Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/33 Wed, 16 Oct 2019 11:57:55 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) State Campaign Financing Commission Holds First Public Meeting https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8752-state-campaign-financing-commission-holds-first-public-hearing https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8752-state-campaign-financing-commission-holds-first-public-hearing govcuomo justice

The State Capitol (photo: Mike Groll/Governor's Office)


The New York State Public Campaign Financing Commission, tasked with devising a voluntary system of public funding for state elections, held its first meeting Wednesday at the CUNY Graduate Center in Manhattan. The commission has inspired a measure of optimism among government reformers that it will limit the influence of money in state elections and reduce pay-to-play politics that have long defined state government.

The commission, which was named in July, was created in this year’s state budget as a compromise between legislative leaders and Governor Andrew Cuomo when they could not come to an agreement on the specifics of a public campaign finance system for state elections. Seven of the commission’s nine members were appointed by Cuomo, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, all Democrats, with each selecting two commissioners and jointly appointing another. Republican minority leaders, Senator John Flanagan and Assembly Member Brian Kolb, each had one appointment.

The goal of the commission is to reduce the sway of large-dollar political donors in elections by incentivizing candidates to seek smaller contributions that can be matched with public funds. It would be modelled after the program administered in New York City’s municipal elections by the Campaign Finance Board, which matches small dollar contributions at a 6-to-1 or 8-to-1 ratio depending on what restrictions candidates opt to operate under.

The state commission is charged with developing a plan to distribute up to $100 million in public funding annually to candidates running for legislative and statewide office. In order to participate in the program, candidates will have to adhere to spending limits, lower contribution limits, and stricter disclosure requirements.

The commission’s mandate also includes examining the state’s fusion voting system, which allows candidates to run on ballot lines for multiple parties at the same time. The system gives third parties such as the Working Families Party and Conservative Party a measure of influence in state elections as candidates seek their endorsement and ballot line. In order to maintain their place on the ballot for four years, the parties must receive at least 50,000 votes in a gubernatorial election, which would be threatened if the state commission moved to end fusion voting.

“I hope and expect...that they deal with public campaign finance where small dollars will be matched at least 6-to-1...and I’m hoping that they do not try to get rid of fusion voting,” Senator Robert Jackson, a Manhattan Democrat, told Gotham Gazette at the meeting. “The bottom line is if...smaller parties are out, then you’re dealing with two parties -- and that’s not democracy,” he added.

The purpose of Wednesday’s meeting, where many of the commissioners met for the first time, was to establish procedures for the work that lies ahead. “The first thing we have to do...is organize ourselves and lay a framework for what the commission is going to do and how it is going to do it,” said Commissioner Jay Jacobs, a Cuomo appointee and the chair of the state Democratic Party.

The commission will hold five sessions to solicit input from members of the public, with the fifth meeting reserved for testimony from invited experts. Its final report is due December 1 and will become binding if legislators do not return from break to modify it within 20 days.

At the outset of the meeting John Nonna, the Westchester County Attorney appointed to the commission by Stewart-Cousins, asked whether the commission had the authority to lower contribution limits for candidates who opt out of a public matching program, “because there’s a relationship there that needs to be taken into account.”

“That’s one of the issues that we’ll have to discuss and see where we go on that. I think that’s an issue before us,” replied Henry Berger, a well-known election lawyer appointed to the commission jointly by Cuomo, Stewart-Cousins, and Heastie.

Another issue raised by commissioners was whether the final plan had to be approved in a single vote of the commission at the end of it’s roughly three-month timeline. Jacobs, who submitted a resolution that aspects of the ultimate proposal cannot be separated into multiple votes, explained his reasoning: “The idea being that this is a package and we have to all agree on the components of the package and we can’t pick it apart à la carte.”

“We’re going to vote on it as a single piece of legislation, and that piece of legislation will probably include a severability clause, they usually do,” Berger later added.

The two commissioners appointed by Republican leaders -- David Previtte, selected by Senator Flanagan, and Kimberly Galvin, chosen by Assembly Member Kolb -- voted against the resolution, which carried.

“I voted against the resolution because I had never seen the resolution,” Galvin told Gotham Gazette after the meeting. “I think it’s unfortunate that at an organizational meeting, one of the commissioners would pull out a resolution and expect an immediate vote when we hadn’t seen it, reviewed it, discussed it or talked about it.”

With the commission also looking at the issue of fusion voting, third parties say they are being targeted by Cuomo. Both the WFP and the Conservative Party, along with a handful of state legislators, have filed lawsuits challenging the commission’s authority to change or even eliminate fusion voting, saying the appointed commission cannot change statutes that have been upheld by the courts. Advocates saw Jacobs’s resolution to package the final proposal as a way to bind the issue of fusion voting with the prospect of a public campaign finance system.

“It's a transparent effort to tie public financing and ending fusion voting together. This is Cuomo's poison pill to eliminate fusion voting,” said WFP executive director Bill Lipton, in a statement addressing the resolution.

The WFP has a sour history with Cuomo. The party backed actor and education activist Cynthia Nixon in her primary challenge against the governor last year and supported progressive state Senate candidates challenging members of the erstwhile Independent Democratic Conference. The now-defunct IDC was a group of eight breakaway Democratic state senators who shared power with Republicans and whose then-leader Senator Jeff Klein was a Cuomo ally, allowing the governor to hold sway in a divided Albany.

During the budget session, Cuomo, who repeatedly said he supported creating a public matching system, raised what fusion voting proponents called unfounded concerns about how a public financing system could be administered, and the effects of independent expenditures and fusion voting on the proposed system. “Cuomo has put fusion in the cross-hairs to attack us. Fortunately, the State Constitution protects this important right,” Lipton said

At the meeting, the commissioners also touched on the need to consider the administrative costs of implementing a state public matching system and methods for receiving and considering public testimony, including public hearing procedures and electronic submissions. In a closed executive session, which came at the end of the hour-long meeting, Galvin said the commission considered the issue of staffing, or a lack thereof. “[W]e just all talked about it and tried to figure out some way to [staff the commission], and I don’t think that’s been resolved yet,” Galvin told Gotham Gazette.

For years, advocates have sought a state-level public financing program. Fair Elections for New York, a coalition of labor unions, good government organizations, and community groups, which led the push for public campaign financing during the legislative session and budget negotiations, rallied outside the building prior to the meeting to push for what they hope to see the commission accomplish.

“We are...committed to expanding the democratic process in this state to make sure that big money donors, that corporate dollars, that real estate do not suffocate our democracy,” said Jawanza Williams of Vocal-NY, a multi-issue community organizing group and member of the Fair Elections coalition.

The coalition called for the commission to create a 6-to-1 matching program for both primary and general elections. The group says the high matching ratio must be accompanied by lower contribution limits for both participating and nonparticipating candidates in order to incentivize small-dollar fundraising and participation in the program. The group would also like to see the commission set up an independent enforcement unit separate from the State Board of Elections, whose commissioners are selected by party leaders and which has been criticized for lacking independence.

On Tuesday, Reinvent Albany, a good government watchdog and member of Fair Elections, issued a list of 18 recommendations for the commission, which include establishing clear and granular expenditure guidelines, and lower contribution limits for party committees and entities with business interests before the state.

The overriding goal of reformers is to limit opportunities for pay-to-play politics, which has only worsened in the decade since the Citizens United decision, where the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that political contributions are a form of constitutionally protected speech. New York State also had lax campaign finance laws until they were amended earlier this year, and has seen years of unending corruption scandals with lawmakers regularly going to prison.

“We’re here today to let the Commission and the leaders who appointed them know that New Yorkers are paying attention and expect them to craft a model for the nation to lessen the influence of big money and give power back to constituents,” said Laura Friedenbach, deputy campaign manager for the Fair Elections coalition, in a statement.

The Public Campaign Finance Commission will hold four public hearings throughout the state during September and October. The fifth meeting for invited experts has yet to be scheduled.

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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State Campaign Financing Commission Holds First Public Meeting Wed, 21 Aug 2019 04:00:00 +0000
In End-of-Session Scorecard, Progressive Coalition Grades State Legislature on First Year of New Democratic Power https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8655-scorecard-progressive-coalition-grades-state-legislature-on-first-year-of-new-democratic-power https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8655-scorecard-progressive-coalition-grades-state-legislature-on-first-year-of-new-democratic-power gov cuomo protecting

Heastie, Stewart-Cousins, Cuomo, Hochul (photo: Mike Groll/Governor's Office)


Following a historically productive legislative session in Albany, a broad coalition of progressive advocates has scored the performance of state lawmakers on a range of topics, pointing to major victories and unfinished tasks for reformers as political dust continues to settle from last year’s elections and this year’s governing.

True Blue NY, a grassroots coalition formed to oust rogue Democratic state senators who shared power with Republicans, released its “People’s Platform” in January, seizing on the electoral momentum that brought sweeping changes to the upper legislative chamber’s power structure and created one-party control in Albany.

The coalition, made up of dozens of new constituent-engagement and traditional advocacy organizations, was created to support challengers to members of the state Senate’s Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) -- a group of eight break-away senators who formed a power-sharing deal with Republicans, giving them control of the chamber for several years and ensuring a divided Legislature, with Democrats holding a wide majority in the Assembly.

Six of the eight IDC senators were defeated in last year’s Democratic primaries. Then, in November, major grassroots efforts and a huge jump in voter turnout -- seen, in part, as a reaction to the first two years of the Trump presidency -- saw a number of Democratic wins to flip Republican seats, handing the Democrats a solid majority in the Senate under Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins.

As the calendar turned to 2019 and the legislative year in Albany was set to begin, the attention turned to governance, and following through on campaign promises.

“The People’s Platform came together with a sense of the notion that if we stuck together, if we brought the same galvanized energy to the legislative work, we’d be way more successful,” said coalition member Ricky Silver, co-lead organizer with Empire State Indivisible, in an interview. “Even though we had a Dem majority, no one thought it would be easy.”

With Democrats holding both houses of the state Legislature and the Executive Chamber, this year’s session was an opportunity for Democrats to achieve some of the long-sought legislation that had been blocked or backlogged under the Republican-led Senate over the past decade. On issues ranging from civil rights and climate change to gun control and election reform, grassroots activists and reform-minded elected officials pushed an aggressive agenda and achieved many policy goals that catch-up to or go further than other states.

But in certain critical areas, True Blue NY’s post-session scorecard identifies what the coalition views alternately as shortcomings and complete failures in the end-of-session outcomes.

The People’s Platform scorecard, set to be released widely on Tuesday, rates the state Senate and Assembly individually in 13 distinct issue categories. The group plans to release another scorecard of Governor Andrew Cuomo after he takes action on the legislation that has passed both houses.

The activists and organizers in the coalition see the scorecard as a measure of accountability, and the basis for both celebration and top agenda items for next year.

The highest grades (A) were for advancing legislation that protects some of New York’s most underserved populations: immigrants, transgender and gender-nonconforming people, and survivors of child sex abuse.

The scorecard also shows favorable performances on items like voting reform (A-/B+), gun safety (A-), housing (B), and reproductive and sexual health (B). Of the 13 issue categories outlined by True Blue NY, the Assembly and Senate each scored As or Bs in eight, and Ds and one F in the other five (the Assembly got an F on tax reform for not introducing two tax credit bills that the Senate did).

“Working with a Democratic Senate Majority for the first time in ten years, we were finally able to deliver the progressive legislation we have championed for years,” the Assembly majority, led by Speaker Carl Heastie, said in a celebratory statement released on Monday, another in several efforts to sum up the massive amount of legislation passed this year. “Looking back on all we’ve accomplished this year, New Yorkers have a lot to be proud of.”

Both chambers earned A grades for promoting civil and human rights and protections for immigrants. For the civil and human rights rating, True Blue NY cites the passage of the Gender Expression Non-discrimination Act (GENDA), extending the statute of limitations to bring charges under the Child Victims Act, and a ban on “conversion therapy” to try changing the sexual orientation of minors. All three measures had long been sought by LGBTQ or children’s rights advocates, and all three passed during the first month of the legislative session under the new cohort of Democratic lawmakers.

For immigrant protections, the coalition weighed the passage of the controversial Driver's License Access and Privacy Act, known as the “Green Light bill,” which allows undocumented immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses. Supporters say the measure will allow immigrants, many of whom are already driving, to obtain licenses legally, bolstering regulatory effects, creating safer traffic conditions, and bringing in revenue. The bill was one of the last to pass the Legislature, hitting roadblocks in the final days of session and requiring concerted pressure from supporters.

In other categories, the True Blue NY grades are more middling, like on efforts to improve criminal justice, promote reproductive and sexual health, and advance comprehensive environmental protections. In these cases, the coalition identified some positive results accompanied by notable shortcomings.

The Legislature passed reforms to the cash bail and speedy trial systems, but failed to act on calls to end solitary confinement and fell short of securing many of the restorative elements that advocates sought in the push to legalize recreational marijuana. 

“When it comes to redirecting revenue or investment to communities most impacted by the drug war, climate change, and housing instability, they came woefully short,” reads a statement attached to the True Blue NY scorecard.

Legalization of adult-use marijuana failed to pass, largely due to opposition from suburban and upstate Democrats in the state Senate, some of whom represent newly-taken swing districts and feared swinging the pendulum to far to the left. A bill to decriminalize marijuana was passed at the end of June with some elements of what reformers desired, but not nearly all of it.

In a statement on the bill, Stewart-Cousins said, “This legislation is marking a momentous first step in addressing the racial disparities caused by the war on drugs. The Senate Majority continues to move forward on full legalization...”

A number of mediocre grades are accompanied by the view of some coalition members that critical measures promoting the interests of more marginalized constituencies were deprioritized.

“I think that’s a reflection of the Legislature focusing on the politics of issues, concerned about the maintenance of their seats, the maintenance of their power,” said Jawanza Williams, director of organizing at VOCAL-NY, a member of the coalition.

That is not inherently a bad thing, according to Williams, “but whenever you don’t center the experiences of some of the most vulnerable New Yorkers, like those who are dealing with marijuana prohibition legacy issues,” it can overshadow “the experiences and the needs of the people that are directly impacted by some of the most devastating issues in the state.”

Some of True Blue NY’s worst grading was given in categories that the coalition felt would do the most to change the dynamics of power in Albany and across the state. In categories titled “Big Money Out of Politics” and “Clean Up Albany” the Assembly and Senate both received Ds.

“There is no question this was a historically progressive year and that the state made a big leap forward, but unfortunately it didn’t make that equal leap forward for everyone,” Silver said. “If you look at the things that were left on the table, these are issues that affect the most marginalized in our state or effect real representation.”

True Blue NY members were especially disappointed to see delays to comprehensive campaign finance reform, like a publicly-financed campaign matching funds program, which they view as essential to limiting the influence of special interests and promoting more representative candidates.

“It’s the discrepancy across the pillars and within certain core pieces of legislation, where economic and social issues were not prioritized, that we believe is a good example for why the Legislature should have pushed heavier for fair elections,” said Silver.

The rest of the D and F grades were given in categories impacting some of New York’s most essential functions and public resources: taxation, education, and healthcare. Creating a more equitable tax system, funding culturally-responsive education, and establishing single-payer healthcare through the New York Health Act were all left on the table at the end of session.

The People’s Platform scorecard is calculated based on a number of factors for each bill in an issue category tracked by the coalition, including legislative activity as reported on the Senate and Assembly websites, according to True Blue NY’s co-leader, Judith Hertzberg. Each legislative body earned credit when a bill supported by the coalition advanced, whether it be out of committee or on the floor.

If populist displeasure helped turn the state Senate in September and November, it was the sustained grassroots advocacy, not the partisan control, that brought many reforms to the finish line, according to members of True Blue NY.

“You look at the housing bills, you look at the harassment-free legislation that passed, this is due to everyday New Yorkers stepping up and saying, ‘I need to be heard. And if you are going to pass legislation, you need to listen to people that have actually been impacted by it.’ And a number of our senators and Assembly members were champions of that approach,” said Silver.

***
by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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In End-of-Session Scorecard, Progressive Coalition Grades State Legislature on First Year of New Democratic Power Mon, 01 Jul 2019 04:00:00 +0000
In ‘Most Historic and Productive’ Session, Albany Democrats Move Extensive Agenda to Transform New York https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8629-historic-productive-session-democrats-albany-cuomo-transform-new-york https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8629-historic-productive-session-democrats-albany-cuomo-transform-new-york gov cuomo photos

(photo: the governor's office)


Just after it ended, Governor Andrew Cuomo deemed 2019’s “the most productive legislative session in modern history” at a news conference on Friday in Albany.

The Democrat in the first year of his third term went through only a partial list of the many laws and investments he and state legislators had made between January and June, in what was the first period of full and functional Demcratic control of state government in decades.

Though the session included a good deal of sparring between Cuomo and legislators, especially with the governor repeatedly attacking or needling Senate Democrats, a pattern that intensified after the demise of the deal to bring an Amazon campus to Queens, almost all of the priorities laid out by the governor and the legislative majorities were accomplished in some form.

"Six months ago we laid out our 2019 Justice Agenda - an aggressive blueprint to move New York forward - and today I'm proud to say we got it done," Cuomo said on Friday, adding, “...this was the most progressively productive legislative session in modern history. The product was extraordinary, and we maintained our two pillars - fiscal responsibility and economic growth paired with social progress on an unprecedented and nation-leading scale."

As the Legislature wrapped up its work, similar boasts came from the two majority leaders -- Carl Heastie in the Assembly and Andrea Stewart-Cousins in the Senate -- as well as many other Democratic state lawmakers, advocates and activists, and like-minded officials from around New York, including Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson.

“This session we’ve chosen to stand up with the people over special interests,” Stewart-Cousins said in her closing remarks as the Senate completed its session. “We’ve chosen to invest in the future over the failed policies of the past. We’ve chosen science over rhetoric. We’ve chosen equality over divisiveness. This is the most historic and productive legislation session in New York State history, period.”

“We haven’t seen a session this daring, productive and progressive in decades,” de Blasio said in a long, celebratory Friday statement about the session. The mayor highlighted many of the bills that were passed, from stronger rent regulations to congestion pricing, criminal justice and voting reforms to driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, and more.

In many ways it was a historic session, with Democrats following through on much of what they promised during last year’s campaigns, when Cuomo easily won a third term and the party took a commanding new majority in the Senate to couple with long-standing control of the Assembly. There were roughly 800 bills passed by both the Senate and Assembly, according to Stewart-Cousins.

But Republicans also believe the session provides them with significant new ammo to flip Senate seats back next year and begin to line up the pieces to eventually retake the chamber and win their first statewide office come 2022, when Cuomo has said he’ll seek a fourth term.

Much of life for New Yorkers will be altered by what Democrats in Albany decided this year, with impacts -- social, economic, environmental, and political -- for many years to come. The party in power is certain it has produced for New Yorkers who will benefit in many ways. The results will start to be seen soon.

Here’s a look at what got done this session in Albany:

JANUARY
>Election Reform
Lawmakers started off the session passing legislation aimed at reforming voting and elections in New York. The Legislature passed a series of bills to establish early voting and no-excuse absentee voting, expand voter registration, impose limits on LLC campaign contributions, and extend primary election voting hours.

>LGBTQ and Women’s Issues
They also passed the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA), which prohibits discrimination based on gender identity or expression. This act also added transgender people to those protected under New York’s Hate Crimes Law, which defines a hate crime and specifies mechanisms for punishing those who commit hate crimes.

Also in an effort to protect members of the LGBTQ community, lawmakers banned conversion therapy for minors.

They also codified Roe v. Wade abortion protections into state law through the Reproductive Health Act. The RHA legalized abortion past 24 weeks of pregnancy if the woman’s health or life is at risk, or if the fetus is not viable.

The Legislature also passed the Comprehensive Contraception Coverage Act, which requires health insurance companies to cover all FDA-approved contraceptive options, and the Boss Bill, which ensures that employees are able to make reproductive healthcare decisions without fearing adverse employment consequences.

>Children, Immigrants, and Survivors
The Legislature passed the Jose Peralta New York State DREAM Act, which would allow undocumented students in New York to qualify for state aid for higher education and create a Dream Fund for college scholarship opportunities for these students. It was named after the late Senator Jose Peralta, who had championed the bill in the past.

They also passed the Child Victims Act, which reformed the state’s statute of limitations for child sexual abuse. The legislation provides that the statute of limitations doesn’t start until someone turns 23 years old, where it previously started when a child turned 18. It also allowed a temporary look-back window to allow individuals to file civil claims for long-ago incidents.

>Gun Control
Lawmakers also passed a gun control bill package that bans bump-stocks, creates regulations for gun buybacks, extends the background check period for people trying to purchase a gun, and institutes the “red flag” law to allow teachers and others to petition judges to order removal of firearms from a troubled student’s home.

FEBRUARY
After an onslaught of legislation in January that opened the floodgates after years in which Democrats saw their agenda items often stall in the state Senate, February was slower. This was in part due to the fact that there are often fewer session days in February due to the annual school vacation-aligned break.

Legislators did pass a bill that criminalizes “revenge porn,” or the distribution of intimate images with the intent to cause harm to another person.

MARCH
The Legislature passed additional gun and voting reforms in March just ahead of the budget deal that came together at the end of the month: a bill that creates stronger regulations for gun storage, aiming to prevent unintentional gun violence, and the Voter Friendly Ballot Act, which aims to create a more readable ballot layout.

>Budget
As usual, the state budget was perhaps the most consequential piece of legislation to pass during the month of March. Along with spending decisions adding up to about $175 billion, it included sweeping legislative changes.

Lawmakers and Cuomo reformed the criminal justice system, the electoral system, health care, and public transportation. From bail and discovery reform to a plastic bag ban and congestion pricing and the expansion of speed cameras allowed in New York City, the budget was home to many major changes for the state and city.

It also increased funding for education through local school aid and grants across the state. And, they made the property tax cap, which prevents annual increases in property taxes from exceeding 2% of the previous assessment or rate of inflation, into permanent law (it applies everywhere outside New York City).

The budget passed a compromise on campaign finance reform, creating a commission to propose a public campaign finance system, with recommendations due before the end of this year.

The budget agreement came together in the final days and hours of March, and was given final passage on April 1, the day of the start of the new fiscal year.

APRIL
As is often the case in Albany, the post-budget months of April and May were relatively quiet times between the big budget push in late March and the end of session flurry in June.

But, just after the budget, in April, lawmakers raised the age to purchase tobacco products in the state from 18 to 21. This legislation includes cigarettes, chewing tobacco, and vape products.

The Legislature also passed a bill package aimed at promoting environmental protection and conservation. Among the provisions of this bill package is a ban on harmful pesticides and the establishment of a constitutional right to water and life and strict regulations on the toxic chemicals in children’s toys.

MAY
In May, the Legislature passed a series of bills aimed at protecting victims and survivors of domestic violence. These bills varied from special ballots for victims of domestic violence to requiring companies to allow victims of domestic violence to cancel contracts.

Among the domestic violence protection bills, the Legislature also passed a bill banning the manufacturing and selling of undetectable or “ghost” guns, such as 3D printed guns. It makes it illegal for anyone to knowingly possess, manufacture, sell, transport, or possess undetectable firearms.

They also created protections for disabled New Yorkers through a bill package that: creates an advocacy office for those living with disabilities, expands Medicaid coverage for people with autism, and provides housing for New Yorkers with therapy animals.

JUNE
Things in Albany got very busy again in June, especially toward the end of the legislative session and at its very end, with movement on a variety of bills, though Democrats did not find compromise on some professed priorities.

>Rent Regulations
Expiring rent regulations that apply to roughly 1 million New York City apartments was the marquee issue of the end of session. After a great deal of debate, advocacy, negotiation and consternation -- including some conflict between the governor and Senate -- the Legislature passed and the governor signed the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act of 2019, which was called the strongest tenant protection bill in state history.

The legislation makes the rent regulations permanent, with no sunset clause as had been the precedent, repeals two key elements that had led to many thousands of units leaving regulation over decades, vacancy decontrol and the “vacancy bonus,” drastically reduces what landlords can recoup in rent for “major capital investments” into buildings, and more.
The legislation also allows other areas of the state to opt into the regulations if they have a housing emergency based on a lower than 5% vacancy rate and the local legislature votes to adopt them.

>Fighting Climate Change
During the last month of session, there was increased pressure from lawmakers and activists on passing the Climate and Community Protection Act, an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and move New York toward renewable energy and a cleaner economy. The legislation, which had fairly aggressive timelines and requirements, as well as mandates around environmental and economic justice to ensure investments in communities hardest hit by climate change and pollution, was opposed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who said in a June 7 interview with WAMC radio that “it actually doesn’t do, in my opinion, any of the main goals or initiatives.”

Despite Cuomo’s repeated criticism and opposition, a compromise was reached with lawmakers that included elements of the CCPA into a bill more aligned with Cuomo’s related bill, with the new law known as the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. The legislation that was passed has New York transitioning to 70 percent renewable energy by 2030 and 85 percent greenhouse gas emissions reductions by 2050.

Part of the reason for Cuomo’s opposition related to the redistribution of funding to communities most vulnerable to climate change and hurt by pollution. The agreed-upon bill has between 35 and 40 percent of the funds allocated by transition requirements going to impacted communities. It also creates wage and labor standards for state-supported green jobs.

>”Green Light”
Undocumented immigrants now have access to driver’s licenses in the state with passage of the Driver’s License Access and Privacy Act (known as “Green Light NY” as termed by supporters). This legislation was a priority for many progressive organizations, and it repeals a 20-year-ban enacted after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001 on undocumented immigrants obtaining driver’s licenses.

>Farmworkers’ Rights
Another of several major pieces of legislative to move in the final week of the session, the legislature also passed the Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act. The legislation is aimed at addressing the standards of working conditions for farm workers across New York. It grants collective bargaining rights, workers’ compensation, unemployment benefits to farm laborers, as well as bringing them in line with other workers in terms of mandatory overtime and time off, where they had been carved out of labor law decades ago.

“We are correcting a historic injustice, a remnant of Jim Crow era laws, to affirm that those farmworkers must be granted rights just as any other worker in New York,” Senator Jessica Ramos, a Democrat and the bill’s sponsor, said in a statement.

Some lawmakers and farm owners who would be affected by the bill were opposed to it, saying that the legislation disregarded the interests of Upstate New Yorkers.

“The new One Party Rule continued to steamroll over Upstate interests, this time targeting our farmers,” Republican Senator Fred Akshar said in a statement.

>Sexual Harassment and Rape Law Udpates
The Legislature moved and Governor Cuomo supported significant changes to the state’s sexual harassment and rape laws, lowering what was called an exceedingly high bar to proving sexual harassment in the workplace and extending the statue of limitations on rape in the second and third degrees from five to at least 10 years, with specifications at times allowing more than that.

"Sexual abuse is a far too widespread and pervasive stain on our society, and the five-year statutes of limitations for rape in the second and third degrees has been an abject dereliction ofjustice,” Cuomo said in a June 19 statement. “By providing victims more time to bring claims in court, we are honoring those who suffered pain, endured humiliation, and had the courage to come forward.”

>E-scooters and E-bikes
The legislature also passed a bill to legalize e-scooters and e-bikes, but would allow localities to determine implementation and regulation. But unlike most other high-profile measures passed by the Legislature, this bill does not necessarily have Cuomo’s blessing.

“That's a bill that's going to I think need more review and discussion,” Cuomo said in his end of session news conference when asked if he’d sign it.

Not Passed
The most high-profile measure not to pass this year despite widespread expressions of support for it from Democratic leaders is the legalization of adult-use marijuana. It was a priority for many Democratic legislators and activists, and was listed on the governor’s early 2019 agenda and top ten end-of-session priorities when he put forth that list after the budget.

The Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, which would have legalized marijuana use for people at least 21 years of age, came close to passing but ran out of time, according to its lead sponsor in the Senate, Senator Liz Krueger, a Democrat.

"It is clear now that MRTA is not going to pass this session,” Krueger said in a statement just before the end of session. “This is not the end of the road, it is only a delay. Unfortunately, that delay means countless more New Yorkers will have their lives up-ended by unnecessary and racially disparate enforcement measures before we inevitably legalize.”

Although the MRTA didn’t pass, lawmakers did pass legislation to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana and establish procedures for record expungements for past and future convictions. Cuomo said marijuana legalization efforts should have been included in the budget, as he initially recommended, but indicated he would sign the decriminalization measures.

Lawmakers also failed to pass the Human Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement (HALT) Act, which according to the bill “limit[s] the amount of time an inmate can spend in segregated confinement, end the segregated confinement of vulnerable people, restrict the criteria that can result in such confinement, improve conditions of confinement, and create more human and effective alternatives to such confinement.”

The governor, Stewart-Cousins, and Heastie did, however, form a joint agreement on addressing some of the goals of the legislation administratively, to be executed by Cuomo’s administration in the prisons.

"While we are disappointed that HALT legislation could not be passed this year, we have reached an agreement to dramatically reduce the use of solitary confinement in correctional facilities,” reads a joint statement released by the three parties. “These new steps build on this year's landmark reforms and will further help to correct inequities and end inhumane practices in our criminal justice system.”

Lawmakers were also unable to pass bills on automatic voter registration (though legislative leaders promised to move it in 2020), the legalization of paid surrogacy, and an expansion of the prevailing wage requirement for building projects that receive state subsidies. And though it was much-discussed in last year's elections, the New York Health Act to institute single-payer health care in the state did not come to a vote.

What the Session Means
This session marked the first time in about a decade that Democrats have been the majority party in both houses of the Legislature, and the first time in well beyond that where they had a functional majority in both houses. For party members and progressive activists, this session proved that the party is capable of accomplishing big things.

“We demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that not only we can govern, but we can govern like gangbusters,” Democratic Senator Gustavo Rivera said, with reference to the questions facing the Senate Democrats as they took power with remnants of 2009-2010 dysfunction and chaos hanging over them.

The session included a good deal of infighting between Cuomo and legislators, especially in the Senate, with Cuomo repeatedly questioning the Senate’s ability to find consensus, focus on policy over politics, and move controversial legislation -- most of which was proven unfounded in the end, Rivera and others note.

“Across the board, I think we've had an incredibly successful year, which I put right at the feet of our leader,” said Rivera, who has repeatedly criticized Cuomo on multiple fronts, in part in defense of Stewart-Cousins. “And she has been very ably dealing with all the difficulties like of us figuring out how to be a majority conference which has its own idiosyncrasies, and the fact that we have been fighting somebody downstairs on the second floor [where the governor’s offices are], who would not like us to be successful, everything that we've been able to achieve has not been because of the governor, it's been in spite of him.”

Republican Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb disagreed on the session’s successes and called it a six-month parade of irresponsible progressivism.

“One-party rule in Albany is an unmitigated disaster,” Kolb said in an end-of-session statement. “The best part about the 2019 Legislative Session is that for now, the damage is over. What we saw during the last six months was unchecked liberal extremism too eager to show what could be done, without giving any consideration to what should be done.”

The results of what Democrats passed are yet to be seen: much of the legislation doesn’t go into effect right away, and even after it does, only time will tell.

“We still have a long laundry list of things that we need to pass, because our communities have been under resourced and over criminalized for so long that we have to undo those harms,” Javier Valdes, co-executive director of Make the Road New York, an immigrant advocacy organization, told Gotham Gazette. “So this is a long term process. But the thing this session has shown us that we're building momentum, even better things to come.”

And there’s another session before the next state legislative elections in 2020, when the entirety of both chambers will again be on the ballot.

“All of those things speak to the energy that's got us here, and that's the same energy is going to carry us next year,” Rivera said of Democrats’ long list of 2019 achievements and the 2020 elections.

***
by Caitlyn Rosen, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

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In ‘Most Historic and Productive’ Session, Albany Democrats Move Extensive Agenda to Transform New York Sun, 23 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
De Blasio's End-of-Session Albany Agenda https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8566-de-blasio-s-end-of-session-albany-agenda https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8566-de-blasio-s-end-of-session-albany-agenda mayor bdb carls assembly

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


With 11 days of state legislative session left, including Monday, Mayor Bill de Blasio headed to Albany to confab with Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie to push for several legislative priorities.

Among the major items on his agenda, according to mayoral spokesperson Freddi Goldstein, are reforming rent regulations, legalizing marijuana, eliminating the Specialized High School Admission Test (SHSAT), authorizing design-build contracting at several city agencies, expanding the discretionary threshold for awarding contracts to minority- and women-owned businesses (MWBEs), restoring employer protection provisions for school bus contracts, repealing Section 50-a of the state Civil Rights law, which shields disciplinary records of police officers, parole reform, and allowing judges to consider dangerousness of an individual as a factor when determining bail.

"There's a lot going on in the final weeks here of the legislative session," de Blasio said at a Monday afternoon news conference, before meeting with legislative leaders. "I want to say at the outset, I want to express my admiration for Speaker Heastie and Leader Stewart-Cousins. What they've achieved already this year has been remarkable, it’s been historic. A lot more is going to happen over the next few weeks. This is going to be judged as one of the great legislative sessions in many decades."

De Blasio has mostly been quiet about his Albany priorities ahead of the June 19 end of the scheduled session, at which time a typical “big ugly” mash-up of bills may again pass through the Legislature and be approved by the governor. Active on the presidential campaign trial, de Blasio is making his presence felt in the state capital at what he says is the right time, given that little is decided in Albany before the final days before a budget is due or the legislative session ends. Questions linger, though, about de Blasios’ focus on his mayoral duties, including pushing his state agenda, and about what kind of clout the mayor has among state leaders.

Unlike past years, where the mayor had to contend with a hostile Republican-controlled Senate, de Blasio finds himself in a stronger position as he negotiates with and lobbies his own Democratic allies. The mayor did not meet with Governor Andrew Cuomo on Monday but, on a few items on his list, he finds himself on the same page as Cuomo, who listed his own ten legislative priorities last week.

Cuomo’s top priorities include rent regulation reform, strengthening the state’s MWBE program, strengthening state sexual harassment laws, legalizing paid surrogacy, banning the ‘gay and trans panic defense’ for violent crimes, passing an Equal Rights amendment to the state constitution, approving drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants, ending the statute of limitations for second- and third-degree rape, passing a prevailing wage requirement for certain private construction, and pay equity for women.

“The first opportunity to pass these things was in the budget, so the items that are left are the items that we couldn’t pass in the budget for one reason or another,” Cuomo said at an unrelated news conference. “Either they were too difficult or we just couldn’t get to them as a matter of time.”

Rent regulations
In a May 20 op-ed for The New York Daily News, de Blasio railed against state rent regulations, which are expiring June 15 and apply to roughly 1 million New York City apartments, home to about twice that many New Yorkers.

Democrats, in control of both houses of the Legislature for the first time in nearly a decade, are advancing a massive overhaul of the current state rent laws that housing and tenant advocates have blamed for increasing unaffordability and a housing crisis in the state. It’s unclear at this time, however, if the Assembly majority, Senate majority, and Cuomo can get on the same page with exactly how aggressive they want to be in favor of tenants. So far, de Blasio has sounded mostly aligned with Cuomo, a bit more moderate than where Assembly Democrats say they want to go with the laws. The Senate majority has not outlined its agenda.

“For 25 years, the landlord lobby has had the upper hand writing these rent laws,” de Blasio wrote. “Now, we have a chance to do right by tenants and close the loopholes landlords have exploited. People’s homes and security are on the line. There’s no higher priority for the days left this session in Albany. I’m ready to fight alongside tenants, shoulder to shoulder, to get this done once and for all.”

Last week, in a Friday interview on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show, de Blasio again said his top agenda item is reforming rent regulations. “Well on the Albany I’d say rent, rent and rent,” de Blasio told Brian Lehrer. “I mean overwhelmingly, number one is to strengthen rent control, get rid of vacancy decontrol, get rid of the vacancy bonus, fix the whole situation with the major capital improvements and the apartment improvements so that tenants are not paying through the nose and constantly paying for something even after it’s already been paid off, protect folks who have preferential rents, you know, stop the abuse of them.”

Marijuana Legalization
De Blasio also insisted that the legalization of adult use of marijuana should be “done the right way.” It has been looking increasingly likely that marijuana legalization will again fall off the table as decisions are made in the capital. Cuomo has repeatedly said he doesn’t believe the votes are there in the Senate to pass legalization, citing reports from the Senate Democrats themselves.

“I still think it might happen, Brian, but I’m adamant about the fact it cannot lead to a new corporate reality and I fear this deeply that legalization of marijuana creates a new tobacco industry or a new opioid industry done the wrong way,” de Blasio said. “If New York State as a progressive state is going to legalize marijuana it has to be done in a way that really empowers community-based businesses particularly in communities of color that suffered for so long because of draconian laws that sent people to prison for low-level drug offenses.”

On Monday, he reiterated that position. "We have a chance to get it right. It does not have to be a sector dominated by big corporations. It can be something very different, and New York State has the power to do that, and that's what I'm going to fight for," he said. 

SHSAT
The SHSAT is a single test used to determine admission to the city’s eight specialized high schools, per state law that applies to the three most prominent of the eight. But de Blasio has sought to scrap the test in part to diversify the student population at those high schools, where black and Latino students are vastly underrepresented.

Though the mayor has the ability to eliminate the test at five of the eight schools, he has instead sought state authorization to do away with the test entirely. It is a controversial stance that has backers and opponents, and it appears unlikely that the Legislature and Cuomo will come to resolution on the issue by the end of session.

Design-Build
Design-build allows government agencies and authorities to solicit bids for infrastructure projects that, as the name suggests, combine both the designing and building aspects in one contract. It streamlines procurement, cutting down on time and costs. But New York City agencies need the state’s approval to use design-build, and Mayor de Blasio has repeatedly pushed for it to little avail. 

"Design- build is not high profile, but it's high impact," the mayor said on Monday. "We’re talking about a methodology that saves across many, many construction projects, can save literally billions of dollars, can save years of construction time, much better for neighborhoods." The key agencies and authorities for which the mayor is seeking design build authority are the Department of Transportation, Department of Design and Construction, the Parks Department, Health + Hospitals, and the New York City Housing Authority.

MWBE Discretionary Funding
In the last few years, the city has successfully lobbied the state to increase the value of city contracts that can be awarded to Minority- and Women-Owned Business Enterprises (MWBEs) from $20,000 for goods and services to $150,000. Last year, the city awarded $3.7 billion in contracts to MWBEs, up from $1.6 billion in 2015. In March, de Blasio announced a state proposal that would expand the discretionary threshold to $1 million, estimating that it would increase MWBE contract awards by $500 million each year. 

Reforming 50-a
Section 50-a of the state Civil Rights law prohibits the disclosure of the personnel records of police officers. Though the statute was not enforced for decades, the NYPD under de Blasio began to use it to prevent the disciplinary records of officers from being released to the public. De Blasio has defended the department’s about-face on the policy as simply compliance with the law, but has repeatedly said he supports reforming the statute, a position that has been echoed by NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill.

Bail and Parole Reform
Earlier this year, the state Legislature passed several criminal justice reforms, including severely limiting the use of cash bail. But, while reform advocates want to completely eliminate cash bail, de Blasio has instead supported a “dangerousness” standard that would allow judges to factor in whether a defendant could pose a risk to public safety. "Remember, there are some people who are profoundly dangerous who have a proven, unfortunately, a proven record of being dangerous to their communities, but are not a flight risk," de Blasio said Monday. "In those cases, [the] judge’s hands are tied and they do not have a ready way to hold them in the way they need to. We need to come up with a very precise definition of dangerousness so that it is not overused. But I think that's something that can and should be done while this legislature is still in session." Even as they accepted compromise on significant limits to the use of cash bail, legislators who backed bail reform have mostly balked at the idea of creating a “dangerousness” standard.

De Blasio is also in support of a bill, sponsored by Assemblymember Walter Mosley and State Senator Brian Benjamin, that would prevent parolees from being sent to jail for non-criminal, technical violations. The measure would further reduce the population of Rikers Island, which is necessary for the city’s plan to close the scandal-plagued jail complex. De Blasio has also pushed for New York State parolees to be removed from city jails, which the administration says is the only population that has been increasing at Rikers.

Employer Protection Provisions
De Blasio has pushed since 2014 to restore Employee Protection Provisions (EPPs) to all school bus contracts awarded by the Department of Education. EPPs require bus companies to hire workers based off a seniority list, to ensure adequate wages and pension benefits. The inclusion of EPPs has been a priority for the New York City Council as well; the Council’s Committee on Education passed a resolution last week calling on the state Legislature to approve EPPs in all current and future bus contracts.

MIssing from De Blasio’s End of Session Agenda
De Blasio’s recent comments and the list provided by his spokesperson do not include a variety of policies that the mayor has either expressed support for or interest in seeing addressed by state government. These include legalization of certain e-bikes and e-scooters, aggressive climate protection legislation, and more.

***
by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - This article has been updated to note that Mayor de Blasio supports reforming Section 50-a of the Civil Rights Law, not repealing it. 

Note - This article has been updated with the mayor's comments from a Monday news conference.

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De Blasio's End-of-Session Albany Agenda Mon, 03 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Senate Democrats Pursue No Formal Consequences for Parker After 'Kill yourself!' Tweet https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8232-senate-democrats-pursue-no-formal-consequences-for-parker-after-kill-yourself-tweet https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8232-senate-democrats-pursue-no-formal-consequences-for-parker-after-kill-yourself-tweet parker aoc cm

Senator Parker, left, with Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins (photo: @SenatorParker)


The newly-seated Democratic majority in the state Senate does not seem inclined to take any formal action against one of its members, Senator Kevin Parker of Brooklyn, for an inappropriate Twitter outburst last month, directed at a Republican Senate staffer, or his apparent misuse of his official parking placard.

In tweets on December 18, GOP spokesperson Candice Giove had highlighted what seemed to be Parker’s inappropriate use of his parking placard. Parker responded with a shocking tweet, writing “Kill yourself!” to Giove. He later deleted the tweet but not before it was widely shared and memorialized, becoming the subject of a good deal of attention both on social media and in news reports.

The incident sparked a quick backlash against Parker, who has a history of losing his temper and getting in trouble for it. Elected officials, including those within his party, were quick to condemn his flippant remark about suicide. And many also raised the underlying question of whether he was among the public officials, elected and not, that have been abusing the parking privileges they receive as a perk of the job, which has become a broader issue in New York City in recent years.

Parker later expressed some contrition. "I sincerely apologize," he tweeted. "I used a poor choice of words. Suicide is a serious thing and and (sic) should not be made light of." But he continued to criticize Giove on Twitter and elsewhere, calling her “an internet troll” in an interview with the New York Daily News. In a statement at the time, which was between the elections where Democrats flipped the Senate and their official ascent to control of the upper chamber, now-Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said, “I was disappointed in Senator Parker’s tweet. Suicide is a serious issue and should not be joked about in this manner. I am glad that he has apologized.”

But that may be the end of it. Stewart-Cousins’ office did not respond to repeated requests for comment on whether Parker would face any formal action for his behavior. The incident is not being probed by the Senate’s Committee on Ethics and Internal Governance, chaired by Senator Alessandra Biaggi, who has promised to reinvigorate what has been a dormant committee despite constant ethical lapses among state officials. And Parker himself told Gotham Gazette in a phone interview that the matter was “handled internally.”

In response, Senate GOP spokesperson Scott Reif had harsh words for the Senate majority. “Senator Parker tells a young female staffer to go kill herself and the Democrats don’t give him so much as a slap on the wrist?,” Reif said in an email to Gotham Gazette. “Punish him for his inappropriate rhetoric. Punish him for violating the parking placard rules. But don’t just bury your head in the sand. Despite their talk, it looks like the new Democratic Majority doesn’t really care about ethics after all.”

Parker, in the phone interview, said he’d learned his lesson. “The rules have been reinforced to me and I will continue to abide by the rules,” he said. “We’ve moved on. We’re passing legislation.”

But he refused to address whether he had improperly used his parking placard. “It’s a tempest in a teacup, I’m not going down that road,” he said. And he would not reveal details of how the matter was resolved. “That’s a private conversation between me and the majority leader,” he said.

There are several avenues for holding state legislators to account for their conduct in office. Besides the ethics committee, there are the oversight and enforcement bodies -- the Joint Commission on Public Ethics and the Legislative Ethics Commission -- charged with investigating and penalizing violations of Public Officers Law (though the law is written vaguely and may be hard to apply to Parker’s situation).

Biaggi’s committee is not taking up the issue. “The first priority for the ethics committee is to ensure there are clear standards of behavior and a clear means for dealing with alleged violations in a timely manner,” said David Neustadt, a spokesperson for Biaggi. “The first focus of the ethics committee is dealing with the issue of sexual harassment and ensuring that New York State is a leader in making sure everyone is safe at work.”

On the potential parking placard violation, Neustadt said, "It's up to the issuing authority to make sure that parking placard holders know and follow the rules. It's up to the police to issue parking tickets when placards are used inappropriately.”

It’s unclear if there have been any complaints filed with either JCOPE or the LEC, or if either body is looking into the incident. Such investigations are usually kept confidential under state law. “We can’t comment on anything that is or might be an investigative matter,” said Walter McClure, a JCOPE spokesperson.

Alex Camarda, senior policy advisor at Reinvent Albany, a group that advocates for government reform, transparency, and accountability, said Parker’s inappropriate comments and alleged placard misuse “ought to be looked at” by both the Senate and JCOPE.

“They should err on the side of acting formally, even for low-level infractions, because it sets a serious tone,” he said.

***
by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Senate Democrats Pursue No Formal Consequences for Parker After 'Kill yourself!' Tweet Sun, 27 Jan 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: Top Stories of 2018 & What to Watch in 2019 https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8162-max-murphy-podcast-top-stories-of-2018-what-to-watch-in-2019 https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8162-max-murphy-podcast-top-stories-of-2018-what-to-watch-in-2019 mxm logo

Ben Max, left, of Gotham Gazette, and Jarrett Murphy, right, of City Limits


December 26, 2018 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Top Stories of 2018 & What to Watch in 2019

This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

mxm logoFor our year-end show we look back at the top storylines of 2018 in New York politics and preview our top storylines to watch for 2019!

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or wbai.org

agenda19v2 a

This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Max & Murphy Podcast: Top Stories of 2018 & What to Watch in 2019 Thu, 27 Dec 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Commission Recommends Pay Increases and Ethics Reforms for State Legislators https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8125-commission-recommends-pay-increases-and-ethics-reforms-for-state-legislators https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8125-commission-recommends-pay-increases-and-ethics-reforms-for-state-legislators senatechamberalbany2

(Photo via Wiki Commons)


Statewide elected officials, legislators and agency heads are slated to get pay raises next year following recommendations issued Thursday by a four-member panel that was created in this year’s state budget.

The New York State Compensation Committee voted on Thursday to raise the salaries of legislators for the first time in nearly twenty years, as well as for the four statewide offices and for executive agency commissioners. The committee will publicly release a report and deliver it to Governor Andrew Cuomo and the State Legislature on Monday outlining their binding recommendations on phasing in the salary increases over three years, accompanied by certain ethics reform measures. The raises will go into effect by January 1 unless the state legislature meets and rejects them.

The committee -- which included State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, former State Comptroller and SUNY Board Chair Carl McCall, and former New York City Comptroller and CUNY Board Chair Bill Thompson -- was created in the state budget to determine an appropriate raise for legislators, based on cost of living and on salaries for legislators in other states. The current base pay for state legislators stands at $79,500 and has remained unchanged since 1999.

Per the panel’s unanimous recommendations, salaries for legislators will be raised to $130,000 by 2021, with lawmakers set to receive $110,000 in 2019 and $120,000 in 2020. The commission also recommended limiting outside income for legislators to 15 percent of their salary, in line with the rules for members of Congress, and the elimination of committee stipends -- commonly referred to as lulus -- for all but the top leadership in both legislative chambers.

“I think in looking at the fact that they haven’t had a raise in twenty years...when you talk about the issues of fairness, it is not the right thing,” Thompson said, arguing that the idea that legislators only work part-time is a mischaracterization due to their in-district work. The limits on outside income will take effect in 2020, because, according to McCall, legislators would need time to disengage from their outside income-generating activities and could not do so right away.

The panel also endorsed raising the governor’s salary to $250,000 by 2021, up from the current $179,000. The lieutenant governor, attorney general, and state comptroller, each of whom currently make $151,000, will see their pay rise to $210,000 salary by 2021. DiNapoli recused himself from that vote.

The pay raise committee was originally meant to be chaired by Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, but DiFiore announced in May that she would not serve because she believed a judge determining legislative pay was unconstitutional. The broader constitutionality of the committee has also been challenged, as it is still unclear whether a pay raise can be authorized by outside officials or if it must be approved by the legislature. The panel members, however, insisted that their recommendations are enforceable for all their proposals except the raises for the governor and lieutenant governor, which must be approved by a joint resolution of the legislature. They also maintained that tying the raises to an outside income limitation and curbing committee stipends was within their authority, which could potentially invite legal challenges going forward.

When the salary raises are fully implemented by 2021, New York will surpass California and have the highest-paid governor and legislature in the nation. McCall noted that coupling the pay increase with outside income limitations would also quell the discontent New Yorkers feel about giving raises to a legislature that has long been marred by scandal and corruption. “We really have to make sure that we send the signals to the public about how serious they are about doing their job and doing it well,” McCall said.

For executive agency heads, the panel proposed four classes of salary, a decrease from the current six, which will be assigned depending on the agency. By 2021, commissioners in the top class will make $220,000 and commissioners in the bottom class will make $170,000.

Legislative leaders have expressed support for the panel’s recommendations. Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins announced her support for the measure on Thursday, hours before the meeting, while also concurrently declaring support for ethics reform. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie testified to the Commission last week in favor of the raise, noting that legislators have financial strains similar to their constituents. “They too must finance college loans, meet the cost of child care, and provide for the wellbeing of elderly parents and loved ones at home,” Heastie said. He further argued that, because so many legislators live in the expensive New York City metro area, a pay raise was warranted to more adequately reflect the high cost of living here.

The New York Public Interest Research Group, which advocates for government reform, was skeptical of the panel’s recommendations, pushing for a more comprehensive set of “corruption-busting” reforms. “While we agree that the Congressional model is appropriate to regulate legislators’ outside income, advancing a reform in this area alone is inadequate,” said NYPIRG’s Blair Horner, in a statement. “We note that the ethical problems that have plagued the state have not been limited to the legislative branch. Given the stunning pay-to-play scandals that have rocked government, reforms in that area must be addressed. Failure to do so highlights the inadequacy of the reform package.”

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by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

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Commission Recommends Pay Increases and Ethics Reforms for State Legislators Thu, 06 Dec 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Andrea Stewart-Cousins on Taking the Senate Reins, the Democratic Agenda & Getting Inside 'The Room' https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8085-andrea-stewart-cousins-on-taking-the-senate-reins-the-democratic-agenda-getting-inside-the-room https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8085-andrea-stewart-cousins-on-taking-the-senate-reins-the-democratic-agenda-getting-inside-the-room stewart cousins senate

Andrea Stewart-Cousins (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo)


This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

After the election results from earlier this month, Andrea Stewart-Cousins is set to become majority leader of the state Senate and, beginning in January, to preside over the chamber as it works with Democrats in charge of the Assembly and Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat headed into his third term, to address a long-delayed liberal agenda. Stewart-Cousins, who represents parts of Westchester, will become the first woman and first woman of color to lead a legislative chamber in New York.

Appearing on the Max & Murphy program on WBAI radio, Stewart-Cousins discussed her approach to leading the Senate, outlined a few priorities for the upcoming session, explained some ways in which Democrats will differ from Republican who have led the upper chamber, and commented on becoming one of three people who will be in “the room,” ultimately making major decisions about the state budget and legislation along with Cuomo and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.

When asked, Stewart-Cousins mostly demurred about what issues would be at the top of the Senate agenda, saying that, especially with 15 new members in her roughly 40-member majority conference, senators would first need to meet and discuss how they will approach the upcoming legislative session.

“I have avoided that ‘my first hundred days will look like this’ and ‘this is the batting order,’” Stewart-Cousins said, repeating the terms of the question from one of the hosts. “Because I think the first and foremost thing we’re going to do is [create] the type of conference and senators that people have frankly been voting for again and again and not been getting.”

However, some policies she did mention were those that had already been set as first-order-of-business and seemingly non-controversial among virtually all Democrats: early voting, the Child Victims Act, and the Reproductive Health Act. These are among many policies Stewart-Cousins said “have not been able to move under Republican leadership for so many years” that Democrats plan to get to.

Stewart-Cousins noted that she has faith in the new members of the Senate, some of whom are part of a younger and more progressive movement that successfully claimed many of the seats formerly held by members of the Independent Democratic Conference, a breakaway group that had formed a coalition with the Republicans, at times giving them the seats for a majority. While these new members certainly won’t cut deals with Republicans, they still may not be on the same page with more senior members of the body, perhaps pushing for different, more progressive priorities like single-payer health care.

“We have 15 brand new members and we have to make sure everyone is up to speed,” Stewart-Cousins said. “I am so impressed with every single one of them that I have no doubt that the leadership they will provide, along with my current members, will be absolutely outstanding.”

Stewart-Cousins was also hesitant to name specifics when asked what legislation she sees as being tougher to pass, suggesting with a laugh that there could be conflict about anything and everything.

“I almost want to say all of the above because, you know, we’re Democrats,” she said with a chuckle. “I think everyone agrees on the outcomes we want, it’s just how to get there.”

Stewart-Cousins stressed her belief that Democratic takeover of the Senate is a major step forward for the state, as rather than having to debate over why policies that, for example, raise the minimum wage or ensure access to quality affordable healthcare, are necessary, the new Democrat supermajority will only have to decide on how to best design said policies.

“We’re not starting at convincing people that these things are important,” she said. “Now we’re starting a conversation where we understand [what] the objectives are.”

“Guess what, we’ll have a conference that is willing to acknowledge climate change and therefore, work towards ensuring our planet’s future,” she continued.

agenda19v2 aWhile expectations are high about addressing climate change, criminal justice reform, gun control, voting and campaign finance reform, tightening rent regulations, and more, there have been concerns that if Democrats were to flip the Senate and full control of state government that taxes would go up in order for the new regime to pay for all its new programs. But, during the campaign and since, Stewart-Cousins and others in her incoming majority have said they have no plans to raise taxes, an approach in line with Cuomo’s, but not necessarily Assembly Democrats.

Asked on Max & Murphy if she is indeed committed to not raising taxes, Stewart-Cousins reiterated her stance, and pointed to the federal tax reforms passed in late 2017 that are likely to negatively affect many New Yorkers due to the new cap and local and state deductions from federal tax obligations.

“We are not coming in there to raise people’s taxes,” Stewart-Cousins said. “We understand that New York is a big state and we understand that we need to make sure that it is affordable. I’m personally concerned about the impact of this federal tax bill on the New York taxpayers, and I think most people in our position are.”

Taxpayers will find out if Democrats stay true to their promise in their first big test: the next state budget, which Stewart-Cousins and her conference will have significant influence on, as the new Senate majority leader negotiates with Cuomo and Heastie. As the first woman to lead a legislative majority, she will be entering that negotiating room that has been male-dominated. When asked what that may mean, Stewart-Cousins said it shows progress made and more to do.

“I think it means that people see that once again another glass ceiling, marble ceiling, whatever you want to call it, has been broken,” she said. “We make certain assumptions about how far we’ve come, and we have in many ways, but I think everyday we’re also being reminded that there is more ground that has to be covered more ceilings to break.”

When asked if she has any plans on how to change the backroom process that often leads to major budget and legislative agreements that are voted on with virtually no public review, Stewart-Cousins said she couldn’t yet say.

“It’d be impossible to say, because I’ve never been in it,” she said, pausing to laugh. “I’m interested to see how this thing really works as well. I’m sure I’ll have a lot of opinions once I’ve actually been part of it.”

When it comes to those outside the Democratic conference, Stewart-Cousins said that she has not spoken to any Republicans who want to switch conferences, but would be happy to meet with Senator Simcha Felder, a Democrat who previously gave Republicans a one-seat majority in the Senate, about his role in the upcoming session. She said Felder had reached out and they would set something up, though he is not expected to command any special perks as he had from Republicans for helping give them the majority.

Of the former IDC members who kept their seats, Senators Diane Savino and David Carlucci, Stewart-Cousins said they have been and continue to be part of the Democratic conference, which they returned to in an April deal reached by Governor Andrew Cuomo.

[Listen to the full conversation: Soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins on Max & Murphy Nov. 14, 2018]

This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

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by Victor Porcelli, Gotham Gazette

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Andrea Stewart-Cousins on Taking the Senate Reins, the Democratic Agenda & Getting Inside 'The Room' Sun, 18 Nov 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8071-max-murphy-podcast-senate-democratic-leader-andrea-stewart-cousins-election-aftermath https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8071-max-murphy-podcast-senate-democratic-leader-andrea-stewart-cousins-election-aftermath mxm logo

Ben Max, left, of Gotham Gazette, and Jarrett Murphy, right, of City Limits


This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
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November 14, 2018 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins

asc andreastewartcousinswbai crpDemocrat Andrea Stewart-Cousins is on the verge of becoming the majority leader of the New York State Senate -- and she'll be the first woman and first woman of color to lead a legisative chamber in New York. Just more than a week after Democrats dominated Election Day in New York to flip the upper chamber of the state Legislature and ensure full Democratic control of state government, Stewart-Cousins joined the show to discuss her vision for the path ahead.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or wbai.org

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This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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Max & Murphy Podcast: Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins Wed, 14 Nov 2018 05:00:00 +0000
With Full Democratic Control, Sponsors of New York Single-Payer Health Care Hopeful About 2019 https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8066-with-full-democratic-control-sponsors-of-new-york-single-payer-health-care-hopeful-about-2019 https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8066-with-full-democratic-control-sponsors-of-new-york-single-payer-health-care-hopeful-about-2019 Cuomo health care

Gov. Cuomo (photo: Kevin Coughlin/Governor's Office)


This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

Though Governor Andrew Cuomo has not expressed support for instituting a single-payer health care system in New York, his fellow Democrats campaigned on the issue as they flipped control of the state Senate, landing all of state government into Democratic hands and providing a significant boost of optimism to the lead sponsors of the New York Health Act, which would create a government-administered single-payer health care system.

The bill has passed the Democrat-dominated state Assembly several times and all the members of Senate Democratic conference signed on as co-sponsors at the end of last legislative session in a unified show of support for the program heading into the election season.

Cuomo has said he supports a Medicare for all-type system at the federal level, but cast doubts on the cost and complexity of doing it in New York, and since their resounding wins on Election Day, the incoming leaders of the Democratic Senate majority have indicated that the massive undertaking of single-payer is not at the top of the agenda.

Still, with Democratic control of the Senate and the Assembly by wide margins, single-payer healthcare could be passed as early as the 2019 session, according to Assemblymember Richard Gottfried, chair of the Assembly Health Committee and lead sponsor of the New York Health Act.

“It was clear in the country and New York that healthcare was the number one issue on voters’ minds,” Gottfried said, before pointing to his legislation. “A solid majority of the new state Senate has either been a cosigner, voted for it in the Assembly, or campaigned on it. So I think we’re on track to get it passed in the Assembly and state Senate.”

The New York Health Act would replace health insurance companies with New York state government as the payer of healthcare costs for all New Yorkers. It has been passed in the Assembly four years running but has yet to be voted on in the Senate, where Republicans have held control. All of the other 30 Democratic senators joined lead sponsor Senator Gustavo Rivera of the Bronx to co-sponsor the legislation, though the Senate Democratic conference is seeing significant turnover due to primary wins by insurgent challengers. But, those challengers have in general been even more vocally supportive of single-payer health care than their more moderate predecessors. These facts give Gottfried confidence that the New York Health Act will pass during the 2019 session, which begins in January.

But the bill still faces an uphill battle, in part because of the massive changes it would institute, and the fact that though it might reduce overall individual and business healthcare costs after implementation, for the state to run the system it would require raising taxes significantly, something many Democrats have promised not to do and Cuomo is vehemently opposed to. It would also drastically impact the state’s private and public hospitals, the health insurance industry, and more. Some of the changes would of course be beneficial to New Yorkers, but the undertaking is complex and the New York Health Act as currently written leaves a lot of detail undetermined, including funding.

The governor has repeatedly opposed single-payer healthcare at the state level, suggesting that it would be more rational and financially feasible if administered by the federal government. Cuomo questioned in the past how a single-payer system could be put in place without doubling the tax burden, and cited California’s and Vermont’s debates over single-payer — which both ended when supporters were not able to answer one question: where would the funding come from? — as paragons of the impracticality of state-level single-payer.

Gottfried, a Manhattan Democrat, is confident that with his fellow lead sponsor Senator Rivera, who is likely to be the Senate health committee chair come January, and other legislators, he will be able to sway Cuomo to support the legislation.

“He’s obviously not on board yet, but he and his staff are very open to working with the Legislature on the issue,” Gottfried said. “I’m convinced we can satisfy their concerns.”

And after a recent study by RAND Corporation concluded that the New York Health Act would result in a reduction of administrative costs, provide all New Yorkers with healthcare, and reduce healthcare costs for most, Gottfried says the financing of the bill will not be a problem.

“New Yorkers are all going to have to think about what they will do with the hundreds of thousands of dollars that will end up in their pockets, and that’s a nice problem to have,” Gottfried said.

The study has a caveat, however, stating in its conclusion that “the estimated effects depend heavily on the assumptions about provider payments, administrative costs and drug prices.” Politico highlighted these assumptions as well as the likely tax increases that have largely been brushed aside by Democrats supporting the legislation. Wealthy people leaving the state, companies restructuring, the cost of hospital expenses rising at a faster rate or the Trump administration not issuing a federal waiver to redirect all healthcare-related funds to the new state entity are all possible events that could result in RAND’s conclusion falling apart.

For it to work, while health care costs drop, taxes would undoubtedly increase significantly for many New Yorkers. As cited by Politico, “a household reporting $150,000 in income would see its state tax rate increase from 6.45 percent in 2017 to 18.3 percent,” under one model scenario. Additionally, those who receive Medicaid or fall under the state’s Essential Plan, which subsidizes health insurance for low-income New Yorkers, have less to gain from the expansion. According to RAND, though, 1.2 million New Yorkers would gain health coverage.

It is likely that funds for New York single-payer health care would partially come from a new payroll tax, which RAND projects to fall largely on employers. However, RAND suggests the health act payroll tax would cost less for businesses already contributing toward employee health insurance and the Medicare payroll tax, estimating decreases in employer costs fairly quickly.

Concerns about businesses and high-income individuals leaving the state persist, with a tax atmosphere in New York that many, including Cuomo, acknowledge is already burdensome and became more so for many taxpayers, especially top earners, under the new federal tax code.

Senator Rivera, aware that cost is the primary argument against single-payer health care, repeatedly emphasized the need to work towards a version of the bill that would reduce the financial strain.

“I will continue working diligently with Assembly Member Gottfried, Senate Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins and the Senate Democratic Conference to make the New York Health Act a bill that is not only fiscally responsible, but that provides comprehensive coverage to all New Yorkers,” Rivera wrote in an email to Gotham Gazette.

The bill and its potential ramifications have been studied closely by Bill Hammond, director of health policy at The Empire Center, a think tank. "Regardless of which party controls the state Senate, the New York Health Act remains a wildly unrealistic idea," Hammond said by email. "It means putting New York's entire health-care system — representing one-fifth of the economy — in the hands of the same state government that struggles to run the subways. It requires massive, draconian tax hikes, enough to roughly triple total state revenues."

"Plus, a true single-payer plan would need federal waivers that the Trump administration has vowed to block," Hammond continued, also noting a political angle -- that if Democrats spend great sums of money and political capital on a health care overhaul of this magnitude, what will they ignore, like fighting climate change or improving mass transit.

"It was easy to cast a symbolic yes vote for a single-payer bill that had no chance of passing," Hammond said. "Now that that it might actually happen, supporters are going to be forced to confront the practical realities. Then, hopefully, they’ll focus on helping the 6% of New Yorkers who still lack insurance, rather than disrupting coverage for those who already have it."

agenda19v2 aRivera acknowledged that moving to single-payer would not satisfy everyone, especially those who benefit from the current system, and that there are negotiations to come that will likely adjust the bill to make it more palatable to holdouts.

“The biggest challenge will be to reach a consensus among stakeholders that the NY Health Act is feasible [and] fiscally responsible,” Rivera wrote.

Citing “healthcare practitioners, prescription drug companies, healthcare providers, employers, unions and New Yorkers,” as the various groups involved, Rivera also mentioned courting Cuomo as an important step to take in the coming legislative session.

“Our main priority for the next legislative session is to continue shaping the bill so that it is feasible, affordable, that the Governor is willing to sign, and that primarily, provides quality healthcare for everybody,” Rivera wrote. “During the next legislative session, we will focus on making the necessary amendments to the bill so that it truly reflects the different healthcare needs affecting all New Yorkers.”

For now, it is very difficult to imagine Cuomo coming on board, especially given the pains he’s taken to keep state spending increases at around 2 percent per year and to lower taxes. Asked about single-payer health care during a Thursday appearance on The Capitol Pressroom with host Susan Arbetter, Cuomo painted it as unrealistic given budget constraints. He said Democrats are generally in agreement on the concept, but legislators will have to deal with reality in working with him on a state budget next year, while he also said he thinks it's much more workable on the federal level. “Single-payer health plan, for example," Cuomo said, "conceptually I think it’s the right way to go in. I believe it’s more feasible financially on the national level. No state has been able to finance the transition costs.”

A variety of factors, including the challenge of getting Cuomo’s support and not wanting to come into power quickly pursuing something as revolutionary as single-payer health care, may be why the likely next Senate majority leader, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, and her likely deputy, Senator Michael Gianaris, have not highlighted it as top priorities for the coming session.

Assemblymember Gottfried noted that state Senators’ public approval of the bill gives him no reason not to “take them at their word,” and said he expects the legislation to move through the Legislature. He knows that private health insurers are certain to vehemently oppose the continued push.

“The insurance industry will be fiercely lobbying against the bill and they have a lot of money, going up against their lobbying will take a lot of work,” Gottfried said. “but I’m convinced with so many senators on the record in support of the bill, we will prevail.”

This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

***
by Victor Porcelli, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

This article has been updated with Cuomo's comments from 11/15/18 on The Capitol Pressroom.

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With Full Democratic Control, Sponsors of New York Single-Payer Health Care Hopeful About 2019 Tue, 13 Nov 2018 05:00:00 +0000