Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/32 Thu, 22 Apr 2021 23:43:01 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) As General Election Approaches, Mixed Results for Efforts to Ensure More Votes Get Counted https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9761-new-york-ensure-more-votes-counted-2020-election-absentee-ballots https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9761-new-york-ensure-more-votes-counted-2020-election-absentee-ballots Myrie Gianaris State Senate voting

State Senators & election officials (photo: Senator Gianaris' office)


After the June primaries, when tens of thousands of absentee ballots were rejected on technical grounds or never cast because they were mailed to voters late or not at all, state lawmakers passed a series of measures aimed at correcting some of those mishaps. But several other bills introduced by legislators and pushed by voting rights advocates that could prevent thousands of ballots from being thrown out are still on the table as the clock ticks toward the general election.

Leading up to the June primary, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a series of executive orders to change the rules around absentee voting in an effort to avoid crowded poll sites during a pandemic. The measures extended absentee voting eligibility to all registered voters, required absentee ballot applications be mailed to voters, and guaranteed postage for mail-in ballots.

The unprecedented leap in absentee voting led to a number of new problems for voters and elections administrators that ultimately disenfranchised voters, often without their knowledge. In New York City, 84,000 mail-in ballots were thrown out, frequently on technicalities like having a missing signature or a partially unsealed envelope. In response, state lawmakers introduced a series of bills to ensure more votes are counted, including several related to notifying voters when their ballots might be thrown out.

Some were passed and signed into law in August, but many others remain unmoved as the state's elections administrators brace themselves for a four-fold increase in voters this fall. The early voting period will run October 24 through November 1; Election Day is November 3. The New York State Board of Elections is anticipating 8 million voters including as many as 5 million mail-in ballots, in a state with 12.9 million registered voters.

Two of the signed bills codify key elements of Cuomo's primary executive order and guarantee another election with a significant portion of the electorate voting by mail. The first expands eligibility to vote absentee to the entire electorate during an epidemic or disease outbreak. The second allows voters to apply for an absentee ballot online through the New York State Board of Elections website. (There has been no legislation or executive order that would require local boards of elections to mail absentee ballot applications to all registered voters, as Cuomo mandated in the primaries.)

Others signed into law aim directly at problems that arose from the deluge of mailed ballots during the primaries.

Thousands of the absentee ballots were rejected in June because they arrived at boards of elections offices without a postmark, a problem that was completely outside voters' hands. A new law now requires election boards to count the ballots if they are time-stamped by the board by the day after Election Day, even if they are missing a postmark from the United State Postal Service (USPS).

Another bill seeks to work around the post office by requiring local boards to establish secure absentee ballot drop boxes. That bill is still in committee, but an executive order signed September 8, requires local boards to have drop boxes at early voting sites, Election Day poll sites, and their offices (in New York City, each borough office will have a drop box).

On the same day, Cuomo announced a campaign to raise awareness about the ways New Yorkers can vote, including early voting, an option watchdogs are saying should be more heavily encouraged to avoid the administrative stresses of absentee voting and long lines on Election Day.

As primary day approached in June, many voters still had not received the absentee ballot they had requested from the New York City Board of Elections (BOE). When he testified before state lawmakers in August, Michael Ryan, the executive director of the city BOE, said the absentee ballot application calendar did not grant enough flexibility in normal years and this year posed "an impossibility." A law signed later that month now allows voters to apply for absentee ballots prior to 30 days before an election, which is already giving local boards more time to process and fulfill requests.

A few days after he signed the August package, Cuomo signed an executive order that, among other things, requires local election boards to submit staffing plans and any staffing needs to the state by September 20, a measure to help ensure administrators can process the higher turnout.

Many of the ballots rejected this summer were tossed out because voters failed to sign their ballot envelopes.

One law signed in August would give absentee voters the opportunity to "cure" certain deficiencies on their ballots that would otherwise have them rejected -- namely lacking a signature, having a signature that doesn't match the one on the registration, or having an unsealed ballot envelope. Under the law, local boards of elections must notify voters within a day of detecting a defect and give them an opportunity to contest the rejection or correct the ballot. It extends the same type of due process right to absentee voters that in-person voters have when they sign an affidavit ballot at a poll site. A federal judge in Texas recently ruled a similar practice of rejecting ballots due to mismatched signatures there was unconstitutional.

Cuomo's August order requires the State Board of Elections to design a single "clarified envelope" for all local boards to use, which includes a large red 'X' where a signature is required.

Senator Zellnor Myrie, a Brooklyn Democrat, is chair of the Senate's elections committee and sponsor of several of the bills that passed, including the curing bill.

"Taking away someone's vote for a missing signature or an unsealed envelope really is the embodiment of disenfranchisement," Myrie said by phone Thursday.

"It's not the sexiest legislative highlight and victory but it really was, I believe, one of the most important election law bills we've passed both this year and last year, because of the implications of people knowing and having the opportunity to have their votes count," he said.

"Given the newness of the [mass absentee voting] experience, legislation that allows voters the opportunity to fix unintended, minor and often technical mistakes, is the right way to go," wrote Blair Horner, executive director of New York Public Interest Group (NYPIRG), the good government organization, in an email. "Far too many ballots were tossed in the June primary over ridiculously technical challenges."

But several other common mistakes are addressed in legislation that has yet to pass, but could lead to thousands more ballots being counted, their sponsors say.

One bill would extend the same notice and opportunity to cure ballots when they are received partially opened, or closed with glue, tape, or another re-sealing agent. In these cases, the legislation would give recourse to voters to attest that they sent their ballot in the condition it was received in. The bill is still in committee.

A second bill would require absentee ballots to be counted as long as the voter's intent is "unambiguous," even if there are other markings on the ballot.

"It is so easy with a marker to make a mark. What if it's food? I mean, everybody is doing absentee ballots at home, right?" said Assemblymember Amy Paulin, a Westchester Democrat who sponsors the two bills along with Myrie, in a phone interview.

"You don't want any stray marks of any sort when the intent of the voter is clear to eliminate the vote from being counted. And right now it can be challenged," she said.

Myrie and Paulin are not sure whether their bills will pass in time to impact the general election and it is unclear whether the two chambers of the State Legislature will meet in session to pass any legislation before voters go to the polls (or the mailbox).

"We have no idea whether we're going back to session prior to the election," Paulin told Gotham Gazette. "Certainly if we are I'm going to be pushing [the bills] and if we're not then they're still worth doing."

Lawmakers will have to act especially quickly if they are going to pass another proposal that would make it easier to register to vote in time to enfranchise more eligible New Yorkers by this fall’s vote, which includes the presidential election, among many others for Congress, the State Legislature, and more. The bill, which would create online voter registration in New York City through the city's Campaign Finance Board, has passed in the Senate but not the Assembly.

The online registration bill has passed in the Senate but not the Assembly, while automatic voter registration has passed both houses but has not been sent to the governor (or been requested by him) for signing.

"I can't say with certainty when we'll meet again but I do know that if it's the case that we have to move swiftly -- and this is to help safeguard our democracy, particularly in light of the rhetoric that is coming out of the federal administration -- I think that the [Senate] majority has shown that we're ready to take those steps and I expect that we will do the same in this instance," Myrie said.

There isn't much time before the October 9 deadline to register to vote in the general election.

Voting advocates and some lawmakers also want to see the state pay for postage on absentee ballots, as it did during the primaries, but the proposal appears unlikely to move without another round of federal stimulus funding. Between federal and state allocations, New York's elections administrators had an additional $24 million to run elections this year, which has largely dried up, according to State Board of Elections officials. About 40 percent of the 1.8 million voters in the primaries across the state cast an absentee ballot. With 8 million voters expected in the general election, the proposal would likely require the state to pay postage on millions of envelopes.

In response to inquiries about whether the governor planned to issue more executive orders to provide for postage, curing certain ballot errors, and other measures proposed by legislators and advocates, Freeman Klopott, a spokesperson for the state Division of the Budget, wrote, "The State is providing unprecedented access to the ballot box and just last week the Governor announced a public service campaign to raise awareness that voters now have three options to cast their ballot: early voting, voting absentee, or voting in person on Election Day." He added that the executive order establishing absentee drop boxes has the effect of "negating the need to mail a ballot at all."

"The boards of elections have millions of dollars available to them from previously provided funding from the State and Federal governments and they should make use of those resources as the State is contending with a $62 billion revenue drop over four years," he added.

"In the absence of Federal funding to offset this revenue loss, the State, which funds schools, hospitals, and public safety, will have to make spending reductions, and anywhere we don’t reduce spending will mean deeper reductions elsewhere," he wrote. "This is another reason the Federal government must step up and provide States with necessary resources."

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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As General Election Approaches, Mixed Results for Efforts to Ensure More Votes Get Counted Thu, 17 Sep 2020 04:00:00 +0000
An Old, Unfair System: New York City’s Property Tax Conundrum - Part I - Taking on the Difficult Task https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8712-an-old-unfair-system-new-york-city-s-property-tax-conundrum-part-i https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8712-an-old-unfair-system-new-york-city-s-property-tax-conundrum-part-i mayor deblasio clears

Mayor de Blasio shovels snow outside one of his two Brooklyn houses (photo: Rob Bennett/Mayor's Office)


This is part one of a three-part series. Skip to part two - Deep and Complex Inequities - here.

In May 2018, after years of criticism that New York City’s property tax system lacks equity, Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson announced they would empanel a commission of “blue chip” experts to explore the issue. Its tasks are to examine everything from the way different property values are assessed to relief for vulnerable homeowners, solicit input from the public and specialists, and make recommendations for reform.

Because of the laws and practices governing New York property taxes, the recommendations will inevitably include some changes that can be enacted by the city and others that would require action in Albany, both of which would upset a longstanding and largely unchallenged system. Even coming up with recommendations has proven fraught.

The commission was tasked with an important constraint: make recommendations to overhaul a complicated, decades-old tax system without changing the city’s bottom line -- in other words, to make sure that a new property tax system would continue to provide city government with its single largest revenue stream, good for roughly $27.8 billion last fiscal year.

More than a year later, with the 2019 legislative session in Albany well over, the panel has conducted ten public hearings and meetings but has produced no report nor indicated what consensus is emerging on a path forward. Asked about it repeatedly, de Blasio, who was criticized for punting on the issue until his second and final term, has said he expects recommendations by the end of this year.

The property tax system impacts homeowners and renters, landlords and developers -- virtually every one of the city’s 8.5 million residents. Problems with the system are myriad in New York, where real estate dominates and nearly a third of the city’s annual revenue comes from real property levies.

Critics have contended that the property tax system is overly complex and opaque, that property assessments are not reflective of true market values, and that classifications and caps aimed at mitigating rapid property tax increases contribute to disproportionate tax burdens across many populations.

Twelve months before the commission was announced, a coalition led by a former city finance commissioner filed a lawsuit alleging the Byzantine tax structure creates vast inequities and that those disparities are felt most severely by low-income New Yorkers and people of color.

One of the central problems is the vast under-assessment of many owner-occupied cooperatives and condominiums, which have experienced sweeping growth in property values over the past two decades, but are taxed instead based not on their sales value but on the much lower income they would likely make if they were rentals. Homeowners, in general, pay a lower effective tax rate (taxes as a percent of sales prices) than commercial and residential rental property owners, according to the Citizens Budget Commission, a fiscal watchdog.

Another problem is the labyrinth of abatements, rebates, caps, and phase-ins that obscure the causes of rising property taxes, making them hard for residents to trace and understand.

As property values ratchet up in gentrifying neighborhoods, so do the taxes assessed on them, which can put a strain on lower-, middle-, and fixed-income homeowners struggling to keep up with bills and maintenance fees. At the same time, homeowners in places with slower real estate market growth, like Staten Island and the Bronx, see their taxes rise higher relative to home sales prices because of caps that keep tax hikes low when the housing market unexpectedly leaps.

The symptoms of unequal assessment and taxation land harder on different populations of New Yorkers. The coalition behind the lawsuit says these factors lead to higher tax assessments in communities of color than in majority-white neighborhoods. Others over the years have asserted that when landlords’ tax burdens increase, they may be passed on to tenants in the form of higher rent, especially in large apartment buildings with sizable black and Latino populations, critics say.

The most expensive home sold in United States history is a Midtown Manhattan condo that went for $238 million earlier this year to Ken Griffin, the hedge fund manager ranked the 45th richest American by Forbes. Griffin pays taxes on a property valuation of just $9.4 million, or .22 percent of the sales price, according to the Wall Street Journal. By contrast, the owner of a two-family home in the northeast Bronx that sold for $439,000 in the most recent fiscal year pays 1.16 percent of the price tag in property taxes, according to an Independent Budget Office analysis provided to Gotham Gazette.

Yet the owners of both these types of homes -- owned by some of the wealthiest New Yorkers, as well as lower- and middle-income residents -- often say they feel pressure from rising property taxes year after year and are seeking relief. One of the barriers to property tax reform is that virtually all homeowners, whether they are likely under-assessed or not, believe they are getting squeezed by property taxes, which for small homes rose an average of 7.7 percent annually between 2001 and 2017, according to a Citizens Budget Commission analysis. (New York City has been repeatedly exempted from a state cap of 2 percent on annual property tax growth that applies everywhere else.)

There is broad agreement that the New York City property tax system produces inequality, that it hurts a wide range of communities from senior homeowners to renters of color to (some) outer-borough residents. Democrats, Republicans, and others across the political spectrum have called for change. But while the debate over the city’s property taxes crosses partisan lines, efforts to make an unequal system more equal means upsetting some stakeholders.

The complexities in the system have cut out a difficult task for members of the commission launched by de Blasio and Johnson, commissioners who were originally given only a year to produce results. But, as with other attempts to rethink the city’s relationship to its most essential resources, the task of unpacking the property tax system reveals a tangle of practical and political factors that have led to the status quo and make change so challenging.

Hope quickly faded that the commission would put forth recommendations to be taken up before the June end of this year’s state legislative session. During a May interview, Marc V. Shaw, one of two commission co-chairs, told Gotham Gazette that for lawmakers to deal with complicated concepts at the end of the legislative session, “there just would not be time...even if we were prepared. But we haven’t reached the point of making even the recommendations. We’re still sort of in an analysis phase.”

A Difficult Task
“I think all of us that have been working on the commission, knew from the beginning that that was a time schedule that was going to be pretty...difficult to attain...so from our perspective we’re looking at trying to put together a series of recommendations to be available for discussion and debate in the next legislative session,” Shaw said in May. Legislators will return to Albany in January, but the mayor and City Council can evaluate the commission’s work throughout the rest of this year, pending a report.

Shaw, a former first deputy mayor under Michael Bloomberg, is the interim chief operating officer for CUNY. He has been the Advisory Commission’s single (co-)chair since its other, Vicki Been, stepped down when she was appointed Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development in April. The body is made up of fiscal policy experts, business leaders, and city planning specialists, almost all of whom have served in city government in the past.

Spokespeople for both the mayor and City Council told Gotham Gazette the Advisory Commission is now planning to release a preliminary report in the coming months and hold another round of public hearings in the fall to solicit feedback. In a July 19 WNYC radio interview, Mayor de Blasio said the commission would produce a final report by the end of the calendar year, in time to be taken up in the next state legislative session.

City Council Member Keith Powers, a Democrat who represents a Manhattan district with a mix of property, is concerned the timeline doesn’t allow for much flexibility to work in Albany’s tight calendar. The timeline “puts you rolling right into January’s legislative session,” and just before state budget negotiations begin, he told Gotham Gazette. “You just may lose a little steam if you don’t have a bill early next year, and you know agencies miss deadlines all the time.”

In the meantime, the Legislature is waiting to hear from the commission. “It just kept coming up where we may be modifying some bills, or not doing some bills, because of the commission and not knowing what their positions are going to be,” Sandy Galef, chair of the Assembly’s real property tax committee, told Gotham Gazette at the end of May. “So yes, I would say it’s holding back some ideas.”

It appears important that the city has its ducks in a row before the January to June state session begins, giving a report and decisions by the mayor and Council enough time to work their way through Albany’s political corridors. Complicating matters further is the fact that 2020 is an election year for the entire state Legislature. Albany lawmakers sometimes try to get around dealing with especially thorny issues in conspicuous ways by packing them into state budget bills, which are due by the April 1 start of the new fiscal year.

Many of the reforms will focus on the state Real Property Tax Law, which sets standards for property tax assessment, among other things, and will require the state Legislature and governor to act. Once the commission produces its final report and city leaders make their opinions known, proposals will have to be negotiated in Albany, which in the past has proven fatal to serious property tax reform.

“We’re involved but at this point I view it as local home rule,” Galef said in May before the legislative session ended. Much if not all of what the city will ask of the state will come through the City Council, even if some of it is through non-binding measures.

Some tax programs were set to expire this year, like tax relief for property owners who install green roofs, which the Legislature extended and the governor signed notwithstanding the city property tax commission’s progress. “Even if the commission does the report at the end of the year, by the time they get authority from the state, there may be a lot of time in between,” Galef said.

That prospect does not sit well with Powers. “I think that any commission or body that’s working on this needs to understand that there are real people who are waiting for this relief,” he said, noting he has heard from constituents who are anticipating the commission’s recommendations.

The Status Quo
The complexities the commission is now grappling with are the result of a system with antique origins, one which has not been comprehensively updated and seldom reviewed over the past four decades. New York State’s current property tax apparatus is the outcome of a judicial ruling that shook up the prior system in the mid-1970s, and subsequent legislative action that mostly put it back into place in the early ‘80s.

In 1975, the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest tribunal, sided in favor of Jerome Hellerstein, an Upper West Side lawyer representing his wife, Pauline, who had sued the Town of Islip for assessing the property value of the family’s Fire Island vacation home -- and every other property on its roll -- at only a fraction of its market value, in violation of state statute (and, apparently, in their own interests). The law, at the time section 306 of the Real Property Tax Law, stated, “All real property in each assessing unit shall be assessed at the full value thereof.”

hellerstein fire island houseThe Hellerstein Fire Island home (image courtesy of Walter Hellerstein)

For nearly 200 years prior, however, property taxes for homeowners in New York State were assessed on only a fraction of the “full value,” based on what assessors “deemed proper,” “not ‘according to their best information and belief, of its value,’ ‘but according to the usual way of assessing,’” an 1852 Court of Appeals decision reads. The decision, in 1852, noted, “the usual method is to estimate property at less than half its value.”

The discretion given to assessors meant commercial and apartment building owners in 1975 paid taxes on a much larger fraction of the market value of their property than homeowners. According to an account published by the city’s Independent Budget Office, reports at the time of the Hellerstein court decision found even the tax burden from similar homes in different neighborhoods could vary, with homeowners in New York City’s lower-income communities paying more than homeowners in more affluent ones.

The Hellerstein decision upended centuries of property tax assessment practices and sent New York’s political world into a spin. For six years, officials in Albany battled over the implications of the decision with some, like Democratic Assembly Speaker Stanley Fink, arguing for the fractional assessment practice to be codified into law, fearing the effects homeowners would feel if their property taxes were to rise rapidly.

There was panic that “fiscal chaos” would ensue if wholesale changes were made to the way the properties of people and businesses were assessed across the board, according to Judge Solomon Wachtler who wrote the majority opinion in the Hellerstein case. A report from the New York Times during that period quotes Edwin Margolis, counsel to the Assembly majority, saying, “The goal is not to shift the burden from residential to industrial or commercial, but simply to keep the status quo.”

The Legislature achieved that goal in 1981 after overriding a veto by Governor Hugh Carey, a Democrat. Instead of meaningfully changing assessment practices, the new legislation removed the “full value” language from the law and established a system in New York City that separated properties into four different categories, each to be taxed on a different portion of the full market value, mirroring the de facto practices assessors had been using all along.

The system placed one- to three-family homes into Class 1; apartment buildings, co-ops, and condos into Class 2; utilities into Class 3; and commercial properties into Class 4.

“The law was set up in such a way that each class of property would continue to pay roughly the same share of the levy” as they did at the time the law was passed, according to Ana Champeny, a property tax expert at the Citizens Budget Commission.

This “is the property tax system that we essentially currently operate under,” said Shaw, the commission chair. “That just gives you a sense that it’s always been a complicated system from the beginning.”

Before the 1981 law codified the current system, a number of other proposals had been floated and a bipartisan commission was even set up, the Temporary State Commission on the Real Property Tax, to review the state’s practices. That commission suggested that as an alternative to moving toward assessment by class, the state could mitigate the shift in tax burden from businesses to homeowners by implementing homeowner assistance programs.

But the political might of homeowners won out over the interests of commercial property owners, as well as over the will of the governor and a sizable minority in the Assembly. As part of the 1981 legislation, lawmakers enacted caps on the amount assessments could increase annually and over a five-year period, further protecting homeowners against rapid rises in property taxes in the event they be more accurately assessed going forward.

The resulting system, in a nutshell, is one where one- to three-family homes, which are more often occupied by their owner, are assessed based on the comparable sales prices of the property, while commercial and rental properties are assessed based on the income those businesses could generate.

One catch to this, which has been a recurring sticking point in perennial calls for property tax equity, is that co-ops and condos like Griffin’s are assessed on the income that would be made if they were rental apartments, rather than the sales prices of owner-occupied homes most observers say they more closely resemble. Another has been the caps on how much the assessed value of a home can increase, which more recently has led to owners of homes in booming neighborhoods paying relatively low property taxes compared to other homeowners in more economically stagnant parts of the city.

“What we’re facing is looking at how to do a reset of the property tax, given all of those problems, to make it a fairer system now,” said Shaw.

This is part one of a three-part series on the property tax system in New York City and potential for changes to it that may be on the horizon. Read part two - Deep and Complex Inequities - here.

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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An Old, Unfair System: New York City’s Property Tax Conundrum - Part I - Taking on the Difficult Task Wed, 31 Jul 2019 04:00:00 +0000
New York May Soon Reverse 1992 Ban on Having Children Through Surrogacy https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8464-new-york-could-reverse-ban-having-children-surrogacy https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8464-new-york-could-reverse-ban-having-children-surrogacy andrew cuomo gov photos albany

Sen. Hoylman, middle, with his husband & daughter, & Gov. Cuomo, right  (photo: governor's office)


When Marisa Horowitz-Jaffe and her husband, Doug Jaffe, wanted to have a baby, they faced numerous obstacles before the birth of their twins via a surrogate in a Dallas hospital eight years ago.

Their twins were born in a Texas hospital because the couple was forced to travel out of state in order to use a surrogate. New York is one of only two states in the country to criminalize surrogacy, a fact Horowitz-Jaffe was unaware of when her fertility issues began.

“Finding out surrogacy was illegal where I live, I was like, ‘What?’ It was like New York state giving me a middle finger,” she said. Paying for airfare, hotels, and other incidentals on top of fertility treatments, as well as the logistics of shipping temperature-controlled medications and transporting their premature twins back to New York added to an already stressful experience, she said.

The couple was not able to conceive a baby through intercourse. Determined to have a child, Horowitz-Jaffe went through rounds of in vitro fertilization (IVF) and embryonic transfers, including using egg donors. She went through multiple failed procedures and a miscarriage of a 20-week-old fetus before she and her husband made the decision to use a surrogate through an agency, which matched them with a woman in Texas.

Five years later, with 12 total rounds of IVF, and $250,000 spent out of pocket, Horowitz-Jaffe and her husband finally had not one child, but two. It would have been far easier, she said, if their surrogate had lived in the next town over, instead of thousands of miles away.

Now, a four-year-old bill in Albany could soon become law and prevent New Yorkers from having a similar ordeal. The bill would not only legalize surrogacy but add protections for surrogates, including health insurance provided by the intended parents. Called the Child-Parent Security Act and sponsored by Senator Brad Hoylman, a Manhattan Democrat, and Assemblymember Amy Paulin, a Democrat from White Plains, the bill aims to repeal the state’s 1992 ban on surrogacy, which specifically prohibits parents from hiring or compensating a person for carrying a child to term for them.

Bans in New York and elsewhere, many since reversed, came soon after a famous 1980s case. In 1985, Mary Beth Whitehead of New Jersey agreed to be a surrogate for a male-female couple and do so using her own egg, as the wife in the couple was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Whitehead was paid $10,000 for her role in the pregnancy, but after the birth decided to keep the baby and return the money. Conflict ensued, turning the incident into the famous ‘Baby M’ case, in which New Jersey’s Supreme Court ruled that paying women to bear children was illegal. Since then, surrogacies across the country have been gestational, meaning both a donor egg and donor sperm were used.

Marc Solomon, an LGBT activist who spent 15 years working on marriage equality, is overseeing a campaign in support of the Child-Parent Security Act through the Family Equality Council, a nonprofit organization.

Solomon mentioned ways in which lesbian parents or single women are not protected under current New York law, such as non-biological parents having to go through a costly adoption process to be legal parents of their children. Single women, according to Solomon, have no legal recourse if they have a child with a known (non-anonymous) sperm donor, as the donor could sue for custody of the child. Both of these scenarios would be avoided with the passage of the bill.

If the bill passes, it would allow non-biological parents to go through the court to get a certificate stating their legal parentage of a child carried by a surrogate. “[The bill] would put New York in the caliber of states that it’s usually associated with, like California, Washington state, Connecticut, other progressive states where surrogacy is allowed under certain circumstances, where everyone is protected,” said Solomon.

The bill was originally introduced in 2015 and, according to Paulin, could not pass the state Senate due to the Republican majority, which acted as a counterweight and oppositional force to the Assembly Democratic majority for most of the past several decades, until this year. Senate Minority Leader John Flanagan’s office did not respond to multiple inquiries for comment for this story. With the Senate now controlled by Democrats after last year’s elections and Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo showing support for the bill in his 2019 state of the state policy book, the chances of it passing are greatly improved as the spring legislative session moves ahead.

“It’s never had as much traction as it’s had this year,” said Paulin.

With a new state budget in place as of April 1, the legislative session will now deal with a variety of other policy matters until its scheduled conclusion in mid-June. It’s unclear which of a long list of issues – including surrogacy legalization, rent regulation reform, marijuana legalization, and more – will find resolution.

An attempt to pass the Child-Parent Security Act was made earlier in the year with its inclusion in Cuomo’s 2019-2020 budget proposal. It was ultimately excluded from the budget deal that emerged among Cuomo and the legislative majorities. Hoylman, whose two children were carried by a surrogate in California, said changes had been made to the bill’s text and there was not enough time in the budget process to address them before it was voted upon.

Those changes, according to Hoylman, include ensuring surrogates have legal counsel and health insurance provided by the intended parents and were implemented following some opposition from advocacy groups. Cuomo’s policy statement also stipulates surrogates be allowed to make their own health care decisions, which would include their right to an abortion. Surrogates and intended parents would enter into a legal contract, ensuring what the governor’s policy proposal called “fully-informed consent.”

“The Governor believes New York surrogacy laws are antiquated and discriminatory against same-sex couples and couples struggling with fertility,” a Cuomo spokesperson said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “That’s why he proposed righting this wrong by creating a new and long-overdue path for these New Yorkers to have children that provides legal protections for the parents-to-be and the women who choose to become surrogates. We look forward to working with the Legislature to address this issue."

“Overall, we need to make certain that wellbeing of surrogates and donors is the centerpiece of any legislation,” said Hoylman. A revision of the bill is expected to be made available in the next week or two. Both Hoylman and Paulin said they expect the legislation to be voted on this spring.

Even if the legislation becomes law, the surrogacy process itself will remain expensive, as it is not covered by health insurance. To Solomon, that’s an additional reason to legalize surrogacy in New York. “The expense of having to go in and out of state, and have a surrogate fly in and go to doctor’s appointments, and go to the delivery and travel back, adds thousands of dollars to the process,” he said. “If you’re concerned about making the opportunity of having a child available to people of lower means, it’s a case for legalizing and having surrogacy in New York.”

Horowitz-Jaffe hopes the bill will pass sooner rather than later, so other families do not experience what she went through to have her twins. “I don’t know why [politicians] have to make things harder. Going through infertility itself sucks,” she said. “And when they throw this on top of it? It doesn’t have to be this way.”

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New York May Soon Reverse 1992 Ban on Having Children Through Surrogacy Mon, 22 Apr 2019 04:00:00 +0000
New York Democrats on Eliminating Cash Bail: Not If, But How https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8245-new-york-democrats-on-eliminating-cash-bail-not-when-but-how https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8245-new-york-democrats-on-eliminating-cash-bail-not-when-but-how gov cuomo provide update clinton

(photo: the governor's office)


Taking the stage at the Global Citizen Festival in Central Park last September, Governor Andrew Cuomo promised to end cash bail “once and for all,” a move that would launch New York into the national spotlight with New Jersey and California. “In America you are still innocent until proven guilty,” he told the cheering crowd. “And that’s whether you’re black or white. That’s whether you’re rich or poor.”

The elimination of the cash bail system, under which poor black and Hispanic New Yorkers are disproportionately incarcerated pre-trial, does seem imminent thanks to a new Democratic majority in the state Senate. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, whose chamber last year passed legislation that only limited cash bail, assured faith leaders at Trinity Chapel in Manhattan on Thursday that, “I support a 100-percent-ending-of-cash-bail system.”

But big questions remain: who will be eligible for pretrial incarceration, what constraints will be put on judges, the reach of controversial ankle bracelets.

Cuomo’s recently-released budget proposal calls for more extensive pretrial detention and monitoring than an advocate-backed bill in the Legislature, and several Democrats told Gotham Gazette they want broad judicial discretion on domestic violence cases: a red flag for advocates who see a window for bias. As Democrats use their new power to rapidly pass progressive legislation, bail reform, in all its complexity, could prove a test of how far they’ll go.

“We have to remember there's a presumption of innocence,” warns Democratic Assemblymember Dan Quart of Manhattan. “The point of bail is not to judge or adjudicate people.”

The New York City jail population has decreased by 1,500 over the last two years, according to a December report from the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice. Still, as of September more than a third of the 8,200 people in city jails were held pre-trial on misdemeanors or nonviolent felonies. More than 90 percent of the jail population is people of color. The commission, led by former chief judge Jonathan Lippman, estimates substantial bail reform could reduce the population by 3,000 people.

Deputy Senate Leader Michael Gianaris of Queens likes to remind reporters that the FREEnewyork campaign, composed of more than 150 grassroots groups, has dubbed his bail reform bill with Manhattan Assemblymember Danny O’Donnell the “gold standard.” It eliminates cash bail and was a non-starter in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Under the Gianaris/O’Donnell bill, most defendants would be released on their own recognizance. Possible exceptions include witness intimidation cases, and felony cases where the defendant is accused of attempting to seriously injure another person.

Anyone eligible for pretrial incarceration would be entitled to a hearing where a judge evaluates evidence and considers less-restrictive alternatives, like mandatory check-ins. These hearings would mark a “huge step forward,” says JoAnne Page, president of the Fortune Society, a nonprofit that provides prison reentry services. Currently, setting bail is “a decision that happens in a heartbeat.”

Cuomo’s budget proposal also eliminates cash bail and mandates pretrial hearings. However, his net of eligibility for pretrial detention is much wider, including Class A felonies like murder, conspiracy, and controlled substance charges; most violent B and C felonies like rape, assault and weapon possession (burglary and robbery are excluded); and cases where the judge deems the defendant a threat to the physical safety of someone in their family or household, regardless of the severity of the charges.

Alphonso David, Cuomo’s counsel, told Gotham Gazette that the governor intentionally excluded controversial public safety assessment tools (which Mayor Bill de Blasio has endorsed). These tools rely on data points like a defendant’s age and criminal history, and have been met with allegations of racial bias in New Jersey and California.

But if decarceration is the goal, advocates warn, the net of eligibility for pretrial incarceration must be much smaller -- lest judges balk at losing cash bail and fall back on detention.

“Unfortunately, the same decision-makers who are deciding to set bail on our clients now are going to be the ones who decide whether or not, after an evidentiary hearing, to keep that person remanded,” says Legal Aid Society attorney Marie Ndiaye. “The only thing you can do to really, really decarcerate is just by really, really limiting the number of people who could even be eligible for that kind of treatment."

Cuomo also wants electronic monitoring as an option for people charged with felonies and domestic violence misdemeanors. “When you have something like electronic monitoring there’s a very real risk that it means the expansion of social control,” warns Page, of the Fortune Society. “The threshold you pass before you put an electronic bracelet on someone is much lower than locking them up.”

Last year, the Assembly passed a proposal that would have preserved cash bail and electronic monitoring in felony and domestic violence misdemeanor cases -- a broad category that includes verbal threats. “I'll be the first one to say the Assembly bill wasn't good enough,” Heastie told advocates Thursday.

O’Donnell also dismissed the Walker bill as a relic earlier this month. “In previous years the Assembly would come up with bills we thought might pass muster in the Republican Senate,” he explained. “Those days are over. I would hope that my colleagues would come around and take this bolder approach.”

But there is still substantial Democratic support in the Assembly for the domestic violence provisions in the Walker bill. “There are going to be enough Democrats, me among them, who will be raising the issue,” said Assemblymember Amy Paulin of Scarsdale. “If we don't protect domestic violence [victims], I won't be voting for the bill.”

“Whether it's cash bail or pretrial detention I'm not worried about that,” added Assemblymember Patricia Fahy of Albany. “My interest is the bottom line…that we are not tying any judicial hands in keeping our streets safe, or our households safe.”

This is a point of entry for the state District Attorneys Association, which opposes expansive bail reform on the grounds that it curtails prosecutorial discretion. “We have serious concerns about, with the swipe of a pen, creating a proposal that has calamitous effects on public safety,” Albany County District Attorney David Soares told Gotham Gazette.

Domestic violence advocates in the FREEnewyork campaign say this logic is at odds with the ultimate goal of significantly decreasing jail populations, and relies too heavily on the perceptions of law enforcement. “Particularly for LGBTQ people,” cautions Audacia Ray of the New York City Anti-Violence project, “the way police and prosecutors perceive what is happening is often faulty and racist.”

Senate and Assembly leaders tell Gotham Gazette that they hope to come up with a compromise before budget negotiations, which are set to begin in earnest in March. A budget deal is due April 1. “The old ways of Albany involved trading one thing against an unrelated thing,” Gianaris said. “The new New York Senate is trying hard to break that mold.”

“The tricky thing with bail,” he added, “is that if we don’t do it right, things can get worse rather than better.”

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by Emma Whitford, Gotham Gazette
@emma_a_whitford

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New York Democrats on Eliminating Cash Bail: Not If, But How Thu, 31 Jan 2019 05:00:00 +0000
For Second Time, Legislature Sends FOIL Penalty Bill to Cuomo https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/6982-for-second-time-legislature-sends-foil-penalty-bill-to-cuomo https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/6982-for-second-time-legislature-sends-foil-penalty-bill-to-cuomo bill signing Cuomo

(photo: Philip Kamrass/Governor's Office)


A bill that would greatly strengthen New York’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL), already vetoed once by Governor Andrew Cuomo, has again passed both houses of the Legislature -- with some minor adjustments.

The bipartisan legislation, which passed the Assembly in May and the Senate on Monday, mandates that city or state agencies be liable for court costs incurred by any individual who submits a FOIL request, is wrongfully denied documents, and then prevails in a lawsuit. Currently, the public officers law states that a court “may” award legal fees -- leaving the decision up to a judge -- rather than “shall,” a word change that would effectively penalize state agencies that willfully disregard disclosure law.

The governor’s office did not provide indication which way Cuomo is leaning this time.

The Freedom of Information Law allows everyday citizens, journalists, advocates, and others to seek and obtain information, like documents and communications, from government entities. The scope of the law is fairly wide, though there are significant exceptions, including for the deliberative process and much of what the state Legislature does.

Nearly identical legislation passed the Legislature in 2015, but Cuomo vetoed it, along with another FOIL-related bill, at the eleventh hour and with some harsh words. In his 2015 veto letter, Cuomo wrote that the bill “would allow attorneys’ fees to be assessed against a state agency, even if the state agency ultimately prevails.”

In the same letter, Cuomo, who regularly rails against the Legislature’s FOIL exemption, suggested that tightened FOIL requirements should also apply to the legislative branch. The governor is known for communicating himself in ways that are not FOIL-able -- for example, he is known not to use email.

Based on feedback from Cuomo’s office and recommendations from the Committee on Open Government, which helped craft the bill, the legislation has been amended to create a two-tier system. The first tier relates to situations where the complainant in the FOIL lawsuit was victorious because the agency failed to respond to a request or appeal, in which case the court would still have discretionary authority to award attorneys’ fees. The “second tier” mandates the award of attorney fees when a party denied access to records “has substantially prevailed” and the court finds that “the agency had no reasonable basis for denying access.”

“We think [the two-tier system] address the veto messages that we had prior and conversations we’ve had with the governor’s office,” said Assemblymember Amy Paulin, a Democrat from Scarsdale who authored the bill and sponsored it in the Assembly, in an interview with Gotham Gazette. “So we are very confident that it will be a law this year and it will give everyone the opportunity to to file a complaint when there’s been a violation.”

This legislation, which has the backing of the newspaper industry and has been the subject of numerous editorials, would have immense implications for news outlets, good government groups, think tanks, and other organizations focused on transparency.

Reinvent Albany and the New York Civil Liberties Union also worked closely with Paulin and Senator Patrick Gallivan, the Senate sponsor, to fine tune the language, and hailed the legislation as an important step.

“We think this bill is a very big deal and, if the governor signs this, it will be the most important transparency legislation to pass in quite awhile,” John Kaehny, executive director of ReInvent Albany, told Gotham Gazette.

Kaehny noted than many are dissuaded from bringing FOIL lawsuits, even when they are confident they were wrongfully denied, because they fear being stuck with the legal bill. “How many people or groups can afford to ‘win’ a FOIL lawsuit when winning gets them a government document and a bill for $10,000 or $50,000 in attorneys' fees?” he asked rhetorically.

Other states -- including California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, and New Jersey -- already have such laws granting legal fee reimbursement to those who file FOIL requests and are wrongly denied.

A spokesperson for the governor’s office said the bill is “under review.”

Gallivan and Paulin said they were hopeful that Cuomo would sign this version of the bill. “If the governor cares about transparency, he should sign it,” said Gallivan.

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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For Second Time, Legislature Sends FOIL Penalty Bill to Cuomo Thu, 08 Jun 2017 04:00:00 +0000