Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/35 Mon, 11 Nov 2019 22:08:05 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Facts Don't Support Expanding the Size of the MTA Police Force https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8900-facts-dont-support-cuomo-expanding-size-mta-police-force https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8900-facts-dont-support-cuomo-expanding-size-mta-police-force mtapd grad

(photo: Metropolitan Transportation Authority/Patrick Cashin)


MTA Chair and CEO Pat Foye says the transit authority’s operating budget is in “dire” condition and independent budget watchdogs are alarmed its deficit is growing to unmanageable levels. Citizens Budget Commission estimates the MTA will be $740 million in the red in 2023 -- and this does not include new debt payments for the new, massive $51.5+ billion 2020-2024 capital plan. Separately, NYPD data shows subway crime is down 3% from last year, and Police Commissioner James O’Neill says the subway, which carries 6 million passengers a day, averages only six major crimes a day. 

Given the gaping budget hole -- which recently led to cuts in bus service on the B46 -- and the low crime rate, we wonder how the MTA justifies a costly increase in the size of its police force by 581 more officers and supervisors as first uncovered by Gothamist to address “quality of life issues.” This larger MTA force will cost the authority an additional $260 million more in operating costs over the next four years, as calculated by Citizens Budget Commission, and will force cuts elsewhere in the operating budget -- including, logically, in transit service.  

The MTA should make a decision of this magnitude based on a transparent, data-driven analysis that shows why expanding the MTA police force is more worthwhile than expanding transit service -- or even preserving existing service. The MTA should explain to the transit riding public what an expanded MTA police force can do that the current 2,500 NYPD officers and approximately 300 redeployed MTA police officers patrolling the subways and buses are not doing.

Disappointingly, the decision to increase the MTA police -- which is widely believed to be at Governor Cuomo’s behest -- has been made in a fact-free zone. The reasoning used has also shifted from fare evasion to homelessness to worker and rider safety, or a combination of all of the above. The public discussions by some MTA Board members has consisted of anecdotes and unfounded assumptions on these issues, and MTA staff have not provided analyses that examine alternatives or even dig deeply into existing MTA data.

(Note to MTA Board: MTA police officers guarding a turnstile only pay for themselves if fare revenue at that station goes up by at least the cost of the officers stationed there. Can we see some actual data that supports the argument that spending $260 million over the next four years on more MTA police will increase fare revenue by that much? What about the four years after that, etc.?)

If one of the governor’s stated goals is to reduce the number of homeless people in the subways, let’s see some evidence that an expensive increase in the size of the MTA police force will or even can do that, or that spending large sums on more police is even the best way to do that. Again, where is the data showing a relationship between the number of police officers and homelessness in the subways?

What we are seeing with the MTA policing issue is the latest example of a once-respected public authority that has been politicized and compelled to spend huge amounts on political grandstanding rather than objective priorities. Just last month, the MTA’s $51.5+ billion capital plan was approved by its Board before it published a needs assessment that establishes detailed baseline costs for getting the system to a state of good repair. 

Governor Cuomo has publicly called on the MTA to be more professional and efficient. We agree, but competent, professional management is fact- and data-driven, and does not make decisions based on the politics of the moment. The data here does not support almost doubling the size of the MTA police force from 783 to 1,364 -- especially given the “dire” budget. 

Professional, fact-based thinking by the MTA Board and management would mean rejecting this unnecessary expenditure and recognizing there is a direct trade-off between more police and more transit service. 

How Much Money Are We Talking Here?
According to Citizens Budget Commission, increasing the size of the MTA police force with 500 new officers and 81 supervisors for the new hires will cost $56.1 million in year one and $119.9 million in year ten. Over the 2020-2023 financial plan, the new officers will cost $260 million and push the MTA’s projected operating budget deficit of $740 million to $1 billion.

 

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Reinvent Albany and other watchdog groups including Citizens Budget Commission, NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign, TransitCenter, and the Tri-State Transportation Campaign sent a letter to the MTA Board calling on the MTA to identify exactly how it will fund nearly doubling the size of the MTA police force without increasing its growing operating deficit. The groups specifically expressed the concern that an expanded MTA police force will reduce the MTA’s ability to maintain a high level of transit service -- its core responsibility.

The MTA still hasn’t said how it will pay for these officers, and what the true cost will be in terms of reductions in staff and service. Its next budget presentation is due at its November 14 Board meeting, and this is likely to be the first time this new expense shows up in its budget. The MTA Board will then approve a final budget at its December meeting, so it is not too late to reverse course.

The MTA’s Many Justifications for Increasing its Police Force
There are many opinions about having more police in the subways and buses. Some oppose over-policing and some are concerned about service cuts, while others believe more police will increase customer and operator safety.

For Reinvent Albany, what cuts across all of these issues is the consistent failure of the MTA -- or Governor Cuomo -- to make credible, fact-based decisions regarding major spending. The governor and the MTA have access to professional analysts, detailed data about operations and crime, and outside experts who could guide their decisions. Instead, this decision has been made without meaningfully using any of them. 

We at Reinvent Albany are not criminologists or experts in homelessness or fare evasion. But we do believe in and know the value of data and rational decision-making. Given that the MTA hasn’t been allowed to do its homework, we are providing just some of the data and options that need to be examined before any decisions are made.

Crime
Crime on the subways is a clear area where perception and reality aren’t matching up. Governor Cuomo was recently blasted by the NYPD’s own leader for saying that crime in the subways is on the rise, with Commissioner O’Neill noting that the opposite is true. O’Neill instead said there has been a decrease in crime and “I absolutely disagree with Governor Cuomo’s characterization.” According to the latest stats from New York City Transit, total major felonies are down this year versus last (January-September) -- with 1,774 major felonies in 2019 and 1,799 in 2018.

Major crimes have dropped significantly since 1997, when there were 6,218 major felonies in the subways and buses. For the last four years, major felonies have numbered about 2,500 per year. It is worth noting the decrease happened during a period of increasing ridership: since 1997, annual ridership increased from 1.1 billion to nearly 1.7 billion

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Perception often colors riders’ feelings about crime rather than actual data, as noted in a New York Times piece from earlier this year on subway crime. Social media, for example, is one big driver of perceptions. In speaking with the Times, NYPD Transit Chief Edward Delatorre said that the number of crimes in the subway is so small that “one or two recidivist offenders can enter the system and throw the crime numbers out of whack.” (For scale, there were 95,883 major felonies committed in New York City as a whole in 2018, down from 184,652 in 2000.)

Where particular types of crime have increased yet overall major crimes are flat or decreasing, refocusing existing officers is a more reasonable approach than hiring hundreds of new ones. Two areas that have received considerable attention are hate crimes, which increased from 37 to 65 from 2018 to 2019 (January-September), and assaults against subway workers, which according to the transit workers union (TWU) increased from 61 to 85 when comparing the first eight months of 2018 to 2019. 

Homelessness
The MTA recently released a 9-page “report” of recommendations from its Homelessness Task Force. To be clear, this is not a “report,” as there is no credible analysis: it is essentially a directive from the governor to the MTA. The "report," which came after repeated complaints by the Governor about homelessness on the subways, found a 20% increase in homelessness in the subways from 2018 to 2019. The total increase found from a January 2019 survey was from 1,771 to 2,178, an increase of 407 people. This single data point was then used as the sole justification for a directive by the task force to increase the MTA police force by 50%. 

 Despite the report saying that the task force was “charged with delivering a set of recommendations to the MTA Board of Directors for actions to address the growing number of homeless individuals,” the report says that the MTA will increase its police force.  

 The MTA Board has not yet approved a budget for these new officers. At the direction of the governor, MTA staff is moving forward with these hires, undermining the fiduciary responsibility of the Board, who must consider how the MTA can best serve riders with its scarce resources. 

Fare Evasion
Fare evasion has become a fixation for the governor and some of his appointees to the MTA Board, with more and more demands being placed on MTA staff to address the issue. According to the MTA’s June 2019 data, it lost $240 million to fare evasion over 12 months. But while the MTA has said fare evasion is growing, its Inspector General, who is appointed by the governor, in an audit said the MTA’s fare evasion stats are not credible

 At the same time, the MTA has ramped up enforcement efforts with redeployed police, new signage, and more cameras. If you believe the data, this may not be working. The MTA IG’s audit said that the “impact of these initiatives would be difficult to assess without reliable data on evasion levels and trends.” 

 The MTA can’t make rational decisions on fare evasion unless it better understands the problem first, and can trust its own data. And before jumping to any solutions, it would be worth assessing any number of other options to get more riders to pay the fare.

 Rather than punitive approaches, options include providing better service so riders feel like they are getting what they pay for. The MTA and New York City could enroll more people in the Fair Fares program, which provides low-income riders a 50% fare discount. A Wall Street Journal report found an approach from behavioral psychology of praising paying customers decreased evasion in other systems.

 The MTA could also examine further expanding station infrastructure like cameras and more signage to deter the use of emergency gates. (This was the original stated purpose of $40 million in funds coming from the Manhattan District Attorney, which the MTA has erroneously claimed will largely cover the cost of new officers.)

 Yet another option is deployment of more cost-effective civilian staff. The MTA has said that more orange-vested staff could provide a deterrent to fare evasion, while providing more customer service. Additionally, the MTA’s Select Bus Service enforces fare payment with its Eagle Teams, who are not police officers. Unlike on other buses and the subway, Select Bus riders do not have to dip their Metrocards on the bus to pay the fare, but instead pay in advance and must show proof of payment upon request of the Eagle Teams. Ironically, the MTA’s Eagle Teams saw 22 staff members cut in the MTA’s 2018 budget reduction program, which in retrospect seems highly questionable as the MTA has said they do indeed pay for themselves.

The MTA Board Must Reject this Proposal
Before spending scarce transit operating dollars that almost doubles the size of the MTA police force, the MTA should work with its own officers and those from the NYPD to establish clear goals and expectations and improve the effectiveness of existing policing. The MTA Board needs to hear fact-based arguments with cost/benefit analyses of the various options to address safety, homelessness, and fare evasion. The MTA Board should reject hiring more police officers until its members and the public have real information about the opportunity costs of this proposal.

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Rachael Fauss is senior research analyst for Reinvent Albany. On Twitter @RachaelFauss & @ReinventAlbany.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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Facts Don't Support Expanding the Size of the MTA Police Force Mon, 04 Nov 2019 05:00:00 +0000
As Election Proceeds, Affidavit Ballot Bill at Center of Queens Controversy Continues to Languish https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8895-election-approaches-no-apparent-movement-on-affidavit-voting-bill-queens-controversy-cuomo https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8895-election-approaches-no-apparent-movement-on-affidavit-voting-bill-queens-controversy-cuomo gov cuomo casts

(photo: the governor's office)


Few New York elections go by without controversy, and this year’s relatively quiet slate has been no exception. As voters head to the polls during the inaugural early voting period and heading into Election Day, one major question that came up during the June primary continues to hang over the general election.

A bill that could change the way provisional affidavit ballots are counted as soon as this year is languishing in Albany, having passed both houses of the state Legislature in June. The bill would make it harder to disqualify those ballots on technicalities if the intention of the voter is clear, thus keeping some number of voters from disenfranchisement.

The legislation was the subject of controversy during the Democratic primary for Queens District Attorney earlier this year, a race that was decided in a recount, with many affidavit ballots left uncounted. While it’s unclear if any general election race, in New York City or elsewhere in the state, will be anywhere near as close, the bill would impact whether some votes are counted.

“The bill protects otherwise-eligible voters from having their ballots thrown out on highly-technical, unfair grounds. Had it been signed in a timely way after passage on June 12 and 13, this protection would have been in place for the June primaries and the 2019 general election,” said Jarret Berg, a voting rights lawyer and elections watchdog.

“Instead, the safeguard is either being ignored or intentionally delayed as elections they would help to improve come and go," he said, adding that the law would go into effect immediately and wouldn’t cost the state or localities anything to implement.

Caitlin Girouard, a spokesperson for Governor Andrew Cuomo, told Gotham Gazette Tuesday that the legislation was “under review.” As of Thursday, it had not been sent to the governor by the Legislature or called to his desk by Cuomo, the two mechanisms that would force the governor’s decision to sign or veto it much more quickly ahead of the final December 31 deadline.

Registered voters in New York City have the opportunity this fall to cast ballots for public advocate, Queens District Attorney, a Brooklyn City Council seat, some judicial positions, and five referenda containing proposed amendments to the city charter. For the first time in New York State, polls are open during a nine-day early voting period, which began October 26 and ends November 3. Election Day is Tuesday, November 5.

After the primary polls closed in June and the close race headed toward counting absentee and affidavit ballots, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz and public defender Tiffany Cabán, along with their respective teams of lawyers, fought over reinstating ballots disqualified by the city’s Board of Elections. As a recount unfolded, one major question became which affidavit ballots would be counted and which wouldn’t, a debate that often starts with the envelope containing the ballot.

Appearing before a judge, lawyers for the two candidates argued over validating discounted ballots, often discarded on the basis of minor technical errors, like failing to put a return address on the ballot envelope or not listing a previous address, despite a qualified voter making a clear vote in the race.

Many of the disqualified affidavit ballots were believed to favor Cabán, while absentee ballots, often cast by older voters, favored Katz, in part due to targeted campaigning by the borough president. Cabán supporters pushed for Cuomo, a Democrat, to sign the affidavit ballot bill during the recount in hopes of preserving more of those votes. Legislators passed the bill weeks before the primary election, but the governor would not sign it after the ballot counting had begun. Cabán ultimately lost by about 60 votes, with more than 350 potential votes uncounted, according to a court filing related to the race.

“With that portion of the election cycle over, it is my hope that the governor gets this legislation on his desk and signs it before November 5 so that those ballots can be appropriately considered under what is a much more reasonable standard,” said Assemblymember Kevin Cahill, a Hudson Valley Democrat and one of the bill’s sponsors.

"We are very supportive of this bill and believe that where a voter's intent is clear, their ballot should count,” wrote State Senator Zellnor Myrie, a Brooklyn Democrat who chairs the Senate Elections Committee, in an email to Gotham Gazette. “The will of the legislature is clear from the passage in both houses so it is our hope, given the importance of every election, that the bill is signed as expeditiously as possible."

Leroy Comrie, the bill’s Senate sponsor, did not respond to requests for comment.

Affidavit and absentee ballots are placed in individual envelopes and have “a variety of other circumstances associated with them that could put them at risk of being considered technically flawed,” said Cahill. One of those circumstances is the fact poll workers hired by the city Board of Elections often advise voters on how to fill out affidavits, according to Cahill, which he says makes it unfair to penalize ballots for technical errors.

Voters use affidavit ballots when they believe they are registered to vote but are not found in the voter rolls at a poll site. Roughly 2,800 affidavit and 3,400 absentee ballots were reportedly cast in the high-profile Democratic primary for Queens District Attorney.

As it became clear the vote was close and headed to a recount, some called on Cuomo to sign the legislation and allow more votes to be counted. Part of the concern, expressed by some, in enacting the legislation before the recount had finished was that it would change the rules of the game by which voters and the poll workers often advising them had been operating.

“The rule is the rule,” Cahill said.

“We wouldn’t want to be impacting a result, after the fact. That wouldn’t be fair,” he added, in apparent reference to changing the rules of how certain votes are counted after they’ve been cast.

Given that Cuomo did not sign the bill before early voting began, the same issue is now at play for the general election. Generally speaking, the legislation is not seen as beneficial to particular candidates, but many believed more affidavits were likely to be for Cabán than Katz in the Queens primary because she appeared to be the favorite of newer, younger, more transient voters who may have been more likely to have to fill out an affidavit ballot.

“This legislation is not a partisan issue, nor does it help or hurt any particular candidate or party in any given election, and it has already passed both houses,” said Berg.

“It’s not that radical a bill,” Cahill said, “it really is just a common sense piece of legislation that says…[a voter] should be permitted to have that vote counted notwithstanding some minor technical differences between what that ballot says and what the law requires.”

The decision to send a bill to the governor for enactment is, practically speaking, a collective one among the Assembly, the Senate, and the governor’s office, according to Cahill. The chamber that first passes a two-house bill is responsible for sending it to the governor’s office; if it is sent to the governor and not signed or vetoed within ten days, in most cases it becomes law. If Cuomo’s administration is not prepared to address the legislation, sending the bill to his office for consideration could lead to its demise, he said. The governor can also at any time call to his desk a bill that has passed both houses.

“It is a shared decision when a bill gets sent to the governor. If it gets sent prematurely before the governor’s office wants it, we’re putting the bill at risk of being vetoed just for procedural reasons and we don’t want to have that happen,” Cahill warned.

“But in this case we are very anxious for this bill to get before the governor, to be on his desk and get his signature so we can start to have people’s votes counted when they should be,” added the member of the Assembly, which was the house to first pass the affidavit bill.

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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As Election Proceeds, Affidavit Ballot Bill at Center of Queens Controversy Continues to Languish Sun, 03 Nov 2019 04:00:00 +0000
The Governor's Signature is Next Step in Protecting New York Children from Toxic Toys https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8841-protecting-new-york-children-from-toxic-toys-cuomo https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8841-protecting-new-york-children-from-toxic-toys-cuomo children toys

(Dreamstime: Photo 3882847 © Jose Manuel Gelpi Diaz - Dreamstime.com)


Perhaps few items in society hold the same universal delight as children’s products. They are an important part of children’s wellbeing and development and can remind all of us of simple joys of childhood. We expect products designed specifically for children to be safe and free from chemicals that could cause harm.

Nobody wants their child to play with a toy containing alarmingly high levels of lead, cadmium, or mercury. However, there are many toys and products on the market today that do indeed contain chemicals that are hazardous to children’s health. Media reports of product recalls of children’s jewelry tainted with lead and arsenic, colored chalk contaminated with mercury, and baby soaps containing a chemical called 1,4 dioxane raise serious questions as to how manufacturers have been able to get these products into the market in the first place.

These products have been able to enter our state because of gaps in our regulation. Our regulations in New York have struggled to keep pace with the thousands of new combinations of materials and manufacturing processes involved in making children’s toys and products.

The good news is that New York has taken significant steps to remedy the issue through the state Legislature, with the new Child Safe Products Act, which passed in April 2019. By signing it into law on or around National Children’s Environmental Health Day, Friday October 11, Governor Andrew Cuomo could prevent further unnecessary harm to children on his watch.

The Child Safe Products Act, once signed, is poised to provide protections to keep toxic products out of the marketplace for all children. It would prevent the sale or resale of items containing the most dangerous chemicals — particularly important where consumers have less money for costlier toxic-free alternatives.

Low price and discount retailers that are commonplace in New York’s less affluent communities have been found to sell items containing very high levels of so-called “chemicals of concern.”

For example, a 2015 study by the Campaign for Healthier Solutions and HealthyStuff.org tested products commonly sold at dollar stores, like toys and jewelry for children, and found alarmingly high levels of lead, mercury, and cadmium. The new law would take a measured approach to regulating chemicals in products developed for children and includes a comprehensive list of chemicals that are currently known to have adverse effects on human health.

The Child Safe Products Act would also provide clear directives for each member of the supply chain – from the manufacturer to the seller. Manufacturers would be required to report to the state the chemicals included on the list that are found in their products. The state would in turn provide this information to an interstate chemical clearinghouse. Retailers would be notified which items they are forbidden to sell, due to their toxicity, and they would be held accountable for selling such items, prompting greater scrutiny in their buying processes and supply-chain management.

Intergenerational principles urge us to be mindful of our responsibility to ensure the health and safety of the next generation. This applies to all aspects of a child’s environment – where they live, learn and play. Governor Cuomo has lent his support to several environmental causes. Signing this act would demonstrate our joint commitment to future generations of New Yorkers and solidify our place as leaders in protecting children’s environmental health. Other states like Maine, California and Washington have similar policy mandates.

Let’s ensure that the next generation of New York’s children comes to associate products designed for them with happiness. Governor Cuomo, please sign the Child Safe Products Act into law and affirm New York’s commitment to a greener, more sustainable future for everyone.

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Christine Appah, Senior Staff Attorney for Environmental Justice at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, a member of the JustGreen Partnership that supported passage of the Child Safe Products Act. On Twitter @NYLPI.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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The Governor's Signature is Next Step in Protecting New York Children from Toxic Toys Thu, 10 Oct 2019 04:00:00 +0000
State Census Commission Releases Report, with Funding Decisions Kicked Back to Cuomo Administration https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8837-state-census-commission-releases-report-with-funding-decisions-kicked-back-to-cuomo-administration https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8837-state-census-commission-releases-report-with-funding-decisions-kicked-back-to-cuomo-administration mmv president attends

(photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


A state commission charged with creating a plan for ensuring a complete count of New York residents in the 2020 Census has finally released its report, nine months after it was due and with continued ambiguity over how state census funding will be distributed.

The New York State Complete Count Commission, made up of executive and legislative branch appointees, spent months holding hearings across the state to solicit input on the challenges posed by the decennial census and how the state should respond. The commission was co-chaired by New York State Secretary of State Rossana Rosado and Jim Malatras, president of the Rockefeller Institute of Government and a former top aide to Governor Andrew Cuomo.

This year’s state budget included $20 million for census efforts and the commission’s report, approved in a unanimous vote on Tuesday morning, is meant to be a roadmap for allocating that funding and avoiding an undercount, which could lead to less federal funding for the state, a loss of possibly two seats in the House of Representatives, and a whole host of other ancillary effects over the course of a decade.

Many of the concerns the report outlines were already apparent to advocates and observers: That New York is home to potentially 4.8 million hard-to-count individuals (particularly children under the age of 5) and that several communities lack language access, that the new online methodology could lead to lower responses among seniors or those lacking computer literacy, that the Census Bureau is having trouble recruiting workers and that communities of color and immigrants are particularly wary of the process, owing in no small part to the Trump administration’s unsuccessful efforts to add a citizenship question.

That question threat, in particular, has “created a lot of controversy, and had a potential chilling effect and created consternation in many of our communities, especially our foreign-born communities,” said Malatras, at Tuesday’s meeting where commissioners video-conferenced in from across the state. “Besides California, New York State has the highest percentage of foreign-born communities and people in the nation. So, in particular, it hits our state hard.”

The report also noted worries about data protection because of the digital-focused questionnaire, and omissions of home addresses from the Census Bureau’s records.

The challenges are by no means small. There are more than 200 languages spoken across the state but the Census Bureau will only provide video and printed guides in 59 languages and will translate the online questionnaire into only 12 other languages besides English. As many as 113,000 New Yorkers will have no language support from the Census Bureau, the report notes.

About 13.5% of households across the state also lack access to the internet at home, which could depress their self-response rate. The federal government has also yet to provide a waiver to the New York Census office to hire non-citizens as enumerators, who go door-to-door surveying residents in communities where the self-response rate is low. Advocates and officials agree that in immigrant-heavy communities, non-citizens are often the most effective at gaining people’s trust and soliciting responses.

Failing to meet these challenges could mean that New York State could see a drop in self-response rates to 58%, down from 62% in 2010 when the national average was 76%, according to Census Bureau estimates.

The report lays out several recommendations for a strategy the state should follow. It includes an analysis of hard-to-count census tracts, identifying where the state should expend its resources. The commission recommends a targeted communications campaign for communities at risk of an undercount and additional support for areas that lack internet connectivity and populations that rank low on digital literacy.

It also pushes for expanded translation services and building trust with immigrant communities. The report notes that if federal immigration authorities seek to misuse Census data, the state’s Liberty Defense Project should be pressed into action to provide legal assistance to immigrants.

Acknowledging that certain sections of the population fly under the radar, the report specifically urges the state to ensure an accurate count of people experiencing homelessness. It also pushes for ensuring that individuals in group-living situations – students in dormitories, seniors in nursing homes, inmates in correctional facilities – are counted.

The commission laid out a detailed plan for how the state can support municipalities with their efforts to conduct census outreach including providing aid to local complete count committees, collaborating with “trusted voices” like nonprofit service providers, labor, and faith-based organizations, enlisting all state agencies in the census effort, collaborating with the philanthropic community and establishing Census Assistance Centers in hard-to-count census tracts.

One place the report falls short is on details of how the $20 million in state funding will be spent. It’s unclear in what form that funding will be utilized.

“We are reviewing the report and the insight it provides on how the State, local governments and our partners can work together so that every New Yorker is counted in the 2020 Census,” said Freeman Klopott, a spokesperson for the state Division of the Budget, in an email.

At the hearing, Malatras acknowledged that the commission’s work had been delayed – it was only appointed after its first report was already due. “What we have to do today is we get this report to the state so they can release those resources that they provided in the budget,” he said. The commission is also meant to release a second and final report in January that details progress on its recommendations, he pointed out.

Commissioner Henry Garrido, executive director of labor union DC37 (who was appointed when Commissioner Hector Figueroa of 32BJ SEIU unexpectedly passed away -- the report includes a dedication to Figueroa) raised concerns about mistrust in immigrant communities and the question of hiring non-immigrants. Though Malatras admitted that “there was no clarity” on the use of the federal waiver, he urged local authorities to move ahead either way. “So we're going to go forward as if it would be okay to hire,” he said.

He also noted that, with a lack of support from the federal government, the state would have to step up. He pointed to the Department of Labor, in particular, noting that it has a robust census outreach plan in place already and said that the state would use SUNY and CUNY as recruiting centers for census outreach workers. 

Commissioner Jose Calderón, president of the Hispanic Federation, raised the issue of the release of state funds. “We are already really late in the game,” he pointed out, wondering about the process and timeline on which the money would be awarded to community-based organizations. “It is those trusted sources that are going to help us deliver on the promise of getting a complete count in New York State,” he said.

Calderón’s worries were echoed by other commissioners including Esmeralda Simmons, founder and executive director of the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College, CUNY. “It's a roadmap,” she said of the report, “but unfortunately, it doesn't get us to our destination.”

She said CBOs have been waiting for months for funding to assist their work and the report provides few details on that front. “Everyone's waiting for recommendations on how the money is going to be spent, and how it's going to be utilized,” she said. “And we all know state government is not usually that swift. I appreciate all the actions that are anticipated but we have said none of that in this report. We've talked about no plan on how to get the money out there.”

Malatras sought to downplay those concerns, insisting that the next report due in January will address any funding issues and that it wasn’t within the commission’s authority to dictate whether the state dole out funding through a competitive bidding process or through agencies. “We want to make sure there's maximum flexibility for the state Legislature, the executive and others to say this is how they want to do it,” he said.

Simmons later pushed a motion to send a message of urgency in writing that the $20 million in census funding “be appropriated by the most efficient and expeditious method using state entities.” The motion was unanimously approved.

[Read: As City Rolls Out Census Funding for Outreach Efforts, State Lags Behind]

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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State Census Commission Releases Report, with Funding Decisions Kicked Back to Cuomo Administration Tue, 08 Oct 2019 04:00:00 +0000
As City Rolls Out Census Funding for Outreach Efforts, State Lags Behind https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8831-new-york-city-2020-census-funding-state-lags https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8831-new-york-city-2020-census-funding-state-lags union sq counts

(photo: @NYCImmigrants)


New York City is moving full steam ahead with its effort to ensure that the 2020 Census counts each and every resident of the five boroughs, with millions of dollars in funding and a four-pillar strategy for outreach to hard-to-count communities. But New York State’s effort seems to have stalled and there is little indication that state authorities are moving with urgency despite the many billions of dollars in federal funding and congressional representation at stake.

In the 2010 Census, New York City residents’ self-response rate to the Census was an abysmal 62%, well below the national average of 76%. The city is home to many hard-to-count populations – among which self-response rates are relatively low – including children, seniors, immigrants, predominantly black communities, and residents of public housing. An undercount of these populations can affect everything from federal funding levels for programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Section 8 housing vouchers to business investment in the city and the state’s seats in the House of Representatives.

Increasing the rate of self-response also means requiring fewer census enumerators, the individuals who go door-to-door to count residents who have not responded. Officials have been working for years at the city and state levels to make sure that the Census Bureau has a complete list of addresses for New York residents.

The 2020 Census is plagued with many new and particular problems that have raised concerns that New York could see an even lower self-response rate – as low as 58%, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates. The Census Bureau is being underfunded by the federal government, with fewer enumerators being hired to hit the ground; the Trump administration sought unsuccessfully to place a citizenship question on the Census form, worrying and potentially discouraging responses from immigrants; and the count is being conducted digitally for the first time, which could affect response among those who lack access to the internet and particularly among older residents. 

Between Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration and the New York City Council, the city has budgeted $40 million towards Census outreach, the most funding ever put towards this effort. The city is pursuing a multi-faceted strategy that includes a massive field effort, grants for community-based organizations, a mass media campaign, and partnerships between city agencies.

Last week, Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYC Census Director Julie Menin launched the city’s Neighborhood Organizing Census Committees (NOCCs), which are meant to enlist 2,500 volunteers that will aid in census outreach across 245 neighborhoods. The launch came one day after the city announced the $19-million New York City Complete Count Fund, which will give out grants ranging from $25,000 to $250,000 to qualifying community-based organizations.

The city accepting applications till October 18 and is expected to award the funds by December. The actual Census count will begin April 1.

The $19 million allocation follows an initial $4 million to CBOs by the City Council in August to begin Census work. 

The remaining $17 million of the $40 million has yet to be distributed. Those funds are expected to cover the mass media campaign, which will launch in 2020, and the overall field campaign through the NOCCs.

“The idea behind the NOCCs is that we believe very strongly...that people really want to be involved in the future of their neighborhood,” Menin said in a phone interview. “The best kind of outreach that we can have is neighbor-to-neighbor contact.”

The 245 committees will train volunteers about the importance of the census, how it works and how best to organize locally. “This is really a train-the-trainer model that is very much proven to work,” Menin said.

Additionally, the 2,500 volunteers will act as “census ambassadors” and the city will provide them with printed materials, talking points and a digital tool kit on the census. The NOCCs will also organize phone banks and text banks to conduct outreach, and will also partner with CBOs that receive grants from the city. These CBOs and neighborhood volunteers are particularly essential in immigrant communities for whom English is not a first language or who may have limited English proficiency.

The city has also reached an agreement with the U.S. Census Bureau to receive real-time data on self-response rates, to monitor neighborhoods where residents may not be filling out census forms in the initial phase of the count. “So all the volunteers and really anyone living in those neighborhoods will be able to see exactly how their community is doing each day,” Menin said.

New York state government, on the other hand, has been silent on how it will spend the $20 million allocated in the state budget earlier this year for the 2020 Census. That funding (only half of what advocates had called for) is meant to be distributed based on a report by the New York State Complete Count Commission, which held its last hearing to receive public input on July 31. The report is far past its due date and won’t be out for another few weeks, according to a state official.

“The Complete Count Commission has heard testimony and received comments from local governments, grassroots organizations and the general public across New York State, and we are awaiting the Commission’s recommendations on how best to leverage the up to $20 million made available in the State Budget, existing state resources, and our partnerships with organizations on the ground so that we can maximize outreach efforts and get every New Yorker counted,” said Mercedes Padilla, a spokesperson for New York’s Department of State, in a statement to Gotham Gazette.

Padilla said the recommendations would be made in the next few weeks, but did not provide specifics. The co-chairs of the commission are New York’s Secretary of State Rossana Rosado and Jim Malatras, president of the Rockefeller Institute of Government and formerly a top aide to Governor Cuomo.

On September 24, nearly three dozen local, state, and federal elected officials representing Brooklyn wrote a letter to Governor Cuomo, calling for at least $4 million from the $20-million pot to be sent to census efforts in the borough. With more than 2.6 million residents, Brooklyn is the most populous of New York State’s 62 counties, and the letter notes that 80% of Brooklynites live in hard-to-count communities.

“An undercount in Brooklyn would be an unmitigated disaster not only for the people we represent, but the entire state,” the letter reads. “Billions of dollars in federal aid programs could be lost. While Brooklynites already face a lack of resources for many of their immediate needs, an undercount would only make this worse.”

Brooklyn State Senator Zellnor Myrie expressed frustration that the state is sitting on its hands while the city has allocated and released funds. “We have seen the city step up to the plate...and here [at the state level], we have a situation in which we had money allocated in April, we had a commission that went around the state to solicit feedback on how the census outreach should look, and we have neither the report nor the money.”

Myrie and other elected officials have, in the meantime, begun their own efforts to educate their constituents about the census, hosting information sessions in their districts. Others like Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, and Queens Borough President Melinda Katz have created their own Complete Count Committees with discretionary funds to aid in an accurate count.

“I think we're really putting ourselves at risk of repeating a failed history of counting our community,” Myrie said.

Menin also said that the state had provided no answers yet to city officials on how state funds will be distributed. Though some amount of state money will clearly be spent in the city, Menin said that state officials have indicated that it’s unlikely that funds would be funnelled through the city government. It’s also unclear whether a majority of those funds will go to community organizations and nonprofits, as advocates from the statewide New York Counts 2020 coalition have been pushing.

United Neighborhood Houses, a nonprofit based in New York City and a member of that coalition, is among the CBOs that have received discretionary funds from the New York City Council for census organizing efforts. “We're really strong believers in the fact that community-based organizations are key partners in census outreach,” said Nora Moran, UNH’s director of policy and advocacy, in a phone interview.

Moran noted, as have others, that there is little time until the census begins in earnest. The first mailers from the Census Bureau will be sent out in March. “We know that there's a lot at stake, and there's hard-to-count communities upstate as well as downstate,” she said. “And we really hope that the governor's office releases...that funding that they allocated towards census outreach...sooner rather than later.”

Last month, the New York Counts coalition similarly sent a letter to the governor to press their demands. “We are losing valuable time. While many local governments, libraries and community-based organizations (CBOs) have begun their outreach and organizing activities, the effectiveness and depth of these efforts is dependent on additional funding,” the coalition wrote.

“I think there's just a clear evidence of what needs to be done,” said Myrie, “and what is unclear is why there is a delay.”

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

Read more by this writer.

Note - this article has been updated for clarification. 

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As City Rolls Out Census Funding for Outreach Efforts, State Lags Behind Thu, 03 Oct 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: The Future of Fusion Voting in New York https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8817-max-murphy-podcast-the-future-of-fusion-voting-in-new-york https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8817-max-murphy-podcast-the-future-of-fusion-voting-in-new-york fusion voting 600

(photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayoral Photo Office)


September 25, 2019 - Max & Murphy Podcast: The Future of Fusion Voting in New York

stan fritz wbaiA commission established by Governor Cuomo and the State Legislature is designing a system of public campaign financing for New York, and also considering whether to try to end the practice of fusion voting. Its binding recommendations are due by December 1, but everything is complicated. Stanley Fritz of Citizen Action New York, which is part of the Working Families Party, joined the show to discuss the governor's push to end fusion voting, why he and others from the WFP and beyond are fighting to save it, and what comes next.

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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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Max & Murphy Podcast: The Future of Fusion Voting in New York Wed, 25 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
The MTA Needs a Real Capital Plan, Not Unrealistic Promises https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8799-the-mta-needs-a-real-capital-plan-not-unrealistic-promises https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8799-the-mta-needs-a-real-capital-plan-not-unrealistic-promises gov mta transit

(photo: Don Pollard/Governor's Office)


On Monday, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) released an 11-page slideshow “overview” partially summarizing the details of its nearly $55 billion 2020-2024 capital plan. The unveiling seemed like Christmas morning - according to MTA CEO/Chair Pat Foye, the plan will sell itself. Everyone will get the pony that they asked for. NYCT President Andy Byford was “ecstatically happy” and elected officials and advocates were told they’d get their top priorities, ranging from costly expansion projects to new subway and commuter rail cars, buses, signals, and elevators. 

Who wouldn’t want a huge infusion of funds into a century old, workworn transit system? We too want to believe! Unfortunately, the numbers just do not add up.

We question both the availability of the funding coming in and the ability of the MTA to spend this massive outlay. Historically, transit advocacy has centered on finding funds, but last year we started looking at actual expenses -- not “commitments” or authorizations to spend, as the MTA does. We found that the real constraint on MTA capital plans has become the ability to spend, not finding funding. (A related problem is keeping costs down so that what can be spent is done so efficiently.)

This plan is really Governor Cuomo’s. He controls the MTA, as described in great detail in our OpenMTA report. There are a few reasons we think his $55 billion “five-year” plan is not tethered to reality. While the Governor’s plan shows that he wants the MTA to spend  70% more on its 2020-2024, the MTA’s capacity to spend that much will not grow nearly as quickly.

In 2018, the MTA spent a record $6.6 billion on capital projects. However, only $4 billion of that was for current projects -- the other $2.6 billion was to complete projects from previous plans.

For about two decades the MTA has gotten further and further behind spending its capital funding. As a result, there is a growing hangover of past-year projects that must be completed every year. We estimate there will be at least $20 billion worth of 2015-2019 projects for the MTA to finish during the 2020-2024 plan.

Let’s assume the MTA can keep capital spending at the record pace of $6.6 billion a year. If it finishes the 2015-2019 plan in five more years, spending an average of $4 billion of the $20 billion per year, it leaves only $2.6 billion a year for 2020-2024 projects. And wait, the MTA still hasn’t finished the 2005-2009 or 2010-2014 plans. Clearly, something is off here. 

We believe that projects that will not be built for at least a decade are more aspirational than real. By promising everything to everyone, the Governor is actually making it impossible to know which projects are real and which are not.

Given what was released this week is still technically a draft (and we’ve still only seen an outline, not a full plan) that must be approved by the MTA Board and Capital Program Review Board (CPRB), there is still time for the MTA to release a real implementation plan showing how it intends to finish this new plan along with all its current projects.

How Much Can the MTA Really Spend On a Five-Year Plan During the Plan?
Bluntly, we think it will be difficult for the MTA to spend even half of the $55 billion proposed for the 2020-2024 plan during that five-year period. MTA capital plans often taking more than 10 years to be completed. While this is not a new challenge, a capital program of nearly $55 billion is unprecedented and presents a good opportunity to figure out how to fix this ongoing structural MTA problem.

The MTA’s ability to spend capital dollars during plan years has decreased, not increased. In 2018, the MTA spent $6.6 billion on capital projects, but only $4 billion was for 2015-2019 projects. The MTA’s best-ever year for spending on projects from the current capital plan was in 2009, when it spent nearly $4.5 billion (see chart below). 

reinvent albany ex

With the 2015-2019 plan’s late start in 2016, there is a lot of work still left to do on that plan. The 2015-2019 plan has $33 billion worth of projects, but the MTA has only received $12 billion in funds as of June 31 of this year, and as of the end of 2018, only $20 billion worth of projects were committed. (A commitment is not the same as actually spending the money, it is the intent to use employees to complete a project or execution of a contract). 

Can the MTA effectively manage more than $6.6 billion a year total in capital spending?

Given the MTA’s limited spending capacity, questions about the credibility of delivering a nearly $55 billion capital plan are warranted. With the recently-approved MTA reorganization, consolidating capital construction staff to headquarters will mean that the MTA will have to do even more with even less. Whether centralization will indeed lead to meaningful efficiencies will take time to determine.

Even if we give the MTA the benefit of the doubt and it does as well as it has in the past, getting $4.5 billion out the door every year, it will take 12 years to finish the 2020-2024 plan. This is all while it has a lot more to do on the current, 2015-2019 plan.

Given the limited ability to manage projects, what will the MTA prioritize?

The slideshow proposes what would be the largest investment in signals for MTA New York City Transit ever, at $7.1 billion. This comes with other large investments for elevators and subway cars, all while large expansion projects are continuing, such as East Side Access and LIRR Third Track.

With limited spending and staff capacity, the MTA will have to choose which projects come first and which come last. Janno Lieber, the MTA’s head of capital construction, has said that signals will come in the five-year window, but as of now, the MTA has not released an implementation plan or detailed project list with schedules of when it will commit to projects, as it has shown in prior plans.

Revenue Dependent on New Federal, State and City Fundings
The nearly $55 billion plan outline makes a number of big assumptions about funding that has not yet been secured. New funding is supposed to come from the federal government ($10.7 billion), the state government ($3 billion), and city government ($3 billion), totalling nearly $17 billion. These numbers are not real until the cash actually arrives from all parties involved.

Is it realistic to expect $10 billion in federal aid?

Under a Democratic president, the federal government contributed $7 billion to the last capital plan. This plan assumes even more federal dollars will come in, including a large contribution for Second Avenue Subway Phase 2: $2.9 billion alone. The feds provided $1.3 billion for Phase 1, so this would double that contribution to this project. While the President indicated support for the project via Twitter, a tweet is not a funding commitment of $2.9 billion.

Is it realistic to expect the state to provide $3 billion in direct aid?

While Governor Cuomo has said the state will provide $3 billion to the new plan, this is subject to legislative approval. The proposal of the Mayor’s match of $3 billion is also under review. Meanwhile, the state still owes $7.3 billion to the MTA for the 2015-2019 plan: it had pledged $8.3 billion in 2016 and only $1 billion has come in so far. 

State Comptroller  Tom DiNapoli, in his recent report on the MTA’s finances, noted that the remaining $7.3 billion will not start to come in until next fiscal year (beginning April 2020). The state also may not provide this as direct aid. It could authorize the MTA to issue its own bonds based on existing or new revenue, meaning that the impact on the MTA and taxpayers is still unknown.

Debt Service and the Operating Budget Crisis
Beyond the MTA’s huge capital needs, it already doesn’t have enough money to pay for the costs of running the system everyday. This is due in large part to debt service payments on previous capital plans. Debt service payments eat up 17% of the MTA’s operating budget now, and the MTA faces even larger out-year deficits. 

Even without new borrowing, the MTA forecasts that its debt will increase 31% by 2023 and will cost more than $3.5 billion a year. A hiring freeze and cuts to staff such as subway car cleaners have meant that MTA workforce morale is low, while customers are increasingly unhappy with the quality of service. And “service guideline” cuts are on the horizon for this fall. 

Will riders endure even more cuts as a result of this plan?

The operating deficit is already significant, and the MTA’s 2020-2024 capital plan outline assumes the MTA will pay for part of the plan with $10 billion in new debt. How much this debt will increase the MTA’s debt service payments, and therefore its operating deficit has not yet been explained to the public. This information is needed to understand exactly what impact the capital plan will have on the MTA’s ability to actually deliver service for its riders, its primary objective.

Real Transparency is Honesty
Reinvent Albany and our colleagues last week announced the Build Trust campaign, asking the MTA to release an implementation plan to show exactly how it will deliver on its promises, and provided a blueprint for better transparency and cost control.  To us, transparency is not merely about putting more data online, but presenting real, honest information to the public.

To comply with state law, the MTA will have to hold a vote on the complete draft capital plan at its September 25 board meeting. As soon as the MTA Board receives the actual capital plan, it is required to be put it online where the public can see it. Yet with less than a week remaining before a Board vote on the $55 billion spending plan, the MTA has not released two important things: (1) the “20 Years Needs Assessment” with a detailed analysis of how much money is needed to repair the system and (2) the full, detailed list of capital projects in the proposed capital plan, with a detailed implementation plan.  

When will the MTA release its 20-year needs assessment and federal TAM plan?

In theory, the MTA is supposed to follow a logical process to determine how much it needs to spend restoring the transit system.

First, the MTA is supposed to compile an inventory of its equipment and infrastructure, including the condition of its assets, and then it is supposed to compile its needs assessment of how much it will cost to repair the system so it can provide good service.

The inventory of its equipment is part of a new federal requirement called the Transit Asset Management or “TAM” plan. The needs assessment has taken the form of a 20-year needs assessment, last released in October 2013 for the last plan. Neither of these documents is publicly available for the next plan.

Without a 20-year needs assessment, or the underlying data about its assets, the public cannot know how much the MTA should be spending to replace very old, but crucial, subway and rail components, like decades old mechanical switches, electrical systems, pumps and fans. (See Reinvent Albany’s report on the MTA capital plan process.)

Decisions on capital spending don’t have to be political - they should be based on real data that takes the subjectivity out of the process. 

When will the MTA release its full capital plan, with an implementation plan?

The MTA’s 11-page slideshow does not differentiate between “core” repairs versus expansion projects, lumps together costs over multiple plans, omits large capital projects, and provides no implementation schedules. This is troublesome and again raises questions about the MTA’s commitment to public transparency. 

Project lists from prior capital plans have tallied more than 60 pages, itemized and coded by type of project. This allows the public to see exactly how the plan breaks out, such as how many fixes to broken equipment there are versus spending that may be more cosmetic, like the last plan’s Enhanced Station Initiative.

Expansion projects are usually expensive, representing an opportunity cost for fixes that don’t involve ribbon cuttings but are crucial like new power stations needed to run additional trains.

These lists have also included project commitment schedules, showing when the MTA intends to commit to projects (again, not spend) during the five-year window. This is the basis for developing a real implementation plan, and should be expanded upon by the MTA as recommended by the Build Trust campaign.

Before the new MTA capital plan is final, the public and stakeholders like the State Legislature -- which should hold hearings this fall before the plan is approved by the CPRB -- need a lot more detail than 11 pages to fully buy in. It is the public’s money after all, and members of the public deserve to be treated like investors who have been given a real, honest plan before staking their own money on the MTA’s future.

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Rachael Fauss and John Kaehny are, respectively, senior research analyst and executive director of Reinvent Albany. On Twitter @ReinventAlbany.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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The MTA Needs a Real Capital Plan, Not Unrealistic Promises Wed, 18 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
The State’s $7 Billion MTA IOU Comes Due https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8766-the-state-s-7-billion-mta-iou-comes-due https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8766-the-state-s-7-billion-mta-iou-comes-due govcuomoprogre

(photo: the governor's office)


MTA officials acknowledged at their June 2019 board meetings that the agency is borrowing money to be repaid through a New York State law that promised to have the State of New York provide the MTA $7.3 billion once the authority had exhausted its own funds on spending for the current five-year capital program.

The 2016 state law was merely an “IOU," there had been no specific source of funds identified for how the state would pay the money, nor has there been any plan developed since enactment in the state budget that year.

The state's total commitment was $8.6 billion, including some new capital funds it added as part of the newer Subway Action Plan and other promises, which to date have provided about $1 billion in actual funds. It is the $7.3 billion IOU that is still outstanding. New York City was also required to provide $2.7 billion to the agency as part of a mutual obligation with the state. The city has provided about $800 million to date.

These commitments refer to the current 2015-2019 Capital Construction Program, not the 2020-2024 Program to be released in a few weeks by the MTA. That new program, not yet adopted, will have its main funding coming from the congestion pricing system passed earlier this year, with revenue from the tolls scheduled to begin in 2021.

The elements of the 2015-2019 MTA Capital Program were patched together in the 2016-2017 state budget (a year late), my final year in the State Assembly while I was still chair of the Assembly Committee on Corporations, Authorities, and Commissions. The full 2016 package that became the Capital Program was about $30 billion; some $3 billion has been added since I retired. The MTA Capital Program Review Board adopted the plan in 2016 shortly after the budget was enacted.

The question of the state’s outstanding commitment to the MTA capital program, written into the law as the last dollars to be spent in the overall plan, has been the source of limited scrutiny, but is now in the spotlight as the IOU comes due and the next capital program is designed.

At the June 26 public meeting of the MTA Board Finance Committee, finance chair Larry Schwartz and board member Veronica Vanterpool expressed concerns about an agenda item authorizing the MTA to borrow an extra $2 billion to fund the capital program.

Per the minutes of that MTA Finance Committee meeting (page 12):

"Ms. Vanterpool voiced her reservations about increasing the amount, noting that there is that $7.3 billion commitment from the State that has not been received, as well as the commitment from the City. Mr. Foran [the MTA's Chief Financial Officer]... noted that the commitment from the State is predicated on MTA to spend MTA dollars first and that MTA is already beginning to commit against the State's portion (about $2 billion commitment, with some expenditures already incurred) and the State has agreed to that.”

The discussion continued (page 13), "Mr. McCoy [MTA Finance Director] commented that regarding the State funding, the $1.2 billion in BANs [bond anticipation notes] were issued in two components; $1 billion for MTA funded projects, and $200 million is designated for the projects under the State Commitment. Mr. McCoy stated that it was clearly communicated with the State that, when the notes are due, the State will need to provide the funding."

The MTA Board proceeded to add the $2 billion in new borrowing at its main June 26 board meeting two days after this finance committee discussion. State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, in an August 7 report on New York City's financial condition, stated (on page 34), "According to the MTA, it has committed all of its capital resources and has begun to commit up to $3 billion against the State's obligation. Consequently, the MTA will require funding from the State beginning next State fiscal year (2020-21) to cover the cash cost of these capital commitments"

Where Will The Money Come From?
The question now is: How will the state meet this new commitment in the coming budget?

The state has the option of itself providing the MTA the money directly, or creating a stream of funding for the MTA to enable the agency to secure the borrowing of the funds, or some combination thereof. But there are serious challenges, the first of which is that 2020 is an election year for the state Legislature.

To enable the MTA to borrow $7.3 billion, a revenue source, i.e. another tax, would need to provide the authority about another $400 million a year. Does the Legislature want to do another tax increase in an election year? Maybe 2021, not 2020. Seven of the eight new Democratic State Senators that won the Democratic party the majority come from the New York City suburbs. Four of these seven suburban races were super-close, with the Democrats winning by just 2-3 percentage points, or even less.

Several other races were won by less than ten points. Many of these newly-minted legislators could be uncomfortable voting for another tax increase for the unpopular MTA, after voting this year for congestion pricing, a real estate transfer tax surcharge, and internet sales taxes. They are already likely to face Republican attacks in the election for these votes.

The state's ability to borrow the funds directly (the MTA does not need all $7.3 billion next year, but over several years) is also severely constrained by limits on the state government established by the Debt Reform Act of 2000. This law limits state-supported debt to 4% of the state's total personal income from the preceding calendar year. The following chart from a July 2 state comptroller report on the 2019-2020 budget shows how the state's capacity to borrow is dwindling.

divisionbudget chart

Next year the state's ability to borrow funds in support of the entire state budget and the entire capital program will be limited to about $1.36 billion and by 2023-24 will be nonexistent. Borrowing for the MTA would be competing with roads and bridges, water and sewer, the state and city public university systems, mental hygiene, and the environment. Little could be anticipated from this source given the constraints.

Another possibility would be for the state to provide the MTA money from the financial industry settlement windfall. Some $2.6 billion is available in 2020-21 from this source, but, once again, the MTA would be competing with upstate economic development commitments, Javits Center and transportation commitments, and general budget relief. But Governor Cuomo and the Legislature could make several hundred million dollars available from this source -- once again, very limited, given the competition for other funds.

Of course, the Legislature could do a tax/fee hike in 2021, even something as simple as extending the for-hire vehicle surcharge on Uber and Lyft to trips with outer borough destinations or adding to the Manhattan business district price. But it is a tax increase of sorts.

Late in the 2015 legislative session, as we struggled to deal with funding the 2015-2019 MTA Capital Program, I worked with MTA senior officials to introduce legislation to provide the MTA a new source of money without a tax increase. The bill provided for a staggered diversion of existing personal income tax revenue from the MTA region over a four-year period to enable the MTA to borrow what was viewed then as $6-7 billion, providing about $400 million a year in revenue to which the agency would be entitled at the end of four years.

Growth in the state's personal income tax revenue would now bring in about $500 million a year under the formula in the bill (A. 8227-a from the 2015-2016 session), so the percentage amount in the old bill could be shaved.

The critical concept of the bill was that it statutorily entitled the MTA to the revenue, enabling it to borrow the money itself and not be a debt of the state subject to the Debt Reform Act and the limits on the state’s capacity to borrow. As written, it would start in the first year with a small three-tenths of one-percent diversion of PIT revenue in the region to the MTA , reaching 1.2% in the fourth year. Each year's revenue piece was separated in a schedule pursuant to law, so if a recession hit, the state could suspend the following year's diversion and preserve revenue in the general fund.

The governor and the Legislature should continue to examine this concept, which was believed to be workable by MTA officials at the time, though viewed by senior Assembly Ways and Means staff as just not needed. But the $7 billion IOU has come due.

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Jim Brennan was a member of the New York State Assembly for 32 years, where he chaired four committees. On Twitter @JimBrennanNY.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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The State’s $7 Billion MTA IOU Comes Due Thu, 29 Aug 2019 04:00:00 +0000
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
'It's What I Was Elected To Do': State and City Leaders Take Different Approaches to Pension Fund Divestment from Fossil Fuel Companies https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8735-new-york-pension-fund-divestment-fossil-fuel-companies-different-city-state https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8735-new-york-pension-fund-divestment-fossil-fuel-companies-different-city-state pension divestment stringer de blasio

Mayor de Blasio & Comptroller Stringer (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayor's Office)


Amid the larger discussion about addressing climate change before it’s too late, debate is raging in New York over whether government-run and -affiliated pension funds worth hundreds of billions of dollars and responsible for payments that support hundreds of thousands of retirees should divest from fossil fuel company stock.

Advocates, elected officials, and others have been pushing at the city and state levels for full divestment so that the pension funds are not supporting or tied to companies that are leading contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, a warming planet, and the negative consequences of climate change.

But some officials have warned, and practiced, caution, putting forth arguments that the primary priority of pension fund investment must be return for current and future retirees, and that it is important not to overly politicize investment decisions, especially given how uncertain the future is and that some of the leading fossil fuel companies are at the front lines of figuring out the renewable energy future.

There’s also the argument, often made by State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, that by remaining invested with fossil fuel (and other) companies, it is possible as activist investors to help shift their behavior. And while New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer often espouses and practices that philosophy, when it comes to fossil fuel company divestment, Stringer has worked with Mayor Bill de Blasio, labor union leaders, and others to move city pension funds toward dropping stake in those companies.

The New York City and State pension fund pictures are significantly different, with responsibility at the state level much more concentrated in DiNapoli’s office than the city’s in Stringer’s. But the different approaches being taken by the two Democratic comptrollers, who are the popularly-elected chief fiscal officers of their respective jurisdictions, show divergent paths in this particularly fraught political, financial, environmental, and existential moment.

While he’s one of a number of key decision-makers, Stringer is pushing full speed ahead toward fossil fuel divestment by the city pension funds. DiNapoli, meanwhile, has cautioned against that approach, even criticizing it as overly political and reactionary, while taking his own steps to diversify investments, experiment with a carbon-free energy stock portfolio, and push fossil fuel companies toward new policies. 

Advocacy groups like Fossil Free New York and New York Communities for Change are pushing for the $210-billion state pension fund, known as the Common Retirement Fund (CRF), to divest from fossil fuel companies completely. The CRF has about $13 billion in fossil fuel-related investments, according to Fossil Free New York.

In April 2018, as the Democratic primary in his bid for a third term was heating up, Governor Andrew Cuomo declared the state’s pension fund should divest from fossil fuels. But in New York the Governor does not control the pension fund; the State Comptroller is the sole fiduciary of the CRF and, as such, has final say over when investments are made and retracted.

Cuomo DiNapoliWhile he took that stance, Cuomo has not made divestment a major focus, applying minimal pressure to DiNapoli to take more aggressive action. His office recently told Gotham Gazette that the governor is working with the DiNapoli on a path toward divestment, in large part through an advisory group they established together.

Advocates did celebrate in March of this year when Cuomo took a significant new step, calling on state agencies and authorities such as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) to examine divesting whatever funds they have in fossil fuel companies.

“As part of the Green New Deal, Governor Cuomo directed State authorities, public benefit corporations, and the State Insurance Fund, which collectively hold approximately $40 billion in investments, to study divesting from fossil fuels. They are reviewing and evaluating the feasibility and appropriateness of such a measure,” Jordan Levine, a spokesperson for Cuomo, said in a statement to Gotham Gazette.

The governor’s office was unable to identify at this time how much of that $40 billion is currently invested in fossil fuel companies.

Back in early 2017, DiNapoli and Stringer both argued that engaging with major fossil fuel producers like ExxonMobil as shareholders would yield better results than immediate divestments.

However, in 2017, Stringer and the five municipal pension funds initiated an analysis of their investments’ carbon footprint in 2017. Then, in January 2018, after the study concluded, Stringer changed his stance. He, Mayor de Blasio, and other pension fund board members announced their plan for three of the five pension funds (the police and firefighter pension funds are not currently part of the plan and account for less than a third of total pension assets). The city’s five funds have about $5 billion invested in fossil fuel producers out of almost $211 billion in pension fund investments. 

In a celebratory announcement that month alongside de Blasio and others, Stringer asserted that he and other city pension fund trustees “would be shirking our fiduciary duty if we were not exploring all options to address climate risk.”

An involved divestment process is underway, at least at three of the funds -- the Comptroller and the Mayor have seats on the boards of all five pension funds but cannot make unilateral or even bilateral decisions about their investments.

State Response - DiNapoli and His Critics
Under considerable pressure to divest state pension funds from fossil fuel companies, in April 2018, Governor Cuomo and Comptroller DiNapoli convened the Decarbonization Advisory Panel to study the issue. In April of this year, the panel released its report, which made several recommendations and put forward “examples” of what the comptroller could do to mitigate the fund’s carbon footprint. However, the report was criticized by climate activists like 350.org’s Richard Brooks for not including a timeline or benchmarks to achieve divestment.

But even before the panel was assembled, DiNapoli had been taking steps around the question of divestment, creating a $10 billion portfolio of investments into green companies. “We’ve done a lot already to allocate money to climate solutions,” DiNapoli said during a May interview on The Capitol Pressroom with host Susan Arbetter, “they’d like to see us do even more there.”

But the comptroller’s stance has caught the ire of local climate activists, who are the ones who want him to “do even more,” as the comptroller put it. Pete Sikora, the climate and inequality campaigns director at New York Communities for Change, said the comptroller “continues to finance the climate crisis.”

“Not to be too sarcastic, but if you’re going to finance evil stuff that destroys our future, you'd hope the state would at least make - not lose - money off it,” Sikora said, noting that the energy sector “continues to trend down over a decade...of industry under-performance.”

“It’s simply insane to not divest, and losing money on the proposition makes it even more absurd,” said Sikora.

Despite growing pressure from activists and lawmakers on the issue, DiNapoli has maintained that his more moderate approach is what is in the best interest of the CRF and its members. He believes that implementing standards such as the ones suggested in the panel’s report will naturally lead to fossil fuel investments being phased out over time and would avoid the negative impacts of wholesale divestment.

In a June 2019 interview with WAMC’s Capitol Connection, DiNapoli said “when we make judgements about where to put the pension fund, we put it in the best interests of the state.” He went on to defend his approach in significantly more harsh terms than the mild-mannered and reserved DiNapoli typically uses.

Some state lawmakers disagree with the comptroller’s assessment and want to force the his hand on the issue.

The Fossil Fuel Divestment Act would require the CRF to withdraw all investments in the 200 largest fossil fuel companies. The FFDA sets a five-year deadline for this to happen and would allow the comptroller to stop or reverse divestment if it can be demonstrated that it would significantly hurt the CRF’s value.

Senator Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat and the FFDA’s prime sponsor in the state Senate, said in a statement that while the proposal did not pass during this year’s legislative session, she “continue[s] to have conversations with my colleagues about the importance of” the bill. She also added that she is “working on amending the bill based on testimony we heard, both to make it stronger and to address various concerns that were raised.”

“With all due respect to the Legislature, for the Legislature to start micromanaging the pension fund is a recipe for disaster long-term,” DiNapoli said on WAMC, adding that “it may be climate change today, but what will it be tomorrow?”

DiNapoli has previously divested the pension fund from gun companies following the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and from the private prison industry over concerns about the treatment of immigrants and people of color in 2018. Both are cited by critics who want the comptroller to act more decisively on fossil fuel companies.

Krueger said she “strongly believe[s] that [DiNapoli] is wrong on divestment” when it comes to fossil fuels, while noting that they “have talked about divestment extensively” and the comptroller has “been a long-time champion of the environment and climate action.” Despite their talks, “neither of us have managed to convince the other,” she said.

Krueger criticized DiNapoli’s “strategy of engagement with major fossil fuel producers like ExxonMobil” for not “providing any consequences when they repeatedly brush him off. It’s time for some consequences.”

“New York should begin the process now or our retirees will be left holding the bag,” Krueger concluded.

“Does anybody think if we sell the stock tomorrow that’ll make the air cleaner? No,” DiNapoli said during the WAMC interview.

“Since it's become clear that Comptroller DiNapoli currently lacks the moral and fiduciary courage to stand up to the fossil fuel industry and Wall Street, this legislation is necessary,” said Sikora, referring to the Fossil Fuel Divestment Act, in an interview with Gotham Gazette.

“It’s clear we have our work cut out for ourselves in both houses,” said Sikora, assessing the bill’s likelihood of passage next session, which begins in January. During the last session, the FFDA had 28 sponsors in the 63-seat Senate and 37 in the 150-seat Assembly.

DiNapoli plans to follow the advisory panel’s recommendations. According to the DAP’s report called the Climate Action Plan, “rather than making a narrow recommendation to divest from specific stocks, the panel supports the concept of minimum standards to guide the fund in its decisions to sell securities and/or avoid investment managers whose operations and strategies are not sustainable.”

The report argues that divestment from unsustainable companies is “baked in” to this plan of action and that the fund will only invest in sustainable assets by 2030.

The panel’s report says that the CRF should have a minimum standard for where its funds are invested. The panel recommends that the criteria for these minimum standards be set through contracts, but only gave “examples” of what the standards could be, such as requiring “an appropriate corporate governance system for the management of climate-related issues” and “a lobbying policy actively supporting government actions to address climate change.”

The report also suggests examples of actions and timeline that the comptroller’s office could pursue, including “excluding all companies that derive more than 10% of revenue from mining thermal coal or account for more than 1% of global production” by 2020 and “if less than 5% decreased in [greenhouse gas] emissions year on year after” several engagements then “consider a shareholder resolution.”

When DiNapoli released the climate action plan, Fossil Free New York called it “a weak plan at a time when we need bold and transformative action,” and said it is “lip service and incrementalism.” The advocacy group further said “the plan includes no benchmarks, no firm delivery deadlines, no parameters to measure companies’ actions, and doesn’t even commit to divest from thermal coal companies, including ones on the edge of bankruptcy.” FFNY supports the Fossil Fuel Divestment Act.

On WCNY’s The Capitol Pressroom in May, DiNapoli said his opposition to divestment stemmed from his responsibility as fiduciary of the state’s pension fund, saying “this is my job, it’s what I was elected to do.”

He also brought up his 2018 reelection, in which he received more votes than he did in 2014, while Mark Dunlea, the Green Party candidate who campaigned almost exclusively on pension divestment from fossil fuel companies, did worse than the previous Green Party nominee when DiNapoli sought reelection in 2010.

“I actually feel that those in the broader public who’ve looked at this issue are more on our side,” the comptroller said. DiNapli’s Republican opponent in the race, Jonathan Trichter, criticized the comptroller from the right, saying he was playing politics by making the moves he had to explore divestment and create the Sustainable Investment Program, in which $10 billion of pension assets are invested in low-emissions or green companies.

Ceres, a sustainability nonprofit, praises Comptroller DiNapoli as “a global leader in the fight against climate change, addressing material risks and pursuing opportunities for the Fund’s investments.” Ceres supports the “active” investor strategy that DiNapoli has claimed is a better path forward than divestment.

During a debate last fall, Dunlea claimed “if we divested a decade ago, we’d have about $22 billion in the state pension fund,” referring to a 2018 assement from Corporate Knights. A competing unions-funded study said the opposite.

While there are competing studies, Bloomberg News reported recently that some private investment funds are beginning to divest themselves from fossil fuel producers, based solely on the financial risks involved.

DiNapoli regularly notes that while he is the sole fiduciary, he does not make his decisions alone by a long shot, with a chief investment officer, a board of advisors, and others who help determine all aspects of pension fund management. On The Capitol Pressroom, DiNapoli said he was unfairly being singled out by activists and other critics, while also noting that New York City was still in the study phase and that two of the five city pension funds had not agreed to divest.

“So the pressure on me is that we guarantee retirement security for the 1.1 million members of the pension plan, which is a lot of pressure,” DiNapoli said.

New York City Divestment
City Comptroller Scott Stringer has changed course from his previous stance and is now leading an initiative to divest the city’s pension funds from fossil fuel companies, although he is encountering his own challenges in doing so.

“New York City is planting the seed for a clean, green, and thriving economy that can truly support future generations,” Stringer said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. The city has “taken this first-in-the-nation step toward divestment to protect both the retirement security of our city’s workers and the future of our planet,” the comptroller added.

The plan announced by Stringer and Mayor de Blasio in January 2018 set a goal of total divestment within five years. As of July 2019, the city is still in the planning stages, having sent out a request for proposals (RFP) for financial advisors to come up with a divestment strategy last December. The comptroller will select a plan to move forward by December 1 of this yea. But, a key wrinkle in the process is that two of the city’s five municipal pension funds are not on board with divestment as of now.

Unlike the state pension fund, New York City’s public employee pensions are not unified under one system. Instead, there are five separate funds, each with their own boards. In total, the pension funds account for over $195 billion in assets. The largest is the New York City Employees Retirement System (NYCERS), which handles the pensions for most municipal employees.

There were two pension funds for the city’s education-related employees, the Board of Education Retirement System (BERS) covers most non-teacher civil service employees of the city’s school district, while the Teachers’ Retirement System (TRS) is for educators employed by the Department of Education, CUNY, or charter schools in the city. The NYPD and FDNY each have their own pension funds, the Police Pension Fund (PPF) and Fire Department Pension Fund (FDPF), respectively.

Also unlike the state pension fund, each of the five funds has its own board and the city comptroller is not the sole fiduciary of the funds. Each board has its own composition requirements. The Mayor or a mayoral appointee sits on all five boards, as does the city comptroller. The Public Advocate sits on the NYCERS board. Also, relevant city officials sit on some of the boards, such as the Police Commissioner on the PPF board and the schools chancellor on the BERS board.

The NYCERS board includes a mayoral appointee, the comptroller, the Public Advocate, and the five borough presidents, along with representatives from labor unions including AFSCME, the Teamsters, and the Transport Workers Union, which are the three unions with the most members in the fund.

Primarily, pension fund board members are representatives of pension-eligible employees. Eight of the twelve board members for the both the PPF and the FDPF are either union leaders or elected representatives of pension fund members.

In 2017, all five pension funds initiated a study of climate change’s effects on their funds, which was led by the comptroller’s office. However, a year later, the police and firefighter pension funds did not join the other three funds in announcing plans to divest from fossil fuels.

The PPF and FDPF’s bylaws both require a seven-twelfths majority of the board to take action on anything, such as a divestment proposal. The comptroller and mayoral appointees on both boards fall far short of having the votes to divest without buy-in from at least some of the union leaders or employees. 

In a statement, Sikora praised the comptroller, along with Mayor de Blaiso and other trustees, for “taking real action to fight the climate crisis and we look forward to complete divestment.” Sikora also said that New York Communities for Change is “satisfied with the progress to date” of the city’s divestment plan.

The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association and the Uniformed Firefighters Association did not respond to repeated requests for comment regarding their positions on the city divestment plan.

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by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette
   

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this article.

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'It's What I Was Elected To Do': State and City Leaders Take Different Approaches to Pension Fund Divestment from Fossil Fuel Companies Mon, 12 Aug 2019 04:00:00 +0000