase in aid than Cuomo believes is necessary, with data largely supporting the governor. This year, Cuomo is attempting to change the system, but it’s unclear whether legislators will go along, even with tweaks.

Campaign finance and ethics reforms
The governor has called for public financing of elections, aiming to create a system similar to the one currently used in New York City where small dollar contributions are matched with public funds. Despite Democrats in both the state Senate and Assembly having supported legislation in the past to create such a system -- the Assembly has even voted it through its chamber -- there isn’t agreement on a final bill, and the possibility that it will either not make it into the budget or there will be a somewhat vague passage in the budget language that is a commitment to create a system at a later date, perhaps through a new commission.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie recently raised several unfounded and some more legitimate concerns about the proposal and indicated that there weren’t enough votes in his chamber to approve it. But then his chamber had support for a public campaign finance system in its one-house budget resolution. Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and her members have been more steadfast in their commitment to campaign finance reform, with several senators loudly pushing for it along with a massive coalition of advocates representing more than 200 organizations across the state.

Some long-sought campaign finance reform did pass earlier this year, with the significant narrowing of the infamous LLC loophole.

Less talked about in the budget debate have been the governor’s proposals to tackle independent expenditures, which includes new disclosure requirements for 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) organizations, as well as Cuomo’s proposal to require any entity that spends at least $500 in a year to register as a lobbyist. Nonprofits, advocates, and activists have pushed back against the ideas, saying the governor is attempting to stifle his critics.

Cuomo has also called for banning campaign contributions from corporations and limited liability companies, and a code of conduct for lobbyists, which Cuomo said he would implement for the executive branch if lawmakers do not approve it. The Legislature has already approved lowering LLC contributions to $5,000, in line with corporate donations.

Advocates have also urged the passage of clean contracting bills that reduce conflicts of interest and prevent corruption in the state’s contract bidding processes. Cuomo has promised unilateral action on creating a so-called ‘database of deals’ which would detail projects receiving state benefits and make them accessible to the public. He’s also proposed strengthening the oversight powers of the comptroller and the state attorney general. It’s unclear if those provisions will also be passed into law.

Voting reforms
Republicans who controlled the state Senate for years were loathe to approve several voting reforms that Democrats repeatedly proposed in vain. This year, advocates were buoyed in their hopes that reforms would sail through. Some already have as the Legislature passed early voting and began the process of amending the state constitution to allow same-day voter registration and no-excuse absentee ballots by mail.

The Senate has moved ahead on allowing the use of electronic poll books but there has yet to be a three-way agreement with the Assembly and governor’s office, though there have been rumors that a deal is imminent. There also isn’t consensus on how many days of early voting the state will allow or how much funding the budget will include to implement it locally. It's also unclear if a system of automatic voter registration may be implemented.

Criminal Justice Reforms
The three big reforms that advocates have long called for include banning cash bail and making other changes to pre-trial detention rules to keep far fewer people incarcerated, and implementing speedy trial and open discovery legislation. Cuomo has insisted the proposals must be in the budget and has even that he will “take the blame” for their passage if suburban legislators are worried about approving them.

But there has been pushback against the proposals from the state district attorneys association, other law enforcement, and more conservative legislators. There has also been disagreement among progressive Democrats about where to draw certain lines, including around what discretion judges will have to determine the accused’s “dangerousness.” The Senate and Assembly nearly reached a deal a few weeks ago on the package of bills but it failed at the last minute. Given the focus on these issues, especially from the governor, a deal is likely.

MTA Restructuring, Congestion Pricing, E-Scooters and E-Bikes
Transit issues have been front and center in this year’s budget negotiations with New York City’s subway crisis lending added urgency to the need to find a sustainable revenue source for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). Cuomo has made a big push for congestion pricing as one of the main funding sources and has also called for restructuring the MTA board to give him more control, though he already appoints a plurality of board members and its top leadership, and the board rarely, if ever, goes against his wishes.

Though the Legislature seems close to an agreement on a congestion pricing program, which would toll cars entering Manhattan’s Central Business District, the specifics haven’t been ironed out yet, including around exemptions to the fees, changes in bridge tolls, and investments in other MTA branches, like LIRR and Metro North.

Cuomo has also called for the state and New York City to split 50-50 any MTA capital costs that aren't covered by dedicated funding streams. It's unclear if state legislators will allow that language to be part of a final budget deal or if the process around negotiating the MTA capital budget will be left to a later date as it typically is.

Speaker Heastie indicated the Assembly is willing to advance the proposal in principle while Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins has been less definitive. The governor’s proposals for the MTA’s structure also remain uncertain.

The governor has also proposed allowing municipalities to legalize the use of electronic scooters and bicycles, and big firms that offer those services have been expending significant resources lobbying state lawmakers, regulators and the governor’s office to push that policy through. Legalization would be particularly impactful in New York City, where the NYPD and Mayor de Blasio are facing criticism from the City Council and advocates over a crackdown on e-bike use that has been particularly impactful on immigrant delivery workers.   

Marijuana Legalization
Cuomo has proposed legalizing the recreational use of marijuana for adults, which the state estimates would raise about $300 million in revenue annually. He had hoped to use that revenue to fill the MTA’s budget gaps.

But earlier this month, Cuomo raised doubts about whether marijuana legalization would be included in the state budget and said if it was not, then it most likely would not happen at all this year. However, the Assembly and Senate leaders have indicated that they are willing to advance it. As the budget negotiations moved ahead, it appeared a marijuana legalization deal would not come together in the budget, but nothing at all in play is ever fully in or out until the budget is done.

Census Funding
The New York Counts 2020 coalition of nonprofit organizations, business groups, and community service providers have been pushing the state to include at least $40 million in the budget to fund outreach efforts for the decennial population count next year. This census, where New York has a great deal on the line in terms of congressional representation and federal funds, will be particularly challenging, with the federal government underfunding the Census Bureau and primarily relying on a digital methodology, which is a departure from previous years, not to mention the push for a citizenship question.

New York already faces its own unique issues with reaching hard-to-count communities, particularly because of the state’s large immigrant population, much of which is concentrated in New York City. And though the state created a commission to examine the issues around the Census, it was not named until after its initial deadline for submitting a report had already lapsed. That report is not expected until after the budget. Indications on Thursday, including from the city’s Census leader, Julie Menin, pointed to the $40 million being included in the state budget, but that had not been finalized.

Education Aid, Mayoral Control and Charter Cap
In past years, Governor Cuomo and Senate Republicans repeatedly dangled mayoral control of New York City schools over Mayor de Blasio to extract concessions such as increasing funding for charter schools and more transparency from the Department of Education. This year was less contentious but Democratic legislators still wanted adjustments to approve an extension.

The mayor is expected to receive a three-year extension on mayoral control, up from a two-year renewal last time and multiple single years before that, but will nonetheless have to commit to certain demands made by legislators from his own party, including improvements in parent engagement.

New York City this year reached a statutory cap on the number of charter schools in the five boroughs, which Cuomo and Republicans had increased in previous legislative sessions. Charter school advocates have continued to push for eliminating or increasing the cap but lack powerful allies in the Legislature. If there is an increase in the charter cap snuck into the budget, it will all but certainly be because Cuomo made it a priority.

Cuomo proposed an increase of several hundred million dollars in education funding, for a total of $27.7 billion, and spoke of a new “Education Equity” formula to replace the Foundation Aid formula currently used to provide additional funding to school districts. But he hasn’t released details of the proposal, which the state education department is meant to outline. That has incensed education advocates and New York City elected officials who say the governor is not living up to the Campaign for Fiscal Equity court decision which would means billions more in education funding. The two legislative majorities outlined increases in education aid of more than $1 billion in total, with the final number likely somewhere between theirs and Cuomo's.

Revenue Raisers and Taxes
Besides congestion pricing, budget negotiations have also involved other possible revenue raising measures including a pied-a-terre tax, a real estate transfer tax, an internet sales tax, and the extension of the state’s so-called millionaires tax.

After talks of marijuana legalization seemed to stall, the Senate had floated the idea of a pied-a-terre tax on people’s second homes worth more than $5 million in New York City to replace the revenue that would have come in for the MTA from marijuana taxes. The pied-a-terre tax could raise an estimated $650 million each year. Cuomo was on board with the proposal as well, but the Assembly shot down the idea, citing difficulties in navigating the complicated property tax system in the city. Speaker Heastie said instead that the state should do a simpler one-time tax on expensive real estate transfers above $5 million. The discussion appeared to stall.

Cuomo has additionally proposed eliminating a loophole that allows third-party online retailers to avoid collecting sales taxes -- which could bring in nearly $400 million in revenue.

On the millionaires tax, there reportedly seems to be three-way agreement on a five-year extension of the current rates, though an Assembly proposal to increase the tax, and the number of people it applies to, did not get much support.

A previously-scheduled middle class tax cut appears to be staying as designed.

Healthcare and Medicaid
Cuomo had proposed as much as $550 million in additional state Medicaid funding in his budget proposal but he pulled back in February as the prospect of federal cuts to healthcare loomed and tax revenues came in lower than expected. Both the Assembly and Senate pushed to restore that funding and Cuomo appeared to backtrack.  

Environmental Policy
After he and the Legislature overrode a New York City law to impose a fee on single-use plastic and paper bags at retail stores two years ago, Cuomo introduced legislation last year to pursue a statewide plastic bag ban. The bill failed in the Republican-led state Senate but Cuomo reintroduced the proposal this year and it appears on the verge of passage, with a variety of carve-outs and other specifications, like a fee on paper bags and opt-out provisions for localities. Legislative leaders indicated on Wednesday that they had reached an agreement on the bill and that it will likely be passed with the budget.

There’s also a concerted effort this year by environmental advocates to advance the Climate and Community Protection Act, which would transition the entire state economy to renewable sources of energy by 2050. The bill has passed in the Assembly three years in a row but there isn’t consensus this year with the governor’s office or the Senate. Cuomo introduced his own Climate Leadership Act, which is similar in ways to the CCPA but would only mandate that the state’s electricity sector be renewable by 2040. Advocates say his proposal doesn’t go far enough and it’s hard to see what compromise he may reach with the Legislature. This legislation has been little discussed by Cuomo or legislative leaders as the budget deadline approaches.

Pay Raises
If the state Legislature fails to pass an on-time budget, which would technically mean by the April 1 deadline, senators and Assembly members will lose out on a $10,000 annual raise (from $110,000 to $120,000) in their base pay which is meant to go into effect on January 1, 2020. The raises were put into motion by a state commission last year, which set a schedule to bump up legislator salaries over a three-year period. The raises also apply to the comptroller, state attorney general and certain state agency commissioners. Cuomo has seemed to use the raises as leverage over the Legislature to ensure that the budget is not late and that it includes his priorities.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Cuomo's Budget Priority Balancing Act


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Gov. Cuomo on Long Island (photo: governor's office)


Before Democrats reclaimed the state Senate last year, Governor Andrew Cuomo spent years triangulating with the Democratic-controlled Assembly, two factions of Senate Democrats, and the Republican Senate majority. The arrangement allowed him a heavy hand over the legislative and budget agendas in Albany and gave him the ability to claim credit and deflect blame as he saw fit (though critics didn’t always buy his explanations). Progressive legislation regularly withered on the vine unless it had Cuomo’s imprimatur, usually accompanied by some form of mutually beneficial compromise with rogue Democrats and Republicans.

If this year’s budget negotiations have proved anything it’s that old habits die hard and Cuomo is unwilling to ease his stranglehold on state government, even when dealing with members of his own party. He’s continued to strongly, and perhaps shrewdly, set the foundation for negotiations. But some of the policies he has prioritized have long been wedge issues between lawmakers representing New York City on the one hand and upstate and suburban districts on the other.

On a few of the governor’s topline agenda items -- congestion pricing, recreational marijuana legalization, criminal justice reforms, and a property tax cap -- that divide has seemed most apparent this year, at times apparently stoked by Cuomo himself, and the governor has sought to leverage the budget deadline to push for their passage. Notably, he has said he’s willing to allow a late budget to accomplish his goals, which would mean that legislators could lose out on pay raises that are contingent on the budget passing on time, giving the governor additional leverage over the process.

While Cuomo has said he finds himself “liberated” by full Democratic control of the state Legislature and the ability to pass legislation that stalled for years, he’s also been overtly antagonistic to his colleagues in the Legislature, particularly in the state Senate, for what he says is them failing to grasp the necessities of governing, sabotaging the deal to bring an Amazon campus to Queens, and hesitating to follow through on several policies that Republicans opposed for years.

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins half-jokingly attributed it to “Senate Democratic derangement syndrome,” but many Democratic legislators have been taken aback by Cuomo’s approach, even if most have not been surprised. After an initial sprint of legislative activity that smacked of Democratic bonhomie, the Legislature slowed down as fault lines and a less rosy picture emerged amid negotiations over complex topics and some apparent backtracking.

With news articles and political commentary pointing to the close bond between Heastie and Stewart-Cousins, and the power of the all-Democratic Legislature vis-a-vis the governor, Cuomo appeared to seek to increase his leverage, by having certain Democratic candidates sign policy pledges during last year’s campaign, setting out his “first 100 days” agenda in December, casting blame on Long Island Democrats for not doing enough to keep the Amazon deal on track, and more.

Of late, he’s focused his top priorities on issues that alternately appeal more to New York City Democrats (congestion pricing, criminal justice reform) and suburban Democrats (property tax cap). He’s rallied on Long Island and in the Hudson Valley with Democratic senators, declaring he would not approve a state budget without the annual tax cap made permanent, even though, as Heastie has said, the current cap doesn’t even expire until next year. Meanwhile, he’s publicly told those same Democratic senators, who may be hesitant about criminal justice reform, to pass it in the budget and “blame me.”

It may all, or mostly, work out for Cuomo by the April 1 budget deadline, a major test for all the parties involved, but certainly an opportunity for Cuomo to both deliver on progressive promises and still show he’s in charge.

“This isn't a game of risk, this is real life,” said Rich Azzopardi, senior advisor to Cuomo, of the budget process in a statement responding to Gotham Gazette’s inquiry about the governor’s budget negotiation tactics and whether they were intended to divide Democrats as some have suggested. “If you excuse us, we're going to concentrate on developing a budget that works for all New Yorkers and I believe our partners in the legislature are doing the same.”

“I think for the governor, his decisions about priorities in the state budget are about how can he get things done that he can brag about later and that continue to advance the narrative that he wants,” said Evan Thies, co-founder of Pythia, a political strategy firm, “which is that he is still very much the most powerful person in the state and also on a national level a Democrat that can get things done and who seems to have moved his state to the left.”

Overwhelmingly reelected for a third term in November, Cuomo was emboldened and quick to show how he would approach the newly elected Senate Democratic majority. He rallied with newly elected and returning members of the state Senate on Long Island shortly after the election, pledging to ensure that New York City pays its “fair share” of funding for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) even as legislators within the city were hammering him for starving the agency of funding, meddling with its affairs, and letting the city’s subways slide into chaos.

Cuomo pitched congestion pricing as the chief remedy to MTA problems, insisting it must be done in the budget but offering few details of how it would be implemented. For lawmakers in suburban areas outside New York City and even for those in the outer boroughs, it proved divisive and it appears that any proposal that will be included in the budget will include several key carve-outs and funding set asides for the Long Island Rail Road and the Metro North Railroad. The governor has also called for making it state law that the city and state must split 50-50 any MTA capital plan shortfall not covered by dedicating funding streams like that from congestion pricing.

Cuomo has also launched a campaign to make the state’s 2 percent cap on annual property tax increases permanent, which is currently in place everywhere outside New York City. The cap has been a crowning Cuomo achievement, winning praise from members of both political parties, and renewed multiple times. He’s rallied on Long Island three times in two weeks to push for it and has said he will not sign a spending plan without it, even saying that he’s willing to let the budget be late.

Even the governor’s proposal to legalize recreational marijuana seemed destined to create divisions along regional lines. It gave counties the ability to opt out of allowing sales, and several county executives -- including both on Long Island -- have already expressed intent to do so (something Cuomo said was not helpful in getting legalization passed in Albany). Meanwhile in New York City, which accounts for about a third of all regular marijuana users in the state and would make up an overwhelming part of any legal market, Mayor Bill de Blasio has already taken steps to reduce enforcement and has embraced legalization.

There are several key aspects of legalization to work out, and It’s hardly a surprise that the governor said last week it appeared unlikely legalization would be in the budget, even though he was hoping to tap the revenue from it to fund the MTA. But even Cuomo’s characterization of negotiations was disputed by lawmakers, such as Senator Liz Krueger, lead sponsor of legalization legislation, who said the parties aren’t that far apart. (Cuomo shifted to embracing a pied-a-terre tax for New York City luxury apartments that would replace marijuana funding for the MTA, though that has also hit some roadblocks.)

“You’ll notice a trend in the things that are actually getting done in the budget, which is that suburban Democrats agree with all of them,” Thies said. “They are clearly the new pivotal block in Albany and that is well represented” in the marijuana bill’s opt-out provision, the fact that congestion pricing will pay for commuter railroads and that issues like the tax cap “which may not have universal support within the Democratic caucus, are still being advanced aggressively.”

Criminal justice reform, including banning cash bail and instituting speedy trial and open discovery reform, may be one of the governor’s remaining priorities that does not necessarily have a substantial budget impact. But Cuomo has nonetheless insisted it must pass with the budget -- citing it as an important decision deadline -- despite various concerns being raised by district attorneys and lawmakers from more conservative districts outside the city, and by more progressive lawmakers and advocate who have certain prerequisites for new pretrial incarercation rules.

“I've had 7 years, 8 years with a Republican Senate with half a loaf, half a loaf, half a loaf—and getting these controversial issues and having to compromise everything,” he said in a Monday interview on WAMC radio with host Alan Chartock. “So having a Democratic Senate is most liberating for me because I don't have to take half a loaf and criminal justice is one of those issues.”

On issues like marijuana legalization and the broader criminal justice reform package, Heastie and Stewart-Cousins have not said anything is off the table; rather, they have indicated that both can be successfully approved after the budget and need not be rushed through by April 1. But the budget is where the governor enjoys maximum leverage and he has said that lawmakers can assign him the blame for passing controversial bills because there is no guarantee they will follow through in the post-budget session.

“I'll take the blame,” he said at a March 11 news conference, when asked about the criminal justice reform package and whether it would lead to a backlash for suburban legislators. “When it's in the budget, it allows everybody to say, ‘It wasn't me, it was the governor.’ Let's be honest, right? That's what the budget allows you to do. They all go and they say, ‘Yeah, I didn't support that, but the governor insisted on it.’ And by the way, it will be true. It will be true. Blame me.”

Dr. Jeanne Zaino, professor of political science at Iona College, described the governor’s strategy as “a masterclass in terms of managing Albany,” which she said has practically become a “one-party city” with Republicans out of power. “It’s brand new territory for [Cuomo], having the Democrats in control and in the past, he was able to triangulate with Republicans,” she said. “In my mind, he’s trying to do a similar sort of dance, if you will, but in this way playing the suburban, upstate Democrats off the more urban downstate on a variety of issues...I think congestion pricing in my mind and the property tax cap are two of the biggest [issues] because they so glaringly pit the two against each other.”

For advocates who have seen the type of horse-trading typified by the state budget process, the governor’s push has raised some concerns. Nick Malinowski of VOCAL-NY noted that legislators from the Hudson Valley and Long Island haven’t been supportive of criminal justice reforms, for instance. “We are very concerned as this moves into budget negotiations that issues like bail, like discovery reform, will be negotiated against other issues like property taxes and pay raises and all these other things,” he said. “That is definitely something we’ve seen in the past with Republicans, Democrats, and Cuomo...From a democracy standpoint, it’s a bad way of doing government.”

Nick Sifuentes, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, however, disagreed that the governor’s efforts have been divisive, and credited him for bringing together a “fractious conference” on congestion pricing at least. “It’s the single largest and difficult thing they’ve taken up this year,” he said. “I really feel like the governor has actually generally played a helpful role in trying to get this thing to the finish line….I don’t think this has been a year that the governor has very aggressively played sides off against each other to try and win something.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

State Budget Due, City Council Hearings on ThriveNYC & Placard Abuse, & More: The Week Ahead in New York Politics, March 25


New York City Hall

New York City Hall


What to watch for this week in New York politics:

While the nation's attention is on the Mueller Report, in New York, a state budget is due in just a few days -- by the April 1 start of the new fiscal year -- and negotiations in Albany will take center stage this week. Unresolved issues include what "revenue raisers" will be included, how much will be spent on a variety of programs and services, most notably the two biggest areas of state spending: education and health care, and whether there will be agreement among the two Democratic legislative majorities and Governor Andrew Cuomo over policies like criminal justice reform, marijuana legalization, congesting pricing and MTA reform, campaign finance reform, making the current property tax cap permanent, and more.

As Mayor Bill de Blasio and others in New York City attempt to influence the details of the state budget, and the city may face significant funding cuts and cost shifts from the state, there is a lot happening that is more city-centric this week, including ongoing city budget hearings at the City Council. The Council will hold a variety of budget and non-budget hearings this week, highlighted by an oversight hearing on First Lady Chirlane McCray's Thrive NYC program, a hearing on a package of legislation meant to curb parking placard abuse, and several budget hearings, like that related to homeless services.

This week will also mark intensifying debate over the city's plan to shut down the Rikers Island jails and build new or renovate existing jails in the four boroughs beyond Staten Island. There is controversy surrounding the plans, especially the site chosen in the Bronx (Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr., led a Sunday rally in opposition and pushing for the site he prefers) and the size of the proposed jail in for downtown Manhattan. There will be an initial City Planning Commission hearing on Monday as the four jail site plans are packaged together to go through the city land use review processs.

On Monday, Governor Cuomo is scheduled to be in Albany as state budget negotiations enter what is supposed to be their final week, while Mayor de Blasio is in Washington, D.C. participating in the annual AIPAC conference. The mayor, who continues to flirt with a presidential bid, is due to return to the city on Monday afternoon. On Sunday, already-declared candidate for president and U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand held a Manhattan rally to officially kick off her campaign.

There are many events to be aware of this week -- see our day-by-day rundown below.

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

The run of the week in detail:

Monday
The New York State Legislature will be in session on Monday in Albany. A budget is due within a week, by April 1.

Mayor de Blasio remains in Washington D.C. for the annual AIPAC conference. He participated in a Q&A discussion on Sunday and will deliver remarks on Monday at 9:30 a.m. On Monday evening, the mayor will appear on NY1's Inside City Hall in the 7 and 11 p.m. hours.

The following City Council committees will hold preliminary budget hearings on Monday:
--General Welfare at 10 a.m., regarding the Human Resources Administration, the Department of Social Services, and the Department of Homeless Services.
--Civil and Human Rights at 11 a.m., regarding the Human Rights Commission and the Equal Employment Practices Commission.
--Juvenile Justice and General Welfare jointly at 1 p.m., regarding the Administration for Children’s Services.
--Hospitals at 2 p.m., regarding the Health + Hospitals Corporation.

Also at the City Council on Monday: the Committee on Housing and Buildings will meet at 10 a.m. to discuss proposed laws related to water tower inspections, including requiring the city to remind tower owners electronically of filing deadlines for annual certifications and holding information sessions for owners regarding inspections.

At 9:30 a.m. Monday, elected officials, youth in foster care, and child welfare providers will rally at the steps of City Hall to “demand equal opportunity for young people in foster care,” which would include investments in “long-term coaching and robust academic, career development, and independent living supports for foster youth from middle school to age 26.” The rally will take place ahead of the General Welfare Committee’s scheduled preliminary budget hearing.

At 10 a.m. Monday at Queens Borough Hall, Borough President Melinda Katz will chair a meeting of the Flushing Meadows Corona Park Improvement Fund board of directors.

At 11 a.m. Monday at City Hall, “YAFFED, yeshiva and nonpublic schools graduates, and good government groups will join together to demand private schools stop covering for yeshivas by attempting to circumvent reasonable state oversight.”

At 11:30 a.m. Monday in Rochester, Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul will join Senator Charles Schumer and others at the dedication for the Rep. Louise M. Slaughter Rochester Station.

At 11:30 a.m. Monday in Albany, “state lawmakers, consumers, physicians, pharmacists to rally for rejection of Governor’s opioid excise tax in final budget.” Participants will include Assemblymembers Linda Rosenthal, Richard Gottfried, and John McDonald. “While dubbed a tax on opioid manufacturers, in actuality if New York imposes an opioid excise tax on prescription medications, as proposed by the Governor in his SFY 19-20 Budget, the tax can and will be passed down to patients and the health providers who care for them. New York would be the first to impose a tax of this kind on a medication...”

On Monday, Comptroller Scott Stringer, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer will be among those to speak at the 108th commemoration of the Triangle Factory Fire.

At 1 p.m. Monday, “The City Planning Commission (CPC) will hold a public Review Session and hear details about the New York City Borough-Based Jail System application. The Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice (MOCJ) and the Department of City Planning (DCP) will present the proposal to the commissioners and answer their questions.”

At 6 p.m. Monday at City Hall, the 2019 Charter Revision Commission will hold its seventh “issues forum” featuring experts on the specific focus topic at hand and potential charter revisions. This forum will focus on the city’s governance and land use policies, with topics to include the Board of Standards and Appeals, the Landmarks Preservation Commission, and the roles of the Borough Presidents.

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

At 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics will meet in Albany.

On Tuesday at 10:30 a.m. in Albany, “Senator Brad Hoylman, Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou, and consumer advocates will host a press conference to urge the legislature to pass their (S3297-A/A675-A), which would effectively ban unwanted robocalls in New York State.”

The following City Council committees will hold preliminary budget hearings on Tuesday:
--Contracts at 10 a.m., regarding the Mayor’s Office of Contracts.
--Oversight and Investigation at noon, regarding the Department of Investigation.
--Finance at 1 p.m., regarding Thrive NYC.
--Mental Health at 2 p.m., regarding the Department of Health & Mental Hygiene.

Also at the City Council on Tuesday:
--The Committee on Justice System will meet at 10 a.m. to discuss a resolution calling on New York State and the city’s District Attorneys to expunge all city misdemeanor marijuana convictions.
--The Committee on Land Use will meet at 11 a.m.
--The Committee on Health will meet at 3 p.m. to discuss several proposed laws, including ones requiring city restaurants serving kids’ meals to limit the number of drinks they serve containing added sugars and sweeteners, requiring the city to report annually to the council on water tower inspections, requiring the city to conduct a “year-long assessment of all potential determinants of Legionnaires’ disease in the city,” and allowing individuals to redact the name of physicians from their birth certificate if the physician’s license has since been revoked.

On Tuesday morning at New York Law School: “Is a New Power Structure in NYC Real Estate Development and Land Use Coming With the 2019 Charter Revision?” a panel discussion moderated by Ross F. Moskowitz of Stroock & Stroock & Lavan and including panelists: Basha Gerhards of the Real Estate Board of New York, David G. Greenfield of Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, Miriam Harris of Trinity Place Holdings, Catherine McVay Hughes, former chair of Community Board 1 Manhattan, and Carl Weisbrod of HR&A Advisors.

At 7 p.m. Tuesday, City Comptroller Scott Stringer will hold a town hall meeting at the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation in Brooklyn. Joining Stringer will be Assemblymember Tremaine Wright and City Council Members Robert Cornegy, Stephen Levin, and Laurie Cumbo.

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

At 10 a.m. Wednesday, the MTA will hold a board meeting at its Manhattan headquarters.

At 10 a.m. Wednesday, the City Planning Commission will hold a public meeting at 120 Broadway.

The following City Council committees will hold preliminary budget hearings on Wednesday:
--Finance at 10 a.m., regarding the Department of Finance.
--Finance and Capital Budget jointly at 11 a.m., regarding the Department of Design and Construction and the Office of Management and Budget.

Also at the City Council on Wednesday: The Committee on Transportation will meet at 1 p.m. to discuss several proposed laws related to parking enforcement. These include prohibiting vehicles with city-issued placards from blocking bike lanes, bus lanes, crosswalks, sidewalks, or hydrants except in emergencies, requiring vehicles misusing permits to be towed, creating a standardized application process for parking placards and posting the data online, requiring 311 to accept complaints related to misuse of placards, and requiring the NYPD to evaluate sites based on 311 complaints regarding misuse of placards.

At 6 p.m. Wednesday, the Panel for Educational Policy will meet at the High School of Fashion Industries in Chelsea.

At 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Amplify Her will host a forum for women candidates for Queens District Attorney at the Rego Center Community Room in Rego Park. The candidates in attendance will be Tiffany Caban, Melinda Katz, Betty Lugo, and Mina Malik.

Thursday
The New York State Legislature will be in session on Thursday.

The City Council will hold a stated meeting at 1:30 p.m. Thursday. It will be preceded by the usual press conference led by Council Speaker Corey Johnson.

Also at the City Council on Thursday:
--The Committee on Finance will meet at 10 a.m.
--The Committee on Rules, Privileges, and Elections will meet at 10:30 a.m. to discuss the mayor’s nomination of David Burney to the City Planning Commission.

At 9:30 a.m. Thursday, Empire State Development will hold a directors’ meeting.

At 10:30 a.m. Thursday, Comptroller Tom DiNapoli will give remarks at the NYS Government Finance Officers’ Association, Inc. 2019 Annual Conference in Albany.

At 6 p.m. Thursday, City & State will host the “Above & Beyond Gala” at the Dream Downtown Hotel in Chelsea, honoring “30 women who exhibit exemplary leadership in their fields and have made important contributions to society in the sectors of business, public service, health care, law, lobbying, real estate and construction and nonprofits.” Queens Borough President and DA candidate Melinda Katz and State Senator Alessandra Biaggi will deliver keynote remarks.

Friday and the weekend
The New York State Legislature will be in session on Friday in Albany.

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

The state budget is due by midnight Sunday.

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

***
by Ben Brachfeld and Ben Max
@GothamGazette

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


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


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

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

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

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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


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


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

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

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

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read more by this writer.

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


Gotham Gazette:

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***
by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this article.

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



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