Gotham Gazette Fri, 17 Jan 2020 13:17:11 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Final Signature Allows Implementation of Cuomo-DiNapoli Agreement to Restore Certain Contract Oversight Powers goccuomo con di

Cuomo & DiNapoli (photo: Governor's Office)

A resolution has finally been reached around how to deal with a thorny issue involving Governor Andrew Cuomo, contracting oversight, and the corruption that plagued some of the governor’s biggest economic development initiatives.

As of December 31, all relevant parties have agreed to comply with an August agreement between Cuomo and state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli restoring the comptroller’s oversight of some large contracts entered into by SUNY and CUNY and their affiliates, and by the Office of General Services. The agreement is now expected to become operational in February, according to a spokesperson for the comptroller.

The memorandum of understanding was partially signed in August, but as recently as mid-December DiNapoli said SUNY Research Foundation, one of the entities coming under the comptroller’s purview, had not given the go-ahead to bring it from a “conceptual agreement,” as DiNapoli put it, to an actualized program. As of December 31, however, all parties had approved the new system, the spokesperson told Gotham Gazette.

“We have an agreement with the Executive, and we will start reviewing contracts in February 2020. All parties have acted (OGS/SUNY/CUNY/SUNY Construction/CUNY Construction/SUNY RF/SUNY Fuller Road & Fort Schuyler) and agreed to allow OSC to review their contracts,” the spokesperson wrote in a statement.

While representatives for several of the parties signed the memorandum in August, it still required approval by the boards of CUNY and SUNY affiliates, and for their policies to be updated in compliance. CUNY’s approval came on October 28, and two other SUNY-affiliated entities agreed on December 18. SUNY Research Foundation approved the agreement on December 31, just before the January deadline. No part of the deal could go into effect until all the parties had all agreed, DiNapoli said on the Capitol Pressroom in mid-December, calling the Research Foundation approval “the biggest sticking point.”

“As expected, all parties have signed the MOU and will be ready to enforce it this February,” wrote Jason Conwall, a spokesperson for the governor, in an email this week.

The agreement gives the state comptroller the authority to conduct “pre-audit” reviews of contracts procured by SUNY and CUNY and their affiliated construction funds, when they exceed $250,000. It also extends that authority over Office of General Services (OGS) centralized contracts over $85,000.

The memorandum also provides for the comptroller to send all executed contracts of $250,000 or more, with the exception of Common Retirement Fund contracts, to the state inspector general responsible for investigating fraud, corruption, and conflicts of interest in the executive branch and affiliated entities.

The new powers allow the comptroller to review contracts before they are executed to affirm that they are ethically and economically sound. During contract reviews, the comptroller’s office typically conducts due diligence to prevent fraud and waste, and promote competition. It looks at whether vendors have been found to engage in previous wrongdoing, prices for comparable goods and services elsewhere, and whether there are contract provisions that could increase an  agency’s liability.

The comptroller once had those powers for SUNY, CUNY, and OGS centralized contracts, but they were stripped with little public attention during budget negotiations in 2011, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s first year, as he sought to expand and expedite economic development.

In the mid-2010s when the Buffalo Billion scandal, in which bribes were exchanged for plum state construction contracts, implicated some of Cuomo’s closest allies and donors, good government advocates and DiNapoli himself called for the authority to be restored. Cuomo resisted. Lawmakers threatened legislative action, but nothing moved.

Then, during his 2019 State of the State speech, Cuomo surprised many by announcing that he and DiNapoli had agreed to pursue an agreement.

“Comptroller review may have prevented the $1 billion bid-rigging scandal involving upstate development projects resulting in the convictions of high-ranking state officials and major real estate and construction executives,” said John Kaehny, executive director of the good government group Reinvent Albany, in a statement commending the initial agreement in August.

The memorandum of understanding stipulates that SUNY will work with its Research Foundation to give the comptroller pre-audit review of contracts of $1 million or more. The Research Foundation includes SUNY-affiliated nonprofits Fort Schuyler and Fuller Road Management Corporation, which put out the rigged requests for proposals to build SolarCity, the $750 million solar panel plant at the center of the Buffalo Billion controversy and a key element in Cuomo’s signature upstate economic development agenda.

On the Capitol Pressroom in December, DiNapoli said, “I think the biggest piece that still has to be resolved is the SUNY Research Foundation has not taken the action to sign on...but I am very hopeful that once we get that SUNY piece closed down that we will actually be able to implement that more robust oversight that many people have called for and I think is overdue for us to have back.”

With the Research Foundation agreeing to the memorandum of understanding on December 31, it is now set to go into effect in February. While Ft. Schuyler and Fuller Road have been mired in controversy, the entity recently created to subsume and replace them, NY CREATES, is also covered under the agreement, according to DiNapoli’s office.

Unlike other powers that were restored in the deal, the state comptroller has never had pre-audit review authority over SUNY Research Foundation, the spokesperson said.

Cuomo has previously said that part of the reason for not restoring the comptroller’s power is the potential for delays in adding new bureaucratic hoops to jump through. The new agreement sets a time limit of 30 days for the comptroller’s pre-audit review, after which they become “valid and enforceable.” A report released by DiNapoli’s office last May, showed that the average contract review took between six and seven days.

In response to the Buffalo Billion scandal, state lawmakers introduced the Procurement Integrity Act to restore most of the comptroller’s pre-2011 authority, among other things. Year after year, it failed to gain enough traction to pass, but amid an ongoing drumbeat of criticism, especially after the convictions on corruption charges of two of his top former aides, Cuomo made the 2019 State the State announcement.

The agreement is voluntary and contains language stating it can be terminated within ten days by either the governor or comptroller. Good government advocates still want to see it codified into law.

“We hope momentum from completing this voluntary agreement continues and the Governor and Comptroller work together to pass a law in the 2020 session making the agreement permanent,” wrote Kaehny.

Neither codifying the agreement nor passing the Procurement Integrity Act were part of Cuomo’s very limited State of the State government ethics agenda, announced last week.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Final Signature Allows Implementation of Cuomo-DiNapoli Agreement to Restore Certain Contract Oversight Powers Thu, 16 Jan 2020 05:00:00 +0000
How Cuomo Closes Budget Gaps and May Approach Largest Deficit Since His First Year 2014 exec budget

(photo: Governor's Office)

When Governor Andrew Cuomo took office in 2011, the state faced a $10 billion budget gap that necessitated massive cuts in spending for the next fiscal year. The state’s Medicaid program was redesigned to cut $2.7 billion in spending. School aid was also cut by about $2.7 billion. There were cuts to state agency spending and redesigns that reduced another $1.5 billion. The rest was covered with new resources, revenue enhancements (though, no new taxes, the governor emphasized at the time), and one-time funding streams including debt management and reestimates of spending.

The governor received widespread praise at the time, including from leaders of both major political parties, for that budget and for leading the state through particularly challenging fiscal times.

Fast forward to 2020 and the state is yet again grappling with a huge projected gap for the coming fiscal year -- $6.1 billion -- and the governor has indicated he believes state education aid and Medicaid spending need to be revisited, and that he will not support raising taxes or creating new ones. It’s the largest gap the governor has had to deal with since his first budget and, to the particular concern of fiscal watchdogs, comes amid a period of sustained economic growth rather than in the tumultuous years after a global recession like the last time around.

In other words, the state currently faces more of a spending problem than a revenue problem. And it also bodes ill that state reserves are far from robust, particularly relative to the $177 billion annual budget (of which, $102 billion is state operating funds), and that the governor continues to push spending down the line rather than dealing with it immediately.

Next week, Cuomo will present his executive budget for fiscal year 2021, which begins April 1, and he’s expected to rely on some tried and true methods, some of which have been questioned as fiscal gimmickry, but he’ll likely have to expand the toolkit given the size of the projected deficit.

Most of the gaps in past years have been far lower than $6.1 billion, requiring minimal maneuvering by the state. In fiscal year 2013, the gap was $3.5 billion; in FY 2014, it fell to $1.35 billion; in FY 2015, it was $1.7 billion; in FY 2016, $1.8 billion; in FY 2017, $1.78 billion; in FY 2018, however, it jumped to $3.5 billion; and in FY 2019, it hit $4.44 billion.

Cuomo Restrains Spending and Closes Budget Gaps, with Risks
After the 2011-2012 budget, the governor was successful in passing eight on-time, or nearly on-time, budgets that kept within, or close to within, his self-imposed cap of 2% annual growth in state spending. But he’s used various maneuvers for which the governor has become infamous and which in part led to the budget problem the state must now contend with.

Year after year, the state has managed gaps through, among other measures, cutting hundreds of millions in projected costs of agency operations and reduced spending on aid to localities (including cuts to education, social services and housing, public health and mental hygiene services). That approach would have likely worked again for the 2021 fiscal year, for which the projected gap was expected to be about $3.9 billion when the current year’s budget was enacted.

But, in the mid-year financial update published by the state Division of Budget in November, that number was modified to $6.1 billion, taking into account an additional $3 billion in increased Medicaid costs, driven by several factors, and setting off a flurry of concern and finger-pointing about the state’s fiscal picture. The out-year budget gaps are projected to be even larger, given current trends, with a $9 billion gap in 2023 if nothing significant changes.

The state has taken at least one step to rein in the Medicaid cost uptick, cutting payments by 1% starting earlier this month – affecting hospitals, doctors, nursing homes, home care providers, and others – while also looking to find $1.8 billion in savings in the program.

Cuomo’s budget director, Robert Mujica, has also stressed that the budget gap is nothing to worry about. “There is no doubt it will be a challenge, but it is a challenge that is manageable. The Governor has closed gaps much larger than this,” he wrote in a Medium post in December.

The governor contended in his January 8 State of the State speech that the overall increase came from the state covering the costs of Medicaid that is capped for localities, which to some sounded as if he may call on municipalities to pay more. In a gaggle with reporters on Monday, however, he sought to provide reassurances that such a proposal was not forthcoming. “I’ve not yet proposed how we believe we should resolve it,” he said of the budget gap. He added, “Nobody should worry. Life is good. Be optimistic.”

That may be a stretch for budget monitors, who say that the budget gap is manageable but also preventable. They warn that the governor’s budget tactics, though restrained, may be unsustainable and prove disastrous if a recession hits and urge him to look elsewhere for long-term savings and budget cuts, particularly areas such as economic development spending where the governor has been reluctant to pull back.

Closing the Gap: Dos and Don’ts and Surprises
“It’s a gap that’s closeable. Revenues are coming in at or above projections,” said Dave Friedfel, director of state studies at nonprofit watchdog Citizens Budget Commission, in a phone interview. But he emphasized that the gap was one that the state should have expected and prepared for, particularly owing to deferred Medicaid payments.

The 2019 fiscal year pushed $1.7 billion in Medicaid payments to the 2020 fiscal year, and the current budget pushed another $2.2 billion in Medicaid payments to next fiscal year. The governor’s mid-year budget update says that the Department of Budget plans to make such deferred payments “permanent,” setting up what some watchdogs call a dangerous practice.

“Deferring that payment was really damaging because it pushed the costs from last year into this year, and it also undermined this year's financial plan because they didn't account for that,” Friedfel said. Though in the short term, it may not affect the state’s fiscal health, it would complicate the state’s choices in a recession, where, according to CBC estimates, the state would face as much as a $35 billion shortfall over three years.

“It's never a good fiscal practice, but it's even worse when the revenues are coming in and the economy is doing well,” Friedfel said. “This was completely preventable and it wasn't the result of any type of an outside shock. The federal government didn't suddenly change reimbursement rates. There was no surge in Medicaid enrollment...So this was definitely a preventable budget gap.” (New York does have a significant population enrolled in Medicaid, about 6.27 million individuals, and the Cuomo-driven minimum wage increase to $15 has significantly increased costs for health care providers).

Friedfel has several prescriptions for state officials: cut economic development spending and find long-term savings in retiree health insurance benefits. He also said the state could save $800 million with a more focused approach to Foundation Aid, the supplemental funding given to schools to provide a “sound basic education” under a State Supreme Court ruling. He cautioned against any effort to force localities to absorb Medicaid costs.

“It really is a progressive thing that the state did, that Governor Cuomo did by capping out the local share [of Medicaid],” he said. “If you reverse that, you're saying to localities because you have a lot of poor people, people on Medicaid, that you therefore have to contribute more to the state which is the opposite of progressive. That would be regressive.”

E.J. McMahon, founder and research director of the Empire Center for Public Policy, a nonprofit fiscal watchdog, is hoping against but expecting that the governor will use “cash flow timing maneuvers” again to balance the budget. “He's rescheduling a hunk of the payments to [Medicaid] providers and basically making his cash flow issue their cash flow issue,” he said in a phone interview. “It's not the most prudent approach because it is basically meant to hide the problem rather than deal with it.”

Based on past experience, McMahon said the governor may also tap reserve funds on a one-shot basis. “He can't possibly actually save $2 billion in what's left of the fiscal year so there will be a lot of gimmickry related to timing and reserve funds that will, I think, largely paper over the problem,” he said.

The most striking part of the problem, he said, echoing Friedfel, is that the state has not seen in more than 40 years a budget deficit of this size at a time when the economy is expanding and revenues are on target. “Usually our problems occur when there's an economic downturn and our revenues fall short. This is purely, totally due to excess spending in a category [Cuomo] manages and has more control over than any previous governor has had,” he said.

McMahon noted in a blog post on Wednesday, based on state tax receipts through December, there’s an additional $1.3 billion above revenue projections at the state’s disposal. But that does not solve what is an over-spending problem, he said.

He did give the governor some credit for his fiscal moderation in earlier years, however.

“If you adjust for the bookkeeping tricks that he's used to make it appear like 2% [annual growth rate]...still adjusting for inflation, his nine years as governor have been on the whole the most restrained nine years of any governor in modern history,” McMahon said.

“Cuomo showed considerable fiscal discipline during his first years in office, especially in his first budget in 2011, and he still has considerable power to shape a budget that basically reboots his first-term approach and lowers the spending trend going forward,” McMahon also said. He noted that the Legislature has little power to add spending other than separate line items which the governor could veto. To override those vetoes, the Legislature would need votes from the entire Senate Republican conference and from eight upstate Assembly Democrats, he said.

“Now, as recently as Pataki’s last term, gubernatorial vetoes were repeatedly overridden by a Republican-controlled Senate in partnership with the Assembly’s Democratic super-majority,” he wrote. “But that could only happen now if Cuomo goes (further) out of his way to alienate Senate [Republicans], assuming he also can’t retain the loyalty of suburban Senate Dems. In short, it’s unlikely.”

Both McMahon and Friedfel pointed to the pitiful amount of reserve funding the state has put aside, barely $2 billion relative to the more than $102 billion in state operating funds budgeted for this year. Cuomo has, McMahon pointed out, relied on $12 billion in monetary settlements from financial institutions following the recession as a stand in for reserves, of which about $6 to 8 billion has already gone out the door.

“His whole attitude with the now $12 billion windfall settlement is a classic have your cake and eat it too,” he said. “The actual statutory reserves are puny by national standards...but he also gets the cite that money as part of his reserves...I'm not gonna be too speculative [but] he'll tap some of it and help solve his budget problem for next year in some fashion,” McMahon said.

“Without wanting it to happen, I anticipate gimmicks,” he said, “but we'll see.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

How Cuomo Closes Budget Gaps and May Approach Largest Deficit Since His First Year Wed, 15 Jan 2020 05:00:00 +0000
The Governor's Dilemma: Gimmicks or Gumption exec budget address

(photo: Governor's Office)

Next week Governor Cuomo will unveil his proposed budget for the state fiscal year beginning April 1. In his November modification of the current year’s budget and financial plan there was a preview of the severity of the problem he faces: a significant deficit -- originally $6 billion, now reduced to $4 billion in the current fiscal year, which ends in only 12 weeks -- that is projected at $6.1 billion for next fiscal year and to grow to more than $9 million in 2023.

The governor has acknowledged the magnitude of the budget challenge and hinted that serious structural changes are needed, but it is far more likely his budget will contain a variety of short-term fixes and avoidance devices to close the gap. 

Much attention has been paid to the fact that state deferred $1.7 billion in Medicaid expenses from fiscal year 2019 to 2020 to address the recent dramatic increases in the program’s costs. The current deficit is being papered over by again rolling about $2 billion of expenses into the next fiscal year, as well as cutting Medicaid reimbursement rates across the board by 1% and achieving other unspecified savings.

But these fixes are by no means sufficient to handle the cumulative deficit over the next four years, estimated at $28 billion, the largest faced by this governor since early in his first term. 

The size of the deficit and the governor’s vague comments in two public appearances last week have created a high level of anticipation and anxiety about the impending budget proposal. The leader of the State Assembly, Carl Heastie, is talking about higher taxes on the wealthy; Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins has been less enthusiastic about more taxes but has not proposed an alternative.

After his January 6 speech to the Association for a Better New York in New York City, I asked the governor if he expects to raise taxes to deal with the deficit. His answer was an unequivocal “No.” He continued:

“We have equated politicians’ response, ‘well we have a problem, the answer is more money’ - no. There’s not necessarily a correlation between more money and better product...the answer isn’t always more money. It’s government’s’s a legislative answer because they don’t have executive control, so the simple answer is ‘we have to make education better, I’m spending more money’ — we’re already spending more money per pupil than any state in the United States of America, but you’re in the middle when it comes to performance, so the answer’s not always more money. And some of these situations are structurally problematic. We have a problem with Medicaid that is going up very high. A one-shot cash revenue is not the answer - fix the problem. Money tries to paper over the problem, and I’m not in the papering-over business...we’ve been able to say ‘We have reduced your taxes on the state level,’ and I want to continue to be able to say that. Money is not going to solve our Medicaid problem, the health costs have to be addressed structurally, and a one-shot dose for the system of sugar to give us a short high with revenue is not the answer.”

I couldn’t agree more! The audience cheered. But do we all mean the same thing when we talk about the need to address “structural problems”? Probably not.  

Two days after the ABNY speech the governor delivered his official State of the State Address in Albany. It contained many quintessential Cuomo elements, i.e. assertions that progressive government must be pragmatic and appeals to the can-do spirit of New Yorkers to build big. With respect to the deficit, he again made generic references to correcting “structural” problems that raised more questions than answers.

First, he was critical of the way state school aid is distributed, noting derisively that it is not progressive and that some districts spend more than $30,000 per student while others spend far less because they lack sufficient resources derived from property taxes. He repeated several times as if a mantra: “use state funds to raise those at the bottom.” The audience cheered; again, who could disagree? But how does the governor mean to rationalize school aid to make it truly progressive and save the state money? 

School aid is the second largest expenditure in the state budget, totaling $27 billion a year. It has grown 37% over the last decade. The reason it is so high is that everyone from the teachers unions to parents/voters to the State Education Department to every district’s legislative representatives wants more money for schools every year. A major issue in every budget negotiation is not how much more school aid is needed but rather, how much less than advocates demand is acceptable to the Legislature.  

Giving less — or at least no more — to the property- and income-rich districts and to those that have lost school population, and redirecting the savings to poorer districts that need state aid to have enough to provide the sound basic education promised to all students by the State Constitution would mean total school aid would need to rise by only $300 million, not the billions demanded by advocates, saving $800 million, maybe more, per year. It would be very surprising, if welcome, if this is what the governor proposes.

Second, at the very end of the State of the State Address the governor blamed the recent dramatic increase in Medicaid spending – the largest expense in the state budget, which has grown an average of 6.3% per year over the last four years – on the fact that the amount localities contribute to the program is capped and the state has borne all the increases in costs since the cap was imposed in 2015. He cited the amount this saves Erie County ($177 million), Westchester ($175 million) and New York City ($2 billion), wise-cracked “it is too easy to write a check when you don’t sign it” and stated that we need to pay for healthcare “‘intelligently and prudently.” If the local expense cap is the structural problem with Medicaid he means to fix, he is on the wrong track.

Medicaid spending is driven by state policy and health system practices, not by administrative costs at the county or New York City level. New York State has, and has been proud of, its relatively generous eligibility and benefit levels, which mean that there are a whopping 6 million New Yorkers on Medicaid — one of every three residents — and it is the state’s largest expenditure, costing $80 billion a year (half federally reimbursed), accounting for more than one of every three dollars in the state budget.

It is entirely appropriate to ask for more help from localities in curbing misuse and fraud in the program and the governor wisely announced that he will reconvene the Medicaid Redesign Task Force that was effective in achieving Medicaid savings in his first term (bring back Jason Helgerson!).

But there is no justification for pushing costs down to the localities which have even more limited sources of revenue than the state and already pay more of Medicaid costs than the rest of the localities in the country combined. Indeed, freezing the local share of Medicaid to the amount they paid in 2015 and taking full state responsibility for the operation and cost of the program is one of the most significant accomplishments of the Cuomo administration. The Legislature already rejected an effort to lift the cap on New York City’s share when the governor tried to do so in 2016.

One of the sources of the recent dramatic growth in the costs is the state’s directive to pay all home health aides and other Medicaid direct service providers a minimum wage of $15 an hour – immediately in the metro area and over time in the rest of the state — which added $1.5 billion to the budget in this fiscal year, growing to almost $2.3 billion additional in 2023. This may have been a good policy decision but it was not accompanied by commensurate systemic savings that would keep the growth in program spending manageable. Another is the fact that as the population ages, more and more people need long-term care, at home and in nursing homes. 

I know several people whose parents or relatives have transferred their resources to family members and taken other measures to qualify for Medicaid to pay for their long-term care, which is now responsible for almost half of the state’s total Medicaid costs. I am sure the same is true for some readers of this column. Indeed even presidential candidate Senator Amy Klobachar said in the debate this week that she expects her mom to go on Medicaid eventually.

Can we expect the governor to propose ways to cut down on the use of personal and long-term care or to tighten Medicaid eligibility requirements? This is no more likely than a structurally reformed school aid plan.

Why should a locality and those taxpayers who live there be financially punished because it happens to have a particularly large share of the state’s low-income population and hence its Medicaid enrollees? Is this progressive government? Why is it OK for state tax dollars to go to economic development efforts to shore up upstate economies that need it but not OK for state revenue to fund needy Medicaid recipients wherever they live in the state? That is not structural reform, but only shifting a serious and growing financial responsibility to another level of government.

So, get ready for a deficit reduction plan that includes cost shifts to New York City, to public authorities, and to capital spending, along with accounting gimmicks, optimistic savings estimates, and other tactics that avoid difficult decisions that would make some legislators and constituents unhappy. I hope I’m wrong.

Carol Kellermann was president of Citizens Budget Commission from 2008 through 2018.

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The Governor's Dilemma: Gimmicks or Gumption Wed, 15 Jan 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Cuomo's Missing Ethics Agenda Cuomo corruption ethics

Cuomo in 2013 (photo: Governor's Office)

The government ethics agenda put forth by Governor Andrew Cuomo in his 2020 State of the State is much shorter than those he’s proposed in years passed.

In fact, it contains just one proposal: legislation mandating some state officials publish their tax returns. Meanwhile, it leaves out several of Cuomo’s past proposals that have yet to be accomplished, including major campaign finance reforms supported by one of his top allies.

The heavily-truncated list comes after more than a year of controversy surrounding the state’s Campaign Finance Reform Commission, which was created by the governor and Legislature to tackle some of his oldest evergreen proposals to get money out of politics. That commission put forth binding recommendations, now law, to institute a new public matching campaign finance system, with much lower individual contribution limits and other reforms.

But following the end of the commission’s work, many observers and one of Cuomo’s own appointees to the body, have said that a number of key campaign finance reforms are yet to be resolved and should be taken up by state lawmakers.

Yet in his most recent State of the State address, and the 318-page policy book that accompanied it, Cuomo outlined just one initiative that would address potential government corruption. The sole item related to ethics or campaign finance is passing the “Nothing to Hide” Act, a bill that would require the state’s most powerful and highly-paid officials to disclose their tax returns to the public. It is a proposal that resonates with national calls for President Donald Trump to release his tax returns, but touches only one edge of the state’s most endemic corruption problems.

addLeft aside by the campaign finance commission, and also by Cuomo, are proposals to limit donations to party committees and from people doing business with the state, two areas of the campaign finance system that the governor has said enables dark money in the political process.

After years of Cuomo calling for reforms to address perennial corruption and the influence of big money on state government -- strengthening financial disclosure requirements for government officials, expanding state procurement oversight, limiting the income of legislators outside their government salaries, to name a few -- only some of the most highly anticipated proposals have been accomplished, with others only partially or nominally addressed, and a number completely unfulfilled.

Paring down his ethics agenda comes after repeated pledges to clean up state government since his winning 2010 campaign for governor and amid a long series of corruption scandals, including those involving members of Cuomo’s inner circle and state legislative leaders; and amid the governor’s ongoing practice of raising huge sums of money from powerful entities with state business.

“We would have liked to see the governor propose more good government legislation in his State of the State address. In years past he put forth many proposals and this year it appears there’s only one,” said Alex Camarda, senior policy analyst at the good government group Reinvent Albany.

Campaign Finance
High on the list of accomplished reforms are the recent Campaign Finance Reform Commission results, including establishing a voluntary system with lower contribution limits for individuals and public matching funds to multiply the impact of smaller donations. While the details of the new system are still being debated, litigated, and widely critiqued (though not negotiated by state lawmakers), the commissioners left untouched two long-sought changes: contribution limits on donors to political party accounts and on people doing business with the state.

Ethics watchdogs have identified both issues as avenues for circumventing the state’s existing campaign contribution limits and promoting the influence of large political donors. And Cuomo has over the years called for restrictions on both fronts, though he included neither in his 2020 agenda.

Cuomo’s chosen chair of the state Democratic Party, Jay Jacobs, was also one of the governor’s appointees to the campaign finance commission, and while the commission didn’t touch political party donation or doing-business donation limits, Jacobs said that lawmakers should tackle both.

Asked in December why the commission hadn’t, Jacobs said on the Max and Murphy podcast that the panel’s legal counsel believed them to be outside the commission’s jurisdiction. “That’s not to say that I don’t believe, and I do believe, that the legislature should take it up and address both those issues,” he said, adding there should be limits on “party accounts and certainly those doing business with the state.”

Cuomo has for almost his entire term in the executive chamber called for limits to party “housekeeping” accounts, including it in his first State of the State in 2011, and in every other policy book between 2013 and 2018. Housekeeping accounts, as opposed to party committees, are meant to support party activities outside of campaigns, but are frequently used to channel large contributions into elections operations like get out the vote efforts, which can be used to benefit preferred candidates outside of the state’s oversight apparatus.

The governor has also publicly supported campaign contribution limits on people with or seeking state contracts throughout his tenure, at least as far back as his 2012 State of the State. In his speech that year, he raised alarms about the “undue influence over elected officials” of contractors and lobbyists who have donated to the campaigns of key decision-makers and may later expect the favor to be returned. (In 2016, as the Buffalo Billion bid-rigging and bribery scandal was unfolding, Cuomo pledged to restrict contributions to his own campaign coffers from companies when the government was seeking contractors. His office later confirmed to Gotham Gazette that this promise had not been followed through on.)

Cuomo has benefited immensely from contributions from people and businesses with state contracts. The New York Times reported in July that Cuomo had raised over $3 million just from contractors with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) since he took office in 2011, according to campaign finance filings. That is more than 3 percent of his total campaign donations over the same period of time coming from contractors with just one, albeit massive, state authority.

Jacobs admitted in the interview that restricting contributions to party accounts goes against the interests of the state party he chairs, of which Cuomo is one of the biggest beneficiaries. “As state party chair I would advocate maybe something different but that’s not my role at this moment,” he said.

Party committees are able to garner a virtually unlimited amount of money and unlike housekeeping accounts can be used on electoral spending to benefit a particular candidate. Campaign finance filings for the weeks ahead of the 2018 primary, in which a number of incumbent Democratic legislators had competitive challenges from the left, show the New York State Democratic Committee received hundreds of thousands of dollars from a handful of unions and political action committees -- the largest donation that filing was $109,000 from the United Federation of Teachers (UFT). Ahead of the general election in 2019, the committee received a single donation of $95,000 from an individual, Lucy R. Waletzky (a Rockefeller), of Pleasantville.

Also left on the cutting room floor was Cuomo’s 2019 proposal to ban all campaign donations from corporations, which accompanied a similar plan to ban contributions by limited liability corporations, or LLCs.

“That’s something that could be done, that could go further than what’s been proposed, but I will say that I think the other items I mentioned -- the doing business restrictions, lower contribution limits, limits on party and housekeeping accounts -- are more important,” Camarda said, noting that LLCs were partially addressed last year when the Legislature and Cuomo imposed contribution limits and new disclosure requirements on them.

Asked why Cuomo had not included some of his past ethics and campaign finance proposals in his 2020 agenda, and specifically why he did not include limits on political party and doing-business contributions, a spokesperson for Cuomo said he still supports past proposals.

"We're proud to say that closing the LLC loophole was among the first bills the governor signed last year and of course we continue to support these further reforms. I'm sure these will be among the issues we’ll be discussing with the legislature this session," wrote Caitlin Girouard, the administration spokesperson, in an email.

What remains in 2020 is the proposed tax return disclosure requirement, which would make high-earning officials, including the governor, attorney general, comptroller, state legislators, and agency commissioners, as well as any elected official earning more than $100,000 annually, to publish their tax returns. The measure is similar to a 2019 proposal in Cuomo’s State of the State that would require candidates for statewide office and the Legislature to submit tax returns to the Board of Elections.

“We think the public financing system still needs to be improved significantly by limiting party contributions, contributions from individuals doing business with the state, for example,” Camarda said.

“And we think there is a real need to reform JCOPE and ethics laws, which nobody believes are working effectively, as evidenced by all the situations that have arisen over the last year,” he added referring to the state’s maligned ethics watchdog.

More Past Cuomo Ethics Proposals
A number of other ethics proposals from previous years remain active in the minds of good government advocates, if no longer in the governor’s. Among them are requiring local elected officials and municipal employees to file financial disclosure statements with JCOPE. Another initiative would have enacted a “first-in-the-nation” code of conduct for lobbyists, as Cuomo put it last year, a measure that several good government groups opposed saying it was too nebulous.

Other past priorities of the governor were pursued in previous years but failed to achieve the full scope of what was advocated. High on that list was a limit on legislators’ income outside their government salary, which was imposed by a commission but later struck down in New York State Supreme Court. Good government groups now want to see the measure, which is intended to limit conflicts of interest and opportunities for corruption, created through statute by the Legislature and governor.

At the start of 2019, Cuomo was calling for expanded oversight powers of the state comptroller and inspector general to review certain large state contracts for SUNY, CUNY, and affiliated organizations, as well as Office of General Services centralized contracts. This was partially achieved through an agreement between Cuomo and Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli in August, but good government groups want to see it codified.

In his 2019 State of the State, and clarified in his executive budget proposals that year, Cuomo called for multiple changes to the state’s Freedom of Information Law, from making the state Legislature subject to open records provisions and allowing public access to union contracts before they’re approved to limiting the length of time during which trade secrets are exempt from FOIL. None of his five proposals passed, but three other legislative amendments were made: exempting mugshots from FOIL, requiring Industrial Development Agencies to livestream and record public meetings, and requiring state agencies with websites to create a webpage for requesting records. In December, Cuomo signed a FOIL bill and vetoed another, both relating to access to court records (the vetoed measure would have limited certain law enforcement-related exemptions to FOIL).

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Note: this story has been updated to reflect that Comptroller DiNapoli's office said the aforementioned agreement with Gov. Cuomo has been finalized, so mention of it not being so has been removed.

Cuomo's Missing Ethics Agenda Tue, 14 Jan 2020 05:00:00 +0000
As Cuomo Proposes Expansive Equal Rights Amendment Favored in Senate, Assembly Again Passes Narrow Version wash wom rights

Gov. Cuomo with Assemblymember Seawright, center, & others (photo: Governor's Office)

Governor Andrew Cuomo is promoting a more expansive version of a New York State equal rights amendment than he did last year, tipping the balance between the discrepant Assembly and Senate bills in the direction of inclusivity, favored by the Senate.

Despite Cuomo’s new support for a broader set of protections, the Assembly on Monday passed a narrower expansion for the second year in a row, renewing uncertainty about the amendment’s future.

In 1938, New York adopted language to prohibit discrimination based on race, color, creed, and religion, a measure the governor now says “reflects an outdated conception of equality” and is in need of updating. In his State of the State policy book outlining his agenda for the 2020 legislative session, Cuomo calls for amending New York’s constitution to include civil rights protections against not only sex-based discrimination, as some other states have done, but discrimination on the basis of a host of other categories from gender identity to national origin.

"In New York, we believe in full equality for every person—period," Cuomo said in a statement announcing the proposal. "But our federal and state constitutions don't protect against discrimination on the basis of sex, ethnicity, gender identity and other characteristics that make us so unique and our diversity so great. That ends this year.”

Under the governor’s proposal, the state’s bill of rights would be amended to add to the list of protected categories sex, ethnicity, national origin, age, disability, sexual orientation, and gender identity. While state law in many areas addresses some of these forms of discrimination, supporters of the ERA say statutes are often context-specific and tend not to be as broadly applicable as a constitutionally protected right.

“Having a constitutional amendment will cover all of those groups, all of these protected categories, and you don’t have to pass and change every law. It will apply to all the laws of the state,” said Beverly Cooper Neufeld, president of the advocacy organization PowHer NY and a member of the city’s Commission on Gender Equality.

This is not the first time Cuomo has proposed an ERA, and the governor is not the only lawmaker in Albany pushing for its adoption. Last year, Cuomo supported a narrower proposal that would have added sex as the only new protected category. That was the form that passed the Assembly in February 2019 and again Monday, but which was put aside in the Senate for a broader set of protections.

Cuomo’s renewed proposal now more closely aligns with the equal rights amendment that passed the State Senate last June, which Neufeld says reflects a changing wind in Albany’s progressive corridors. It is unclear why the Assembly did not pass an expanded version when it became evident that was the direction the Senate was moving in, or why it passed the narrower version again at the start of the 2020 legislative session.

“We’ve been taking a piecemeal approach to addressing equality, and even our concept of equality has changed and our concept of fairness and who should be covered,” Neufeld said. Much of the changing attitudes towards civil rights protections has been reflected in statute like the New York State Human Rights Law, which she said “has step-by-step created stronger protections and looks and adds new categories.”

“But really you can’t go statute by statute. That process will take hundreds of years,” she added.

Adopting an ERA will not be an overnight process either. Because it requires amending the state’s constitution, it will need to be passed by two consecutive legislatures and then must to be approved by voters. The current session ends this year, meaning the earliest an ERA can be adopted is in late 2021. That timeline assumes the amendment passes both houses of the legislature this year and again next year, and then is ratified in a November 2021 statewide referendum.

But with multiple versions of the bill -- the narrow and the expansive -- floating in the legislature, and the recent history of dissonance between the legislative chambers, it is unclear what form conversations around the measure will take.

“It’s not too soon to be talking about this. It’s going to be at least a three-year campaign I would say, if not longer,” Neufeld said.

Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright, a Manhattan Democrat, sponsors both versions of the ERA in her chamber. "I’m committed to an Equal Rights Amendment with language that is more inclusive. I will continue to work diligently with my colleagues in the Assembly and the Senate to pass ERA  legislation in 2020,” she wrote in an email this past Thursday.

Following the passage of the narrow ERA Monday, a spokesperson for Seawright told Gotham Gazette by email, "Assembly Member Seawright is committed to an Equal Rights Amendment that provides for the widest inclusion possible. Today's passage helps to build momentum as we continue to listen and work toward a successful outcome." The narrow amendment’s sponsor in the Senate is Julia Salazar, a Brooklyn Democrat who often stakes out more progressive territory than other legislators.

A legislative staffer with knowledge of the bills and the legislative process told Gotham Gazette last week that it was too soon in the session to know which way the Assembly Democratic conference was leaning. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Likewise, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins’ office did not respond to requests for comment on the ERA.

“Governor Cuomo is committed to having the most inclusive ERA in the nation and we are working closely with the legislature and coalition stakeholders to get it passed this year,” said Caitlin Girouard, a spokesperson for the governor.

Both versions of the amendment are a step ahead of federal constitutional protections. Congress in 1972 passed a federal equal rights amendment that would have extended protections to women, but it was never ratified by the states. Eleven states have passed state-level ERAs that bar discrimination based on sex, but none go further in protecting LGBTQ rights or the rights of people with disabilities, according to Senator Liz Krueger, who sponsors the Senate’s expansive ERA bill.

“Many New Yorkers are surprised when they discover that women or LGBTQ people, for example, are not protected by the equal rights language in our state constitution,” Krueger, also a Manhattan Democrat, wrote in an email to Gotham Gazette.

While, in the final days of session last year, Cuomo urged the Senate to pass the narrower version of the bill rather than leaving Albany with no amendment at all, the governor is now resetting this year with the more aspirational call. Part of that thrust is in the face of the more limited progress nationwide. “We will pass an expanded, nation-leading Equal Rights Amendment so that no matter what happens at the federal level, all New Yorkers will be afforded the complete and unequivocal protections they deserve," Cuomo said in the statement.

“Last year we passed a real, inclusive ERA in the Senate. This year, with the Governor as a partner in the fight, there is no reason we can’t have first passage of a fully inclusive ERA in both houses of the Legislature, and take our state one step closer to having a constitution that reflects and protects all New Yorkers," Krueger wrote.

“It will be meaningful to individuals but I think it will be meaningful in the statement that it makes. The governor bringing it up at this moment in time is very important,” said Neufeld.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: This article has been updated with comment from a spokesperson for Assembly Member Seawright following the passage of an ERA bill in the Assembly Monday.

As Cuomo Proposes Expansive Equal Rights Amendment Favored in Senate, Assembly Again Passes Narrow Version Mon, 13 Jan 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Three Democratic Leaders in Albany, Three Different Positions on Altering Bail Reforms Cuomo legislative leaders

Gov. Cuomo and other state leaders (photo: Darren McGee, Governor's Office)

In the opening days of the 2020 state legislative session, debate continues to rage over whether to revisit major changes to the bail system made last year and key Albany policy-makers have been staking out initial positions in a reignited conversation that could lead to revising the reforms.

The three top decision-makers -- Governor Andrew Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, all Democrats -- have each taken a different position on a criminal justice response to recent anti-Semitic and other hate-motivated crimes, in the process giving a glimpse of how far they may go in attempting to alter the newly reformed bail system in the coming months.

While Heastie has said it’s too soon to judge the new system, which has only been fully in effect since January 1, Stewart-Cousins has said her conference is open to considering changes, and Cuomo has said he believes some adjustment is needed, while expressing support for adding hate crimes to the list of bailable offenses.

At question since the law was passed last year are which crimes are on that list, and whether judges are to be given the discretion to assess a suspect’s potential dangerousness to society in a new process to determine who may be ordered jailed.

Last session, state lawmakers eliminated cash bail for all but the most serious and violent crimes. The changes were intended to bring a greater degree of fairness to the criminal legal system by removing ability to pay as a reason for pretrial incarceration in most cases, correcting an imbalance that had disproportionately imprisoned black and Hispanic suspects.

Supporters of the reforms noted not only that racism and classism are endemic to the old system and the fact that suspects are, by law, innocent until proven guilty, but also that many cases of all kinds are ultimately dismissed. Less than a week after a machete attack at a Hanukkah celebration in Monsey in which multiple people were hospitalized, Assembly Member Simcha Eichentsein, a Brooklyn Democrat who represents Orthodox Jewish communities, introduced legislation that would add hate crimes to the list of bail-eligible offenses.

While New York State law authorizes bail as a method to compel accused lawbreakers to return to court, judges have used it to remand people they believe would be a threat to public safety if released. Throughout 2019, many Republican and some Democratic officials, prosecutors, and members of law enforcement statewide sounded the alarm about the dangers of limiting judges’ discretion, making it easier for people to avoid jail pre-trial, and not incentivizing court compliance via bail.

Since the law went into effect and in the wake of a spate of anti-Semitic attacks in the final weeks of last year, a number of them violent, opponents of the bail changes have renewed calls for expanding the list of bail-eligible offenses, perhaps most notably by adding hate crimes. Some have renewed calls for giving judges explicit discretion to consider public safety risks in determining whether a person can be released pre-trial.

Though he did sign off on the compromise reached with the two Democratic legislative majorities in last year’s state budget deal, Cuomo has included judicial discretion for public safety in his bail reform proposals since 2016. He is now part of a group Democratic officials that also includes Mayor Bill de Blasio and moderates throughout the state, responding to recent hate crimes and other reported incidents with calls to revisit last year’s bail changes. (De Blasio has backed bail reform including expanded judicial discretion since 2015.)

“Changing the system, as we started to do, is complicated and then has a number of ramifications,” Cuomo said at during audience question-and-answer at a breakfast hosted by the Association for a Better New York on January 6, where he gave remarks just ahead of the start of the legislative session. “There’s no doubt this is still a work in progress and there are other changes that have to be made.”

“The legislature comes back...and we’re going to work on it because there are consequences that we have to adjust for,” he added, responding to a question connecting anti-Semitic hate crimes and bail reform, without going into specifics.

On Thursday in Albany, Stewart-Cousins said her conference was open to considering changes to the reforms, but would not respond to "fear-mongering."

"We’re on day nine [of implementation]...We listen, we are interested in making the justice system just, and we are paying attention as it continues to see if there any necessary tweaks; but, again, we are not responding right now,” she told reporters.

But Stewart-Cousins said, if her conference does decide tweaks are needed, especially with regard to reclassifying hate crimes, it will make them.

“Personally, I think that hate crimes sometimes strike at the core of entire communities, and so on, so I want to look at it to see if we are appropriately classifying this,” she said.

A number of Senate Democrats from Long Island, some of whom represent districts recently held by Republicans, are carrying legislation that would expand the list of bail-eligible offenses and grant judicial discretion for public safety risks.

But for Heastie, who has made criminal justice reform a major focus in his years as Assembly speaker, conversations to revisit bail reform are a non-starter. He told reporters Thursday he did not have plans for his conference to reexamine the 2019 changes and urged letting the new system play out before discussing revamping it.

"It's day nine and I think we should let the law take effect," he said. "We want our communities to be safe but the conference believes in what we did."

Heastie staunchly defended the Legislature’s steps to remove most cash bail without substituting judicial discretion, which he said contributes to inequities in the justice system.

“I think judges have had judicial discretion...When two people who are charged with the same crime end up with different bails that gives me pause on judicial discretion,” he said. “Judicial discretion invites back in bias.”

New York is the only state in the nation that does not allow judges to consider public safety when making custody decisions before trial, according to a report by the Vera Institute of Justice.

“We have no tolerance whatsoever for hate. But hate crimes have been on the rise for the past year, way before the bail bill was implemented,” Heastie said.

Citing the likes of powerful media mogul Harvey Weinstein, who was able to post bail while awaiting trial on charges of on multiple counts of sexual assault, he added, “We have to get out of this idea that bail equates safety.”

The governor appears adamant that changes should be explored. In an interview on NY1 Wednesday following Cuomo's State of the State speech, top aide Melissa DeRosa also warned against the dangers of fear-mongering but said, "At the same time, I think it is wholly legitimate -- and the Governor has said this -- that we look at the law. We have to make sure that public safety comes first. We look at the law, we look what it is that we enacted and ask ourselves and ask our partners in the Legislature, are there ways to improve upon that?...We are going to sit with them and have these conversations."

Attorney General Letitia James has also said she believes changes to the bail law are warranted, and that her office is studying what those should look like. In the meantime, she said during a Thursday interview on the Capitol Pressroom that judges should be given more discretion in hate crimes cases, and, generally, that “it’s important we come up with an objective proposal so it does not result in racial disparities and that all individuals are treated fairly. But at the same time, at the end of the day, it’s all about public safety. That should be their priority.”

Many reformers, including elected officials like Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, public defenders, and decarceral activists have vigorously pushed back against the notion that changes are needed, holding various press conferences and rallies, and writing op-eds. A group of Jewish state legislators -- Assemblymembers Dan Quart, Harvey Epstein, and Linda Rosenthal, all Manhattan Democrats -- penned an op-ed in the Daily News Wednesday warning against using anti-Semitism as a reason for pulling back bail reform.

Republican leaders are seizing on the attacks and some reported cases of people re-offending while at-large awaiting trial to undo the changes completely.

“I can’t think of an issue that is more germaine to the first day of this legislative session than criminal justice reform -- we are advocating for repeal,” Senate Minority Leader John Flanagan of Long Island said on the Senate floor Thursday after describing the state as in “crisis.” 

“Every Democrat in this house voted for that legislation, and now a number of them are walking it back,” Flanagan noted, in reference to the bail changes that were voted through April 1 as part of the massive budget deal.

“Let me be clear, we believe there are opportunities for reform done the right way, under the right circumstances, by listening to people who are hired and elected to protect us and the public,” he said.

Newly-selected Assembly Minority Leader William Barclay, an upstate Republican, gave similar remarks in his opening floor statement of the Assembly’s session. He listed a litany of recent violent or anti-Semitic crimes where the suspect was released without bail, and said to his colleagues, “This isn’t fear-mongering, so don’t take my word for it, I’m not trying to grind the political axe...we need to listen to the people out there. The professionals, the law enforcement officials, judges, district attorneys all have sounded the alarm.”

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Three Democratic Leaders in Albany, Three Different Positions on Altering Bail Reforms Sun, 12 Jan 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Reactions Roundup: Elected Officials, Advocates & Others on Cuomo's 2020 State of the State Speech sos address

(photo: Darren McGee/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo)

On Wednesday, Governor Andrew Cuomo presented his annual State of the State address from Albany. He opened by highlighting the challenges faced by Americans, and New Yorkers, over recent weeks and years, including earthquakes in Puerto Rico, escalating tensions with Iran, and the surge in hate crimes against Jewish New Yorkers.

Cuomo gave highlights of New York successes over the course of his now nine-plus years as governor, then launched into his policy priorities for 2020, positioning New York State as the “progressive capital of the nation.”

Cuomo hit on a myriad of policy proposals during his speech, from the importance of combating climate change through a new $3 billion Restore Mother Nature Bond Act and banning styrofoam to continued tax cuts for the middle class and a new tax cut for small businesses.

Among many other proposals, Cuomo called for legalizing adult use of marijuana, ensuring a fair trial for rape victims, banning sex offenders from the MTA, and funding more affordable housing units to reduce homelessness. He took early but vague positions on altering how the state provides local education funding, how Medicaid is paid for, and regulating the gig economy. 

After the address, responses came flooding in from stakeholders across the state. The New York Republican Party released a statement from Chair Nick Langworthy condemning Cuomo’s remarks and stressing the state’s ongoing population loss, blaming it on high taxes and too much business regulation, among other things.

“As our residents and jobs leave, so does our tax revenue. So does our talent. We are yet again facing the loss of one or two congressional seats after the next census, giving us less representation in our federal government,” Langworthy says in the video response to Cuomo’s speech.

Whereas Republicans tweak Cuomo from the right, the Working Families Party typically critiques him from the left. In response to Cuomo’s agenda, the WFP criticized him for putting the interest of wealthy New Yorkers first at the expense of others. WFP State Director Sophie Nnaemeka said in a statement, “it is shameful that Governor Cuomo thinks the best way to fix the deficit is to cut state funding for Medicaid — a move that will cost lives.”

It likely won’t be clear until Cuomo releases his executive budget for the next fiscal year, a plan due out by January 21, how the third term Democratic governor plans to close the looming $6.1 billion budget gap that Nnaemeka and other critics referenced in their State of the State responses. Cuomo briefly mentioned the budget gap during his State of the State when talking about the need for reforms to Medicaid, which is the leading driver of the deficit.

In a statement released by the The Conservative Party of New York State, Chair Gerard Kassar also emphasized the exodus of people to other states, and disconnect between having a $6 billion deficit and “proposed billions in new spending.”

When his remarks turned to forward-looking proposals, Cuomo first talked about combatting climate change, urging his audience to “think globally, act locally.” He focused on restoring the state’s natural environment through the bond act he said he would seek to put on the ballot this November, investing in renewables by connecting the offshore wind program to upstate, investing in electric vehicles, and banning styrofoam statewide. His proposals for the environment drew a variety of responses.

NY Renews said the funding towards renewables was not clear or specific enough, and expressed frustration that Cuomo didn’t outline plans to fund ambitious climate legislation passed last year, though those intended allocations are more likely to be found during the governor’s budget presentation.

In its State of the State statement, NY Renews urged the governor to “put money directly into New York State communities, laser-focused on the interrelated goals of a just society and a renewable economy. NY Renews is demanding this funding in the 2020 budget.” The statement went on to read: “we have the resources to build a just transition to a renewable economy; what we lack is the political will.”

Melissa Iachan, Senior Staff Attorney in the environmental justice program at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, said in a statement that NYLPI is encouraged by the governor’s styrofoam ban proposal and that it will help to protect wildlife and reduce pollution, especially in low-income neighborhoods where significant waste infrastructure is located.

On the other side of that issue, Mike Durant, President & CEO of the Food Industry Alliance of NYS, Inc., emphasized that the styrofoam ban could “prove costly to an industry that is currently reeling from the lack of finality to the single-use plastic bag ban.”

During his address, Cuomo touched on the state’s homelessness crisis, proposing the “largest amount of funding in the history of the State of New York to help the homeless and build affordable housing,” and “demand a higher level of competence and skill and professionalism” form local elected officials across the state to address homelessness.

In response to the governor’s comments, The Family Homelessness Coalition released a statement urging further action, specifically asking for the state to “expand rental assistance and transitional housing supports for families experiencing homelessness, and ensure that survivors of domestic violence, the leading cause of family homelessness, have access to critical preventive and permanent housing services.”

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio attended Cuomo’s speech and held a media availability afterward. Asked about Cuomo’s homelessness comments, de Blasio said that he is glad the governor raised the topic, but would like more information, which he hopes becomes clearer when the executive budget is released. De Blasio said it would be “tremendous” to have more state support and is going to work with the Legislature to pass the Home Stability Support Act (HSS), a housing subsidy program that Cuomo has opposed in recent years.

In her reaction to Cuomo’s speech and outline of her priorities for 2020, Senator Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat who chairs the Senate finance committee, also cited HSS, which she sponsors in her chamber, as a top priority.

Cuomo brought back up an issue he had said he would work on in 2019 but did not, and proposed protections for gig economy workers, saying that “corporations are increasing their profits at the expense of the employee and the taxpayer” and that it must stop. He said workers for many businesses are in fact employees and not contractors as the corporations like to say.

In a written response, the New York State AFL-CIO applauded the governor’s comments and said its members “look forward to working with the governor and legislature to pass legislation that guarantees these workers will no longer be denied the rights and protections all other working men and women enjoy."

The Food Industry Alliance also highlighted in its statement that the food industry is evolving and a part of the gig economy and that it is a “complicated issue.” The statement suggested that any legislation pushed through too quickly and without thorough consultation with stakeholders could be detrimental.

Amid ongoing debate over bail reforms passed last year that went into effect on January 1, the audience may have been expecting more attention paid to criminal justice during Cuomo’s speech, including, perhaps, the governor’s preferred changes to the law. But while he has said he thinks changes are warranted, Cuomo has not outlined specifics and did not do so during his State of the State. Rather, he mentioned last year’s effort to decriminalize marijuana possession, and proposed “creating the first of its kind global cannabis and hemp research center for science and education” while legalizing adult use.

In response, the Drug Policy Alliance released a statement praising the governor’s “renewed ambition to get legalization done this year” and urging him to make New York a leader in social justice by “ensur[ing] any bill legalizing and regulating marijuana includes opportunities for New Yorkers who have been directly impacted by decades of prohibition to excel in the new market and must also dedicate significant funds to those communities most impacted by the war on drugs.”

The coalition NYC Defenders of the city’s public defender organizations put out a statement praising bail reform and emphasizing the need for the state to “progress and prioritize and pass urgent reforms to other aspects of the system, including marijuana legalization, policing, due process, prison and jail conditions, and parole.”

The defenders went on to highlight New York Senate and Assembly measures that they support, such as ending the lifetime felony ban on jury duty service, which “prevents people from serving their communities as full-fledged and equal citizens.”

One of the more staggering numbers presented during the address is the disparity in funding among New York schools. Cuomo said it is “shameful that we do not distribute funding in the most progressive way.” Adding that wealthier schools spend as much as $36,000 per student while poorer schools spend as little as $13,000 per student, he urged legislators to use state funds to reduce the funding disparities.

In response to Cuomo’s remarks, the Alliance for Quality Education said that while he rightly pointed out the lack of equity, the governor should “join his colleagues in the Assembly and Senate to support a multi-year commitment to phase-in the $3.8 billion in Foundation Aid owed to public schools.” The statement highlighted that in 2019 while the Assembly and Senate committed to the funding, the governor, who has disputed that characterization of “owed” funds, did not.

New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, who challenged Cuomo’ lieutenant governor, Kathy Hochul, in the 2018 Democratic primary, was also in attendance on Wednesday. In a statement released after Cuomo’s speech, Williams said he is taking a wait-and-see approach, especially as the governor prepares his executive budget.

“Advocates from across the state, and the Public Advocate's office itself, will be watching and working to ensure that Governor Cuomo does not attempt a retreat from the progress we have already fought for and won,” Williams said in the statement. “This is even more critical as budgetary constraints loom - it's easy to be progressive when there's an abundance of funding, but essential to define and champion progressive priorities in any environment. Fiscal responsibility is very important, and so too is human responsibility”

by Katie Kirker, Gotham Gazette

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Reactions Roundup: Elected Officials, Advocates & Others on Cuomo's 2020 State of the State Speech Thu, 09 Jan 2020 05:00:00 +0000
16 Notable Cuomo Proposals Not in His State of the State Speech sos creating 21

(photo: Governor's office)

Governor Andrew Cuomo detailed much of his legislative agenda for the year at his State of the State speech on Wednesday in Albany, outlining various measures that, if enacted, could have wide-ranging impacts on New Yorkers. He gave only a nod, however, to the state’s fiscal picture, including an expected $6.1 billion budget gap for next fiscal year, which he’ll have to address in more detail when he presents his budget plan later this month.

The governor spoke of his top-line priorities – gun control, health care, workers protections, tax cuts and credits, and more – some of which he had already publicly released in the lead-up to the speech. But also notable are various proposals that he did not mention but are included in the 320-page policy book that accompanied his speech.

Below are 15 topics with proposals from the governor that he did not mention in his remarks:

Tax Relief Benefits
The state Earned Income Tax Credit can be worth as much as $8,682 for a family of two with three or more children and a combined annual income of $54,884. But filers often do not claim the benefit, which provides more than $1 billion each year to low-income taxpayers. Cuomo has proposed legislation to allow the state Department of Taxation and Finance to issue EITC checks to taxpayers even if they do not claim it. It would also not require them to amend their tax returns.

Assisting Minority- and Women-Owned Businesses
In the 2018-19 fiscal year, 29.13% of state contracts went to minority- and women-owned business enterprises (MWBEs), falling just short of a 30% goal set by the governor in 2014.

MWBEs often face administrative hurdles in obtaining business from the state and, as the policy book notes, there are several state entities with MWBE program and each has its own application and certification requirements. According to the policy book, the governor will direct Empire State Development’s Division of Minority and Women’s Business Development to create a centralized application portal as well as undertake other measures to ease the burden on MWBEs.

Targeting Robocalls
Robocalls can be a nuisance and also a tool for fraud and scams with elderly New Yorkers often falling prey to them. In response, the governor has proposed a three-part plan to end the menace by requiring telecom companies to block them, mandating that the companies implement additional call authentication mechanisms and imposing steep fines on companies that do not comply, as much as $100,000 a day.

Net Neutrality Protections
Under the Trump administration, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rolled back net neutrality policies that had been in place since 2015. Those policies had prevented internet service providers (ISPs) from throttling access or charging additional rates for online content.

In 2018, Cuomo signed an executive order to mandate that state agencies only contract with ISPs that follow net neutrality principles. In his policy book, he proposed codifying that executive order as well as legislation to “prevent the blocking, throttling and paid prioritization of online content — practices that undermine a free and open internet.”

The legislation would allow the Department of Public Service to investigate and fine ISPs that do not follow net neutrality rules. It would also allow consumers to pursue legal action against a company on those grounds.

Targeting Predatory Debt Collectors
Taking aim at deceptive actions, harassment, and wrongdoing in the debt collection industry, Cuomo proposed a license requirement for debt collectors, implemented and overseen by the Department of Financial Services.

Consumer Protections
Cuomo proposed a multi-pronged consumer protection agenda though he did not reference it in his speech. The proposals include giving state authorities additional enforcement powers in line with federal law; eliminating oversight exemptions for consumer financial products and services; changing the Financial Services Law to place oversight mandates on entities (such as virtual currency issuers) licensed under the law, similar to mandates on banks and insurance companies; and increasing fines under the state Insurance Law and Financial Services Law.

Women’s Equity
In his speech, Cuomo spoke of ending the so-called “pink tax,” a form of gender-based pricing discrimination that hurts women, and also pushed for ending the rape intoxication loophole. The policy book, however, contains a raft of other proposals aimed at promoting women’s equity.

-To address the abysmally low rate of women in corporate governance positions, Cuomo will instruct SUNY Empire State College to create a Women’s Corporate Leadership Academy, to both prepare women for executive and board positions as well as work with organizations to improve their gender representation.

-This year, according to the policy book, the governor’s Council on Women and Girls, Department of Financial Service, and Essence Communications Inc. will together organize a statewide program to examine how the student debt crisis particularly impacts women of color.

-In order to ensure that state and local authorities are complying with the state’s recently passed pay equity law, the state Authorities Budget Office will conduct a survey of all authorities to collect information on pay scales broken down by gender. Authorities where pay gaps exist will have six months to produce a plan to fix them.

-Cuomo also proposed requiring companies that are seeking state contracts to report on settlements, court judgements, and administrative rulings related to sexual harassment within the previous year.

Women’s Health
The policy book contains several announcements and proposals aimed at improving women’s reproductive health and choice:

-New York will launch a family planning program funded only by the state owing to changes to federal rules by the Trump administration that prevent federal funds from being used to aid organizations that provide abortions and other services.

-The governor proposed creating a Women’s Health Research Consortium to study conditions that disproportionately affect women, health care issues specific to women and to prioritize research into maternal mortality and infertility.

-The state will invest $8 million over two years to continue combating maternal mortality and implement the recommendations of the Task Force on Maternal Mortality and Disparate Racial Outcomes.

Tackling Gender-Based Violence
The governor put forward a host of measures to reduce gender-based violence and provide services to survivors:

-Cuomo proposed a uniform standard of care for all hospitals when treating sexual assault survivors.

-The “Enough is Enough” law was passed in 2015 to prevent sexual violence on college campuses. Cuomo has proposed amending it to institute trainings “on healthy nightlife in college communities.” He will also direct the State Liquor Authority to include sexual violence prevention in its Alcohol Awareness Training Program curriculum.

-The governor proposed a pilot program to provide flexible funding that would allow non-profit organizations to provide a continuum of services to domestic violence survivors. He also proposed instituting Domestic Violence Regional Councils to work with the state Domestic Violence Advisory Council on the needs of survivors.

-Cuomo also intends to put forward a bill that would require courts to take into consideration the effect of domestic violence when deciding on the distribution of assets in a divorce.
-Cuomo proposed allowing family courts to issue restraining orders without the petitioner having to prove that a family offense was committed.

-The governor made several proposals that specifically deal with gun violence, including allowing law enforcement to confiscate firearms from alleged abusers while they await prosecution and from the subject of a restraining order based on a domestic dispute. He also proposed creating a new category of domestic violence misdemeanor.

Immigrant Protections and Rights
The policy book notes that many New York statutes require individuals applying for occupational licenses to be citizens or green card holders, which excludes several categories of immigrants that are legally allowed to live and work in the country. Cuomo proposed removing that requirement by amending the Executive Law, General Business Law, and Real Property Law.

Cuomo also intends to move a bill that would codify an executive order he signed in 2011 that requires state agencies that interact with the public to provide interpretation and translation services to those with limited English proficiency.

Preventing Exploitation by Sexual Predators
Cuomo will introduce legislation that would update current law to require sex offenders to disclose all their social media accounts to the state Division of Criminal Justice Services. The amendment is aimed at closing a loophole and preventing predators from targeting people through dating apps, video game chats, and social media.

Police Surveillance
Touting License Plate Readers as an “invaluable tool” for the state police, Cuomo’s policy book said he will expand the current program and update it with the latest technology. It particularly cites the success of LPRs in catching the alleged suspect in the stabbing attack at a Hanukkah gathering in Monsey last month.

Students and Education
Cuomo proposed a new program that would allow school districts to apply for grants to provide mental health services to students and for schools with programs already operational to expand them.

The governor also proposed new legislation to make for-profit colleges more transparent in how they spend public funds. It would mandate them to report on, among other things, the salaries and bonuses paid to owners and executives.

The Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance will also expand eligibility criteria for community college students to obtain Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.

The governor also proposed legislation to set standards for the student loan debt relief industry.

Health Care Protections
A number of proposals in the policy book would reform access to health care and how the industry operates.

-Cuomo will order the Department of Health, the Department of Financial Services, and the state Digital and Media Services Center to build an online portal that allows individuals to access information on the cost of health care services and to educate them on their rights as a patient.

-The governor included several measures to curb the practice of surprise billing including expanding the current out of network billing law to prevent hospitals from directly charging patients for emergency services; requiring medical facilities to disclose their fees that are not covered by insurance; and shortening the statute of limitations for collecting unpaid medical debt from six years to three years.

-Cuomo also aims to reform physician accountability, introducing bills to establish periodic renewal requirements for licensed physicians and increase oversight under the DOH Office of Professional Medical Conduct.

Veterans Benefits
The governor made several commitments to veteran benefits in his policy book, including a $5 million investment in permanent supportive housing for homeless veterans; $1 million for veteran suicide prevention; a partnership between SUNY and, a philanthropic organization, to pay the costs of exams for veterans and members of active-duty military families.

Cuomo also intends to propose legislation that would make it easier for New York State to build a State Veterans Cemetery.

Election Security
Cuomo proposed several election security measures recommended by the Cyber Security Advisory Board, which he convened in November. Among the measures he intends to advance is the creation of a Cyber Swat Team to work with local boards of elections. He will also direct the state and local BOEs to work with state agencies to prepare an emergency response plan for potential cyber attacks that may affect the 2020 elections.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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16 Notable Cuomo Proposals Not in His State of the State Speech Thu, 09 Jan 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Cuomo's Clemency and Cruelty of False Hope coxsackie officer

(photo: Governor's Office)

In 2015, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a project to provide pro bono legal services to prisoners seeking clemency. The governor explained that this was “a critical step toward a more just, more fair, and more compassionate New York,” and that he sought to “identify those deserving of a second chance and to help ensure that clemency is a more accessible and tangible reality.”

Two years later, the governor re-emphasized his interest in clemency via a press release stating that “Family members of individuals serving prison sentences are encouraged to apply for clemency on behalf of their family member.”

This expressed interest in clemency, more specifically clemency in the form of a commutation of sentence, reverberated across New York’s patchwork of 50 state prisons. Men and women serving lengthy sentences with no chance of ever obtaining their freedom now had hope. People who spent their time wasting away in their cells began to re-engage with programs. Family visits reflected renewed promise of the possibility of unification beyond the prison walls.

In short order, CUNY Law School’s clemency project received more than 1,800 requests for help with clemency applications. 

Yet not a single person had their sentence commuted in 2019 despite an abundance of robust and meritorious applications. Then on Friday, January 3, 2020 at 6:15 p.m., an auspicious time for any gubernatorial announcement, Governor Cuomo revealed that clemency requests for commutations had been granted to two people. Two people out of thousands of applicants.

Apparently, the promise of making clemency an “accessible and tangible reality” was nothing more than a cruel, soul-crushing hoax.

Placing the governor’s reluctance to commute sentences in context, consider that last November, Governor Kevin Stitt of Oklahoma, a Republican, signed off on commutations of sentences for 527 people. Earlier in the year, Governor Gavin Newsome of California, a Democrat, commuted the sentences for 21 people. In 2017 and 2018, then-California Governor Jerry Brown issued 49 commutations. 

To be clear, the blame for the crying need for clemency -- for deserving people to get out from under massively long sentences -- lays at the feet of prosecutors and judges. Sentences like fifty, sixty, and seventy-five years to life, that foreclosed any chance of redemption, were routinely handed down in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. As a result, there are almost 9,000 people serving life terms in New York prisons. Many of those people will die before ever being eligible to see a parole board. 

The recognition that prosecutors and judges are the primary cause of death by incarceration sentences is precisely the reason that the unfettered power to grant clemency is enshrined in the state and the federal constitutions; all it takes for the governor to give someone a second chance is the stroke of his pen. 

The executive’s power to grant clemency has deep historical roots dating back to biblical times when Pontius Pilate pardoned Barabbas instead of Christ. In British tradition, the monarch had the royal prerogative to grant pardons. Alexander Hamilton wrote in the Federalist Papers that in order to serve its humanitarian purpose, “the benign prerogative of pardoning should be as 

little as possible fettered,” and that without the power to pardon, “justice would wear a countenance too sanguinary and cruel.” Hamilton argued that clemency allowed the executive to be a "dispenser of the mercy of the government." 

In present terms, clemency is the most readily available means to repair the nationally acknowledged crisis of mass incarceration that has devastated communities of color. Mass incarceration is not just about unnecessarily incarcerating masses of people, but rather unnecessarily keeping masses of people in prison for decades. Clemency is a means to address that brutal reality.

Furthermore, while clemency is usually cast as an act of mercy, we all stand to gain when clemency is granted to deserving people. They are reunited with their families. They care for aging parents. They are the true credible messengers who mentor young people who might be on the wrong path. They have jobs and contribute to the economy. And the taxpayer no longer needs to pay for the medical care required for older people in prison, among other costs. Liberal application of clemency makes us all safer and better.

Many of the men and women who submitted clemency applications based on renewed hope inspired by Governor Cuomo’s words are now saying that false hope is worse than no hope. The wife of one of those men put it best in a tweet: “My husband wrote that he, his good friends, and more than 100 others sat on the edge of their metal beds all month [of December] waiting...PLEASE recognize the strides these men have made and show them mercy and use your redeeming power as the leader of this state.” 

While clemency is typically cast as an end of year event consistent with holiday sentiments of mercy, charity, and forgiveness, surely there must be room for mercy, charity, and forgiveness more than once a year. And surely, there are more than two people among the 45,000 in New York State prisons who deserve the measure of mercy afforded by a sentence commutation.

Steven Zeidman is a professor of law at CUNY School of Law. On Twitter @SteveZeidman.

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Cuomo's Clemency and Cruelty of False Hope Thu, 09 Jan 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: Cuomo's State of the State & What's Next, with Senator Liz Krueger jan wbai krueger600

Seantor Liz Krueger, center (photo: New York State Senate)

January 8, 2020 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Cuomo's State of the State & What's Next, with Senator Liz Krueger

jan wbai krueger250State Senator Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat and chair of the Senate finance committee, joined the show to give her reactions to Governor Cuomo's State of the State speech, discuss Senate Democrats' priorities for 2020, and more.

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

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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Max & Murphy Podcast: Cuomo's State of the State & What's Next, with Senator Liz Krueger Wed, 08 Jan 2020 05:00:00 +0000