Gotham Gazette Fri, 07 Aug 2020 10:07:02 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Democrats Flipped a Brooklyn State Senate Seat in 2018; Is It In Play In 2020? Senator Andrew Gounardes Brooklyn Albany presser

State Senator Andrew Gounardes in Albany (photo: @sen_gounardes)

Pro-NYPD and Black Lives Matter protesters clashed, sometimes violently, in Southern Brooklyn last weekend, a conflict emblematic of the changing and complicated politics in traditionally moderate to conservative neighborhoods that have been home to leftward political movement, partially due to an influx of new residents.

One marker of the changes was the 2018 election of Democrat Andrew Gounardes in State Senate District 22, where he defeated long-time Republican incumbent and former police officer Marty Golden to flip the seat and help flip the Senate, thus creating all-Democratic control of state government and ushering in an era of sweeping progressive change in New York.

Now, Gounardes is up for reelection and facing an opponent whose platform centers around the polarizing topic of police reform and argument that Democrats in Albany have lurched too far left. In fact, Gounardes’ opponent in the upcoming November general election, former nightclub owner Vito Bruno, who ran unsuccessfully for Brooklyn borough president in 2017 and also serves as president of Brooklyn’s Edmund G. Seergy Republican Club, attended the pro-NYPD rally, as did Golden, which wasn't simply supportive of the police, but included people espousing racism and misogyny in virulent verbal and sometimes physical attacks on Black Lives Matter supporters.

Like many Democrats, Gounardes has walked something of a middle ground, expressing support for police officers and public safety, while lamenting police brutality and racism and calling for reform. He’s also voted for reform, with the Legislature recently passing a package of new police oversight and accountability measures.

In response to the weekend protests and chaos that ensued at times, Gounardes and his close ally, City Council Member Justin Brannan, who represents an overlapping district, denounced all violence involved and reiterated a nuanced stance.

“We’ve seen videos and read eyewitness accounts of the protests in Bay Ridge. What we saw and read is deeply troubling and disturbing. Violence initiated by both protestors and counter-protestors, eggs thrown at police officers, people being pepper-sprayed, American flags burning, and inflammatory and hateful rhetoric spewed venomously,” the statement reads. “As we have done consistently when violence has erupted at protests across the city, we forcefully condemn this unacceptable behavior. All of it. We support everyone’s right to demonstrate for what they believe in, but will not stand for instigating violence.”

Multiple videos circulated of pro-NYPD protesters using sexist, racist language against counter-protesters. Some said they hoped Black Lives Matter protesters would be raped and that Black lives were "garbage," as reported by Gothamist. And despite assaults being committed by individuals of both groups, as Gounardes and Brannan noted in their statement, two Black men part of the Black Lives Matter protests were arrested, while no pro-NYPD protesters displaying similar behavior faced charges, according to Gothamist. Gounardes and Brannan did not address this in their statement, although they condemned local organizers for not doing more to denounce the “violence, racism and misogyny” of Sunday’s protest in Dyker Heights.

They also said they have asked for a full investigation into a video showing a Black man having a brief exchange with police officers before being shoved, tased, and tackled by police (video appeared to show that protestor previously throwing a helmet into a crowd of pro-NYPD ralliers), and said they would be meeting with the captain of the 68th precinct for a full briefing of the events.

Although it is unclear if they live in the district, Twitter users on both sides of the issue seemed displeased with the politicians’ response, indicative of some of what both Gounardes and Brannan must navigate in what is about as much of a swing district as exists in New York City. Gounardes defeated Golden in 2018 by less than 2% of the vote, with 33,507 votes to 32,236 votes. Brannan won his 2017 general election by just 794 votes over his Republican opponent, John Quaglione.

“Real ‘very fine people on both sides’ energy,” Nicole Murray wrote, referencing President Donald Trump’s remarks about a 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, VA that were widely criticized for equating white supremacists to anti-racist protesters.

“You guys are a disgrace to Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, NYC and politics for not supporting your police. You don’t deserve to live in my city,” Carlo D'Angelo Jr. wrote.

Bruno has made support for the police and a tough-on-crime stance a focus of his campaign and has blamed spikes in crime on Democratic policies like state bail reform. He’s been endorsed by Curtis Sliwa, a radio host and the founder of the Guardian Angels anti-crime organization that encourages street patrols, and who has a history of misogyny and racially insensitive comments.

“Nobody out here is with the defunding of the police,” Bruno said of the district in an interview. “The crime has gone through the roof since the bail reform laws were passed, I know they tried to do a little bit of a fix, but the crime has gone through the roof. It’s absolutely frightening to the people that live out here.”

Bruno was referring to changes in the law that went into effect at the start of the year that drastically curtailed the use of cash bail for almost all defendants, other than those accused of violent misdemeanors or felonies. The laws expanded use of supervised release and other pre-trial mechanisms for ensuring defendants continue to show up for court and their proceedings without being jailed while not convicted of a crime.

However, after backlash from District Attorneys, Mayor Bill de Blasio and the NYPD, and others who claimed crime rates increased because of the new bail system, Governor Andrew Cuomo and the State Legislature rolled back portions of the law to expand bailable offenses. In a deal reached in early April that went into effect July 1, crimes like second-degree burglary, any crime that results in a person’s death, and others, were again made eligible for bail. Added restrictions were also put on certain people with narcotics related charges, who are on probation or parole, and who are charged with a felony after having two prior felonies.

“When it comes to things like bail reform, it is all a part of the Republican fear machine of — even yesterday the New York Post put out an article showing how the NYPD’s own statistics disprove that the increase in crime, which is happening nationwide, it’s not like a New York City thing, has nothing to do with bail,” Gounardes said in a recent interview. “Obviously, I take every issue of public safety very seriously and I’m just as concerned as the next person about spikes in shootings and spikes in fireworks and spikes in handle surfing crimes and crimes of convenience, but we have to be smart about the approach we’re going to take to combat those issues, and work with our law enforcement partners, target solutions that actually get to the root cause of this stuff and that’s how we’re going to solve these problems. Not fear-mongering, not scapegoating, not finger-pointing, and certainly not pumping your chest and saying that just because you support police you’re a better person.”

The Post cited NYPD statistics of shootings through June 30 that show just one person released under the bail reform laws has been charged with a shooting. It also shows 91 of 11,000 people released from Rikers Island through the same reforms were involved in a shooting, and of those over half were either victims or witnesses.

Asked about that data, Bruno said it does not prove those released without bail are not committing more of the shootings as the data only uses information on people who are caught by police. He claimed more people released due to the bail reform could be committing shootings but not getting caught and stood by the claim by the NYPD that the legislation was responsible for the spike in crime.

“If somebody does a violent crime, they should not be out in two hours. It’s just wrong,” Bruno said, although the bail reforms allowed for those accused of two violent crimes — burglary in the second degree and robbery in the second degree — to be released without bail. Otherwise, those accused of other violent crimes have been required to post bail, if they are released at all.

Gounardes refutes Bruno’s depiction of him as lacking support of the police, referencing his sponsorship of a bill that made first grade police officers who have served for 25 to 30 years eligible for the same pension benefits as those in higher positions and of a bill that increases the benefits by 3% for spouses of fallen police and firefighters, among other legislation.

“My record on supporting law enforcement is pretty unimpeachable when it comes to those things, and I have no problem matching my record against his on these things,” Gounardes said.

“It’s just kind of ironic that Vito himself is trying to be the law and order candidate when he’s made his entire career on the club and drug scene of the ‘80s and ‘90s that ravaged New York City,” Gounardes said. “I just find it very rich that all of a sudden he found the gospel and is now preaching law and order.”

Bruno had been accused of (and even appeared to admit to) breaking multiple laws while running his nightclub, Odyssey, including throwing parties that broke the curfew at the time, bribing police officers, and obtaining drugs for his celebrity friends. When asked, Bruno denied the claims, said those times were long behind him and expressed frustration that they continue to be brought up.

“Everybody likes the sensationalism of stuff that’s 40 years old. It’s really all settled,” Bruno said. “All of that’s not true and all of that stuff is just me being sarcastic with people. Me running a nightclub that, back in those days, the clubs all stayed open late, that’s what it was. And you’re competing with somebody and then you get in trouble. That’s all in the past.”

The effectiveness of Bruno’s law and order platform is yet to be seen, but some, like Liam McCabe, who ran in the 2017 Republican primary in the 43rd City Council District now represented by Brannan, believe Gounardes is in a difficult position as a representative often seeking to find a middle-ground amongst his constituents in a district with vocal supporters of President Donald Trump and more conservative views but also of progressive politics and politicians. A potentially ‘silent majority’ of voters, though, seem to support candidates who seek middle ground and don’t regularly flock to one political pole or the other, such as their current representatives: Gounardes, Brannan and Congressional Representative Max Rose.

“Andrew and Justin and Max are all in a very, very difficult political situation because they can’t, ultimately, appease both sides,” McCabe said of the three Democratic officials representing the area.

McCabe mentioned members of the “Defund the NYPD” movement who protested outside Brannan’s house after he voted ‘yes’ for the new city budget that did not cut the demanded $1 billion from the NYPD. He said those on the right would be just as unhappy with Brannan, who had committed to voting for a budget only if it had $1 billion in meaningful NYPD cuts, for supporting the defund movement, while those on the left were not satisfied with the final result, either. Brannan voted in favor of a budget deal he said did meaningfully shift resources from the police department to things like youth services, including a significant amount of capital money that allowed the total figure to surpass $1 billion.

Still, Brannan, Gounardes, and other politicians in the area have sought to maintain something of a middle ground, while mostly trying to focus on local, quality of life, and community issues, and constituent services.

When it comes to the Defund the NYPD movement, Gounardes was not prepared to provide an answer during the interview with Gotham Gazette, but later said in a statement, “Many of our law enforcement officers’ current responsibilities relate to mental health and social services — we can and should allocate resources for the safety of all New Yorkers while ensuring NYPD officers can do their core jobs.”

On bail reform, Gounardes said in a statement, “The old system of guilty until proven rich wasn’t working but we made changes to the law that were responsive to the concerns of people on the ground.”

Gounardes believes his record of listening to his constituents and to all sides on an issue while trying to find common ground will help him win come November. It’s unclear how competitive Bruno and Republicans can make the race, and what kind of effort Gounardes and his supporters will have to make to ensure his reelection. In Gounardes’ 2018 win over Golden, Governor Andrew Cuomo campaigned with him in the district multiple times, and progressive groups who had focused a great deal of energy on Senate primaries were able to also devote significant attention to the only competitive general election Senate race in the city.

This year, Gounardes has been endorsed by the Working Family Party, New York Immigration Coalition Action, Planned Parenthood, labor unions including 1199 SEIU, UAW Region 9A, CWA D1, the New York State Nurses Association, and the National Association of Social Workers, and political clubs Bay Ridge Democrats and Stonewall Democrats. That list is likely to continue to grow significantly as November approaches.

“I haven’t seen a single plan or idea from my opponent since he announced his candidacy,” Gounardes said in the interview. “It’s easy for someone to come in and just yell and scream and point fingers. It’s another thing for someone to come to the table with solutions and come to the table and say that you were wrong and listen to and speak to everyone in your community. I think that my record shows that I have given everyone in the community a voice and a seat at the table, it doesn’t matter who they are or where they come from or what language they speak. We have a very, very diverse district and anyone that wants to represent this district has to acknowledge and empower that diversity.”

Gounardes cited his votes as part of the new Democratic majority for legislation he had said he would help pass if elected in 2018, such as the Child Victims Act, the Reproductive Health Act, speed camera authorization, and gun control legislation.

With the city’s spike in shootings front-and-center as the race unfolds, Gounardes’ campaign emphasized his role in gun control legislation, especially as a sign that he has meaningfully worked toward addressing the problem while his opponent has not proposed any solutions.

Asked to elaborate on what he sees as the solution to the increase in gun violence, Bruno again emphasized his opposition to Gounardes.

“Obviously, the gun control is not working,” Bruno said, going on to restate his criticism of defunding the NYPD and bail reform, as well as the recent disbandment of the NYPD’s “anti-crime unit” made up of plain-clothed officers who focused on getting guns off the street but NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea said had at times exacerbated tensions with communities.

Bruno also said that emphasis from the Defund the NYPD movement and others on redistributing resources from the police to mental health, employment, youth, and other services in order to reduce what they believe are root causes of crime is misguided.

“I know what they’re all saying and a lot of those programs do already exist,” Bruno said. “It’s the culture that’s the problem. And statistics will show — and I know they’ll turn it into a racial thing, which I do not want to. I do not want to — but statistics show that households that don’t have a father, the crime and all that is through the roof.”

Bruno also mentioned affordability and relief for small businesses as priorities for his campaign. When asked on multiple occasions to name policies or legislation he supports, Bruno declined to do so but said his campaign will roll out “legitimate policies and legislation” in the next few weeks.

Mike Murphy, a campaign spokesperson for New York Senate Democrats, said he believes Gounardes’ track record when it comes to legislation, especially compared to Bruno’s limited experience in government, makes the seat one Democrats are confident they will hold.

“Gounardes has been a huge part of the conference and has really made a name for himself. I think it’s one of those districts that we expect to win pretty handily,” said Murphy, who also runs communications for Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins. “Bruno has a lot of issues that will obviously be highlighted.”

The district, which voted for Obama in 2012 and then Trump in 2016, has been considered fairly favorable for Republicans — as were others prior to 2018 — though Democrats have had a voter registration advantage for several years. It is among the areas previously helpful to electing Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg as mayor, and parts of the Senate district went for Republican Nicole Malliotakis in 2017 as she attempted to unseat Mayor Bill de Blasio, even as district voters also elected Brannan to the Council by a narrow margin. While it has a sizeable pro-Trump voting bloc, it is also home to many supporters of Bernie Sanders.

The Senate District has 176,315 registered voters, with 87,648 Democrats and 36,645 Republicans; 1,323 registered with the Conservative Party and 4,498 with the Independence Party; and 45,129 unaffiliated with a political party (often referred to as “independents”).

Shockingly to some, Golden ran for reelection unopposed in 2016. In 2014, he won by over 30% of the vote against Democrat Jamie Kemmerer, and defeated Gounardes himself in 2012 by about 15% of the vote.

After the 2018 elections, when Republicans lost many seats in the State Senate, there is not a clear path back to the majority for the party that is now down to only 23 seats in the 63-seat Senate.

When Republicans lost the Senate majority, they lost significant financial support, too. They have received fewer donations from formerly-reliable sources, like the real estate lobby, which went from donating over $200,000 to the Senate Republican Campaign Committee in 2016 to about $60,000 in 2018 to $0 so far this year. Meanwhile, the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee raised more than $2 million in the last six months, from January to this month’s filing deadline, according to the New York Daily News, and the SRCC just $248,000.

That checks out in Senate District 22, where Gounardes has over 10 times more money on-hand than Bruno, with a nearly $400,000 balance compared to Bruno’s $24,000, as of the most recent campaign finance filings. Gounardes outraised his opponent, with $340,000 this last six-month period to add to a starting balance of around $170,000. Comparatively, Bruno raised a little under $40,000 for his campaign.

Since losing the majority by such a wide margin in 2018, Republicans have tempered expectations about retaking it in 2020, seeing it more as a two-cycle project, going through the 2022 elections, which will be the next gubernatorial election year. Even McCabe, a staunch Republican, said flipping the Senate is likely a long-term process. Still, he said winning seats like Gounardes’ back is a “big part” of being able to do so.

Republicans have “always had seats in the Senate, in the city, and I think they need to continue to regain those and hold on to them,” McCabe said. “You don’t have to win the entire city, but you have to hold on to a certain position of it to do well statewide.”

State Senator Pam Helming, the newly-named chair of the Senate Republican Campaign Committee, said there “is not a seat we are not focused on,” and that, although Democratic enrollment far exceeds that of Republicans, she feels areas including the Hudson Valley, the Finger Lakes region, Western New York, and the North Country have voters across the political spectrum who are concerned about one-party rule of the state and want to see a change.

Helming, who represents Canandaigua, said it would be Bruno’s presence in the community, more than anything, that would be key in propelling him to victory.

“I’m very excited about our candidate, Vito Bruno, he is an exceptional candidate, a very successful businessman and he’s just brought this level of energy and excitement to the neighborhood,” she said in an interview. “The feedback we’re getting from people, it’s something that’s missing, something that the present senator, he’s not actively engaged in the community, he’s not out there and he doesn’t have a strong presence. This is going to be a close race that we win.”

Gounardes has disputed the idea that he is not in the community and cited the work his office has done in feeding thousands of families by providing hot meals five days a week, groceries, and unemployment filing assistance throughout the pandemic.

He’s also made a pitch to voters about the work he will continue to do if reelected, highlighting priorities like free public higher education, improvements to the MTA, specifically with regards to accessibility, and improved action on climate change. He said “We have to start talking about what it means to live in a post-COVID world,” and referenced the need to address child care, creating an education system that works for everyone, investing in public hospitals, and having a safety net for people as key issues he is “going to run on, and that’s what I’m going to win on.”

But Helming, like Bruno, also focused on high crime rates she says Gounardes’ constituents are concerned about.

“The Republicans are going to take back this seat because they want common sense restored,” Helming said. “They are seeing this dramatic rise in crime in the New York City area, they are feeling like it’s becoming dangerous to live in their areas. They want change, they want stability back, they don’t want someone who supports criminals over crime victims. They want someone who’s going to protect all people, including our law enforcement.”

In a statement, Gounardes further framed himself as a legislator who finds a middle ground in a diverse district.

“The local Republican leadership here keeps running on the same old tired tropes,” Gounardes said. “They don’t understand that yes, you can be against racism, believe that Black Lives Matter, and still respect our local police. It's the job of a leader to find common ground and not further contribute to the divisive politics that are tearing our country apart — and now threaten the civic fabric of our own communities."

by Victor Porcelli, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Democrats Flipped a Brooklyn State Senate Seat in 2018; Is It In Play In 2020? Sun, 19 Jul 2020 04:00:00 +0000
In Democratic Senate Primary, Barkan Criticizes Gounardes for Embracing 'Anti-Immigrant' Reform Party Leader barkan handshake

Ross Barkan (photo: @RossBarkan)

As the contested Democratic primary for a southern Brooklyn state Senate seat heats up with less than two months to go, reporter-turned-candidate Ross Barkan is calling out his opponent Andrew Gounardes for accepting the endorsement of the Reform Party and its local leader, Bob Capano, who has a history of anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Barkan and Gounardes are competing ahead of the September 13 primary for the Democratic nomination in state Senate District 22, hoping to unseat Senator Marty Golden, one of the few Republican elected officials in the city. The district covers swaths of southern Brooklyn, including Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Bensonhurst, Gravesend, Marine Park, and Gerritsen Beach.

Immigration justice is a prominent part of Barkan’s policy platform, and one that has taken on added significance under the Trump administration with its “zero tolerance” policy towards illegal immigration and some asylum seekers. Barkan has called for abolishing ICE, the immigration enforcement agency, and supports the passage of the New York Liberty Act, the DREAM Act, and giving driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants, among other immigrant protections.

Gounardes, who is the general counsel to Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and a longtime Democratic presence in the area, including a 2012 bid to unseat Golden, has a similar platform and has backed some of the same policies as Barkan, including driver’s licenses and the Liberty Act. Gounardes is in favor of removing ICE from courthouses in the city but has not called for doing away with the agency entirely. He has the backing of the Working Families Party (WFP), prominent labor unions, and Democratic clubs. His previous boss, former City Council Member Vincent Gentile, has endorsed him as well, and he is close to the current Council Member in the area, Justin Brannan.

Gounardes’ outspoken support of immigrant rights, however, conflicts with his embrace of Capano, the Brooklyn Reform Party chair. Gounardes’ campaign website notably does not tout the Reform Party endorsement, which he received last month after being handed a Wilson Pakula certificate to obtain the party’s ballot line. He is running unopposed in the Reform Party primary and therefore is guaranteed both the Reform and WFP lines on the November 7 general election ballot (it is unlikely he would run a campaign in the general if he loses the Democratic primary to Barkan, however).

Capano, an adjunct political science professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, unsuccessfully ran as a Republican to replace Gentile in the 43rd Council District, when Gentile was term-limited out of the City Council last year. Capano and his branch of the Reform Party skew conservative, and he has been vocal in his anti-immigrant positions. He has been a prominent supporter of President Donald Trump and endorsed him in the 2016 Republican primary. He opposes Mayor Bill de Blasio’s progressive policies and recently supported ICE’s detention of Pablo Villavicencio, the undocumented pizza delivery worker who was taken into custody when making a delivery at Fort Hamilton army base.

“Political correctness can’t be allowed to determine which laws are worthy of prosecution and enforcement. The law is the law, and must be followed by all,” Capano wrote in an op-ed for Brooklyn Daily. Last year, Capano was heavily critical of Khader El-Yateem, a Democratic primary candidate for the 43rd Council District, calling the faith leader, who is a Lutheran pastor, a “radical cleric” and insisting that the nonprofit organization where he serves as treasurer, the Arab-American Association of New York, should be investigated for delving into political activities. Capano donated $125 to Gounardes’ campaign, and Curtis Sliwa, the chair of the state Reform Party, donated $100, according to campaign finance filings with the state Board of Elections. While the Reform Party has very few enrolled members, it has a ballot line to offer and a name that signifies good values to many voters.

On Monday, a few hours after Gotham Gazette asked Gounardes’ spokespersons for comment about his embrace of Capano, his campaign sent out a press release touting his immigration platform.

gounardes subway“To equate support with the Reform Party's agenda with anti-immigrant views is spurious,” Gounardes (pictured left) said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “Throughout my entire career, I have been outspoken in my support for and in defense of immigrants and refugees. I was one of the first people in my neighborhood to vociferously condemn the NYPD's illegal surveillance in mosques, cafes, and bookstores. I have given speeches urging for more to be done to help refugees around the world...I am running a campaign based on action and issues that affect the community, and that is both how and why I will win this November."

Gounardes also noted that he is sponsoring a bystander training session later this week with The Accompany Project, an initiative of the Arab-American Association. The session comes in response to a recent incident of a Muslim woman being verbally accosted on a Staten Island-bound bus.

Barkan, in a phone interview a few hours before Gounardes’ statement, said it was “quite frankly confusing” that Gounardes chose to accept the Reform Party endorsement and align himself with someone whose views are “antithetical” to Democrats in 2018. Barkan, who said he is attending a separate bystander training on Tuesday night sponsored by the city with the AAANY, pointed to the bus incident as evidence that hate is increasingly being normalized even in communities in New York with large immigrant populations.

“My campaign is a repudiation of everything Bob Capano stands for,” Barkan said. “We can’t defeat Marty Golden by emboldening racism and anti-immigrant attacks. We have to counter it at every turn.”

Barkan called on Gounardes to return the donation from Capano and to drop the Reform Party line. “The money’s not the only issue. The issue is a larger one. You’re running on a party line whose borough chair has made the headlines for anti-immigrant attacks, for supporting Donald Trump vociferously. I firmly disagree with any politician or candidate, Andrew or anyone else, who thinks you can run on a party line and take some of what the party stands for but not the rest of it.”

The Barkan campaign connected Gotham Gazette with residents in the district who were apprehensive about Gounardes being allied with Capano.

Fatima Elmansy, a Bay Ridge resident who worked on El-Yateem’s campaign last year, said she decided to vote for Barkan after hearing of Capano’s support for Gounardes.

“[Barkan and Gounardes] both clearly have appealing characteristics and its almost hard to find what exactly the differentiation is,” she said in a phone interview, “but finding this out was very jarring to me and a little concerning. It’s quite difficult to advocate against bigotry and racism and then have something like this happen. It’s almost empowering that. I know Bob Capano...isn’t exactly not a racist.”

She added, “It definitely puts a lot of Andrew’s views into question and in south Brooklyn, in the specific area he’s running in, it’s really important I think to be a very accepting and open person and stand against racism and bigotry very clearly.”

Community organizer and social worker Costa Kokkinos, another resident, said in an email, “Any association or quid pro quo with Bob Capano is troubling news for many reasons. This is the same Bob Capano that spent most of his breath trying to convince voters that he was a bigger supporter of Trump than any other Republican candidate during his City Council campaign last year.”

Capano and other competitors lost the Republican primary by a wide margin to John Quaglione, an aide to Golden, who went on to lose narrowly against Brannan.

Kokkinos also cited Capano’s repeated use of terms like “illegal aliens” to describe immigrants. “I don’t know Andrew Gounardes very well and he seems like a genuinely good person and a good candidate for the State Senate, but if he is so willing to associate with Capano to get a few extra votes, I wonder what he will give this guy in return if he wins?,” Kokkinos wondered. “Is he willing to do the hard identity work that this State Senate district needs to evolve?”

In a statement, Capano said, “Andrew Gounardes and I do not agree on everything. The Reform Party is not about any one person's purported positions, but rather our focus on cleaning up Albany.”

He added, “We respect that Andrew stands up for the causes he believes in, and he is the only candidate, regardless of party, with a platform that will achieve a less corrupt government."

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: This article has been updated to reflect that Gounardes is sponsoring the Accompany Project event, not just attending it, and Barkan is going to attend a separate event on Tuesday, July 24.

Note: Ross Barkan wrote a handful of articles for Gotham Gazette in 2012-2013.

In Democratic Senate Primary, Barkan Criticizes Gounardes for Embracing 'Anti-Immigrant' Reform Party Leader Mon, 23 Jul 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: A Journalist Runs for State Senate mxm logo

Ben Max, left, of Gotham Gazette, and Jarrett Murphy, right, of City Limits

March 13, 2018 - Max & Murphy Podcast: A Journalist Runs for State Senate, with Ross Barkan

ross barkan senate277px

Ross Barkan announced late last year that he was making the leap from journalism to running for elected office and entered the race in the 22nd State Senate District, a Brooklyn seat currently held by Republican Marty Golden that is on the ballot this fall. Golden is part of the GOP majority in the Senate that Democrats like Barkan blame for preventing a host of progressive legislation from moving through the Legislature.

Before he can directly take on Golden, Barkan must first prevail in the Democratic primary, where he faces Andrew Gounardes, an aide to Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams who lost to Golden in 2012. (We had booked both Barkan and Gounardes for this episode, but Gounardes later said a work obligation came up, so Barkan appeared alone.)

In this episode, Barkan explains his rationale for running, how journalism has prepared him for elected office, his campaign platform, and more.

Listen to the full conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy and guest Ross Barkan (@RossBarkan). You can listen to the episode through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts.

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Max & Murphy Podcast: A Journalist Runs for State Senate Tue, 13 Mar 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Killing of FDNY EMT Spotlights Issues for Unsung Profession ;fdny ambulance and hats

(photos: @FDNY)

Of the city’s various uniformed workers, some dominate media attention and public awareness. Along with the historical presence and mythology of firefighters and police officers, corrections officers have been in the news recently, mostly for the wrong reasons, while New Yorkers rely on sanitation workers for a basic essential of city life.

Public soul-searching over questions about broken windows policing and the future of the Riker’s Island jail also have many New Yorkers thinking about police and corrections officers, with ongoing policy discussions now moving into a city election year.

Yet one uniformed group, which like the others has a unique set of responsibilities, labor issues, and policy priorities, has found itself largely locked out of the conversation, even as its 4,700 members continue to risk their own well-being and save lives on a daily basis: FDNY emergency medical service (EMS) workers, which include EMTs and Paramedics.

The service came suddenly into the limelight on March 16 when Yadira Arroyo, 44, a 14-year veteran of the FDNY EMT and mother of five, was killed, allegedly by a 25-year-old Bronx man who commandeered her ambulance and ran her over.

“The primary concerns have not changed for many years,” said Izzy Miranda, president of Uniformed EMTs, Paramedics & Fire Inspectors Local 2507, in an interview a few days after Arroyo was killed on the job. “We get resistance from the administration no matter which one it is. We’re truly not recognized by the administration as a true uniformed service.”

His members’ primary concern is pay, Miranda said. Base salary for an FDNY EMT after five years on the job is $47,685. A firefighter, meanwhile, can expect to take home $85,292 in base pay after five years, the same as an NYPD officer after 5.5 years.

“They have to work overtime, second and third jobs…We lose the best quality people,” said Miranda, explaining that members turn to private sector jobs like nursing because they cannot afford to live in the city on EMT pay.

That’s the case for FDNY rescue medic Usman Rahyab, an 11-year veteran of the department, who had worked with Arroyo and described her as someone who “sincerely loved her job.”

“I have to teach on my days off, I have to work overtime,” Rayhab said. “I teach paramedics to make enough money to support myself and my son…My own barber makes more money than I do, and he cuts my hair.”

Rayhab also painted a picture of an agency with a multitude of internal budgetary and management issues, and a punishing work culture that drives out talented medical workers.

“We’re constantly, constantly running out of essential equipment. We’re allowed to go out there and respond and not have that. That’s because of the budget,” he said, citing the example of CPAP devices, which can prevent a patient from having to be intubated. “Right now, at this time, I do not have any in my truck. They still send me out…I shouldn’t be told ‘do what you have to do, do the best with what you have,’” he added.

In an email, Frank Gribbon, a spokesperson for the FDNY, denied there is any shortage of the devices, writing “I'm told we do not have a shortage of CPAP devices - plenty in stock.”

A report by the Citizens Budget Commission in December 2015 calculated that just 13% of the FDNY’s budget for fiscal 2015 was allocated for EMS, despite at least 75% of incidents to which the agency responded being medical in nature. The city’s EMS was moved from the Health and Hospitals Corporation to the FDNY in 1996 in an attempt to increase coordination between emergency services and reduce redundancies.

Gribbon said that “the budget for EMS has never been greater, having been increased by nearly $40 million two years ago by the Mayor” and specified that the cost of running EMS was $600 million, with $180 million recovered through insurance billing. He did not answer a question about how the EMS operating budget was calculated internally.

Rayhab also outlined functional and cultural problems within the agency, claiming that members were stretched so thin they could go 12 hours without a single break, even to eat. If discovered eating at an unsanctioned time, he said, they could lose “four or five days worth of pay.”

When paramedics get hurt, Rayhab said, “you’re either going to recover, you’re going to get demoted, or you’re going to lose your job. There’s nothing else. And there’s a high injury rate.”

When an EMS worker does become injured to the point that they cannot continue to work, that can be an uncertain process.

Miranda, the union president, recently held a rally on the steps of City Hall with State Senator Marty Golden (R-Brooklyn) and Assemblymember Peter Abbate (D-Brooklyn) to introduce a bill that would allow New York state courts to grant disability pensions to EMS, corrections, and sanitation workers if they disagreed with a pension denial from the New York City Employees' Retirement System (NYCERS).

Currently, courts can only remand cases back the board. In a phone interview, Sen. Golden said “[EMS workers] fall, mess up their back, their head, they cannot function as an EMS, they’re forced into disability. They have to go back and forth between the panel and the supreme court if they’re denied. This takes time, and it takes money. It can be two years and $10,000 before they’re done.”

Golden also worries about the physical safety of EMS workers. In 2015 he introduced a bill, which passed and was signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo, removing a requirement that an assault on an EMS worker had to intend to obstruct their official duties for it to be considered assault in the second degree, a class D felony.

For Golden, who was a New York City police officer in the 1970s and early ‘80s, the death of Arroyo is part of a larger pattern of renewed violence against uniformed responders and peace officers. “I remember people throwing garbage cans on firetrucks and EMS vehicles,” Golden said of his time in the NYPD, adding, “it seems to be back to that. They want to attack anyone in uniform.”

Another point of contention is the EMS service’s own leadership. As opposed to their firefighter counterparts, the appointment and promotion of EMS supervisors does not require a competitive civil service examination, a situation Miranda said does not afford EMTs ample opportunity to advance. Rahyab was more blunt: “they promote their buddies…Our members do not look up to the EMS administration.” Golden has introduced a bill in the Senate to require the examinations.

On the municipal front, the EMS workers union has a few specific interests, starting with contract negotiations that will bring their compensation more in line with their uniformed colleagues. Miranda said that their next contract negotiations will begin around April of next year, but his union is open to starting conversations with the city now.

Miranda is also pushing a bill, introduced by Queens Council Member Elizabeth Crowley, who is chair of the Committee on Fire and Criminal Justice Services, that would require bulletproof vests for some EMS workers “meet certain safety requirements related to their warranty, history of use, and fit” and “meet standards for bullet resistance developed by the National Institute of Justice.” The bill is designed to upgrade vests that were issued to EMS workers under the Giuliani administration in the late 1990s.

Crowley said she was also advocating for funding for the vests in the city budget, regardless of whether the bill passes in the Council. “If the [fire] department believes it’s important to give every graduating EMT a bulletproof vest, why are they not upgrading that vest after five years, when it’s no longer effective?” she said.

Crowley also intends to introduce legislation that will require public reporting of so-called vital statistics, internal figures that provide more detail than the department’s annual reporting on fire fatalities. She mentioned that these statistics showed that lives saved by EMS were down year-over-year.

“Unfortunately, many of the calls they get now are about overdoses…So naloxone use should be part of the vital statistics,” she said as an example of what could be included. Echoing the irritation of EMS workers, she said that it “frustrated me in the past, and it frustrates me today that they’re treated like a second class public safety arm.”

yadira arroyo emtBoth Rahyab and Miranda lamented the lack of attention that their profession’s struggles have received, but hoped that if there was one good thing to come out of the recent tragedy, it would be increased awareness.

“It’s a shame that it has to take a tragedy, one of our sisters making the supreme sacrifice, for these issues to even be looked at,” Miranda said.

by Felipe De La Hoz, Gotham Gazette

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Killing of FDNY EMT Spotlights Issues for Unsung Profession Tue, 28 Mar 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Planned Change to Veterans Department Budget Causes Stir bdb vets via nycveterans

photo: @nycveterans

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s preliminary budget, released January 24, proposes nearly $1 billion in increased spending for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1. But a conspicuous, albeit infinitesimal, reduction for one agency has irked elected officials and advocates.

The mayor’s spending plan, which will be evaluated by and negotiated with the City Council, includes a $318,000 decrease in the budget for the newly-minted Department of Veterans Services, which was created last year as an agency outside of the Mayor’s Office and given a significant budget boost. The DVS budget for the current fiscal year is $3.95 million, but de Blasio has $3.63 million budgeted for fiscal year 2018.

While it is a tiny fraction of the $84.7 billion preliminary budget plan, stakeholders argue that it is a step back for an administration that just last year made the major commitment to expanding veteran services by establishing a stand-alone agency after much lobbying by City Council members and advocates. The city, however, explains that the budget reduction is because one-time department start-up costs are coming off the books.

“It’s pretty sad that the Mayor of the city of New York decided to cut the department’s budget,” said state Senator Marty Golden, a Republican who represents Bay Ridge and sits on the Senate’s Committee on Veterans, Homeland Security and Military Affairs. “It’s cutting case management for veterans, it’s cutting healthcare for veterans, it’s cutting homelessness services for veterans.”

Golden has organized a rally outside City Hall on Wednesday afternoon to protest the budget change as well as call for additional tax relief for veterans. He’ll be joined by the City Council’s three Republican members -- Steven Matteo, Joe Borelli and Eric Ulrich, who chairs the council’s veterans committee --  as well as mayoral candidates Michel Faulkner, Paul Massey, and Richard "Bo" Dietl, and veterans advocates. Council Member Ulrich, the leading governmental force behind the creation of the Department of Veterans Services, did not respond to requests for comment.

“This is a bad signal to send to veterans and to the homeless,” Golden said of the budget change. “I’m hoping [Mayor de Blasio] reevaluates and he redirects that money.”

Mayoral spokesperson Freddi Goldstein explained in an email that the funding decrease is primarily due to one-time costs incurred in setting up the new agency last year, including fees paid to a consultant, costs for office equipment, and the non-renewal of a one-year position funded by a private grant. That funding runs through the end of the 2017 calendar year and is not reflected in the fiscal 2018 budget, according to a DVS spokesperson. A spokesperson for the mayor said that like other funding elements, the position could be negotiated back in over the course of the coming months.

In an office of about 30, the loss of that one position, related to homelessness prevention, would be “significant,” said Kristen Rouse, an Army veteran and president and founding director of NYC Veterans Alliance, an advocacy organization. The group will hold its own rally on February 14. “I completely understand that there were one-time costs, but they should be expanding regardless,” she said. “The trajectory needs to be an upward motion, not a downward one. Funding directly reflects that.”

Rouse pointed out that homelessness prevention is the biggest challenge for the department and said it should be part of a broader strategy of ensuring access to affordable housing for veterans. “There’s hundreds of veterans in shelter,” she said. “That’s important progress but that’s not a victory.”

The city ended chronic veteran homelessness by the end of 2015 and has set up an effective pipeline for getting veterans off the street. According to DVS spokesperson Alexis Wichowski, the latest count from January showed about 35 military veterans remain homeless and not in shelter. She also pointed out that the median stay for veterans in homeless shelters is about 79 days, compared to 355 for single adults, per the Mayor’s Management Report.

Wichowski said the budget changes were not a matter of concern and were always part of the plan in setting up the agency. “We are almost at full capacity, that’s a huge milestone,” she said. The agency has hired 33 of its 35-person budgeted staff and is set to embark on a number of projects and programs. “Getting people on board and getting them trained has been the focus for the last few months,” Wichowski said.

Under the direction of Commissioner Loree Sutton, the department now also has satellite offices in the Bronx and Queens and two on Staten Island, and is in the process of establishing agreements for offices in Manhattan and Brooklyn. DVS primarily offers help so that the 210,000 military veterans living in New York City can access services and benefits available to them.

City Council Member Borelli, a member of the veterans committee, was surprised and disappointed by the budget reduction. “It’s a question of the mayor’s long-term commitment to supporting the veterans agency,” he said. He critiqued the mayor for funding other items at comparable levels of the cuts, particularly $500,000 for speed cameras. “We can’t be blinded by the desire to see certain policy goals met while we abandon commitments we’ve already made,” he said.

At Wednesday’s rally, Borelli said the budget shift wouldn’t be the only item they will push. A key proposal, one promoted by veteran advocacy organizations for years, is the expansion of an alternative property tax exemption for veterans, which the NYC Veterans Alliance estimates would cost the city about $40 million at a time when the city’s assessed property tax value increased by $17.6 billion. It is a measure of much-needed housing affordability, several advocates and elected officials agree.

“The budget is about outlining priorities through a document,” Borelli said. “This is just saying that [DVS is] less pressing than other priorities.”

Next month, the City Council will begin to examine the mayor’s budget and issue its formal response, after which the mayor will release his executive budget, a revised spending plan. Following another round of Council hearings, the Council and mayor will move to closed-door negotiations before agreeing to a final budget for the next fiscal year by the June 30 deadline.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Planned Change to Veterans Department Budget Causes Stir Tue, 31 Jan 2017 05:00:00 +0000
Several Significant Questions About The Governor's Budget Cuomo built to lead sots

Gov. Cuomo at his State of the State (via The Governor's Office)

Gov. Andrew Cuomo's 2016-2017 budget proposal has legislators and budget experts scratching their heads as to how major capital projects will be paid for, how the state plans to make good on a promise to fund the MTA, and how certain measures might affect funding for New York City. Many are wondering if the governor will keep his pledge that his plan to shift millions in costs for CUNY and Medicaid "won't cost New York City a penny."

These questions linger almost two months after the plan was first released, rankling Mayor Bill de Blasio, City Council members, and city-based state legislators, and alarming budget watchdogs.

Only one month remains until the April 1 start of the new fiscal year and budget negotiations have been muted. State of Politics reports that there was an initial budget conversation on Wednesday morning among Cuomo and legislative leaders. The way Cuomo has positioned things, there are questions about whether the State Assembly and Speaker Carl Heastie, de Blasio's most important ally, will be willing and able to take on the political cost of going to battle for the city - on CUNY, Medicaid, and other issues like affordable housing bonds and homelessness-prevention vouchers. The Legislature recently finished holding budget hearings and the Assembly and Senate one-house budgets are expected imminently.

Potential state cuts loomed large over the initial New York City Council preliminary budget hearing on Tuesday, at which de Blasio's budget director reiterated several times that possible state cuts could be crippling to the city, but that the city plans to hold the governor to his word and that Assembly Democrats will be essential in the process.

Cuomo's move to have New York City assume additional MTA, CUNY, and Medicaid cuts are among his most controversial, along with the governor's plan to take more control of affordable housing being built in the city. While many await more detail from the governor as the clock ticks, there is also mystery around major infrastructure projects for the metropolitan region that the governor is overseeing as well as a proposal from the governor to create a new entity to take more control of such projects.

As the governor pushes other policies that city Democrats back, like a minimum wage increase and paid family leave, he appears to be exacting whatever costs from the city he can in order to both undermine de Blasio and help the state pay its obligations.

Cuomo has a variety of government ethics reform proposals in his budget, but he has not been promoting them publicly, leaving many to wonder their fate. Meanwhile, in recent days new light has been shone on billions of dollars in the governor's budget with no determined purpose, to be used by Cuomo and legislative leaders as they see fit at a later date.

The City's Burden
A recent evaluation of New York City finances by State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli warned that Governor Cuomo's budget provides major economic threat to the city. "The largest and most immediate budget risk is the proposed state Executive Budget, which includes three proposals that would increase the city's costs by $985 million in FY 2017 and by about $1.2 billion in each subsequent year (a total of $4.8 billion during the financial plan period)," reads the comptroller's report.

It continues: "The two proposals with the greatest budgetary impact ($785 million in FY 2017 alone) would require New York City to pay a larger share of the local cost of Medicaid and of the costs of the senior colleges of the City University of New York. After the release of the Executive Budget, the Governor stated that efficiencies would be identified to mitigate the budgetary impact of these proposals, but such savings have not yet been identified."

The Citizens Budget Commission, a nonprofit, nonpartisan watchdog based in New York City, quickly cried foul over the proposals in Cuomo's budget that would move costs for CUNY and Medicaid to the city (both are joint city-state programs that the state has traditionally supported to a far greater degree than the city).

CBC estimates the shift would cost the city $800 million. De Blasio pledged he would do "whatever it takes" to stop the plan, saying it could impact major plans to expand pre-kindergarten and other initiatives. As focus on the budget measure intensified Cuomo characterized the plan as a mutual agreement between the city and state to find efficiencies in the programs. De Blasio had only met briefly with Cuomo before the State of the State address and said he had learned about the shift that could cost the city nearly a billion dollars when most New Yorkers did.

Cuomo, in a NY1 interview, claimed "At the end of the day, what you will see is it won't cost New York City a penny, but we will make joint streamlining policy efficiency changes."

Some observers expected Cuomo to adjust the plan in his 30-day budget amendments, but nothing about it changed - apparently leaving it up to the city's allies in the Legislature to negotiate it.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, the city's most powerful advocate in Albany, has expressed major concern over the plans, but it appears that he would have to own the cost of a change as part of budget negotiations, possibly preempting other major initiatives his conference wants.

E.J. McMahon, president of the Empire Center, a budget-focused think tank, said he believes that undoing Cuomo's plan would cost Heastie "$500 million" during negotiations which would limit what else Assembly Democrats could bargain for given that Cuomo appears committed to a 2 percent overall cap on spending growth.

The governor's budget makes for 1.7 percent spending growth so there isn't much room for new initiatives and losing the savings created by the cost shift would further tighten the equation. "1.7 to 2 [percent] is $300 million," said McMahon, "So $500 million is a pretty significant number in budget negotiations."

Dave Friedfel of the CBC agrees. "To add $500 million back on to the budget would blow through the governor's spending cap. It will have a major impact on negotiations," Friedfel said.

The Fiscal Policy Institute, also a think tank, argued in its budget testimony that the state should scrap the 2 percent spending cap. "There is no reason to hold annual spending growth below two percent if it means that we are under-investing in education and poverty reduction," reads the FPI testimony. "This unforced austerity has already caused the state to underinvest in several critical areas, and the continuation of the cap guarantees further harmful cuts to local governments, education and human service programs."

Meanwhile, Heastie has pressed for a millionaire's tax that would allow the state to spend more on education. The Cuomo administration has derided the plan and Heastie has fired back. Mayor de Blasio has continued to express support for raising taxes on the highest earners, but he has not made a focused push on the issue since his efforts failed in 2014.

Asked about whether there have been joint efforts between the Cuomo and de Blasio administrations to find efficiencies as the governor discussed, Morris Peters, spokesperson for the division of budget, said in a statement: "We have been having conversations with our partners in government and we will continue to do so."

During City Council budget testimony on Tuesday, de Blasio's budget director Dean Fuleihan said that talks had yet to occur between the city and state but that he expects them to take place soon.

"I've also said I'm going to take him at his word, but I'll hold him to it," de Blasio told a gathering of the state Legislature's Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic, and Asian Caucus last month, referring to Gov. Cuomo and the CUNY and Medicaid cuts. "When the budget is passed on April 1 I fully expect there won't be any negative impact on New York City," de Blasio continued. "He said it won't cost us a single cent. That's what we expect, and I think a lot of people are going to make sure that happens."

Construction & Housing Takeovers
Another, little-discussed measure contained in Gov. Cuomo's budget would see the creation of "The New York State Design and Construction Corp." that would be given oversight of public construction projects worth over $50 million. The DCC would be a subsidiary of the state's Dormitory Authority and would be headed by three commissioners, all appointed by the governor.

"The DCC's primary purpose will be to provide additional project management expertise and oversight on significant public works projects undertaken by state agencies, departments, public authorities and public benefit corporations throughout the state," reads the governor's State of the State policy book.

The proposal has raised concerns for legislators and budget watchdogs who believe Cuomo is trying to have more influence over independent authorities like the MTA. The MTA board is made up of members appointed by the city and other localities serviced by the agency. The Governor also appoints members and names the chair. Representatives of Citizens Budget Commission (CBC) are concerned the body would create more bureaucracy and confusion. For example, the DCC could void contracts signed by the MTA. CBC has written legislators urging them to oppose the plan.

John Kaehny, of watchdog group Reinvent Albany, said he was taken aback by the plan. "The Dormitory Authority is the premier slush fund for pork barrel spending. To house a project management agency within it is alarming. We agree with budget watchdog groups who view this as a power grab and another attempt to reduce transparency and accountability."

"What is his motivation for proposing this unprecedented design and construction corporation?" asked McMahon, of The Empire Center. "It will allow [Cuomo] to reach in and take control of any project he wants. The governor is the kind of guy who will say 'Stop that, give it to me, I can do it better!' The governor likes to draw power to the center, to the top, to him."

Cuomo is also looking to increase the state's say over New York City development of affordable housing. Per the governor's plans, The Public Authorities Control Board would be allowed to veto individual housing projects proposed by the city that utilize tax-exempt bonds, given to the state by the federal government, which the state then allocates to municipalities.

Cuomo administration officials say the plan would add a new level of transparency to a system that allocates billions of dollars to construction each year. City officials and affordable housing developers say that there is no need for another level of bureaucracy.

The Control Board is made up of the governor and both legislative leaders. Mayor de Blasio has panned the proposal, as have a number of contractors and housing advocates who worry the plan will create overlap and uncertainty around badly-needed projects that increase affordable housing stock. The Real Estate Board of New York has also raised concerns that more state say would create uncertainty and possibly confuse lending institutions.

"We think adding these additional layers will only slow down the process at a point where thousands and thousands of people are waiting for housing that will allow them and their families to be able to make ends meet," de Blasio told legislators during budget testimony earlier this year.

Adding to the drama around the city's affordable housing plans, De Blasio administration officials, housing advocates and developers are also growing nervous that Cuomo may continue to divert some of the flow of federal housing bonds that the city relies on to create affordable housing. After doing so with millions of dollars in bonds that the city thought it could count on in 2015, Cuomo is considering using the bonds for the state's newly expanded role in creating affordable housing. During his State of the State, Cuomo outlined general plans to invest billions in affordable housing, but he has yet to flesh those plans out. His policy book promised details "in the coming weeks."

MTA Financing
Last year, Cuomo and his MTA Chair Thomas Prendergast began a campaign to push the city to contribute more to the MTA capital plan. Eventually a deal was struck where the city agreed to contribute $2.5 billion and the governor pledging an additional $7.3 billion, bringing the state's total pledged contribution to $8.3 billion, all part of the $26 billion overall five-year plan. For months Cuomo was asked how the state would pay its share and he retorted that the question would be answered in his budget.

His budget plan simply raised more questions. Cuomo's plan appropriates $1 billion for the MTA capital plan and pledges to provide more of the promised $8.3 billion when the MTA spends through other capital funding. The city has in turn put off its commitment to extra funding since the city-state agreement was contingent upon parallel fund allocation.

Budget experts believe the Cuomo administration will allow the MTA to issue bonds to raise the $7.3 billion once it spends the funds it has on hand. "[The governor] already committed to $8.3 million for the MTA and we all wondered where that would come from," said McMahon. "The answer is that the MTA commitment he signed was not worth the paper it was written on. Once the MTA is done spending money it raises itself, the state will direct them to issue their own bonds."

Jamison Dague of CBC said that while the MTA has a backlog of projects that need to be addressed, he would like to see the state spell out specific funding for the agency. "What they've done here is tell the MTA, 'You have resources to draw down before we come in with the pledge.' The MTA has a lot of capital funding sources they are still trying to spend."

However, Dague said knowing where the state funding is coming from is prudent for both the MTA and state's long-term planning. "You always want to identify revenue for big capital work before you get going with big contracts," Dague said.

Legislators expressed outrage over the plan during a budget hearing last week. "I have no idea how we can actually do a capital program and actually approve a capital program with language that 'it'll be there when you need it.' Corporate America would laugh at this. Any country would be surprised with this type of approach in funding," said Senator Marty Golden, a Republican from Brooklyn, according to Politico New York.

The Cuomo administration has vigorously defended its position. "The Governor put unambiguous and iron-clad language in the budget to make good on his commitment to provide $8.3 billion towards the MTA's capital plan," Morris Peters of the Division of The Budget told Gotham Gazette in a statement. Peters pointed to budget legislation that he said would cement the state's commitment to funding the MTA "in law."

Infrastructure Spending
This year's State of the State address was centered around the idea that Cuomo is rebuilding New York. "Built to Lead" was the theme and the governor announced a myriad of projects including revamping Penn Station, retooling the Javits Center, reconstructing LaGuardia Airport, and a major contribution to the rail tunnel underneath the Hudson River. The combined cost of the projects is estimated at over $100 billion.

Budget watchdogs say Cuomo's plans are bold but not backed up with detailed funding mechanisms. The governor's budget points to federal funding, cash from public authorities, and investment from public/private partnerships to fund a number of the projects. It leaves the state assuming $29 billion of project costs. Watchdogs say the budget only appropriates two-thirds of that cash. "I think the situation was created by the governor's desire to portray himself as having a grand plan. So we all wondered: 'With what money?'" said McMahon.

Cuomo has also already allocated billions of dollars worth of the state's bank settlement funds to other projects such as upstate revitalization. The state is also relatively close to bumping up against a borrowing cap that was signed into law under Gov. George Pataki, so it is unlikely the state could fund all of the projects if it wanted to.

"I think the governor's ambition is admirable," said Dague of CBC. "But one of the concerns is he has promised to take on so many projects while leaving the funding details to be filled in. Another concern the legislature has is that the projects aren't being put through rigorous analysis. There isn't a discussion of how the state makes use of its limited capital projects funds--why this and not that. And there also is the question in some cases of: 'Why are these projects in the governor's budget and not the MTA's?'"

Peters, of Cuomo's administration, said that the budget clearly lays out how Cuomo's grand plans will be paid for. The list of major infrastructure projects are funded by a combination of resources, including from the state and federal governments, public authorities, and private investment, as clearly laid out in our budget materials."

Cash Stash
Another major concern for budget watchdogs is the $2.4 billion in funds stashed in 80 different pots in this year's executive budget not labeled for any specific use, as identified by good government group Citizens Union in a new report.

It is actually common for the governor and both houses of the Legislature to create slush funds in the budget each year. The practice came under increased scrutiny last year after the arrest of (now former) Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who used cash from one of those pots of money in a scheme to earn referral fees through his law firm. Silver has been convicted on federal corruption trials and faces sentencing soon.

This year, according to the Citizens Union "spending in the shadows" report, the governor has $2.2 billion worth of this discretionary money, the Senate $815 million, and $686 million for the Assembly. Last year, Cuomo inserted language into the budget that would have required legislators to reveal their connections to any organization that received funding from these pots of cash, but he has not reinserted the language this year. Cuomo has outlined a series of ethics reforms that he says he intends to negotiate with legislative leaders

"With former Speaker Silver convicted in part because of his access to and illegal use of a healthcare-related lump sum pot, we need no greater reason to reform this form of budgeting," said Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, in a statement. "We need a whole new set of rules and level of transparency to ensure that taxpayer dollars are not used to personally enrich elected officials or used in unseemly pay to play schemes."

Policy Questions
Cuomo has again packed his budget with his major legislative priorities, a practice that has earned the governor criticism - some say that the budget should only include operational and capital spending, not new policy. This year, Cuomo is including an increase of the minimum wage toward $15 per hour, paid family leave, and raising the age of adult criminal responsibility from 16 to 18, among other policies.

The governor has the support of Assembly and Senate Democrats on the outlines of all of these issues while Senate and Assembly Republicans have voiced varying levels of dissent. The Governor recently told reporters the minimum wage issue might be removed from the budget debate.

Assembly Democrats, who control that chamber, are pushing for The DREAM Act, which Cuomo has included in his budget but has not rallied for publicly this year. Senate Republicans, who control that chamber, have been vigorously opposed to the plan, which would allow undocumented residents access to education aid.

Also on the Assembly to-do list is the millionaire's tax they argue will allow an increase in education spending, among other things. The Cuomo administration and the Senate have both rejected the idea.

Cuomo has remained nearly silent on the package of ethics reforms he pitched in January. Although he's taken to touring the state in an RV to tout his wage plan at a series of rallies, he has discussed ethics reform when prompted by reporters. His plans would strictly limit legislators outside income and close the LLC loophole that allows corporate donors to avoid campaign finance limits.

The governor was asked about the lack of discussion around ethics reform during one of his RV stops last week. He replied that discussions were happening "in phases."

"There's not a lot of continuity between $15 minimum wage and ethics," he said. "It's kind of a hard transition: 'I want to talk to you about a $15 minimum wage, oh, and now I wanna talk to you about limiting income for legislators.' It's not the most fluid transition. Maybe you could do it. It's tough for me."

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been changed to reflect the report of the initial budget meeting between Cuomo and legislative leaders.

Several Significant Questions About The Governor's Budget Wed, 02 Mar 2016 22:16:00 +0000