Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/369 Thu, 16 Jul 2020 14:56:20 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Coronavirus Crash Prompts Renewed Calls for New York Divestment from Fossil Fuels, But Comptroller Stands Pat https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9354-coronavirus-crash-calls-new-york-pension-divestment-from-fossil-fuel-stocks-comptroller-dinapoli-climate-change https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9354-coronavirus-crash-calls-new-york-pension-divestment-from-fossil-fuel-stocks-comptroller-dinapoli-climate-change divest ny fos

A protest to push for New York pension system divestment from fossil fuel stocks (photo: @350)


The oil and gas industries are experiencing significant upheaval as the coronavirus pandemic decimates economies across the globe. The price of crude oil in the United States temporarily fell below $0 per barrel for the first time ever last month, prompting renewed energy among activists and elected officials in New York who want to rid the state pension fund of all investments in the fossil fuel industry.

But the one person they must convince, State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, has remained steadfast that the stocks remain good investments, though he's made a number of concessions, investing in more renewable energy companies and studying options around divestment.

In recent years, as the threat of climate change becomes evermore urgent and parts of the world have made moves away from fossil fuels, New York State has passed sweeping energy sector reforms and set goals and regulations to transition towards renewable sources of energy. 

But the New York State Common Retirement Fund, the public pension fund for over a million current and retired New York employees, continues to invest heavily in fossil fuel company stocks. Currently worth $210.5 billion, the fund had more than $13 billion invested in fossil fuel companies at the end of March last year, according to an analysis by 350.org, an international climate change advocacy movement that has been at the forefront of the push to get public entities to divest from fossil fuels. The group’s report found that, in the last year, the pension fund has lost more than $1.5 billion in value in its investments in 16 oil and gas companies, a trend that they said is unlikely to be reversed even after the coronavirus pandemic passes. 

As the sole custodian of the pension fund, Comptroller DiNapoli, a Democrat who has held the seat since 2007, has taken steps towards investments in fighting climate change through the pension fund. In June of last year, he released his Climate Action Plan, which aimed to double the pension fund’s investment in sustainable climate solutions from $10 billion to $20 billion over ten years, and to promote climate risk management and assessments in the companies under the pension portfolio, among other steps.

DiNapoli has resisted calls for divesting the fund from the fossil fuel industry, even as some New York City public pension officials have moved aggressively toward divestment. DiNapoli has consistently argued that fossil fuel industry investments continue to produce sound returns, satisfying his number one obligation to retirees, and that he can be an activist investor and push companies to adopt more environmentally beneficial policies.

“Climate’s a big issue and just selling stock in fossil fuel companies is not gonna solve it,” he said in a general election debate in 2018 when he was running for reelection. “[W]e have to go through a societal change and for now, in the short run, we still are making money from the oil and gas stocks.” 

Even after the value of oil went negative in April, DiNapoli indicated no change in his approach. “Our position remains the same on divestment,” said Jennifer Freeman, a DiNapoli spokesperson, in an email. “Across the board, industries have been hurt by COVID-19. We continue to move forward on our Climate Action Plan. No developments that we'd comment on.”

DiNapoli’s arguments don’t hold water for activists, who point out that fossil fuels have been a bad financial investment for years overall. The fund’s investments in companies that use fracking to extract fossil fuels are also seen as particularly hypocritical in a state where the governor banned the practice five years ago and with the Legislature codified it into law in this year’s budget. 

“Yes, divest for moral reasons, but my goodness, you really should be divesting for financial reasons,” said Mark Dunlea, co-founder of New York’s Green Party, who ran against DiNapoli in 2018 on the single issue of fossil fuel divestment. 

“When you have world leaders saying, ‘We have to stop using fossil fuels, whether it's five years from now or 15 years from now’...That's not a viable business model moving forward,” he said about maintaining those investments.

In recent weeks, activists and elected officials have escalated their push for the Fossil Fuel Divestment Act, sponsored by Manhattan State Senator Liz Krueger and Brooklyn Assemblymember Felix Ortiz, both Democrats, that would require the comptroller to divest the pension fund from major oil, gas, and coal production companies over five years.

The New York Youth Climate Leaders, a statewide youth coalition, held a virtual lobby day on April 21 ahead of Earth Day, speaking with nearly 40 members of the Legislature in virtual and phone conferences. They blasted out to lawmakers and on social media a video that features pensioners and high school students supporting the divestment call.   

Both Ortiz and Krueger have pledged to push for the bill’s passage in the limited time remaining in the Legislative session this year, though most legislation has been put on the backburner because of the pressing conditions imposed by the coronavirus outbreak. 

“I think the timing cannot be better in these horrible circumstances,” said Assemblymember Ortiz, in a phone interview, noting that the adverse impacts of climate disproportionately harm communities of color. “A tough time can give us the opportunity to bring vision solutions...I think we need to make sure that we continue to move the ball forward and continue to embrace this conversation.”

The Senate version of the bill recently gained majority support in the chamber, with 33 sponsors; the Assembly version has 52 sponsors and would need 76 in total for a majority. Even Governor Andrew Cuomo has supported divestment since 2017, though Cuomo has not been especially vocal about divestment nor taken up the Divestment Act in his lengthy annual agendas. The governor has taken his own efforts to pursue similar measures by the parts of state government he controls, made the aforementioned fracking moves, and worked with the Legislature to pass the sweeping Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act.

Krueger said though the bill has not passed, there have been similar models followed in other jurisdictions. “So we are moving the world while we're perhaps not speeding ahead of the rest of the world,” she said in a phone interview. Just the discussions around the bill and the pension fund’s investment in “stranded assets” like oil and gas that are slowly losing value have been effective in pushing DiNapoli towards their goal, she said. 

As Krueger noted, DiNapoli hasn’t completely ignored the advocacy efforts. In January of this year, DiNapoli announced that he would review whether 27 coal companies that the fund has invested in are moving towards more sustainable business models. “Investors who fail to face the risks and seize the opportunities presented by climate change put their portfolios in jeopardy,” DiNapoli said. “We are assessing minimum standards for transition readiness at coal mining companies first, because they face the greatest risk as the world turns to cleaner and renewable energies. If a particular company is not ready to move away from its reliance on thermal coal mining for profits, we may divest our holdings in that company.” The review was expected to last several months. 

“I would say it's probably five years too late for the coal industry,” said Richard Brooks, campaign coordinator with 350.org, who otherwise praised the move. “But if he's going to continue to do these reviews, he needs to accelerate these reviews and do it across all of the energy sector.”

Krueger echoed Brooks’ urgency. “If you look at [DiNapoli’s] handling of our pension funds, you can't really say he's not paying attention to the issue. He just doesn't want the Legislature to be able to insert itself into what he defines as his authority,” she said. “And he thinks that he is moving us in exactly what direction we should be going. I don't disagree with him on the direction, I disagree with him on the speed at which we are getting there.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Coronavirus Crash Prompts Renewed Calls for New York Divestment from Fossil Fuels, But Comptroller Stands Pat Mon, 04 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
A Cruel Surrogacy Proposal That New York Must Reject https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9191-cruel-surrogacy-proposal-new-york-reject-better https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9191-cruel-surrogacy-proposal-new-york-reject-better gov cuomo rally

There are competing proposals to legalize surrogacy in NY (photo: Governor's Office)


Imagine having a baby but then being told you have to wait eight days before securing custody of your child. It’s bizarre and cruel, yet it’s an idea that’s actually being floated in Albany right now as a “compromise” to finally end New York State’s outdated ban on gestational surrogacy.

As a three-time cancer survivor in my thirties who went through three rounds of fertility preservation before treatment, this is heartbreaking. I choose to live in New York for many reasons, one of them is the progressiveness of our laws. We are leaders, but not on surrogacy. Now, it’s essential we catch up, and there’s nothing progressive about a bill separating newborn babies from their biological parents just days after birth.

During my cancer recovery, I was shocked to learn New York is one of only three states banning surrogacy. This is an issue that hits home for me and the women I work with who have also survived cancer. For many cancer patients, infertility is an enormously emotional and physical side effect of life saving treatment. This can mean a significant decrease in number and quality of eggs, as well as the inability to carry a child to term. In many cases, the only possibility for having a biological child is through a partnership with a woman acting as surrogate.

Last year, Governor Cuomo, signed FAFTA (the Fair Access to Fertility Treatment Act) into law.  Part of this mandate (that went into effect January 1, 2020) requires private insurance companies to provide fertility preservation medical treatments for people facing iatrogenic infertility, that is, infertility caused by a medical intervention, such as radiation, medication, or surgery. The next obvious step is to figure out a solution that helps these women become mothers after their cancer chapter has closed.

Currently, New Yorkers in this situation are forced to go out of state to find a surrogate. A bill that would end that ban, the Child-Parent Security Act, has the strong support of Governor Cuomo and passed the state Senate last year before dying in the Assembly. It is under serious consideration again this year, with the governor prioritizing it in his budget proposal.

Now a new bill is being sold as a “compromise” that while technically legalizing surrogacy would also effectively eliminate its practice in New York. This means an exacerbating ‘well we tried’ response from people who don’t take New Yorkers’ needs seriously.

The so-called compromise bill (S7717), sponsored by Senator Liz Krueger and by Assemblymembers Didi Barrett and Danny O’Donnell, would establish that after a child is born via surrogacy, the surrogate (who has no genetic relationship to the child) and the intended parents (who in most cases do have a genetic relationship to the child) would share parenting responsibilities for up to eight days. The surrogate could take the child home if she chose to. And if she petitioned the court within those eight days, she would automatically become the legal parent of the child with no recourse for the intended parents. In order for the intended parents to become legal parents, they would need to submit to medical evaluations, home studies, and background checks. Last I checked, these are not requirements for those with the ability to become mothers the traditional way. 

Think about how cruel this proposal is for women struggling with infertility, including cancer patients. Imagine having to undergo treatment, doing everything possible to preserve fertility options, recovering from cancer, creating an embryo through IVF, and ultimately partnering with a woman who will carry your child to birth as a surrogate. And then still having to worry every day of the pregnancy that at the end of the process, the woman who is serving as a surrogate will change her mind and keep your child. It’s frightening, cruel, and just outright wrong. 

It also reflects a lack of understanding about what surrogates want. Under professional practices in the United States, every surrogate already has their own biological children and have undergone careful medical and psychological screening. These women know exactly what they’re engaging in – they’re not pursuing surrogacy to have another child, but to help a family that cannot have children on their own.

Conversely, the Child-Parent Security Act would go far in helping those struggling with infertility in New York build a family. This is where New York can establish itself as a leader once again, now as it relates to surrogacy. In addition to legalizing compensated gestational surrogacy agreements, the legislation would create peace of mind for intended parents and establish the strongest protections in the nation for women serving as surrogates. Critically, the legislation would create a Surrogates’ Bill of Rights in New York, ensuring that women serving as surrogates have the right to make all medical decisions regarding their health and the pregnancy, the right to independent legal counsel, the right to comprehensive health insurance, and the right to access counseling.

Given the additional pain and trauma Senator Krueger’s proposal would put cancer patients seeking to become parents through surrogacy through, I hope she will consider withdrawing it and choosing instead to support the Child-Parent Security Act. New York must legalize surrogacy agreements and I applaud Senator Krueger for recognizing that need. But it is critical that we do so in a way that does not create additional trauma on intended parents – who have already gone through so much – and that protects women who serve as surrogates in New York.

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Amanda Rice is the founder and CEO of the Chick Mission, a non-profit focused on critical issues unique to young, female cancer patients – including fertility challenges that may follow after surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and drug treatment. On Twitter @thechickmission.

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

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A Cruel Surrogacy Proposal That New York Must Reject Sun, 08 Mar 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Let's Legalize Surrogacy In New York The Right Way https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9169-legalizing-surrogacy-in-new-york-the-right-way https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9169-legalizing-surrogacy-in-new-york-the-right-way state senator krueger during alb

State Senator Liz Krueger, the author (photo: NY Senate)


Advances in assisted reproductive technology (ART), including intrauterine insemination (IUI), in vitro fertilization (IVF), egg and sperm donation, and surrogacy, have created remarkable new family-building options in the last several decades. As someone who is unable to have my own biological children, I support New Yorkers being able to use ART, including surrogacy, to build the families they want.

Yet these relatively new technologies bring with them complex issues that must be considered carefully. After many discussions with my colleagues who support existing proposals to legalize and regulate paid surrogacy in New York, as well as experts and advocates, I believe those proposals do not do enough to balance and protect the health, safety, interests, and rights of all parties involved.

At the same time, in spite of the fact that paid gestational and genetic surrogacy are currently illegal, the ART, gamete donation, and surrogacy industries are already operating in New York, with insufficient regulation and protections. That is why I have introduced an alternative bill, along with Assemblymembers Didi Barrett and Danny O’Donnell, to tighten regulations on gamete donation and to legalize surrogacy with appropriate safeguards.

Our bill goes further than existing proposals in creating consumer protections, ensuring that participants are fully informed of health risks and other relevant factors, preventing exploitation, power imbalances, and inequitable treatment, requiring the use of best medical practices to protect the health and wellbeing of all parties, and information-gathering to facilitate much-needed research and tracking.

Intended parents, people acting as surrogates, egg and sperm donors, and of course any children that are conceived by assisted reproduction or born through surrogacy, are all intimately invested in the process and outcomes of any gamete donation or surrogacy agreement. For intended parents who decide to use surrogacy, they spend a significant amount of money, take time to carefully choose a person who will bear their child, and place their hopes in the person acting as surrogate.

Surrogates take on significant risks to their health, and in some cases their lives. They place their trust in the intended parents to adhere to the surrogacy agreement, and to provide a good home for the children they have spent nine months growing and nurturing inside their own body.

Children born through surrogacy or using ART have a right to have their needs and interests considered throughout the process, and to access data and research that are sorely lacking today on the health impacts of using certain forms of ART.

Our bill strengthens the existing proposals through several new or tightened provisions, including:

Evaluating intended parents and people acting as surrogates to assess eligibility.

Minimizing health risks for surrogate by establishing age restrictions, requirements relating to prior pregnancies and births, and preclusions on preexisting medical and psychological conditions that would make the pregnancy high-risk.

In order to prevent human trafficking, requiring intended parents and surrogates to be U.S. citizens or permanent lawful residents, and New York State residents for at least 12 months prior to executing an agreement.

Explicitly requiring more comprehensive, longer-lasting health, life, and disability insurance be provided to the surrogate.

Recognizing and protecting the human agency of the surrogate by allowing them to terminate the agreement at any time during the pregnancy. If this happens, the surrogate must return any financial compensation already received other than payment for medical, legal, and pregnancy-related expenses.

Creating a window after the birth of a child during which, in rare and extreme circumstances, the person acting as surrogate could ask a court to step in and determine legal parentage.

I believe that these measures, and several others addressing not only surrogacy but an array of assisted reproduction technologies, are necessary to balance the needs and interests of all the people engaged in gamete donation or surrogacy agreements. I hope that my colleagues in the Legislature, and Governor Cuomo, will take the time – after the new state budget is passed – to thoroughly consider and discuss all of the options on the table. Fundamental issues of equity, family, health, and people’s lives are at stake.

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State Senator Liz Krueger is a Democrat representing parts of Manhattan. On Twitter @LizKrueger.

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

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Let's Legalize Surrogacy In New York The Right Way Thu, 27 Feb 2020 05:00:00 +0000
As Cuomo Proposes Expansive Equal Rights Amendment Favored in Senate, Assembly Again Passes Narrow Version https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9043-cuomo-legislators-seek-2020-agreement-on-expanded-state-equal-rights-amendment https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9043-cuomo-legislators-seek-2020-agreement-on-expanded-state-equal-rights-amendment wash wom rights

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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

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As Cuomo Proposes Expansive Equal Rights Amendment Favored in Senate, Assembly Again Passes Narrow Version Mon, 13 Jan 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: Cuomo's State of the State & What's Next, with Senator Liz Krueger https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9036-max-murphy-podcast-cuomo-state-of-the-state-whats-next-senator-liz-krueger https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9036-max-murphy-podcast-cuomo-state-of-the-state-whats-next-senator-liz-krueger jan wbai krueger600

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


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

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

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

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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Max & Murphy Podcast: Cuomo's State of the State & What's Next, with Senator Liz Krueger Wed, 08 Jan 2020 05:00:00 +0000
State Senate Set to Move Automatic Registration Amid Early 2020 Voting Package https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9037-senate-to-move-automatic-voter-registration-early-voting-2020-election-package https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9037-senate-to-move-automatic-voter-registration-early-voting-2020-election-package and cuomo westchester kc office

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


State lawmakers are poised to make a second attempt at launching the process to legalize automatic voter registration for eligible New Yorkers who interact with certain government agencies.

Mirroring the auspicious beginning of the 2019 session, which in the first weeks saw a historic spate of voting reforms passed by the new two-house Democratic majority, lawmakers say another package of election bills, including automatic voter registration (AVR), is likely to pass the State Senate as soon as Thursday, with an Assembly companion in the near future.

“We’re starting [Thursday] with a package of bills expanding on voter rights,” Senator Liz Krueger said Wednesday afternoon on the Max & Murphy podcast. “We did a whole package on improving access to voting and voter rights last year...we have more bills that we intend to pass relating to expanded access to voting and improvements in early voting.”

“We’ll be passing 9 or 10 bills,” Krueger said, “making sure that we have a system for automatic voter registration” and a variety of changes to early voting laws, including “exempting public schools from being early voting locations” given the burdens it can place on school facilities.

A press release from Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office outlining his 2020 agenda, sent just after his State of the State speech Wednesday, expressed support for automatic voter registration, claiming that it will improve registration and turnout rates and making additional commitments to make the program accessible through the internet. “We will ensure that all automatic voter registration opportunities are available online and we will enable New Yorkers to simply apply to register to vote on the State Board of Elections website if they choose to do so,” the press release said.

Voting reformers in New York have sought some form of automated voter registration for years but were stymied by a divided Legislature, particularly the Republican-controlled Senate majority. The Democratic takeover of the Senate won in 2019 allowed the chamber to pass an “opt-out” AVR system, where applications for services at designated state and local agencies -- like the Department of Motor Vehicles or the Department of Health -- would be integrated with voter registration forms, unless the service-seeker affirmatively declines to register.

Days before the end of the 2019 session, the Assembly, also controlled by Democrats, pulled its version of the bill due to an error in the language that meant people attempting to opt-out might be inadvertently opting in. In a joint statement in June, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, promised to revisit the legislation in the next session.

“Due to a significant technical issue with the Automatic Voter Registration Act (S6457A /A8280A) that would have impacted the intent of the legislation, the Senate Majority will recall the bill and introduce a corrected version. We will pass this updated bill at the next available opportunity when we are in legislative session,” the statement read.

“It’s very simple. It was just a typographical error that provided the opposite instruction of what should have been in terms of how a form should have been filled out,” explained Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris, a Queens Democrat and the bill’s Senate sponsor, in an interview Tuesday.

“We did make a commitment to pass it at the first available opportunity in the next session, this upcoming session,” he added. “Now you are hearing that we are true to our word and are, in fact, passing it.”

Legislative leaders were quick to tell the public that postponing the legislation until 2020 would not have an effect on its implementation date. “This action will not impact the implementation of this corrected legislation because, like the original legislation, it does not go into effect until 2021,” wrote Stewart-Cousins and Heastie in the June statement. However, the language of the bill provides a range of when it can go into effect, depending on when the State Board of Elections establishes the infrastructure to implement it, with a deadline of two years after it becomes law. If the bill passes both houses of the Legislature this year and is not signed by the governor until the end-of-the-year deadline, AVR may not be implemented until December 2022, after the next statewide election.

Reformers believe automating registration and other voting changes will make it easier to participate in elections, especially for people who have been historically disengaged from the democratic process. Combining agency service applications with voter registration forms means individuals will have to provide the necessary personal information -- like name and address -- only once. Under an “opt-out” system, service recipients have to take affirmative action only when they are choosing not to register to vote or when they want to be affiliated with a particular political party for the purposes of voting in a primary -- all of which will be possible on the integrated form.

The government agency that interfaces with a potential voter is responsible for submitting the registration form to the State Board of Elections, which then transmits the form to local election administrators.

During debates over the bill, immigration advocates and critics alike expressed concern that an AVR system would capture people ineligible to vote, endangering people with precarious immigration statuses and enabling voter fraud. Those concerns were compounded when the state passed the Green Light law, which allows undocumented immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses and took effect toward the end of last year.

Lawmakers responded to those concerns in the original legislation by including safe harbor language that outlines a presumption of innocence for someone who fails to opt-out, even if they are ineligible to vote. The legislation also affirms that registering to vote automatically does not constitute a claim to citizenship, which could otherwise jeopardize an immigrant’s legal status.

“People who are not citizens should not be registering to vote, and we want to make sure the law does not accidentally create that scenario,” Gianaris said.

As Krueger said, the State Senate plans to pass a host of other voting reforms Thursday, a number of which build on the state’s new early voting system established in 2019, as first reported by NY1’s Zack Fink and the New York Daily News. The Assembly is expected to consider the package in the near future, according to the Daily News.

“The Senate Democratic Majority will rollout legislation empowering more New Yorkers to take advantage of early voting opportunities and exercise their Constitutional right to vote,” reads a Wednesday advisory, previewing a Thursday morning press conference to be led by Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, just before the Senate holds its second day of 2020 session. “These bills build on the historic voting reforms passed under the Senate Democratic Majority during the 2019 Legislative Session.”

A spokesperson for the Assembly sponsor of AVR said discussions in that chamber are happening. “Assemblywoman Walker is meeting with Assembly leadership regarding AVR and we are eagerly awaiting [its] passage,” wrote a spokesperson for Assembly Member Latrice Walker, a Brooklyn Democrat who is carrying the bill in the Assembly, in an email. Speaker Carl Heastie’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

The package the Senate appears poised to pass, possibly with the Assembly following suit, also includes changes to authorize counties to set up portable early voting sites, meaning local boards of elections may set up additional polling locations to serve hard-to-reach areas for a shorter span within the early voting period. Other bills expected to pass the Senate Thursday deal with the criteria for siting early voting locations, including one that bars the use of public schools -- a source of conflict during the first year of implementation. Others would require more public notice about elections and college campuses to have designated polling places.

“New York ranks among the bottom states in voter participation and our majority has made a concerted effort to go from among the worst to among the first in the country,” said Gianaris. “That’s why we did early voting, we’re moving towards same-day registration, we’re moving towards making it easier to vote by mail, and AVR is an important plank in a democracy agenda that is going to make it easier for more people to participate in the process.”

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

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State Senate Set to Move Automatic Registration Amid Early 2020 Voting Package Wed, 08 Jan 2020 05:00:00 +0000
State Senate Looks Ahead to Complicated Task of Property Tax Reform https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8969-state-senate-property-tax-reform-albany-new-york-city https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8969-state-senate-property-tax-reform-albany-new-york-city sen br be3

Wednesday's Senate roundtable (photo: @NYSenBenjamin)


A roomful of top experts on New York’s property tax system -- an opaque topic that nonetheless touches every New Yorker, property-owner or not -- gathered for a roundtable discussion convened by state lawmakers Wednesday in downtown Manhattan. They were assembled at the hearing by State Senator Brian Benjamin, a Manhattan Democrat and chair of the Senate’s budget and revenues committee, to discuss solutions to the antiquated and unequal levy system that many want to see tackled in 2020, however overdue the action would be.

The issue has been a political “hot potato,” to use one lawmaker’s words, since the current property tax system was established through state law 40 years ago. Lawmakers, analysts, property owners, and others are now looking ahead to the next legislative session in Albany, which begins in early January, where a number of the issues raised Wednesday are promised to be on the table.

“What I have found so far as chair of this committee...is that the real property tax system is confusing, it’s complicated, and it’s not entirely fair,” said Benjamin, in opening remarks. The roundtable Wednesday followed a series of six public forums held by Benjamin’s office in all five boroughs over the past three months.

“The system as it currently exists was a temporary fix that was quickly outdated...Another bandaid or patch, in my opinion, will not fix this system. This system is broken at its core,” he said.

Wednesday’s conversation, which included economists, lawyers, and tax policy veterans, also unfolds in the context of a lawsuit challenging the system on the grounds that it imposes taxes disproportionately without regard to true market value -- a case that has the potential to drastically shake-up the property tax landscape.

At the same time, interested parties are awaiting the final report of an advisory commission established by city officials to comprehensively examine the entire system and make recommendations. The commission’s report, which was promised this year, would undoubtedly have implications for state legislators going into session in January. Wednesday’s roundtable was a kind of parallel effort by Benjamin to ready his committee for the technical and political heavy lifting it will face next year.

Other senators present Wednesday, all Democrats, included Liz Krueger, Leroy Comrie, Brad Hoylman, Robert Jackson, Zellnor Myrie, Andrew Gounardes, and John Liu, the former New York City Comptroller. For those legislators, in all but Comrie’s district in Queens, the effective tax rate on small owner-occupied homes is below the citywide average, according to an analysis of FY 2017 data by Tax Equity Now.

“This is by far one of the biggest issues I hear from my constituents,” said Gounardes, who represents parts of southern Brooklyn.

Among the biggest problems facing the state’s troubled system is that owners of similar properties can pay drastically different taxes. A 2018 study by the Citizens Budget Commission found that homeowners in the Bronx and Staten Island pay a higher percentage of the market value of their homes than they would in other boroughs, even though their homes tend to be worth less.

Another is the differential assessment formula used for different classifications of property, a vestige of the politically fraught landscape that created the current system, which now means the owners of some of the city’s most expensive co-ops and condos pay among the lowest real estate taxes.

The arithmetic used to levy taxes is complex. It involves four classes of property, each of which is valued differently and taxed on a different percentage of that value. To complicate matters, the rate at which the assessed value can climb in each property class is uniquely capped. Over time, the caps can lead to tax rates that lag behind the growth in market value, especially in booming neighborhoods.

Adding to the opacity of the system is a regime of abatements, rebates, and exemptions that obfuscate the logic behind a particular tax rate.

“The problem with the property tax is...nobody understands it, but nobody thinks they’re benefiting from it either. You have a really crazy system if nobody is actually patting themselves on the back and saying, ‘Wow, I’m getting away with paying much less,’” said Martha Stark, the former commissioner of the Department of Finance under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Stark is the policy director of Tax Equity Now, the group that brought the lawsuit against the city and state.

That case survived motions to dismiss by both the city and the state, which are now appealing the lower court’s determination. Stark said the courts could decide whether the suit can move forward in as little as a matter of weeks.

While it may be months before the lawsuit is resolved, officials say the city’s advisory commission may be coming out with its report soon, though no timeline has been provided.

In a statement to Gotham Gazette, Marc Shaw, chair of the commission and senior advisor at the CUNY Institute on State and Local Governance, wrote, “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. We expect to have a preliminary report out soon for the public to review.”

A spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio, who signed the executive order creating the commission, said the administration does not have an update on the commission’s status.

Many of the experts in the room agreed that a starting point for reform should be that each class’s baseline assessment be a property’s market price, which in some cases is estimated based on sales of similar properties. Under the state’s current assessment methodology that is not always the case.

For the past four decades, the state has placed 1-, 2-, and 3-family homes in Class 1, where their assessed values are based on the sales price of the property. By contrast, larger residential buildings fall into Class 2, where they are valued based on the annual income they receive in rent. But co-ops and condos, which are often owner-occupied and comprise some of the city’s most expensive properties, also fall into Class 2. As a result, it is not uncommon for a co-op that sold in the millions to be valued at a few hundred-thousand dollars or less, based on estimates of so-called “comparable” apartments nearby. (A number of experts said Wednesday that the way the city identifies comparable apartments is also flawed, at times going far afield to find them without adjusting for variables like the differing land values in a region or whether they have comparable amenities.)

Complicating the politics further is the fact that in many areas incomes have not kept pace with the market value growth of property. That means people who purchased homes when prices were low often struggle to keep up with property taxes when neighborhoods gentrify. Several of the state senators present, all of whom represented districts in New York City, expressed concern that moving to a fully market-based system could mean some long-term homeowners will see a sudden rise in property taxes so great they would not be able to keep their homes.

“When I say the system should be based on market value, the starting point should be a real market value that people recognize. How one then decides what taxes someone is going to pay is very, very different. If you want to consider a person’s income afterward you could do that,” said Stark, responding to the concerns.

Jeff Golkin, a veteran property tax lawyer, warned against making changes too quickly, especially in real estate where the return on investment is often registered in the long-term. “You can’t take away rights that people have now. You can’t take people who are protected now and throw them into the fire,” he said, “...so change has to be done in a transitional grandfathering type of mechanism.”

Another issue is the size of the levy after a property’s value is determined. While state law dictates the tax assessment, the city controls the tax rate.

Roughly a third of the city’s budget comes from real estate taxes, the single largest revenue stream. Since fiscal year 2009, City Hall has kept the tax rate frozen, but rising market values and annual reassessments have allowed revenue from property taxes to increase year over year. The city’s advisory commission, created jointly by Mayor Bill de Blasio and Council Speaker Corey Johnson, was mandated to make recommendations to reform the system without diminishing the revenue it generates.

One analysis found that under Bloomberg the city budget rose 31.6 percent above inflation. In 2002, his first year in office and as the city was reeling from the effects of the 2001 terror attacks, Bloomberg raised the property tax rate by 18.5 percent. Since de Blasio took office, the city budget has grown over $20 billion.

“I think that there is a real need for some fiscal responsibility, not just on the state level but on the city level. The city should not be able to levy themselves out of fiscal responsibility every year,” said Comrie, who previously served in the City Council.

“At some point you can’t keep burdening folks who can’t pay. Most people in my district are on fixed income, they’re not getting Wall Street bonuses every year,” he said.

Senator Krueger summarized the feelings of many of her constituents. “Please God, give us a system that we can understand,” she said.

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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State Senate Looks Ahead to Complicated Task of Property Tax Reform Thu, 05 Dec 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Senators Krueger & Myrie on Historic Albany Session, Senate's Relationship with Cuomo, & More https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8658-senators-krueger-myrie-albany-session-senate-relationship-with-cuomo https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8658-senators-krueger-myrie-albany-session-senate-relationship-with-cuomo krueg myrie 600

l-r: Liz Krueger (photo: @LizKrueger) & Zellnor Myrie (photo: @zellnor4ny)


The New York State Legislature, under full Democratic control for the first time in a decade, had an exceptionally productive 2019 legislative session in Albany. Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie ushered through a broad agenda of progressive legislation, long forestalled by Republicans who had controlled the state Senate, most of which has already been signed into law by Governor Andrew Cuomo, a third-term Democrat.

Landmark rent regulations were approved, voting and elections reforms were passed, stronger reproductive health rights were codified, and environmental protections were expanded, among a far longer list of accomplishments.

But several proposals did fall by the wayside amid opposition – or at least a lack of support – from the governor and a dearth of consensus in the state Senate where progressive members mostly from New York City found their priorities at odds with more moderate, suburban members more concerned about their seats in the 2020 elections.

In a recent interview on the Max & Murphy WBAI radio show, Senator Liz Krueger, a Manhattan veteran, and Senator Zellnor Myrie, a Brooklyn freshman, assessed the legislative victories, and failures, and the role that Governor Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio played in this historic Albany year. They also looked ahead to next year’s session, which will take place in an election year when every member of the Legislature will be on the ballot and their Senate Democratic majority will look to extend its newfound dominance and partnership with the long-time Assembly Democratic majority.

“I’m actually still kvelling about how much we were able to get done this year, things that I had been telling my district I was trying to accomplish for the entire 17 years,” said Krueger, who represents Manhattan’s East Side.

Krueger, now the chair of the Senate’s finance committee, highlighted the expansion of voter rights and election reforms, the passage of the Reproductive Health Act, the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, and legislation related to public transportation and consumer rights.

“[W]hen you’re hitting grand slams every week, you forget about the singles and the doubles that loaded the bases,” said Myrie, after first echoing that there were a vast number of major Democratic accomplishments that moved in January and thereafter, “and so there are things that we did that didn’t get as much play, but really are important for people in our districts.”

He cited $20 million in funding restored for home foreclosure prevention, $500 million in proposed Medicaid cuts that were avoided, and a $618 million increase in funding for public schools.

But both legislators pointed to agenda items, some prominent and some less so, that they couldn’t get across the finish line.

Most notable among them was the legalization, regulation, and taxation of adult-use marijuana, a thorny issue that Krueger has pursued for years but divided the Senate Democratic conference and tested Cuomo’s commitment to a policy he recently came around to express support for but did not appear especially eager to risk political capital on.

“Well, marijuana, even though people talk about as if it’s one issue, is actually a whole series of complicated issues,” she said, noting the difficulty in getting a majority of votes in the Senate. After failing to push the proposal through in the state budget as Cuomo had sought, some Democrats looked to move it in the post-budget session. Cuomo had insisted it was one of his top priorities but refused to put weight behind it when push came to shove and without his involvement in negotiations, Krueger said, the proposal was doomed to fail.

“We really wanted the governor back at the table with us, because big, complicated issues really do make sense to be three-way, and he was not there...and messaging very strangely as to whether he supported or didn’t support it, so we just couldn’t bring it over the line at the end,” she said. Krueger acknowledged what Cuomo had said publicly -- that she did not have the votes in the Senate, but she said she needed the governor to help get those final votes.

Among the issues, she insisted, was that state agencies essential to implementing the new law needed to explain to skeptical legislators how they would execute portions and in order for that to happen, Cuomo needed to be more present. “You can’t simply legislate and believe that all of the agencies are immediately going to change course to do what the law says unless you have an executive behind it,” she said.

In the end, the Legislature compromised to decriminalize possession of small quantities of marijuana and expunge records for hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers convicted on low-level marijuana offenses.

Myrie noted additionally that marijuana legalization is far from universally popular, even in New York City districts like his, and though he expressed confidence the Legislature would pass it next year, there’s work to be done to get constituents on board.

“Now, I am willing to make the case to my community why this is important for us, not just the decriminalization, but the economic opportunity that it would provide for folks,” he said. “I think that we do have a lot of support there, but the assumption that even in the districts where their representatives were fully in support, that the support in the district was monolithic, I think is a presumption that we need to fight back against. And so, I’m ready to double down and do the work on education; I’ve been talking to the folks in my community about why this is important and good for us.”

Controlling both legislative chambers, Democrats were able this year to deal with Cuomo on stronger footing, rather than begrudgingly participate in the triangulation that he employed with Republicans and the Senate Independent Democratic Conference, a breakaway faction of Senate Democrats, in past legislative sessions. And the governor was not shy about making his displeasure known at having lost some degree of power in Albany, while constantly taunting or questioning the new Senate Democratic majority, which he blamed for the demise of the deal he helped broker to bring a massive Amazon campus to Queens and which appeared to make him uncomfortable in dealing with an all-Demcoratic Legislature.

During and after the session, the governor variously described a successful partnership with the legislative leaders while at other times attacking them for failing to achieve promises they had made over the years. Kreuger and Myrie were careful when asked about the tense relationship between Cuomo and the Senate majority. “I decided long ago that I was never going to try to explain Andrew Cuomo or his behavior on any given day,” Krueger said of the reasons behind Cuomo’s harsh attitude towards the Senate.

“I suppose I could define it as, he was testing us, and he was playing bad cop, and our job was to show, ‘Hey, bad cop, we’re ready to govern, and we have our act together. We’re going to be there, and you’re going to come along because you know that we are in the right place, and in a place you want to be,’” she continued. “Now, why he doesn’t take the approach of ‘Oh, you’re a new majority, you’re trying to do a number of things that are my agenda issues, let’s work together and get to that place together,’ I sincerely don’t know. I think you’d have to ask him.”

Myrie is among the newly-elected crop of young progressives who deposed members of the IDC. “If you have spent the entirety of your governorship in main control, in trying to get some progressive wins in a Republican-controlled Senate, I think you’re going to have to adjust to the new dynamic of now, you have a very powerful leader in Andrea Stewart-Cousins, with a conference full of people who ran in sort of an unorthodox way,” he said of Cuomo, after also saying he is hesitant to try to explain Cuomo’s motives and behavior.

Mayor de Blasio, meanwhile, was not a significant factor in legislative negotiations this year, perhaps to everyone’s benefit, Krueger indicated. “He wasn’t that present,” Krueger said when asked if de Blasio, who is now running for president, had been active, and active enough, in Albany. “Whether he should have been is a separate question because, not as a disrespect to him so please don’t misunderstand, but the general sense in Albany is, if the mayor really wanted something, that would cause a problem.”

She acknowledged that that owes both to the governor’s long-standing dislike for the mayor as well as perhaps some similar sentiments among lawmakers. “So it would be better if people made clear what the hopes of the city were, without the mayor being the banner front-pusher on whatever those issues are,” she added. De Blasio did do well with his state agenda this year overall.

The marijuana legalization fight highlighted one of the central conflicts for the state Senate majority – balancing the priorities of Democrats in safely blue districts with those of their colleagues who replaced Republicans in more moderate parts of the state where they may be vulnerable in next year’s election.

Myrie commended Stewart-Cousins for doing “a really good job of trying to balance these two bases.” And he recognized that some members from suburban districts faced difficult votes “that they’re going to have to explain going back to 2020.” That includes, for instance, the Senate approving driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, which is far more popular in Central Brooklyn than in Long Island -- on which Democrats from the Island voted no.

“I think that we are going to have to balance our approach here, because we’re going to have such a high turnout in 2020, I think that the bases are going to be motivated,” he said. “I think the same folks that allowed for these senators to take these seats, they’re going to be coming out, and I think there are going to be more people coming out, excited about challenging the man in the White House right now.”

Krueger added of the Democrats who control 40 of 63 Senate seats: “We recognize it’s a big state, really different areas, really different issues. We want to make sure we grow our majority in 2020, we don’t want to put anyone at risk, and frankly, the more we grow our majority the more diversified our needs will be, but also the more opportunity we’ll have to allow people to not take votes that they think aren’t the right answers for their constituents while still being able to move the people’s business for the entire state forward.”

And there’s indeed much business left to accomplish. Myrie wants to codify the restoration of voting rights for parolees, which Cuomo did through an executive order; and he wants to pass a “good cause” eviction bill that was excluded from the rent regulations this year.

There are also lingering issues around a prevailing wage bill for construction projects receiving public funds and a push to ban solitary confinement in state prisons, among others that have varying level of support from legislators and Cuomo.

“I think that we have an opportunity to further discuss what didn’t get done, take it up at the beginning of the next session,” Myrie said, “and by the time that we get to January of 2020, there will be 50 more things that people have come up with that we have not gotten done, that we have not paid enough attention to, and I look forward to taking that on in full.”

Krueger wants to push the state on releasing more than half-a-billion dollars in pledged funds for the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) and for a thorough reevaluation of the state’s economic development strategy to ensure taxpayer funds are spent responsibly. “So those are some of the places I’ll be starting again the minute we get back up to Albany, or before,” she said.

[LISTEN: Max & Murphy Podcast: Senators Krueger & Myrie on the Year in Albany]

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Cyan Hunte contributed to this story.

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Senators Krueger & Myrie on Historic Albany Session, Senate's Relationship with Cuomo, & More Tue, 09 Jul 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: State Senators Liz Krueger & Zellnor Myrie on the Year in Albany https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8643-max-murphy-podcast-reflecting-on-the-year-in-albany-with-senators-krueger-myrie https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8643-max-murphy-podcast-reflecting-on-the-year-in-albany-with-senators-krueger-myrie mryie krueger wbai 600px

(photo: NYSenate)


June 26, 2019 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Reflecting on the Year in Albany, with Senators Krueger & Myrie

wbai krueger myrieState Senators Liz Krueger of Manhattan and Zellnor Myrie of Brooklyn joined the show to reflect on the year that was in Albany, the January through June session with Democrats in full control of state government for the first time in many years. Two two senators discussed their majority's first session in power, dynamics between the Legislature and Governor Cuomo, what got done and what fell off the table - and why.

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: State Senators Liz Krueger & Zellnor Myrie on the Year in Albany Wed, 26 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Legislators Search for Common Ground on Expansion of Equal Rights Amendment https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8615-legislators-search-for-common-ground-on-expansion-of-equal-rights-amendment https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8615-legislators-search-for-common-ground-on-expansion-of-equal-rights-amendment Cuomo New York equal rights pride

(photo: Governor's Office)


The state Senate embraced the notion that the civil rights protections enshrined in the New York state constitution should be more inclusive when it decisively passed an expansive version of an equal rights amendment Monday.

The Senate’s amendment goes a step farther than other equal rights amendments by expanding the equal protection clause of the state bill of rights to outlaw discrimination not only based on sex, but also on sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, national origin, ethnicity, age, and ability. Currently, the state constitution only prohibits discrimination based on a person’s “race, color, creed or religion.”

“Today, we further the fight for justice for women by moving this crucial amendment forward. At the same time, we are standing up for the rights of the LGBTQ community, the elderly, and the disabled,” said Democratic Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins in a statement.

The amendment, which had unanimous support in the Senate (it passed 62-0 in the 63-seat chamber), differs significantly from the version that passed in the Assembly in February, namely on the number of protected classes added and language clarifying the meaning of “civil rights.”

The Assembly’s version, which also passed with a groundswell of support, simply adds the word “sex” to the equal protection clause, extending constitutional protections to women but no further. These differences will have to be reconciled for the amendment to advance.

Governor Andrew Cuomo made passing an equal rights amendment that would ban discrimination based on sex a top priority this year, including it in his “2019 Justice Agenda” released in December, and listing it at the end of May among ten priorities identified for the final stretch of the legislative session, which is scheduled to end this week.

Unlike other state law changes, which simply need to pass both chambers of the Legislature and be signed by the Governor, amendments to the state constitution must be passed by two consecutive Legislatures and then be approved directly by voters via ballot referendum. The current Legislature was sworn-in in January to a two-year term, meaning the second passage of the amendment would have to take place in either 2021 or 2022 in order for it to be put before voters in a referendum. The earliest the amendment could go into effect is late 2021, if it is passed this year or next, then again in 2021 by both houses of the Legislature and voters.

A number of the protections in the Senate’s equal rights amendment are already contained in the state’s Human Rights Law, including for gender expression thanks to the passage of GENDA earlier this year, but putting them in the state constitution makes them stronger.

“Generally when things are listed in the equal protection clause there’s a standard of review that’s attached to constitutional principles that do not attach to statute,” said Alphonso David, the governor’s counsel, at a press conference on June 3.

The Senate’s version, by defining the phrase “civil rights,” would also make the constitutional provision self-executing, meaning protections for individual civil rights won’t have to be affirmed in subsequent legislation, as is currently the case.

The Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was first introduced in 1923, but has never been ratified. Since then, 11 states have adopted equal rights amendments that protect women’s civil rights, according to a press release from state Senator Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat and the amendment’s main sponsor in the upper chamber. “New York is not one of those 11 states. No state has explicitly granted equal rights to LGBTQ people or the disabled,” the press release reads.

At the June 3 press conference, the governor said he would support an expanded version of the amendment in the future but didn’t believe the Assembly would pass one in the final days of the legislative session.

“I am totally open to, in the future, adding other classes -- which is what the Senate wants to do. But let’s achieve what we can achieve today and where we have agreement today,” Cuomo said at the press conference, referring to the addition of “sex” to the amendment.

He blames the uncertainty of the amendment on the “failed Albany game” of feigning support for a concept but falling short of passing legislation. With different versions of the amendment on the table, much of the political heavy-lifting of securing majority support in both chambers lays ahead even as nearly everyone agrees equal rights protections should be broadened.

“There’s 11 days left,” Cuomo said on June 3. “Pass that bill. Next year, come back and I fully support expanding the class even greater.” This is “the old Albany formula for failure. Assembly wants to do this, Senate wants to do this, nothing happens.”

“I don’t believe we can get agreement on it this year in 11 days,” Cuomo said of an expanded amendment.

Discussions are ongoing to bring the equal rights amendment closer to passage.

“We are continuing to urge colleagues in both the Assembly and the Senate to search for common ground.  We will see when the dust clears how much more work has to be done,” said Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright, in an email to Gotham Gazette. Seawright, a Manhattan Democrat, is the main sponsor of the narrower version of the amendment that passed her chamber in February, and also of a broader companion to the Senate’s amendment.

With the clock ticking on the session, the governor has said his focus now is on the passage of other marquee reforms, namely expanding the prevailing wage and legalizing recreational marijuana, but a host of issues are finding resolution among the Senate, Assembly, and governor’s office, and an end-of-session “big ugly” omnibus bill could be in the works, with untold number of aspects.

“Fortunately we have until the end of next year's legislative session to get first passage in both houses in order to stay on schedule with the amendment process,” said Justin Flagg, communications director for Krueger.

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Legislators Search for Common Ground on Expansion of Equal Rights Amendment Tue, 18 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000