Gotham Gazette Tue, 21 Jan 2020 17:01:07 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) After Court Rulings, Unclear Future for Push to Restrict State Legislators' Outside Income Cuomo legislative leaders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

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After Court Rulings, Unclear Future for Push to Restrict State Legislators' Outside Income Mon, 20 Jan 2020 05:00:00 +0000
With Cuomo Promising Gig Economy Regulations, New York Leaders Consider Pros and Cons of California Model gocvuomo center

(photo: Don Pollard/Office of the Governor)

This year, more than 40% of New Yorkers will be employed in the so-called gig economy, Governor Andrew Cuomo said in his State of the State speech earlier this month. It was an acknowledgement that the nature of work is changing, or rather has changed, and also a concession that labor rules have not evolved to keep up. Gig economy workers lack the same benefits that full-time workers enjoy, which has helped billion-dollar companies make substantial profit on the backs of unprotected and often underpaid workers. And Cuomo said New York would no longer allow that to happen. 

“Large corporations have dominated and taken advantage of workers for too long,” said the governor, a third-term Democrat. “Today's economy works brilliantly for innovators, shareholders and billionaires, but it too often abuses workers. As FDR, Al Smith and Francis Perkins protected workers after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, we too must protect workers from today's threat, which is economic exploitation.”

He went on, getting at the heart of what he appears to be eyeing for new regulations: “Too many corporations are increasing their profits at the expense of the employee and the taxpayer, and that must end. A driver is not an independent contractor simply because she drives her own car on the job. A newspaper carrier is not an independent contractor because they ride their own bicycle. A domestic worker is not an independent contractor because she brings her own broom and mop to the job. It is exploitive, abusive, it's a scam, it's fraud. It must stop and it has to stop here and now!”

The governor’s words were encouraging news for state legislators, activists, and labor groups who have long sought to regulate the freelance and gig economy to protect workers. After California passed first-in-the-nation legislation that established a framework for doing that, New York may soon follow suite.

California’s Assembly Bill 5, or AB5 measure, uses an ABC Test to establish how a worker is classified, limiting the ability of companies to avoid paying benefits by claiming someone is an independent contractor rather than an employee. While Cuomo has not released the specifics of his proposals, some New York lawmakers intend to enact a similar measure having learned lessons from the successes, and failures, of the California model. 

There is of course opposition to these efforts from business groups and the companies that any potential bill would seek to regulate, and they have employed armies of lobbyists to represent their interests before the state. 

California isn’t the only model for gig economy legislation. New York City has already forged several other measures affecting the gig economy that could serve to inform the state’s efforts. The City Council passed the Freelance Isn’t Free Act in 2017, to ensure that freelance workers are paid on time and to protect them from wage theft. In late 2018, the Council established the first-ever minimum wage for drivers that work for ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft. Just last week, a law went into effect that extends protections against workplace harassment and discrimination to freelancers and independent contractors. 

Broklyn City Council Member Brad Lander was the sponsor of all three city laws – he’s working on more legislation currently – and he welcomed the governor’s words on the need for new regulation. “Obviously, in the past, the governor embraced Uber and the gig economy and he has come to understand that it can be a site of real exploitation, and that new rules are needed,” Lander said in a phone interview. In 2017, Cuomo pushed through legislation that authorized ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft to operate across the state.

The classification of workers, as Cuomo outlined in his State of the State, remains a state question. Lander and others are hoping New York creates its own ABC test for workers, which would have a broad effect across different gig economy segments.

“What I hope will be at the heart of New York state legislation is that there are a set of people for whom the terms and conditions of their employment are set by the platform or by the hiring party, and they really should have been treated as employees all along,” he said. “[California’s] law helps clarify that requirement and close the loop.”

Though Cuomo has not yet introduced any legislative proposals (he mentioned the need for gig economy regulation in his 2019 agenda but did not follow through), he appears more committed this year. And, there have already been attempts by Democratic state legislators.

State Senator Diane Savino, a Democrat from Staten Island, has been working on gig economy regulation for years and has been leading public hearings on the issue in recent months as chair of the Senate Standing Committee on Internet and Technology. Along with Bronx Assemblymember Marcos Crespo, she introduced a bill last year, the Dependent Worker Act, to reclassify certain gig economy workers and provide them with labor protections, including the ability to unionize and collectively bargain for benefits. But the bill was unpopular, both to business and labor groups. 

A subsequent bill introduced by Assemblymember Deborah Glick and State Senator Robert Jackson, both Manhattan Democrats, heeds more closely to California’s law, and would have established an ABC test for workers in New York. That too was unsuccessful, but Glick says she’ll pursue the bill again this year. She was encouraged by the governor’s speech.

“I'm glad that he made reference to the fact that there are companies that should live up to their responsibilities to treat the people working for them as employees and provide them with the appropriate benefits that reflect the dignity of their work,” Glick said in an interview. “And it certainly should not fall to government to pick up the slack while these companies are generating very large profits.”

Glick is aware of the challenges and has conceded that the bill may require exemptions. California’s law is currently going before the courts and major companies have promised to spend millions of dollars to defeat it in through a ballot referendum this year. There’s also been criticism from those the bill was supposed to benefit. It mandates that companies would need to hire a freelance writer who publishes more than 35 pieces of writing in their publication. Freelancers say that would effectively harm, rather than help them, by requiring them to work for more companies and publish more broadly. 

“I think Senator Jackson and I are confident that we will be able to make technical changes that will address concerns from specific industries and at the same time cover most employees who have, up until now, been very disadvantaged by being considered independent contractors,” Glick said. 

Since last year, Savino has similarly recalculated her effort and is hoping to recraft legislation and avoid the pitfalls of California’s law. “We have the benefit of having watched California go first,” she said. “What we have to figure out is how do we write a piece of legislation that creates clear rules for everybody, everyone understands it, maintains the flexibility that people seem to like, and doesn't ensnare people unnecessarily the way the California law did. So you don't wind up with 30 exemptions and multiple court cases.”

The legislators are speaking with stakeholders on all sides of the issue, including the companies that will be most affected by legislation and have been fighting against it. The Flexible Work for New York coalition, comprised of business groups, trade associations and several app-based services including Uber, Lyft, and Postmates, has pushed back against efforts to regulate the gig economy, arguing that it would reduce workers capacities to supplement their income and would also increase costs for consumers.

“Flexibility has allowed tens of thousands of New Yorkers to earn income around their own lives,” said Christina Fisher, spokesperson for Flexible Work for New York (FWNY), in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “These are single parents trying to juggle childcare, retirees trying to supplement their retirement income, and college students who need a way to earn money around their class schedules. As lawmakers explore ways to better protect workers, it’s vital they do so in a way that balances those protections with the flexibility that workers overwhelmingly value and need. Already, multiple industries in California – from freelance writers to truck drivers and more – have suffered the negative impacts of overly broad legislation that ignored the voices of workers, and we can’t let that happen here in New. York.”

An FWNY spokesperson put Gotham Gazette in touch with Mastro Young, 65, who has been driving for Uber in Albany for about two years. Young said he was concerned about how any new laws may affect his ability to earn extra income. The flexibility he has from working with Uber allows him more time with his family, he said, and as a veteran, the time to go to the doctor without having to request time off from an employer. “Financially, Uber helps me a whole lot, paying my bills and having a little extra money,” he said in a phone interview. “Without Uber, it  can be tiring, you know, trying to make ends meet.”

Young isn’t opposed entirely to new regulations that could potentially increase benefits for those who don’t work the equivalent of full-time hours, but he was adamant that the governor and Legislature shouldn’t take away the flexibility that drivers like him enjoy. “If I need money, if I know my bills are coming, I drive more at the end of the month so I can pay my bills,” he said. “If I want to take my wife on a vacation, I can up my hours, so I can do these things. So I'm just hoping that is not taken away from us.”

Overall, it’s not clear how gig economy workers are thinking about possible regulations that would drastically impact their lives.

Legislators seeking new regulations have powerful labor allies on their side. The New York Do It Right Employment Classification Test (DIRECT) coalition has been advocating for an ABC Test in state labor law, taking direct aim at app-based ride-hailing services, which currently help provide work to somewhere around 100,000 drivers, if not more, across the state on a somewhat consistent basis. The coalition’s members include the likes of labor heavyweight 32BJSEIU, immigrant advocacy group Make the Road New York, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, The Legal Aid Society and the New York Nail Salon Workers Association, among others. 

“I think It's important to recognize as we're talking about the issue of misclassification that this is not strictly an Uber problem,” said Brian Chen, staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project, another coalition member. “It's not strictly a gig economy problem. This is a misclassification problem and misclassification extends to virtually every industry in New York, particularly those industries that are very low wage, often immigrant dominated where there is typically a lot of exploitation.”

Chen said his coalition is working with the National Writers Union and other writers groups to craft a carveout that would prevent what happened in California. 

“The ABC test is the gold standard that reaffirms the rights and protections of misclassified workers,” he added. “It holds employers accountable to their workers. And most importantly, it does not jettison any rights or protections that that people are entitled to under the law.”

While classification is a central issue, it’s by far not the only one that some advocates and experts want to see addressed this year.

Eli Dvorkin, editorial and policy director at the Center for An Urban Future, a nonprofit thinktank, said the missing piece of the puzzle is a comprehensive system of universal, portable benefits for those workers who truly do count as independent contractors. “I think the opportunity for New York is to tackle an even greater challenge, which is how to provide financial security and other benefits to independent workers,” Dvorkin said. 

He pointed to the Black Car Fund as an existing model that could be emulated, or mandated, in other industries, emphasizing that any new legislation should “thread that needle” between protecting workers that are closer to employees as well as benefiting those who continue to want to work as truly independent contractors. “That's a two-pronged approach that would be much more powerful in total, and I think we've yet to see what that second prong would look like at the state level,” he said. 

In the absence of the universal provision of benefits like healthcare, Dvorkin said companies should be setting up benefits funds for independent contractors to give them access to affordable health care, workers compensation insurance and unemployment insurance. “I think there's a huge opportunity to set up a system where companies pay into a set of flexible benefits, portable benefits that's prorated to the amount of work that that any one person has performed for that company or on their platform. and the technology already exists to be able to do that,” he said. 

Savino admitted that portable benefits are  “not a foreign concept” for New York, pointing to other models including ones created by the Freelancers Union and Domestic Workers United for their members. But she said the focus first needs to be on creating a standardized classification system for those denied basic statutory rights such as workers compensation, unemployment insurance, human rights law protections, and the right to organize and collectively bargain.

NELP’s Chen echoed the sentiment. “I think our position is, let's start with the benefits that people are due under the labor laws already and that's minimum wage, anti discrimination, workers compensation, unemployment insurance.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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With Cuomo Promising Gig Economy Regulations, New York Leaders Consider Pros and Cons of California Model Mon, 20 Jan 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Cuomo's Missing Ethics Agenda Cuomo corruption ethics

Cuomo in 2013 (photo: Governor's Office)

The government ethics agenda put forth by Governor Andrew Cuomo in his 2020 State of the State is much shorter than those he’s proposed in years passed.

In fact, it contains just one proposal: legislation mandating some state officials publish their tax returns. Meanwhile, it leaves out several of Cuomo’s past proposals that have yet to be accomplished, including major campaign finance reforms supported by one of his top allies.

The heavily-truncated list comes after more than a year of controversy surrounding the state’s Campaign Finance Reform Commission, which was created by the governor and Legislature to tackle some of his oldest evergreen proposals to get money out of politics. That commission put forth binding recommendations, now law, to institute a new public matching campaign finance system, with much lower individual contribution limits and other reforms.

But following the end of the commission’s work, many observers and one of Cuomo’s own appointees to the body, have said that a number of key campaign finance reforms are yet to be resolved and should be taken up by state lawmakers.

Yet in his most recent State of the State address, and the 318-page policy book that accompanied it, Cuomo outlined just one initiative that would address potential government corruption. The sole item related to ethics or campaign finance is passing the “Nothing to Hide” Act, a bill that would require the state’s most powerful and highly-paid officials to disclose their tax returns to the public. It is a proposal that resonates with national calls for President Donald Trump to release his tax returns, but touches only one edge of the state’s most endemic corruption problems.

addLeft aside by the campaign finance commission, and also by Cuomo, are proposals to limit donations to party committees and from people doing business with the state, two areas of the campaign finance system that the governor has said enables dark money in the political process.

After years of Cuomo calling for reforms to address perennial corruption and the influence of big money on state government -- strengthening financial disclosure requirements for government officials, expanding state procurement oversight, limiting the income of legislators outside their government salaries, to name a few -- only some of the most highly anticipated proposals have been accomplished, with others only partially or nominally addressed, and a number completely unfulfilled.

Paring down his ethics agenda comes after repeated pledges to clean up state government since his winning 2010 campaign for governor and amid a long series of corruption scandals, including those involving members of Cuomo’s inner circle and state legislative leaders; and amid the governor’s ongoing practice of raising huge sums of money from powerful entities with state business.

“We would have liked to see the governor propose more good government legislation in his State of the State address. In years past he put forth many proposals and this year it appears there’s only one,” said Alex Camarda, senior policy analyst at the good government group Reinvent Albany.

Campaign Finance
High on the list of accomplished reforms are the recent Campaign Finance Reform Commission results, including establishing a voluntary system with lower contribution limits for individuals and public matching funds to multiply the impact of smaller donations. While the details of the new system are still being debated, litigated, and widely critiqued (though not negotiated by state lawmakers), the commissioners left untouched two long-sought changes: contribution limits on donors to political party accounts and on people doing business with the state.

Ethics watchdogs have identified both issues as avenues for circumventing the state’s existing campaign contribution limits and promoting the influence of large political donors. And Cuomo has over the years called for restrictions on both fronts, though he included neither in his 2020 agenda.

Cuomo’s chosen chair of the state Democratic Party, Jay Jacobs, was also one of the governor’s appointees to the campaign finance commission, and while the commission didn’t touch political party donation or doing-business donation limits, Jacobs said that lawmakers should tackle both.

Asked in December why the commission hadn’t, Jacobs said on the Max and Murphy podcast that the panel’s legal counsel believed them to be outside the commission’s jurisdiction. “That’s not to say that I don’t believe, and I do believe, that the legislature should take it up and address both those issues,” he said, adding there should be limits on “party accounts and certainly those doing business with the state.”

Cuomo has for almost his entire term in the executive chamber called for limits to party “housekeeping” accounts, including it in his first State of the State in 2011, and in every other policy book between 2013 and 2018. Housekeeping accounts, as opposed to party committees, are meant to support party activities outside of campaigns, but are frequently used to channel large contributions into elections operations like get out the vote efforts, which can be used to benefit preferred candidates outside of the state’s oversight apparatus.

The governor has also publicly supported campaign contribution limits on people with or seeking state contracts throughout his tenure, at least as far back as his 2012 State of the State. In his speech that year, he raised alarms about the “undue influence over elected officials” of contractors and lobbyists who have donated to the campaigns of key decision-makers and may later expect the favor to be returned. (In 2016, as the Buffalo Billion bid-rigging and bribery scandal was unfolding, Cuomo pledged to restrict contributions to his own campaign coffers from companies when the government was seeking contractors. His office later confirmed to Gotham Gazette that this promise had not been followed through on.)

Cuomo has benefited immensely from contributions from people and businesses with state contracts. The New York Times reported in July that Cuomo had raised over $3 million just from contractors with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) since he took office in 2011, according to campaign finance filings. That is more than 3 percent of his total campaign donations over the same period of time coming from contractors with just one, albeit massive, state authority.

Jacobs admitted in the interview that restricting contributions to party accounts goes against the interests of the state party he chairs, of which Cuomo is one of the biggest beneficiaries. “As state party chair I would advocate maybe something different but that’s not my role at this moment,” he said.

Party committees are able to garner a virtually unlimited amount of money and unlike housekeeping accounts can be used on electoral spending to benefit a particular candidate. Campaign finance filings for the weeks ahead of the 2018 primary, in which a number of incumbent Democratic legislators had competitive challenges from the left, show the New York State Democratic Committee received hundreds of thousands of dollars from a handful of unions and political action committees -- the largest donation that filing was $109,000 from the United Federation of Teachers (UFT). Ahead of the general election in 2019, the committee received a single donation of $95,000 from an individual, Lucy R. Waletzky (a Rockefeller), of Pleasantville.

Also left on the cutting room floor was Cuomo’s 2019 proposal to ban all campaign donations from corporations, which accompanied a similar plan to ban contributions by limited liability corporations, or LLCs.

“That’s something that could be done, that could go further than what’s been proposed, but I will say that I think the other items I mentioned -- the doing business restrictions, lower contribution limits, limits on party and housekeeping accounts -- are more important,” Camarda said, noting that LLCs were partially addressed last year when the Legislature and Cuomo imposed contribution limits and new disclosure requirements on them.

Asked why Cuomo had not included some of his past ethics and campaign finance proposals in his 2020 agenda, and specifically why he did not include limits on political party and doing-business contributions, a spokesperson for Cuomo said he still supports past proposals.

"We're proud to say that closing the LLC loophole was among the first bills the governor signed last year and of course we continue to support these further reforms. I'm sure these will be among the issues we’ll be discussing with the legislature this session," wrote Caitlin Girouard, the administration spokesperson, in an email.

What remains in 2020 is the proposed tax return disclosure requirement, which would make high-earning officials, including the governor, attorney general, comptroller, state legislators, and agency commissioners, as well as any elected official earning more than $100,000 annually, to publish their tax returns. The measure is similar to a 2019 proposal in Cuomo’s State of the State that would require candidates for statewide office and the Legislature to submit tax returns to the Board of Elections.

“We think the public financing system still needs to be improved significantly by limiting party contributions, contributions from individuals doing business with the state, for example,” Camarda said.

“And we think there is a real need to reform JCOPE and ethics laws, which nobody believes are working effectively, as evidenced by all the situations that have arisen over the last year,” he added referring to the state’s maligned ethics watchdog.

More Past Cuomo Ethics Proposals
A number of other ethics proposals from previous years remain active in the minds of good government advocates, if no longer in the governor’s. Among them are requiring local elected officials and municipal employees to file financial disclosure statements with JCOPE. Another initiative would have enacted a “first-in-the-nation” code of conduct for lobbyists, as Cuomo put it last year, a measure that several good government groups opposed saying it was too nebulous.

Other past priorities of the governor were pursued in previous years but failed to achieve the full scope of what was advocated. High on that list was a limit on legislators’ income outside their government salary, which was imposed by a commission but later struck down in New York State Supreme Court. Good government groups now want to see the measure, which is intended to limit conflicts of interest and opportunities for corruption, created through statute by the Legislature and governor.

At the start of 2019, Cuomo was calling for expanded oversight powers of the state comptroller and inspector general to review certain large state contracts for SUNY, CUNY, and affiliated organizations, as well as Office of General Services centralized contracts. This was partially achieved through an agreement between Cuomo and Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli in August, but good government groups want to see it codified.

In his 2019 State of the State, and clarified in his executive budget proposals that year, Cuomo called for multiple changes to the state’s Freedom of Information Law, from making the state Legislature subject to open records provisions and allowing public access to union contracts before they’re approved to limiting the length of time during which trade secrets are exempt from FOIL. None of his five proposals passed, but three other legislative amendments were made: exempting mugshots from FOIL, requiring Industrial Development Agencies to livestream and record public meetings, and requiring state agencies with websites to create a webpage for requesting records. In December, Cuomo signed a FOIL bill and vetoed another, both relating to access to court records (the vetoed measure would have limited certain law enforcement-related exemptions to FOIL).

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this story has been updated to reflect that Comptroller DiNapoli's office said the aforementioned agreement with Gov. Cuomo has been finalized, so mention of it not being so has been removed.

Cuomo's Missing Ethics Agenda Tue, 14 Jan 2020 05:00:00 +0000
As Cuomo Proposes Expansive Equal Rights Amendment Favored in Senate, Assembly Again Passes Narrow Version 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.

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.

As Cuomo Proposes Expansive Equal Rights Amendment Favored in Senate, Assembly Again Passes Narrow Version Mon, 13 Jan 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Pursuing More Justice: Elder Parole is Good for Communities Across New York prison cell bars

(photo: Andrew Bardwell/Wikimedia Commons)

When I was first elected to the New York State Assembly in November 2016, I pledged to promote safety, fairness, and justice for my community and other communities across New York. I knew that we had so much work to do to support everyday New Yorkers and their loved ones, especially those harmed by the criminal justice system—something that has impacted me and so many others in my northern Manhattan district for decades. 

While colleagues and I made important changes to New York’s pre-trial legal system in 2019, we still have so much to do for the more than 45,000 people currently incarcerated in state prisons and their families. We should start by promoting a system of hope and redemption for long-serving incarcerated older New Yorkers. 

In the last two decades of mass incarceration, our system has become smaller but increasingly more punitive. As the overall prison population in New York State decreased since its peak population of 72,000 people in 1999, the rate of people serving life sentences has ballooned. 

New Yorkers are now serving more time on longer prison sentences than ever before. Today, one in five New Yorkers in prison is serving a life sentence—more than 9,000 total people. Of this group, 1,027 people are serving life without parole and virtual life without parole (with a minimum sentence of at least 50 years) sentences.

They are effectively sentenced to die in prison without any individualized assessment, public safety review, or second chance. Many of these people are already in their fifties and sixties. Those who aren’t yet elders are destined to become older people in prison given the long sentences they have.

The large majority of people growing older in prison and serving life and death sentences are people of color. Stanley Bellamy is one of them.

In 1985, the year I was born, Stanley was a 23-year-old young person from Queens who made a terrible choice that caused devastating harm. He and several others robbed two people at gunpoint, killing one, and causing serious injury to the other. Their actions left family members of the victims forever harmed and a community shaken. Stanley was sentenced to 62.5 years to life in prison, effectively sentenced to die behind bars without any chance for redemption.

Stanley is now a 57-year-old father, grandfather, mentor, teacher, and positive force in every prison in which he has ever been confined over the last 34 years. He has founded and facilitated victim awareness, restorative justice, and other programs that allow him and his incarcerated colleagues to develop insight into the harm their crimes caused.

Stanley has earned two college degrees behind bars with honors and has accomplished more under the constraints of maximum-security confinement than most people have in the free world. While there is no doubt that Stanley caused serious harm to people, families, and an entire community, his continued confinement serves no purpose other than punishment and revenge.

I believe we are all better served with Stanley and others like him in our communities where they can continue to be positive embodiments of redemption.

Allowing Stanley and other incarcerated older people who have already spent decades in prison a chance at redemption would benefit the communities I serve and others across New York State. Upon release, Stanley and his peers could positively impact all of us in ways that so many other formerly incarcerated community leaders already do.

They’d mentor young people, prevent gang and gun violence, and steer 23-year-old ‘Stanleys’ down a different path. Stanley wouldn’t be a risk to the community but would instead enhance community safety and deter crime. 

My colleagues and I in the New York State Legislature have a great opportunity to give Stanley and others a chance, and benefit our communities, by passing the Elder Parole Act (A.9040) in 2020.

Elder Parole would allow the State Parole Board to give people in prison aged 55 and older who have served 15 or more years an individualized review and assessment. The bill doesn’t release a single person from prison. Instead, it provides hope and a chance at redemption for people who are otherwise serving death-by-incarceration sentences.

If the Parole Board decides to release even a handful of people as a result of the bill’s passage, it would save lives, reunite families and communities, and save New York taxpayers millions of dollars. 

New York is a national outlier when it comes to long and life prison sentences. Our state has the eighth highest rate of life sentences in the country—greater than Texas, Oklahoma, and Georgia. Far more people have died in the last decade in New York state prisons because of long prison sentences than the total number of people who were executed in every state that still uses the death penalty. 

Death-by-incarceration is an abomination that can’t go on any longer. I refuse to have my five year-old daughter grow up in a state that condemns people who look like her to die in cages, regardless of their change and transformation over years and decades. For New York to be the truly progressive beacon that all of us want it to be, we must take steps towards unraveling this paradigm of permanent punishment. Elder Parole is one concrete way for us to get there this year.

Assembly Member Carmen De La Rosa represents District 72, including Inwood, Washington Heights, and Marble Hill in Manhattan. She is the lead sponsor of the Elder Parole Act (A.9040). On Twitter @CnDelarosa.

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

Pursuing More Justice: Elder Parole is Good for Communities Across New York Mon, 13 Jan 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Three Democratic Leaders in Albany, Three Different Positions on Altering Bail Reforms Cuomo legislative leaders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Three Democratic Leaders in Albany, Three Different Positions on Altering Bail Reforms Sun, 12 Jan 2020 05:00:00 +0000
State Senate Set to Move Automatic Registration Amid Early 2020 Voting 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.”

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

State Senate Set to Move Automatic Registration Amid Early 2020 Voting Package Wed, 08 Jan 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: Cuomo's State of the State & What's Next, with 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

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Max & Murphy Podcast: Cuomo's State of the State & What's Next, with Senator Liz Krueger Wed, 08 Jan 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Ahead of 2020 Elections, Cuomo Signed Affidavit Ballot Bill That Roiled Queens DA Recount Cuomo signs legislation

(photo: Governor's Office)

In the final weeks of 2019, Governor Andrew Cuomo quietly signed a bill changing the way affidavit ballots are counted, an issue that roiled New York City last summer during the controversial recount in the Queens District Attorney Democractic primary. Borough President Melinda Katz, who had Cuomo’s endorsement, eventually prevailed over public defender Tiffany Cabán by just 60 votes, with hundreds of potential votes not counted -- votes that may have been counted had the governor signed the affidavit ballot bill into law then.

The bill, sponsored by Assembly Member Kevin Cahill and State Senator Leroy Comrie, would allow election administrators to count affidavit ballots when they “substantially comply” with the requirements for filling them out. The law is intended to make it harder to throw out the provisional ballots when the intent of a voter is clear, even if they contain minor errors -- a death sentence for many of the roughly 350 uncounted affidavits in the incredibly close Queens District Attorney primary.

The legislation passed both chambers of the State Legislature in June but went unsigned by the governor until December 20, just ahead of the year-end deadline for taking action. The law takes effect immediately, in time for the March special election to replace Katz, who was sworn in as the borough’s top prosecutor at the beginning of this year.

“When a person clearly evinces their intention on the ballot and they are verifiably qualified to vote, nothing should stand in the way of counting their choices,” Cahill, an Ulster County Democrat, wrote in an email to Gotham Gazette. “Over the last several years, the courts of our state have been inching toward that simple concept and now it is the law of our land.”

Affidavit ballots are provisionally provided to voters who believe they are registered but are not listed in the voter rolls when they show up at a poll site, which could result from a number of factors like when a voter has recently changed addresses. If a local board of elections determines the voter to be legitimately registered, the ballot will be counted.

Among the most common errors during the Queens DA primary were incomplete information on the envelope containing the ballot, including flaws like a voter failing to list an address where they were previously registered.

The new law loosens the criteria for counting a ballot by emphasizing the voter’s intent and explicitly removing failure to list a previous address from the list of disqualifying factors.

Good government groups are pleased the bill has finally been signed.

“We think all votes should be counted, and missing information on an affidavit form should not be disqualifying when a voter's identity and eligibility to cast a ballot can otherwise be determined,” said Alex Camarda, senior policy advisor at Reinvent Albany, a government watchdog.

During the contentious recount in the close race between Katz and Cabán, many people wanted to see the bill signed to allow more affidavits to be counted, while others were concerned about changing the laws under which voters and election administrators were operating in the middle of an election. Between the conclusion of the recount and Cuomo signing the bill last month, a general election passed with little controversy around affidavit ballots.

“There were more than 900 bills that passed both houses at the end of the 2019 session and had to be reviewed by the Counsel’s Office and the Division of the Budget. It is our responsibility to ensure that the bills, as written, are responsible, enforceable and accomplish their intended purpose,” wrote Caitlin Girouard, a spokesperson for Cuomo, in an email.

The governor’s approval memo, accompanying the legislation, states that before giving his signature he had to secure an agreement with the Legislature to clarify the meaning of “substantially comply” in order to ensure ballots “are not unjustly cast aside.”

During the Queens DA recount in July, Cuomo said, “it’s absurd to say you would apply anything retroactively,” according to a tweet by reporter Emma Whitford, apparently referring to changing the canvassing rules after ballots had been cast. “So it’s really about the [November] election now,” he added when asked about signing the bill, which he did not sign until after that election.

Other Voting and Election Reforms Signed, Take Effect
Cuomo’s signature on the affidavit bill came days after he signed two other voting measures related to absentee voting. The new provisions require absentee ballots to align with the ballots used by voters in-district on election day and for absentee applications for school district elections to be simplified in line with other absentee applications already in use.

Earlier in December, the governor signed legislation passed in June that requires SUNY and CUNY to offer voter registration forms and absentee ballots to students each September and in January of presidential election years.

The affidavit and absentee ballot legislation are among a slew of election reforms passed in 2019 by the State Legislature, newly under Democratic control of both houses. The changes, some of which have already gone into effect and others of which are just being implemented now, include several that election reformers had long sought to make voting easier.

Establishing a statewide nine-day early voting period and authorizing local elections boards to use electronic poll books were in effect for the first time ahead of the November general election. Lawmakers also unified federal and local primaries in June, in an effort to consolidate the many elections New Yorkers may participate in every other year. This year is set to see three statewide election days (presidential primary in April, congressional and state legislative primaries in June, general election in November), but not the four that occurred in 2016.

The reforms also included a change in the party enrollment deadline to within five months of the June primary and having voter registration automatically transfer when moving residences within the state.

Beginning January 1, 16- and 17-year-olds are now allowed to pre-register to vote if they are otherwise eligible, with the registration going into effect when they reach voting age. In October, Cuomo signed the Voter Friendly Ballot Act, which changes the way ballots are designed to improve readability.

In January 2019, the Legislature also secured the first passage of two state constitutional amendments that, if ratified, will allow New Yorkers to register to vote on election day (same-day registration) and apply for absentee ballots without providing a reason for needing one. State constitutional amendments must pass in two consecutive legislatures and be approved by voters in a ballot referendum, so the earliest these would become law is late 2021, if they are passed by the 2021 Legislature followed by voters that fall.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Ahead of 2020 Elections, Cuomo Signed Affidavit Ballot Bill That Roiled Queens DA Recount Tue, 07 Jan 2020 05:00:00 +0000
5 Things to Watch in Cuomo's State of the State Speech Cuomo State of the State

Gov. Cuomo (photo: Mike Groll/Governor's Office)

Having already released more than 30 proposals, Governor Andrew Cuomo will unveil his full 2020 agenda for this year’s legislative session on Wednesday as he delivers his annual State of the State address in Albany. Unlike last year and several others during his prior nine years as governor, Cuomo’s speech won’t be accompanied with the release of his executive budget proposal, which is expected soon and must address a $6.1 billion projected deficit for the next fiscal year.

Cuomo’s 2020 agenda will include several elements of unfinished business from last year that he’s likely to revive with tweaks and modifications, including elements he was not able to get to the finish line with the Legislature, such as legalization of adult-use marijuana, or related to pieces of legislation he has vetoed in recent weeks but wants to find agreement on, such as legalization of e-bikes and e-scooters.

After what was a highly prolific and historic 2019, the first of Cuomo’s tenure with both legislative houses controlled by fellow Democrats, the governor has made “making progress happen” his theme for this year. Last year, when he called it his “justice agenda,” included a few scrapes between the governor and a Legislature, emboldened by new progressive members, that at times proceeded without Cuomo’s full approval.

"Last year we laid out the most aggressive agenda in modern political history and we got it done," Cuomo said in a December 13 announcement of his annual State of the State. “This year we'll build on that record of accomplishment and continue restoring confidence in government as a force for good. We're going to set the bar even higher, making progress happen for the people of this great state and sending a signal to a weary country to follow New York as we lead the way upwards.”

The proposals he has unveiled thus far include new gun control measures, bills to combat the opioid epidemic, modified election regulations, environmental protection bills, prescription drug price reductions, net neutrality protections, new rules for the debt collection industry, penalties for illegal cigarette sales, a ban on gender pricing differences called the “pink tax,” transparency in health care costs, restrictions on vaping products and related advertisements, legalizing gestational surrogacy, studying high speed rail, regulating robo calls, passing the Equal Rights Amendment, and major infrastructure investments.

If Cuomo’s agenda from prior years is any indication, his State of the State policy book will contain hundreds more proposals, only some of which make it into the governor’s speech. It remains to be seen how ambitious Cuomo will be this year considering how much was done last year, the state budget gap, and that it’s an election year with every state legislator on the ballot (the new June primary elections for state legislative seats, moved to match congressional primaries, will slightly truncate the post-budget session).

Several questions await answers during Cuomo’s speech and release of his full policy book.

How does the state budget hole impact Cuomo’s policy agenda, and vice versa?
Before he puts forth any big ideas, the governor must of course figure out if he can pay for them. Cuomo will soon have to explain how he plans to fill the worrying $6.1 billion budget gap the state faces for the next fiscal year, which begins April 1, that has gotten larger than previously projected because of an increase in Medicaid spending.

Many of the proposals Cuomo has already put forth will require no new spending, and Cuomo has indicated that he will not advance or support new and increased taxes, though Albany lawmakers have often found new fees and other revenue-raisers that are not income taxes.

Cuomo prides himself on passing on-time budgets and keeping state spending growth under 2% annual increases – though he has only accomplished this some years, while claiming it in others by using tricks and gimmicks, such as moving spending off the state budget to authorities or delaying it to the next fiscal year, practices that fiscal watchdogs have criticized.

Though he won’t release detailed budget plans on Wednesday, the governor may give some indication of how the state will rein in spending or raise new funds. Following a speech before the Association for a Better New York on Monday, Cuomo said outright that he will not raise taxes and instead will look to control Medicaid costs. “The health costs have to be addressed structurally and a one-shot dose to the system of sugar to give us a short high with revenue is not the answer,” he said in response to an audience question.

His budget director, Robert Mujica, has also tried to make assurances that the budget gap is not a cause for worry. “There is no doubt it will be a challenge, but it is a challenge that is manageable. The Governor has closed gaps much larger than this,” Mujica wrote in a Medium post last month.

While the state faces a crunch, New York City on the other hand is expecting a surplus by the end of its own fiscal year in June, which might prompt Cuomo to propose cuts and cost shifts away from the state budget to the city as he has done several times in recent years. Mayor Bill de Blasio and his allies in the Legislature have been mostly successful in beating these efforts back but the city has nonetheless had to swallow several reductions in funding, unfunded mandates, and new costs imposed by the state. The mayor also said Monday during a press conference that he expects to see a similar attempt this year. 

The New York Daily News reported Monday that several Democratic legislators are planning to introduce new tax measures and propose eliminating certain exemptions for the wealthy that could raise as much as $30 billion each year, which the governor is all but assured to declare dead on arrival.

How much of Cuomo’s State of the State speech dwells on fiscal matters is an open question heading into Wednesday.

Will Cuomo outline his preferred changes to controversial new bail reforms? What will his larger criminal justice agenda be?
A transformative bail reform measure passed last year that eliminates cash bail for most misdemeanors and non-violent felonies has just taken effect across the state. But the reform has been met by widespread criticism and some fearmongering about public safety from prosecutors and other law enforcement leaders, Republican officials, and some Democrats.

Cuomo has not said exactly how he believes bail reform should be changed but has stated that it requires some modification. “[C]hanging the system, which we started to do, is complicated and then has a number of ramifications,” he said on Monday, again when answering an audience question after his ABNY speech in Manhattan. “There's no doubt this is still a work in progress and there are other changes that have to be made.”

Amid a rash of hate crimes, especially anti-Semitic ones, Cuomo’s office has said the govenror supports adding hate crimes to the list of offenses subject to bail being set by judges, which has in the past functioned as a way to lock defendents up pre-trial, in lieu of the “dangerousness” assessments that many states allow but New York has not for decades. Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio, among others, have favored allowing judges to use their discretion in pre-trial remand, but many Democratic legislators and advocates have opposed the change, arguing that it leads to bias against poor people and people of color, while feeding mass incarceration and the ill-effects of criminal legal system involvement.

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins has also indicated an openness to revisiting the bail laws, also citing concerns about the recent spike in hate crimes.

Cuomo hasn’t signalled whether he will propose any further criminal justice reforms or if he supports several proposals being championed by advocates to reform solitary confinement procedures in prisons, to loosen rules for paroling elderly inmates or change what constitutes jailable parole violations, and to decriminalize sex work, to name a few.

Will he advance legislation for regulating the gig economy?
In his “first 100 days agenda” for 2019, the governor said he would pursue protections for workers in the on-demand or so-called gig economy, a fast growing sector in New York. According to Census data analyzed by freelance online platform Fiverr and Rockbridge Associates, New York City alone had more than 519,000 freelance workers in 2016 generating $23 billion in economic activity (projected to have grown to more than 559,000 by 2018), the most of any city across the country.

But Cuomo did not introduce any real legislation last year to back up his words, seemingly the only policy issue from his 100 days speech to receive that treatment. Since then, several state legislators have begun to raise the issue and introduce bills to regulate the gig economy, including protections for freelancers, particularly taking note of California’s recent groundbreaking legislation to reclassify workers in the on-demand economy. Cuomo himself expressed similar sentiments, which could mean he may follow suit with new proposals of his own. New York City presented something of an initial possible model for the state a few years ago, with protections for some freelance workers, and has since added laws related to for-hire vehicle drivers in the five boroughs, including a minimum wage.

Will Cuomo revive vetoed bills?
Cuomo has signed 751 bills and vetoed 169 bills from the 2019 legislative session, while another 11 await his signature or rejection, as of Monday. Of the measures he struck down, many in recent weeks, were several that advocates and elected officials have continued to push and even included bills that the governor himself has said he supports but with modifications.

His speech on Wednesday provides him the opportunity to publicly present his revised versions of what many saw as progressive, common-sense measures approved by both Democratic legislative majorities.

Among those bills was the legalization of e-bikes and e-scooters, which the governor said he favored but refused to allow without additional safety rules, including a helmet requirement that transit advocates have opposed. He’s pledged his own proposal again this year, though the details remain to be seen and it is unknown whether compromise with legislators can be found.

Cuomo has also promised to introduce a new version of the Securing Wages Earned Against Theft (SWEAT) Act, which he vetoed. The bill would have given workers the ability to place a lien on an employer’s assets to ensure they are paid for their work. The governor raised technical concerns that would likely be addressed in the modified version.

While he has supported some new measures to reduce opioid addiction and overdose deaths, the governor also vetoed a bill that would have eased access to medication-assisted addiction treatment for Medicaid recipients. On the other hand, he signed a bill that did the same for those enrolled in private insurance plans, raising the ire of advocates. He also vetoed a bill that would have required insurance companies to provide expanded coverage for eating disorders.

Cuomo also vetoed legislation to impose new rules on Pharmacy Benefit Managers (PBMs), which was expected to reduce prescription drug prices, despite having called for such regulation in the past.

Citing the recent bail reform measure, Cuomo also nixed a bill that would have expanded charitable bail funds in the state, arguing that the move was redundant without first assessing the new system. “Any amendments involving charitable bail organizations that might be needed should be considered after this year’s bail reforms have had an opportunity to be fully implemented and the specific needs are identified,” he wrote in his veto message, according to New York Law Journal. The Journal noted that the veto was accompanied by another which struck down a bill to give public defenders easier access to their clients’ criminal histories.

Through another veto, Cuomo halted plans for the redevelopment of Hudson River Park’s Pier 40 into commercial office space and has instead said it should be preserved for community use. He may propose a project as a replacement; on Monday in Manhattan he said he would be introducing related legislation that would give the NYPD, which currently operates a tow pound on the pier, until the end of the year to vacate.

The governor also rejected a bill that would have mandated that state agencies, boards, and commissions gather certain demographic information on Asian-Americans, separating the data rather than lumping together communities from different countries of origin. Cuomo cited the costs the bill would impose on state agencies when he vetoed it, according to NBC News.

Will he address ethics and campaign finance reforms?
The state’s campaign finance system is set to undergo an overhaul following a slate of new regulations made by a state-created commission that became law in December. The central reform the commission made is creating a public campaign finance matching program for statewide and state legislative election campaigns, a system that won’t go into effect till after the next gubernatorial election in November 2022.

But other changes the commission made to party ballot qualification thresholds and petition signature requirements will be enforced this year beginning with the presidential election. To receive an automatic spot on the ballot, parties will have to obtain 2% or 130,000 votes (up from 50,000 votes), whichever is more, for their candidate in the presidential election. They will also need 45,000 ballot petition signatures for their candidate, up from 15,000.

Those new thresholds risk the status of minor parties in the state, including the Working Families, Conservative, Libertarian, Independence, and Green Parties. The WFP and Conservative Party have both filed lawsuits that could potentially see those regulations undone. Failing that, the Legislature does not seem likely to reexamine the regulations and the governor has expressed satisfaction with the final product.

What remains to be seen is if the governor will propose any other bills regarding the state’s campaign finance system. Though in past rhetoric he has railed against the scourge of big money and wealthy donors in state elections, he has also largely benefited from them and has been less than strident in action about reforming the system. The campaign finance commission significantly lowered individual campaign contribution limits but they remain quite high; and it did not touch limits on donations to political party accounts, though its members have said those should be pursued by lawmakers this year, as well as limits on donations from those doing business with the state (commission counsel said the two issues were not part of its legal purview).

While the campaign finance system is changing amid some criticism of the commission’s final product, the state’s government ethics enforcement has also been the source of ongoing frustration for many.

The Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) is less than a decade old and has largely failed to carry out its mandate of scrutinizing the behavior of elected officials and state employees. Its work is mired in secrecy and, to its critics, ineptitude. It has failed to catch repeated ethical and criminal violations by legislators, which are often revealed by the press or other law enforcement agencies. Some legislators, like State Senator Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat, have suggested dissolving the agency and replacing it with a new, more independent ethics body.

It’s unclear whether the governor will support any effort to revamp ethics enforcement in the state. Cuomo has repeatedly made a show of supporting ethics reforms but has often taken a step back when it comes time to push them across the finish line, or he has moved watered down reforms and ensured his office has a significant degree of control.

JCOPE’s commissioners are appointed by the legislature and the governor, who also nominates the chair. To critics, that structure is fundamentally flawed and creates an obvious conflict for the agency’s duties. This issue was particularly highlighted in recent months after reports from the Times Union on an alleged leak about a confidential vote by JCOPE to the governor and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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5 Things to Watch in Cuomo's State of the State Speech Tue, 07 Jan 2020 05:00:00 +0000