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Opinion

New York Builds on Its Extensive Climate Leadership


offshore wind gov

(photo: offshore-wind-govMike Groll/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo)


New York Already has the Lowest Greenhouse Gas Emissions Per Capita of Any State in the Nation and is Moving Forward

New York State has just enacted a plan to bring its planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions to 15% of its 1990 levels by 2050 and provide enough “carbon-emission offsets“ like forestation and wetlands reclamation to bring total carbon-emissions to “net-zero“ by that same year. These goals put New York at the forefront of the United States in addressing climate change.

Governor Cuomo had submitted a similar proposal in his executive budget in January of this year, entitled the Climate Leadership Act, but the Legislature did not adopt it in the April budget. Instead, it reformulated the proposal to provide a more highly developed and detailed planning process to implement the transition to a carbon-neutral society and economy by the goal year of 2050.

To be sure, the governor deserves great credit for already moving New York in this direction, using the state’s powers to usher in substantial increases in wind and solar power over the past several years and repeatedly enunciate and affirm goals of increasing renewable energy and setting a policy of achieving 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. 

In June, the state Legislature passed a bill -- The New York State Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act -- at the end of its 2019 legislative session, which Governor Cuomo just signed into law, creating a broadly inclusive public participation process along with a step-by-step planning and regulatory decision-making structure for the energy transformation.

A Climate Action Council is created consisting of 12 New York State agency heads and 10 non-governmental individuals who will spend several years scoping out a plan to implement the transition and vote to present their recommendations to state government leadership by 2022.

In 2023 the state agencies will then incorporate the recommendations into ongoing regulatory actions to bring the residential, commercial, industrial, transportation, and electricity-generation sectors of New York’s economy toward the greenhouse gas emission reductions needed to reach the goals.

The legislation also mandates that disadvantaged communities, which have borne the brunt of pollution and climate change, share in the benefits of the transformation in a major way, to receive a goal of 40% of the benefits and a legal minimum of 35% of the benefits.

By 2030 New York’s goal will be to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 40% below its 1990 levels, including achieving electricity generation from 70% renewable sources of energy, and a carbon-neutral electricity-generation sector by 2040. The State Public Service Commission (PSC), regulator of the state’s electric utilities, is directed to a more expedited schedule for the electric generation renewable goals since 2030 is in fact not really so far away for this important sector of the state’s economy.

The goals are far from unrealistic, because in part we are much closer to them than many people realize. New York’s greenhouse gas emissions are already nearly 20% below its 1990 levels, according to the 2019 State Energy Patterns and Trends published by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. 

 

GHG Emissions by Sector (in million metric tons carbon dioxide equivalent)

               

Year

Residential

Commercial

Industrial

Transportation

Electric

ElecImports

Total

1990

34.3

26.5

20

59.4

63

1.7

205

2016

30.9

20.7

10.2

73.7

27.7

3.8

167

% Change

-9.8%

-22.2%

-48.9%

24.20%

-56%

120%

--18.5

1990-2016

           

 

New York’s electricity-generation system is already in an advanced stage of transformation from a fossil-fuel based system. Coal is nearly gone; only 1% of New York’s electric generation came from coal in 2018, and the last coal-fired plants will be deactivated in 2020.

Only 37% of New York’s electricity use now comes directly from fossil fuels consumed in New York. 16% of New York’s electricity use is imported from Canada and other parts of the United States. There is some fossil fuel use in that mix but it also includes hydroelectric and nuclear power. 26% of New York’s electricity comes from nuclear power, and nearly 20% comes from renewables, primarily hydroelectric power.

The Transmission System Needs Extra Capacity
Although New York’s electricity grid has made major progress shifting from fossil fuels, its transmission infrastructure needs upgrades and new investments to keep up the pace of bringing in more renewable power, according to the Independent System Operator (ISO), manager of the state’s electric grid.

Some wind power produced in Upstate New York has to be curtailed off the grid now because it can’t be economically transmitted downstate due to capacity limitations; the same goes for some Canadian power generation and even some of New York’s own hydroelectric generation. The ISO and the PSC have moved to permit several new transmission-line upgrades to bring power around the state more effectively, from Canada, from western New York to Eastern New York, and from Upstate to Downstate.

The Cuomo administration foresees offshore wind power around New York City and Long Island as major new sources of renewable power, and, once again, the transmission systems need to be upgraded to absorb that wind energy production. When he signed the bill on Thursday, the governor also announced the two winners of a procurement process to add 1,700 MegaWatts of offshore wind power, which may eventually produce about 5% of New York's electric power. It may realistically be 2035 before New York can get to 70% renewable power, but the Public Service Commission is authorized to modify the timetable in the CLCPA to get there.

Several of New York’s nuclear power plants will be deactivated by that time, but several nuclear plants will still be in operation in 2040 and the legislation permits that power to be counted as part of the carbon-neutral goal for the electricity-generation system.

The Independent System Operators’ most recent analysis of New York’s electric grid, Power Trends 2019, even forecasts New York will have the ability to absorb increasing use of the grid by electric vehicles, and that energy storage systems, energy efficiency measures, and demand control systems can manage the electric system’s gradual transition to renewables, along with the investments in new transmission capacity.

New York Energy Use and Renewable Transition
Although there is plenty of attention, and credit for the environmentally-beneficial progress of New York’s electric grid, greater challenges will remain for transportation, industrial, and building energy use. That’s because fossil fuel use in New York’s electricity-generation system is now only 20% of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. The non-electricity-generation sectors, namely transportation, industry, and buildings in the commercial and residential sectors, emit 80% of New York’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Even if New York eliminated fossil fuel use from its electric generation and electricity import sectors, its greenhouse gas emissions would still be at 66% of its 1990 levels. According to its energy profiles from the United States Energy Information Administration, New York’s current baseline already has the lowest greenhouse gas emissions per capita in the nation among the 50 states, at only 50% of  the national average! New York has the second lowest energy consumption per capita of the 50 states already (Rhode Island is first). 

New York’s efficiencies in large measure predate the big renewable push of recent years and are merely the general characteristics of New York’s economy. Transportation accounts for 44% of New York’s greenhouse gas emissions but it is still cleaner than the rest of the country. The New York City metropolitan area mass transit system carries millions to their destinations using much less energy per capita than the rest of America. New York is 6.1% of the U.S. population but uses only 4% of the energy consumed in the transportation sector of the U.S. (per USEIA, State Energy Data 2016). 

One of President Trump’s chief environmental lunacies is the rollback of President Obama’s fuel efficiency standards for the American automobile industry. But the industry itself is highly resistant to the rollback, as are many states and foreign markets, as well as foreign producers, and progress will continue there.

As the vehicle fleet in New York turns over, efficiency improvements will continue and greenhouse gas emissions will decline. The state government and municipalities will need to promote the transition to electric vehicles and powering them from renewable energy, continue to invest in public transportation -- not just in the New York City metropolitan area but the state’s other communities as well -- and promote alternative methods of transportation.

New York has little in the way of heavy industry and its industrial sector uses only 1% of the energy used in the industrial sector in the United States. But its commercial and residential sectors use energy in closer proportions to New York’s share of the U.S. population. The residential sector uses less electricity than normal because of the high proportion of small apartments in New York City, but overall household energy use is still 15% greater than the average household because of New York’s colder weather and the fuel needed for space heating and hot water. 

Improving energy efficiency in New York’s commercial and residential buildings presents serious challenges. Conservation investments for many homeowners may be too costly because they are of modest means and they will need help and subsidies to improve efficiencies. Commercial and apartment building owners may also find energy investments costly and may need tax incentives to stimulate those investments. But there is time for the residential and commercial building sectors to change.

New York’s new law directs the Climate Action Council to hold public hearings for several years throughout the state as it develops its plans, and the Council must establish advisory panels from different sectors of society, including labor and industry, to examine how to go forward. It must also work with environmental justice and just transition groups with plans for fair treatment and beneficial participation of disadvantaged communities.

New York’s state and local governments will need these inclusive processes to establish buy-in from sectors of society that may be fearful or skeptical of what a transition will look like or how they could be affected. The goals can be achieved, or New York can come very close, with the collaborative process the state has outlined for carbon-neutrality by 2050.

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Jim Brennan was a member of the New York State Assembly for 32 years, where he chaired four committees. On Twitter @JimBrennanNY.

 

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Fixing the City’s Broken System that Puts the Social Safety Net at Risk


speaker m mv cm helen westside

(photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


The recently-passed New York City budget greenlights billions of dollars to some of the most vital programs across the five boroughs. These dollars will help to fund homeless shelters, emergency food pantries, senior services, mental health services, and early childcare for the most vulnerable New Yorkers.

The City of New York contracts with over 1,000 community-based organizations (CBOs) to provide these essential human services at a cost of $6 billion annually. But thanks to the City’s broken procurement system, CBOs are forced to wait a very, very long time to see their money. In fact, according to a recent Comptroller’s report, human service providers wait an average of 221 days before being reimbursed for services and labor they have already provided.

Under the current system, CBOs are forced to essentially cover the City’s costs and then wait over seven months on average for payment, which, when it arrives, doesn’t cover their actual costs. What private business would accept -- or be able to operate under -- these terms?

This awful status quo persists because there are virtually no timelines attached to the City’s procurement process, which allows bureaucrats to sit on contracts and deprive local nonprofits of desperately needed funds. After a contract is awarded, it goes through the supervising agency’s review process, then to the mayor’s office, and, if all goes well, on to the comptroller for registration. Only the comptroller is subject to a time limit, however, which is 30 days.

As a result, 80 percent of all contracts issued by the City are currently delivered late, with a whopping 89 percent of human services contracts arriving tardy. For nonprofits and charities that provide crucial citywide services, these delays can be catastrophic. Since these organizations cannot close their doors to those in need, many opt to take on loans. The problem is, these loans often come with interest. 

One study estimated that late contracts cost New York City nonprofits a staggering $774 million in 2018 ($756 million in negative cash flow and another $18 million in associated financing costs). This is up from $675 million in 2017.

Think of the critical services -- for the elderly, young children, and disabled people -- that could have been provided by the $18 million lost to interest payments.

This burdensome debt not only drags down the vital services that CBOs can provide, but also threatens the livelihood of their employees. As Human Services Council Executive Director Allison Sesso writes, human service workers “increasingly find themselves in the very same position as their clients -- in need of social service assistance to provide for their families.” The financial strain also disproportionately affects already marginalized populations, as women and people of color represent 85% and 75% of human service workers, respectively. In an industry with already high employee turnover, the City should be doing everything in its power to bolster, not undermine, these organizations’ finances.

This is why we are introducing legislation that will help end the long delays within the City’s contracting process and bring relief to CBOs. Our legislation, Intro. 1627, would require the City’s Procurement Policy Board to establish time limits on each bureaucratic phase of the procurement process for any contract exceeding $100,000. The limits would be developed in consultation with each contracting agency and the Mayor’s Office of Contract Services (MOCS).

Not only will this legislation help CBOs and other human services providers be paid in a timely manner, it will also require MOCS to report publicly on each agency’s adherence to the time limits, providing the public with a necessary source of accountability.

New Yorkers deserve the best services, and the CBOs providing those services deserve to be paid fairly and on time by a city government they can hold accountable. Overhauling the procurement system may be bureaucratic and slow in nature, but it is necessary if we are to properly serve the New Yorkers who are most in need.

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City Council Members Helen Rosenthal and Ben Kallos represent Manhattan districts. On Twitter @HelenRosenthal and @BenKallos.

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The IDC is Gone. Political Betrayal is Not.


Cuomo Long Island

Gov. Cuomo and Long Island officials (photo: Governor's Office)


I’ve seen a lot through my five decades fighting for tenants in Albany, but I’ve never seen as tectonic a shift in power like we witnessed during this most recent legislative session.

For decades, the real estate lobby has spent more than the gross domestic product of many small countries to keep incumbents in power and ensure that the deck remained decidedly stacked against tenants, cementing a political status quo as solidly as the foundation of any luxury high-rise. And when the Republicans lost the Senate majority, the real estate lobby simply fell back on a new “majority” by shoveling cash to the now-infamous Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), members of which grabbed as much real estate money as they could in exchange for keeping Republicans in power and killing any real rent law reform efforts.

But in 2018, the electoral tide shifted. The IDC was largely swept out of office in the September primaries, replaced by true progressive Democrats; and in the November general election even more Democrats flipped seats from red to blue, making Andrea Stewart-Cousins the new Senate Majority Leader. Working with Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, they delivered the strongest package of tenant protections of our lifetime. This victory will resonate among millions of renting families statewide.

The defeat of the IDC was the lynchpin that made this all possible, but even in our victory we saw the emergence of a new group every bit as disingenuous as the IDC and equally dangerous.

The IDC was built on an implicit dishonesty: candidates ran as Democrats, but then empowered Republicans once elected. After several years of this, the voters simply had enough and showed six of them the door. But this year, we saw explicit dishonesty from four Long Island senators -- Anna Kaplan, John Brooks, Monica Martinez, and Jim Gaughran -- all of whom ran as loyal Democrats, promised to support strong rent laws, and willingly accepted financial support from Tenants PAC.

Then they betrayed us.

These four turned their backs on tenants, ignored the promises they made, and sided with big real estate money and the entire Senate Republican Conference to vote “no” on the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act of 2019.

These Long Island 4 may not be a new IDC, but they are every bit as insidious, possibly more so, because they tried to dismantle tenant reforms from within the Democratic conference, siding with Governor Andrew Cuomo as he tried to create deeper divisions between New York City and suburban senators. This all blew up in Cuomo’s face when the Senate and Assembly came together on their own to negotiate a strong rent law package without him, reducing him to impotent ranting.

Elections have causes and consequences. Years of seeing our rights as tenants ignored because the real estate lobby used big political spending to bottle up reform caused voters to say enough is enough and finally elect leaders who would stand up for them. And now come the consequences – both the energized and ascendant tenant movement that will continue to grow into greater political power for working families, and the backlash that legislators who turned their backs on us, including some Assembly Democrats, will face at the ballot box next year.

The IDC collapsed under pressure from voters across the state who expected more integrity and honesty from their elected officials. The dishonest Long Island 4, freshly-brewed in the worst cauldrons of Albany’s toxic combination of money and politics, would be wise to heed that lesson.

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Michael McKee is treasurer of Tenants PAC. On Twitter @McKeeTenantsPac & @TenantsPACNY.

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Cy Vance’s Approach to Jeffrey Epstein was No Aberration


gov and cuomo da cy vance mta fare pat

Manhattan DA Cy Vance (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo)


I don’t buy Cy Vance’s defense that his Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Gaffney “made a mistake” in interpreting the law when she asked for Jeffrey Epstein’s sex offender status to be downgraded in 2011. Five years later, as Deputy Chief of the DA’s Sex Crimes Unit, she asked for and got a downgraded sex offender status for the OB/GYN I and dozens of other women had accused of sexual assault.

The similarities between the DA’s case at the time against Epstein and that of the one against my abuser, Robert Hadden, abound. Both were wealthy, connected, white men playing out their deranged fantasies with no regard for the women and children they used. Both had dozens of victims, including minors. Both leveraged their position of privilege and wealth for protection. And, perhaps most notably, both had Cy Vance as their top prosecutor.

When the DA requested a lower offender status for Epstein, the judge expressed shock. She was aware of the large number of victims in his case and of the severity of his crimes. The request was denied.

At Hadden’s February 2016 plea hearing, the DA confirmed the Court’s agreement to “downwardly depart from the SORA regulations and find Dr. Hadden a Level 1 Offender” as a condition of his plea agreement. The judge only saw a narrow slice of Hadden’s alleged crimes. Would he have reacted differently had the DA pursued a second indictment or made other efforts to include the other victims who continued to report? To this day, brave women, including a minor Hadden himself delivered as a baby, continue to come forward to report crimes he perpetrated against them.

I don’t know if I would feel differently about the abuse I endured had Hadden been given a higher offender status. What I do know is that the outcome of the DA’s cases against both Epstein and Hadden continue to reveal details of a two-tiered system of justice in Manhattan. Prosecutors operate with almost no impunity and the public lacks critical information about how the unit operates. At a minimum, the DA’s Sex Crimes Unit must submit to an outside, independent review -- but I also believe Vance should resign.

Hadden’s defense attorney herself told BuzzFeedNews, “Poor people don’t do as well in this system as people who can afford more competent lawyers. If you can afford them, you’re treated differently in our criminal justice system.” She’s not wrong.

Hadden has access to support from his employer, Columbia University. Some have questioned contributions Vance took from people like Jonathan Schiller, the then-chair of Columbia's Board of Trustees. In response to multiple allegations of undue influence, Vance commissioned a report from Columbia’s Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity (CAPI) on how DAs can reduce conflicts of interest in campaign fundraising. The Hadden case and Schiller donations are glaring omissions from the report yet Vance touts it and his resulting pledge to not take money from attorneys with cases before him as reform. It’s not enough.

In June, Vance spoke at CAPI and cited the Raising the Bar report. He said “what I learned, above all, is it’s not enough for me to have confidence in my independence from donors. The people of New York deserve to be confident about this as well.”

Has he learned? More importantly, have we learned? The people have lost confidence in Vance’s leadership. We deserve better. How long will New Yorkers continue to let corruption, incompetence, and cowardice play out in front of the world before demanding meaningful change?

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Marissa Hoechstetter is an activist. On Twitter @MHoechstetter.

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Solving New York City’s Next Big Census Problem


resource cm carlos menchaca attends sbs

(photo: John McCarten/City Council)


New Yorkers got some great news last week when President Trump abandoned plans to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census. Adding the question to the Census would have resulted in a massive undercount of the city’s population, causing New York to lose its share of billions in federal funding for vital programs and services.

But there’s another wrinkle in this upcoming Census that could significantly depress participation across the city: the move to a digital Census. This will be the first-ever Census to be completed largely online. Though this change will be welcome news for many tech-savvy New Yorkers, it will bring new challenges in a city where 14 percent of residents live in households without a computer, 23 percent lack a broadband connection at home, and many more aren’t digitally proficient.

Just as city leaders stood up and fought the proposed inclusion of the citizenship question, New York City needs a wide-scale effort to make sure the move to a digital Census does not deter large numbers of New Yorkers from completing their forms. One way they can do this is by partnering in a big way with New York City’s branch libraries.

In recent years, libraries have extended far beyond their historical book-lending role to become the city’s most accessible technology hub for New Yorkers on the wrong side of the digital divide. In addition to providing computer stations, laptop loans, and free internet, they are also a place where those with limited tech literacy can get a helping hand from librarians.

Tens of thousands of New Yorkers already turn to branch libraries for tech help, whether it is applying to a job online, filling out Medicare applications, or simply staying in touch with family via email or Facebook. 

Beyond having a substantial technology infrastructure, libraries have unparalleled reach: the city’s 216 branch libraries are on the ground in nearly every community across the five boroughs. Importantly, libraries are also one of the city’s most trusted institutions, providing a range of services in multiple languages but never asking for personal information.

All this makes libraries a natural fit to extend their services to help New Yorkers fill out the digital Census.

Right now, however, it’s not clear that the city’s libraries have the capacity to do this effectively. Many branches across the five boroughs don’t have laptops to loan, and most libraries have at most six or twelve computer terminals, barely enough to serve existing demand.

Beyond the need for more dedicated computers, laptops, and tablets, libraries will need additional staff to help the many patrons who require significant assistance completing the digital Census. At most branches today, librarians are already overextended.

To his great credit, Mayor de Blasio has already launched an outreach campaign to ensure an accurate Census count, and the recently passed city budget includes $40 million to support this effort. The de Blasio administration should devote a portion of those funds to the city’s libraries. Doing so would empower branches across the city to ramp up their capacity and harness their considerable potential to boost participation in the online Census. 

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Jonathan Bowles is executive director of the Center for an Urban Future, a think tank focused on expanding economic opportunity in New York. On Twitter @jbowlesnyc & @nycfuture.

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A French Lesson in Fare Evasion


govcuomo 96th

(photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo)


I just returned to New York City from a month in Paris, where my husband was doing legal work. A regular public transit user at home, I was the same in Paris, making use of its Metro system. But because I did not inform myself of all the rules, I violated one of them and had to pay a fine. The experience helped me think about the fare evasion challenge we’re dealing with in New York. 

As in our subway system, there is one fare to travel throughout the city on the Paris Metro. I bought discounted “carnets” of 10 tickets at a time at a cost of about 14.90 euros, approximately $18. The tickets are small white cards; you put them in a slot on the way in, and if the ticket is valid it pops up in another slot to be retained; high plastic doors then open to let you through. When you leave the station at your stop, you walk through exits (sorties), which have high doors that open when you press on them with your hand.

Since there is no need to use the tickets to exit (they are needed at stations where you transfer to rail connections) and they are only good for one fare, I was throwing them away after entering a station. Of course this was silly of me; why wouId the entrance machines give you back the tickets if you weren’t supposed to keep them? But I wasn’t thinking it through and didn’t want to get used tickets mixed up with new ones from my carnets.

After a few weeks, while transferring between one train line and another at Gare St. Lazare, a major metro transfer point, I encountered a line of transit employees (they have orange vests like our MTA New York City Transit workers) stopping passengers walking through a tunnel. They asked to see my ticket.

In halting French with English mixed in I explained that I had thrown it away. Non, non madame, said one of the inspectors.  You must retain your ticket. I shrugged, explained that I was a tourist, that I had been using the system for several weeks and no one had stopped me, and said I would go and buy a new ticket to present to the inspection team. Non, non madame, one of them said; you have to pay a fine right now.

She showed me a chart with different fines for different types of violations. I was shocked at how high they were. She ‘settled’ for a payment of 30 euros, about $35, whipped out a handheld charge machine, inserted my credit card and gave me a special receipt. The same thing was happening to people around me, who contended they had lost their tickets or didn’t have them for whatever reason. 

At about the same time this happened to me in Paris, back home in Manhattan Governor Cuomo announced a comprehensive fare evasion deterrence program for the subways and buses, including the assignment of 500 personnel, including New York City and MTA police officers and 70 “Eagle Team” members, as well as a number of structural changes like securing emergency exits at subway stations and installation of video cameras.

Fare evasion has been a growing problem on New York City subways and buses in the last few years, according to the MTA. An MTA report issued in March estimated annual lost revenue due to fare evasion at $225 million in 2018; the projection for 2019 had grown to $260 million by the time of the governor’s June press conference.

The problem is particularly acute on buses where one of every five riders doesn’t pay the fare, the MTA says. It is infuriating to sit on a bus and watch others simply walk on without paying; drivers cannot be expected to take the risk of arguing with these passengers. But it is also a problem on the subways; I am sure everyone reading this column has seen people walking into stations through the emergency exit doors.

Stopping fare evasion should not be about criminalization or persecuting poor people—it’s about the money. Evasion hurts all transit riders by depriving the system of much-needed revenue and making the costs higher for those who do pay. $260 million a year is A LOT of money – enough, for example, to pay for half-fare Metrocards for all low-income riders eligible under the recently adopted “Fair Fares” initiative by the City Council and Mayor de Blasio. The worthy program should be fully implemented as quickly as possible and soon evaluated for possible expansion.

The heightened presence of law enforcement personnel and other initiatives to discourage fare evasion in the new plan are all worth trying, but they must be done carefully. And I suggest that, in addition, the MTA consider doing what the French are doing in the Paris Metro. It is not as big as New York’s system, of course, but does carry more than 4 million people a day and is the second busiest in Europe (after Moscow). It devotes 1,200 staff to fare evasion.

Instead of issuing summonses for non-payment that can be ignored with minimal – and no immediate – consequences, the Paris inspectors assess “penalty fares” that must be paid on the spot; 1 million of these penalties are issued a year in Paris. 

New York City Transit, the MTA’s division that runs the subways and buses, should explore using  the technology that Paris has employed to give members of the Eagle Teams who go onto buses to look for evaders hand-held devices that can check whether someone’s Metrocard (if they have one) has been used for that trip and if not, charge and collect a penalty fare, much higher than the regular fare but lower than the $100 civil fine for fare evasion. Do the same in the transfer tunnels in large subway stations like Penn and Grand Central.

Those who want to challenge the fine or cannot pay on the spot should have the option to pursue administrative appeals, but I strongly suspect this method will have more of a deterrent effect than simply issuing paper summonses to everyone. I certainly was very careful to save my Metro tickets after this happened to me!

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Carol Kellermann was president of Citizens Budget Commission from 2008 through 2018.

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The Conspiracy in Queens is Beyond the DA Ballots


votes president us cast 2016

(photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayoral Photo Office)


Election officials in Queens are counting ballots in the District Attorney Democratic primary recount exactly as the law prescribes -- and it is an injustice for Queens and an affront to democracy. 

After a stunning reversal of fortune that saw Melinda Katz erase a 1,090-vote gap after absentee and other ballots were counted, Tiffany Cabán is challenging the rejection of a small number of provisional ballots that she thinks will turn the tide back in her favor.  While there are many reasons a ballot could be rejected, the main cause at play here is that voters were not properly registered with the Democratic Party in time to vote in the June 25 primary.

Some are enrolled in a different party or no party at all, while others just didn’t enroll at their current address within the six-month window required by our state before this vote. Whatever the reason, many Queens residents came to the polls to vote in an important election and were told that their voice was not welcome. 

New York, unlike most other big cities in the country, uses a closed primary system to determine who will be on the general election ballot. This means that only voters who are properly enrolled in a political party may vote in a taxpayer-funded partisan primary. The winner of each partisan primary, or the party nominee if there is only one candidate, then advances to a general election open to all registered voters. 

In a city where Democrats represent nearly 70% of the electorate, this means that the relatively few people who show up and are allowed to vote in a Democratic primary essentially choose the winner of the general election.

The Republican nominee for Queens District Attorney has all but acknowledged the fruitlessness of trying to win, openly admitting he had not decided whether he would even bother to campaign for the office. The most likely outcome no matter if Katz or Cabán prevails in the primary recount, is that a county of nearly 2.4 million people will be represented by a District Attorney who received the support of barely 4% of registered Queens Democrats. 

In a democracy, residents are supposed to choose their elected officials. In New York, politicians from both the Republican and Democratic parties have worked hard to turn that idea on its head and pick their constituents. New York’s ballot access rules are among the most restrictive in the nation and the results speak for themselves -- apathetic voters who can’t be bothered to engage in a system that makes it hard to participate and where they do not feel that their vote really matters. 

Open primaries allow all registered voters to vote in a primary where all candidates for office are grouped together regardless of party affiliation. If no candidate receives 50% of the vote, the top two then face off in a general election, even if they are from the same party. It’s a system based on encouraging democracy.

Open primaries also allow new candidates from nontraditional backgrounds to break into the system. In the current structure, voters often avoid casting a ballot for candidates outside of the traditional parties for fear of spoiling the election in favor of someone they truly dislike. Traditional parties have intentionally perpetuated this dilemma to keep new players out and keep a broken system and the privileges that come with it in place. 

Opening up primaries to all voters, regardless of party affiliation, gives candidates a reason to appeal to a broad range of the electorate, while head-to-head general elections take the spoiler-effect out of the equation and free voters to vote for the candidate they like best.

The editorial boards have opined that there is no conspiracy at play by machine Democrats to steal the primary, and that the rules are being scrupulously followed. However, the proceedings in Queens show once again that the rules are the conspiracy. It is time to replace New York’s outdated, unjust system with something as open and inclusive as our residents deserve. 

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Michael Volpe is the Chair of the SAM Party of New York and former candidate for Lieutenant Governor on the SAM line. He is the former Mayor of the Village of Pelham. On Twitter @SAMforNY.

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I'm Not Running for Congress; Here's Why


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Senator Gustavo Rivera, the author (photo: State Senate)


To someone who isn’t from the borough, the mention of the Bronx may evoke images of Yankee Stadium, the Bronx Zoo, or Arthur Avenue. A lesser-known fact is that the Congressional District that covers all three landmarks, and most of the South Bronx, is home to an open seat and will host a highly-contested election in 2020. The future of one of the poorest and most densely-populated districts in the country will be determined next year, making it one of the most important upcoming elections in New York City.

New York’s 15th Congressional District is geographically one of the smallest, with 730,000 people living within its lines. Nearly 97% voted for Barack Obama in November of 2012, making it the most Democratic district in the country. This means the congressional election will be determined in the June primary, not the November general.

For almost 30 years, this district has been represented by the consistently progressive voice of José E. Serrano, who announced his retirement earlier this year. This vacancy is an opportunity to bring new leadership into the House and this district, but it also carries a significant obligation to continue the progressive legacy of the Congressmember while blazing a new trail to effect change.

As the State Senator representing part of this Congressional District, I know well the needs and challenges of this community. The 15th Congressional District faces significant obstacles that are exacerbated by the current federal government. We need bold leadership who fights for fair housing and treats public housing residents with respect; who recognizes that healthcare is a human right; and who stands up for all residents of the district, regardless of citizenship status. The 15th Congressional District also needs a leader who sets an unparalleled ethical standard, just like our retiring Congressmember has done for decades. The work cannot stop; we need someone who will double down on the fight ahead of us.

I believe in public service, and in the positive impact government can have on people’s lives. This belief drove me to run for the State Senate in 2010 and it has been at the center of my efforts in office.

This past year, the State Senate regained the Democratic majority and passed a slew of progressive legislation that New Yorkers badly needed, including the Dream Act, the Reproductive Health Act, criminal justice, voting, and housing reforms, driver's licenses for all, gun regulations, and LGBTQ protections -- among others. I was also given the great honor to chair the Senate Health Committee, a position that had never been held by a person of color or a Bronxite, despite the disparities these groups have faced in accessing healthcare for generations.

The New York State Senate is enacting true change and fighting to help all New Yorkers thrive, but our work is far from done. This responsibility has influenced my decision to not seek the open seat in Congress next year. Representing my community in the State Senate has been the greatest honor of my life, and it is exactly where I believe I can best serve for the foreseeable future. This is particularly crucial since state government is one of the most effective checks and balances on the great national threat from Washington, D.C.

Nonetheless, I cannot ignore the importance of this election at such a critical moment.

The Federal Administration makes a mockery of our democracy daily, and actively works against the communities of my district, the Bronx, and New York City. As we look at a crowded field of Democrats vying for this seat, one thing is clear -- we have a serious responsibility to identify and unify behind a strong leader who will speak on our behalf and will join the new class of Congressmembers that reject the status quo of corporate politics. The 15th Congressional District deserves the very best, and I look forward to hearing from the candidates and eventually endorsing someone who will fight for that same standard for our community and our country.

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State Senator Gustavo Rivera represents parts of the Bronx and chairs the Senate's health committee. On Twitter @NYSenatorRivera.

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6 Real, Meaningful Changes New York’s New Campaign Finance Commission Should Pursue


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(photo: Mike Groll/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo)


New York State government has often failed to address our biggest challenges. Surprisingly, during the 2019 legislative session real protections for renters were approved over the objections of New York’s powerful real estate industry. Congestion pricing for Manhattan’s central business district was written into law, along with far-reaching climate change legislation. Cash bail was abolished for most crimes, and bump stocks that cause rifles to fire like machine guns were banned. Women’s rights and LGBTQ rights were enhanced in important ways.

Yet, efforts to reform the electoral process stalled after a few notable successes. To revive momentum, Governor Cuomo and the Legislature created a commission and charged it with issuing rules to implement public campaign financing by December 1. The commissioners were named last week and are about to set to work.

Structural change to New York State’s campaign finance system is crucial. The ease with which legislative influence is traded for money in Albany has created a culture of corruption that promotes special interests above the public interest.

We have yet to come to terms with rusting bridges, crumbling infrastructure, and failing public transit networks. Public housing slides further into disrepair daily. Young people of color are denied quality education. Nearly 1 million New Yorkers have no health insurance. The public will be ill-served on these and other matters if legislation responds to the demands of the highest bidders.

As the campaign finance commission begins its work, here are six ways to ensure our state elected officials represent everyone, not just the wealthy and powerful.

1. New York needs lower election contribution limits, a cap on campaign expenditures, and a ban on donations from political action committees, businesses, and unions.

Current law allows candidates for statewide office to accept the obscene amount of $47,500 from a single contributor, and more than $65,000 if they face a primary. State Senate candidates can accept $18,000, aspiring Assembly members more than $9,000. The threshold for all these offices should be lowered to $5,000 so that no single contributor can hold sway over an official. Candidates should also be subject to an overall campaign cap of $1 per constituent to limit the quest for cash.

2. New York should join 29 states that wisely ban elected officials from fund-raising during the legislative session. Cashing checks while passing laws creates the undeniable appearance of corruption. Violators should be forced to forfeit all of an event’s contributions, along with a penalty of an equal amount, into a public election fund.

3. New York should establish a statewide public finance system that mirrors New York City’s. Candidates who meet minimum thresholds should receive $8 of public matching funds for each dollar of a donation up to $250. This would encourage candidates to seek support from all their constituents, not just the rich.

4. Candidates for public office should be required to release five years of federal and state tax returns to enable voters to determine how official decisions might affect a lawmaker’s pockets.

5. Increasing New York’s ban on lobbying after government service from two years to five would provide a greater buffer against the risk of lawmakers trading votes for the promise of future employment.

6. The campaign finance commission should signal support for legislation sponsored by Senator Liz Krueger to strengthen the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE).

She has proposed a nine-member commission with five selected by the chief judge of New York and the presiding justices of each of the state’s four appellate divisions, and the remaining four chosen by elected officials. Decisions should be determined by a majority vote.

In addition to overseeing lobbying, the new JCOPE should exercise enforcement power over campaign finance so that the crucial elements of the Albany Arrangement’s pay-to-play culture are monitored by a single entity.

These proposed reforms will diminish the corrosive influence of cash on politics. Transparency and accountability will rise, and the public interest will displace special interests as the most important influence on our lawmakers. The campaign finance commission has a rare opportunity to effect long-lasting improvements to our democracy. They should seize the moment and act boldly.

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Chris McNickle is a historian, author, and businessman. On Twitter @NYChrisMcnickle.

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The Year of the Public Defender


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Larry Krasner and Tiffany Cabán (photo: @MonicaCKlein)


“I was a public defender. I didn’t become a prosecutor.”
-former Vice-President Joe Biden, addressing former prosecutor Senator Kamala Harris during a Democratic presidential primary debate, June 27, 2019

Public Defenders are familiar with getting little respect. Law school classmates assume you couldn’t get a real job. Family members ask why you aren’t trying to make money. Acquaintances ask with distress and disgust, “How can you represent criminals?” Court officers sneer at you for representing [derogatory word they use to describe your clients]. Prosecutors treat you as if you are gum stuck to their shoe. Judges kowtow to prosecutors. And the media lionizes prosecutors.

True, too, that many of your clients don’t trust you. After all, your service is free and in the United States we believe that anything free is worth what you paid for it. You are appointed by the same government that prosecutes them. And poor people accused of crime don’t get to pick their lawyer – you are foisted upon them (the court adage is that a poor person is entitled to a lawyer but not to one of his choosing).

Most Public Defenders have heard clients say to them, with all sincerity and heartfelt best wishes, “Maybe in a few years you’ll be able to make it to prosecutor.” Other clients, with less well-meaning intent, let you know they wish they had money for a “real” lawyer because they’d beat the case easy. Public Defenders have been referred to by clients as Public Pretenders and Dump Trucks (i.e., they just want you to plead guilty so they can dump your case).

In addition to an often-bruised ego, being a Public Defender can also be hazardous to your career. For those thinking long-term, being a Public Defender isn’t exactly the key to career advancement. You might think that with all their courtroom experience there are a slew of Public Defenders in the judiciary. Well, starting at the top, the last Supreme Court justice with any criminal defense experience was Thurgood Marshall. On the other hand, there are and have been many former prosecutors appointed and rapidly confirmed to the Supreme Court.

And you don’t have to aim that high judicially to be disappointed, and you don’t have to focus on conservative Presidents. Around 14% of President Obama’s nominees for federal district and appeals court judges had experience working in public defense. Meanwhile, 41% of his nominees had experience working as prosecutors.

It’s the same at the state level. A 2011 study found that 15% of State Supreme Court justices had experience as public defenders, compared to 33% of State Supreme Court justices who had experience as prosecutors.

What about legislative aspirations? How’s this for a campaign slogan – “I’m a Public Defender. Elect me your Senator.” Just listen to the debates for the current Democratic presidential nomination and count how many times one of the two dozen combatants intones, “Well, I used to be a prosecutor.” Think back to Clinton v. Trump and how he lambasted her for having been appointed to represent a man charged with raping a child in 1975. I guess his point was that that made her unfit for office.

Yet now it seems Public Defenders are all the rage. There’s even no need to ask or wonder what kind of a Public Defender the person is/was (even though it is well-known that in addition to the many zealous, committed and brilliant Public Defenders, there are quite a few less than brilliant ones). Just wear your Public Defender badge and you’re good to go. 

So much for those who looked down their noses at you and with barely concealed contempt asked how you felt about getting guilty people off on technicalities (which happens as often as Haley’s Comet makes an appearance). The worm has turned. Public Defenders are trending.

Consider the Public Defender for District Attorney movement. It’s hard to keep up with, every week another Public Defender is off and running to become a District Attorney and prosecute the clients they had just been defending (though in much gentler, kinder and more thoughtful ways). While the movement comes as a shock to most people, I imagine Public Defender clients are in full “I told you so” mode (see supra – “Maybe in a few years you’ll be able to make it to prosecutor”). 

And the Public Defender for District Attorney blitzkrieg is growing as several Public Defenders have pulled off dramatic victories. Now the battle cry is extending beyond mere District Attorney offices as calls abound for Public Defenders to run for judicial office. It might be worth calling a timeout on that one.

While it’s too early to comment on the performances of all the Public Defenders who’ve become prosecutors, there are an awful lot of judges who formerly defended the people they are regularly, and with seeming relish, sending to state prison. 

But with all the ever-growing viral love for Public Defenders, nothing can match the latest shout out. Former Vice President, former United States Senator, former Chair of the Judiciary Committee investigating the claims of Anita Hill against Clarence Thomas, he of all people, in response to a withering attack from Senator Kamala Harris during a nationally televised debate, when she accused him of cozying up to racists and racist policies, he, Joe Biden from Scranton, invoked, of all things, his service as a Public Defender. In fact, he threw it back at Senator Harris by almost sneering that she, on the other, less virtuous side, was a prosecutor.

As a former Public Defender, I had palpitations. I mean maybe there are kids out there in America who instead of reading To Kill a Mockingbird and dreaming of becoming a defender like Atticus Finch, will point to that moment as the day they decided to become a Public Defender. I am not sure if Biden ever really was a Public Defender, or for how long, or how competent, but that doesn’t seem to matter to anyone anyway. Just say you were a Public Defender and you win the day.

Think of it. Are there parents out there tucking their kids in at night saying “Dream big, child. One day you can be a Public Defender and then become President” (or maybe after that debate performance, just Vice President).

The Public Defender movement is undeniably gathering steam. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, herself a former prosecutor, has said that there need to be more judicial nominees with backgrounds as civil rights lawyers or Public Defenders. The aforementioned Senator Kamala Harris is showing respect for Public Defenders she didn’t display when she was District Attorney of San Francisco by proposing what she calls the Equal Defense Act that provides for massively increased funding for Public Defenders. Why maybe she’d appoint a Public Defender to the Supreme Court. 

But let’s not stop the Public Defender juju there. We need more Public Defenders as pundits and commentators. Are you listening MSNBC? Maybe instead of every five minutes saying, “I’d like to turn now to our expert analyst and former prosecutor,” it could become “What does our resident Public Defender have to say?”

Apparently, public defense isn’t a calling or a political stance but rather is a stepping-stone to bigger and better things. I hear there are some races coming up for police commissioner. Isn’t there an opening for a new Head of Customs and Border Protection? Maybe a Public Defender to run Homeland Security? Seize the day Public Defenders. The sky’s the limit.

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Steven Zeidman is a professor of law at CUNY School of Law and a former Public Defender. On Twitter @SteveZeidman.

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After Rightly Declaring Climate Crisis, the Next Important Step for the City Council


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Council Member Reynoso (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


It is heartening that the New York City Council recently voted unanimously to declare a state of climate crisis. 2019 has already brought a string of droughts, record-breaking heat waves, crop failures, and storms, and it is obvious that this is the challenge of our lifetimes.

Having declared an emergency, now comes the time for swift additional action. After state and city lawmakers passed mandatory building retrofits, congestion pricing, and statewide emissions reductions, the next major climate bill our local government must pass is the Commercial Waste Zone Bill (Intro. 1574 before the City Council).

What does garbage from New York City’s more than 100,000 businesses have to do with global warming?  

Our office buildings, pizzerias, hospitals, and grocery stores send about 2.2 million tons of waste per year to landfills and incinerators, where it slowly decomposes and produces methane, a climate pollutant 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

When it comes to basic recycling and composting of waste, New York’s business sector lags far behind cities like Seattle and San Francisco, which currently diverts 65% or more of their commercial waste. We simply will not meet our climate goals if we do not tackle our wasteful sanitation industry. 

Second, the 90 or so private companies that collect New York City’s commercial waste exist in a highly dysfunctional “Wild West” system in which they operate inefficient truck routes, cut corners on recycling, and pressure workers to complete dangerous and grueling shifts, as the owners attempt to compete for customers and ensure profits. Exhaustive studies commissioned by the City have found that this scheme results in 18 million unnecessary truck miles per year -- enough to drive to the moon and back 37 times.  

But, less tangibly, it also means that investments in better recycling facilities, customer education, and waste reduction initiatives such as food rescue are a low or nonexistent priority for the city’s private waste industry.

The City Council can enact a common-sense, proven solution to this decades-old mess. The commercial waste zones bill (Intro. 1574) sponsored by Brooklyn Council Member Antonio Reynoso will make this system far more rational and safe by selecting a single, high-performing waste company for each commercial zone.

After selecting 20 or so providers through a competitive bidding process, the City can hold these haulers accountable to high customer service, environmental, and safety standards through comprehensive, enforceable contracts.  

With the right incentives to make investments and adopt industry best practices, the new system can rapidly achieve the same recycling and composting rates as successful west coast cities -- which would prevent a whopping 2 million tons of greenhouse gas pollutants each year by reducing the huge amount of business waste trucked to landfills. That is equivalent to removing one in five cars from New York City streets.

Moreover, we would create hundreds of new, green jobs in and near our city as recycling and composting facilities employ far more workers than do transfer stations, landfills, and incinerators.

Moving the needle on climate emissions is a daunting challenge that will require action in every sector of our economy. The good news is that we don’t need to wait for further studies or new technologies to change our highly polluting private waste system.

Dozens of other cities have adopted similar zoned or franchised commercial waste systems, and many have rapidly increased their recycling rates while maintaining excellent customer service and fair prices for their business communities.

It would be a huge lost opportunity if the fear-mongering by a few well-financed business  interests were to delay the passage of this common-sense, historic reform. We applaud the Council for naming climate change as a crisis, and call on Council members to pass the Commercial Waste Zone bill this summer.

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Justin Wood is Director of Organizing and Strategic Research at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest. On Twitter @NYLPI.

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