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Adams to Present Albany Agenda, React to Hochul Budget


(photo: Mike Groll/Office of Governor Kathy Hochul)

Mayor Adams and Governor Hochul (photo: Mike Groll/Governor's Office)


During his first month in office, Mayor Eric Adams issued a plan to address gun violence, signed several executive orders, and announced a few other policy initiatives, but he has largely been occupied by a series of tragedies in the city and building out his government.

Soon, Adams will present his Albany agenda: top state legislative and funding priorities that he believes will help New York City and his young mayoralty accomplish its goals. The mayor is due to testify virtually before a joint hearing of the state Legislature on Wednesday, February 9, at which time he is expected to react in detail to Governor Kathy Hochul’s Executive Budget plan and outline his own requests of the state government.

In the annual tradition, Adams is expected to be the first to testify in front of members of the State Senate and Assembly during the local government hearing that is among a weeks-long series held by the Legislature after the governor’s budget presentation and ahead of further negotiations. A budget deal between the governor and Legislature is due by the April 1 start of the new state fiscal year.

Adams, a Democrat and former state senator himself, has publicly pointed to a few state-level priorities, namely changes to bail and youth offender laws, both of which have been relative nonstarters for the Democratic majorities in the Legislature since Adams began talking about the changes he is seeking. Those changes include allowing judges discretion to consider defendants’ “dangerousness” to society in determining how to set bail or mandate pre-trial remand, and alterations to the “Raise the Age” law whereby youth under 18 who are arrested for gun possession would only have the possibility of their cases being sent to family court if they tell law enforcement where the gun came from (an apparent violation of their due process rights).

Unlike his predecessor, Mayor Bill de Blasio, who came out of the gate with his request for the state to help expand and fund pre-kindergarten, Adams has not laid out a signature state ask, though criminal justice reforms could be at the top of his list given his focus on gun violence and public safety.

With the state and city governments flush with cash thanks to federal relief funds and higher-than-expected tax revenue, some usual expected budget requests may already be fulfilled – education aid, one of the major budget asks when de Blasio was in office, is expected to be ‘fully funded’ for the second year in a row.

Overall, Adams has been greeted with a far more receptive welcome from Governor Kathy Hochul, a fellow Democrat who has pledged a cooperative relationship with the mayor, than her predecessor, Andrew Cuomo, gave de Blasio. The former governor appeared to take delight in tormenting de Blasio even on very serious matters.

Already, Hochul has proposed giving Adams a four-year extension of mayoral control of city schools, which is due to expire this year, a longer extension that was ever considered for de Blasio. In fact, it was an issue that Cuomo often used to make de Blasio twist in the wind and expend significant energy on despite the fact that the governor believed in extending the policy.

Hochul and Adams have appeared regularly in public to make policy pronouncements and are, according to the governor’s office, working together on several initiatives already.

“If every mayor and every governor is a contrast to their predecessor, then it serves both really well to work together,” said Chris Coffey, Co-CEO of Tusk Strategies and a longtime official in the Bloomberg mayoral administration, which was first awarded mayoral control of city schools after Bloomberg campaigned on the issue.

Coffey noted that the Hochul-Adams collaboration could be beneficial to the governor, who is running for election to a full term this year. Even without his endorsement, she could benefit from the goodwill she has been working to build with Adams’ constituents in the city, particularly in vote-rich Brooklyn where he was borough president the past eight years. “On the flip side, for Adams…his relationship with the governor benefits him in that he can be getting stuff for the city,” Coffey said.

What Adams will soon define more fully is what that stuff is. While he is likely to discuss criminal justice reforms, gun violence prevention, and mayoral control of schools before the legislative budget hearing, it’s unclear what else will make his agenda. (A spokesperson for Adams repeatedly told Gotham Gazette that City Hall would provide a statement for this article ahead of Wednesday’s hearing but did not.)

But, there is no shortage of potential topics or priorities given what Hochul laid out in January in her State of the State policy book and Executive Budget proposal, and what Adams campaigned on, including related to housing, transit, and other issues.

“This will be a good opportunity for the mayor to kind of lay out a lot of his thinking on how he's going to be leading the city,” said State Senator Andrew Gounardes, in a phone interview. Gounardes, a fellow Brooklyn Democrat who backed Adams’ 2021 campaign throughout and once worked for him as his counsel at Borough Hall, said he has been in regular contact with the mayor, contrary to what some other lawmakers have said has been radio silence from City Hall. “There have been folks that have been sniping at him and taking phrases or things out of context…So I think the chance to have him speak without being limited to [Twitter’s] 280 characters is gonna be really important,” Gounardes said. 

Gounardes noted that the last city budget under de Blasio contained tough gaps for future years and Adams will soon have to present his first proposed budget in office -- the preliminary budget for the city’s 2023 fiscal year, which begins July 1 of this year.

“I think it's really important for the mayor to come out, very clearly identify what their budget situation looks like, and how Albany can help them get back on track and help them kind of ease that pain so that they're not taking it on the chin so much when it comes time to the city budget.” Gounardes said. Among the items the senator wants to hear directly from the mayor are his plans for workforce development, effectively spending state funding on social services, school governance reforms, affordable housing, and property tax reform.

Depending on which legislators participate in Wednesday’s hearing and ask Adams questions after his opening testimony, he may receive something of a mixed reception, even among fellow Democrats. More moderate and conservative members of the Legislature are likely to be supportive of his calls for criminal justice reforms while more progressive members could push back publicly on his desire to dilute hard-won reforms. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, was quick to dismiss Adams’ call to change the Raise the Age law that is a signature Heastie accomplishment.

“I think [the Legislature] will be a harder nut to crack,” Coffey said, in comparison to the Adams-Hochul relationship. “The Senate is going to be more progressive, one would think, and probably more reluctant to give points to either the governor or the mayor.”

“The 100 days is an arbitrary construct,” said Bruce Gyory, a veteran Democratic strategist with the firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP, in a phone interview. “The real time to judge how he's doing on the larger agenda or the longer list will be two days. What happens when the state budget is enacted…around April 1 and then what happens with the city budget,” which is due July 1.

Education
Governor Hochul’s proposed executive budget would increase K-12 statewide education funding to $31.2 billion, up by $2.1 billion for the next fiscal year beginning April 1. New York City is set to receive $12.3 billion, about $531 million more than last year, which will fully fund Fair Student Funding for city schools. That funding, along with federal aid, will give the mayor leeway to invest in his priorities, which include expanding accelerated learning programs (“gifted and talented”), special education services, after-school programs, and possibly even a universal dyslexia screening initiative that he spoke of during his campaign.

“Mayor Adams’ educational agenda will be a welcome change from the previous administration,” said State Senator John Liu, a Queens Democrat and chair of the Senate’s New York City Education Committee, in a phone interview. Liu had clashed with de Blasio around a variety of education policies, including the former mayor’s desire to end the use of the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT), which is required by state law at the city’s three largest specialized high schools, and to replace the city’s limited gifted and talented program with a universal enrichment model.

Adams has said he would leave the SHSAT in place at the eight specialized high schools where it is in use while opening one new specialized high school in each borough with mixed-metric admissions. “I believe the state should make that determination,” he said at a candidate forum last year, when asked about the SHSAT. And he has said he will keep and expand the city’s G&T program.

The main item on the education agenda right now, though, is the extension of mayoral control, which expires June 30. But, while the governor has gladly proposed a four-year extension, the Legislature has been known to apply its own conditions to that measure in the past. “Whether it's a four-year extension of the status quo remains to be seen…We have a few months to figure it out,” Liu said, though he did not specify what changes he might want to see.

At the February 2021 mayoral forum, nearly one year to the date before his scheduled testimony before the Legislature, Adams agreed with the regular expiration of mayoral control, rather than wanting it to be permanent. “I believe we should, every two years, go back and see it for review. You should earn the right to have that level of power,” he said. He now appears in favor of the four-year extension that Hochul wants to give him.

Liu said the mayor and Schools Chancellor David Banks have indicated that they want to create new mechanisms for real parent input, “which was woefully lacking during the previous administration and became even more so during the pandemic crisis.

New York City has already met the 290 cap for charter schools – there are 460 allowed across the state – and charter school proponents have been calling on the state Legislature to increase that limit. Hochul did not include a higher cap in her policy book or budget. However, state Budget Director Robert Mujica said in a briefing after the budget announcement that “we welcome a discussion about that, with the mayor.”

Adams, who is far more friendly to charter schools than his predecessor, but has been noncommittal about advocating publicly to lift the cap. “I believe that should be a state decision. They should make the determination,” the former Brooklyn state senator said at the mayoral forum focused on candidates’ “Albany agendas” in February 2021.

Adams’ pro-charter positions earned him significant financial support during the mayoral race. Wealthy donors who support charter schools donated to his campaign and also bankrolled a political action committee (PAC) that supported him. Charter proponents are hoping that Adams will help advocate for an increase in the cap on the schools so new charters can open in the city.

“We are pleased to see that Governor Hochul’s proposed budget recognizes the need to increase funding for K-12 education even as we continue to fight for truly equitable public funding for New York City’s public charter schools,” said James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center, in a statement. “New York City parents who are choosing charter schools deserve no less. At the same time, we will continue our fight to lift the cap on charter schools, so that parents have the options they want. This is especially true given that more parents continue to seek charter schools even as overall public school enrollment has declined. It really is far past time to lift the cap. We look forward to working with our partners in Albany and New York City to do just that.”

Liu seemed to shut down any discussion of the issue. “The cap’s not going to be increased,” he said.

On higher education, Governor Hochul has proposed about a $1.5 billion increase in operating support for CUNY and SUNY over the next five years. But some state lawmakers, including Senator Gounardes, are advocating for a New Deal for CUNY which would increase total CUNY operating support alone by $1.7 billion in that same period.

Gounardes sponsors the legislation with Assemblymember Karines Reyes, a Bronx Democrat, and he is hoping the mayor will be a supportive voice for it. “I think that investing in CUNY is gonna be a great way to help the mayor meet some of his goals, especially around things like workforce development, especially around things like student support and helping give people those kind of upstream resources,” he said, using some of Adams’ favorite terminology. The mayor regularly talks about the need, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu put it, to go upstream and prevent people from falling in the river as opposed to pulling them out of the river downstream.

Housing
Adams announced his housing leadership team on January 30 and reiterated his goals to build more affordable and supportive housing in the city. But several aspects of his housing plan, which he first announced in September last year, would require state action. Meanwhile, Hochul has several housing proposals Adams will be expected to respond to, whether during his February 9 testimony or at another time. And there is some overlap.

In particular, Adams wants to legalize basement apartments and Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs), and wants to build 25,000 units of permanent supportive and affordable housing by converting unused hotels and office buildings (though he has insisted that the latter take place only in the outer boroughs). The first would require change in legislation at the state level, and Hochul has announced her support for certain ADU legalization.

Assembly Member Harvey Epstein has co-sponsored a bill to legalize basement apartments while the governor has proposed permitting ADUs in single-family neighborhoods, including an amnesty program for existing ones in New York City. Hotel and office conversions also come with their own challenges including zoning restrictions, building code regulations, and making the financing work. The state set aside $100 million in capital funding for that purpose last year through the Housing Our Neighbors with Dignity Act (HONDA) but the program has gone virtually nowhere.

Adams may weigh in on Hochul's proposal to eliminate the cap on Floor Area Ratio (FAR) in the city, which could help pave the way for more housing development. That idea in the governor's policy book could line up well with Adams' pledge to upzone wealthier areas of the city, especially in Manhattan, to advance more housing development including affordable housing.

Meanwhile, the mayor has been silent about proposed changes to the 421-a housing tax credit, which cost the state $1.73 billion in the previous fiscal year in what is supposed to be a program to include affordable housing in development in more expensive markets but has been criticized as a giveaway to real estate firms.

In her budget proposal, Governor Hochul advanced moderate changes to the credit. “We need to build more rental housing, and without this kind of tool, the housing crisis will only get worse,” an Adams spokesperson said in a statement. “While the administration may suggest tweaks in the future, this proposal is incredibly important, and the Adams administration supports it."

Though Adams has promised to “fight for our NYCHA residents,” he has yet to advance any specific items that he wants from the state or outlined a plan to fill the agency’s $40 billion capital need for maintenance and repairs. Nor has he announced intention to retain or replace NYCHA Chair and CEO Gregory Russ.

Adams’ campaign platform included some proposed measures he will take as mayor including raising $8 billion by selling air rights at NYCHA developments, greater transparency, real-time tracking of building management, and more. He has not yet made any demands of the state but has instead advocated for more federal funding for the struggling agency. Additional state funding for the housing authority, home to roughly 500,000 New Yorkers, could be on Adams’ Albany agenda.

The governor did identify NYCHA as one of her top priorities when she took over after Cuomo’s resignation but her executive budget didn’t include additional NYCHA funding. There is legislation at the state level, introduced by Senator Brian Kavanagh, a Democrat representing parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn, which would create a public housing preservation trust and make procurement easier for the agency, saving billions of dollars on renovations. The de Blasio administration was advocating for the passage of the bill, a task that will now fall to Adams.

Property Tax Reform
Mayor de Blasio repeatedly failed to follow through on his promise to advance reforms to the city’s inequitable property tax system, which requires state legislative action. A commission he convened in 2018 to recommend changes to the system only issued its final report on December 29, 2021, two days before he left office.

Mayor Adams has promised to fix the system, which is largely dictated by complicated and antiquated state law, in his first year. “We must have a fairer system, and I believe it should be done immediately,” he said in an October interview on Bloomberg Television’s Balance of Power. “It is my desire to get this resolved within the first year. Let’s put together a task force that sits down and comes up with real recommendations and solutions.”

At the state level, the governor has proposed several property tax relief measures in her budget, in the form of tax credits for low- and middle-income homeowners and seniors. But she has not advanced a legislative proposal. Adams has yet to reveal what, if any, property tax reform plans with which he will approach the Legislature and Hochul. 

Child Care
During the mayoral race, Adams proposed a new “Ucare” program to provide affordable child care to low-income families with children aged 0 to 3. The plan would involve subsidized space for child care providers through tax incentives, building bonuses to developers who guarantee providers free or low rent space, and the use of city-owned buildings.

Adams has yet to fully explain the cost of the program and how it will be funded except for suggesting that federal funds will be part of the solution. He could benefit from child care funding that is included in President Joe Biden’s $1.75 trillion Build Back Better reconciliation plan, but that has stalled in Congress.

Child care is among the top issues being discussed at all levels of government, with the need for a broader, stronger, and more affordable system made more evident by the pandemic.

At the state level, Democratic Senators Jessica Ramos and Jabari Brisport, both Democrats from the city, have each released proposals to expand access to child care. Ramos’ bill, the Early Learning Child Care Act, would fund a major expansion with a payroll tax on the state’s largest businesses. Brisport, who chairs the Committee on Children and Families, has introduced a far more expansive and expensive bill, the Universal Child Care Act, which would phase in a fully-funded universal child care system for the state.

In her budget, Governor Hochul proposed a more limited expansion of child care including increasing the child care subsidy eligibility from up to 200% of the federal poverty level to up to 300% over three years. Once fully implemented, it will cost more than $535 million each year and will make an additional 400,000 children eligible across the state, her office estimates. She also proposed $125 million in annual funding to maintain child care subsidies when rates increase in 2022 and $75 million for child care worker wages.

Climate
On the campaign trail, Adams released a climate plan for “a greener city” that includes decreasing city agency procurement of meat, investing in green infrastructure and resiliency projects, green jobs training programs, incentivizing community solar energy projects, investing in wind energy, reducing reliance on fossil-fuel powered “peaker plants,” establishing a citywide organics program, encouraging recycling at NYCHA, providing tax credits for energy-efficient community design projects, promoting urban agriculture, investing in green transit options, expediting the electrification of city buses and dedicating 1% of the city budget to the Parks Department.

While the governor’s budget proposal did not include city-specific investments in climate related issues, she did set aside $500 million for offshore wind energy infrastructure, which could work to the city’s benefit. Hochul also announced that she will increase funding for the Clean Water, Clean Air, and Green Jobs Environmental Bond Act to $4 billion, up from $3 billion when it was first proposed by Cuomo. The act, which will encourage the building of green infrastructure, must first be approved by voters via a ballot referendum in November. If it passes, it will also help increase funding for the governor’s Clean Green Schools initiative to improve indoor air quality and reduce emissions in K-12 public schools in disadvantaged communities, a significant number of which are located in the city.

MTA, Transit, and Penn Station
The MTA board is made up of 23 members, including 17 voting members and six rotating non-voting members -- all of which, as well as the Chair and CEO, must be approved by the State Senate after being nominated by various elected executives. The governor names a plurality of members as well as the chair and CEO. The mayor of New York City nominates just four members to the board.

During his campaign, Adams called for five more borough-based appointees to the board, which would give the city a plurality and a much stronger position in comparison to the governor. It’s unclear if he will continue to pursue that proposal, particularly with a partner in the governor who is less likely to squabble over MTA funding as Cuomo constantly did with de Blasio.

There are major transit projects coming down the pike for the city that would require Adams coordinating with the state and are waiting for his full initial reaction, which could come this week. Governor Hochul has proposed a new “Interborough Express” rapid transit project connecting Brooklyn and Queens. The project, through the MTA, would use existing freight rail infrastructure and would connect up to 17 subway lines and the Long Island Rail Road, either by train, light rail, or rapid bus, pending the next phase of the project plan study.

Mayor Adams has welcomed the idea. “The Interborough Express is a creative proposal and a critical step towards our shared goal of providing greater connectivity for New Yorkers living in transit deserts as well as much-needed economic development,” he said in a statement. “By building efficiently on existing infrastructure, we can provide commuting options for hundreds of thousands of potential riders from Middle Village and Midwood and from to Brownsville and Bushwick.”

The governor is also pressing ahead with the redevelopment of Penn Station and the surrounding area, a version of which was first proposed by her predecessor. Hochul presented a modified version of the controversial plan but it continues to face opposition. On January 27, New York City’s City Planning Commission informed the Empire State Development Corporation in a letter that it would withhold support for the new plan citing concerns about the project’s financing and the transit and public improvements it is meant to deliver.

But, Adams’ office at City Hall has expressed support for Hochul’s plan, according to the New York Post, despite concerns from good government groups, local legislators, and others that it is a major giveaway to the developer managing the project.

Criminal Justice Reform
With his laser focus on public safety and policing throughout his campaign and now in his first month in office, Adams has repeatedly said the state needs to reassess a sweeping bail reform law that was passed by the state Legislature in 2019 (and somewhat rolled back the next year). The law eliminated cash bail for a majority of nonviolent offenses and required that judges assess a defendant’s financial circumstances when setting bail.

Adams insists that the law must be amended, including by allowing judges to consider a “dangerousness standard” when deciding whether to set bail or remand a person in custody. He reiterated that when he released his “Blueprint to End Gun Violence” in the wake of a shooting in Harlem that killed two NYPD officers. Adams also pushed for the change to Raise the Age and a reevaluation of reforms to the discovery process that were approved alongside the bail reform, saying the Legislature should do away with disclosure requirements that “jam up the process” and prevent prosecutors from quickly moving ahead with gun charges.

Legislative leaders have already indicated that they do not plan to revisit the bail or Raise the Age laws. “Part of my frustration is that when anything bad that happens, it’s got to be bail reform’s fault,” Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie told reporters in Albany last week. “There’s a whole lot of things going on, and it’s so easy to scapegoat it onto bail.”

He also warned against instating a “dangerousness standard” that could disproportionately harm defendants of color. “I think when you start putting back in people’s personal, judge's personal opinions, personal thoughts, when they look at an entire situation someone may have, you start to come back to possibly having some uneasiness,” Heastie said.

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Westchester Democrat, said similarly on bail law changes early in January: “There is no desire at this point to make any changes.”

Adams has also called on the state to amend the Raise the Age legislation, which was approved in 2017 and increased the age of adult criminal responsibility to 18 years old. Adams himself was a proponent for the bill but is now calling for it to be reassessed.

In releasing his gun violence plan, he claimed the law is being used as a loophole by gang members to avoid prosecution by using 16- and 17-year-olds as scapegoats for gun crimes. “My Administration is not seeking to punish young people – but when it comes to guns, we must make sure there are consequences,” he said.

He suggested, seemingly in violation of people’s fifth amendment right against self-incrimination, that any young person who refuses to disclose where they got a gun should be prosecuted in criminal court rather than family court.

In response to the proposal, Stewart-Cousins told reporters last week, “It’s very easy for us to say, ‘Claw back this, don’t do that.’ But we can’t incarcerate ourselves out of these problems.”

When Gotham Gazette asked the mayor’s office for the data to support Adams’ claims, which the mayor said he would be showing to legislators, a spokesperson acknowledged the request then returned nothing.

Heastie issued a harsh rebuttal statement at the time, saying through a spokesperson, “I appreciate Mayor Adams is addressing the scourge of gun violence that has been plaguing our communities, which has long been my focus, and his recognition of all the factors that are contributing to this epidemic both here in New York and across the country. As the important discussion of public safety continues, one area he can take immediate action is to review and improve pretrial services in the probation department which he oversees. This is critical to ensuring the goals of the Raise the Age initiative are realized.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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