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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."

 

For Council, Another Term Holds Risks and Rewards


Gotham Gazette image by Ya-Hsuan Huang

With his usual candor and humor, Councilmember Simcha Felder attempted to keep order in a crammed City Council chamber on Thursday.

"We're going to run a hearing," declared Felder, chair of the council's Governmental Operations Committee, staring down a crowd of hundreds there to testify on extending the city's two-term limit. "We're not running a show."

Some questioned, however, whether the hearings were just that: the City Council rubber-stamping a proposal that may be predestined for approval, while simultaneously bearing much of the criticism for considering the issue.

No one doubts the power hierarchy in New York City. The mayor, regardless of whether he or she has billions of dollars, is seen as the council's puppeteer, pulling the strings of the speaker and the other 50 City Council members. The mayor is king, said members of the public Thursday -- the council, his pawn.

Now many question whether a revision of the city's two-term cap could upend that. Would giving the council another term boost its leverage with the west end of City Hall or does it, instead, give even greater power to the city's already supremely powerful executive?

The Lap Dog

Standing up as a sponsor of legislation calling for a City Charter revision commission to examine the extension of term limits, Councilmember Letitia James read a letter from one of her constituents on Thursday. "The council is the mayor's lap dog," she recited.

That, most would say, is progress from 1989 when the body was considered "less than a rubber stamp."

Two decades ago, the City Charter was drastically revised in an attempt to change that power structure. The council president position was changed to speaker. The Board of Estimate was dissolved, and the council's power was propped up a rung so it could better challenge the mayor at the top of the ladder.

Since then, City Charter experts say, the council has made serious progress. Though its job is largely oversight, it controls the city's land use process, approves the budget and attempts (emphasis on attempts) to provide checks and balances on the executive branch. The separation of powers may not be perfect, say City Hall observers, but it works far better than it used to.

So how could a revision of term limits change that dynamic?

On one hand, allowing council members to serve three terms instead of two may give its members greater legislative expertise, proponents of the mayor's bill say. The council could take on larger projects, more ambitious proposals and have the time to see them through. With that expertise may come the ability to stand up taller to the mayor.

On the other hand, by acting legislatively on term limits, instead of sending the issue back to the voters, opponents argue, the council could diminish the so-called power it has acquired since the City Charter was revised two decades ago. By reversing two referenda approved by millions of voters in the 1990s, the council would be surrendering to the will of the mayor and simultaneously subverting the will of its own constituencies.

And though two thirds of the council could potentially get a third term, so could Mike Bloomberg, which may not put the council at any advantage.

Representative Democracy

When good government groups and former Public Advocate Mark Green sat in front of the City Council to testify on term limits on Thursday, they railed against the mayor's legislation --- saying sitting elected officials would be acting in their own self interest if they extended the city's cap from eight to twelve years. They called it a power grab and said the people via referendum should decide.

Councilmember Domenic Recchia vehemently disagreed.

Shaking a finger at the former public advocate turned pundit, Recchia scolded the panel: "We all bring choice to the people of the city," he ranted. "We get elected to lead and our constituents want us to lead... This is within our power."

Though his comments were met by boos from the audience, Recchia is not alone in his sentiments. A third of the council has pledged to support the mayor's bill, including Council Speaker Christine Quinn.

After all, extending term limits is within the council's right as superintendents of the City Charter, supporters say. This vote could be the ultimate example of the council flexing its muscles and exercising its power, in effect strengthening its role in the city's legislative process.

"The council should use its muscles," said Mitchell Moss, a professor at New York University, who supports the mayor's legislation. "You should use those muscles or they atrophy."

That right, supporters argue, was enshrined in the 1989 charter revision. Not acting, they say, would be a denial of the council's obligation to correct wrongs in the City Charter.

"I labored for many, many years to make this council free standing from the Board of Estimate," said Eric Lane, a law professor at Hofstra University who helped draft the 1989 charter revision. "And I think your integrity is better served by actually acting on this bill."

Testimony from the administration on Thursday emphasized that the city's government is a representative democracy. The council amends the City Charter regularly, administration officials added, and changing term limits falls well within its power.

"It's our responsibility, I believe, to correct the wrongs in the charter," said Councilmember Helen Sears. "We look at the charter all the time. We are obligated to do that... We have been put here by people who believed in the commitment to government, believed that we could represent them well and believed we could sustain a democratic process by the City Charter."

But opponents of the bill see it as an affront to democracy. Droves of New York City residents turned out last week to blast the administration for trying to change term limits without a referendum. It's the people's choice, not the council's, they say.

"We are a very strong mayoral form of government, and we consider the council as checks and balance," said Gene Russianoff of the New York Public Interest Research Group -- a good government organization that opposes the mayor's bill. "If you take action here, it will be a very big step backward."

The Long Term

Around 9 p.m. on Thursday, City Hall's lights were still on. The chamber was still relatively full, and bloggers were still chaotically searching for the correct spelling of a witness's name. By that time, clapping or any show of emotion was banned in an attempt to speed and control the hearing, then in its eighth hour. The audience waved their fingers when elated.

Emotion, though, still ran rampant.

Audrey Smaltz, 71 and a lifelong New York City resident, said, "Mayor Michael Rubens Bloomberg has been an exceptional mayor, and I have been through a lot of mayors in the city of New York... We're not asking for a lifelong term."

Smaltz then went on to say that Bloomberg, though needed, was not a king.

 

The mayoralty of New York City does not equate to royalty, but it does exude power. Term limits, some say, perpetuates this.

"They hurt our ability to be a substantive check on the mayor, but many of us also have a serious problem with how this is being done," said Councilmember Peter Vallone Jr., who says he is undecided on the bill, but is leaning toward supporting it.

Term limits supposedly weaken the council by empowering bureaucrats or City Hall staffers who -- out of the public spotlight -- can remain in policy positions for decades. Because term limits are not staggered, turnover is widespread in one election cycle, meaning it's the staff leading new blood through the legislative process. That, said former Council Speaker Peter Vallone, Sr., weakens the body institutionally.

"Whether he's a pauper or a billionaire, it makes no difference," said Vallone Sr., who supports the extension. "You have thousands of people working for you (as mayor)," when the council has far less.

Others see benefits to an infusion of new members in City Hall. Many say the council is a more diverse body now than when the city was ruled by the Board of Estimate, and it has gained far more independence -- albeit, some say, not enough -- from the executive. They worry a vote to extend term limits could undermine that.

"What this body was is what it can become again, if this kind of moral corrosion and self interest dominates," said Richard Emery, an election lawyer, on Thursday.

Legislative Term Limits

Throughout the country, many more governments have executive term limits than legislative ones. For example, said Richard Briffault, a professor at Columbia University, 37 states have a limit on how many terms a governor can serve, while 15 have a cap on a legislative branch.

The president has a two-term limit, while members of Congress can serve for life.

"We have to balance the virtues of new blood versus experience," said Briffault at a recent forum. "We also have to think about the balance of power in city government. We ought to think about different terms for different parts of the government."

Policy experts argue limits are important for a powerful executive branch, who may already have a leg up in any legislative fight. But a legislature may be better served sans term limits, so its members can gain the expertise to wage a better battle.

Though it's not on the table now, some would like to see the city look into keeping a cap on the executive but do away with one for members of the council. Allowing council members to become so-called experts could strengthen the body and ensure it's not always subservient to the mayor.

Former council speaker Vallone is one of these proponents, who recently called the current scenario "demeaning" to the city's balance of power.

This Mayor, That Council

Some City Hall observers argue that the City Council's position has been boosted by the leadership of Quinn, who as an ally to Mayor Michael Bloomberg works with the administration often on joint proposals. Others say her relationship has weakened the council; the body no longer flexes its muscles and instead succumbs to the mayor's will.

In Quinn's three years at the head of the chamber, the council's relationship with the mayor has been far more congenial than her predecessors. In her tenure, the council has overridden only seven of the mayor's vetoes -- substantially fewer than under her predecessor, Gifford Miller. This could be a possible a sign of a good working relationship or the body's inability to take a stand.

"There is already an imbalance here," said Councilmember Diana Reyna at a recent forum hosted by the city's good government groups. "He has cornered the legislative branch, which is supposed to balance out government in the municipality." Despite her recognition of Bloomberg's power, Reyna said she supports extending term limits.

Quinn, who did not show up for any of the public hearings last week, insists that the council is independent and not catering to the mayor's will. There are no favors or quid pro quos for backing the extension, she says, even though reports have emerged that she is strong arming her members to side with the mayor.

But how the term limits debate ends, could redefine the relationship between the council and the mayor. If the council defeats the mayor's bill, it would be an unprecedented loss for Bloomberg, but may prove to the public the legislature is willing to stand up to an all-powerful executive.

If it approves the bill, the council may be left as the mayor's marionettes.

 



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