Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics



Charters: Flush With Cash, Yet Still Trying to Pull Funds from Neighborhood Public Schools

uft teacher floor

(photo: UFT)

Even as they are pleading poverty to the Legislature in Albany, charter schools across New York State are sitting on nearly half a billion dollars in cash and unrestricted assets.

An investigation by the state teachers union has shown that New York City charter schools alone have at least $323 million in unrestricted net assets, most of it in cash. When you add in charters in the rest of New York State, the sector as a whole has unrestricted assets of more than $450 million.

Those are resources that can be used to pay for academic programs, support staff, and rent of school facilities.

But despite these available funds, New York's charter chains are lobbying for more public support in the form of increased tuition reimbursements, additional rent subsidies, and the elimination of the cap on the number of charters – all of which would siphon off public funds that could go to the state’s traditional public schools.

Charters are famously resistant to transparency, and anyone wanting to find out how much cash charters have on hand, or how much they pay their top managers, has to track down audits and non-profit tax returns on the internet.

A review of these documents shows that in New York City alone the Uncommon Schools chain has cash and unrestricted assets totaling more than $28 million; Success Academy has more than $22 million; and Democracy Prep have more than $14 million.

Ignoring these facts, Republicans in the state Senate have proposed to eliminate the charter cap and drain an additional $334 million statewide that could go to traditional public schools, sending that money instead to charters.

Charter cheerleaders constantly complain that the UFT is an enemy of charters. But the fact is that we represent teachers at a number of New York City charter schools and support their original purpose: to be incubators of innovation that can then be spread across the public school system.

But to achieve that goal, charters have to be a vibrant part of the system and also be accountable to parents and taxpayers. Right now, New York charters are not.

Despite a 2010 change in charter law, too many charter chains still fail to accept and keep all students, and they have significantly lower numbers of English language learners, special education students, and homeless children than neighborhood public schools.

And too many charter chains have fought even the most basic accountability measures, such as audits of their finances or reviews of their school discipline policies.

As budget negotiations continue in Albany, the state Assembly right now is seeking to hold charters more accountable.

Charters would have to be transparent in how they raise and spend their funds to make sure tax dollars are spent in the classroom. They would need to report how much they pay their top managers and management companies.

They would need to abide by guidelines that they accept and keep all children and make sure the number of high-needs children they educate is comparable to the number educated in neighboring public schools.

As a measure of good faith, one of the first things charters could do is to acknowledge that many of their schools do not need the tuition and rent hikes they seek, particularly when their increases would come at the expense of New York City’s neighborhood public schools.

Michael Mulgrew is President of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT). On Twitter @UFT.

Cuomo Holds the Key to Bold Climate Action in 2017

 latrice walker

Assemblymember Latrice Walker, the author

Here are a few things we know:

President Trump’s policies benefit the one-percent.

His agenda, particularly dismantling the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as rolling back climate and public health protections that New Yorkers benefit from, disproportionately harms low-income communities of color. (The World Health Organization just released data that 1.7 million children die annually worldwide due to environmental pollution.)

Trump’s denial of the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change, and gutting of life-saving policies like strong vehicle emission standards, will push our planet to the brink of catastrophe, jeopardizing vulnerable people while enriching the fossil fuel executives driving his backwards energy policy.

Here’s what we also know:

Governor Cuomo holds the key to leading the nation in climate action with passage of the Climate and Community Protection Act in this year’s State Budget.

This groundbreaking bill sets into law the elimination of climate pollution from all economic sectors in New York, while making sure at least 40-percent of state energy funding is directed to disadvantaged communities, also attaching fair labor standards to a robust renewable jobs agenda.

Like most New Yorkers, I’ve seen the devastating impacts of climate change, especially in the communities I represent in New York City. Superstorm Sandy hit frontline communities first and worst – after the flood, there were outbreaks of mold in public housing that greatly exacerbated the already chronic problems of asthma and bronchitis in communities like East New York and Brownsville.

Another well-documented firsthand impact is the “urban heat island,” which creates dangerous temperatures in the summer, especially for seniors, children, and those with chronic illness.

In other words, even when New Yorkers are not directly harmed by a weather event, the pollution fostering extreme weather, and the aftermath when the storm has passed, compromises our health.

If we don’t get a handle on this problem, it’s going to run away from us, with disastrous consequences.

Tackling climate change isn’t just a safety measure for my community, but every community represented by the Governor and my colleagues in state government. As Chair of the Assembly’s Subcommittee on Renewable Energy, I know that bold action is a down payment on a new future – one built on wind power, solar power, microgrids, energy retrofits, and community-shared renewable energy.

According to data from the Solar Foundation, the solar industry in 2015 added jobs 12-times faster than the rest of the economy.

Last August, wind industry jobs were on track to end the year up more than 20 percent according to the U.S. Wind Industry Annual Market Report.

That means if we make the right policies now, those jobs can be guaranteed to support families and lift up our communities.

There’s a tremendous risk in doing nothing in the face of Trump’s intransigence, or to simply continue the status quo. If New York ups its ambition, we can be the lodestar to the entire country, rising to the climate challenge in a way that lifts thousands of people into the middle class and protects our most vulnerable communities at the same time.

No state in the country is better prepared, and no legislation in the country better accomplishes that goal, than the Climate and Community Protection Act, sponsored by Assemblymember Steven Englebright, championed by the NY Renews coalition, and placed on the budget negotiating table by the Assembly Majority.

Last year it passed the Assembly easily. But Senate leadership refused to allow a vote despite having a clear and bipartisan majority of support. If Senate leadership continues to blindly follow the lead of the only national political party that denies climate science, then it’s up to Governor Cuomo to join the Assembly to make sure that the key provisions of the bill are included in this year’s enacted state budget.

Climate change is not an “environmental issue.” It is fundamentally an issue of both racial and economic justice, two principles we hold dear as New Yorkers. As Trump and his cronies shirk the responsibilities of history, New Yorkers can and must lead.

Assemblymember Latrice Walker represents parts of Brooklyn and is Chair of the Assembly Subcommittee on Renewable Energy. On Twitter @AssemblyLWalker.

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Students Need More than 'Abstinence, Abstinence, Abstinence'


On Tuesday, I’ll be testifying at a New York City Council preliminary budget hearing to ask for funding for comprehensive, K-12 sex education in city public schools. For teens like me, curiosity and questions surrounding sex are common, and have been throughout the ages. But a reason so many of us still have questions is due to the lack of good, clear, thorough sexual education, specifically in city public schools.

For me sex ed began outside of the classroom. Friends would tell me bits and pieces of information that they picked up from the most random sources, whether it be other friends, the internet, or, most commonly, television. I thought of sex as some type of mystical explosion with fireworks abounding. I went throughout all of middle school without receiving even a tidbit of sex ed from my teachers.

Once I reached high school, I had a health class my freshman year in which sex ed was a small, one-week unit. In addition to the short timespan I also found that I was overloaded with facts, like rates and percentages of STDs that didn’t explain data in a way that I or my classmates could apply to our lives. My teacher did a great job of stressing the importance of abstinence – but it stopped there. We never had a condom demonstration or even mentioned LGBTQ issues. I knew there was more to sex and sex education, and I was determined to seek it out.

I had my first glance at the other piece to the puzzle when I joined the New York Civil Liberties Union’s (NYCLU) Teen Activist Project. TAP was the first time the lack of comprehensive sexuality education was directly addressed, and hearing someone say what I was thinking and affirming that it was an issue was powerful. I was moved to action and from TAP I was given the opportunity to take more specific actions towards sex ed through the Youth Advisory Council of the Sexuality Education Alliance of New York City (SEANYC).

On the Youth Council, I have a platform to make a direct impact on my community, my public school and public schools across the city. I jumped at the chance to join this group, where real conversation can happen, and the opportunity to help others is so central to the mission. How often do youth get to work on issues that directly impact people and their families? Not often enough. I joined the Council so I could have a seat at the table to work on something that affects me and the generations coming after me.

Part of the reason that sex ed is so essential is teen pregnancy. Comprehensive sex education and teen pregnancy correlate; when teens receive quality sex ed they make smarter decisions when it comes to sex and reduce their risk of pregnancy.

In my own life, I have had family friends, ages 16 to 18, become pregnant before their time. I’ve had friends fear that they’ve contracted an STD after a night of unprotected sex. These are all woes that could’ve been avoided if they’d been taught how to be safe.

My friends come to me for questions that should’ve been answered years ago in a classroom. Whether they’ve received sex ed or not, many young people will become sexually active, and they deserve to have the information they need to make healthy decisions. We can directly feed the knowledge into our public schools.

I’ve never talked to my parents about sex; it’s too awkward a conversation for us to ever have, and I know that many of my peers feel this way. Not having the chance to talk about sex in school and become educated about so many related topics only compounds the problem. Without anyone to talk about sex with, where will teens learn?

By providing comprehensive sex education, schools do so much more than they realize – they’re elevating a student’s health and well-being in the long term. Every school should offer this needed education, so that every student receives it.

Sherell Farmer is a high school student and member of the Sexuality Education Alliance of NYC’s Youth Advisory Council (SEANYC), which advocates for age-appropriate, comprehensive sexuality education in grades K through 12 in New York City schools.

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A Better Budget for New York

scott stringer

Comptroller Scott Stringer, the author

Discoveries of "Super Earths." Contact lenses with data displays and video cameras. Earpieces that translate different languages in real-time. We are truly in the great age of technology and innovation. Knowledge, access, and new tools are helping us break barriers like never before in human history.

So why, then, does it seem so hard to deliver basic transparency to the city budget? If we're realizing incredible new terrain, why is it so difficult to lay out local government spending in a way that everyday people can understand?

Public budget presentations help us live within our means, control spending, and limit the potential for misuse of taxpayer funds. Every year, the City Council does rigorous review and thorough negotiation, and as a result, in New York we’ve had 35 straight years of balanced city spending plans, enjoy a double-A rating on our municipal bonds, and routinely win awards for our budget.

Openness matters because it induces better outcomes.

But let's say, for instance, an advocate for a particular issue or an ordinary taxpayer wants to know whether $4.9 million in funding has been cut for food pantries and other nutrition services. It would be virtually impossible to know by going online. And if that’s the case for a relatively small line item, it means the $84.7 billion in proposed spending for fiscal year 2018 in the preliminary budget is utterly incomprehensible to the public.

Budgets are about priorities. They’re statements not just on how we spend, but on how we present that spending.

When it comes to clarity and accessibility, we’re failing miserably.

There is, without question, plenty of information about the budget available. The Office of Management and Budget has 18 separate documents on its website about the fiscal 2018 preliminary spending plan, and one of them – the “Departmental Estimates” – is 4,180 pages long.

But just because information is posted online doesn’t mean it’s digestible. Just because something is publicly available doesn’t mean it’s transparent. That’s our problem.

Consider the original, exceptionally basic question: Is there, or is there not, a $4.9 million reduction in funding for food pantries and nutrition services in the fiscal 2018 preliminary budget?

Shockingly, not one of those 18 budget documents provides an answer. That’s because our budget isn’t laid out in terms of the programs and services that agencies deliver. Instead, it’s organized into broad “units of appropriation” and then – in voluminous departmental estimates – converted into budget codes, which are more often used to track funding sources than to describe recognizable programs.

That means unless you’re a seasoned budget expert, you’d have no idea what, if any, spending was proposed for fiscal 2018 for food pantries and nutrition services.

What’s more, it’s logical to wonder what that $4.9 million would buy exactly. How many meals does that fund? How many pounds of food can that purchase? You can’t find that information either in the budget or the Mayor’s Management Report. These simple, public-minded questions are devoid of straightforward government answers.

When it comes to budgetary transparency, even though New York is the financial capital of the world, we’re falling behind. Cities across the country have increasingly made spending information user-friendly and informative. While our budget is huge and complex, it doesn’t mean we can’t make it easier to understand.

A lot easier.

We can start by categorizing the budget in terms of the programs and services that agencies provide, instead of presenting obscure budget codes that aren’t recognizable to anyone other than an agency budget official.

We should also show – and describe, narratively – changes from one year to the next. The public should be able to know exactly why and how proposed spending in the future differs, in programmatic terms, from spending now and prior.

If we’re spending less on a particular program, is it because we figured out how to do it more efficiently? Because demand went down? Or was the program cut as a policy choice? These are simple questions to which we know – and should present – the answers.

Efficiency matters. But by themselves, budget figures don’t tell us much. Taxpayers want to know what we’re buying and whether it’s money well spent. That means adding some basic information to the budget document to show what’s being produced, at what cost, and whether we’re achieving our goals. ​

Presenting those answers isn’t rocket science – it’s common sense.

We’ve proven we can manage our city’s finances well. But right now, unless you’re a professional budget expert, a seasoned journalist, or an aficionado, our lack of transparency discourages public participation.

We should be giving residents the open government they deserve, because the budget affects every single New Yorker. That means we must take the next step and open the discussion up to everyone, so that communities across the city can help decide the kind of city we want to be down the road.

As for that $4.9 is currently not in next year’s budget. The funds were added this year by the City Council to provide emergency food to 180 pantries and soup kitchens citywide, and to help expand access to healthy foods at farmer’s markets and elsewhere. The Council and the Mayor will decide whether to add the funds again for next year’s budget.

Because, after all, budgets are about priorities.

Scott Stringer is New York City Comptroller. On Twitter @scottmstringer.

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New York’s Immigrant Families Need Action from Albany


(photo: Make the Road NY)

Sixteen years ago, my daughter was about to give birth, and I knew she needed my help to take care of my new grandchild. So I came to the United States. I have now been here for 16 years, and I have six grandchildren. We are Americans through and through.

I've worked hard to educate and support my family. But we’re now in a moment when we're under attack from Donald Trump's administration—it’s the worst political moment that immigrant communities like mine have faced since I arrived in 2001. But we’re here to stay, and we’re not going anywhere.

Since Trump’s election, my community has faced the fear of a newly-elected strongman who has pledged to tear our families apart. We have responded not by hiding in the shadows, but by showing our resilience. We have gone to Know Your Rights workshops. We have spoken with our families and our neighbors to prepare ourselves. And we have taken to the streets to protest.

What we have yet to see, however, is strong action from New York State to show us that our state government has our backs. And that’s why last week I joined other members of Make the Road New York to introduce our Immigrant Opportunity Agenda—a platform for Albany’s leaders to show that they really stand with immigrants.

Our undocumented families are suffering from the president's attacks and attempts to separate us, which cause fear and pain. That’s why our New York platform calls for Governor Cuomo and the State Senate to pass the New York Liberty Act—which has already passed the State Assembly—to keep families together and keep all New Yorkers safe. The Liberty Act limits cooperation between state and local agencies and federal immigration enforcement, and it prevents sharing of information about our immigration status. This bill would help my family feel relief and support from our state government.

Meanwhile, the statewide expansion of another program, the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project, would make sure that all immigrants facing deportation would have access to a lawyer. For families at risk of being torn apart, having a lawyer can be the difference between a mother like me seeing my child again—or being sent off to a country that I no longer know.

The Immigrant Opportunity Agenda also calls for driver’s licenses for all, which is so important for families like mine. Twelve other states have access to licenses for all, regardless of immigration status. Particularly in areas with little public transportation, immigrant New Yorkers often have to drive to get to work or drop their kids off at school. Everyone should have access to licenses, which will help protect our families and make our roads safer.

To make sure that immigrant families enjoy the opportunities we deserve—and that we get our fair share of the billions we pay in New York State taxes—the Immigrant Opportunity Agenda also includes the DREAM Act, to ensure equal access to college for all of our youth, and increased funding for adult education. And it demands that New York step up for workers by cracking down on wage theft, one of the key ways that immigrant workers continue to be exploited.

The governor has said he stands with immigrants. But neither he nor the State Senate—whose Republican leaders have mostly endorsed Trump’s agenda— has yet pushed legislation or significant budget items to protect our community and ensure our access to opportunity.

It’s not too late. The Immigrant Opportunity Agenda shows how New York can ensure that we are all protected from attacks by President Trump and New York politicians who have embraced Trumpism. Now, more than ever, we need Albany leaders to show whose side they're on.

Magdalena Brito is a member of Make the Road New York. On Twitter: @maketheroadny.

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For Local Defenders and Their Clients, This Year Is Different

seymour james legal aid

Seymour W. James Jr., the author

It's budget season at City Hall. Since early March and for the next few weeks, the City Council will hold a gamut of hearings reviewing the financial needs of each city agency for the upcoming fiscal year. Press conferences are held, commissioners are grilled, and community based organizations try to make the case to Council members for more funding to serve their constituents.

The Legal Aid Society testified last Tuesday before the Committee on Courts and Legal Services, and we too urged for increased dollars to handle growing demand for the services we provide.

But this time it's different. It's different because our clients and other low-income New Yorkers are dealing with a growing number of unprecedented external threats like no other time in recent memory. Immigrants, LGBTQ, and black and brown communities have all felt this change in the wind. If New York is truly going to be a sanctuary, truly going to be a place of gender inclusivity and acceptance, and truly going defend the ground we've made reforming the criminal justice system and protecting civil rights, we need a budget that reflects these priorities and reflects these values.

By now, there’s no hiding President Trump’s prejudice against immigrants. His slapdash executive orders and homeland security memorandums - building on the vitriolic diatribes from his campaign – have made this crystal clear. What we’ve seen from the White House over the last 60 days is just the beginning and New York City needs to fortify local organizations working in the trenches to protect immigrant and other vulnerable families.

One way the city can step up is to baseline funding guaranteeing legal representation for those in deportation proceedings – a right unfortunately not provided by the constitution. The New York City Council, under the leadership of Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, has increased funding tremendously to support this exact effort through the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project (NYIFUP). The results are staggering, and NYIFUP has kept many local families together. Mayor de Blasio must work with the Council to ensure NYIFUP’s network of direct providers has the tools to fight today, tomorrow, and well into the future.

Another specific concern relating to immigration that needs funding priority is legal protection for unaccompanied minors. Violence is the leading factor forcing unaccompanied children from Central America to the United States. No law or program shields these minors from being sent back to their home countries – almost every child who arrives in the United States is put into deportation proceedings. The City Council’s Unaccompanied Minors and Adults with Children initiatives provide legal representation, but the current funding allocation doesn’t meet the need. Given Trump’s crusade against all undocumented, only a significant enhancement of this initiative will close the service gap for children newly coming before New York immigration court.

Last, but equally important, is Legal Aid’s continued work on Rikers Island and in other correctional facilities through our Prisoners’ Rights Project (PRP). For nearly 40 years, PRP has worked through litigation, advocacy, and monitoring to change policies and practices which have created unjust and abusive treatment of locally incarcerated men and women.

The Council understands this plight and created an initiative to exclusively support PRP's work in the city’s jails, but the conditions in state prisons are also deplorable and raising PRP’s Council allotment to $1 million will broaden our capacity to represent New York City residents imprisoned in the state system.

So in the spirit of Gideon vs Wainwright, a precedent-setting court case that turns 54 this week, and one that guaranteed representation to defendants in criminal court, the city must step up in these tough times. We are mindful of the financial challenges posed by the Trump administration but these programs should be strengthened; low-income New Yorkers need counsel now more than ever.

Seymour W. James Jr. is Attorney-In-Chief of The Legal Aid Society. On Twitter @LegalAidNYC.

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Needed: Fresh Eyes to Improve New York’s Constitution (Part II)

excelsior image for snider column

This is part two of a two-part series entitled Needed: Fresh Eyes to Improve New York’s Constitution. Read part one: New York’s Mandarin Constitutional Culture.

Implementing First Amendment Values in the 21st Century

Drawing an analogy between Chinese Mandarin culture of the 18th and 19th centuries and New York’s constitutional culture in the early 21st Century, I argued in Part I of this series that New York’s current debate over constitutional reform lacks fresh ideas for systemic reasons. One reason stems from the incentive of legislatures to veto democratic reforms in areas, such as legislative redistricting, term limits, and ballot access, where they have a conflict of interest with the public. That’s a problem because for democratic innovators to do the difficult and costly work of innovation, they need to believe that their ideas have a chance of being implemented.  Another reason is that the young are usually society’s innovators. But New York’s mandarin constitutional reform culture favors the old.

I propose an idea emblematic of the type that should but hasn’t been part of the current debate over New York State constitutional convention based reform. Its goal is to dramatically enhance First Amendment values in the election process, and it is premised on the close but rarely recognized link between technology and constitutional design. Specifically, new information technology has made ballot access ripe for constitutional innovation.

Currently, New York government has exclusive control over both ballot data and ballot interfaces. I propose requiring it to give up control over ballot interfaces while retaining its control over ballot data.

In the pre-internet era of paper ballot technology, this couldn’t be done without sacrificing important democratic values, notably the secret ballot. Until the late 19th Century, control of ballot data and interfaces were separate.  For example, political parties would print pre-filled ballots (called “party tickets”) and distribute them to voters.  But this rightly came to be viewed as intolerable because the party officials and others who handed out the ballots at the polling booth could keep track of which ballot a voter submitted and reward voters who submitted their preferred, prefilled ballot. The solution was the “secret ballot,” which is now mandated in New York’s Constitution and gave government control over the ballot interface as well as ballot data.

Unfortunately, giving government control over the ballot interface came with huge costs. It gave legislators much greater control over both which candidates are included on the ballot presented to voters and how information about them, including endorsements (popularly known as party labels), are used. Such control is inconsistent with First Amendment values of public participation and free speech.

Modern information technology makes it possible to separate ballot data and interfaces without the compromises associated with print technology. Specifically, voters should be allowed to choose non-government ballot interfaces that are directly linked to public ballot data. Ironically, we currently allow the public access to non-government media, except the media most vital to preserve First Amendment values: the ballot interface.

Online voting, such as has already been successfully implemented in Estonia, could one day greatly improve the implementation of this idea. But its successful implementation does not depend on online voting. As with absentee voting, the voter could simply print a machine-readable ballot with the necessary data and then either bring it to the voting booth or mail it in.

Effectively separating ballot data and interfaces is a non-trivial matter of both technology and institutional design. It is probably comparable in difficulty to the online voting system developed by Estonia. But it also isn’t a moonshot. Most important, it would generate a huge payoff, especially for down ballot elections where ballot interfaces have been most influential.

Candidates, interest groups, and political parties currently spend billions of dollars every major election cycle on providing repetitious, soundbite-long, and often misleading information trying to influence voters. Not only is the quality of information very poor, but the high cost of paying for it heavily tilts the playing field in favor of deep-pocketed special interests.

Providing a voter friendly ballot interface when voters are most motivated and able to use election-related information would radically reduce barriers to political entry, thus revolutionizing campaign finance and providing a fundamentally different paradigm for campaign finance reform.

Legislatures opposed to separating ballot interfaces from data will use the admittedly difficult technological challenges to doing so as their primary excuse. But the primary roadblock to implementing this innovation is no longer technological; it is that incumbent legislators—regardless of party—view such a separation as a threat to their incumbency advantage. For them, opening the ballot interface is tantamount to giving free publicity to their opponents.

Thus, in New York, only through a constitutional convention can this barrier to political competition be removed.

Government control over ballot interfaces may one day be viewed as hostile to First Amendment values as the 17th century British government’s practice of licensing access to the printing press. A state constitutional convention is the most plausible institutional mechanism to address this First Amendment abomination. But if New York’s mandarin state constitutional culture persists, that won’t happen. A similar failure to innovate didn’t work out well for the late 18th Century Chinese when they were the world’s leading power.

New York’s motto, excelsior, for “Ever Upward,” clearly indicates that preserving the status quo at the expense of the people isn’t the goal. But if Exelsior excludes modernizing New York’s constitution, then in the long run the rest of the Excelsior agenda won’t matter.


Estonia’s 36-year old prime minister explains Estonia’s e-voting system for parliament.  According to Freedom House, the world’s leading source of data on the comparative democratization of countries, Estonia ranks #1 on Internet freedom.

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Investing in the Parks System New York City Deserves

Mark Levine Council Parks

Council Member Levine, the author (photo: William Alatriste)

The numbers are startling: 42 million visitors per year in Central Park -- double the number of visitors to Disney World. Over 7 million people visit the High Line annually and 5 million visit Bryant Park. On a peak summer weekend 127,000 visit Brooklyn Bridge Park.

Park use in New York City is surging. And with the population in the five boroughs continuing to grow and tourism booming, this trend will surely continue.

But the story is not the same everywhere in our city. The marquee parks that are increasingly overwhelmed with visitors fortunately have the benefit of millions of dollars in private contributions to help them manage the onslaught. These funds enable them to provide the extra staffing needed to keep their parks looking beautiful despite the record levels of trampling.

Meanwhile, hundreds of parks in the city’s low- and moderate-income neighborhoods must survive on public funds alone. And those funds are often not enough to keep up with maintenance in the face of rising usage.

In the 1960s, New York City’s Parks Department had full-time staff of over 7,500. Since then the city’s population has grown by 1 million, but today the full-time headcount is just over 4,000. Over the decades the share of our city’s total budget devoted to parks has fallen from 1.7% to under 0.6% today. We now spend less per capita on our parks than San Francisco, Minneapolis, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.

We need to reverse this trend. The Parks Department budget must increase to meet swelling demand, and to ensure that low- and moderate-income neighborhoods have the great parks they deserve.

But we also need to grow our park system to serve a rising population.

This is especially true in neighborhoods being upzoned for greater residential density, including East New York, East Harlem, and the Jerome Avenue corridor in the Bronx. If those areas are to remain livable as they gain thousands of additional residents, they will require not just new schools and expanded transit capacity, but more open space as well.

Many neighborhoods throughout the five boroughs face a shortage of park space even without population growth: one-quarter of New Yorkers today have no park within a ten-minute walk from their home. We need new parks to fill in these gaps, most of which are in the outer boroughs.

Inspiring, transformative park projects are waiting for funding all over the city.

The Queensway would convert an abandoned rail line in central Queens into a 3.5-mile linear park. The BQ Green would deck-over part of the BQE, creating green space in park-starved Bushwick. The Lowline, on the Lower East Side, would turn an abandoned trolley terminal into the world’s first underground park, in an area where open space is being gobbled up by a building boom.

We also must pick up the pace of restoration of our city’s natural areas -- 10,000 acres of forest, wetlands, and grasslands in the five boroughs which many New Yorkers don’t even know exists. Modernized and better mapped trails will allow more people to discover these marvelous natural places which are often just a subway ride away.

And let’s find an environmentally sensitive way to open up parts of our park system that are now off-limits to the public, like the spellbinding North Brother Island -- a Lost City off the coast of the South Bronx, long ago overtaken by the forest. Let’s find a way to open up nearby Hart Island, whose 120 scenic acres are home to our city’s potter’s field and a century-and-a-half of history.

Mayor de Blasio’s preliminary budget for the coming fiscal year does little to reverse the trend of inadequate funding for our parks system. It leaves staffing flat and holds the Parks Department to less than 0.6% of the total city budget. It is critical that these numbers improve during negotiations with the City Council in the months leading up to the budget’s final passage in June.

A thriving park system isn’t just a luxury in a dense city of 8.5 million people. It’s essential to livability. Let’s invest now to ensure that every corner of the five boroughs remains livable for the years and decades to come.

City Council Member Mark Levine represents parts of Upper Manhattan and is chair of the Council's parks committee. On Twitter @MarkLevineNYC.

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Business Contributions and Campaign Finance in New York: Deep Historical Roots

Cuomo casino ribbon cutting

(photo: The Governor's Office on Flickr)

Business money and New York politics
The New York Joint Commission on Public Ethics, an oversight panel, recently proposed legislation to increase the requirements for lobbyists to disclose their political fundraising. The recommendation would help show the ways in those seeking to influence policy by day are raising money for policy-makers by night.

Blair Horner, legislative director for the New York Public Interest Group, one of several groups critical of New York's loose campaign finance laws, said recently that during this time in the legislative session in Albany, "It's pretty much pedal-to-the-metal when it comes to [legislators] hitting up lobbyists for campaign contributions."

The New York State League of Women Voters called for "a significant reduction of all contribution limits, special 'pay-to-play' limits on contributions by lobbyists and those who do business with the state and eliminating the LLC loophole." The Citizens Union, another reform group, has also called for campaign finance reform in New York.

In his annual message to the Legislature, the governor denounced "political contributions by business corporations" as "morally wrong....Their contributions are influenced by business and not by patriotism and, like other investments, are made in the hope and expectation of financial return or to avert threatened pecuniary injury." The governor recommended making political payments by corporations a criminal offense.

It almost sounds like Governor Andrew Cuomo last year and this year. But actually, it was Governor Frank W. Higgins, in 1906.

Concern with the influence of campaign contributions has deep historical roots here in New York.

Scandals led to New York's first campaign finance law
Governor Higgins was reacting to two scandals.

In the 1904 presidential campaign, the New York World alleged that business interests were funding the campaign of President Theodore Roosevelt, hoping to curry favor with his administration. His Democratic challenger, former New York Chief Judge Alton Parker, charged that TR was receiving large contributions from New York railroad magnate Edwin H. Harriman and Wall Street banker J.P. Morgan. "Would the public interest be safe in the hands of a party the greater part of whose campaign funds had been contributed by corporations and trusts?" Parker asked. Roosevelt denounced the charges as "unqualifiably and atrociously false."

Historians now know Parker was right but at the time he could not produce concrete proof. Roosevelt was dissembling. For instance, he had secretly asked Harriman to contribute to the Republican Party in New York State with the plea that its gubernatorial candidate, then-Lieutenant Governor Frank Higgins, needed help getting elected. Harriman complied, raising about $250,000.

But, as TR fully realized, supporting the party and Higgins in New York also meant indirectly supporting Roosevelt himself -- he was running for president on the same ticket. TR had directed that some business contributions be returned to their donors but campaign aides had not followed through and the president had not really checked.

On the other hand, Parker, too, received large contributions from business interests, mostly in New York City, though not as much as Roosevelt. There were rumors in the press, but nothing specific came out in public.

TR won in a landslide. But public concern about campaign finance was sharpened.

The next year, the Legislature investigated the management of insurance companies, uncovering a corrupt pattern of insider trading, fraudulent accounting, and deceptive sales practices. But the committee's counsel, Charles Evans Hughes (who would later himself be a reformist governor), dug deeper and got company officials to admit to providing large campaign contributions for state and federal offices.  Hughes pressed U.S. Senator Thomas C. Platt, the long-time boss of the state Republican Party, about the real purpose of the contributions:

"Hughes: To see that the legislature, for example, did not enact legislation which they thought hostile to their policyholders?

"Platt: That is what it would amount to.

"Hughes: Is not that the way it really comes about, Senator, that they use of these contributions in the election of candidates to office puts the candidates in more or less of a moral obligation not to attack the interests supporting [them]?

"Platt: That is what would naturally be involved."

The contributions were not really bribes. They were more in the vein of what we now call building influence or access.

But the 1904 and 1905 scandals stirred public opinion. Higgins, whose 1904 campaign had benefitted from business campaign contributions as indicated above, did not mention that fact when he made his strong appeal to the Legislature for action in 1906.

After Governor Higgins' speech, the Legislature passed three pieces of legislation. One prohibited corporate campaign contributions. Another required candidates and political committees to make public a record of their campaign receipts and expenditures. A third redefined corrupt practices by defining what campaign expenditures were acceptable.

Closing one door, opening another
The campaign finance law was changed and updated in 1949 and 1976. It currently provides that corporations are limited to political donations of $5,000 a year, according to the New York State Board of Elections.

But there is a large loophole or exception, through Limited Liability Companies (LLCs). The New York State Department of State offers this definition of an LLC:

"A limited liability company (LLC) is an unincorporated business organization of one or more persons who have limited liability for the contractual obligations and other liabilities of the business. The LLC is a hybrid form that combines corporation-style limited liability with partnership-style flexibility. The owners of an LLC are “members” rather than shareholders or partners. A member may be an individual, a corporation, a partnership, another limited liability company, or any other legal entity. An LLC may organize for any lawful business purpose or purposes."

LLCs are flexible, versatile entities. But in 1976, the State Board of Elections decided that, when it came to campaign contribution, LLCs were more like individuals than corporations or partnerships. That meant they were subject to much higher limits on contributions, and much less stringent reporting requirements. The Board's decision was based on a since-changed federal definition.

This opened the way for huge contributions. The names of individuals behind LLCs are not disclosed. LLCs now routinely make large contributions to candidates for governor, other statewide offices, and the Legislature. It has become a way for monied interests to influence elections and gain access and influence.

Good government groups have called for the "LLC loophole" to be closed for several years. In 2015, the Board considered eliminating it but deadlocked, two to two, and issued a decision that it was up to the Legislature to change it. Governor Cuomo, a Democrat, and the Democratic Majority in the Assembly support the change but the Senate, which is controlled by Republicans, so far has balked. Cuomo and many legislators benefit from the contributions, so their efforts toward repeal look half-hearted.

In 2015, the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law went to court to force the Board to change its ruling. Last year, State Supreme Court Justice Lisa Fisher dismissed the case, finding that the statute of limitations for challenging the Board's 1996 action has passed. She also characterized the issue as a “political question best suited for resolution through legislative action.”

Money and politics: what can citizens do?
One hundred and eleven years after New York's first campaign finance regulation, the state is once again searching for a solution to the issue. Good government groups and the Joint Commission on Public Ethics have set forth proposals, including closing the LLC loophole and increasing disclosure requirements. Governor Cuomo mostly seems to have given up. He has remarked that it is now up to the people to get the loophole closed.

As it turns out, the people may have a chance to do that this fall, when New Yorkers vote on whether to hold a state constitutional convention. A convention could alter the way we conduct and finance campaigns, including even proposing public funding of political campaigns.

Actually, an amendment to the constitution prohibiting corporate campaign contributions was proposed before in a constitutional convention:

"The idea of this to prevent the great moneyed corporations of the country from furnishing the money with which to elect members of the legislature of this State in order that these members of the legislature may vote to protect the corporations," said its sponsor. "It a constantly growing evil in our political affairs, which has, in my judgment, done more to shake the confidence of the plan people of small means in this country in our political institutions than any other practice which has ever obtained since the foundations of our government."

The amendment's sponsor acknowledged that the contributions were not akin to bribes. He said companies regarded them as "investments" made to get an "inexpressible sympathy between the candidate and the contributor."

Like the quotation from Governor Higgins in 1906, these words sound applicable to our situation today. But these were the words of New York attorney and statesman Elihu Root, a Republican, and the constitutional convention was in 1894.

Political insiders who were delegates to the convention opposed the amendment. It would cut off their campaign contributions. Democratic delegates derided it as a political charade. One Democrat said that "the whole business was buncombe, pure and simple, and [proposed] only for the sake of allowing Republicans to deliver patriot speeches for the record and their constituents." The proposed amendment was tabled and did not find its way into the constitution.

This year, New Yorkers have an opportunity to try again to get at the issue of money in politics. If the state's three branches of government -- governor, the Legislature, and the courts -- can't resolve the issue, then the voters may decide that is one strong reason to vote for a constitutional convention in November.

Of course, political insiders could bottle up reform amendments as they did with Root's proposal in 1894. On the other hand, with so much public interest and concern about the issue, publicity by good government groups and the media, and given the recent bouts of corruption in Albany, the prospects for changing the constitution to deal with the issue seem very good.

Dr. Bruce W. Dearstyne's latest book is The Spirit of New York: Defining Events in the Empire State's History, published in 2015 by SUNY Press.

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Needed: Fresh Eyes to Improve New York’s Constitution (Part I)

constituents poster boards

(photo: Samar Khurshid/Gotham Gazette)

This is part one of a two-part series entitled Needed: Fresh Eyes to Improve New York’s Constitution. Read part two here.

New York’s Mandarin Constitutional Culture

During the last 500 years, a culture of innovation set off the West from the rest of the world, allowing it to achieve far higher living standards. Incentives for innovation have remained strong in the private sector but have greatly weakened in the public sector.

The United States and its most innovative state, New York, have led the West in innovation. During the 18th and 19th centuries, this included leading the world in constitutional innovation, which is arguably the most important type of public sector innovation. But present-day New Yorkers and their opinion leaders are as allergic to such innovation as Chinese emperors and Mandarins were in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Symbolic of the decline are the stale ideas currently dominating New York’s debate over whether to call a state constitutional convention. Every 20 years the state constitution mandates that New York voters be asked whether they want to convene another state constitutional convention. To date, New York has convened nine proposing and two ratifying conventions. On November 7, 2017, this question is next on the ballot.

The unique democratic function of a state constitutional convention is to provide a mechanism to bypass the state Legislature’s veto power over constitutional amendment when the Legislature’s institutional interests conflict with those of the public. The result is that not only the Legislature but also the most powerful special interest groups that thrive exercising influence over the Legislature are implacable enemies of state constitutional conventions.

The current debate in New York has been dominated by opinion leaders who were already adults when New York’s last constitutional convention convened in 1967. They have much to bring to the current debate, especially a sense of history, and we are lucky to have them. But too often their and their allies’ reform ideas are from a different generation. Their ideas may be improvements over the antiquated status quo, but so were the now obsolete audio and video tape recorders from the second half of the 20th Century that replaced paper-based recording technologies.

In contrast, when Thomas Jefferson wrote the U.S. Declaration of Independence and when James Madison and Alexander Hamilton both participated at the 1787 national constitutional convention and then defended it in the Federalist Papers, they were all under 40 years of age. The three leading figures behind the design of New York’s first constitution in 1777 -- Gouverneur Morris, Robert Livingston, and John Jay -- were all 30 years of age or younger. They brought to the design of our federal and state governments fresh eyes and many innovations from which we have greatly benefited.

A better balance between the old and new is needed. Unfortunately, getting true innovators involved in democratic reform is one of the hardest parts of democratic reform, as the rewards for such innovation are often negligible at best. Consider just one reason: why do the immensely difficult and costly work of developing an innovation that has no chance of being implemented because of a legislature’s institutional conflict of interest?

A state constitutional convention is one of the few institutional mechanisms in our democracy with the potential to stimulate fresh thinking. It would be a tragedy to squander that opportunity.

My greatest worry is not, as convention opponents argue, that special interests will derail a convention by getting it to place harmful proposals on the ballot. If special interests do corrupt a convention—and they will certainly try—the people have shown they can be trusted to veto the resulting proposals. This, after all, is why New York’s and other states’ most powerful special interests hate the institution of the state constitutional convention and have spent so much to oppose convening one: they are more confident in their typical, ongoing control over legislatures.

A greater worry should be that New York’s opinion leaders, including its press, academics, advocates, and politicians, will continue to treat democratic innovators the way Chinese Mandarins did during the era when the United States was founded. New York needs to breed a new generation of Alexander Hamiltons, and the time to begin that effort is now.

New York, despite its vast human and material wealth, has become too much like 18th century China, when China was a vastly larger, more sophisticated, and more prosperous country than ours but became arrogant and thus complacent in its superiority. New Yorkers should look to democracies, including Estonia, Iceland, and Sweden—two of them about the size of New York when it drafted its first constitution—where a can-do culture of democratic innovation survives.

New York, like China thought it was for hundreds of years, remains at the center of the world. But it won’t remain there unless it proves capable of developing an outward looking culture characterized by both constitutional humility and innovation.

This is part one of a two-part series entitled Needed: Fresh Eyes to Improve New York’s Constitution. Read part two: Implementing First Amendment Values in the 21st Century. And, read other columns by J.H. Snider here.

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Trump's Speech, a Nightmare for Democrats

trump military

President Donald Trump (photo: @POTUS)

In the weeks before Donald Trump’s address to Congress, the main topic of conversation among Democrats was not how to make the president look incompetent and unfit—it was how to best exploit the fact that he so clearly is.

We underestimated him.

In the biggest political rope-a-dope of all time, after setting the bar as low as he could during 40 days of tumultuous terribleness and a chaotic campaign, Trump delivered a well-crafted, coherent and populist-yet-serious speech on Tuesday night. His presidency re-started today, powered by its success.

In other words, this is the Democrats’ worst nightmare.

As unpopular a president as Trump is, a high percentage of American voters approve of his policies when they put aside their personal feelings about Trump himself. That means he may still be able to be a well-thought-of president—if he can just act, well, presidential.

And that’s what he did last night.

Trump will now undoubtedly get a bump up in polls. He may even get a bit of a honeymoon period here similar to what presidents normally receive when they are first elected. It’s even possible most of the country will temporarily forget just how badly he and his people bungled the beginning of his presidency.

But the really scary thing for Democrats isn’t the speech; it’s what was in it. Though there were plenty of the same divisive ideas that are sure to enrage the liberal base, there was also plenty of bi-partisan policy and sentiment that is tough to argue with.

Ironically, that was the same strategy as another Comeback Kid, who just happens to be the husband of the Democratic candidate Trump beat in November. Yes, in addition to the red meat he threw his base, President Trump attempted to triangulate his way out of trouble on Tuesday, using Bill Clinton’s method of marginalizing dissent by siding with the opposition party.

A few examples of Trump tacking left include:

--Immigration. The president seemed to indicate he would accept legal status for some undocumented immigrants, saying “I believe that real and positive immigration reform is possible.”

--Paid maternity leave. The president went way left on a favorite policy of liberals, declaring, “My administration wants to work with members of both parties to make child care accessible and affordable, to help ensure new parents that they have paid family leave.”

--Lowering the cost of prescription drugs. Traditionally an issue for Democrats, Trump announced (for the umpteenth time) that he would “work to bring down the artificially high price of drugs.”

Trump also made plenty of inarguable - and stereotypically presidential - statements in his speech. He decried hate crimes. He called for unity. He laid praise on the military. Sure, some of it sounded hollow and pandering. But he didn’t smirk or flub or appear indifferent. In fact, he delivered the lines believably.

You’d have to remember that he has said racist things, divided Americans for his own benefit, and criticized a war hero for getting caught by the enemy to be offended by his duplicity. A lot of Americans won’t.

And to be turned off by his false statements, of which there were plenty, you’d have to know they were false. For the record, these included the claims that Americans live in “lawless chaos” (American crime rates are near all-time lows), “Obamacare is collapsing” (20 million more Americans have health insurance now who didn’t before the health plan was passed), and our country is undergoing the “worst financial recovery in 65 years” (75 months of straight job creation and historically low unemployment).

And, by God, it was great TV.

Maybe that shouldn’t be a surprise. After all, Trump is the producer of a top-rated show. But maybe you would think that a Trump-produced address of Congress would be too over the top to be convincingly earnest. It wasn’t.

The most memorable moment of the evening – or of any presidential address of Congress in recent memory – was the moving memorial for Senior Chief William Ryan Owens, a Navy SEAL killed in a counter-terror operation in Yemen. His wife, Carryn, appeared to be speaking skyward to her late husband as the chamber stood and applauded. The applause lasted for several minutes. Then, the president quoted the Bible in eulogy.

Perhaps Trump’s communications team was thinking more about the effect that moment would have on its principal’s approval rating than the importance of it for the widow and the appreciation of the ultimate sacrifice of a soldier. Perhaps not. It doesn’t matter. It made the president look presidential.

But the Democrats do have one thing going for them: this was just a speech. Today may be a brighter day for Republicans and the White House—but sunlight is the best disinfectant, and only progress on the president’s promises will allow him to maintain his momentum.

Plus: Trump is Trump. If history is any guide, he does not have the discipline to stay on message for more than a short time.

So chalk one up for Team Trump. And Democrats beware. But leading a divided nation, convincing a cantankerous Congress and advancing a bi-partisan agenda is a lot harder than reading off of a Teleprompter.

Evan Thies is the co-founder of Pythia Public Affairs. On Twitter @EvanRThies.

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