Gotham Gazette Sun, 12 Jul 2020 04:46:55 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Council Member Helen Rosenthal Drops Out of 2021 Comptroller Race 1 cm helen rosenthal womens

Council Member Helen Rosenthal (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

New York City Council Member Helen Rosenthal, a Democrat from Manhattan, is dropping out of the 2021 race for Comptroller, she told Gotham Gazette in an interview Friday morning.

Next year, the entire city government – the mayor, comptroller, public advocate, five borough presidents and 51 City Council seats – will be on the ballot. Rosenthal is currently serving her second term representing District 6 on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and cannot run for reelection due to term limits. She was among several Democrats seeking to replace outgoing Comptroller Scott Stringer, who is also term-limited and is running for mayor.

Rosenthal said she no longer sees a path to victory. “I think the campaign was going very well in 2019. We were very well received and it was very encouraging,” she said of the initial phase of her run. “But at the beginning of 2020, I knew that I had to hit some pretty significant benchmarks in order to have a viable campaign. And I knew that there was going to be a lot of work involved and I was going to have to really invest a lot in the work. And the way 2020 unfolded, it became very clear that I wasn’t going to be able to hit those marks.”

Rosenthal said she needed to make community-based and political connections throughout the city that she did not pursue earlier this year, instead staying fully focused on her work as a Council member. She also lags behind other candidates in fundraising and was going to have to make that ground up throughout this year and into next ahead of the June 2021 primary that is all but certain to choose the next Comptroller, the city's chief fiscal officer, given Democrats’ seven-to-one voter registration advantage over Republicans.

Having previously served for seven years in the Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget, Rosenthal has particular concerns about the city’s current budget and fiscal situation and said she was able to use her candidacy to elevate those issues.

The city had to fill a $9 billion revenue gap to balance the recently approved $88.2 billion budget and Rosenthal was among those who expressed support for a proposal put forward by Mayor de Blasio to allow the city to borrow funds for operational expenses. Though that idea has not yet been approved by the state Legislature, the city may still need that recourse if revenue deteriorates further and the federal government does not bail out the city, she said.

“Especially in the lead up to the passage of the fiscal 2021 budget, I was able to amplify my calls for borrowing, for opportunities for the state to pass laws to raise money, in particular from the Stock Transfer Tax rebate, and it’s given me the platform to talk about the investments that the city has to make in order for the economy to recover,” she said.

Rosenthal voted “no” on the budget because, owing to the lack of borrowing power, the city was forced to make cuts to services and programs for the most needy. “I think over the next six months, we have to bring together support for borrowing in the city,” she said. In her remarks when voting no, she critiqued Stringer for his opposition to the city borrowing, which appears to have had some impact on the state’s hesitance. Rosenthal also said the budget did not go far enough to cut funding from the NYPD and invest in youth services.

Rosenthal hasn’t decided yet whether she will throw her support behind another candidate. “It’s very much too soon and we’d have to be much closer to the election,” she said. “Given everything that’s going on around us, I think the field is still in evolution.”

Other candidates include fellow City Council Member Brad Lander from Brooklyn, Manhattan State Senator Brian Benjamin, and Assemblymember David Weprin of Queens. State Senator Kevin Parker from Brooklyn has also filed initial papers to run but his campaign has not shown any activity. There are currently no Republicans who have declared a comptroller campaign.

As of the last campaign filing, all the way back in January, Lander had $250,914 in campaign cash, Benjamin had $252,225 and Weprin had $84,927 (he also owes the city Campaign Finance Board $320,000 from past fines). Rosenthal had just $13,808 (she has raised $136,520 and spent $122,712). Parker has yet to raise any funds. None of those totals take into account the public matching funds that will eventually be available to qualifying candidates. A new campaign finance filing deadline is imminent, the numbers from which will provide information about fundraising and spending thus far this year.

Rosenthal said she hopes that the remaining candidates will pay attention to her campaign platform. “I laid out some pretty good ideas and a clear path to balancing the city’s budget in a way that doesn’t hurt people, and that story’s not going to end for the next at least two or three years,” she said.

With eighteen months left in her term, Rosenthal said she has “a lot of work ahead of me.” Along with her focus on fiscal and budget matters, which has included a lot of attention on contracting and nonprofit service providers, Rosenthal has also led the Council’s Committee on Women, which under her leadership has in part focused on deficiencies in how the NYPD handles sexual assault.

Rosenthal said she does not have any immediate plans for what comes next, though she wants to remain involved in public service. She does not intend to run for another elected position in 2021.

“I will be looking for a job where it’s a good fit, where the skills I bring can be meaningful and used as a public service. And we’ll see where that takes me,” she said.

[Read: 2021 Comptroller Candidates Offer Differing Ideas for Addressing City's Fiscal Woes]

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Council Member Helen Rosenthal Drops Out of 2021 Comptroller Race Fri, 10 Jul 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: Council Member Brad Lander on the New City Budget cm chairs

City Council Member Brad Lander (photo: Jeff Reed/City Council)

July 1, 2020 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Council Member Brad Lander on the New City Budget

City Council Member Brad Lander, a Brooklyn Democrat and 2021 candidate for city Comptroller, joined the show to discuss the new city budget, which he had voted "no" on just hours before this discussion.

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

Max & Murphy · Episode 231: Council Member Brad Lander On The New City Budget

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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Max & Murphy Podcast: Council Member Brad Lander on the New City Budget Wed, 01 Jul 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Electeds Negotiate Uneasy Peace with Police During Tense Brooklyn Standoffs nypd bk protest williams lander 

Thursday evening in Brooklyn (photo: Ethan Geringer-Sameth/Gotham Gazette)

A tense standoff between peaceful marchers and police on a brownstone-lined block in the Clinton Hill section of Brooklyn could have turned violent Thursday night, if it was not for the intervention of local elected officials on the ground who negotiated the peaceful release of protesters corralled by cops intent on enforcing the mayor’s curfew.

What began as a large march that set off from Barclays Center shortly after the 8 o'clock curfew numbered in the hundreds around 10 p.m. when it was cornered by police at the intersection of Washington and Atlantic Avenues. For 20 distressing minutes, it was unclear whether the protesters decrying police brutality against black people would be allowed to leave safely and without a significant number of arrests.

The incident is an example of what many observers are calling arbitrary enforcement of the curfew set by Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo in the face of looting and vandalism during the initial nights of what is now more than a week of unrest throughout the boroughs. It is also an example of the luck of a group of marchers on a night where police aggressively charged demonstrators across the city -- the first of two where Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and City Council Member Brad Lander made their way through the crowd of kettled protesters to reason with commanding officers.

On the eighth day of citywide demonstrations for police accountability and reform, these protesters had spent hours marching in the humid night through Brooklyn Heights and Cobble Hill without incident, while police followed at a distance. As the after-curfew hours turned from dusk to dark, the police contingent became a small army of officers blocking streets and pressing forward, funnelling the marchers into the largely residential Clinton Hill.

On Washington Avenue, they encountered a line of officers waiting with helmets on and batons in hand cordoning off the intersection of Atlantic Avenue. Behind them on Fulton Street another throng of police had sealed the block. With no outlet, the atmosphere changed.

Trapped in close quarters, the crowd bristled nervously against the backdrop of two Baptist churches and rows of pre-war houses, in a neighborhood that has become heavily gentrified in recent years. Some clambered over brownstone gates, attempting to take refuge on private stoops or in bushes, but were routed out by police back into the street.

A video later uploaded to Twitter by journalist John Knefel shows officers at the back of the pack swarming and hitting protesters with batons as they attempt to walk away from police ("completely unprovoked," Knefel wrote). A few people appear to have been arrested in the interaction.

"It's been non-violent the whole time. And all of a sudden you see aggression. Cops rush in. I'm literally like, 'What happened?' I thought maybe an officer was hit or something the way they--" Williams told Gotham Gazette at the scene after the ordeal.

"And they just kept saying, 'It's curfew, they need to go home, they're blocking traffic,'" Williams said of police officers that night. "If that is the criteria they are out here over-policing. Over-policing a curfew is not the answer."

"Look at all the cops here for a non-violent" protest, he said.

The mayor has been unclear in the face of questions about when police will use force on peaceful protesters who break curfew. De Blasio has said he wants to see "as light a touch as possible" by the NYPD and that officers should not use batons on peaceful protesters, while denying evidence that such an aggressive approach is being taken.

On the morning of the standoff, in response to reporters seeking specificity on the policy, de Blasio was vague: "If at a certain point officers say, 'OK, it's time, we need to go now,' people need to listen to that. It's not an unfair action to say in the context of crisis, in the context of curfew, 'There is a point where enough is enough.'"

Apparently for the officers monitoring the Brooklyn march on Thursday night, they decided it was “enough” about two hours after curfew and without any apparent act of violence or other provocation from the group.

Critics of the mayor's handling of the protests have pointed out that the curfew, first imposed Monday as a measure to curb attacks on stores and police officers, is now being used as a way to snuff out non-violent demonstrations.

There is also still the COVID-19 pandemic, and the threat of spreading the new coronavirus in dense gatherings remains. Most protesters wore face coverings Thursday night, in line with health guidelines and organizers were handing out masks, hand sanitizer, and water.

That evening, as officers advanced, Williams and Lander, who had also been with the demonstrators, stepped forward from the crowd to try to speak with police brass.

"They want to protest non-violently,” Williams told Officer Frank DiGiacomo of the 78th Precinct. “That's what this is. Civil disobedience." Protesters and reporters looked on from behind him and a huddle of higher-ranking officers gathered around, a line of cops in helmets at their backs. Also present that night was Chief Jeffrey Maddrey who oversees the precincts in north Brooklyn.

"Enforcing the curfew is the problem," Williams told the officers, not knowing whether they would soon begin a charge.

But the encounter proved serendipitous, as Lander recognized DiGiacomo from programs they had collaborated on in his surrounding district. DiGiacomo told the electeds the protesters were blocking roadways in addition to breaking curfew, but Lander and Williams implored him to let the marchers continue non-violently.

"Tomorrow you and I will have a story to tell about how you build bridges in your precinct and then you're able to actually deescalate when it matters," Lander told him.

With press holding up cameras and protesters chanting "The whole world is watching," police relented. Officers with plastic riot shields began letting groups of 10 to 20 marchers leave the block on the sidewalk, sealing off the pavement again after each group. Some protesters believed those allowed to leave were being arrested as they turned the corner.

But the truce, at least at the time, was honored and over the course of 20 minutes the march disbursed. A few people were arrested, Williams and Lander told Gotham Gazette, but not as many as there could have been. According to Lander, DiGiacomo deserved credit for the outcome. Images of bloody police crackdowns from other parts of the city and state circulated in news and social media throughout the night.

"Let's be clear, if we had not been there at that moment and recognized a couple of inspectors then this would have been violent. They would have started making more arrests," Lander said as he and Williams walked away into the open streets.

The Next Day
On Friday, Williams and Lander held a video press conference to discuss the prior night’s events and the larger context where they reiterated calls for the end of the curfew.

De Blasio and Police Commissioner Dermot Shea have insisted that the curfew -- the city’s first since 1943 -- has been working to reduce chaos and destruction at the hands of protesters and interlopers, but the duo from Brooklyn and dozens of other elected officials and civil rights advocates have said it has enabled brutality by police.

The New York Civil Liberties Union, Legal Aid Society, Center for Constitutional Rights, and others have threatened to sue the city if the mayor extends the curfew. (Legal Aid Society also appealed a Manhattan judge's decision Friday to allow law enforcement to arrest protesters for more than 24 hours without seeing a judge, which the group says violates fundamental due process rights.)

As protests continued into their ninth night Friday, a similar scene transpired at Grand Army Plaza at the north end of Prospect Park in Brooklyn, where a crowd had been contained after dark by a heavy police presence on a stretch of roadway near a traffic circle.

Video posted to Twitter by journalist Noah Hurowitz shows Williams and Lander again approaching the line to negotiate with commanding officers in white shirts, who appear to recognize and greet the officials. Videos from Williams and Lander also posted to Twitter that evening show march leaders making the decision to comply peacefully with the curfew and go home.

In a call and response with an organizer, the crowd stated its desire for non-violence: "I was informed / that no harm will be done / we will allow peaceful protest / and we are to go home / unharmed / and uncuffed / and I will obey."

Eventually, the demonstrators were again allowed to disperse along the sidewalks. But a short time later, about a mile away, on Nostrand Avenue and Montgomery Street, officers descended on a group in the street apparently making their way home and arrested dozens, according to accounts on Twitter from local reporters.

The NYPD did not provide comment on what happened during these events in Brooklyn Thursday and Friday night.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Electeds Negotiate Uneasy Peace with Police During Tense Brooklyn Standoffs Sat, 06 Jun 2020 04:00:00 +0000
2021 Comptroller Candidates Offer Different Ideas for Addressing City's Fiscal Woes de Blasio city budget graph trends

The city's economy & budget are in free-fall (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayor's Office)

New York City’s fiscal woes are worsening by the day as the COVID-19 pandemic has deprived the city of much needed tax revenue while likely forcing severe budget cuts that could be compounded by reductions in state aid. Though there is broad agreement that the best solution can only come in the form of a federal bailout, various other strategies and contingencies are being debated. And several of the candidates seeking to become the city’s next chief fiscal officer -- running for New York City Comptroller in the 2021 election -- differ as they evaluate and propose steps the city itself should be taking to stem the crisis.

Mayor Bill de Blasio proposed an $89.3 billion executive budget for the 2021 fiscal year beginning July 1. It was a budget pared down by $6 billion from earlier spending plans and which relied on $4 billion drawn from city reserves. At the time the mayor released that budget in mid-April, the city projected a $7.4 billion drop in revenue through the next fiscal year, which begins July 1. That projection has since increased to $9 billion.

On Wednesday, the mayor called on the state Legislature to give the city authorization to borrow $7 billion for operating expenses, which it currently cannot do on its own, as he also continued to demand federal aid as outlined in a package passed by the Democrat-led U.S. House of Representatives but not taken up by the Republican-controlled Senate.

Under state law, the city’s budget has to be balanced each year, which was a result of the financial crisis of the 1970s when the city’s out-of-control spending, including regularly borrowing to cover operating expenses, almost led to insolvency. That is also the reason the city cannot create a dedicated savings fund that does not count as part of the balanced budget.

De Blasio’s desperate plea comes as federal aid is held up in Congress and as Governor Andrew Cuomo threatens more than $8 billion in cuts to local aid, which would largely affect education and health care.

The four declared or exploring 2021 city comptroller candidates, all of whom are Democrats – Manhattan State Senator Brian Benjamin, Queens Assemblymember David Weprin, Brooklyn Council Member Brad Lander and Manhattan Council Member Helen Rosenthal – offered varying perspectives on whether the city should borrow funds and on other measures that could help cut costs, cover expenses, and boost revenue. 

Budget experts and City Comptroller Scott Stringer, a term-limited Democrat running for mayor, have repeatedly warned against the idea of borrowing for expenses, a proposition that could lead to debt payments for decades. Stringer has estimated that the $7 billion debt would require either $11 billion in payments over 20 years or $12.5 billion over 30 years.

“The Mayor should be singularly focused on ensuring our City gets the federal relief we need,”  Stringer said in a statement. “While it's too soon to rule out any specific budget action, New Yorkers should know that under the Mayor’s proposal our children could be paying over $500 million a year for the next 20 years. I urge extreme caution.” Stringer has also called on de Blasio to find more efficiencies in a city budget that has grown more than $20 billion in the mayor’s six-plus years in office.

Cuomo called the idea of borrowing for operating expenses “fiscally questionable” and the state Legislature refused to take up a vote on it on Thursday (despite the fact that in April Cuomo and the Legislature gave the state itself permission to borrow billions for operating costs). City Council Speaker Corey Johnson has expressed opposition to the current bill that would authorize city borrowing, saying it does not include strong enough guardrails.

Rosenthal, who previously worked for the Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget for seven years, is the only one of the three comptroller candidates who definitively believes the city should borrow funds for expenses. “We have to remember that this is a revenue problem. It's not an expense problem,” Rosenthal said in a phone interview. “So the circumstances are

wildly different than the 1970s where we were irresponsibly borrowing.”

Rosenthal suggests that the borrowing be limited to $2 billion, to address a part of the problem, while making cuts, finding new productivity savings and new revenue. She also said the mayor should only pull $2 billion, not $4 billion, from reserves.

The borrowing should be overseen by a new “revenue oversight board,” Rosenthal said, with a “laser focus” on revenue-building rather than the city’s expenditure, which is currently under the purview of the New York State Financial Control Board. “The Financial Control Board, those three words have baggage and connote wild and irresponsible spending,” she said, arguing that the opposite is true since the city’s bond rating was going up before the pandemic.

Among the fiscal control measures that have been floated by budget experts and elected officials are increased taxes on high earners (a favorite of de Blasio’s, though he has tempered calls for higher taxes amid the devastation of the coronavirus recession for fear of higher earners leaving New York) and freezes on wages for hundreds of thousands of unionized municipal workers that are set to increase under the various labor contracts negotiated by the city, alongside deferred retro-payments negotiated when de Blasio first came into office with all the unions operating under expired contracts.

Rosenthal pushed back against possible wage freezes, which she said could hurt working class New Yorkers employed by the city. “That, to me, is not a useful idea,” she said. She added, “When I think of city workers, I think of social workers, I think of people paving the road, I think sanitation workers, police, firemen, teachers, most of whom don't make over six figures.”

The main solution Rosenthal recommended is undoing the state’s 100% rebate of the stock transfer tax, which is imposed by federal law on stock transactions by brokers and brokerage firms and collected by the state. Those firms can then apply and receive a full refund.

The tax brings in as much as $16 billion annually, and even a partial reduction of the rebate would mean billions in new revenue that could be split between the state and city, Rosenthal said. “[That’s] a piece of low-hanging state legislation that should be pursued,” she said, noting that elected officials would be hard-pressed to defend that rebate. During the Democratic presidential race, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders had all called for expanding this tax.

“The [phrase] ‘taxes on the wealthy’ is a trope and has become a lightning rod for the governor and he won’t agree to it, and that is why we should do the stock transfer tax...I want to hear people say that they don’t want to go after brokers and brokerage houses,” Rosenthal said, noting that these very businesses have been making money during the pandemic. 

Rosenthal said the money recouped from that tax should go specifically towards covering the city’s revenue shortfall as well as launching a new jobs program that can put New Yorkers back to work at a time of record unemployment because of the pandemic.

Lander has been ardently opposed to the mayor’s proposal to borrow for immediate expenses, and would rather see more funding for the city’s capital infrastructure program, which involves borrowing for long-term construction projects and can create thousands of jobs. In light of the pandemic, the mayor significantly reduced capital spending over the current and next fiscal years in his latest budget plan, while pushing most planned spending to later years (when he will be out of office).

“Borrowing for investments for the long-term actually makes a lot of sense right now,” Lander said, noting that the city is well below the 15% limit that experts recommend for debt services costs, which are paid in the operating budget. “For infrastructure, for economic development, for affordable housing, the kinds of things that are capital projects. That is the kind of borrowing that we have room to do.”

“Keynesian economics say that the one counter-cyclical thing that you can do if you're not the federal government in a time like this is make some of those long-term investments,” he added.

Lander noted that the city still does not have a grasp on how much revenue it will have next year or an idea of when the economy will fully recover. “It's like you're a family that goes to the grocery store, and takes out a loan to pay your groceries. And the problem is, next week you're still gonna need groceries,” he said. “You’re not going to have more money. And now you're going to owe for next week's groceries and the interest on this week's groceries. So you really, really want to avoid that.”

Lander’s “number one” solution for revenue is closing the “carried interest” loophole that allows private-equity and hedge-fund managers to pay the capital gains tax, applied at a lower rate, rather than income tax. Cuomo proposed eliminating the loophole but it would only go into effect if neighboring states also took the same measure. Eliminating the loophole, which could bring in $1 billion in revenue each year, is particularly feasible right now, Lander noted, as New York is coordinating its coronavirus response with those very states (he made the argument in a recent op-ed).

Other measures could include a tax on the ultra-wealthy and restructuring the corporate tax, though that would not have an immediate effect. Lander also said the city should still move forward with the proposed restructuring of the property tax system, which the mayor has promised for years but has dragged his feet on. “We should restructure it so that as we start to come out of the pandemic and it is possible to start to make the kinds of investments that we need to make, that future increases are equitable and that they come from people like me whose properties have been underassessed and not from people who are already paying more than their share,” he said.

In particular, he said that he is “not a huge fan” of the idea of reducing or eliminating the rebate on the stock transfer tax. That move would be easy to circumvent, he said, since those transactions are electronic and brokers could easily move their transactions through another state. “That is basically like an electronic fiction,” he said, insisting it should be done at the federal level.

Lander was more circumspect about union wage freezes, though he said that the city should work with labor leaders to look at every possible option to cut costs and find savings. “In New York City's history, there have been plenty of moments of crisis when labor leaders worked with the city to come up with different kinds of savings,” he said. “Those savings can take many different forms, and it's definitely a moment where that dialogue needs to be underway.”

Benjamin, who chairs the Senate Committee on Revenue and Budget, has also warned against the city borrowing funds in the near term. “I wouldn't be asking for the $7 billion of [borrowing] authority right now,” he said in an interview this past week on the Max & Murphy podcast, “because to me, if you're going to ask for the $7 billion authority right now granted to you, then that tells the federal government, ‘Well they solved their problems. They don't need anything from us, right.’"

But he also hedged his answer, saying the city should have clear criteria for spending any borrowed funds “specific to COVID-related emergencies or emergencies that are created because of COVID-related issues.” He added, “I think if the city has a very thoughtful need for any of this $7 billion, that that money would be granted.”

Senator Liz Krueger, also a Manhattan Democrat, introduced the bill last week to allow the city to borrow the $7 billion. It passed a rules committee vote and is before the finance committee that Krueger chairs.

[Max & Murphy Podcast: State Senator Brian Benjamin on Rescuing New York's Finances & More]

Benjamin was also open to the idea of renegotiating contracts with labor unions on wages and other costs. “It wouldn't be prudent to not look at every single thing. I don't know how you don't look at that,” he said.

Benjamin has sponsored legislation to allow the city to create a dedicated rainy day fund and has emphasized that the pandemic made it all that more urgent. “This is the precise time to [create] a rainy day fund...because now we are very clear on what are the consequences when we don't have one,” he said. The bill passed both houses of the Legislature last week.

He also indicated that property tax reforms are dead in the water in Albany this year. “We're really dealing with the COVID crisis,” he said when asked about property tax reform, which he had taken a major interest in. “And so I would imagine that we will fervently look at property taxes next year.”

Assemblymember David Weprin said rather than looking at the city’s borrowing proposal, state and city officials should be presenting a united front on seeking federal aid. “I think everybody has to unite together, the mayor, the governor, every elected official, to really push for a full-court press on Washington,” he said.

“Generally it's not a good idea, in my opinion, to borrow long term for operating expenses,” he added.

Weprin proposed several measures that he said could create permanent revenue streams for the city and state. Chiefly, he supports restoring the Metropolitan Commuter Transportation Mobility Tax, commonly called the Commuter Tax, which was imposed on nonresidents working in New York City till 1999. “When it was repealed by the legislature, it was just done when the city and state had surpluses. It was very good fiscal times. Obviously, that’s not the case now,” he said. Weprin proposes implementing a 1% tax (it was originally between 0.45 and 0.65%) which he said would bring in about $1.6 billion in recurring annual revenue.

He also said he would support a temporary increase in income taxes on the rich, though not without some reluctance. “I wouldn't do that in the first instance but having said that, I think there's a lot of new taxes we can create which would also create new industries and the industries themselves would create revenue,” he said.

Weprin wants to legalize online sports betting on professional and college sports, which would require an amendment to the state constitution. He has sponsored a resolution on that amendment along with State Senator Joseph Addabbo, but their efforts have stalled in Albany. As Weprin noted, New York is losing out on easy revenue as state residents travel to neighboring New Jersey, where online sports betting is legal, to place wagers. “We're losing hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue,” he said.

He also supports granting a new casino license in New York City with a revenue-sharing agreement between the city and state that he said could raise hundreds of millions. “I think we have to look at creating new industries that'll produce revenue and also produce jobs at the same time,” he said.

Weprin was wary of the idea of renegotiating labor contracts that could affect firefighters, police officers, nurses and other government employees who he said are already fighting for additional hazard pay. “I certainly wouldn't be looking to reduce their benefits. They're heroes. They've been on the front line during the Covid-19 crisis,” he said. “When you’re in a major multibillion-dollar fiscal crisis, you don't want to rule anything out, but I certainly would not be looking to change agreed-upon, negotiated labor contracts.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note -this article has been updated. 

Note - this article has been updated with an interview with Assemblymember David Weprin. 

2021 Comptroller Candidates Offer Different Ideas for Addressing City's Fiscal Woes Sun, 31 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Pandemic Reinforces De Blasio's Inaction on School Desegregation Recommendations deblasio chance carmen

Mayor de Blasio during a school visit (photo: Edwin J. Torres/ Mayor's Office)

As the coronavirus pandemic further exposes deep fissures in the city's education landscape for low-income students and students of color, it has also further stalled Mayor Bill de Blasio's already-halting efforts to integrate New York City's deeply segregated schools.

In the nine months since a de Blasio-appointed advisory group released its final recommendations on ways to desegregate and in other ways improve city schools, virtually nothing has been said on the subject out of City Hall or the Department of Education beyond a commitment to review them. The mayor said in early September that he would take “the whole school year for deep stakeholder engagement” on the recommendations, but took no public steps in the subsequent six months. Then the pandemic came to New York. The mayor's office is now acknowledging any review effort continues to be on hold as the government's focus and resources are diverted by the pandemic.

The school year and the first chapter of pandemic-induced remote learning is nearing an end, with major admissions policy decisions imminent. Whatever changes de Blasio may advance, he has left many advocates for school desegregation, including even members of his own advisory group, confused and frustrated by the lack of action before the outbreak hit.

"We have not heard back from the Department of Education about whether or not they are going to move forward on any of our recommendations," said Maya Wiley, co-chair of SDAG and former counsel to de Blasio in the mayor’s office, in an interview with Gotham Gazette. "Our position as a group was that we obviously wanted to hear back and hoped for some response on some of the recommendations. We didn't necessarily believe they all would require a full year."

"Yes, it would be better if we had made more progress on the SDAG recs before the pandemic," said City Council Member Brad Lander, a Brooklyn Democrat who has pushed for integration-focused admissions reforms in schools within his district and across the city. "That said, the crisis presents a challenge, which we need to rise to and which creates an opportunity to be more thoughtful about school admissions."

With learning, assessment methods, and application processes all disrupted, de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza have indicated the city will soon offer changes to school admissions processes, raising hopes and fears of the potential opportunity to expedite reform, though it is unclear how ambitious they may be.

"Many things are going to be reevaluated as a result of this crisis,” the mayor said at a press briefing on May 7 when asked about possible changes to school admissions processes, which must move ahead in some form soon. “The whole concept I've been putting forward, that we are not just going to bring New York City back with the status quo that was there before, but we're going to try and make a series of changes that favor equity and fairness. We were already in the process of doing that when it came to school admissions. So, certainly, the screened schools are being reevaluated and we’ll have more to say on that in the future.”

De Blasio did not mention the recommendations put forth in August of last year by his School Diversity Advisory Group (SDAG), a controversial and sweeping set of proposals that he has largely avoided since their release.

"When this pandemic started, we shifted our focus to the success of remote learning and the wellbeing of students and staff,” wrote mayoral spokesperson Jane Meyer by email, in response to questions about the status of the administration's review of the School Diversity Advisory Group’s recommendations. “Our priority right now is the health of New Yorkers and academic success of our students in these extraordinary times, and we’ll continue to adjust policies to meet those goals for the duration of this crisis."

When the group published its final report in August, de Blasio said he would assess the recommendations over the next year. “Now we’re going to really dig deep into what makes sense and by the end of the school year we’ll know where we’re going,” he told reporters a few days after the recommendations were released and as the new school year was starting, citing plans to undertake more community engagement. At the time, de Blasio was in the midst of his four-month campaign for the Democratic nomination for president.

"We are taking a very, very deep dive into what the recommendations have been from the School Diversity Advisory committee," Carranza said at the time.

But the mayor has discussed little publicly since then and the recommendations -- or anything related to school desegregation -- were conspicuously absent from his State of the City address in February, when he outlined his priorities for the year, his next-to-last as mayor, under the theme of “Save Our City.”

De Blasio’s further delay in addressing school segregation in New York City, to the extent that it may be attributed to the pandemic fallout, is another example where the coronavirus crisis not only exacerbates racial inequalities by hitting communities of color harder but also by diminishing the government's overall capacity. But the situation also speaks to the slow pace at which the de Blasio administration has approached a particularly thorny issue that goes to the heart of the mayor's promises to end “the tale of two cities” and create "the fairest big city in America."

New York has among the most segregated schools of any state in the country, with a heavy concentration in New York City. A groundbreaking UCLA study in 2014 found that 19 out of New York City's 32 school districts had 10 percent or less white students, including all of the Bronx and two-thirds of Brooklyn. It showed a correlation between racial segregation in schools and concentrations of poverty.

In 2017, after years of pressure from advocates and elected officials, the mayor announced the "Equity and Excellence for All" plan to improve all schools, especially those predominantly serving students of color and historically lacking investment. Soon after, he empaneled the School Diversity Advisory Group to explore ways to increase “diversity” in city schools, while he studiously avoided the words “segregation” and “integration.”

"We have to improve the quality levels of our public schools and we have to do it in a way that promotes equity – that’s the mission, now – that’s the central mission," he told reporters on June 9, 2017, a few days after the announcing the plan. When pressed on the specific issue of segregation he said: "The quality of education for students is paramount in this discussion. So, when we talk about it, we have to understand, we need any plan to start with the quality of education for all students, including those who have not gotten a fair shake previously."

The group, made up of students, parents, and experts, released two sets of recommendations, one in February 2019, which was largely adopted by the mayor and chancellor, and a second in August, which contained significantly more controversial changes to admissions, districting, and tracking policies.

"Our hope was that it would spur a lot more innovation and creativity, not just out of the Department of Education at the administrative level, but also within school districts and across school districts," Wiley said in the interview.

The recommendations are based on the concept that "more educational opportunity was not a one size fits all," she said, and "a clear roadmap around the kinds of admissions policies that were clearly creating more problems than solutions.”

The final recommendations included a range of small and large proposed solutions to the problems of school segregation and its many negative consequences, the most controversial among them being to limit middle school admissions screening and phasing out "gifted and talented" programs, both shown to favor white and Asian students, and the group recommends replacing G&T tracts with more inclusive schoolwide enrichment models. Another controversial point, redrawing school district lines, gets at the geographic element involved in school segregation, especially for elementary schools.

The proposal received fierce opposition from some parents who have had the means to prioritize stronger school districts when deciding where to live and for years have found a sympathetic ear in the mayor, as well as a number of local elected officials.

Wiley said the big ticket items have come to overshadow simpler, perhaps less-controversial ones.

"Some of these are really obvious and easy to fix," she said. "For example, if you use attendance as an admissions factor, you are going to essentially make it more difficult for low-income students of color to be competitive."

Another issue is disciplinary history. "A student who may have had a disciplinary issue because they spit gum on the floor. Does that mean they don't deserve real consideration and opportunity to get into a good program in middle school or in high school?" she asked. "We conflate a lot of different kinds of disciplinary issues and also the ways it sometimes works against low-income students of color in particular."

According to SDAG's first report in February, 87 percent of New York City public school suspensions are of black and Latino students, despite making up 66 percent of the student population.

Fed up with the administration's silence on desegregation, student-led groups IntegrateNYC and Teens Take Charge, which had been prominent advocates in the lead-up to the mayor announcing the SDAG, organized a school boycott to push de Blasio and Carranza to integrate city schools, including by eliminating admissions screens. The boycott was planned for May 18 to coincide with the 66th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision but was called off because of the pandemic. The groups and their allies have continued to use social media and other avenues to keep the conversation alive.

As the end of the school year approaches and students and parents look ahead to the fall, some advocates and local elected officials have called on the city to embrace innovative redistricting and admissions models that have been piloted in certain districts. The most prominent one is in Brooklyn’s Community School District 15, where in 2018 middle schools eliminated screening and moved to a ranked-choice lottery system with a 52 percent of seats reserved for low-income students, students in temporary housing, and English-language learners. Enrollment data released last November after the first year showed promising results for integration.

"Next fall, as today’s fourth graders and seventh graders start the process of applying to middle and high schools, the Department of Education will need to make significant changes, since so many of these decisions have relied on grades, attendance, and test scores," wrote Lander, who represents parts of Community School District 15 and championed the new system, in a new letter to Carranza. "The admissions changes we made together for middle schools in District 15 last year can serve as a model for how to address middle school admissions for the 2021-22 school year.​"

But Lander argues an emergency pandemic response should not be an invitation to replace thoughtful policymaking. "I don't think this moment is a good moment to make permanent long-term decisions. There is just too much uncertainty, too little opportunity to do good, inclusive public process," he told Gotham Gazette in an interview.

"In terms of where the city is in regards to integration, not enough system-wide action has been taken,” wrote Matt Gonzales, director of the Integration and Innovation Initiative at NYU and at one point a member of the SDAG, by email. “The lack of action on the SDAG recommendations is definitely an indication of this."

"However, if you look at the history of integration efforts in NYC, it is also true that no administration has moved the needle more than the current one. The number of districts and individual schools who've implemented plans has increased," he said.

"We very much applauded the fact that the Department of Education, along with the state, were funding districts to look at how they might integrate their schools," said Wiley. "We thought there should be more of that, so that there was actually support for that kind of innovation."

"The good news is the Department of Education was doing some of that already. We hoped they would do more. Obviously it's a challenging time now," she said.

Gonzales said the pandemic has slowed community planning efforts underway in Community School Districts 13, 16, 28, and 9, "but I am hopeful those resume when society resumes."

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Pandemic Reinforces De Blasio's Inaction on School Desegregation Recommendations Thu, 21 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
First Citywide Participatory Budgeting Program on Chopping Block Because of Coronavirus council cojo

Participatory budgeting was due for a big increase (photo: Jeff Reed/City Council)

A new citywide participatory budgeting program, whereby New Yorkers directly decide how to spend city budget money, was meant to be in place by July 1 but may end up being severely limited as the city suffers from the coronavirus pandemic and its multifaceted fallout. 

Creating the participatory budgeting program was one of the core duties for the New York City Civic Engagement Commission, which was established in the city Charter through a ballot referendum in 2018 that was overwhelmingly supported by voters.

The new program would be based on the New York City Council’s annual participatory budgeting cycle, wherein participating Council members voluntarily decide to allocate at least $1 million in capital funding to a process allowing their constituents to suggest and vote on projects to receive that funding. Capital funds are used for public infrastructure projects like improvements to parks, libraries, and schools. Out of 51 Council Members, 32 of them implemented the program in their districts last year. 

The Civic Engagement Commission was meant to take participatory budgeting citywide. It created an advisory committee, which, along with several advocacy groups, called on the mayor in February to set aside a $500 million budget for the new program. His preliminary budget released in January contained no funds for it, and neither did his executive budget proposal that came out last month. In between, of course, the city became home to the worst COVID-19 outbreak in the country.

It’s unlikely that the new participatory budgeting program will receive anything close to what advocates had wanted. The coronavirus has decimated the economy and the city faces a $7.4 billion tax revenue loss by the end of the 2021 fiscal year. To balance the budget, the mayor already decreased planned spending by $6 billion and pulled $4 billion out of reserves in crafting his $89 billion executive budget, which is now the subject of City Council hearings as the mayor and Council head toward the July 1 deadline for a new city budget.

In an April 7 meeting of the Civic Engagement Commission, even before the executive budget was released, commission chair and executive director Dr. Sarah Sayeed conceded that the participatory budgeting program’s budget may be meager. 

“As everyone probably will understand, the city is really prioritizing needs that relate directly to the public health emergency right now,” she said. “Particularly for the executive budget. I think given all the uncertainty it's going to be tough to really make a solid decision on participatory budgeting until this health crisis stabilizes.” 

There’s no telling, however, whether the pandemic will abate before the end of June. Nonetheless, the Civic Engagement Commission has continued to meet with the participatory budgeting advisory committee and is in talks with the Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget, Sayeed said. “We're going to keep pressing on that front. However we're recommending, given all the uncertainty, we're looking to do a scaled-back pilot program in the first year and we are working with the advisory committee on program design,” she said. 

Council Member Brad Lander, a Brooklyn Democrat who first proposed the idea of a civic engagement commission in legislation before de Blasio created a charter revision commission that put it on the ballot, proposed an alternative program that can employ expense and operational funds, at relatively low cost, instead of capital funds. “What I would love to see is a COVID response and recovery-focused pilot,” Lander said in a phone interview. 

In his district, he has overseen a participatory program that distributes between $1-1.5 million in capital funds and a smaller pot of $50,000 in expense funds that has yielded “extraordinarily creative ideas,” he said, such as funding a sewing circle for domestic violence survivors, a study of the effects of climate change on bats in Prospect Park, and a menstrual equity and outreach program proposed by a middle school student. 

“What it seems to me would make great sense is, alongside the Council's capital [participatory budgeting] program...let’s do a program that gives New Yorkers an opportunity to participate in the COVID recovery by coming up with some creative community-sourced ideas, developing them, and then getting to vote on some of them,” Lander said. 

It would also give some degree of control back to New Yorkers at a time when so much of their lives, including their ability to vote in upcoming elections, has been disrupted by the pandemic. “I think amongst many other problems that we have right now, disengagement from democratic decision-making is definitely one of them,” Lander said.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

First Citywide Participatory Budgeting Program on Chopping Block Because of Coronavirus Tue, 12 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Jails, Affordable Housing and Other Capital Projects Delayed as City Grapples with Cash Crunch man bx skyline

New York City building projects are on the chopping block (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

The coronavirus fallout has created a severe cash crunch for New York City, forcing Mayor Bill de Blasio to slash his proposed operating budget for the next fiscal year by $6 billion, with more cuts likely before adoption. At the same time, the city’s cash flow problems mean that its capital plan, a four-year, $67.2 billion agenda that pays for crucial, long-term infrastructure like schools and roads, will also need modification and could mean some major changes to how the city will build for its needs over the next several years.

Over this and next fiscal years, the city intends to spend far fewer funds – about $3.1 billion in fiscal year 2020 and $1 billion in fiscal year 2021 – on building new schools, replacing Rikers Island facilities with borough-based jails, affordable housing preservation and development, new police facilities and equipment, and energy efficiency infrastructure. These cuts to planned spending change the timelines for major infrastructure projects, meaning additional leeway for de Blasio’s successor to shape the city’s capital plan when a new mayor takes office in 2022. 

There are several aspects to the complicated capital budgeting process, including the ten-year capital strategy that assesses infrastructure needs for the next decade; the capital budget itself, which includes funding that cannot be exceeded for the coming fiscal year and the three years after it; and the capital commitment plan, which details the actual amount that will be spent on agency projects. Updated commitment plans are released with each iteration of the mayor’s budget.

Most capital spending is financed with long-term borrowing through the sale of bonds, which requires regular payment of debt service (paying back the borrowing and interest incurred), which is included in the annual expense budget. The city’s debt service for the current fiscal year was roughly 11.5% of annual revenue, which is well below the 15% limit that fiscal watchdogs and the comptroller believe should not be exceeded in any given year.

In de Blasio’s executive budget proposal released earlier this month, the administration did not make significant reductions in capital commitments for the current and next fiscal year. Mostly, the administration moved several capital projects into the out-years of the ten-year capital program, between fiscal years 2024 and 2029. 

Some of the changes follow the general pattern of capital budget planning. The city will often move funds to subsequent years if a project does not get off the ground as intended. The city also had a habit of front-loading projects into the first two years of the capital program even though most took several more years to complete, something the City Council pushed back against, achieving some adjustments in this year’s versions. 

Nonetheless, there were some notable changes to capital spending in the executive budget such as on affordable housing, as first reported by Politico New York, and changes to expected spending on the borough-based jails plan. 

Planned capital spending was reduced for the Department of Correction, which was intended to be used for the construction of four new borough-based jails facilities to replace Rikers Island jails. The $140 million budgeted in the current fiscal year was zeroed out, and in the next fiscal year (FY21), the city expects to spend only $196 million, as opposed to $392 million that was allocated earlier. 

The capital budget for the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) -- which runs the city’s housing programs, including the mayor’s 12-year, 300,000-unit affordable housing program -- was shrunk from $1.48 billion to $902 million in the current fiscal year (FY20) and from $1.19 billion to $741 million next fiscal year. This funding goes toward subsidizing affordable housing, both newly-built and preservation of rent-regulated deals that are close to expiring, as well as supportive housing and more.

On Tuesday de Blasio called the changes to the housing plan “sad” and “horrible” but necessary, and promised that the housing plan would still be completed down the road. 

The Department of Environmental Protection capital budget is seeing some fluctuation, but an overall increase in the short-term, falling from $2.3 billion to $2.27 billion in the current fiscal year and increasing from $2.37 billion to $2.72 billion in the 2021 fiscal year. The Department of Sanitation saw a drop from $463 million to $264 million in its capital budget for the current fiscal year, but will see its FY21 allocation increase from $522 million to $690 million.

The Department of Education will also see a substantial cut this year and next, from about $4.4 billion to $3.9 billion in the current fiscal and then again from $3.6 billion to $3.22 billion in the next fiscal year. Among the things on the chopping block was planned building of new schools, which reduced from $683 million to $458 million in FY20 and $1.28 billion to $1.05 billion in FY21; spending on “rehabilitation of school components” was also reduced from $926 million to $751 million in FY20 and from $510 million to $379 million in FY21. 

Even the NYPD, which has never struggled for funds under the mayor, was not spared. Its FY20 capital spending projection fell from $540 million to $264 million, while its FY21 spending increased from $339 million to $420 million. The shifts include less planned spending on facilities and vehicles.

One of the bigger capital plan cuts is in planned courts spending. The city will only spend $18.2 million this fiscal year, a drastic cut from the $288 million it had planned largely to reconstruct and renovate court facilities. In FY21, spending is also slated to decrease from $539 million in the preliminary budget to $406 million in the executive budget.

Under Speaker Corey Johnson, the Council has taken a particular interest in the capital budget and has pushed the administration to make more realistic projections for the actual amounts of money that will go into projects each year. Johnson created a subcommittee dedicated to the capital budget, which is chaired by Council Member Vanessa Gibson of the Bronx.

“Due to the COVID pandemic, the current priority is to provide support for New Yorkers and continue city services as millions are now relying on social safety net programs to support themselves and their families during the COVID crisis,” Gibson said in a statement. “The capital process will be delayed to focus on health and safety projects to provide relief for residents, but I will be working with Speaker Corey Johnson and Finance Chair, Daniel Dromm to monitor the situation and ensure that our City Council priority capital projects remain at the forefront of our negotiations.”

That also echoes budget experts from the Citizens Budget Commission and the Manhattan Institute who have repeatedly urged the mayor to streamline and reform the capital budgeting process. There has been some progress over the last few years but not nearly enough, they say. 

“CBC has been saying for a while that the capital budget is too large, and the timing of it is unrealistic, and we've urged them to make sure that it's better targeted,” said Sean Campion, senior research associate at Citizens Budget Commission. 

Part of the issues around capital investments currently stem from uncertainty that the coronavirus has caused in the construction industry and for interest rates for government bonds. The city also has no clarity on whether it will be able to meet its debt service obligations – debt incurred by issuing bonds that is paid on the operating budget side of the ledger – as the federal tax deadline was pushed and revenues coming into the city are delayed. Officials in the city and state are waiting with bated breath (and aggressive advocacy) for the next round of federal stimulus funds that they hope will replace many billions in lost revenue. 

When de Blasio was asked by a reporter on Tuesday specifically about the cuts to HPD, he insisted as much. “This is about slowing down some investments and postponing some things,” he said at his daily coronavirus briefing. 

He added, “[W]hen you think about the budget dynamics, we were dealing with suddenly a massive budget gap. We were dealing with a cash flow crisis on top of that. Anytime that you book a capital project, it has ramifications for the budget. Obviously for the expense side of the budget too because of debt service. We had to slow down a lot of capital investments just to be able to make sure we could pay the bills now. And it's really a horrible situation, but that's what we had to do. But the plan is intact and it will be implemented in the future.”

The federal stimulus, he said, would determine the city’s fiscal future. “There'll be tough choices any way you slice it, but the stimulus, if it actually takes into account what has happened here, all the costs, human and otherwise that have been inflicted on New York City and all that's been lost – and including first and foremost the human loss but then, of course, the horrible impact on the budget that's used to provide services to people – if it's really, really heard and understood and acted on, that stimulus could be a lifesaver for us. And if it's not, we're going to be in an even tougher situation, but that's going to then really govern everything else we have to decide in June.”

Campion and Nicole Gelinas, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, said the city needs to focus on routine maintenance work, ensuring that the infrastructure that undergirds the city – its bridges, tunnels, streets, and sewers – do not degrade. They also noted that the city is not close to its debt limit yet, so it should be able to cover capital costs through borrowing. “There's no immediate crunch,” Campion said. 

“It could present an opportunity to focus on priority investments, things that need to get done in the short-term, before focusing on longer term resiliency or rebuilding,” he added.

Gelinas said the city’s debt could rise out of control in the out-years if interest rates on long-term bonds go up, though the rates are in flux as the Federal Reserve announced that it is buying up to $500 billion in municipal bonds. Nevertheless, Gelinas said the situation should prompt some introspection from the administration about whether there are more cost-effective options for big infrastructure investments.

For instance, on the jails plan, with its cost reaching as high as $889 million in fiscal year 2022 and $2.1 billion in 2023. “I think they're really going to have to rethink whether they can do this or whether they're going to have to build new jails more cheaply at Rikers Island,” she said. “At least compare the costs of the two and then decide.”

“As we go into deeper rounds of cuts, we just have to protect core tax-generating infrastructure,” she insisted, pointing to the rebuilding of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE) as a project that shouldn’t be abandoned. The city will have to push non-essential projects to later years, she said, holding out hope on a federal infrastructure package that could come to the rescue and spur job creation and economic growth. 

Council Member Brad Lander, a Democrat who is running for comptroller in 2021, took that point further, saying the city should take advantage of the fact that it can receive federal stimulus money and should make sure key capital investments are not reduced, particularly if they can boost jobs in the short-term. “When you're doing that, you are investing in the future. You are saying, ‘In order to make investments that are critical at this moment, we're going to incur debt that will have to be paid back in the future,’” he said. If the city commits to investing in affordable housing, it would also build confidence in the market, Lander said.  

Lander insisted that what the city should not do is borrow funds to balance the operational budget, which would require permission from the state Legislature. The mayor has suggested that measure as a last resort. “That's like taking out a loan to buy your groceries,” said Lander. “It's not good to take out a loan to buy your groceries because you’re still going to need to buy groceries next month or next year, and then you're going to be paying for your groceries twice.”

Council Member Helen Rosenthal, a Manhattan Democrat and also a comptroller candidate, expressed a different opinion. Rosenthal said the city should be seeking that borrowing authority from Albany right now. “The fundamental problem right now is we don't have any cash,” she said. “The right thing to do is to borrow money and continue to push Congress and the federal government to get local aid.”

As someone who previously worked at the city’s budget office, Rosenthal noted that the changes to the capital budget are simply routine, with lump sum funding being shifted from one fiscal year to the next, and that it’s too soon to tell if specific projects are going to be left on the cutting floor, and said that’s not really what the focus should be right now.

“If we can’t feed people today, we should be borrowing money to make sure we’re feeding people,” she said.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Jails, Affordable Housing and Other Capital Projects Delayed as City Grapples with Cash Crunch Wed, 29 Apr 2020 04:00:00 +0000
To Save Our Safety Net, Continue the Regional Coronavirus Approach Governors Cuomo Murphy Lamont

Gov. Cuomo with neighboring governors (photo: Governor's Office)

Tri-state governors have coordinated to close bars. Now they must coordinate to close tax loopholes.

Governor Cuomo has gotten a lot right in addressing the COVID-19 health crisis in the past few weeks. But at the state budget deadline, he has been far too willing to shred the social safety net that millions of New Yorkers rely on, and so many more will need as the economic crisis worsens.

One thing he got right could point the way to repair some of that damage.

Cuomo saw right away the need to get New York working closely with New Jersey and Connecticut. The governor quickly brought the tri-state region together to shut down bars and recreational businesses, and to collaborate on a regional approach to confront the coronavirus crisis.

That’s no small feat. Regional coordination has long been the elusive dream of good government gurus, seeking a saner approach to transportation and economic development. President Trump appears so threatened by this new tri-state alliance that he threatened to quarantine us off from the rest of the country.

Now that this tri-state partnership exists, we must use it for more. A regional approach can help us replace lost revenue and rise to the recovery challenges we face.

As New York State looked ahead to its new fiscal year, a $6 billion budget deficit was blown wide open by the pandemic, with tax revenue projected to drop by as much as $15 billion. Given the halt of so much economic activity and mass layoffs, Connecticut and New Jersey face similar problems. The federal relief package offers scant help. We must keep fighting for more, but it’s not likely to be anywhere near enough.

To address the budget gap, Governor Cuomo has pushed reductions to health care and public education funding (including steep cuts to already diminished CUNY and SUNY schools), and in aid to cities and counties. In the midst of the crisis, his Medicaid Redesign Team proposed a $2.5 billion cut to the projected state Medicaid budget, including $400 million that would have gone to hospitals just as they battle coronavirus.

Some cuts are necessary, but these cuts to our core safety net programs will be devastating to the very people hardest hit by the COVID-19 crisis. The coronavirus pandemic has turned pre-existing gaps into gulfs. Those who were already on the margins, served by underfunded hospitals, or living paycheck to paycheck, are hit hardest by the public health and economic catastrophe. Undercutting their health care and education is not the answer.

Revenues are going to take a big hit, though, as income and sales taxes plummet. So we need new ways to raise funds from those who have plenty, rather than cutting services for those who did not have enough even before this crisis.

As he has been in the past, Governor Cuomo has been reticent to increase taxes on the wealthiest New Yorkers, or even to close tax loopholes.

But his own regional response offers a new, smart way to do so. In the past, one concern he has voiced about such policies has been that businesses or wealthy individuals will flee New York State to avoid any new tax policy, thus depriving us of even more revenue. After all, it is not that hard to commute to work on Wall Street from Greenwich rather than from Scarsdale. Or to move your business address to Jersey City.

One change that advocates have long sought is to close the “carried interest” loophole. Because of this loophole, the income of private equity and hedge fund managers is taxed at half the rate of other taxpayers (their income is taxed at the “capital gains” rate, lower than the income tax rate, even though this is not investment money that the managers have put at any risk).

Two years ago, Cuomo proposed to close this loophole, calling it a “fairness fix” that could bring in over $1 billion to state coffers. But there was one hitch: it would only go into effect if neighboring states would adopt it as well. Sadly, they did not.

The regional compact that the governor has established to confront the COVID-19 crisis is a great opportunity to revive this effort. Just as our states have coordinated to close bars and restaurants, we can coordinate to close this loophole.

The governors should take a similar approach to coordinate on other proposals to tax the region’s very wealthiest, such as a tax on wealth over $1 billion, annual income over $5 million, or an increase in corporate tax rates. Yes, Wall Street has taken a hit. But the top 1% in our region are not facing food insecurity, eviction, and homelessness.

Given the likely need to reopen this budget as the contours of economic and fiscal challenges become clearer, and the pain of the cuts is felt, it is not too late to consider these tax policy changes. In fact, it is right on time.

Raising revenue to fill budget gaps and provide essential services is not the only place where new models of regional partnership are needed. Governor Cuomo railed at the federal relief effort passed last week, harping on the relatively smaller pot of direct aid for New York state and local governments. But that’s not the only place the federal response fell short.

Our region has flourished over the past decades as a result of the work and creativity of immigrants. But many of those very families (undocumented people, mixed-status families, and even many immigrants with legal status) will be denied federal relief. They will not be eligible for the $1,200 emergency checks heading out to the majority of Americans, or for the expanded disaster unemployment insurance. Without help, they will soon be facing very real crises, unable to pay for food or rent.

Our region’s economy is built on the labor and the spending of these workers and their families, who work in restaurants, clean buildings, deliver food, take care of the elderly and the young, and much much more. We cannot afford to leave them behind.

We need a regional approach both to make up the budget shortfall and to put money where it is urgently needed right now: in our hospitals, and in the pockets of the most vulnerable families.

We will all feel the squeeze of this crisis. But those who will suffer the most are those whose health insurance, education, and social services have been put on the chopping block. Using a regional approach to raise revenues from those who have more than enough is both the smart and compassionate path forward.

Brad Lander is a New York City Council Member from Brooklyn, and the Council’s Deputy Leader for Policy. He is a candidate for New York City Comptroller in 2021. On Twitter @bradlander.

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

To Save Our Safety Net, Continue the Regional Coronavirus Approach Wed, 01 Apr 2020 04:00:00 +0000
New York City Must Act Immediately to Strengthen Our Nonprofit Social Safety Net social services food pantries

Amid coronavirus outbreak, the social safety net must hold (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)

Daily home-delivered meals for home-bound seniors. Case-management to help make sure people have medicine and essential supplies, and reduce the harm of social isolation. Emergency food for people who are unemployed or homeless. Child care for those who still have to go to work.

All services we utterly need right now. And all provided by New York City’s remarkable network of not-for-profit human service providers.

These providers are essential to our city, as Mayor de Blasio recognized Tuesday when he declared about 40,000 nonprofit human services workers as "essential city employees," so they can receive child care as part of the emergency system the Department of Education and other city agencies are setting up to start next week.

Unfortunately, the City is not yet enabling these human service not-for-profits to step up to meet current crisis-time needs. With rapid action by City Hall, these safety net organizations can become an essential and creative part of our emergency response to the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19). Without rapid action, they will become part of the crisis, as their employees swell the ranks of the unemployed.

Here’s what the City needs to do right away:

Don’t let the safety net fail
Commit to continue to pay the existing contracts of not-for-profit social service agencies through the end of the fiscal year (June 30), whether or not every service continues during the crisis, and stop recouping cash advances that were provided.

Advance bridge loans to cover cash flow. The City’s Department of Small Business Services deserves credit for rapidly establishing an emergency loan fund for small businesses, but it does not include these larger not-for-profit human service organizations.

This will allow the not-for-profits to continue what work they can, like meal delivery, grab-and-go soup kitchens and food pantries, and case management by phone. And it will also prevent thousands of social service workers from losing their income, even if the after-school youth program or senior center they usually work at is closed.

We’ve already allocated the funds for this work, so there’s no need for the workers who provide it to apply for already-strapped unemployment benefits. We’re going to need many of these people for other tasks. And even for those who stay home, whether because of their own or others’ health, this is a low-income workforce. Losing weeks of pay means they can’t pay for rent, food, and medicine.

Clarify what’s essential
The City needs to provide guidance on the essential services these organizations should provide. Existing programs to deliver meals to seniors are a no-brainer. These services should be expanded to include seniors who usually go to a senior center, and to other low-income households that can’t get food right now.

Not-for-profit child care centers need guidance too. They should either be looped into the enrichment center network that the Department of Education is creating, with the guidance and materials needed to do it, or instructed to close.

We’re going to need to continue to provide food pantry and grab-and-go soup kitchens, since we still have thousands of homeless New Yorkers living on the streets. And sadly, the ranks of people without enough food is going to grow as workers are laid off or put on unpaid leave from hurting or closed businesses.

Encourage thoughtful creativity
Over the next few weeks, we’re going to need massive amounts of creativity to meet rapidly-evolving needs. As our hospitals become overwhelmed, we will need an expanded healthcare support workforce. As social isolation sets in, we’ll need a new system of support to help vulnerable seniors (and all of us).

Our human service not-for-profit organizations can act quickly to fill these gaps, as they did after Hurricane Sandy. My office is already working with Heights and Hills (an organization serving older adults in Brooklyn) to get volunteers calling hundreds of home-bound seniors on their lists to see how we can help them. This kind of work can be expanded to help fill in the gaps in our safety net, as best we can under these emergency circumstances.

Let’s empower and encourage New York City’s not-for-profit organizations to be creative and flexible in the anxious days ahead.

Finally, in addition to contract commitments, clear guidance, and flexibility, our not-for-profit organizations need a clear point-of-contact in the City administration, a “not-for-profit czar,” with access to senior leadership and the ability to make decisions. They should convene daily calls with human service leaders to help stand up the emergency networks we need. Crisis leadership that is clear, flexible, and inspiring can help unlock an enormous amount of good.

The COVID-19 crisis is exposing massive gaps in our social safety net. But we are blessed with a creative and resilient network of human service providers, in every neighborhood of the city, that can step up to the challenge at this urgent moment. Let’s not let it fail.

Brad Lander is a New York City Council Member from Brooklyn, and the former executive director of the Fifth Avenue Committee, a not-for-profit affordable housing and community development not-for-profit organization. On Twitter @BradLander.

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New York City Must Act Immediately to Strengthen Our Nonprofit Social Safety Net Tue, 17 Mar 2020 04:00:00 +0000
New Bill Would Close Loophole for Reporting on Independent Expenditures to Influence Ballot Referenda ballot ref

Brad Lander and others in support of ranked-choice voting (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

City Council Member Brad Lander, a Brooklyn Democrat, is introducing legislation on Thursday that would close a loophole in city campaign finance law that currently allows groups to hide their donors when they try to influence voting on a ballot referendum.

The city’s campaign finance law is fairly robust, having been updated repeatedly over the years to reduce the effect of big money on politics, including independent expenditure groups that seek to sway elections. But the law only requires independent expenditure committees to disclose their contributors to the Campaign Finance Board when they spend money to favorably or negatively affect a candidate’s campaign for elected office. The law does not require that for ballot measures, such as the five that were approved by voters in November of last year.

The five ballot questions, created by the 2019 New York City Charter Revision Commission, encompassed 19 specific proposals related to issues of police oversight, land use policy, civic engagement, budget procedures, and election reform. Three outside groups together spent nearly $1.3 million to affect how New Yorkers voted on some of those questions, but the sources of that money do not need to be disclosed under current law, something Lander’s bill seeks to address.

The vast majority of that spending, about $1.1 million, came from the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting NYC, which supported the first ballot question that established ranked-choice voting in some municipal elections. The committee was backed by, among many others, good government groups that have generally been supportive of election and campaign finance reform. Common Cause New York, the leading group behind the ranked-choice voting push, supports the legislation and was involved in drafting its language, according to Lander’s office.

The New York City Council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus spent $5,000 to oppose that first question. Another independent expenditure committee associated with the Police Benevolent Association, the union representing rank-and-file police officers, spent a total of $158,406 in opposition to every ballot question. Most of that spending, $139,870, was directed at the second question, which gave greater powers to the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), a watchdog agency that investigates allegations of abuse of power and wrongdoing by officers.  

None of the groups were required to report how they had raised their funds and from whom. Taking notice of that loophole, which was also criticized by the New York Daily News editorial board, Council Member Lander told Gotham Gazette soon after the election that he intended to introduce a bill to amend it.

“In 2014, on the heels of the Supreme Court’s disastrous Citizens United decision, we created the strongest disclosure law for independent expenditure spending on behalf of candidates,” he said in a statement this week. “We’ve already seen evidence that it is working to reduce opaque spending to promote or oppose candidates. Now, we’re taking the next step to bring the same transparency to ballot propositions on the other side of the ballot.”

Lander’s bill would require any independent expenditure committee that spends more than $1,000 on a candidate or ballot referendum to disclose the expenditure to the New York City Campaign Finance Board. It would also require the identification of any individual who gives more than $1,000 to an independent expenditure committee and that a committee that spends more than $5,000 in the year before an election to impact a candidacy or ballot measure disclose the entities that contributed to it, as well as the “owners, partners, board members and officers” of those entities.

It also mandates the disclosure of the identity of any individual who gives $25,000 or more to an entity that contributes more than $50,000 to an independent expenditure committee. The disclosure requirement would also extend to literature and election ads. The bill would take effect on January 1, 2021.

Campaign Finance Board Executive Director Amy Loprest applauded the bill. “New York City’s disclosure laws are the strongest in the country, and this legislation will mean that voters have full transparency when independent groups try to influence the outcome of a ballot initiative,” she said in a statement.

Alex Camarda, senior policy advisor of Reinvent Albany, another good government group that supported popular passage of ranked-choice voting, said in an email, “We support making the donors to campaigns regarding ballot proposals more transparent, and appreciate Councilmember Lander focusing attention on this gap in the city's campaign finance laws.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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New Bill Would Close Loophole for Reporting on Independent Expenditures to Influence Ballot Referenda Wed, 26 Feb 2020 05:00:00 +0000