Gotham Gazette

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New York City Voters to Weigh Racial Justice and Environmental Bond Proposals on Fall Ballot

Voting (Photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's office)

This fall, New York City voters will have the chance to weigh in on four ballot questions that could add new racial justice measures to the City Charter and enable major investments in climate action.

In addition to the general election contests for Congress, Governor, and the State Legislature, the fall ballot will include three proposed amendments to the City Charter drafted last year by former Mayor Bill de Blasio's Racial Justice Commission, and a $4.2 billion Clean Water, Clean Air, and Green Jobs Environmental Bond Act passed by the state Legislature earlier this year.

The Charter amendments would enshrine principles of equality in the preamble to the City Charter; establish a Racial Equity Office, guided by a commission and responsible for establishing citywide racial justice plans; and create a measure of the "true cost of living" to inform the allocation of government resources.

“Taken together, the three ballot proposals would deliver bold, broad changes to the City Charter that are actionable and aspire to a shared vision of equity and inclusiveness that New Yorkers have for their city,” said Jennifer Jones Austin, chair of theRacial Justice Commission and CEO and executive director of the FPWA, a large social services provider, in an August 25 statement.

The Environmental Bond Act was first proposed by former Governor Andrew Cuomo and increased by $1 billion by Governor Kathy Hochul, who secured its passage in the state budget this year. It would allow the state to borrow $4.2 billion for climate change mitigation, flood resiliency, land conservation, and water infrastructure. Environmentalists consider the investment critical to meeting the state's landmark climate goals, which lawmakers set under the 2019 Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. That law requires the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2030 and 85% by 2050; it also requires 70% of New York's electricity to come from renewable sources by 2030 and 100% by 2040.

"The Environmental Bond Act is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for our state to protect clean water, cut pollution, and create thousands of green jobs," said Julie Tighe, President of the New York League of Conservation Voters, in a statement urging voters to approve the referendum.

"The Bond Act will help upgrade and improve clean water infrastructure, clean our air, and protect New Yorkers from devastating heat and flooding while ensuring our most vulnerable frontline communities aren’t left behind," she said.

Turnout in the city is expected to be low this November. There are few competitive general election contests across the five boroughs, where Democrats enjoy a major voter enrollment advantage. Ballot referenda usually pass under these conditions with notable exceptions: last year a slate of marquee election reforms died after a concerted Republican opposition campaign and little effort from Democrats who took their passage for granted in the off-year election. Another proposal, also backed by Democrats, to refine the state's redistricting process also failed.

While the racial justice questions are a legacy of the de Blasio administration, Mayor Eric Adams has put support behind their passage, granting $5 million to the Racial Justice Commission for community engagement and advertising. "Equity and justice go hand in hand and are key to building a prosperous city that serves all New Yorkers. And while our city has come a long way, we have more work to do,” Adams said in a statement in May, after announcing the $5 million allocation. “I am proud to support the Racial Justice Commission’s efforts to ensure New Yorkers can fully participate in our democracy with full transparency. These three ballot initiatives intend to place racial equity at the heart of New York City government.”

The city Campaign Finance Board is also publicizing the choices in its Voter Guide, which is sent to each voter, and promoted with a $1 million advertising budget. Members of the public can submit statements in support or against any of the proposals by September 7 to be published in the guide.

“These proposals are intended to fundamentally change the way City government runs by writing equitable principles into the City’s constitution,” said Henry Garrido, vice-chair of the Racial Justice Commission and executive director of DC 37 and AFSCME, in a statement accompanying the mayor's in May. “Collectively, the commission worked to put these proposals on the ballot with the aim to improve the lives of New Yorkers. I encourage every New Yorker to learn how these proposals could impact their lives and make their decision about each one at the polls.”

The push to educate voters on the Environmental Bond Act, which would help the city reach its own climate goals, is more diffuse. While Hochul has called for its passage in the face of opposition from her Republican challenger, U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin, it is unclear what if anything the state is doing to inform New Yorkers about the ballot question.

“I'm hopeful that we pass a $4.2 billion bond act in the fall, which will give us more money to respond to the effects of climate," Hochul said at a recent storm preparedness briefing on Long Island. "Because as I've said many times, we're the first generation to truly feel the effects of climate change. And we are the last generation to do anything about it.”

A spokesperson for the governor referred questions about public education to her campaign. A campaign rep, speaking anonymously because they were not directly involved in the planning, said the campaign was coordinating with outside groups to promote the referendum but was waiting for party officials to approve a policy agenda next month before messaging directly.

The Environmental Bond Act would allow the State Comptroller to sell bonds for a range of climate and infrastructure projects. The act would allocate $4.2 billion in total, including $1.5 billion for climate change mitigation like electrifying school buses, $1.1 billion for flood mitigation, and $650 million each for open space conservation and water quality improvements. Another $300 million is not specifically earmarked. A third of the total spending must go to communities disproportionately impacted by climate change and environmental factors.

“A clean healthy environment is essential for people to thrive. Protecting our environment insures our quality of life,” said Assemblymember Steve Englebright, a Long Island Democrat and chair of the environmental conservation committee, in a statement after the passage of the budget. “The provisions in this budget will help ensure and safeguard that New Yorkers have access to clean air, clean water, open green space and a healthful environment.

The Mayor's Office of Climate and Environmental Justice plans to conduct voter outreach around the bond act closer to the election, an administration spokesperson told Gotham Gazette on Monday. The city's Civic Engagement Commission, whose responsibility is to promote democratic participation, did not provide details on its public education campaign.

"The Civic Engagement Commission (CEC) will be working to get out the vote and educate New Yorkers about what they can expect to see on the ballot in November," wrote spokesperson Stathi Patseas in an email to Gotham Gazette. "As with every election, the CEC will be coordinating with stakeholders citywide to ensure all New Yorkers are empowered with the relevant information needed to make their voices heard at the voting booth."

De Blasio established the Racial Justice Commission in 2021 after widespread protests against police brutality and systemic racism the year before, promising a comprehensive analysis of New York's race relations and recommendations to ameliorate long standing injustice. Despite being billed as a national first-of-its-kind undertaking, modeled on South Africa's post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the commission was set up like a typical charter revision commission and ultimately focused on a set of narrow proposals rather than historical reckoning or reconciliation for aggrieved groups. As a charter revision commission, the Racial Justice Commission had the power, following a series of public hearings and expert panels, to propose amendments to the City Charter on which voters will soon have the final say.

The first proposed Charter amendment would add to the preamble the affirmation that the government should aspire to correct "past and continuing harms and to reconstruct, revise, and reimagine our foundations, structures, institutions, and laws to promote justice and equity for all New Yorkers." It also recognizes the atrocities of American Slavery and the displacement of indigenous peoples, and the ongoing marginalization of several groups. The preamble is a nonbinding set of values intended to guide government actions.

The second proposed amendment would establish a new city agency, called the Racial Equity Office, responsible for encouraging equity in government decision making, budgeting, and long term planning. The office, run by a Chief Equity Officer, would be responsible for overseeing two-year agency equity plans and coordinating them into a citywide equity plan to set goals for the equitable allocation of city resources. The office would be guided by a Racial Equity Commission, appointed by the mayor and other authorities, which would track agency compliance and receive complaints about failures.

The third proposed amendment is intended to create a more accurate measure of the city's cost of living to supplement the antiquated federal poverty measure and the city's current metric, which fails to account for public assistance. Measuring the cost of living, which includes housing, food, healthcare, childcare, transportation, and other expenses, helps determine eligibility for myriad public benefits but the federal methodology has not been updated in decades and critics say it does not account for New York City's particularly high cost of living. The city has its own poverty measurement, but it counts public assistance as income, which can bely an individual or family's true financial outlook. The amendment would require the city to calculate the "true cost of living" with these problems in mind and disaggregate that by household size. The city would be required to publish the calculation annually. The amendment does not require the city to reset eligibility standards for specific services based on the new metric. The Racial Justice Commission's final report called measuring the true cost of living "a necessary first step towards economic justice."

Some of the Racial Justice Commission's $5 million allocation for public outreach and media has been contracted. A spokesperson would not say how much had been spent so far because the overall spending plan had not been finalized. The spokesperson said all "contracting actions" have been initiated but wouldn't clarify whether the total funding had been committed or distributed. They did confirm that all of the contracts so far have gone to minority- or women-owned businesses. Within that spending, the Racial Justice Commission has awarded funds to 37 community-based organizations for outreach.

The Environmental Bond Act would allow the State Comptroller to sell bonds for a range of climate and infrastructure projects. First proposed by Governor Andrew Cuomo in 2019, who pulled it from the ballot amid the 2020 economic crisis, Hochul revived and expanded the measure this year. The act would allocate $4.2 billion in total, including $1.5 billion for climate change mitigation like electrifying school buses, $1.1 billion for flood mitigation, and $650 million each for open space conservation and water quality improvements. Another $300 million is not specifically earmarked. A third of the total spending must go to communities disproportionately impacted by climate change and environmental factors.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

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