Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/63 Fri, 17 Jan 2020 13:12:07 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Max & Murphy Podcast: The Bushwick Rezoning Hits an Impasse https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9057-max-murphy-podcast-the-bushwick-rezoning-hits-an-impasse https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9057-max-murphy-podcast-the-bushwick-rezoning-hits-an-impasse antonio rey wbai

Council Member Reynoso (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


January 15, 2020 - Max & Murphy Podcast: The Bushwick Rezoning Hits an Impasse

antonio rey wbai150City Council Member Antonio Reynoso joined the show to discuss the controversy over the possible rezoning of part of Bushwick, plans for which have hit an impasse, with Reynoso and others backing one plan and the de Blasio administration in favor of another. The debate gets at the heart of community say, housing policies, gentrification, displacement fears, neighborhood planning, and more.

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

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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Max & Murphy Podcast: The Bushwick Rezoning Hits an Impasse Wed, 15 Jan 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Warning of State Threats, De Blasio Presents $95.3 Billion Preliminary Budget for 2021 Fiscal Year https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9059-wary-of-state-threats-de-blasio-proposes-95-3-billion-preliminary-budget-for-2021-fiscal-year https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9059-wary-of-state-threats-de-blasio-proposes-95-3-billion-preliminary-budget-for-2021-fiscal-year mayor exec blue

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


Mayor Bill de Blasio on Thursday released a $95.3 billion preliminary budget proposal for the 2021 fiscal year, which begins July 1, increasing planned spending by about $2.5 billion or 2.7% over the city budget that was adopted last year.

The growth in spending is lower than previous budget increases the mayor has proposed and an uptick from the $94.3 billion that the city projects to spend by the end of the current fiscal year, according to budget modification documents released in November. The city budget has ballooned massively under de Blasio’s tenure, up over $20 billion in annual operating spending over the six years.

The budget growth can mostly be attributed to settlement of labor contracts and related benefits, which will cost about $1.6 billion. Another $256 million stems from increased costs for charter schools and special education, mandates imposed by the state, per the mayor’s office. The criminal justice reforms passed by the Legislature last year, which took effect this January 1, will cost another $175 million, which includes the cost of hiring another 1,000 workers across multiple agencies, the city says. And about $270 million is budgeted for debt service.

The mayor indicated that his relative fiscal restraint was driven by a massive gap in the state budget, stemming from a significant expansion of Medicaid costs that has prompted Governor Andrew Cuomo to pursue structural changes to the program, among other measures he may use to close a $6.1 billion gap for the state fiscal year that begins April 1.

“[T]he situation is very straightforward and our focus is in one place, which is Albany, New York,” de Blasio said at his presentation at City Hall, citing the “extremely worrisome” Medicaid cost issue.

Though the governor has said he will not seek to make cuts to spending that would affect localities, particularly New York City, the mayor seems worried nonetheless. Medicaid is among many funding areas where state cuts or cost-shifts could impact the city’s bottom line. De Blasio also noted that Cuomo, in his State of the State speech, implied that localities were leading the increase in costs. “I found that confusing. Mayors all over the state found that confusing...everyone was confused by the idea that somehow localities were running a program that we don’t run.”

“In planning for the next year, we are facing an unprecedented $6 billion State budget gap,” de Blasio said in a statement accompanying release of his preliminary budget plan. “Medicaid cuts could reverse years of progress at NYC Health + Hospitals and impact health care for the most vulnerable. We will work with our partners in Albany to continue to find savings while fighting to protect health care for all New Yorkers.”

De Blasio also raised concerns about costs at the state-run MTA, which he noted gets 70% of its annual revenue from New York City residents, taxpayers, commuters, and visitors. He noted that the MTA has asked for about $3 billion in additional funding from the city for its new capital plan, despite having barely spent capital funds that were appropriated years ago. He also critiqued the agency’s demand for $100 million more in operational funds for the struggling Access-A-Ride program. “We are not giving $100 million to a broken system,” he said, calling more broadly for an independent audit of the MTA and proof that it is a better-run operation than it has been.

Given uncertainties relative to state aid and the economy, as well as all of the prior city budget growth, de Blasio’s latest budget plan includes little by way of additional spending on new ideas or programs. The mayor said at his presentation that he was waiting to see the governor’s budget proposal next week, and that he may yet propose some big plans. "I want to protect all the big initiatives that are underway already....but there’s a lot more that is waiting to be announced if we believe we can make it work but we got to see what happens certainly next week as a first step," he said, in response to a reporter's question. De Blasio's annual State of the City speech is expected sometime in February and he mentioned several times there are announcements either set to come or on the back-burner awaiting clearance by the budget picture.

There are several areas of additional targeted investments, which the mayor’s office stressed are offset by savings that have been identified.

The budget proposal estimates that city revenues will grow at 2% in the 2021 fiscal year, down from 4.6% in 2020. The city’s Office of Management and Budget often makes more cautious estimates than the City Council and Comptroller’s Office, in part to allow for more flexibility in adjusting spending down the line.

But the lower growth projection is also an acknowledgement of broader signs of slower economic growth, amid the longest period of economic expansion in the country since after the Great Depression. Most observers and fiscal watchdogs expect an inevitable end to that expansion and some say it may be around the corner.

According to OMB, new spending in the preliminary budget, including $441 million in the current fiscal year and $243 million in FY 2021, will be completely offset by $714 million in savings identified between the two fiscal years. Unlike last year, the mayor has not instituted a Program to Eliminate the Gap (PEG), which had given city agencies specific savings targets to meet. That could, however, be revisited, he said Thursday.

The budget proposal also maintains the city’s reserves at the same level as last year – $1 billion in the general fund, $250 million in the capital stabilization reserves, and $4.7 billion in the Retiree Health Benefits Trust fund. Though that is the highest level of back-up funds the city has maintained, and independent watchdogs and monitors have broadly praised the city’s fiscal management under the mayor, they have also repeatedly emphasized that the city should be putting more money away to prepare for a recession. 

The increased spending includes $147 million for wages and benefits for the city’s uniformed workforce across the 2020 and 2021 fiscal years. The city will also spend about $106 million in the next fiscal year on the expanded Fair Fares program to provide discounted MetroCards to low-income New Yorkers. About $1.8 million over the next three fiscal years will go to “community based justice programming” at the Community Justice Center in the Far Rockaways.

The mayor also announced a series of capital fund investments -- which are accounted for in a separate budget -- in critical infrastructure projects including $98 million for street safety improvements on 4th Avenue in Brooklyn; $178 million over three fiscal years to build curb cuts citywide; $33 million across FY 2020 and 2021 to reconstruct beach crossings; $12.9 million in FY 2021 for improvements at NYCHA community centers.

Release of the mayor’s preliminary budget will set off initial reactions from the City Council, advocates, and interest groups, and lead to a month-long round of Council budget hearings. Next week, Governor Cuomo will outline his executive budget for the next state fiscal year, which will certainly impact city budget discussions. De Blasio is expected to go to Albany for his annual budget testimony to discuss Cuomo’s plan and the city’s priorities in front of the state Legislature, all leading toward the mayor’s executive budget plan in the early spring.

In an initial response to de Blasio's preliminary budget, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and budget committee chairs Council Members Danny Dromm and Vanessa Gibson said they understand the mayor's wariness about the state budget picture and will be working to ensure state funding to the city, while crafting a city budget to meet the needs of New Yorkers.

“The Council is also mindful that while the City’s economy remains healthy, we must plan for future financial slumps," their joint statement reads, in part. "We will work with the Administration to find savings in the budget while continuing to grow our priorities like Fair Fares, criminal justice reform, education, affordable housing, homelessness and transportation. The Council is committed to negotiating a budget that works for everyone, which means making sure we get our fair share from Albany for schools, housing and infrastructure."

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

This article has been updated based on additional information from the mayor's budget presentation and the City Council response.

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Warning of State Threats, De Blasio Presents $95.3 Billion Preliminary Budget for 2021 Fiscal Year Thu, 16 Jan 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Three Democratic Leaders in Albany, Three Different Positions on Altering Bail Reforms https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9047-three-democratic-leaders-albany-cuomo-different-positions-reforming-bail-reform https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9047-three-democratic-leaders-albany-cuomo-different-positions-reforming-bail-reform Cuomo legislative leaders

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Three Democratic Leaders in Albany, Three Different Positions on Altering Bail Reforms Sun, 12 Jan 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Many Major Challenges, Decisions for De Blasio in 2020 https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9015-major-challenges-decisions-for-de-blasio-in-2020 https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9015-major-challenges-decisions-for-de-blasio-in-2020 may townhall residents

(photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photo Office)


As Mayor Bill de Blasio enters his seventh year in office, on the heels of a failed presidential bid and at a time when his political clout appears at its nadir, he faces many major challenges and big decisions ahead.

2020, the next-to-last year of his second and final term, begins with a focus on public safety, including recent spikes in anti-Semitic hate crimes, murders, and byciclist fatalities, as well as how the city is adjusting to new state-mandated bail reforms that the mayor has criticized.

Then there are the intractable issues, such as homelessness, public housing, and school segregation, which continue to confront the mayor. There are issues that emerge every year during budget season, some predictably and others not, including how the state will treat the city, whether city spending can continue to rise as it has each year under de Blasio, and whether the city is prepared for the inevitable recession.

And then there are the more dormant issues coming to life or the surprises: Will de Blasio finally be forced to act on property tax reform? Will his jails plan advance on schedule? Who will he endorse in the Democratic presidential primary? Can he make more of his own good fortune by shifting course on any of his self-defeating habits or by becoming more creative and aggressive on certain challenges?

The mayor has two years to answer many crucial questions, determine where he will expend what political capital he has, and shape his legacy. While he will undoubtedly be known for his expansion of early childhood education, other elements of de Blasio’s legacy remain up in the air. He has shown some indications of attempted course-correction over the last few months after he abandoned his four-month bid for the presidency, the culmination, but perhaps not final chapter, in his yearslong quest for national prominence, largely at the cost of his work and image at home. Two key questions de Blasio will have to answer in 2020 are whom he will endorse in the Democratic presidential primary, likely Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, and how much of a role he will try to play in the national conversation.

With six years down and two to go, de Blasio’s mayoralty has already been the subject of a great deal of scrutiny, including his own consistent attempts to dispute how many portray his shortcomings and accomplishments. One of the essential questions for de Blasio in 2020 is whether he can significantly alter the larger narrative about him and his leadership, and shift how so many New Yorkers see him. He enters the year with his most recent approval rating of 25% among New York City voters, according to a Siena College poll, the lowest of his tenure as mayor.

But underlying those broader, big-picture questions are the details, and the many specific challenges and decisions de Blasio faces. While many New Yorkers are awaiting his plans on a variety of fronts -- from school desegregation to property taxes and more -- and are hoping for more progress on crises like homelessness and public housing conditions, de Blasio has an array of strengths and weaknesses, advantages and vulnerabilities as his seventh year as mayor begins.

The city’s economy is still growing, poverty has declined, jobs are at an all-time high, and unemployment is low. Most major crimes are at or near historic lows, even as arrests and summonses have massively decreased; the number of complaints of misconduct against police officers is relatively flat over four years, while the mayor’s many critics assail him as too soft on crime or a weak reformer of the police department.

De Blasio’s universal pre-kindergarten program has been broadly welcomed as a success, with its expansion to “3-K” in the works. His affordable housing and street safety programs have shown progress, though remain the subjects of intense debates over their scope. De Blasio must also implement a wide variety of more recent announcements, promises, and laws, including the closure of Rikers Island jails and development of revenue-generating housing on public housing authority land.

These and many more policies and programs, challenges and relationships, form the backdrop for the mayor’s 2020, which may very well be the last year for him to announce any new ideas that he has any hope to implement. As he hits the second half of his second term, the race to replace him will begin to intensify, with most if not all the candidates pitching themselves as a break from de Blasio in various ways.

But in his lame duck months, however many they may be, de Blasio could find new opportunities to work with City Council members seeking to burnish their resumes as they run for higher offices, including the Speaker, Corey Johnson, who has his eye on the mayoralty. And as always, de Blasio will be navigating his complicated relationship with Governor Andrew Cuomo, beginning with what may be one of their most contentious budget seasons of their overlapping tenures.

Budgeting and Property Taxes
As the new year begins, the next budget season follows. The city’s budget has rapidly expanded under de Blasio, with projected spending hitting $94.3 billion for the current fiscal year which ends June 30, 2020, according to the latest budget modification released in November. That’s a whopping $21.6 billion more than the last budget modification under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, shortly before de Blasio took office.

The city’s Office of Management and Budget predicts that spending will break the $100 billion mark within the next two fiscal years, a number that has fiscal watchdogs worried since savings and reserves haven’t increased at the same rate.

The good news is that economic growth the city has seen for years is expected to continue, albeit perhaps at a slower pace, though fears of a recession have not entirely been eliminated. There are some signs of slowing – the growth of the national economy has fallen but the city’s economic growth experienced a slight uptick in the first nine months of 2019 compared to 2018, according to a December 13 report by Comptroller Scott Stringer. The report predicts that the city will have a modest surplus by the end of the current fiscal year (June 30) and that gaps in outyears will be smaller and manageable.

“We're six years into an administration and there hasn't ever really been a big push to reexamine how government is doing things and making sure it's doing it in the most efficient, effective way possible,” said Maria Doulis, vice president at Citizens Budget Commission, a nonprofit fiscal watchdog, noting that the City Council has been more focused on finding savings than the mayor. De Blasio has begrudgingly instituted certain budget savings programs and the results, according to watchdogs, have been more appearance than reality, and certainly more limited than those watchdogs would like.

At the same time as the Council has called for more savings, it has also pushed the mayor to provide more funding for its priorities, sometimes in the hundreds of millions, and has been effective in baselining several programs that will continue to be funded. The mayor will have to contend with that as well as any attempts by the governor to shift costs to the city, as he has done in the past. 

Doulis also noted the “real risks” to the city budget from rising costs at three major entities – the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), NYC Health+Hospitals, which are city-run and supported by a mix of funding, and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which is effectively state-run, but with some city say via board seats, and receives city funding.

De Blasio’s 2020 approach to the next city budget will be closely scrutinized as it becomes more clear what type of fiscal shape he will leave the city in when his tenure ends. The city’s budget, due by July 1, will also again be significantly shaped by the state budget, due by April 1, and it will soon become clear what de Blasio asks of the state in its budget and legislative processes, as well as how he will react to Governor Cuomo’s annual executive budget proposal and how it treats the city.

As has been the case in the past, some years more than others, de Blasio may have to marshal support among members of the state Legislature to push back on certain aspects of Cuomo’s plan.

Another issue that will have a major impact on the city budget, though not in 2020, and need collaboration in Albany is a potential push for property tax reform, which the mayor has promised for years.

A commission created in 2018 by the mayor and Speaker Johnson has yet to issue its initial report, well past a promised deadline, while a lawsuit over alleged inequities in the system is making its way through the courts. Developments from either could force the mayor’s hand in 2020, when he has promised action. De Blasio has said that he will evaluate the commission’s recommendations and come up with his own agenda, including a 2020 push for needed state reforms, though that timeline has been seriously threatened by the commission’s delay.

De Blasio has vowed that any changes to the antiquated and unequal property tax system will have to be revenue neutral for the city, which relies on property taxes for tens of billions of dollars annually to fund the city budget.

“I think what happens with property tax reform will be important and something that the mayor and the Council speaker should really march ahead on,” Doulis said.

[Read: City's Property Tax Reform Delay Threatens Promise to Pursue Essential Changes in Albany]

Homelessness, Housing, and NYCHA
Homelessness continues to be an issue where the mayor has shown too little progress, despite a variety of significant new programs, a great deal of spending, multiple resets in approach, and adjustments to the city’s housing plan to build more rent-restricted units across the city and reduce the cost of housing. 

De Blasio has run into a number of obstacles as he’s sought to implement aspects of his housing policies, including local opposition to neighborhood rezonings and the placement of homeless shelters. The administration has passed a smaller number of neighborhood plans than it had hoped at this point, and the Inwood rezoning approved by the City Council last year was struck down by a judge just before the new year. Its fate, subject to legal appeal, is up in the air.

There are several rezonings left to accomplish and the city will have to make a concerted effort to move them across the finish line. Which ones de Blasio prioritizes and how effective the administration is at completing them are key questions for the year ahead. The list includes planned rezonings in Gowanus and Bushwick in Brooklyn, Southern Boulevard in the Bronx, and SoHo/NoHo in Manhattan, each at a different stage of the process. There is little time left for de Blasio to announce any new swaths of the city he may want to rezone before his time in office is up.

The administration is also hoping to advance a major redevelopment plan at Sunnyside Yards in Queens, the next iteration of which is expected to be released by the end of 2020. Some of the same elected officials who criticized the proposed Amazon satellite campus (a de Blasio-backed deal that came undone in shocking fashion, with some saying the mayor failed to aggressively sell its virtues and placate criticism) are apprehensive about how the city will approach this project.

In April, when he appointed Vicki Been as the new Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development to replace Alicia Glen, the mayor promised she would oversee another adjustment to his 300,000-unit affordable housing plan. Like property tax reform plans, it has yet to materialize.

There have been several recent developments that fit into the larger housing and homelessness plans, which some advocates say should be more completely integrated, along with public housing and the NYCHA rescue efforts.

On December 17, the mayor announced a new five-year plan to end chronic street homelessness that includes opening 1,000 new “safe haven” beds, converting 1,000 privately-owned housing units into new permanent housing for those leaving homelessness, expanded outreach, health care, and rental subsidies. The administration has celebrated its effective efforts to cut down on evictions through free legal services for many low-income households and in re-housing thousands of people who have wound up in city shelters.

Still, there are estimated to be more than 75,000 individuals in various city-run shelters and another 3,500 on the streets or in the subways, and de Blasio has not adjusted his 2017 goal of reducing the city Department of Homeless Services shelter census from about 62,500 to 57,500 over five years.

“The main message that we would want for both Mayor de Blasio and any elected official to have going into 2020 is that whatever progress has been made is never going to be enough until we actually end homelessness in New York City,” said Jacquelyn Simone, policy analyst at Coalition for the Homeless.

She applauded a bill passed by the City Council in December, after a compromise with the de Blasio administration, that would require real estate developers who receive city subsidies for projects of 40 units or more to set aside at least 15% of new units for homeless families.

“We hope the mayor signs that bill into law soon and we also hope that the administration goes above and beyond the minimum requirements established in that bill,” Simone said. “Following through on and going above and beyond the general homeless housing commitments, I think would be one main priority. We would also like to see Mayor de Blasio accelerate the supportive housing pipeline that he has made.”

The mayor announced in 2015 that the city would build 15,000 supportive housing apartments in 15 years and Symone said that timeline should be shrunk to 10 years considering the urgency of the homelessness crisis.

On the public housing front, though the administration has been successful in stabilizing the operating finances of the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), its plan to raise funds for capital repairs from new infill projects that create mixed-income housing, has stalled. The authority has a $32-billion five-year capital need for repairs and maintenance, and the city has managed to identify $24 billion over 10 years through various mechanisms that must be executed. A new chair and CEO, Gregory Russ, was appointed in June to manage the scandal-ridden agency, which is also under the watchful eye of a federal monitor who has been scrutinizing its functions and monitoring its progress in handling lead abatement.

De Blasio’s 2020 challenges include whether he can advance infill projects and ensure NYCHA is on track with lead testing and removal, boiler and elevator replacements and repairs, and more.

Transit and Infrastructure
The state and city have just over a year to prepare for the implementation of congestion pricing, the controversial traffic mitigation (and MTA revenue-raising) strategy that was approved by the state Legislature and Governor Cuomo last year. De Blasio was a reluctant supporter of the plan, which cedes much authority over city streets to the state-run and Cuomo-controlled MTA. But transit experts say the city must also undertake several measures to make the program a success, including by expanding and improving bus service.

“I don't know if he has a day-to-day grasp of some of the transportation issues,” said David Jones, president and CEO of Community Service Society, who is an appointee of the mayor on the MTA board, about de Blasio. “He seems somewhat removed.”

De Blasio has often been critiqued for having the ‘windshield perspective’ of a car-driver or -passenger, for not riding public transit with any regularity, and for prioritizing his ferry program over the city’s buses. More than a month after its launch, de Blasio rode the 14th street busway, which he green-lit, and while he has touted its successes, especially after initial data was released in late December, he has yet to indicate any plans for other such bus-dominant roadway plans.

Moreover, the mayor has faced increasing criticism for touting his commitment to Vision Zero – which aims to eliminate traffic fatalities – while the number of cyclist and pedestrian fatalities jumped in 2019 and advocates asked for more aggressive implementation of street and intersection redesigns and protected bike lanes. De Blasio has praised the aims of City Council Member Brad Lander’s “Reckless Driver Accountability Act,” which aims to take dangerous drivers off the road for repeated violations, but has not fully endorsed it or reached agreement with the Council on language so it can pass.

De Blasio may also have to decide in 2020 whether he is willing to increase the fare on the heavily-subsidized ferry system, where he has initially pegged each ride to the same price as a Metrocard swipe for the bus or subway, currently $2.75, and whether his plan for the BQX, or Brooklyn-Queens Connector streetcar, will truly advance.

School Desegregation
Six years into de Blasio’s mayoralty and New York City schools remain the most segregated in the country. The mayor and his two schools chancellors, Carmen Farina and Richard Carranza, have proposed a series of fairly tepid, incremental initial reforms.

De Blasio did empanel the School Diversity Advisory Group (SDAG), which released two sets of recommendations, with the administration adopting most of the first, more mild set. The second set, full of more controversial proposals, including related to the city’s admissions policies and gifted and talented programming, was released in August and de Blasio has yet to give them more than an initial nod, saying that there would be an extensive public conversation to come in order to engage parents and other stakeholders in crafting reforms.

“Moving forward in 2020, it would be great for the mayor to start moving on these recommendations,” said Nyah Berg, the Integrated Schools Project Director at New York Appleseed, which was represented on the advisory group.

De Blasio and Carranza separately proposed scrapping the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT), which determines admission at the eight “elite” high schools in the city. But that requires action by the state, where the proposal has not been warmly received. Even locally, elected officials and parent groups have complained that his proposal pits minorities against each other and will not have the intended effect.

De Blasio announced he was backing off of his proposal, which included a new system for more diversified admittance to the specialized schools, where black and Latino students are severely underrepresented, and would come up with something new this year.

“Outside of those eight specialized high schools, there’s still over a hundred screened high schools and also screened middle schools and exclusionary gifted and talented programs,” Berg noted. SDAG “has recommendations for how to work on integrating those, integrating our students better in New York City in that report. So I would hope that there is more of a focus on what he has the ability and power to do than a fight that’s happening in Albany.”

“I think if he was bold that he would have stood up and we would have already heard from him on the report,” she added.

Policing and Criminal Justice
One of the issues where de Blasio has disappointed many of his supporters the most has been policing. Though he came to power indicating he would take a more sweeping approach to reform of the NYPD, he has been more of an incrementalist and has often had to be pushed into accepting increased accountability and oversight of the department.

In 2020, de Blasio and the NYPD are expected to finally show evidence for their claims that the mayor’s neighborhood policing program is as effective as de Blasio often claims. The mayor will also likely have to continue to justify his support for the MTA’s planned addition of 500 new MTA police officers, many of whom are meant to patrol the subways and buses in conjunction with the NYPD in a plan that currently has more questions than answers.

The MTA plan was pegged as a way to reduce homelessness and fare evasion and other crime in the subways. De Blasio has also directed the NYPD to conduct outreach in the subways and on the streets, which advocates say turns homelessness from a social problem to a policing one. “One thing that's completely in the mayor's control right now would be if he would reverse this really misguided, overreliance on police for street outreach work and if he would, instead, focus more on the elements of his plan that are related to safe havens and permanent housing,” said Simone of Coalition for the Homeless.

“He's been perceived, obviously, as not taking on some of the hangover problems of broken windows policing,” said CSS’ Jones, who voted no during the MTA Board’s December budget vote due to his opposition to the police officer hiring plan.

Jones was particularly critical of the mayor’s recent choice to make Dermot Shea the new commissioner of the NYPD. It was the third time the mayor picked a white man to lead the department, again passing over First Deputy Commissioner Benjamin Tucker, who is African-American.

2020 will be a year of tests for Shea, and therefore de Blasio. Those tests include whether the city can reverse the 2019 increases in murders and hate crimes, as well as pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities, all while implementing additional promised reforms to bring police and community closer together, hold NYPD officers accountable for breaches of public trust, overhauling the Special Victims Division, and more.

The mayor and the NYPD also have their work cut out for them as new criminal justice reform measures take effect, including bail reforms intended to drastically reduce the detainee population in city jails.

And the Rikers Island jail closure plan is far from fruition. Though the City Council approved the plan to build four new borough-based jail facilities, the design and construction of the buildings is yet to come, not to mention navigating all of the logistical and community-based details.

“2020 is going to be a year of moving from big ideas to the nuts and bolts of implementation on many fronts,” said Greg Berman, executive director of the Center for Court Innovation.

Berman did have high praise for what the mayor has done in the last six years, reducing incarceration while keeping crime down and the city safe. “I think that de Blasio actually has a significant legacy to boast about in criminal justice,” he said.

Berman added that “the crucial thing is to not lose sight of the legitimate concerns that opponents” have raised about the jails plan, “in particular the concern that...what's to prevent these new jails from just emulating the dysfunctional culture that can be found in the Rikers jails?”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this article.

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Many Major Challenges, Decisions for De Blasio in 2020 Mon, 06 Jan 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Taking Stock of Significant Progress in New York City Schools https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9002-taking-stock-of-significant-progress-in-new-york-city-schools https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9002-taking-stock-of-significant-progress-in-new-york-city-schools announcement scores

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


The students in the New York City public schools are doing better -- so much so that the improvements offer Mayor Bill de Blasio a real opportunity for a legacy. The mayor still has two more years to go and two more budgets to invest in kids.

Mayor de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza announced in November that a record number of New York City students, nearly 49,000, or 62% of those entering 9th grade in 2014 (the Class of 2018), entered college or postsecondary education. There were nearly 75,000 students in entering 9th grade in the fall of 2014 and a record percentage of them -- 76% (57,000 students) -- graduated on time, meaning by August 2018.

The system also experienced its lowest dropout rate of about 7.5% (5,600 students). At the close of the fourth year, more than 11,000 students, roughly 15% of the initial class, were still in school.

The 2019 graduation results should be released very soon. Graduation outcomes under the mayor’s tenure will continue through three more years, into spring 2022.

When the state English language arts (ELA) and math exam scores were released for the grade 3-8 tests given this spring, it was also announced that New York City students had effectively matched the scores of the students in the rest of the state. City students slightly outperformed their peers in the rest of the state on the ELA tests, and slightly underperformed them on the math tests. The State Education Department changed the content of the tests (again), so the scores are only comparable to 2018, and no further back. The context of the tests has also changed (see below for more on this).

Mayor de Blasio’s signature program, universal full-day prekindergarten, also reached a milestone: the first large group of entering four-year-olds in fall 2014 took their third-grade ELA and math tests in the spring of 2019. The initial results were positive: 53% of third-graders were proficient in English and math, the highest percentages of students in the testing grades of 3-8, and the disparities for black and Hispanic students compared to white students, for those who were in the full-day pre-K, versus those who were not, narrowed significantly.

There’s hope the pre-K results will improve, because there were 53,000 students in pre-K in its first expansion year (entering fall 2014), and nearly 70,000 students in its second year. That means 17,000 more students served by full-day pre-K will be taking the third-grade tests this coming spring, in 2020, compared to 2019.

I don’t offer these numbers to ignore the many issues, problems, and concerns about the school system. Graduation rates for black and Hispanic males are 66% and 65%, respectively, significantly below the 76% system average, meaning more hard work to help them is required. There is also criticism that many high schools and middle schools screen out students with below average grades or test scores, a practice that reinforces racial segregation in the schools and limits opportunities for students of color. The practice extends far beyond the issue of the one test for the specialized high schools like Stuyvesant. The de Blasio administration has allowed diversity pilots for some schools to improve equity. A founder of the small schools movement, Clara Hemphill, along with others, wrote about how to reform these practices.

The issue of test scores in the school system has many ramifications, among them their basic limitation in measuring student ability, or their significance to helping students be successful in school. 

The State Education Department’s frequent changes in the content of the tests has made measurement of improvement over time difficult. However, use of the test scores as punitive, to label and close schools, or fire principals and teachers, has faded in the face of a public backlash against aggressive misuse of the test scores for those purposes. The fact that New York City students are matching their peers in the rest of the state in test scores stands for what it is: improvement in the city schools.

The mayor and the chancellor said 51% of the class of 2018 graduated college ready, affirmed as an improvement, but that did mean 49% were not college-ready. College-readiness is a measure of whether or not students might need to take remedial education in college before entry to college-level courses. And there is a problem: not enough city students entering college are finishing. In fact, according to the Center for an Urban Future, only 22% of CUNY’s community college students finish within three years, and only 55% of the students in the four-year colleges finish within six years. The Center, which has been studying this issue for a long time, urged the new CUNY Chancellor to make major efforts to improve student retention and graduation. 

Mayor de Blasio also initiated and funded a massive expansion of after-school programs for middle and elementary school students, nearly doubling the number of middle-school youth being served, to 71,000 in 2014. The 2019 city budget reports 100,000 middle-school youth are served by either the Department of Education or the Department of Youth and Community Development.

It would be unfair not to mention Mayor Michael Bloomberg. After all, he was mayor for 12 years, and in his first year the state Legislature transferred control of the school system to the mayor, a policy Mayor de Blasio staunchly supported. Many of Mayor Bloomberg’s school policies were deeply controversial, especially the punitive use of test scores, but there was broad support for the creation of many new small high schools to offer better environments for the more than 300,000 high school students in the city. There are now more than 400 high schools in the city. The drive to originate smaller high schools began far earlier than Mayor Bloomberg’s tenure, but his administration went all out on this policy.

In 2001, the graduation rate was 46.5%, and the dropout rate that year was 22.0%. The graduation rate was 60.7% in 2004, and the dropout rate was 13.5%. The graduation rate was 75.9% in 2018, with a dropout rate of 7.5%.

The improvements were made as the Regents and the State Education Department increased standards for graduating high school, requiring higher passing grades on English and math and other subjects in the Regents Exams. Smaller high schools could only be a part of this successful picture; sustained educational effort from pre-K through grade 12 by teachers, administrators, parents, and students is how the success was achieved.

It should also be noted that universal pre-kindergarten has its own unique history independent of Mayor de Blasio. The massive expansion to near universal full-day is his achievement. But the state government began universal half-day prekindergarten in the 1997-1998 state budget in a deal between then-Governor George Pataki, a Republican, and the Democratic Assembly led by then Speaker Sheldon Silver, who championed the concept (and later helped secure state funding for de Blasio’s expansion).

Why is the program before Mayor de Blasio significant? Because it was already immense when Bill de Blasio became mayor. There were 60,000 children in pre-K before de Blasio’s start, with about 40,000 of them getting a half-day rather than full. In the mayor’s first year he added about 33,000 full-day seats, with a large conversion of half-day programs to full-day programs, and by 2015 there were 70,000 children in full-day. 

The substantial size of universal half-day pre-K, however, goes back further in time. Even in 2004 and 2005, there were 46,000 children in pre-kindergarten in New York City, meaning many of those 2018 high school graduates had a seat in a half-day pre-K program. By 2000 there were 34,000 children in pre-K programs in the New York City public schools as universal half-day pre-K was implemented.

The healthy economy has enabled the mayor to invest heavily in the school system. From the 2014-15 budget to the one enacted for 2019-2020, the city committed nearly an extra $6 billion in funding to the schools, while the state added $2.5 billion and the federal government a paltry $470 million. These funds have increased teacher compensation, improved school facilities and built new schools, added 50,000 seats in the charter schools (mandated by the state; the charters are now about 11% of city enrollment), as well as the many programs mentioned above.  

Mayor de Blasio and his first schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, have a right to be proud of improving excellence and equity in education. The mayor and his new chancellor, Mr. Carranza, should keep up the focus on and commitment to serving children. A strong legacy awaits if they keep it up.

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

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

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Taking Stock of Significant Progress in New York City Schools Sun, 05 Jan 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: 2020 Vision - Previewing the Year Ahead in New York Politics https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9010-max-murphy-podcast-2020-vision-year-ahead-in-new-york-politics-de-blasio-cuomo https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9010-max-murphy-podcast-2020-vision-year-ahead-in-new-york-politics-de-blasio-cuomo speaker co jo

(photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


January 1, 2019 - Max & Murphy Podcast: 2020 Vision - Previewing the Year Ahead in New York Politics

PodcastJeff Mays of the New York Times, Dana Rubinstein of Politico New York, and Brendan Lyons of the Albany Times Union joined the show to preview 2020 in New York politics, with the first segment focused on New York City politics, Mayor de Blasio, and more, and the second segment focused on state government, Governor Cuomo, and more.

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

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Max & Murphy Podcast: 2020 Vision - Previewing the Year Ahead in New York Politics Wed, 01 Jan 2020 05:00:00 +0000
50 Questions for New York Politics in 2020 https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9014-50-questions-for-new-york-politics-2020-de-blasio-cuomo https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9014-50-questions-for-new-york-politics-2020-de-blasio-cuomo bdb cohosted town vanessa gibson cm

(photo: Mayoral Photography Office)


1. Will Donald Trump be removed from office? Will he win a second term as president? What will be the results of any known or unknown investigations into Trump world, from Congress to New York Attorney General Letitia James to the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York or elsewhere?

2. How will Mike Bloomberg fare in the 2020 presidential race? What impact will he have on the race (even if he isn’t the Democratic nominee)?

3. Who will key New York Democratic officials endorse for president? Who will win the April Democratic presidential primary in New York? Will that primary matter?

4. How will Chuck Schumer perform as Senate minority leader? Will the 2020 elections put him on a path to majority leader? Which other New Yorkers will play the most prominent roles in both government proceedings and the presidential campaign? What impact will AOC have in year two of her tenure and as a supporter of Bernie Sanders for president? What does Hakeem Jeffries’ year have in store?

5. Can Max Rose keep his seat? How will other New York House races turn out? Will any incumbents fall in the primaries? Might the second time be the charm for Adem Bunkedekko against Yvette Clark, for example? Who will prevail in the crowded ‘open’ race for retiring Jose Serrano’s seat? Will Democrats keep the House, and if so, will it be because of or in spite of key New York races like Rose’s and others outside the city?

6. Could Andrew Cuomo or Bill de Blasio or Kirsten Gillibrand (or other prominent New Yorkers) wind up in the administration of a victorious Democratic presidential candidate?

7. How well will New York fill out the 2020 Census? Will city and state government efforts prove successful in encouraging stronger participation than in 2010? How many congressional seats will New York lose?

8. What will drive Governor Andrew Cuomo’s 2020 agenda?

9. What will Cuomo and the Democratic majorities in the state Legislature do for an encore after their historic and highly-prolific 2019? Will the Carl Heastie-Andrea Stewart-Cousins bond continue to flourish or will the two legislative majorities diverge more than in 2019? How will Cuomo’s relationship with the Legislature, and with each legislative majority, play out? How will the Senate Democratic conference hold up in year two if its new majority amid a legislative election year?

10. Will New York legalize adult use of marijuana? Will another go at e-bike and e-scooter legalization pan out? Will the state legalize paid gestational surrogacy? Will there be a compromise on a new prevailing wage law? New limits on solitary confinement? Any real movement on the New York Health Act for single-payer health care? Anything allowing ‘safe injection sites’ to open? New affordable housing laws? Additional voting and criminal justice reforms? Will the cap on charter schools in New York City be lifted? What other high-profile policies pass or fail?

11. Will state lawmakers tweak the new campaign finance and political party ballot access laws? How will the state's smaller parties fair under the new ballot line requirements, which are set to take effect for the presidential election? Will lawmakers pass legislation to institute legislative and executive pay raises and outside income limits that were struck down in court? Will there be any movement to reform or replace JCOPE?

12. How will Cuomo and legislators fill a $6.1 billion budget gap? Will there be any major changes to education aid, Medicaid reimbursements, economic development spending? Will there be tax increases? Significant spending cuts? How much will Cuomo try to raid from New York City?

13. How will implementation of key 2019 state accomplishments go? Will criminal justice reforms show positive results or will naysayers be proven right, or both? Will lawmakers change any of the new bail or discovery laws? How will initial implementation of the state’s new environmental and energy policies go, including the plastic bag ‘ban’?

14. Will there be any new steps by Comptroller Tom DiNapoli or the Legislature to move state pension money out of fossil fuel company investments? Will New York City’s efforts on this front move ahead as planned by Comptroller Scott Stringer and Mayor de Blasio?

15. Will we see other State Senate Republicans decline to run for reelection? How strong is the new left-wing movement, including the Democratic Socialists of America? Will progressive candidates unseat incumbent Democratic state legislators in the June primaries? Can the Democrats keep and grow their State Senate majority in November? Will there be any demonstrable moderate and/or conservative backlash to the state’s progressive swing?

16. Will the MTA’s subway service continue to improve? Will the MTA and the de Blasio administration get the city’s buses moving more quickly and reverse ridership declines? Will implementation of the new MTA capital plan move along as planned? Will the funding for it materialize as outlined?

17. Will Andy Byford remain at the MTA?

18. How will the MTA/NYPD crackdown on homelessness and fare evasion and other crimes in the subways go?

19. Will de Blasio announce any other busways? Will the city make any real dents in street congestion and traffic? Will there be any movement on curbing deliveries? Will the city do anything new about the way trash is collected from sidewalks?

20. What will the congestion pricing system look like?

21. Will there be any next steps from the City Council and Speaker Corey Johnson in efforts to “break the car culture”? Will the Council move to reduce on-street parking or create a resident parking permit system in certain neighborhoods? Will there be any demonstrable reduction in parking placard abuse?

22. Will the city improve on the 2019 setbacks to Vision Zero and reverse the increase in deaths among pedestrians and bike-riders?

23. Will there be any movement to decrease the per-ride subsidies in the city’s ferry system? Will there be any progress in integrating the ferries with MTA payment for buses and subways?

24. Will there be any real movement on the BQX? What will the city decide to do about the BQE? Might Cuomo swoop in?

25. Can Mayor de Blasio reinvigorate his mayoralty and improve his standing among New Yorkers? How much time will de Blasio spend on national politics? Will he wind up as a prominent surrogate for whichever Democratic presidential candidate he endorses? What city issues will he focus on, what will he propose in his 2020 State of the City speech and preliminary fiscal year 2021 budget?

26. Can the mayor and Public Advocate Jumaane Williams get paid personal time legislation passed? What else will Williams focus on in 2020?

27. What will de Blasio do about school desegregation, which aspects of his task force’s recommendations will he support? What will his new specialized high schools admissions reform plan look like? What will he do about property tax reform? What will the mayor’s Albany agenda include on education, property taxes, and other items?

28. What will 2020 bring in the ongoing Bill de Blasio-Andrew Cuomo saga?

29. Can de Blasio make significant progress with regard to NYCHA, homelessness, and other major crises and challenges facing the city? How many, if any, NYCHA infill development plans will move ahead? Which, if any, neighborhoods will the city rezone? How will the Gowanus rezoning pan out? Bushwick? Industry City? Will the mayor further tweak his affordable housing plan as promised when he announced Vicki Been as Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development?

30. What will be the big city budget battles of 2020? How will the City Council assert itself on the budget, legislatively, in its oversight capacity?

31. Can the mayor show progress with the city’s most troubled schools? Will de Blasio move to close more underperforming schools? How will the first full wave of 70,000 pre-K students fair on 3rd grade state exams? What’s next in the city’s oversight of yeshivas?

32. What’s next for ThriveNYC? Will the de Blasio administration’s “mental health roadmap” run by First Lady Chirlane McCray begin to show stronger results? Will there be additional City Council clamor for a reduction in funds provided to the initiative? How will the city’s recently-announced plans to better tackle problems associated with untreated serious mental illness pan out?

33. How will Dermot Shea perform in his first full year as NYPD Commissioner? Will he implement ongoing and promised reforms to key aspects of how the NYPD does business, including officer discipline and the special victims division, among others?

34. Will the 2019 uptick in murders be reversed? Will the increase in hate crimes, especially anti-Semitic ones, be reversed? Will the city stay on track in its plans to reduce the jail population, close Rikers Island jails, and build new jails? Will there be any indication of what's next for Rikers Island?

35. Will there be any change to section “50-a” of state civil rights law that has been re-interpreted by the de Blasio administration to shield NYPD personnel records?

36. Will anything be done to help distressed taxi driver-medallion owners in the city, especially with regard to their debt?

37. What high-profile departures from the de Blasio administration will we see?

38. How will Melinda Katz perform as Queens District Attorney?

39. What’s next for Tiffany Cabán?

40. Who will succeed Katz as Queens Borough President? If that person is leaving a City Council post, who will then win that next special election?

41. How much of a role with the scuttled Amazon deal play in Queens and other elections, including for state legislative seats?

42. What will jockeying for the city’s 2021 elections look like? What are the next steps in the early mayoral race? Who jumps into the race or at least flirts with it? How will the ‘big four’ expected Democratic candidates (Adams, Diaz Jr., Johnson, Stringer) seek to differentiate themselves? How will their fundraising go? Who will declare their candidacies for public advocate or comptroller, for the borough presidencies, for City Council seats? How will the early comptroller race play out? How will the looming city elections impact the City Council's government operations? How will looming implementation of ranked-choice voting impact campaigning?

43. What will early jockeying look like in the race to become the next City Council Speaker?

44. Will there be a definite answer about whether Chirlane McCray is running for elected office? If she is, which office?

45. Will Cy Vance run for reelection as Manhattan District Attorney? Either way, what will that early primary look like as 2020 progresses?

46. Will there be any shake-up or new leadership at the New York City Board of Elections?

47. How will implementation of all of New York’s elections (special elections, April presidential primary, June congressional and state legislative primaries, November general election) go, especially with regard to early voting and voter roll accuracy?

48. Just how high will voter turnout climb?

What did I miss? Let me know: bmax@gothamgazette.com or @tweetBenMax (Yes, the headline says 50 questions, I'm leaving myself room to add two more.)

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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50 Questions for New York Politics in 2020 Mon, 30 Dec 2019 05:00:00 +0000
6 Years of De Blasio Dodging and Delaying Property Tax Reform https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8997-6-years-of-de-blasio-dodging-and-delaying-property-tax-reform https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8997-6-years-of-de-blasio-dodging-and-delaying-property-tax-reform availability presser questions

Mayor de Blasio (photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayor's Office)


Reforming New York’s property tax system has for decades confounded mayors, legislatures, and governors who have struggled with (or avoided) the technical and political consequences of changing a long-standing system commonly described as outdated and irrational. When Mayor Bill de Blasio finishes his second term at the end of 2021, there is a chance he will be leaving office in the same boat.

With the latest delay in recommendations from the city’s Advisory Commission on Property Tax Reform, formed by de Blasio and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson in 2018, it is becoming increasingly doubtful the mayor will be able to make a full-fledged push for reform in Albany, where much relevant power resides, before his final year in office. If history is any indication, lawmakers may take years to work changes through the halls of the State Capitol. That would leave the bulk of whatever reform is passed, if any, to be implemented after de Blasio has left City Hall.

Yet de Blasio has been discussing the need for a concerted reassessment of the property tax system since he first took office as mayor in 2014 -- when he appointed Jacques Jiha commissioner of the Department of Finance. But the first concrete public steps he took toward carrying one out only began in his second term, four years later, when he empanelled the advisory commission in partnership with the City Council, and only after a lawsuit was filed against the city alleging the system disproportionately burdened certain racial and other demographic groups.

Now, as the calendar turns to 2020, a series of postponements and delays are pushing the prospect of a city property tax reform agenda and essential accompanying advocacy in Albany closer to the periphery of de Blasio’s tenure.

When de Blasio appointed Jiha in April 2014, four months into his first term, the incoming commissioner was asked by a reporter if he shared the view that the city’s property tax system is unequal or unfair. Jiha said, “It’s a major issue. We have a lot of unfairness and inequity.” He promised, “[W]e’re going to look into every aspect of...property taxes in New York to see what can be done. It’s a big project...If there are discrepancy and inefficiencies within the system we’re going to have to try to minimize them.” Acknowledging action in Albany would be needed, he said, “But our goal is basically to try to minimize to some extent the – as best as we can, to try to minimize the inequities...equally situated people should not be treated differently. That’s our goal.”

De Blasio then called it “a big, sprawling area of concern” and promised, “we’re going to look at it very closely.”

“Part of why we wanted a finance commissioner with Jacques’ experience and insight is to take a whole look at the tax system of this city and look at ways to make it clearer, more transparent and more equitable,” the mayor added. Jiha is a veteran economist of city and state government, who most recently served in the private sector as COO and CFO of Earl G. Graves Ltd., a multimedia firm.

“Some of that we can achieve locally. Some of that can only be achieved with Albany’s help. But first we have to come to an analysis of what is going on and what’s a better way to approach it. And then when we feel we’re on that firm ground, then we’ll start discussions with Albany,” de Blasio said then. The Department of Finance under Jiha has been preparing to assist in such an analysis by building models and cross-referencing datasets, according to a spokesperson.

Around the same time as Jiha’s appointment, then-City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito announced a Council commission to look at the issue, which quickly transformed into a task force on commercial tax breaks. Two members of the task force told Politico in 2016 they believed the de Blasio administration pressured Mark-Viverito to abandon property taxes. “My sense is the administration said that that was something that really needed its own conversation, that they'd work with them on, and haven't,” one of them reportedly said.

Property owners and tenants alike have lamented the system for years as they’ve observed real estate taxes fluctuate inconsistently across neighborhoods, property types, and tenancies.

The city’s property tax system is multifaceted and dizzying. Some aspects are controlled by the city, but many others are dictated by the state. State law determines the method for valuing different properties, while the Mayor and City Council have discretion over the tax rate. The city’s Department of Finance calculates a property’s assessed value based on the state’s methodology using data gathered by the city. Experts, elected officials, and everyday city residents have sought changes to each of these stages to make the system more fair and transparent.

Despite its complexity, the city did not move quickly to begin evaluating the issue and by the end of the mayor’s first term, he was only promising action in his second. “This one's exceedingly thorny and it has to be navigated. The pieces that can be decided administratively and legislatively at the city level, plus the pieces that have to be decided in Albany – that's a very careful balance that has to be struck,” he said in April 2017, adding shortly after, “I think it's something that has to be addressed, but it's not realistic to address it this term.”

It was at a news conference on an unrelated topic during his reelection year, and de Blasio was responding to questions about the scant action on property tax reform in his first term. “We didn't do it because we had to work on a lot of other priorities that were crucial and necessary and available to be acted on, versus this, which I knew would be a very involved, difficult process that would take the energies of our budget director, our first deputy mayor, our finance commissioner, and a whole lot of other people,” he said.

That year he was harried by a lawsuit, filed that April by a coalition of finance experts, civil rights groups, and development associations, challenging the city and state taxation practices as unconstitutional, alleging they disproportionately harm New Yorkers in less affluent neighborhoods. One of the most serious problems the coalition points to is the state’s method of assessing co-ops and condos, based on estimated rental income rather than sales price -- often vastly undervaluing some of city’s most expensive property and leaving others to foot the bill.

De Blasio also faced mounting pressure from his Republican challenger, Assemblymember Nicole Malliotakis, who made real estate tax reform a central issue in her campaign.

While calling such an undertaking a “huge, huge effort” and tempering expectations of a “quick fix” the mayor told reporters at the April 2017 news conference, “I'm telling people I'm going to do it. And if you look at my batting average of what I say I'm going to do, I do what I say I'm going to do.”

Just one day before voters elected him to his second term, on November 6, 2017, de Blasio appeared at an Association for a Better New York event, where during an audience question-and-answer session, then-president of Citizens Budget Commission Carol Kellermann asked de Blasio about the lawsuit and his plans to address property tax reform in his all-but-certain second term.

If reelected, de Blasio said, "we’re going to get to work on this in a very big and focused manner...there is no question that this current property tax system is broken in many ways." He criticized the push to put property tax reform into a judge's hands through the lawsuit, adding, "I’ve said it very clearly, we’ll gather all the stakeholders. It will probably take a year or two to complete this work. It will certainly take both city and state legislation. But here are the ground-rules that I see going forward: a wildly inconsistent system has to be made more consistent. I hear from people across different neighborhoods how blatantly unfair their property tax bills are and literally the way they change from neighborhood to neighborhood that makes no sense per se. Obviously people live in condos, co-ops versus single-family homes, the disparities there. There are so many issues that we have to get under the skin of that are really thorny, and really difficult."

"But were going to have to be blunt about it, we’re going to have to really be open about some of the tough choices, and then further we have to protect our revenue levels," the mayor continued.

He said that at a number of town hall meetings he had held, New Yorkers had raised the issue of property taxes to him, "Usually from a homeowner point of view."

"I say to them look, it’s going to be a massive undertaking," de Blasio recounted. "We will come up with a more consistent, more transparent, more fair system. But I want to put a caveat on it. We can’t reduce our revenue substantially. If we do that and I look at people in the eye and say if we’re going to reduce our revenue substantially it might feel great at first. But then we can’t have the same number of police officers, or we can’t sustain early childhood education, or we can’t provide the same sanitation services. Do you want that?...They say no, I don’t want to lose of those services."

He went on to say in closing, "I am ready to do it, it will take a lot of time and energy but I am ready to do it. And it’s not the kind of mission a lot of people want to take on in public life. But I’ve said it, because I mean it. And I will just say this one personal plug. When I say something that definitively, I mean it. I said we’d do pre-K, I said we’d do 200,000 affordable apartments; you know, I said we would bring down stop-and-frisk. You name it we’ve done it. We will create a property tax reform that will end up with a better and fairer system for this city." 

Commission Formed, Report Delayed
Another six months later, in May 2018, a reelected de Blasio and still-new City Council Speaker Johnson announced the advisory commission to look at every dimension of the issue and recommend changes to balance the system without reducing city revenue. Its mandate is to issue a preliminary report and a final report with recommendations, gathering feedback at public hearings.

When de Blasio and Johnson announced a handshake agreement for the next city budget the next month, Johnson intimated that the commission’s goal was to have recommendations by the state legislative session beginning in January 2019. “The work will continue throughout this year and hopefully we’ll be able to bring a product to the state legislature in next year’s legislative session with some recommendations on fixing the property tax rebate,” he said at the June 2018 press conference.

The commission held its first public meeting in July 2018 and nine others over nine months, though the mayor didn’t sign the executive order formally empowering the body until December.

Since then, the commission has postponed releasing recommendations several times. While officials say they are getting closer, several steps remain before the administration sees the recommendations, puts its own stamp on an agenda, and takes it to state lawmakers.

Spokespeople for both de Blasio and Johnson told Gotham Gazette in May that the commission would be holding more public hearings in the second half of 2019 and produce a final report with recommendations by the end of the calendar year. A spokesperson for the mayor’s office confirmed last week that the additional public hearings had not taken place and wouldn’t be scheduled until a preliminary report was published. Commission Chair Marc Shaw told Gotham Gazette on December 4 that the preliminary report would be “out soon,” without specifying a new timeline.

“This is an enormously important issue for our city, and we want to get this right. We have made significant progress on the majority of the issues we believe are needed for reform, but a few do remain. Those issues need to be resolved before we release any report,” Shaw said.

“We expect to have a preliminary report out soon for the public to review,” he said. A spokesperson for Johnson said on December 16 that that projection was still the case, without giving a specific date.

At a press conference before the last full-body Stated Meeting of the year for the City Council three days later, Johnson said, “It’s not going to happen before the end of this year. It’s my hope that it’s going to happen in January. I actually feel pretty comfortable with where things are and I continue to talk to the commissioners.”

Once the commission releases its recommendation, there remains the task for city officials to mold them into a viable policy agenda. “After the Commission shares its report with the Mayor and Speaker Johnson, they will both review the report and its findings, and will decide how to best advance reforms,” said Marcy Miranda, a de Blasio administration spokesperson, in May.

Postponing the report’s release will have implications for the prospect of reform in Albany. The state legislative session only lasts from early January to early June this year, and is typically dominated by the state budget, as well as a long list of priorities from Governor Andrew Cuomo and the two legislative majority conferences. If the city property tax commission doesn’t hold public hearings on its initial report until 2020, which is now the earliest it can, it will push the city’s advocacy efforts later into the session leaving any wishlist items from the advisory commission on less sure footing.

“There’s been a constant pushing of the timeline. We get one timeline and we try to make decisions around that. Then that gets pushed off. Then we keep hearing it’s coming soon...I don’t know the definition of ‘soon,’” said state Senator Brian Benjamin, a Manhattan Democrat and chair of the Senate’s committee on budget and revenues.

Assembly Member Sandra Galef, a Westchester Democrat who chairs the Assembly’s committee on real property taxation, believes some of the recommendations will be controversial and will have to be negotiated through multiple committees, which can delay them or seal their fates if the discussions start too late.

The session ends in June and it is not typical for lawmakers to return to the Legislature later in the year outside of exceptional circumstances, leaving any outstanding items to be taken up in 2021. Because many experts, including some members of the commission, have agreed some of the most drastic but necessary reforms will have to be phased in over a period of years, it is likely many of the potential state-level changes will be implemented under de Blasio’s successor.

“I think it’s highly unlikely it will get fixed this legislative session because the issue is so complicated, but there is a possibility that it can be tackled during the 2021 legislative session,” Johnson said Thursday.

Independent of the constraints of Albany’s political calendar, the de Blasio administration says it has been making strides to improve some of what it can control, including the precision with which it values property.

“Under the leadership of Commissioner [Jacques] Jiha, the Department of Finance has made significant investments in staffing, data analytics, and technology to improve data collection and ensure the agency is using the most accurate data to provide fair valuations,” wrote Miranda, who now represents the city’s Department of Finance, in an email.

The DOF under Jiha has for years been preparing its analytical infrastructure for the eventuality of a comprehensive, system-wide evaluation, which has dramatically enhanced the advisory commission’s ability to explore solutions, according to a person with close knowledge of the commission’s work.

“These improvements have been made with New York City residents in mind, as the agency works to create efficiencies and increase accuracy and transparency in residents’ property tax values,” Miranda wrote.

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

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this article.

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6 Years of De Blasio Dodging and Delaying Property Tax Reform Sun, 29 Dec 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: The Top 10 Stories of 2019 in New York Politics https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9008-max-murphy-podcast-the-top-10-stories-of-2019-in-new-york-politics https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9008-max-murphy-podcast-the-top-10-stories-of-2019-in-new-york-politics hud nycha announcement

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


December 25, 2019 - Max & Murphy Podcast: The Top 10 Stories of 2019 in New York Politics

PodcastThe hosts break down the 10 biggest stories of 2019 in New York politics, from all-Democratic control in Albany to Mayor de Blasio's short-lived presidential campaign, from a federal monitor for NYCHA to a 'transformative' year at the MTA, Corey Johnson's quest to 'break the car culture,' and much more.

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

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Max & Murphy Podcast: The Top 10 Stories of 2019 in New York Politics Thu, 26 Dec 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Issues to Watch in the 2020 Legislative Session in Albany https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8998-issues-to-watch-in-albany-in-2020-budget-new-york-city https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8998-issues-to-watch-in-albany-in-2020-budget-new-york-city elec state college

(photo: governor's office)


The 2019 legislative session in Albany was, as Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins described it, “[T]he most historic and productive legislative session in New York State history, period.” The Democratic-controlled Legislature notched up a long list of victories, including many progressive bills that had languished under prior Republican leadership in the state Senate. But there remained unfinished business, imperfect new laws, and pressing concerns that have carried forward and will define the legislative calendar in 2020, which comes with its own set of particular challenges, in part stemming from upcoming elections.

Among the issues the governor and Legislature are expected to confront are a $6.1 billion projected budget deficit, health care, marijuana legalization, criminal justice reforms, campaign finance issues, gig economy protections, and more. Other topics of interest will include the annual debate over education funding, whether to reform New York City’s specialized high school admissions and property tax system, and more.

Legislators are set to be in session in Albany on 57 days in 2020, four fewer days than in 2019, and have front-loaded the business of the two legislative chambers into January and February after consolidating the state and congressional primaries into one day in June. State primaries had been in September until the change.

As every two years, each seat of the state Legislature -- 150 in the Assembly and 63 in the Senate -- is on the ballot, and sitting legislators will have to balance official duties with the task of seeking reelection, especially those competing in tough primaries. Instead of working until mid- to late June, as is usual practice, the last day of the session will be June 2. Primaries are set for June 23.

That accelerated timeline will be kicked into high gear once Governor Andrew Cuomo unveils his agenda for the year at his State of the State speech in Albany on January 8. That will be around the same time that the legislative majorities begin meeting in Albany, establishing their priorities for the session, and, if last year is a guide, moving forward on some pieces of key legislation. Cuomo will also present his Executive Budget for fiscal year 2021 sometime in January, a plan that will merge policy and spending, and must address a massive budget deficit that is likely to dominant much of the session until when a new budget is due on April 1.

The governor has already unveiled several proposals from his new “Making Progress Happen” agenda, including banning gun licenses for those convicted of certain “serious offenses” in other states, banning single-use styrofoam containers, closing the “rape intoxication loophole,” mandating automatic manual recounts in close elections, and banning fentanyl analogs that contribute to the opioid crisis.

He also noted in a news conference at the end of the 2019 session in June a few items he hadn’t gotten across the finish line but would again pursue in 2020, including legalizing recreational marijuana, legalizing paid gestational surrogacy, and passing a prevailing wage law for construction projects that receive government subsidies. “I’m disappointed that surrogacy did not get done, and I will continue to fight for that. Legalization of marijuana. Prevailing wage. Those are really the issues that did not get done, and I will revisit all of them next year,” he said.

Below are some of the most important items that will be on the 2020 agenda in Albany, including those of particular interest to New York City. Other issues could crop up again depending on what Cuomo decides to do with hundreds of bills he has yet to sign or veto, decisions he must make by the end of the year. Those include, for example, legislation to legalize e-bikes and e-scooters.

A Massive Budget Gap
The most pressing and immediate concern for the governor and Legislature will be a $6.1 billion projected budget gap for the next fiscal year, stemming from a substantial growth of Medicaid costs.

Year after year, Cuomo has claimed to cap growth of the state budget at 2% annually, but has often only provided the appearance of doing so through creative maneuvers that include moving spending either off budget or pushing it to the next fiscal year, as exposed by Citizens Budget Commission. At the same time, the governor did not heed urgent calls from fiscal watchdogs to increase the state’s reserves while the economy was flourishing, instead continuing to pump money into education spending, his economic development programs, and other initiatives.

Cuomo is expected to show his plan for closing the budget deficit when he presents his spending plan in mid-January.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie suggested last week that the solution may be to raise taxes on the wealthy rather than cutting spending on programs, including health care, that benefit the most vulnerable New Yorkers. “This is gonna be a tough budget year…unless money’s gonna fall from the sky, you always have to try to do things,” Heastie told reporters. “So when there’s a concern about having enough money, the two options always are do you cut spending or do you raise revenue. For us in the Assembly, we always believe in raising revenue.”

There are a few proposals from this last session that could potentially be revived including a pied-à-terre tax on second homes worth more than $5 million in New York City and an expansion of the current “millionaires tax” that Heastie unsuccessfully sought this year. The Assembly’s Democratic majority has repeatedly sought to make the state’s tax structure more progressive, but Cuomo and Senate majorities, whether Republican or, in 2019, Democratic, have resisted.

Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins, when asked about the budget gap, said, “We will be spending time talking about that. Whatever happens, everybody is going to have to decide how to deal with the shortfall. We are obviously concerned. It is critical — our first fallback isn’t let’s raise taxes. We know how the burden of taxes on middle class and low-income New Yorkers is very difficult.”

She did, however, also say, “We have to be able to look at a myriad of possibilities.”

Cuomo is typically averse to raising income taxes (and has led the lowering of many rates), but has approved the regular extension of what was supposed to be a temporary “millionaires tax” implemented in the wake of the financial crisis at the end of last decade and has worked with the Legislature to institute a variety of new taxes and fees over the years. The Senate Democrats, keen on keeping and expanding their new majority, and rank-and-file legislators from both chambers may also balk at raising taxes in an election year. Identifying $6.1 billion to close the gap will be especially challenging without new revenue, however.

Citizens Budget Commission recently sent Cuomo and legislative leaders a letter suggesting a four-point strategy for finding recurring savings and closing the gap: reestablishing the Medicaid Redesign Team, which Cuomo first created in 2011, to find savings; sending enough education aid to needy districts to provide a sound basic education but otherwise limiting it elsewhere (the letter noted that the state sent $1.6 billion in school aid in the 2017-18 school year to wealthy districts that had sufficient resources to fund a sound basic education); reducing economic development spending; and reforming retiree health benefits.

Marijuana Legalization and Vaping Regulations
This year, the governor and Legislature couldn’t come to an agreement on full legalization of the adult use of marijuana and instead settled for decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana and expunging records of those convicted of such offenses.

Cuomo, who once called it a “gateway drug,” has already said legalizing marijuana is among his top priorities. In October, Cuomo and governors from neighboring states held a summit to coordinate regional policy on marijuana and vaping, and Cuomo this week announced the hire of Norman Birenbaum as Director of Cannabis Programs. Birenbaum was previously the implementation director for the Rhode Island Office of Cannabis Regulation.

“This is a very important topic and it's probably one of the most challenging issues that I know that I've had to address in the State of New York. It is complicated, it is controversial and it is consequential - and that is a very difficult and challenging combination,” Cuomo said at the summit.

While marijuana legalization may finally be realized next year, bills related to vaping are headed in the other direction. After a nationwide outbreak of vaping-related illnesses and a rising crisis of nicotine addiction among teenagers, the state imposed an emergency ban on flavored e-cigarettes and nicotine vaping liquids. Cuomo promised at the time that he would also propose legislation to ban deceptive marketing of e-cigarettes that targets teenagers.

Education
Each year, some advocates, educators, and legislators call for a massive increase in state education funding and each year, Cuomo proposes something much smaller. When the state budget is agreed upon, Cuomo and the Legislature often meet in the middle. The state Board of Regents recently proposed a $2 billion increase for next year, which would bring total funding up to $29.9 billion. Last year, the Board had requested a $2.1 billion increase but Cuomo only proposed $1 billion in his executive budget. The Senate and Assembly sought a $1.6 billion increase but in the end, Cuomo’s number was approved.

Advocates and legislators have long argued that the state is failing to meet the requirements of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity court decision in 2006, which would require billions more in Foundation Aid to be sent to the poorest school districts. Cuomo, however, has maintained that the debt is paid and the court decision no longer applicable, and said that the formula being followed by the state, particularly with recent adjustments, provides exceptional funding to local school districts. Cuomo regularly cites the fact that New York spends far more per pupil than any state in the country. Last year he insisted on new reporting requirements to see if school districts are then sending appropriate sums to the poorest schools therein.

Cuomo and others, including budget watchdogs, have called for a reimagining of how the state doles out its education aid in order to focus aid where it is needed most, but the Legislature, especially representatives from wealthier areas, has balked.

And in 2019 the state opted not to lift or altogether eliminate a cap on the number of charter schools in New York City, even as the cap has been hit, making it an issue likely to come up again in 2020.

Criminal Justice Reform
This year, the state Legislature approved sweeping reforms to the state’s pretrial criminal justice system, including banning cash bail for misdemeanors and various non-violent felonies and instituting open file discovery on a fast timeline so prosecutors and law enforcement turn over evidence to an individual facing trial within a quicker, mandated period.

Though the reforms have faced a backlash from various quarters, with Republicans, police officials, and district attorneys sounding alarms, and in some cases fearmongering, about public safety, legislative leaders have given no indication that they intend to water down the legislation. Still, the discussion is likely to continue as the reforms are implemented.

At the same time, advocates are pushing for more reforms that will address currently incarcerated people and those recently released from jail.

For the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement, the top priority is the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act, which would limit the amount of time a prisoner can be kept in solitary confinement to 15 consecutive days along with other reforms to prison procedures. The bill failed this year as legislators instead compromised with the governor to institute administrative reforms. 

Advocates with the group Release Aging People in Prison have vowed to pursue a bill that would automatically place anyone who is 55 years old and has served 15 years in prison under consideration for parole.

DecrimNY, a coalition of current and former sex workers and other advocates, is pushing for the Stop Violence in the Sex Trades Act, which would fully decriminalize sex work and expunge records for those convicted under current law. They may face a tough battle, however, as a rival coalition, New Yorkers for the Equality Model, have opposed full decriminalization and instead are pushing to make the purchase of sex illegal while ending enforcement against workers, according to a Queens Daily Eagle report

Prevailing Wage
Among Cuomo’s end-of-session regrets was the failure of a prevailing wage bill that would have expanded the public works that qualify under the law in Long Island and upstate, while exempting New York City, which has its own prevailing wage law that was recently expanded. The bill was favored by building trade unions who are close allies of the governor though real estate developers, who have also been big contributors to his campaigns, opposed it. 

The governor blamed the state Assembly for the failure of the bill, vowing to take it up again next year. 

Surrogacy
New York is one of only three states that do not allow paid gestational surrogacy, and the governor’s attempt to change that law this year did not succeed after passing the Senate but failing in the Assembly.

The bill under consideration would have allowed gay and infertile couples to enter into a contract with a surrogate, and Cuomo saw it as an important measure for the LGBTQ community. It was opposed, however, by some advocates and legislators who raised concerns about exploitation of potential surrogates, particularly from low-income backgrounds.

As with marijuana legalization and the prevailing wage bill, Cuomo pledged to bring the paid surrogacy bill back to the table next year.

Gig Economy Worker Protections
Cuomo mentioned protections for gig economy workers in his first “100 days agenda” for 2019 but did not follow through with any legislative proposals. Since then, there has been increased attention on the sector with freelancers and gig workers increasingly contributing to economic activity across the state.

There have been several bills proposed by lawmakers that would tackle issues like wage theft or create portable benefits but none have seen movement. The State Assembly also held a hearing on December 5 on labor protections for gig economy workers, and seem to be gearing up to pursue legislation in the upcoming session. (New York City passed its own set of gig worker protections in 2017.)

Campaign Finance, Voting and Election Reforms
When the Legislature and governor couldn’t come to a consensus on creating a system of public financing for state elections, they decided to hand the task to a nine-member commission. That commission issued recommendations last month that will become law unless the Legislature returns to amend them before December 22, a contingency that appears exceedingly unlikely. The panel created a new public matching funds system for state elections, lowered individual campaign contribution limits, outlined a new state agency to administer the system, and perhaps most controversially, raised the bar for political parties to gain and keep ballot access.

There has been praise and criticism of the commission’s recommendations and government reform advocates have said the Legislature should reduce the contribution limits even further – for instance, under the planned system an individual can still donate $18,000 in total to a statewide candidate, compared to a limit of only $5,600 for a presidential candidate under federal law. Minor parties have even sued to prevent the new ballot thresholds from taking effect. It’s currently unclear if the Legislature will agree to give the new system a second look, which it could choose to do during the upcoming legislative session even if the new system becomes law this month.

After passing several voting reforms – including early voting, consolidating the state and federal primaries and universal transfer of registration – the Legislature also initiated an amendment to the state constitution to provide for same-day voter registration and no-excuse absentee ballots by mail. Both of those will have to be voted through again before being presented to voters in a ballot referendum. With full Democratic control, it’s almost a foregone conclusion that the measures will pass.

Automatic voter registration passed both houses of the Legislature last year, but then had to be recalled over issues with the bill language that coincided with the new driver’s licenses for all law. Legislative leaders said at the end of session, when recalling the bill, that they would fix it and pass it again in 2020, and that the error wouldn’t impact the outcome because it wasn’t to go into effect until 2021 anyway.

Cuomo may also resuscitate a proposal he made last year to make Election Day a state holiday, and there is likely to be additional conversation around voting rights for those who’ve spent time in prison.

Other Reform Issues
There is likely to be continued conversation in 2020 about transparency in economic development spending, and perhaps significant reform to how economic development programming works in New York; reforming or replacing the much-maligned state government ethics watchdog, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE); revisiting planned pay raises and a cap on outside income for legislators after a prior version, created by an appointed commission, was struck down in court; whether the state Comptroller should divest public pension funds from fossil fuel companies; among other topics that related to government ethics, transparency, management, and process.

New York Health Act
New York’s own version of a universal single-payer health care system, the New York Health Act, has been approved by the Assembly in the past but has failed to pass the Senate. Yet when Democrats had control of both chambers for the first time in a decade this year, the legislation was not on the agenda in either house. The sponsors have held hearings and are recalibrating the bill, and it’s likely to be front of mind for many legislators, particularly with health care one of the top issues in the presidential election set for next year, but it appears unlikely there will be the appetite for taking it up in Albany. 

Last month, the state Legislature held a joint hearing in Kingston, the last of a series of hearings across the state to solicit testimony on the proposal. Critics, which include Governor Cuomo, say implementing the bill would require a too-massive overhaul of the state’s tax, health care, and insurance systems. Labor unions have also opposed the bill, saying that their members enjoy health plans they do not want to give up.

Other New York City Concerns
Mayor Bill de Blasio has lingering stated priorities that he has not been able to get through the state Legislature and he may make yet another attempt at next year. De Blasio has called for reforming Section 50-a of the state civil rights law, which currently prohibits the city from disclosing disciplinary records of police officers to the public, and either eliminating the Specialized High School Admissions Test as the sole criteria for acceptance into the city’s top three specialized high schools, which are woefully unrepresentative of the city’s black and Latino students.

After a proposal he put forth to scrap the SHSAT and move toward a different admissions system went nowhere this year, de Blasio said he is starting over.

Meanwhile, de Blasio has also called for legalizing adult marijuana use and issued his recommendations for what the system should look like.

As the year begins, de Blasio will have two of his four seats on the MTA Board vacant. His nominations to the governor must then be presented to the state Senate for approval.

And the mayor has repeatedly pushed for more taxes on the wealthy for various purposes, from funding mass transit to affordable housing for seniors. It’s unclear if he may have a new wish list in January, though given the state budget deficit the mayor may find himself mostly playing defense given that the city’s coffers have been overflowing and Governor Cuomo has repeatedly sought to raid them.

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

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Issues to Watch in the 2020 Legislative Session in Albany Tue, 17 Dec 2019 05:00:00 +0000