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Term Limits Extension Gets Final Signature


Scores of New York City residents filed into the mayor's side of City Hall -- a rare space for such a public spectacle -- for the city's final hearing on term limits Monday morning.

Despite the relentless opposition and at times piercing criticism, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, as expected, signed a term-limits extension into law just before 2 p.m., effectively allowing dozens of term-limited officials, including himself, to seek another four years in office.

"I feel like this time the public should have a choice," the mayor said, arguing that allowing officials to seek another term would boost democracy and broaden ballot choices. "I am going to sign the bill and the public will have a choice."

Monday's bill signing finalizes the 29 to 22 vote by the City Council last month approving the term-limits extension.

The legislation, which takes effect immediately, turns next year's citywide election on its head, sparking an immediate revision of the city's campaign finance regulations. Dozens of candidates, many of whom thought they would have competitive races for open seats, must now weigh whether they want to challenge eight-year incumbents.

Contribution limits are set depending upon the office being sought. Because, potentially, dozens of candidates could decide to seek re-election instead of higher office, the city's Campaign Finance Board issued an advisory opinion Monday on how to address the different types of expenditures and contributions without harshly penalizing one candidate or another.

The advisory opinion would allow candidates to freeze their current accounts if they had been seeking higher office, saving the "war chest" for another race. Or, the board's chairman the Rev. Joseph P. Parkes said, if he or she wants to continue using the funds, he or she could return contributions that exceed the spending limits.

"In the final analysis, what we have attempted to do is to provide guidance to affected candidates in a timely way, based on these objectives: to make it practical for candidates to join the campaign finance program, to treat both incumbents and potential challengers fairly, and to encourage competitive races for all offices covered by the program," said the chairman in a prepared statement.

What's Next

The term limits battle is far from over, though. Immediately after the mayor signed the bill, council members Letitia James and Bill de Blasio, along with mayoral candidates Rep. Anthony Weiner and Comptroller William Thompson Jr., vowed to fight the action in court. Several lawsuits have already been filed.

"If democracy was on life support after the City Council hearing, it was killed today," said Thompson.

Monday's public hearing was a condensed rerun of about 20 hours of testimony in front of the City Council last month. Some of the same characters appeared and testimony was still divided -- about half of the 137 speakers supported the mayor's bill, an administration spokesman said.

Members of the public entered the Blue Room -- the mayor's press briefing area -- and spilled over into the building's vast rotunda starting around 9 a.m. One at a time, they stood in front of a gargantuan portrait of Alexander Hamilton, chiming in about democracy and oligarchy, tyranny and justice.

Groups were led into the small and packed room five at a time. Because of the tight quarters (the Blue Room is traditionally where bill signings are held), speakers could not stay inside to hear other testimony. That was also a point of criticism.

"This is the least public public hearing I've ever been to," said Henry Stern, a former parks commissioner.

Sitting behind a freshly polished wooden table, the mayor, accompanied by a half dozen of his male City Council colleagues, listened to four and half hours of testimony on term limits. Rarely did Bloomberg crack a smile, but instead appeared stone-faced and impenetrable.

That did not discourage some speakers from emotional outbursts. One called the mayor "public enemy number one" and others said the legislation was merely a power grab.

"You've behaved in ways that would make Boss Tweed blush with embarrassment," sad Gene Russianoff of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

Many of the opponents said extending term limits legislatively undermines the will of the people who twice voted in the 1990s to keep term limits at two. They called for a public referendum.

A statement released by the administration after the hearing argued there would be no time for a special election, because it would need to be certified by the U.S. Department of Justice. They also said it would be tied up in court as candidates were seeking petitions to run for office in 2009, creating uncertainty and confusion.

Members of police, fire and public employees unions came out in force to support the mayor, arguing his expertise is needed during the city's uncertain fiscal future.

"I don't see this as a self-serving bill," said Gary La Barbera, president of the New York City Central Labor Council. "I believe we are in unprecedented economic times."

While this is far from the end of the term limits debate, Monday's hearing came with a sense of finality for the bill's supporters, maybe even for the mayor.

"Everyone, thank you for your patience," the mayor said after signing the bill and while exiting the room. "And make sure you vote tomorrow."

City Council Approves Term Limits Extension


 

In its most divisive vote in recent memory, the City Council approved an extension of term limits clearing the way for two-thirds of its members, four borough presidents, the comptroller, public advocate and Mayor Michael Bloomberg to run for a third term.

Thursday afternoon’s vote reverses two referenda approved in the 1990s, but, supporters argue, is a necessary response to the fiscal crisis gripping the city and the nation. The decision also drastically changes the circumstances of next year's city elections, which would have seen a large turnover in City Hall.

(For a discussion of what the vote and the extension of term limits could mean for City Council, see Gotham Gazette's For Council, Another Term Holds Risks and Rewards.)

The bill ( Intro 845) was approved by a vote of 29 to 22.

Some of the bill's fiercest opponents, including council members Letitia James and Bill de Blasio, have pledged to fight the term limits extension in court. A suit, which names the entire City Council and the mayor as defendants, was filed in Manhattan federal court less than two hours after the council adjourned its meeting.

For three weeks, City Hall has been consumed by the term-limits debate -- a discussion that has centered more on democratic principles and process than whether or not city officials should be allowed to serve eight or 12 years.

Before the council voted Thursday afternoon, Council Speaker Christine Quinn made an approximately five-minute appeal for her members to support the mayor's bill -- introduced only two weeks ago. "My colleagues," she said, "I come to the floor on this day with mixed emotions, because this is a difficult vote, but this is a difficult vote in difficult times." She continued: "In times like these, voters should have the choice."

Prior to the approval of the mayor’s proposal, the council defeated an amendment that would have required the voters to approve any term limits extension before the legislation could take effect. It was defeated by a vote of 28 to 22 with one abstention. Two members who spearheaded and voted for the amendment -– David Yassky and Alan Gerson -– reversed their position and voted for the mayor’s bill after.

For a full breakdown of who voted how, click here.

Rush to Judgement?

Three weeks ago, Bloomberg, portraying himself as the person best able to lead the city in tough economic times, said voters needed to have the opportunity to return him to office for another term -- regardless of term limts. He alleged, though many disagreed, that there was not enough time to put the issue to the voters before the 2009 campaign. He wanted the City Council to extend the limit.

Following his announcement, opponents of an extension criticized the council and the mayor for speeding through the legislation and not taking the time to hold hearings in every borough. Last week, the council held two days -- encompassing 20 hours -- of hearings at City Hall.

Some opponents also attacked an agreement between the mayor and Ronald Lauder, the billionaire who spearheaded the campaign to establish term limits in the city. Under the deal, Lauder would support an extension of term limits for now and the mayor would establish a charter review commission in 2010, after the mayoral election, to look into term limits -- and name Lauder to it. That commission could potentially send the issue back to the voters then.

The Council's Debate

Those who voted in favor of the mayor's bill hinged their support for a term limits extension enacted through legislation -- without voter approval -- on the economic turbulence shaking Wall Street and on the concept that term limits are "anti-democratic." They argued the city needs stability, and allowing Bloomberg and others a chance at a third term merely provides constituents with another choice. An extension, they say, does not guarantee reelection.

"Today, the majority of the City Council decided to give the people of New York a fuller choice in the November 2009 election," read a statement from Bloomberg after the council vote. "I believe that was the right choice, and I want to thank Speaker Quinn for her leadership. Those of us who work on both sides of City Hall must now move forward with the important decisions that face us, particularly finding ways to soften the fallout from the economic downturn and balancing our budget as revenues decline."

Opponents, though, said acting against the will of the voters from the council floor is a run around democracy. Pointing to the chamber's ceiling where quotes from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Addressare etched in an elaborate fresco, Councilmember Vincent Ignizio said, "Bring the people in, open up the doors to government and truly be the reformers that is this body. ... If you make that compelling case to your constituents they will reward you. Do not reward yourselves."

Thursday's vote was not without passion, politics and posturing. The chamber was packed with constituents, some of whom stood for two hours holding signs above their heads with pleas for or against an extension. Members recited quotes from presidents, newspaper editorials and the mayor himself. They gave two-minute monologues, the majority of which were against the mayor's proposal.

"A voter referendum -- approximately $15 million," said Councilmember Rosie Mendez. "A legislative vote -- several hours at a New York City Council hearing. Democracy," she said, then paused. "Priceless. Do not put a price on democracy."

Along with passion, came humor.

“Unfortunately here,” quipped Councilmember Gale Brewer during the council’s roll call at the start of the meeting. The chamber erupted with laughter.

Others spewed disappointment and anger. At the meeting's close, jeers from the chamber's balcony called the speaker a sellout, saying the council should be ashamed of itself. Both members of the public and the legislative body said this would not be the end of the term-limits debate.

"The mayor is the big loser," said Councilmember Charles Barron, following the vote. "He lost democracy. He lost the people."

Three Weeks in October

Gotham Gazette's coverage of the term limits debate:

For Council, Another Term Holds Risks and Rewards: Would voting to extend term limits enhance the City Council's power -- or reinforce its image as a band of marionettes?

Make That Three: Bloomberg's Reelection Bid: If Bloomberg manages to win re-election, what could he do about the economy anyway?

Comparing Proposals on Term Limits: A guide to the competing measures proposed in City Council.

Term Limits as a Voting Rights Issue: Where civil rights and civil liberties organizations stand.

Third Term's The Charm: The debate takes shape. How the mayor and the City Council could change the term limits law.

Musical Chairs: Shuffling Seats in City Government: The situation before the mayor and City Council changed their minds.

For commentary and breaking news on term limits, see our blog, The Wonkster. For links to reporting on the issue from other New York press, see City Hall Links in the News.

 

The Candidates' Prescriptions


Do you want a $2,500 check or the insurance plan your representative in Congress has?

Do you want a national health registry for choosing insurance or the ability to purchase a cheaper insurance plan out of Honolulu that would protect your Midtown lifestyle?

These are questions undecided voters from Kew Gardens to Rochester are asking, as both Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain have pledged to offer affordable, more comprehensive health care to the country's 46 million uninsured.

But each of the plans comes with different costs for the Empire State.

Experts say Obama's proposal coincides with the policies of the Paterson administration. It would, in effect, ease the tax burden on New Yorkers who pay for the state's expansive, and expensive, Medicaid and children's health insurance programs. McCain's plan would represent a fundamental shift in how New Yorkers receive care, but many New York health policy experts say it would offer few benefits to most state residents.

The Plans In Context

When the candidates debated in Long Island on Oct. 15 they again outlined their approaches.

Obama wants to expand the country's children's health insurance program and Medicaid. For people who do not get insurance from their employer, he plans to set up a federal health registry that would allow anyone to purchase subsidized medical insurance that rivals the benefits that members of Congress receive. An attempt at universal health care, the plan would require all businesses -- except "small businesses," a term he has not yet defined -- to either offer insurance or help out with the cost.

McCain would do away with the current tax exemption for employer-provided health insurance and hand out tax credits of $2,500 for individuals and $5,000 for families. Those credits would be used to purchase individual insurance plans, and any extra would go into a health savings account. The tax credits would go to the insurer, so any benefits someone receives would consequently be subject to income taxes -- it would be like those tax credits had been tacked onto your salary. McCain would then deregulate the industry to allow people to purchase insurance in other states. For example, a New Yorker could sidestep our high cost of insurance and purchase a cheaper plan in, say, Alaska. McCain's plan relies on the free market to balance quality care.

But how will each of them work out here? For one, the state is home to a large number of immigrants, who have been left out of both plans entirely.

In 2007, 13 percent of the state's population was uninsured. Some estimate we have the highest cost of health care in the country. Nearly half of New York's 2.5 million uninsured have a household income of less than $40,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. About 11 million people in New York received insurance from their employer in 2007, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Shrinking Care and Adding Cost

Taxing individual and family health care plans, as McCain suggests, has never been done before.

"McCain's plan is odd," said Jonathan Engel, a professor of public policy and associate dean at Baruch College. "I have seen a lot of health reform plans over the years and most of them have something going for them." This one, said Engel, doesn't have much. "It's a huge tax increase on the middle class," he said.

New York's health care policy experts agree that McCain's plan would not do that much for the Big Apple. Sherry Glied, a professor at Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health, said McCain's proposal to deregulate the insurance industry and allow individuals to buy policies in other states could help young, healthy people. They can afford to get cheaper care and less coverage. The state's older, sicker population, though, could end up suffering, she said.

"If you're young and healthy, it's a good thing," said Glied. "The old and sick -- any other state would rate them according to their health status, and we don't allow them to do that."

In 1992, then Gov. Mario Cuomo signed legislation aimed at removing stigmas and discrimination in the state's insurance industry. He established a community health rating system, which pooled the risks of an entire area. It raised rates for younger people, but kept rates for older individuals reasonable.

If individuals could purchase policies out of state, Glied said, the state would probably have to do away with that rating system, effectively raising rates for people who are more of a risk to insure, like those with chronic illnesses.

"It's junk bonds in terms of health insurance," said Darryl Ng, director of government affairs for the Community Health Care Association of New York. "You lose a lot of hard-fought consumer protection."

Other experts question whether small businesses, which currently offer their employees insurance, would drop their plans if the employees were taxed. Some groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have expressed fear such a change might encourage younger, healthier workers to drop their employee insurance plans, driving up the cost of the overall plan for those that remain. Under the McCain plan, said Paul Howard of the Manhattan Institute's Center for Medical Progress, larger companies would likely still provide employees with insurance plans, but small businesses might not. Howard, who favors the McCain plan, said free market principles would dictate the insurance market and eventually lower the cost of insurance for everyone.

"The employer-provider health insurance system right now is under stress," said Howard. "Both the McCain and the Obama plans are actually going to wind up pushing more people into different types of coverage."

Whether the McCain tax credits will be able to cover the cost of insurance in New York is also unclear. Howard S. Berliner, chair and professor of health policy and management at SUNY Downstate Medical Center, estimates the cost of an individual insurance plan in New York is $6,000 and between $12,000 and $13,000 for a family. McCain's credits, he said, do not come close to covering that cost.

Expanding Government

Obama's plan calls for a nationwide expansion of Medicaid and the country's state children's health insurance program, otherwise known as SCHIP and Child Health Plus here in New York, meaning that the federal government would pick up costs now borne by the state. New York has the second largest Medicaid system in the country.

"SCHIP is something that New York is paying for," said Ng. "We are paying for that out of our New York City taxes. Obama's plan would set the national standard. That would be a great resource we would get the feds to pay for."

Earlier this year, the state approved an expansion of the children's health insurance program to cover families with incomes up to 400 percent of the poverty line. Throughout the last several months, Albany has clashed with the Bush administration over covering families with that much income -- about $83,000 for a family of four.

Obama's plan includes that expansion and would then subsidize the state's program with federal tax dollars.

"Obama's plan is a plan that is using a lot of building boxes to expand coverage," said Glied. "It would be comparable to things that are already happening in the state."

The second element of his plan, said health care experts, would set up a national health care bank for purchasing insurance.

Next Steps

When health care reform was thrust to the center stage in this year's presidential election, no one anticipated the turmoil on Wall Street and the type of recession economists now predict.

That said, most health care policy experts say any real reform will likely be shelved for the time being. The next four years will not be about reform, but about keeping us afloat.

"With the wide ranging deficits in the next couple years, it's going to be very difficult," said Howard. "State reform will be delayed and (so will) congressional universal health care reform under the next president -- either McCain or Obama."

 



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