Gotham Gazette Mon, 24 Feb 2020 21:27:41 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) After Cuomo Veto, Uncertain Future for Civic Education Fund While State Task Force Moves Ahead regis voter cha

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

In response to several trends, including low voter turnout and civic knowledge, the past few years have seen a sporadic push for stronger civics education in New York and beyond.

In the spring of 2018, New York City launched a ”Civics For All” Initiative, which “provides resources, programming, and professional learning to all NYC schools. The initiative focuses on education models that are interactive, project-based, and relevant to students’ lives,” according to the Department of Education. 

That same year, the New York State Education Department created the Civics Readiness Task Force, composed of 33 members from across the state, in an effort to determine how best to include civics education in school curriculum. According to the task force website, one goal is for students to “demonstrat[e] mastery in civics knowledge and participation in the civics process.” The task force came up with three recommendations, unveiled last month, including to come to a definition for civic readiness.

Meanwhile in Rhode Island students are suing the state board of education for denying them sufficient civics education. The lawyer representing the students said that they have the “constitutional rights to a robust civics education” and that Rhode Island is “failing its students by not instructing them in the values needed to participate in a democratic society,” as reported by the Providence Journal.

New York State Senator Velmanette Montgomery, a Brooklyn Democrat, introduced a bill (S3951) about a year ago, in February 2019, that would establish a civic education fund, money from which would be used by localities to contract with “community-based organizations, non-profits and other non-traditional organizations to implement civic education projects including, but not limited to, mock trials, debate forums, voter registration activities, and projects that demonstrate  an understanding of the connections between federal, state and local politics including issues that may impact the students’ community.”

The bill subsequently passed both the Senate and the Assembly, where its lead sponsor is Democratic Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon of Brooklyn, before it was vetoed by Governor Andrew Cuomo on December 13.

Cuomo’s veto memo explained that because it has a financial component it should be included in the state budget -- the bill had no specification for its fiscal implications, only saying they are “to be determined.” The bill was set to go into effect immediately upon its adoption.

“There is a civic education movement brewing across the country. In response to the recent political divide, rhetoric and lack of civic participation, educators, academics, community institutions, non-profits, and local governments, have banned together to implement civic education for students using a simulation-based approach,” the justification text of the bill reads.

DeNora Getachew, who heads the New York City branch of nonprofit Generation Citizen, which leads civic education programming in schools across the country, says that ensuring young people have the foundation and the skills to become informed voters is essential.

“We don’t put drivers on the street without making them take driver’s ed and actually passing a test, right? Why are we treating this any different?” Gretachew said.

Simon said that she, Montgomery, and others “really feel civics education hasn’t been happening in our schools” and pushing bills like this, that encourage civic learning and engagement, are important to the state’s future.

According to Simon, she and Montgomery are working on a new version of the civic education fund legislation and other bills to help encourage civic participation in New York schools.

Montgomery announced in January that she will not be seeking reelection this year and is retiring after a 35-year career in public service. It’s unclear if she’ll make a push for the civics education fund legislation in her final session, especially before the next state budget is due April 1. Montgomery’s office did not respond to several requests for comment for this story.

What Simon likes about the civic education fund is that it is a simple way to address the problem and provide New Yorkers with greater access to civic education. Money from the civic education fund would go toward local contracting with organizations like Generation Citizen, which currently works through the New York City Department of Education and individual city schools.

Getachew believes that while the fund is a great idea that could help with smaller projects from community organizations, to really teach students civics, a huge investment needs to be made in professional development for teachers. She cited a recent Massachusetts law as a good example of a comprehensive bill that establishes a fund for civic education.

In late 2018, Massachusetts passed the bill, called “an act to promote and enhance civic engagement”, which mandates civic education in schools and establishes a Civics Project Trust Fund to “assist Massachusetts communities with implementing history and civics education state requirements.”

The law says that “in all public schools, history of the United States of America and social science, including civics, shall be taught as required subjects to promote civic service and a greater knowledge thereof and to prepare students, morally and intellectually, for the duties of citizenship.” It mandates that eighth-grade students undertake a civics project that is consistent with the curriculum - in a sense, the law mandates the kind of “action civics” work that organizations like Generation Citizen lead in schools. (Massachusetts is another of the six states where Generation Citizen currently operates. In testimony given on the New York State education budget last week, Generation Citizen said it is working with 6,175 New York students and with educators in 247 classrooms across 70 schools statewide.)

The Massachusetts law includes funding for teachers to learn. “The Department of Elementary and Secondary education shall provide professional development opportunities for educators on the history and social science framework,” it reads.

Massachusetts Education Secretary James Peyser said in a press release, “civics education is about both learning and doing, and effective civic engagement is not simply about advocacy or action, it’s about listening, questioning, respectful dialogue, and compromise.”

This bill, along with Project Soapbox, a public speaking competition, and the Judicially Speaking Program, a Colorado-based initiative that “uses experiential learning to demonstrate the role of the judiciary in the American legal system,” were cited as part of the justification for the establishment of a civic education fund in New York.

Assemblymember Simon said that over the last decade there has been a push to encourage civics education in New York schools and “it’s not going away.” She emphasized that she will continue to push for civic education legislation going forward during this legislative session.

Currently, to graduate, students in New York State are required to get credit for a “participation in government” course. This requirement includes teaching students about current events, and a component of it has to be experiential in nature, according to Getachew.

“The reality is teachers aren't being taught how to teach students that. So what ended up happening in most participation in government classes is the teachers bring in the news and then maybe they invite in a speaker or two and that's it,” Getachew said.

The Civic Readiness Task Force empaneled by the State Education Department is looking to fill the gap in New York. Getachew is also a member of the task force, and said she is proud of the recommendations it just put forth.

They were presented to the New York Board of Regents in January. The first of the task force’s three recommendations is defining civic readiness, meaning clarity of what students should gain out of the work of civic education and engagement, which would then help in the design of that work. Getachew said that by defining civic readiness, New York State can become a “vanguard” for other states to follow.

Second, the task force recommends creating the criteria for a new “Seal of Civic Readiness,” a classification that students can achieve and get credit for on their diploma.

The final recommendation is a capstone project, urging students to explore a topic of their choice. Getachew explained that such an idea is grounded in social studies primarily, but ultimately should be interdisciplinary, allowing schools tol “ensure that all students have the knowledge, the skills, the dispositions, the actions and experiences to participate in democracy long term.”

The task force’s proposed next steps include seeking feedback from stakeholders, creating a manual for relevant professional development, creating the Seal of Civic Readiness, and returning to the Board of Regents for approval in Spring 2020.

The task force also presented two ideas for future action, including creating a statewide survey to collect data on effective civic engagement strategies one year after implementation and exploring criteria for a recognition system for schools that engage in civic readiness.

The task force’s mission statement is to “Encourage students to believe in the power of their own voices and actions. Equip students with the skills and knowledge necessary to engage responsibly in our culturally diverse democracy. Empower students to make informed decisions to enhance our interconnected world.”

by Katie Kirker, Gotham Gazette

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After Cuomo Veto, Uncertain Future for Civic Education Fund While State Task Force Moves Ahead Thu, 20 Feb 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Colossal Failures by New York Budget Division Bring Turmoil and Danger to Medicaid Program Cuomo state budget

Gov. Cuomo & Budget Director Mujica (photo: Governor's Office)

The New York State Division of the Budget surprised the public this past November with an announcement the State faced a $6.1 billion deficit to close for the 2021 budget due by April 1, 2020. The DOB disclosed in its Mid-Year Update that Medicaid costs were exploding -- dramatically more than anticipated -- in both the budget adopted in April 2019 for the current year (fiscal year 2020), as well as for the next one (FY 2021). The budget agency said the situation demanded immediate cuts to both Medicaid and the overall budget.

The Cuomo administration, in its January 24 submission to the Legislature of the new budget plan, proposed $2.5 billion in new reductions to the Medicaid program for FY 2021, as well as incorporating almost $900 million in cuts for the current budget year that began being implemented in November.

The governor’s $2.5 billion cut to projected Medicaid spending would be implemented through the appointment of the Medicaid Redesign Team, which includes representatives from providers, unions, and some other groups, and is tasked with reconfiguring services to achieve savings that would reach the target reduction. If unsuccessful, or if the Legislature fails to adopt the MRT redesign, the Cuomo budget plan includes a fallback to an across-the-board $2.5 billion cut. At a joint legislative budget hearing on January 29, the Greater New York Hospital Association testified that those cuts would amount to 10% of the entire Medicaid program in New York.

The City of New York expressed alarm about another proposal in the governor’s budget proposal that would require local governments to pay for increased Medicaid costs that the State of New York has been absorbing in recent years. Mayor de Blasio testified in Albany on February 10 that the city has very little control over the state-run federal program and that this potential cost-shift could force the city to pay $1.1 billion more for Medicaid expenses in its own budget and warned the city’s public hospital system, Health + Hospitals, could be severely affected. The Cuomo administration has disputed the city’s estimates.

DOB Knew A Year Ago Medicaid Costs Were Escalating Rapidly
Despite the public’s lack of awareness of spiraling Medicaid costs, the Division of Budget and the State Health Department knew a year ago, before last year’s budget was adopted, that Medicaid spending was wildly out of control. The Empire Center for Public Policy, an Albany-based think tank and budget watchdog, accused the Cuomo administration of concealing the deficits in a detailed analysis released in December, following months of similar criticism from both the Empire Center and the Citizens Budget Commission. The Empire Center’s work helped blow open the Medicaid budget crisis and helped guide my own analysis.

DOB released documents after the budget was adopted last year that severely under-reported Medicaid spending, creating the impression there was no serious problem. The DOB’s Mid-Year Update was issued late, in late November, for the period April 1, 2019-September 30, 2019, seven months after the April 1, 2019 adoption of the 2020 budget. 

As the State Legislature and the governor were finalizing enactment of the 2020 budget in late March of last year, the State Health Department was informing the Division of the Budget that the payments of Medicaid bills were so much larger than anticipated that the State would violate a spending cap on the Medicaid program by $1.7 billion for the fiscal year ending March 30, 2019.

The DOB and the Health Department then deferred the payment of the $1.7 billion to Medicaid providers several days into the new fiscal year that began on April 1, 2019. The deferral meant that the State Medicaid budget for 2019 had run over its projection from a year earlier by 10%, and Governor Cuomo and the Legislature had just adopted a budget, with a baseline Medicaid spending for the start of 2020 that was already $1.7 billion higher than 2019. The whole budget was out of balance as well and not being reported as such.

Despite DOB and the Health Department’s decision to push the Medicaid payment into the new fiscal year, DOB’s 2020 Enacted Budget Financial Plan released in April 2019 contained Medicaid spending numbers that were obviously wrong, 

The FY2020 Budget Released by DOB in April 2020 was Clearly Erroneous
Below are the FY2019 and FY2020 DOH Medicaid spending projections taken from the Enacted Budget Financial Plans. The extra $1.7 billion deferred Medicaid payment, which should have been reported in either FY19 or FY20, is nowhere to be found in the excerpts of the Medicaid budget below:


FY'19 Enacted

FY'20 Projected

FY'21 Projected






FY'19 Results

FY'20 Enacted

FY'21 Projected





Instead, the deferral and the extra spending appear in the November 2019 Mid-Year Update all rolled into 2020, which now appears as $3.34 billion higher than FY19, bringing the expenditure to $23.82 billion.


FY'19 Results

FY'20 Updated

FY'21 Projected






Even though the $1.7 billion Medicaid payment was due in March 2019, meaning fiscal year 2019, it is not incorporated into the 2019 results. But DOB knew in April 2019 the payment had been deferred; after all, the agency had ordered it. The real result for FY19 should have been $22.1 billion, presented in April, with a correct projection for 2020. Instead, the Mid-Year Update put all the spending into 2020.

Following October 2019 New York Times reporting, and criticism by budget watchdog groups that the state had delayed Medicaid payments in 2019, DOB acknowledged major problems for the first time in a public document released on October 17, 2019, called the Annual Information Statement, intended for investors in state bonds. The State Comptroller reported on the problem a few weeks later, but it was not until the Mid-Year Update that the state was restating the problems as severe.

Going back to April 2018, the adopted FY2019 budget contained a colossal underestimate of the costs of the Medicaid program, which would affect the 2020 estimate and the 2021 estimate by billions of dollars. Medicaid spending projections simply had no basis in reality. Here’s the Mid-Year Update again, presented in November 2019 but this time with a serious Reality Check:


FY'19 Results

FY'20 Updated

FY'21 Projected





As stated above, the real baseline for 2019 was $22.1 billion after accounting for the deferred spending. And this made the spending forecasts for 2021 even more spectacularly mistaken. The Mid-Year Update forecasts what the spending would have been but for the abrupt and drastic curtailments implemented months ago and proposed for FY2021.

In April 2018 (FY2019), the Enacted Financial Plan showed Medicaid spending rising from $20.35 billion that year to $22.53 billion in FY2021. But the Mid-Year Update shows Medicaid spending rising to $26.19 billion in FY2021, an increase of $5.7 billion, or 28%, in just two years.

Why the stupendous error?
Frankly, the State Division of the Budget did not have a handle on all the many forces the state had set in motion for the Medicaid program:

The minimum wage increased.

DOB knew in 2016 that the multi-step minimum wage increase enacted in that year would bring the wage floor from $9 an hour to $15 an hour in New York City by the beginning of 2019, while a phase-in toward $15 an hour continued to take place in the suburbs and Upstate New York in 2020 and 2021. The April 2019 budget for FY2020 estimated the impact for FY2020 would be $1.1 billion. The Mid-Year Update estimated the FY2020 impact would be $1.5 billion and for 2021 $1.8 billion. DOB underestimated the impact of the increase.

The Federal government’s 100% reimbursement for the Medicaid expansion for Obamacare was scheduled for reduction to 90% in 2020; Comptroller DiNapoli reported in a budget analysis that this reduction would cost the State Medicaid program $1.7 billion in FY2019 and FY2020.

The State increased Medicaid rates. 

This happened in 2018, adding $140 million to costs, as reported by the New York Times in October.

Obamacare implementation increased Medicaid enrollment significantly.

The administration of the Medicaid program was shifting. As Obamacare began to be implemented in 2014, New York State created a new platform to apply for Medicaid called the New York State of Health. Medicaid enrollment grew from 5 million people in 2013 to about 6.2 million today, a 25% increase in enrollment. As a result, the State of New York began to share responsibility with local governments for determining eligibility for Medicaid for persons applying through New York State of Health.

The state also created other avenues for Medicaid enrollment. 

The elderly, the disabled, the mentally ill, and persons with substance abuse problems were required to move into managed long-term care. This included home-care services for existing and new beneficiaries, and a new “consumer choice” program allowed beneficiaries to hire family members, frequently with the assistance of enrollment agents called Fiscal Intermediaries, who could apply for the program on behalf of the potential new recipients.

Applicants could also attest they needed immediate support. While the local government still had to determine eligibility and assess their need for care, beneficiaries were moved into managed long-term care right away. Concern has been expressed that people who are healthy are being moved into the “consumer choice“ program, called Consumer-Directed Personal Assistance, without adequate monitoring.

The state absorbed all cost growth in local government Medicaid spending. 

According to the Empire Center for Public Policy, the state, starting in 2015, has absorbed about $1.3 billion in local spending, with New York City the main beneficiary.   

All of these factors seem to have meant that the Division of the Budget and the Health Department just couldn’t keep track of the combined impact of so many new drivers of Medicaid spending.

What now?
The state (and the Medicaid program) got a lucky break at the beginning of 2020. Tax revenues were reported up by $1.5 billion over the April 2019 estimate, and the state used the money to absorb much of the added Medicaid spending and eliminate the need to keep deferring payments to subsequent years. The state also now projects tax revenue will rise by $2 billion more than anticipated for FY2021, allowing more of the FY2021 deficit to be covered without spending cuts.

The state is still sitting on $6 billion in reserves that could be used to mitigate spending cuts. Mayor de Blasio and others have urged consideration of tax increases on the wealthy. The state could increase assessments on Medicaid providers, and use the money as a way to leverage federal Medicaid dollars, another way to mitigate cutbacks. Negotiations with the Legislature on the Medicaid program and the overall budget will no doubt bring adjustments to protect the Medicaid program and protect recipients and providers.

The Health Department, DOB, the Comptroller, and the Legislature need to figure out what went wrong. The State also needs to bring more transparency to reporting on the costs of the Medicaid program, and go back several years step by step. The Comptroller may need to require a restatement of the state’s books, too, and make sure there is no repeat to the colossal mistakes by the Budget Office.

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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Colossal Failures by New York Budget Division Bring Turmoil and Danger to Medicaid Program Sun, 16 Feb 2020 05:00:00 +0000
What's The [DATA] Point? 2020 - De Blasio, Cuomo, and The Year Ahead whats the data point

What's The [Data] Point? Episode 89 -- 2020 - De Blasio, Cuomo, & The Year Ahead, with Alyssa Katz & Laura Nahmias [You can download What's The [Data] Point? wherever you get your podcasts, including on iTunes]

ak ln wtdp89Six weeks into the new year, Mayor de Blasio (now in his 7th year as mayor) and Governor Cuomo (in his 10th year as governor) have now given budget presentations and made "State of" speeches, outlining their agendas for the year ahead and starting to navigate a set of challenges. Two journalists -- Alyssa Katz of The City and Laura Nahmias of The Daily News editorial board -- who have covered de Blasio and Cuomo extensively joined the show to discuss their agendas and what's ahead.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think: Ben Max of GG (@TweetBenMax), Maria Doulis of CBC (@MariaDoulis). Listen below or download wherever you get your podcasts!

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

What's The [DATA] Point? 2020 - De Blasio, Cuomo, and The Year Ahead Fri, 14 Feb 2020 05:00:00 +0000
‘We Put Them in the Jewish Community to Protect Our People’: City and State Add Permanent Security Cameras to Combat Rise in Anti-Semitism attends sec brief

the Mayor, the NYPD & cameras (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayor's Office)

In response to an increase in reported anti-Semitic hate crimes and violent attacks, New York City and State are simultaneously implementing a permanent increase in surveillance in several predominantly Orthodox Jewish communities.

The new surveillance technology -- including 100 new NYPD cameras and state-funded cameras and license plate readers -- comes after high-profile attacks in Jersey City and Monsey in the final weeks of 2019 and a multi-year increase in reported hate crimes, many of them anti-Semitic. Amid calls from Haredi leaders for a heightened police presence and a corresponding vow from government officials to protect the physical safety of Jews, a robust public response to growing anti-Semitism has particular resonance 75 years after the Holocaust.

But this specific response also shines a light on the movement toward mass surveillance by both government and private actors, still considered Orwellian by some but accepted as part of modern life by others. Civil rights advocates and other government watchdogs are questioning the proportionality of responding to contemporary fears with a permanent security apparatus that could have other applications now and in the future.

Speaking at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park on the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp last month, Mayor Bill de Blasio affirmed the city’s commitment to protect Jews.

“We confront [anti-Semitism] by doing the things that so many nations never did. We take our police force, we take our security forces, and we put them in the Jewish community to protect our people. That is what we must always do,” he said. He described the “cold feeling” of considering how few the non-Jews were who acted against the intolerance that foreshadowed genocide of 17 million people, including 6 million Jews.

The recent surge in anti-Semitism has faced lawmakers and residents with the question of what it means in the 21st century to stand with the Jewish community, especially those who are more easily identified as Jewish (either because they wear traditional attire or live in certain concentrated communities). In response, the city and state have each taken a combination of short- and long-term approaches, including education, reconciliation, and, most immediately, security.

According to NYPD data, anti-Semitic hate crimes rose 26 percent in 2019, and 86 percent between 2015 and 2019, doubling the rise in total hate crimes. The high concentration of violent incidents in December -- including a triple homicide at a kosher deli in Jersey City and a knife attack at a Hanukkah celebration in Monsey -- have ignited calls to action at virtually every level of government.

In January, de Blasio reported the NYPD would be installing 100 new police cameras in Williamsburg, Crown Heights, and Borough Park -- three neighborhoods with large Orthodox Jewish populations -- as part of an effort to prevent and punish hate crimes. Days later, in response to the Monsey attack, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced he was directing up to $680,000 in state funds for security cameras and license plate readers in Monsey and New Square, two Orthodox Jewish enclaves in Rockland County (the Monsey attacker was tracked to Manhattan and caught partially using a license plate reader).

“An attack on the Jewish community is an attack on all New Yorkers. These new security cameras will increase the NYPD’s visibility into these neighborhoods, and help our officers on the ground keep New Yorkers safe,” de Blasio said in a statement. One hundred and fifty additional police officers are now patrolling those streets, he said.

“This new technology will enhance security in vulnerable communities and serve as a deterrent for future attackers,” Cuomo said on January 13 when he allocated new funding to “harden” surveillance in the two hamlets. He also deployed more state police to patrol in Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods throughout New York.

Representatives of Cuomo and de Blasio, both Democrats, told Gotham Gazette the new cameras and license plate readers would be permanent.

Asked by email whether there were plans to review the need for cameras in the future, like in the event of a downturn in anti-Semitic violence, mayoral spokesperson Olivia Lapeyrolerie wrote, “these cameras will be permanent.”

A spokesperson for the state police responded: “License plate readers (LPRs) are permanent installations that are employed by a number of state and local police and public safety agencies all over the state.” A spokesperson for Cuomo later clarified that the same is true of the additional security cameras.

While leaders of Orthodox Jewish communities have praised the measures, the permanent increase of government surveillance, especially in faith-based communities, has raised flags for civil liberties watchdogs.

“We shouldn’t engage in the business of dispensing with our privacy and security in some ways in order to gain a measure of comfort in others,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, in an interview with Gotham Gazette.

"I think we always need to balance the use of technology and government monitoring in a way that respects people's civil liberties,” said City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, responding to a question at an unrelated press conference Tuesday. He said the city should avoid “doing anything in a dragnet-type of way, which we have seen happen in this country."

"But at this moment in time, I do think it's appropriate that we should be using our resources to protect neighborhoods across New York City that have been targeted with anti-Semitic violence and I am proud that the City of New York are taking those steps." he added.

A response to rising anti-Semitism -- mostly measured by an upswing in reported hate-motivated vandalism, with several violent assaults -- the efforts are also part of a decades-long proliferation of video surveillance, both from government and private entities, which has accelerated since the September 11, 2001 attacks. Security cameras are now ubiquitous throughout the city, forming a network of NYPD and private devices, which are often used to conduct police business whether involving counterterrorism or not. The mayor recently visited the new Homelessness Joint Command Center in Lower Manhattan, where multiple city agencies now monitor homeless people living on the street using dozens of police cameras in an effort to reach unsheltered New Yorkers more quickly.

Surveillance as Security
Civil liberties advocates have for years raised alarms about the dearth of information about how the cameras are used, especially by the police. With the expansion of artificial intelligence and biometric surveillance, like facial recognition technology, new questions arise about the power to monitor individuals and groups.

Civil rights advocates are concerned about the potential for abuse.

“There are significant unanswered questions that have to be asked in conjunction with the mounting of a massive video surveillance network in any community,” Lieberman said.

She listed examples: “What happens to the footage that is captured on video? Who has access? How long is it stored? Is it shared? Is it safeguarded in any way? And what kind of security is in place to protect against the wrongful use of this footage?”

“This is important because whatever benefits are anticipated, video surveillance doesn’t just capture the images of people who want to be on camera or who are engaged in wrongdoing. It captures everybody who goes by, and that is probably hundreds of thousands of people a month,” Lieberman added.

"It's something that the city of New York should be mindful of when we are putting in technology like this, how often do we check and see if it's necessary to be there? Do we want it to be there for 10 years, 20 years, 25 years,” Johnson said Tuesday.

While civil rights concerns are being played out in public debate, Orthodox Jewish leaders on the ground are seeking guarantees for their communities’ protection by the city and state.

“The handful of people who have criticized the increased police presence within the Orthodox Jewish community, guess what, they don’t live in those communities. So I laugh at that,” said David Greenfield, who formerly represented Borough Park in the City Council, in a recent interview on the Max & Murphy podcast. “People want more police presence, they want more safety, they want more visibility, they want more deterrence and more of an ability for the police to respond quickly to these crimes that are happening.”

Asked whether the de Blasio administration believed mass surveillance was necessary for keeping all New Yorkers safe, and whether that is the direction the city as a whole is moving, Lapeyrolerie said that ship has already sailed: “There are security cameras all over the City – whether operated by the NYPD, MTA or private buildings.”

Other Approaches to Rising Anti-Semitism
Hate crimes rose 20 percent from 2018 to 2019 and anti-Semitic ones rose 26 percent even as crime in other categories fell, the NYPD reported this January. Of the 428 hate crimes reported in 2019, 234 of them were considered anti-Semitic. A vast majority of those hate crimes are categorized as “aggravated harassment,” including the drawing of swastikas, which were up by 55 incidents from 2018 to 2019, according to Chief of Crime Control Strategies Michael LiPetri.

At the state level, statistics released by the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services show that anti-Jewish hate crimes, either against a person or property, have remained relatively flat since 2013, increasing less than five percent from 2017 to 2018, the last year data is available.

In addition to the new security technology and deployment of state police patrols, Cuomo has made $45 million available in security grants up to $50,000 for certain faith-based institutions, like schools and community centers ($25 million has already funded 500 projects since the start of the program in 2017, according to a press release). The governor has proposed another $25 million in his executive budget for next fiscal year, which would be available to a larger list of institutions, including houses of worship. He has also proposed designating certain hate crimes as acts of domestic terrorism, more school curriculum on diversity and tolerance, and expanding the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park City to help facilitate school and other visits.

In New York City, the NYPD increased patrols and installed spotlights in some Brooklyn neighborhoods, and created the new Racially and Ethnically Motivated Extremism unit to investigate organized hate groups. In September, de Blasio launched the Office for the Prevention of Hate Crimes, which is already rolling out programming. The mayor is also launching inter-community “safety coalitions,” and directing the Department of Education to develop “hate crime awareness programming,” according to a recent press release.

And in the face of rising hate crimes, Cuomo, de Blasio, and others across the political spectrum have proposed revisiting bail reforms passed by the state Legislature in 2019. Those calls have been characterized by many as fear-mongering and based on tenuous connections, largely unsupported by NYPD data.

How Involved are Communities?
Lapeyrolerie said the city’s first 30 new cameras will be deployed by March “based on NYPD’s security analysis,” which would include looking at sites with frequent incidents of graffiti, for example. According to a press release, the remaining 70 cameras will be installed with the input of community members.

“We are finalizing what our community engagement process will look like, but will endeavor to ensure the process is inclusive,” Lapeyrolerie said.

Two weeks after announcing the new cameras, the mayor’s office announced the formation of three “anti-hate crime neighborhood safety coalitions,” operating in the same neighborhoods, modelled on other anti-violence programs in the city. When asked, Lapeyrolerie did not say whether these coalitions would be involved in placing the remaining 70 cameras.

The state is less forthcoming with information about where exactly the new tech will be and what it will monitor. “Information on location strategy will not be divulged as it is a police matter,” the state police spokesperson wrote.

Wherever they are located, it’s clear the license plate readers have the capacity to capture broad swaths of information. According to a press release from the governor’s office, “This technology automatically captures all license plate numbers that come into view, along with the location, date, and time. The data, which includes photographs of the vehicle, is then uploaded to a central server and relayed to police agencies across a wide area.”

In terms of access to NYPD footage, department spokesperson Al Baker told Gotham Gazette the NYPD stores footage for 30 days “unless video is required as part of an investigation” and “video access is permission-based.” He did not provide details on how to gain permission and who has the ability to grant it. In terms of safeguards for the wrongful use of footage, Baker wrote in an email: “Internal NYPD access is controlled by user permissions,” with footage watermarked with the permitted user’s name.

While they may help, it is hard to prove cameras deter hate crimes, but they may make it easier for police to catch perpetrators. The NYPD does not have a particularly high arrest rate for hate crimes, at just over 40 percent, as Gotham Gazette previously reported.

Whatever their potential value, advocates want to see protections accompany the use of police surveillance technologies.

“The fear is legitimate that between government and private surveillance, our lives are an open book there for the picking...because the safeguards are so absent,” Lieberman said.

"I think that for people who believe that, ‘Well, if you haven’t done anything wrong what do you have to hide?’ -- all we have to do is take a look at the corruption at the highest levels of government to know that we all have enormous cause for concern when a combination of government and private actors is tracking our every move," she said.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

‘We Put Them in the Jewish Community to Protect Our People’: City and State Add Permanent Security Cameras to Combat Rise in Anti-Semitism Tue, 11 Feb 2020 05:00:00 +0000
In Albany, De Blasio Enlists Legislators' Help to Fight Cuomo Budget Proposals budget hearing jfc

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

Mayor Bill de Blasio made his annual trip to Albany on Monday to testify before the state Legislature on Governor Andrew Cuomo’s executive budget proposal, which is $178 billion for the 2021 fiscal year, and urged lawmakers to help prevent what he called nearly $1.4 billion in potential funding “cuts” to the city that could result largely from a proposed overhaul of the state Medicaid program.

Testifying before the joint fiscal committees of the State Senate and Assembly over the course of two-and-a-half hours, the mayor issued dire warnings about how Cuomo’s budget proposal would affect New York City and fielded pressing questions from lawmakers about a range of issues including the city’s special education services and property tax system, the impact of recent criminal justice reforms, and more. Facing two Democrat-controlled chambers, it was a mostly friendly reception for the mayor and there were few areas of disagreement with lawmakers.

Naturally, the issue at the center of the mayor’s testimony was the governor’s proposed Medicaid overhaul. “The cuts in this year's executive budget are of a magnitude we have never seen before,” de Blasio said. “These cuts would be nothing less than devastating for everyday New Yorkers.”

In reality, de Blasio’s $1.4 billion in threatened state “cuts” to the city is a combination of cost-shifts, less-than-expected funding increases, and actual programmatic aid cuts. And within that number is a disagreement between the de Blasio and Cuomo administrations about how to quantify the potential fiscal risk to the city from the governor’s Medicaid proposal, which the governor’s office says is far less than the mayor’s is asserting, even if fully realized. Like all of the executive budget, the details will be the subject of negotiation between the governor and the Legislature ahead of the April 1 deadline for the new state fiscal year.

With the state confronting a $6.1 billion budget gap, mostly from rising Medicaid spending, the governor this year is seeking to implement drastic changes to how the state assumes the cost of Medicaid for municipalities. He reconvened a Medicaid Redesign Team to find $2.5 billion in savings and also proposed that localities that exceed a 2% property tax cap (which doesn’t apply in New York City) and where Medicaid spending grows past 3% annually must pay for the entire cost above that growth rate. For the city, where the Medicaid growth rate was about 7% last year, that would mean a $1.1 billion cost increase over the $5 billion the city already spends annually, according to the de Blasio administration (according to the governor’s office, the full liability for the city is only $221 million).

De Blasio sought to drive home the negative consequences of that move, noting that the proposals this year alone would eclipse the cumulative $1 billion in cuts, cost-shifts and unfunded mandates that the city has absorbed from the state in the last six years. “We need your help more than ever before,” he pleaded to legislators, worried that if the MRT does not find the requisite savings, it could translate to further cost-shifts and outlining for lawmakers what some of the projected impacts could be, from closed health care facilities to reduced public hospital system staff.

Additionally, he said the state budget proposal leaves the city with shortfalls of $136 million in school aid from the city’s expected increase and $100 million over two years through a 5% cut to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (which was already cut by 10% last year). “These cuts year after year are adding up and are going to take away our basic capacity to serve people,” he said.

The governor's office sought to later refute the mayor's testimony point by point. Freeman Klopott, a spokesperson for the Division of Budget, said in an email that over the years, local Medicaid costs taken on by the state and school aid sent to the city totalled about $27.8 billion in additional support, rather than a $1 billion cumulative cut as the mayor claimed. He also noted that the proposed budget increases school aid to the city by $224.4 million and that there is no cut to the TANF program (the state will pay 85% of the program and the city will pay 15%). 

“The mayor used his time on the soapbox to misinform the public about our Medicaid reforms," said Robert Mujica, state budget director, in a statement. He said the MRT "will bring spending in line with targeted growth while ensuring 6 million New Yorkers maintain the same high-quality care they have now. The Mayor’s solution to raise taxes and increase spending without any accountability is a recipe for fiscal instability and inefficiency in a program charged with caring for the most vulnerable among us, and that’s unacceptable. Also, he claimed he hasn’t raised property taxes – and no New Yorker believes that one."

De Blasio however painted a grim portrait of the results of the city having to take on another $1.4 billion in spending – it would not only jeopardize New York City Health+Hospitals, the public hospital system that the administration pulled back from the verge of bankruptcy, but would also necessitate broader cuts to services the city provides. “This would literally set us back years,” he said.

The city would have to consider the closure of 19 neighborhood clinics that serve 140,000 city residents and lay-offs for 1,300 doctors and nurses; they may have to eliminate both the Summer youth Employment Program which enrolls 70,000 young people and the COMPASS after-school program which serves 120,000 students. What de Blasio did not acknowledge is that the city’s own fiscal picture, with flush coffers even as the mayor has drastically increased city spending during his tenure, would likely allow it to make up for even the worst-case scenario, though potentially exhausting a good chunk of the city’s surplus and fairly robust reserves. The mayor has insisted that the city needs to keep those reserves at significant levels to be prepared for an economic recession or unexpected catastrophe, not to help the state balance its books.

De Blasio particularly pushed back against Cuomo’s suggestion that the growing Medicaid costs are because localities lack the incentive to find savings – the governor called it “blank check syndrome” in his budget presentation – as the mayor noted that the state controls the program while localities simply act as “enrollment agents” for Medicaid. “The state of New York sets the rules. The state of New York sets the rates,” de Blasio said, while stressing that the city is ready to work with the state to identify any efficiencies possible.

The mayor proposed three solutions. He called on the MRT to work with localities to find savings (the mayor said the city had identified as much as $260 million in basic efficiencies, building on $180 million that the city has already saved the Medicaid program over three years). Notably, the governor did not include any city representatives on the MRT. De Blasio also said the state should revise the “artificial restraint” of the Medicaid Global Cap that sets limits on how much spending on the program can increase; and he pushed for increasing taxes on the wealthy to raise revenue rather than risk cutting health care services or Medicaid enrollment.

Legislators all seemed to agree with the mayor that the governor’s Medicaid proposal would either bankrupt localities or severely curtail services and lead to New Yorkers losing their healthcare.

The mayor did have some praise for the governor’s budget proposal, welcoming legislation on legalizing e-bikes and e-scooters, and recreational adult-use of marijuana, though he called for a dual licensing structure that would give the city some control over the system and for a greater degree of “economic justice,” which has been the source of some challenges in negotiations among Cuomo and the Legislature.

The hearing was, of course, also an opportunity for the mayor to ask the Legislature to fund various initiatives and to pursue non-budgetary policy goals. Hat in hand, he quickly ran through a list of requests.

He asked for more funding to fight homelessness and called for the passage of the Home Stability Support bill that would increase the value of rental vouchers for low-income residents and would keep about 25,000 people in their homes, he said. He pushed for more transparency in the MTA’s $51.5 billion 2020-2024 capital plan, which calls for a $3 billion contribution from the city that de Blasio has yet to agree to. He pointed out that $2.5 billion already sent to the MTA from the city under the previous capital plan had yet to be spent and that the agency has completed only 30% – 380 out of nearly 1,300 – of the projects approved in 2015.

As he continues to try to restore and rehabilitate the crumbling housing stock of the New York City Housing Authority, he asked the state to pitch in another $2 billion.

The mayor also raised several proposals that he unveiled in his State of the City speech last week. He called for authorization to levy a storefront vacancy tax and pushed the Legislature to start considering the preliminary recommendations of a city commission on property tax reform (the mayor praised those recommendations and said that after more public dialogue a final set will be available soon). He also pushed for the passage of new renter-friendly legislation including universal renter protection for the 2.5 million New Yorkers who live in non-regulated apartments and measures to regulate security deposits.

De Blasio also repeatedly aired his concerns about reforming the state’s bail reform law that went into effect this year. The mayor has said the law should give judges more discretion to assess the potential dangerousness of a defendant before deciding whether to set bail. He ascribed a recent uptick in crime last month in part to the effects of the bail reforms, though such a direct relationship isn’t matched by evidence. While that concern was shared by some legislators, Senator Robert Jackson, a Manhattan Democrat, implored the mayor to be more patient, noting that it has been less than a month-and-a-half since the reforms became effective. “Give it a chance to work. That’s what I’m asking,” Jackson said. De Blasio said that the good effects of the law would remain under his proposal for change, though critics say adding judicial discretion would lead to many more defendants, mostly people of color, being locked up pre-trial.

The mayor did have to defend his administration on certain fronts. Senators Jackson and Simcha Felder, a Brooklyn Democrat, pushed him to explain the city’s apparent failure to provide sufficient services for students with special needs.

Senator Diane Savino, a Staten Island Democrat, tried to dissuade him from pursuing a vacancy tax that she said would be burdensome on small businesses that are already struggling with the city’s regulatory framework. “Instead of looking for a culprit, perhaps we should have a more holistic approach,” she said.

The mayor emphasized though that his approach is not meant to be punitive. He reiterated the many proposals in his State of the City aimed at helping small businesses, including committing a $500 million investment in local businesses from the city pension fund, continuing to reduce fines, and providing low-interest loans and free legal assistance.

Assemblymember Robert Carroll, a Brooklyn Democrat, urged de Blasio to significantly expand screenings and programming for dyslexic youth, saying that such efforts would have a major impact on student reading and overall progress. De Blasio said he would look more closely at the issue.

Some of the lawmakers were dubious of the recent property tax commission’s preliminary recommendations, which are meant to reduce various inequities in the current system.

Assemblymember Nicole Malliotakis, a Staten Island Republican, urged the mayor to impose a 2% property tax cap, which is in place everywhere outside the city, while the commission completes its work. Senator James Gaughran also asked the mayor to consider keeping within the cap as a means to control Medicaid spending similar to other localities. As he has done each year, de Blasio said that such a cap is not in the city’s plans or interests.

“The recommendations sound great but I don’t know how workable they are,” said Senator John Liu, a Queens Democrat. Assemblymember Tremaine Wright, a Brooklyn Democrat, expressed similar reservations, specifically citing concerns about the bills that many homeowners of color in neighborhoods that have rapidly gentrified may have to pay under a new system.

Emphasizing that the commission’s proposals are only preliminary, de Blasio said he would take their feedback into consideration as the process moves ahead, adding, “We’re trying to come up with something that will address the reality of the whole city.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note - This article has been updated with comment from State Division of Budget director Robert Mujica. 

In Albany, De Blasio Enlists Legislators' Help to Fight Cuomo Budget Proposals Mon, 10 Feb 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Cuomo’s Cannabis Bill Locks Out Farmers and Preserves Illegal Market in New York 1cannabis bill fuel

(photo: @nysmallfarma)

As a state government ends the prohibition of cannabis, it can choose to regulate so as to create an industry that favors industrially produced cannabis from large national players and/or it can choose to create a small-scale local cannabis industry. As we’ve now witnessed in Canada, the industrial cannabis industry sacrifices quality for quantity, producing mediocre expensive cannabis, grown at great threat to our planet due to the massive amount of greenhouse gas emissions from indoor cultivation. And as Canada’s example shows, the illegal market will thus continue to flourish.

The only way New York will end the illegal market is if it creates a competitive product. Artisanal craft cannabis, grown under the sun by farmers who know how to produce regenerative high-quality cannabis without synthetic chemicals, is that product. And yet Governor Cuomo’s new bill to legalize adult-use cannabis effectively excludes farmers from growing cannabis.

We at NY Small FarmA, representing the interests of small farmers and those who wish to purchase the healthy, artisanal strains regenerative farmers can produce, were hoping the governor might lead the way in creating this small cultivation and manufacturing industry as he so proudly did for craft breweries.

“New York's craft beverage industry is booming...we have seen significant growth in the number of manufacturers supporting our local farms and spurring job creation across the Empire State,” Cuomo announced in 2018, having just prior proclaimed a record number of breweries in the state he said were “creating jobs, driving tourism, helping our local farms, and instilling pride in every corner of this great state.”

But the bill the governor recently put out as part of his 2020 agenda not only fails to support a craft farm cannabis industry, it makes it impossible for farmers to grow in New York! By failing to recognize cannabis as an agricultural crop and failing to provide the same support the governor provided when recognizing cannabis hemp as an agricultural crop, the governor’s bill will result in the exclusion of farmers from this new industry. This is true because he is not proposing a change to the agriculture and markets law.

The governor knows how to support an agricultural crop when he wants to. He just announced up to $10 million in funding to advance hemp research and economic development opportunities for hemp businesses. When cannabis hemp was legalized in New York, it was expressly recognized as an agricultural crop. Hemp is also the exact same cannabis plant as the plant we all know as marijuana. The only difference between the two is the amount of THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol).

Rather than support what could be a huge revitalization of farming communities, the governor’s bill is a gift to large out-of-state businesses. Adding insult to injury, this bill will fail to produce the tax revenues the governor is counting on because his plan will only fuel the existing illegal cannabis market in New York.

There is still time to urge the governor to amend his bill, incorporating the statutory provisions laid out in NY Small FarmA’s platform. If this bill passes without these provisions, New Yorkers’ only options will be to spend more for inferior quality, pesticide-laden cannabis or continue to find less expensive, higher quality cannabis illegally. There will be no option to purchase healthy, pure regeneratively grown, pesticide-free cannabis, unless you know a farmer you trust and are willing to risk the criminal consequences. This is not how prohibition should end.

Andi Novick, Esq., is founder and president of  New York Small Farm Alliance of Cannabis Growers & Supporters (NY Small FarmA). On Twitter @nysmallfarma.

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Cuomo’s Cannabis Bill Locks Out Farmers and Preserves Illegal Market in New York Thu, 06 Feb 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Byford’s Gone and So's His Job; What's Next? mta president byford

(photo: Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit)

There will never be another MTA New York City Transit President with the power Andy Byford had when he took the job two years ago. Under Governor Cuomo’s MTA reorganization plan, all future NYCT “Presidents” have been stripped of the power to manage capital projects like replacing signals and switches or buying new rail cars and buses. The next boss of Transit also lost control of a large number of engineering experts and legions of Transit Authority workers who are reimbursed for their time on capital projects.

Going forward, Transit’s capital planning, purchasing, and project management will be done by a centralized, newly-renamed MTA Capital Construction & Development agency. This massive agency is run by MTA Chief Development Officer Janno Lieber,  who has immense powers and approves everything from which kind of new bus to buy to who gets to rent the candy stand in the 103rd Street subway stop.

Byford’s departure got so much attention in part because the MTA is going through a wrenching reorganization ordered by the governor that includes eliminating 800 operations workers and 1,900 administrative staff. Amidst this turmoil, Byford was highly respected by rank-and-file workers and riders for hugely reducing subway delays with a mix of hard-headed pragmatism, sincerity, and optimism.

MTA “Reorganization” Pushed Out Byford
It was Governor Cuomo’s reorganization plan, approved in July 2019, just three months after it was mandated by the state budget, that led inevitably to Byford’s resignation.

In his resignation letter, Byford wrote that the “transformation plan...called for the centralization of projects and an expanded HQ, leaving Agency presidents to focus solely on the day-to-day running of service. I have built an excellent team...who could perform this important, but reduced, service delivery role.”

The central tensions in Byford’s relationship was the governor’s inability to share credit with a talented subordinate, penchant for secrecy, and his preference for surprise “man on horseback riding to the rescue” announcements instead of conventional, fact- and expert-based planning.

Byford’s “I’m a global transit expert” worldview came into a head-on collision with the governor’s insistence that the MTA and Byford could use Ultra Wide Band (UWB) radio technology to vastly speed up resignaling the subway system. New signals are a top priority and the core of Byford’s Fast Forward plan, because signal problems are the main cause of subway delays.

The problem is that UWB has not been widely deployed by any leading subway system and is viewed as a promising, but not mature, technology. Signal modernization is also at the fault line of authority over who will fix the subways: NYC Transit or MTA Capital Construction & Development. Since the departure of Byford and then his top signals deputy, Pete Tomlin, control over signal modernization -- and the decision about which lines get new signals first -- appears to be in MTA Capital Construction & Development’s hands. 

Byford and Cuomo also famously clashed over the L train tunnel and subway speeds initiatives, when the public saw the governor reaching over the MTA board and MTA CEO to make direct decisions about MTA project management.

Reorganization or Disorganization?
Reinvent Albany and transit advocates have repeatedly warned that the reorganization plan could result in the fragmentation of expertise, and the derailment of Byford’s Fast Forward Plan (both before the passage of the state budget that mandated the change and after, when the MTA’s consultant, AlixPartners, was developing the recommendations).

We were concerned that shifting NYC Transit’s talent, like Byford’s signals expert Tomlin, to MTA Capital Construction would result in fragmentation, where the engineering and capital planning staff were separated from operations, creating new silos. One could argue the transformation plan created more than 13 new silos, with many new chief officers -- of operations, engineering, technology, communications, etc. -- all reporting to the CEO/Chair. See the “chief” heavy org chart below.

mta ceo direct

Splitting NYCT into Subway and Bus Operations?
A June 2019 “draft” version of the transformation plan that was scrubbed before final release proposed separating subways from buses, with all MTA buses merged together under one head. That seems more likely now with Byford’s departure, though not without challenges given the separate collective bargaining agreements for bus operators, as express buses are under the MTA Bus Company, while NYC Transit runs local and select buses.

Buses are too often relegated to second-tier status below subways in terms of public officials’ focus, but not under Byford. Byford made a point to own buses equally with subways, as seen through his work on the 14th Street busway and borough-based bus redesigns, which have been long overdue.

Transit advocates at the Bus Turnaround Coalition are working hard to maintain the momentum that Byford helped start, but his departure and the overall reorganization at the MTA leave it unclear who will restore the bus system. Thanks to Bus Rapid Transit, buses have undergone a global renaissance over the last 25 years that has skipped over New York City. With Byford leaving, all eyes will be on Governor Cuomo to ensure that needed improvements are made to both subways and buses.

We hope our concerns are misplaced, and that the governor’s massive reorganization of the MTA will result in big benefits for riders and those who work for the Authority. We hope the governor’s repeated, direct interference in the MTA’s operations will lead to greater organizational focus and effectiveness. We hope that the reported exodus of experienced MTA managers -- some of whom left before Byford -- will allow for new talent and new ideas to rise. We hope the governor lets Janno Lieber do his job, and that Lieber knows what to do with the massive power he’s accumulated with the new MTA Capital Construction & Development agency.

Yes, we hope for a lot of things, so while we’re at it, let’s hope that the governor will take responsibility for the failures, not just the successes of his efforts at the MTA. 

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

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Byford’s Gone and So's His Job; What's Next? Thu, 30 Jan 2020 05:00:00 +0000
As Cuomo Proposes Excelsior Scholarship Expansion, 6 Things to Know About the Program free tuition.cuomo

(photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo)

In January 2017, Governor Andrew Cuomo unveiled the Excelsior Scholarship, New York State’s “free college” initiative. About 20,000 students were awarded Excelsior in the inaugural 2017-18 year. In 2018-19, the number of scholarship recipients rose to 24,000, and for 2019-20, the Legislature projects an increase to 30,000, which will equal no more than 5% of the state’s public college enrollment.    

The 5% figure is small compared to the massive hype that surrounded the program’s rollout. Yet 30,000 beneficiaries is still a large number, exceeding the total undergraduate enrollment at the State University of New York (SUNY) campuses at Albany and Stony Brook, or the combined enrollments at the City University of New York (CUNY) Brooklyn College and City College campuses. 

In his January 8 State of the State address, Governor Cuomo proposed to expand eligibility for Excelsior to students from families with incomes of up to $150,000, which is an increase from the current income limit of $125,000. The governor’s executive budget proposal includes a two-year phase-in, with the cap increasing to $135,000 for the 2020-21 academic year and then to $150,000 in 2021-22. For 2020-21, the total budget for Excelsior would be $146 million, up from an expense of $66.4 million in 2017-18.  

When Cuomo first introduced Excelsior, it was with two purposes—first, to provide relief to families in the middle-class college affordability squeeze, neither eligible for much existing financial aid nor easily able to pay rising public tuition, and, second, to advance educational opportunity and equity to all New Yorkers. “With this program, every child will have the opportunity that education provides,” he proclaimed.  

As a result of Excelsior, the amount of state financial aid distributed to middle-income families has markedly increased. At the same time, aid to the lowest-income students via the state’s Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) and TAP credit program has grown only incrementally with step-ups to keep pace with tuition increases. 

With Excelsior, the goal of middle-class college affordability has advanced, yet as it has a wider chasm has opened between the resources available to low-income and middle-income students. Excelsior has never offered that much to low-income students and opening up Excelsior to higher-earning families won’t change that. 

Now that the governor is proposing to expand Excelsior, below are six important things to know about the program, including that as it is now constituted, it offers relatively little to low-income students, community college students, and CUNY students.

1. Excelsior does not help low-income students.

The lowest income students in New York State receive enough financial aid from federal Pell grants and the TAP program to cover the full costs of CUNY tuition or SUNY tuition. As “last dollar” awards, Excelsior scholarships only go to students who have tuition balances remaining after exhausting all other aid. 

The lowest income students, already going to public colleges tuition-free as a result of Pell and TAP, typically gain nothing financially from Excelsior. Thus, a “free college” initiative that might seem like a financial windfall for the lowest income students does not actually reward them additional aid. 

This is a shame, as much research, often coming from the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, documents that low-income college students’ financial challenges compromise their abilities to stay in college and to progress toward graduation.  

2. Excelsior benefits students from families that are “upper” low-income and middle-income. 

If the lowest-income students don’t benefit from Excelsior, who does? The answer is middle-class students and near middle-class students with tuition balances remaining after accounting for Pell and TAP. My prior reporting profiled grateful middle-class students at Brooklyn College and SUNY Albany for whom Excelsior has been a difference-making lifeline. 

Students from families with taxable incomes of between $80,000 and $125,000 are in the sweetest spot. At $80,000+ in taxable income, families generally phase out of eligibility for Pell or TAP. For these students, Excelsior flips the script from a full tuition bill to none.    

As the income cap has increased to $125,000 from the initial cap of $100,000 in 2017-18, the program has become even more of a middle-class tuition relief program than it was during its inaugural year. 

The proposal to increase the upper income limit to $150,000 would extend the program towards upper middle-class territory. According to the Pew Research Center, a household of three with an income of $50,697-$152,092 is middle-class, with that defined as having an income of between two-thirds and double the national median income adjusted for household size, with the figures modified to $60,49-$181,496 for household sizes of four.  

Data from the NYS Higher Education Services Corporation (HESC), which administers Excelsior, is presented in the scattergram below and shows that the program, during its inaugural year, provided more substantial benefits to students at colleges serving predominantly middle-income and near-middle-income students than colleges serving predominantly low-income students. This is as would be expected given the design of Excelsior, but the magnitude of the program’s bias in favor of middle-income students is especially stark when visualized.     

In the scattergram, each of the state’s public CUNY and SUNY colleges is represented by a point on the coordinate plane. The horizontal axis captures the percentage of students at each institution receiving Excelsior while the vertical axis captures the percentage of students receiving Pell grants. The Pell grant percentage at a college is a strong proxy for the percentage of low-income students at the institution. 

In the scattergram, the lower the Pell grant receipt rate (and by proxy, the more middle-class the student body), the higher the percentage of students who received Excelsior. (The methodology section at the end of the article describes the data sources and their limitations.)  

The lower quadrants of the scattergram are an area worthy of special attention. In 2017, 12 of the state’s public colleges had less than 40% of their freshmen receiving Pell grants. These colleges had the most middle-class student bodies among the state’s public colleges and included schools such as SUNY Geneseo and SUNY Binghamton. At these 12 campuses, 6.3% of students received Excelsior in 2017-18, nearly double the 3.2% statewide rate for the same year—and this was as a number of these campuses enrolled significant numbers of out-of-state students not eligible for Excelsior.  

Meanwhile, as an example from a campus with a high-percentage of low-income students, at CUNY LaGuardia Community College, whose data point is in the upper left corner of the scattergram and where 73% of freshmen received Pell grants in fall 2017, only 0.3% of the student body received Excelsior, far below the 3.2% statewide rate.

The entire scattergram illustrates an inverse relationship between Pell grant receipt rates and Excelsior award rates.

3. Excelsior hardly benefits community college students. 

Excelsior recipients are especially scarce at the community colleges, where 1.7% of students were awarded Excelsior in 2017-18, compared to 4.6% of students at the four-year colleges. 

Excelsior is relatively unique among “free college” initiatives in extending benefits beyond community colleges, and this actually reinforces the historic under-funding of community colleges compared to four-year colleges. Of all 2017-18 Excelsior award recipients,75.7% were students at four-year colleges and 24.3% students at community colleges, even though community college students are about half of the state’s public college enrollment. 

The vast differential in award rates between community college students and their four-year college counterparts is driven by two factors. First, community college students are more likely to benefit from fully-covered tuition via combined Pell and TAP awards than are four-year students. This is in part because the lower tuition amounts at the community colleges generate fewer cases where tuition gap-filling Excelsior awards are needed. Second, Excelsior rules that require full-time attendance, continuous enrollment, and earning a heavy 30 credits each year eliminate from eligibility many community college students.  

In dollar amounts, $12.2 million in Excelsior funds, representing 18.3% of the total Excelsior budget, went to community college students in 2017-18, with the balance of $54.2 million, or 81.6%, going to four-year college students. 

4. Excelsior hardly benefits CUNY students. 

Excelsior also does not register much of a presence at the CUNY colleges. In 2017-18, the 18 CUNY colleges enrolled a 16.3% share of Excelsior scholarship recipients, with the balance of 83.7% of recipients attending SUNY colleges, even though CUNY students comprise 38.8% of the state’s public student enrollment. The number of recipients is small at SUNY but minuscule at CUNY. 

Excelsior recipients are virtually non-existent at some community colleges. CUNY Hostos Community College had just 12 awardees, and CUNY Kingsborough Community College had only 42. 

The key driving force for the differential is that CUNY students are more likely than SUNY students to have lower family incomes for which Excelsior offers no additional financial benefits. CUNY students also are more likely than SUNY students to be ineligible by attending part-time or by not earning 30 credits annually.  

As depicted in the chart below, 0.4% of CUNY community college students received Excelsior in 2017-18, compared to 2.0% of CUNY senior college students, 2.3% of SUNY community college students, and 6.7% of students at SUNY four-year institutions. SUNY four-year college students also received financially larger awards, on average, though this is likely the result of these students receiving awards for two semesters at particularly high rates rather than just awards for single semesters.

excelsior college

In dollar amounts, $9.9 million in Excelsior aid went to CUNY students compared to $56.4 million to SUNY students. The discrepancy between the amounts to CUNY and SUNY students is steep.  

The bar chart below is another telling visualization, presenting the imbalanced Excelsior awards for all of the state’s public colleges. The schools with the highest percentages of students receiving Excelsior awards tend to be mostly SUNY four-years. The schools with the lowest award rates are mostly CUNY two-years.

In theory, “free college” seems like a neutral idea—free to all!—yet in reality, Excelsior’s rewards are targeted. The by-product of Excelsior’s income and academic eligibility criteria is a funding imbalance between CUNY and SUNY constituencies.

Today, the imbalanced distribution of Excelsior awards is almost certainly more biased in favor of SUNY four-year schools than it was in 2017-18. The SUNY four-years likely have the highest percentage of students enrolled from families with incomes of between $100,000 and $125,000, an income range presently covered by Excelsior that was not during the program’s inaugural year. If Governor Cuomo is successful in expanding the income range another $25,000 to $150,000, then the imbalance in the distribution of funds between CUNY and SUNY would likely deepen further.

Data from the completed 2018-19 academic year, when the income cap was raised by $10,000 to $110,000, could shed light on the impact of marginally increasing the income cap but so far HESC has yet to release that information to the public.

5. The Excelsior program is not incentivizing more students to enroll in college.  

One redeeming value for Excelsior could be that its simple message of “free college,” broadcast widely by Governor Cuomo and in the news media, may be incentivizing more New Yorkers, especially of limited means, to enroll in college and to achieve college degrees. 

Research from Hieu Nguyen, a researcher in the Department of Economics at the University of Tennessee, suggests that, at least in its first year, Excelsior did not catalyze an enrollment boom. According to Nguyen’s 2019 article in Education Economics, which compares enrollment patterns in New York State with enrollment patterns in other states using a quasi-experimental statistical design, Excelsior had a “negligible effect” on boosting higher education enrollment in the state. 

It should not come as a surprise that Excelsior didn’t jumpstart college enrollment given that it has such restrictive eligibility criteria and offers no financial benefits to most low-income students. 

The research, however, is not definitive, as Nguyen’s research explored just Excelsior’s first year. There may have been an Excelsior-related bump in college enrollment in the program’s second or third years, once there were longer periods of time for the message of “free college” to influence high school students’ developing attitudes towards college-going.

6. Excelsior may have positive effects on student retention and on-time graduation.

Another positive feature for Excelsior could be that it contributes to increased retention and graduation rates.  

Yet there is no conclusive research on Excelsior’s impacts on retention and graduation. In September 2019, the governor’s office announced that the two-year graduation rate for Excelsior students at SUNY community colleges was 30% compared to a non-Excelsior graduation rate of 11%. For CUNY community college students, the two-year graduation rate was also 30%, compared to 12% for non-Excelsior students. This is a positive sign, yet Excelsior and non-Excelsior students differ in substantive ways, most notably by income level, and more rigorous research is required, which is only possible if more Excelsior data is released.  

In his State of the State address, Governor Cuomo declared, “The national progressive dream of free college tuition is a New York reality.” Yet for New York State’s “free college” program to be a strong model to other states and cities, there must be reforms to the entire New York State financial aid system such that it distributes more aid to low-income students, rather than introducing a costly subsidy to families in the $125,000-$150,000 income range.  

Methodological Notes:
The HESC data on the Excelsior Scholarship awards from 2017-18 is posted on the Open NY website. The figures for SUNY Tompkins County Community College (TCCC) are “pending final eligibility determination,” according to HESC (email correspondence), and have been excluded.    

For each campus’ total number of undergraduate students, the fall 2017 NCES IPEDS enrollment figure was used. The number of Excelsior recipients at each college was divided into that college’s fall 2017 IPEDS enrollment figure to calculate the percentage of students at each campus receiving Excelsior. 

This is an imperfect approach, as the Excelsior scholarship headcount figures in the HESC dataset are described as being for both semesters of the 2017-2018 award year rather than just for the fall semester. An alternative method would be to rely on the IPEDS unduplicated annual headcount as the denominator for calculating the award rate percentages. This alternative approach would have generated lower award rates and an even more pronounced gap in award rates between community college and four-year college students.   

This alternative approach was not employed because the unduplicated annual headcount figure is a noisy variable skewed by summer session enrollments, non-degree enrollments, and other factors. In some cases, unduplicated annual headcount figures are twice the fall 2017 headcount. 

As a consequence, the percentages of students receiving Excelsior cited in this article are not precise but are approximate ones employed to show relative differences.  

Are you a student, parent, school official or other person who has an experience with the Excelsior Scholarship that you’d like to share? If so, contact

Eric Neutuch is a freelance journalist and former CUNY administrator, 2009-2017.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email

As Cuomo Proposes Excelsior Scholarship Expansion, 6 Things to Know About the Program Wed, 29 Jan 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Big Year Ahead for Cuomo’s Child Care Task Force gov cuomo mayor

Gov. Cuomo (photo: Governor's Office)

In his 2020 State of the State address, delivered January 8 in Albany, Governor Andrew Cuomo mentioned expanding the state’s child care tax credit as one of his policy priorities for the year, something he reiterated on January 21 when he outlined his budget proposal, which had to take into account the cost.

But that expansion of an existing policy is only one part of what is supposed to become a signature Cuomo initiative: an expansive child care agenda to benefit families across New York. A panel convened by Cuomo a little more than a year ago is working throughout this year to deliver proposals to the governor to act on in 2021, which will be the Democrat’s eleventh year in office.

After announcing that he was going to establish a task force in January 2018 as part of his Women’s Agenda that year, Cuomo in December 2018 launched the Child Care Availability Task Force, co-chaired by Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul and two relevant agency commissioners, and including the governor’s top aide, Melissa DeRosa. It is, according to the announcement, a team of “experts focused on developing innovative solutions that will improve access to quality, affordable child care in New York.”

The members include child care providers, advocates, representatives of the business community and relevant labor unions, as well as from state and local governments. Along with Hochul, the co-chairs are Sheila Poole, commissioner at the Office of Children and Family Services, and Roberta Reardon, commissioner at the Department of Labor.

According to the announcement, the task force will be examining “access to affordable child care, the availability of child care for parents with non-traditional work hours, statutory and regulatory changes that could promote or enhance access to child care, business incentives to increase child care access, and the impact on tax credits and deductions relating to child care.” 

Since its launch, the child care task force has been quiet publicly, but according to the initial announcement, final recommendations are due to the governor by the end of this year and Hochul told Gotham Gazette that the panel is headed toward meeting that deadline. It has been meeting regularly since its inception to discuss different potential models to present to the governor at the end of 2020, she said.

“It’s not just a family’s problem, but this is an economic problem for the state of New York,” the lieutenant governor told Gotham Gazette during a recent interview at her Manhattan office. A Democrat now in her second term, Hochul has talked about the need to implement policy statewide that increases access to child care for all New Yorkers but that working with the 10 Regional Economic Development Councils (REDCs) is key to ensuring policy is specific to each region’s individual challenges.

Over 60% of New Yorkers live in a child care desert, meaning more than 50 children under age five with no child care providers or so few options that there are more than three times as many children as licensed child care spots, according to a Hochul letter written last May and addressed to the REDCs, urging them to invest in child care. The REDCs were created by Cuomo to design and help implement economic development programming across the state, using billions of dollars of state funds, and are a key part of Hochul’s portfolio.

In that letter, Hochul asked “each Council to consider the child care needs of your region and the unique barriers families face in your decision making. The Council can address the issues that impact businesses including chronic absence, productivity reductions, and turnover due to inadequate options for child care.”

Round nine of the REDC initiative listed “working with local businesses and communities to identify childcare needs and develop potential solutions.” During this round, which was awarded in December 2019, just under $8.8 million was given to 16 projects statewide for direct childcare projects, and almost $7.4 million was awarded to an additional four projects that have a child care component, according to the 2019 awards. The projects are mainly infrastructure based, including expansion of a Tompkins County facility that will “accommodate increased child care” and renovating a Syracuse property “into a light manufacturing facility and day care center,” among other projects.

In terms of next steps, Hochul said the task force will be holding public gatherings to glean more information about effective programming.

“I want to go into areas where we have identified through our diverse group of partners who are on our commission, let me get into a community that are doing something innovative,” Hochul said. “Let them come to us and tell us what they’re doing, what it takes to scale it up, what other assistance they would need from the state, and whether it makes sense for the governor to be considering it in his next set of policy recommendations.”

The task force last met in person on December 16 and 17 at the New York State Office of Children and Family Services Human Services Training Center in Rensselaer. At the meeting they discussed “access and affordability of child care, along with how child care ties into economic developments and the workforce,” a representative from the lieutenant governor’s office said in an email. The next meeting, originally eyed for this week, will likely be scheduled for late February.

“New York has a child care system in crisis,” said Larry Marx, CEO of The Children’s Agenda and member of the state’s Child Care Availability Task Force, in an interview. “Hundreds of thousands of New York’s working families often have to choose between dropping out of the workforce and losing income or taking care of their kids at home.”

With challenges around availability, cost, and more, child care has become an increasingly central topic of focus in public policy discussions over the last few years. Data released recently from the New York Association of Training and Employment Professionals (NYATEP) in the State of the Workforce Report shows that for the first time, the cost of child care exceeds housing as the single greatest expense for families. The report shows that “infant care for one child would consume 22.1% of a median family’s income.” This number increases to 66.7% for low-wage workers.

While crafting the report, NYATEP Executive Director and Co-Founder of Invest in Skills NY, Melinda Mack, said that as they “went across the state and looked at employers and employees and one of the things that continued to come up was the lack of child care.” This was the impetus for looking at child care more closely.

As an expert on workforce development, she said one of the main things that employers can do, and that she hopes comes from the recommendations of the governor’s task force, is for creative solutions beyond subsidies.

One policy that could go a long way is flexibility in traditional shift hours, allowing for employees to drop off or pick up their children as needed. According to Hochul, this type of proposal is part of what the task force is considering as part of its recommendations. 

Andrea Anthony, the executive director of the Day Care Council of New York, said that women “should not have to choose between going to work and staying home and if they do elect to work that it doesn’t take so much of their take home pay.”

Anthony also emphasized that it is not only beneficial to women, but to New York’s families and children.

“My sincere hope is that the governor actually makes it one of his priorities while he is in office and he actually says very clearly child care is a priority because we are helping our youngest citizens get educated and prepared for employment,” Anthony said.

The problem, and the task force’s goals, go beyond investing in child care spaces. Hochul emphasized the importance of looking at the issue from other angles, including investing in child care workers.

“Let's have more respect for the people in this field. Let's encourage more people to go in, let's use our economic development programs like workforce development and encourage more people to get the training they need to give really high quality child care,” Hochul said.

Mack also highlighted the importance of investing in the recruitment and retention of child care workers. The State of the Workforce report also cites that 70% of child care workers report having to work a second job to make ends meet.

As the task force moves ahead with its 2020 work, Cuomo has continued to move pieces of an agenda forward. In December he pledged $20 million to expand the Child Care Assistance Program, which will “reduce or eliminate wait lists for subsidized child care” or to expand available spots.

Last June, Cuomo signed legislation that allows local candidates running for office to use campaign funds to pay for child care expenses. The goal of this is to remove barriers for parents, especially women, to run for local office, and came after Long Island congressional candidate Liuba Grechen Shirley successfully petitioned the Federal Elections Commission to allow federal candidates to use campaign funds for child care.

There are other efforts at different levels of government to push for affordable and quality child care for New Yorkers. For example, U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand announced in a press release earlier this month that she is introducing “legislation that would help expand access to high-quality child care services at no cost to student parents enrolled in community colleges and minority-serving institutions.”

Gillibrand’s Preparing and Resourcing Our Student Parents and Early Childhood Teachers Act (PROSPECT Act) would provide “$9 billion in new grant programs to provide high-quality infant and toddler care at no cost to low-income parents attending community colleges and minority-serving institutions,” according to the January 14 announcement. 

New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer announced a child care plan called “NYC Under Three” last May. His plan lays out three recommendations. The first is lowering families’ child care costs, with contributions based on a “sliding scale, and families would pay up to a set portion of their income.” The second is to offer start-up and expansion grants to child care providers to increase accessibility and the number of seats available for infants and children. The third is increasing payments to child care providers and expanding access to training and professional development to improve the retention of workers. 

“A family’s child care bill can be one of their biggest expenses, if not the biggest,” Stringer’s plan says. “A space in a child care center for an infant in New York City costs over $21,000 per year—more than three times as much as in-state tuition at The City University of New York and exceeding median rent in every borough.”

The comptroller’s plan would allow for families to pursue educational and job opportunities, access formal child care for the first time, and increase maternal employment, it says. The report estimates that newly employed parents will contribute about $540 million annually in earnings to the New York City economy. Stringer's focus on "under three" compliments the fact that Mayor Bill de Blasio has overseen, with help through state funding, the implementation of universal, free, full-day pre-kindergarten for four-year-olds and is now rolling out an extension to three-year-olds.

“I’m really starting to see a change in attitude, but again, this is not just your family’s problem, it is society’s problem, it is a problem for the State of New York as an entity that looks out for its people,” Hochul said in the interview with Gotham Gazette. “But also we’re leaving money on the table. There was a lot more in revenue that could be coming in and getting more women participating in the workforce.”

by Katie Kirker, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Big Year Ahead for Cuomo’s Child Care Task Force Tue, 28 Jan 2020 05:00:00 +0000
After Court Rulings, Unclear Future for Push to Restrict State Legislators' Outside Income Cuomo legislative leaders

Cuomo, center, with 2018 legislative majority leaders (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)

After two years of legislative negotiations, commission reports, and lawsuits, parts of a planned salary increase for state officials remain up in the air, and the fate of long-sought restrictions on legislators’ outside income sits entirely with state lawmakers themselves.

The raises and corresponding outside income limitations were made by a commission created by the governor and Legislature created to alter the laws dictating compensation for statewide elected officials, state agency commissioners, and members of the State Senate and Assembly. It recommended pay raises for all of those positions to be phased in over three years. For legislators, who are allowed under state law to earn income outside their government salaries, the commission coupled the second and third phases with tight limits on non-governmental income.

A series of lawsuits filed last year challenged a number of parts of the commission’s final product, which was binding according to the statue empaneling it, with some alleging restrictions on outside income to be outside the body’s purview, and another questioning the legality of giving an unelected body lawmaking authority in the first place. The latest suit, filed in December, claims the state constitution prohibits changing the salary of the governor and lieutenant governor during their terms in office.

The final outcome of the suits, one of which is on appeal, could even have implications for the raises that have already gone into effect (raising, for example, legislators’ annual salaries from $79,500 to $110,000), but the courts have already determined that the outside income restrictions set up by the compensation commission are invalid.

With rulings in the second half of 2019 striking down the outside income limits before they could go into effect, and other pending court decisions throwing the pay hikes into uncertainty, good government advocates and others are calling on the Legislature to take up the restrictions through statute in the 2020 legislative session, which began January 8. They have noted that the commission’s outside income restrictions are consistent with those for members of Congress and would limit potential conflicts of interests, something Governor Andrew Cuomo has advocated for years and a notion supported by many of his fellow Democratic officials.

“We think when you’re a public official, you should have one master, and that master is the public that you’re sworn to serve. Not a business, not a profession, just the public,” said Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), in an interview.

Ethics watchdogs have for years sounded the alarm over state legislators’ ability to divide their fiduciary interests between the public they are elected to serve and their private sector careers. When former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was arrested in 2015 on corruption charges related to using his power in the Legislature to enrich his private law practice, good government groups called for swift action to limit outside income.

Hope for that action finally came in 2018, when leaders in Albany set up the pay commission, appointing four former or current city or state comptrollers -- Bill Thompson, Scott Stringer, Carl McCall, and Tom DiNapoli -- to carry out its mandate.

The commission’s final recommendations, “which have the force of law and supersede existing law,” according to its enacting statute, would have raised the governor’s salary from $179,000 to $250,000, and the Lieutenant Governor’s from $151,500 to 220,000, over the three-year period from 2019 to 2021. The Attorney General and State Comptroller would also see raises from around $150,000 to 220,000 over the same period. Four tiers of state agency commissioners would also get varying raises.

For legislators, the commission went further. Members of the State Legislature, who in 2018 had a $79,500 salary to serve in the “part-time” body, had not gotten a raise in nearly two decades before the commission members voted to raise them to $130,000 by 2021, with the first phase-in to $110,000 to take place at the beginning of 2020. They also acted to eliminate legislative stipends for all but a handful of leaders. In the second and third years of planned salary increases, a limit of 15 percent of their base pay would be placed on the outside income legislators could earn. Modelled on restrictions for members of Congress, the recommendations place a complete prohibition on outside income when the legislator has a “fiduciary relationship” with the employer or client.

Last year, two Albany Supreme Court justices in separate suits struck down the outside income limits. In the case challenging the unelected commission’s law-making ability outright, brought by the legal advocacy group Government Justice Center, Justice Christina Ryba upheld the first phase of raises but ruled the outside income limits to be beyond the commission’s statutory mandate and, therefore, unlawful, according to a spokesperson for Comptroller DiNapoli, whose office is responsible for cutting checks to state employees. Because the pay raises scheduled for 2020 and 2021 were accompanied by outside income restrictions, they too were struck down.

In October, the Times Union reported the state would not be appealing the courts’ decisions. A spokesperson for Attorney General Letitia James has repeatedly declined to comment when Gotham Gazette has inquired about the status of the lawsuits and state appeal.

Just Do It Legislatively?
In the face of the likely failure to implement the limits, good government groups last October sent a letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, all Democrats, urging them to codify the commission’s outside income recommendations. The groups, which included Citizens Union, Common Cause NY, League of Women Voters of New York State, NYPIRG, and Reinvent Albany, wrote, “It is therefore incumbent on you as the state’s leaders to act to curtail outside income by lawmakers to address the corruption problem in Albany and restore the public trust.”

Bills to limit outside income have been floated in the past, but it is unclear whether legislators will reintroduce them in 2020.

Assembly Member Charles Lavine, a Democrat representing parts of Nassau County, introduced a bill in 2017 that would raise government compensation and place a cap on non-government income. Asked whether he would pursue similar legislation now that the compensation commission’s recommendations have been limited by the courts, Lavine told Gotham Gazette in December, “[the pay increase] is a matter that I will discuss with my colleagues and based on the consensus among the members of the Assembly, I will be in a better position to determine in which direction to go. On the question, however, of outside income, it’s always been my position that there has to be some measurable constraint on outside income.”

“If members of the Legislature are working and earning hundreds of thousands of dollars per year then it seems to me the obligation to represent the people we represent becomes secondary to the economic concern,” he added.

The issue is somewhat of a perennial one for reform-minded legislators like Senator Brad Hoylman, a Manhattan Democrat, who carried the Senate companion to Lavine’s bill. But that doesn’t mean it will gain traction in the next legislative session, despite momentum from the commission.

Asked whether he planned to reintroduce his bill, Hoylman told Gotham Gazette: “Yes I hope to. Discussions are ongoing. If a bill is to be meaningful it needs to have the support of both houses.”

“I think that’s where the work remains: convincing our colleagues in both houses of the merit of this approach. I think the public is already there but it is difficult at times to unwind a longstanding tradition in New York,” Hoylman added, referring to fact that the job of legislators is technically part-time.

He noted that often the legislators who do earn outside income do so through private law practice, which he thinks is especially conducive to obscuring conflicts of interest. “Essentially as it stands now the attorney-client privilege allows you to keep your dealings masked and if not a conflict, which I think my colleagues don’t have, the appearance [to the public] is poor to say the least,” he said.

A spokesperson for State Senator Liz Krueger, another Manhattan Democrat who chairs the Senate finance committee and often takes on government ethics issues, said in a statement to Gotham Gazette that Krueger “supports adopting the same rules that Congress has relating to outside income, but the issue has not been discussed by the conference yet.” Members of Congress are limited to the 15% of government salary outside income cap that the state commission had imposed. (When the New York City Council approved a pay raise signed by Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2016, it coupled the increase with a near total ban on outside income for Council members.)

“Just as Congress responded to Watergate with passing these types of restrictions limiting outside income, Albany should do the same,” Hoylman told Gotham Gazette.

Neither the office of Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie nor the office of Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins responded to multiple requests for comment for this article. It's unclear if either majority chamber has any appetite for taking on additional legislative pay increases and/or a cap on outside income.

Process Problems
Meanwhile, Government Justice Center is appealing Justice Ryba’s decision to leave in place the first phase of pay raises, which went into effect January 1, 2019, on the grounds that a commission whose members were not elected by the public cannot create new law that supersedes existing law. The group is appealing to the Third Department Appellate Division. If it prevails, the group believes the case may have implications for future commissions, as well as the practice of elected representatives delegating their lawmaking power to unelected bodies with little accountability to the public.

“Our hope is to put a stop to the practice,” Cameron Macdonald, executive director of Government Justice Center, told Gotham Gazette. A similar commission just created binding campaign finance laws and changes to political party ballot access. Its work is also the subject of litigation.

“Can the Legislature and the governor punt on policy to an unelected body,” asked Horner of NYPIRG. “We don’t like that process...We think the governor and lawmakers should make these decisions. But if they’re going to do it, they should do it right, and independence is key.”

That was not the case for the pay commission, Horner said, which was appointed by the governor and legislative leaders. “They’re appointed by individuals who would directly benefit from their decisions. So that’s not independent...It’s a bad process and a real process would be with someone who has no skin in the game picking the members of the commission, and that’s not what happened,” he said. New York City law requires the mayor to appoint a commission every four years to examine and make recommendations on elected official pay.

Government Justice Center is also bringing the latest suit filed in December, which argues the state constitution prohibits changing the governor’s and lieutenant governor’s salaries in the middle of a term. In that case, the comptroller has been served and has a January 27 response date, Macdonald said. A spokesperson for DiNapoli said they could not comment on the ongoing case.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been updated to reflect that neither Heastie's nor Stewart-Cousins' office responded to requests for comment.

After Court Rulings, Unclear Future for Push to Restrict State Legislators' Outside Income Mon, 20 Jan 2020 05:00:00 +0000