Gotham Gazette Fri, 26 Feb 2021 11:59:38 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) New York’s Next Shot to Strengthen Our Democracy may participates electoral

The State Senate chamber (photo: Edwin J. Torres/ Mayoral Photo Office)

American democracy is suffering a crisis of confidence. In too many states, the very mechanics of elections has become a partisan and polarizing issue, with deeply damaging results. This year New York has the chance to model a path forward, with a bipartisan commitment to strengthening democracy and providing the best possible systems for our citizens to be heard. 

As appointees to the state’s new Public Campaign Finance Board, that commitment is our pledge. In 2020, the state enacted a new small donor public financing program, to amplify the voices of more New Yorkers in the political process. We were appointed to oversee this program by opposing party leaders in the Legislature. By choosing us, they knew they were choosing problem-solvers bent on working together. Whether longtime supporters of the policy or thoughtful critics, now that public financing is the law, our duty is to prepare the program for a successful launch in November 2022.

We know our fellow officials and staff at the New York State Board of Elections are ready to work together toward that launch, even with hardly a chance to catch their breath after the challenge of holding elections in a pandemic. We are grateful that Governor Cuomo’s proposed budget for next fiscal year includes the necessary start-up funds for the public financing program and we urge our elected leaders to maintain that commitment through the adopted budget. 

This voluntary program will enable candidates for legislative or statewide office to try to qualify for public matching funds for small donations (under $250). Contributions by New York residents to statewide candidates will be matched $6-to-$1. Legislative candidates can be matched for donations from residents of their districts — the smaller the donation, the higher the match. 

Getting this program off the ground requires an extensive administrative coordination, from hiring staff to procuring office space to working with vendors who can help build and test the relevant technology. As these resources get into place, staff will also be writing the rules and regulations that will govern the program. 

Of utmost priority for us as commissioners is creating transparent public financing that’s worthy of the public’s trust. This means having clear guidelines that explain when a candidate is allowed to receive matching funds, and what happens when anyone violates the rules. And it’s also essential that the system is user-friendly so that candidates find it straightforward to take part, with the rules and regulations enforced equitably among all who participate. Doing both means the public is assured that their dollars are secure and new candidates inspired to run and veteran public servants alike can be confident they are treated fairly. We will reach out to experts who have successfully done this before, learning from them as the Public Campaign Finance Board moves forward in New York.  

There is no time to waste: New York is required to launch small donor public financing by November 2022, so that candidates running in state elections in 2024 are able to fundraise under the new program. Connecticut’s simpler public financing program took two years to build. But if the program receives the necessary start-up funding this year, we are determined to work together and with our colleagues to make this program a success – and make New York an example for other states looking to bolster their democracies.   

Ekow N. Yankah and Brian M. Kolb are members of New York state’s new Public Campaign Finance Board.

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New York’s Next Shot to Strengthen Our Democracy Tue, 23 Feb 2021 05:00:00 +0000
State Legislators Eye Revenue from Inheritances and Gifts with New ‘Heirs Tax’ state legis tax

The State Capitol in Albany (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

As New York State faces a severe budget shortfall and awaits federal aid, some lawmakers and activists are advocating for a package of legislation that would increase taxes on the state’s wealthiest residents to avoid cuts to services for the most vulnerable. Among those proposals is a bill that would tax inheritances for multi-millionaires and raise as much as $8 billion for the state every year, according to supporters’ calculations. 

State Senator Jabari Brisport of Brooklyn and Assemblymember Michaelle Solages of Long Island, both Democrats, introduced the companion bills in their respective legislative houses to establish the new “heirs tax,” a part of the Invest in Our New York Act, which includes additional legislation to increase or create new taxes on millionaires and billionaires, Wall Street activity, and corporations. Proponents of the six-bill package estimate it would altogether raise $50 billion in annual revenue and would help forestall austerity measures by the state.

Governor Andrew Cuomo estimated in his recently-released executive budget that the state faces a $15 billion deficit for the current fiscal year and the next, and has been warning for months that without adequate federal stimulus dollars, he will be forced to slash aid to localities, which pays for education, social services and other programs, while also planning a relatively minor income tax increase on the state’s top earners. Cuomo, whose estimation of that deficit has been debunked given significant federal aid and higher than expected tax revenue, has repeatedly argued that the state cannot tax its way out of the current fiscal crisis that does exist -- in part to avoid pushing wealthier New Yorkers to relocate to other, lower-tax states -- and is calling for $15 billion in aid from the federal government.

New York’s current estate tax allows residents to receive nearly $6 million through inheritances without paying taxes, a system that advocates say is regressive and allows the accumulation of generational familial wealth without benefit to the public good. The heir’s tax proposal would amend that by creating a separate inheritance tax while also establishing taxes on receiving gift income, changing estate tax rates, and creating a new gift tax on donors.

The bill would tax inheritances in excess of $250,000, exempting retirement and pension funds. It also allows $2 million to be excluded from the taxable value of a primary family residence if the value of the inheritance is below $5 million, a provision that was included because of rapid gentrification in parts of New York City. There is a similar exemption in the bill for the value of family farms across the state.

“At a time when working-class people are fighting just to survive, New York’s most privileged dynasties are living more lavishly than ever off of vast sums of inherited wealth,” Brisport said in a statement. “I am proud to be introducing the Heirs Tax with Senator Sanders because it has never been more urgent that we require New York’s ultra-rich to pay equitable taxes on the fortunes they are handed.” Brisport referred to State Senator James Sanders Jr., a Queens Democrat who is co-sponsoring the bill. The bill has ten other co-sponsors in the 63-seat Senate. The Assembly bill also has ten co-sponsors besides Solages in the 150-seat Assembly.

Under the lowest bracket, inheritances between $250,000 and up to $500,000 would be taxed at 5%, while at the higher end, any inheritance income in excess of $10 million would be taxed at 50% – it is a marginal tax and only the amount above $10 million would be subject to it. Similarly, up to $50,000 in gift income would be exempt from the new gift income tax. Between $50,000 and $100,000 in gift income would be taxed at 5%; gift income in excess of $2 million would be taxed at 50% (again, taxing the amount above $2 million). The bill would also increase taxes on gifts worth more than $750,000. 

“It is time for each of us to do our part in building back a better and more equitable New York, said Solages, who chairs the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic & Asian legislative caucus. “We must invest in New Yorkers who make up the foundations of our society and economy. High-income New Yorkers must contribute their fair share to ensure our middle and low-income families recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. Working with Senator Brisport and the Invest in Our New York Coalition, we have introduced legislation to reform the inheritance and estate tax. Revenue generated can rebuild New York’s economy, prevent cuts to our schools and essential services, as well as finally begin the long journey back to true wealth equity in our state.”

In response to the heirs tax proposal, EJ McMahon of the Empire Center think tank argued that it would lead wealthy New Yorkers to "remove themselves from New York taxation" and the $8 billion annually would not be achieved. McMahon also noted that New York is currently "one of only 12 states that impose a tax on estates of deceased residents" and that "only six states have inheritance taxes, with rates from 10 to 18%."

The Invest in Our New York coalition is comprised of prominent progressive advocacy groups including the Alliance for Quality Education, Citizen Action, Empire State Indivisible, Make the Road New York, New York Communities for Change, New York Working Families Party, NYC-DSA, Strong Economy for All, VOCAL-NY, New York Communities for Change, and Upstate Downstate Housing Alliance/Housing Justice for All.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this story has been updated with additional information and commentary from EJ McMahon.

Note: this story has been updated to note Assemblymember Solages represents a district in Long Island, not the Hudson Valley.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

State Legislators Eye Revenue from Inheritances and Gifts with New ‘Heirs Tax’ Tue, 16 Feb 2021 05:00:00 +0000
Legislators and CUNY Chancellor Discuss University Funding, Recovery Plans Amid Massive Covid Disruption 3 quad cutting rib

Queens College (photo: CUNY)

At the State Legislature’s recent budget hearing on higher education, held virtually on February 4, City University of New York (CUNY) Chancellor Félix Matos Rodriguez discussed his asks for CUNY funding and answered questions about the university’s spending, programs, and operational plans.

The hearing was the sixth in a series of 13 on Governor Andrew Cuomo’s fiscal year 2021-2022 executive budget plan being held by the State Senate and Assembly, chaired by Senate Finance Committee Chair Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat, and Assembly Ways and Means Committee Chair Helene Weinstein, a Brooklyn Democrat.

Stakeholders from both CUNY and the State University of New York were present, including Matos Rodriguez, SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras, CUNY Senior Vice Chancellor and Chief Financial Officer Matt Sapienza, and members of advocacy groups and student governments from both university systems.

Each chancellor had 10 minutes to speak about their school system and what they’ve done with current funding levels, including coronavirus responses.

Afterward, various state senators and Assembly members questioned each chancellor, both times starting with Assemblymember and Committee on Higher Education Chair Deborah Glick, a Manhattan Democrat, and then alternating between senators and Assembly members.

“On behalf of the entire CUNY community, I want to thank [Gov. Andrew] Cuomo, the state Senate and the state Assembly for your past and sustained support, which has enabled CUNY to deliver strong results for our half-a-million students and citizens of New York,” Matos Rodriguez said in the opening remarks of his presentation. “2020 was a year that both demanded and inspired great fortitude and resourcefulness from our students and faculty, staff and leaders.”

According to the CUNY staff and faculty union, state funding covers about 60% of CUNY’s operating budget for its senior colleges and their entire capital budget, while student tuition provides about 40%. The New York City government contributes more toward the community colleges, though the state provides about a third of their operating budgets. And the state also “helps students through the Tuition Assistance Program, subsidized loans, and specialized scholarship and grant programs,” as well as “the Education Opportunity, SEEK and College Discovery programs which benefit many low-income minority students at CUNY.”

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, Matos Rodriguez explained, the university’s spending looked different than in past years. 

The federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or the CARES Act, allowed CUNY to set up the Chancellor’s Emergency Fund, which in part provided a $600 grant to more than 10,000 students in financial need as a direct result of the pandemic.

CARES Act funding was also to be used for institutional expenses that came as a result of the pandemic, such as to facilitate online learning.

“The coronavirus was largely a remote concern when the year began, but it soon gained a foothold in New York that forced CUNY to all but shut down its 25 campuses on March 12 and quickly pivot to distance education,” Matos Rodriguez said. “When classes resumed after a week-long academic recess, 95% of the university’s 50,000 course sections had transitioned to online instruction. We quickly realized that thousands of students lacked the tools to participate in distance learning and, with the support of the governor, we purchased 33,000 laptops and tablets and made sure they were safely distributed to students in need, as well as provided 4,000 personal hotspots for those students who required enhanced wifi capability.”

The chancellor also said that 16 faculty members, 22 staff members, four students and “countless” CUNY alumni died from COVID-19.

Matos Rodriguez went on to talk about some of the more positive things that happened during the past school year. He said that 56,527 degrees were earned by students, the second highest total number of degrees given out in a single year in CUNY history — and just under the record high total, which came from the previous school year.

CUNY increased the number of mental health counselors across its campuses and began a new partnership with the New York Jobs CEO Council, which works with CEOs of large New York companies to create a direct path for employment for CUNY graduates.

He also mentioned that within the past year CUNY Central has appointed nine new college presidents — including someone to replace Matos Rodriguez himself at Queens College when he became the chancellor — who come from diverse backgrounds and identities.

This new cohort includes the first two Asian-American campus presidents ever at CUNY, along with three female presidents and three African-American presidents.

“Since I was appointed chancellor a year-and-a-half ago, we have continued to assemble a cabinet and college presidents of unprecedented expertise and diversity, who reflect the city we live in and the students that we serve,” he said. 

As for the 2021-2022 budget, the chancellor went on to say that the focus will be on handling the pandemic and its impacts, including students’ mental health, in addition to expanding the nursing program and the CUNY Corps internship program, and increasing the number of racially diverse full-time faculty across all campuses.

He then went on to address what he feels the university needs in the 2021-2022 budget, though he did not mention any specific dollar figures, only general requests for additional funding.

“Looking ahead to life after covid, we will double our efforts to help students succeed, graduate on time and find sustainable career paths,” Matos Rodriguez said.

The budget request also is asking for increased capital funding for the informational technology systems that have been keeping the university running during the pandemic. Funding for capital construction on the various campuses is hopefully coming from the federal government, Matos Rodriguez added.

Moving into the Q&A, Assemblymember Glick asked about, among other things, enrollment and retention rates at CUNY.

After the covid outbreak in New York, CUNY enrollment for the fall 2020 semester reportedly followed national trends and decreased by 3.7% from the previous year, including by 800 students who the chancellor said had graduated from New York City Department of Education public schools in June 2020 and were at one point enrolled with CUNY but never arrived.

Matos Rodriguez said that Executive Vice Chancellor and University Provost José Luis Cruz has been working with the Department of Education to identify who these missing 800 students are and why they never showed up in their CUNY classes at the start of the 2020-2021 academic year.

Brooklyn Assemblymember Phara Souffrant Forrest, a two-time CUNY graduate and a newly-elected Democrat, asked the chancellor about the 2% pay increase that was promised in the recently re-negotiated staff contract, which has not been included in the 2021-2022 budget.

“This was a very, very difficult fiscal year and this was a year also in which we’re dealing with a lot of unprecedented changes coming our way,” Matos Rodriguez said in response. “So, we had to take a number of decisions to protect the overall university, and to do that members of the senior management took a five-day furlough. We created a Vacancy Review Board to provide good use of our hires and personnel in a way that was consistent with the fiscal times that we’re facing.”

CUNY had signed the staff and faculty contract at the beginning of Matos Rodriguez’s tenure as chancellor, but the school decided that the salary increase had to be delayed due to the extenuating circumstances caused by the pandemic, though Matos Rodriguez said he hopes to reinstate the raise as soon as things become more stable.

Senator Diane Savino, a Brooklyn and Staten Island Democrat, brought up the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies, which has grown in enrollment — up by 12% during the pandemic, according to Svaino — but not enough in campus size over the past few years. The school’s library has also been closed for five years.

CUNY has increased the school’s space by 12%, Matos Rodriguez said, and the university is in talks with landlords to see where more physical space for students to learn can be added, but this is not the only plan.

“Many of the courses provided, for example, by the School of Labor Studies, occur in the evening,” he explained. “We have some campuses that most of the classes happen during the day and are nearby, and we’re trying to see if we can more effectively use the space. Long term, we’re also thinking about where the school could be housed. There’s a couple of other possibilities in the Manhattan area that we’re looking at, and that might be a possibility to meet other needs and maybe also create some shared space; for example, if they’re with another combined CUNY facility, things like the library can be a joint facility that would be better for the students there and everyone around.”

Other questions asked to Matos Rodriguez by legislators were, among other things, on the topics of faculty to student ratios, free tuition at the community colleges, student food stamp (SNAP) enrollment, and the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP).

On the subject of student to faculty ratios, which Glick asked about, Matos Rodriguez said, systemwide, the ratio is currently 22-to-1. He said that the ratio has been consistently between 21 and 22 students for each professor for the past five years, but this statistic is not broken up by part-time and full-time faculty.

Assemblymember Rebecca Seawright, another Manhattan Democrat, asked what it would cost to implement free tuition at the community colleges, considering how many students at those schools are eligible for the Tuition Assistance Program (TAP), the Pell grant, and other financial aid programs.

Matos Rodriguez said that he and his team had some estimates that he could send to the legislators, but no definite numbers to share at the moment, before adding that there needs to be more clarity on the meaning of this question.

“The one thing I want to say about this question, too, is that folks need to define what ‘free’ means,” he said. “Is it first dollar? Last dollar? There’s a lot of nuances as to how free college and free community college can be done and I think it’s important that as we go into this debate, even those of us who are supportive of things like this, that we get into the nuances, because that can mean — what we want is the most affordable quality community college and four-year college experience.”

Senator Krueger asked the chancellor about SNAP and whether CUNY has an internal or systematic way of notifying students who may be eligible for the program.

He responded that, since the governor announced an expansion of the SNAP program, CUNY has referred 7,000 students. The university’s CUNYfirst online student portal already had been identifying potentially eligible students, letting them know they may be eligible and connecting them to the city’s Human Resources Administration (HRA) before the governor’s announcement.

Senator Toby Ann Stavisky, a Queens Democrat and chair of the State Senate Higher Education Committee, inquired about the ASAP program, the funding for which was cut by about $2.5 million.

“ASAP is very important to us,” Matos Rodriguez responded. “It’s a national model now. Seven states replicate the work that we’ve been doing at ASAP. The Kennedy School gave us an award on innovation last year because of the results that ASAP has provided.”

“We hope that we can get that funding back at the state level,” he continued. “The ASAP program has also been targeted for cuts at the city level, but we’ve been trying to have conversations to restore those. Because they target one of our most successful programs, it has an impact on enrollment. A lot of the students are attracted for the benefits that the ASAP program provides and the effectiveness of ASAP, so we lose enrollment. So, it’s a cut that cuts a program and cuts our enrollment base. It hits us twice, and then it hits us a third time when that student that is going to finish at a faster rate than others does not transfer to a four-year school.”

Legislators and CUNY Chancellor Discuss University Funding, Recovery Plans Amid Massive Covid Disruption Fri, 12 Feb 2021 05:00:00 +0000
De Blasio Pledges Last Gasp Property Tax Reform Effort 2 daily imagery exercising

New York City (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office)

After getting "derailed" by the pandemic, Mayor Bill de Blasio is reviving one of his earliest and most delayed mayoral commitments: to reform an out-of-date and unequal property tax system. The city's Advisory Commission on Property Tax Reform will begin holding public hearings, originally scheduled for last March, on its preliminary recommendations and will produce a final report by the time de Blasio leaves office at the end of the year, he said Thursday morning.

The mayor made the announcement in testimony before the State Legislature at a hearing on the governor’s proposed state budget, two days after downplaying the possibility of more work being done on the issue in his final months in office.

The advisory commission was empanelled by de Blasio and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson in 2018 and billed as the fulfillment of de Blasio's 2014 promise to overhaul property taxes to make them more rational, equitable, and transparent. Its mandate was to comprehensively examine the problems that lead to widely variant effective tax rates across the city's properties -- disproportionately burdening owners of less valuable property and weakening the prospect of Black, Latino, and immigrant homeownership in New York City.

The mayor's promise was to create a roadmap for reform to push in City Hall and in Albany, where many of the arcane rules were crafted. But the commission was plagued by delays from its inception, and when it finally released its preliminary report last January, before the pandemic hit, there was only a tiny window to devise a final plan in time to advance it in Albany (another complicated endeavor) before de Blasio left office due to term limits.

At a press briefing Tuesday, de Blasio told reporters property tax reform was one of many "things that I'm very unhappy about that were derailed by covid." While he said he remained open to opportunities to advance it, he made no indication that next steps from his administration or the commission were imminent.

But when pressed on it at Thursday's budget hearing before the State Senate and Assembly fiscal committees, he told lawmakers the commission's work would begin again.

"We've talked about it internally, we've got to restart this engine. We're absolutely committed to a final report soon," he said in response to State Senator Andrew Gounardes, a Brooklyn Democrat, who asked whether the commission hearings would be rescheduled. He did not provide details for when the hearings would begin but said it would be soon and that the final report would come this year.

"Great," Gounardes said.

“We look forward to the Commission continuing its work in a safe and effective way,” wrote a spokesperson for Speaker Johnson in an email.

City Lawmakers, budget watchdogs, and reform advocates have been frustrated with the de Blasio administration's slow pace on a commitment that would impact virtually every New Yorker.

"We waited nearly two years just for the New York City Advisory Commission on Property Tax Reform to release a report that told us what we already knew: our property-tax system – which was last updated in 1981 when New York City was a very different place – is badly broken and unfair because it benefits the wealthiest 1% and crushes everyone else," said City Council Member Justin Brannan, a Democrat representing parts of southern Brooklyn overlapping with Gounardes, in an email to Gotham Gazette on Wednesday, when de Blasio’s commitment to reform appeared dead.

Brannan pointed out single-family homeowners in his district and other neighborhoods that have seen relatively slow market growth, especially in the Bronx and Staten Island, pay a much higher percentage of their properties' sales value in taxes than co-ops and condos and even similarly valued properties in other parts of the city. The reason is the complex scheme of property classification, assessment, and taxation, with built-in tax caps and phases that hold down the taxes of rapidly appreciating properties -- benefiting owners in gentrifying neighborhoods at the detriment of other areas. The system has become more convoluted over the years with a host of rebates, abatements, and exemptions intended to plug holes in the leaky system. The problems don't only affect homeowners; landlords often pass large tax burdens on to their renters.

Property taxes account for a third of all city revenue. In the current fiscal year, that amounts to roughly $30.7 billion. That stream is forecasted to shrink to $29.4 billion in fiscal year 2022 due to a rare drop in market values as a result of the pandemic.

With so many interests at stake, so many layers, and the potential to create big winners and losers, the lack of political will has long made reform a white whale in New York City and Albany.

"Enough with the goddamn reports! We know what to do. We need action!" Brannan wrote to Gotham Gazette Thursday after the mayor announced the advisory commission's resurrection. To help struggling homeowners, Brannan said he and Gounardes are working on legislation in Albany to freeze property taxes at last year's rates or lower them on properties that have depreciated.

Per the executive order that created it, the advisory commission's preliminary recommendations are meant to be revenue neutral, meaning they should do nothing to reduce the city's bottom line. "The Mayor has to know we aren’t dealing with a giveaway and if he was smart about it, this could be a way to tax his wealthy Park Slope neighbors who pay vastly different rates from average joe’s,” said Council Member Joe Borelli, a Staten Island Republican, in an email Thursday.

While many of the frequently-discussed changes need to be made at the state level, some the city can do independently.

Martha Stark, a Department of Finance commissioner under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and policy director of the advocacy group Tax Equity Now New York, slammed the delays and offered suggestions for steps the city could take immediately.

"Blaming his inaction on the pandemic shows the Mayor's lack of leadership, courage, and commitment to doing what he could to make NYC's property tax less of a tale of two cities," Stark told Gotham Gazette in an email Wednesday, ahead of the budget hearing announcement. "He had six years to make the property tax system fairer for those who were also hardest hit by the pandemic: Black and Brown people, the working class, small businesses, and renters."

Stark, whose group is suing the city and state to change the property tax system, says the city could lower what's known as the "assessment ratio" -- the ratio of a property's assessed value to its market value -- which would effectively redistribute taxes from large swaths of the Bronx and Staten Island, and parts of Brooklyn and Queens, to more gentrified areas where property values have increased significantly in the last two decades. (Stark made a similar move in the late aughts when she headed up the Department of Finance.)

"Most importantly, he could drop his opposition to the lawsuit that could have set the City on a path towards developing a property tax system that is legal, fair, and not discriminatory," she told Gotham Gazette. Tax Equity Now's lawsuit was dismissed last by the state's appellate division in early 2020 and the group plans to file an appeal in the Court of Appeals.

Even without advocacy in Albany or action at the city-level, de Blasio has called the advisory commission and its promised report "historic," being the most significant foothold for comprehensive reform in decades. Yet, New York City was in an almost identical position under de Blasio's predecessor and mentor, Mayor David Dinkins.

In the early 1990s, Dinkins also created a commission to look at property taxes, which issued a report during his final days in office. But after losing his reelection bid, any proposed reforms met their demise when Rudy Giuliani took the reins as mayor in 1994.

"This is so hard to get done, so it needs momentum," Andrew Rein, president of the Citizens Budget Commission, said in a phone interview Wednesday. "One of the challenges is obviously that administrations only last so long. It needs momentum, whether the mayor can get it done in the current year, which is certainly a challenge, or at least build that support for the next mayor."

For Rein, property tax reform is paramount to encourage rental housing development and broader economic growth, which he says is right now impeded by opaque and uneven taxation.

"There is no question that this is a top Albany agenda if we are going to launch out of this recession into the next recovery," he said.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

De Blasio Pledges Last Gasp Property Tax Reform Effort Thu, 11 Feb 2021 05:00:00 +0000
De Blasio Warns of Cuomo Budget Moves, Outlines Albany Agenda in Final State Legislative Hearing 1 budget hearing governments

Mayor de Blasio testifying remotely (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

Mayor Bill de Blasio pleaded to state legislators on Thursday to protect New York City from hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts and cost shifts in Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Executive Budget for the next fiscal year, warning that the damage could be worse if federal stimulus aid is not delivered on time.  

In his annual, and final, appearance before the state Legislature to testify about the governor’s budget plan and the city’s state agenda for the year, the mayor painted a dire portrait of the fiscal wreckage left by the coronavirus pandemic and cautioned against any further fiscal impositions on the city by the state. Those concerns included both the potential cuts and cost shifts, as well as the governor’s “supplantation” of hundreds of millions of dollars more in federal funds, and also several Cuomo policy proposals.

De Blasio noted that the city has lost an estimated $10.5 billion in tax revenue over fiscal years 2020, 2021, and 2022 and has spent as much as $6.1 billion on covid-related expenses, of which he said about $685 million will not be reimbursed by the federal government. 

According to de Blasio, Cuomo’s budget -- which is now the subject of legislative examination and negotiation before a deal is due by April 1 -- would cut or shift about $310 million for the city in upcoming fiscal year 2022 (about the same amount being cut or shifted in the current fiscal year, he said), while also supplanting about $800 million in federal funding for education for the city (after supplanting about $700 million in federal education funding in the current fiscal year). And Cuomo’s Executive Budget is also predicated on the state receiving about $6 billion in additional federal relief funds, without which localities could lose much more state aid.

“Regardless of what happens in Washington, calling on working New Yorkers to forgo essential services is wrong,” de Blasio said, pushing the Legislature to increase taxes on the wealthy as a way of filling budget gaps -- something he’s done in each of his eight years as mayor to no avail, though this year’s budget challenges make it the most likely yet. 

The mayor pointed to specific cuts or cost shifts that would strain the city’s already struggling finances. They include $279 million in charter school spending that the city would have to bear between the 2021-22 fiscal years. Another $473 million cut to Health + Hospitals over the two fiscal years could mean “closing 19 H+H clinics, which treat 140,000 patients a year and losing 900 doctors and nurses, resulting in longer wait times for patients,” the mayor claimed. He also criticized cuts to public health infrastructure spending, substance abuse and domestic violence services, youth foster care and senior programs. “We can’t let our most vulnerable be victims of austerity,” he said. 

Last year, when there was significant uncertainty about how the city’s revenue would be affected by the pandemic, the mayor went to the Legislature with a request to allow the city to  borrow funds for operational expenses. Without the ability to borrow, he had warned then that the city would have to resort to firing as many as 22,000 municipal workers. This year, however, he neither made the request nor did he predict the need for mass layoffs short of a “nightmare scenario” where the state does not receive federal stimulus. “We're going to be putting all options on the table if that were to happen. But today I am not asking you specifically for borrowing authority. I'm hoping we can find much better solutions,” he said.

The Cuomo administration disputed de Blasio's testimony. “Let’s be clear: In the midst of a global pandemic and the worst economic downturn in generations, funding in the Executive Budget for New York City goes up $1.3 billion, including a 13% increase for schools – significantly higher than the statewide average," said Freeman Klopott, a spokesperson for the state Division of Budget. "Washington right now is debating a $350 billion package for state and local governments and it must include $15 billion for New York State to close our deficit that was caused entirely by the global pandemic the federal government failed to stop. Raising taxes is best done at the federal level so as not to pit one state against another and right now we all need to keep our focus on Washington to ensure the critical resources it is poised to deliver to the state and the City are fair.”

Funding for New York City schools in the governor's budget is up nearly $1.5 billion year over year, a 13% increase, according to Klopott, who also said that on Health + Hospitals funding, de Blasio is looking at specific streams of funding but not the bigger picture, where overall Medicaid funding supporting H+H is increasing $786 million in the current fiscal year and $772 million next.

Besides the fiscal impact, de Blasio also opposed several proposals in the budget that would affect the city’s control over land use and zoning. Though he has backed the principle behind a proposal to allow conversions of vacant commercial properties into affordable housing, he said the language of the governor’s proposal does not make any guarantees that housing built will be affordable.

“I think it is an idea that has merit,” he said, but noted that it would allow the state to circumvent the local Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP).  “What I'm worried about is the state overriding ULURP, cutting out communities, making sweetheart deals with the real estate industry,” he said. “Because if you look at the proposal, it leaves several ways out for the real estate industry to not create affordable housing.”

He also opposed another proposal that would allow the Javits Convention Center Operating Corporation the ability to override local building codes and another that allows the MTA to override the authority of the city Department of Transportation.

According to Klopott of the Cuomo administration, the governor is quickly seeking to adjust to new dynamics created by the pandemic and wants to speed development to allow for the conversion of so many commercial vacancies into needed affordable and supportive housing. On Javits, Klopott said the Executive Budget offers legislation enabling the convention center to issue permits in accordance with New York City building codes.

De Blasio also defended the city’s landmark legislation to cut building emissions, which Cuomo’s budget plan would weaken. And he criticized the threat from the state of withholding funds for law enforcement if the city does not put a police reform plan in place as required by an executive order that the governor signed last year. “These things are moving,” he said, promising that his administration is working with the City Council on a package of reforms while also reiterating specific police accountability proposals from his recent State of the City speech. He did, however, raise concerns that the reform process could be slowed down if the NYPD were to fall under an external monitor, a step that State Attorney General Letitia James is seeking through a federal lawsuit against the department last month.

De Blasio argued for more tenant protections, for legalizing marijuana, and reforms at the Board of Elections through a professionalization bill sponsored by Senator Liz Krueger of Manhattan and Assemblymember Nily Rozic of Queens, both Democrats. 

He also asked legislators to quickly approve legislation that would help the city build back jobs and support small businesses. His agenda included a community hiring bill that would require contractors and businesses to hire low-income New Yorkers and other workers from high-poverty communities, a Small Business Recovery Tax Credit to give $50 million in rent relief to 17,000 small businesses, and a rebate for owners of 1-to-3 family homes.

Though the mayor did call for increasing taxes on wealthy New Yorkers, he raised some concerns about a sweeping package of bills that would accomplish that goal at the state level. The package of six bills, called the Invest in Our New York Act, has been backed by a coalition of progressive advocacy groups and has several prominent legislative sponsors. But among those bills is one that would establish a stock transfer tax, which critics say would push Wall Street firms to conduct business elsewhere. “I agree that if you don't do it on a national basis, you do create the potential for pitting state against state or locality against locality for where those businesses will be and where those transactions will be,” de Blasio said when asked about the Stock Transfer Tax. 

Legislators at the hearing gave the mayor plenty of space to air his grievances with Cuomo and the state. He repeatedly critiqued the state’s haphazard vaccine program rollout even as legislators pressed him to open more vaccine sites in their districts. De Blasio said he agreed with a number of lawmakers who are pushing the two legislative majorities to repeal the governor's sweeping emergency powers granted early in the covid outbreak.

“We've been stymied by lack of supply,” he noted, while also pointing to a lack of direction from state authorities. “There's lots of specific rules the state adds on and changes all the time. It's just gumming up the works...The incessant desire to micromanage every step, we saw what that led to.” Under questioning from Assemblymember Ed Braunstein, he pledged to soon open a vaccination site in underserved parts of northwestern Queens.

The mayor made several other promises for which legislators are likely to hold him to account. He said he would not raise property tax rates. “We need to give them that rebate, because those are often lower income, middle income homeowners who really don't deserve that hit,” he said. 

He said that a property tax reform commission he created, which issued its first report in January last year after long delays and was then shelved amid the pandemic, would soon resume borough-wide hearings as it continues its work. “We will get you those dates in the coming days,” he promised Brooklyn State Senator Andrew Gounardes. “Because we've talked about it internally. We've got to restart this engine. We're absolutely committed to a final report soon.” 

He also promised Braunstein that next week the city would announce a new plan to hold this year’s Gifted & Talented testing for students, and that would be followed by a new system in the months ahead. “Between now and September, we're going to announce an entirely new approach for the future because I think we can reach many more kids,” de Blasio said.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this story has been updated with response from the Cuomo administration.

De Blasio Warns of Cuomo Budget Moves, Outlines Albany Agenda in Final State Legislative Hearing Thu, 11 Feb 2021 05:00:00 +0000
Democratic Mayoral Candidates Offer Albany Agendas, Strategies for Accomplishing Them stateofstateadd gov legis

The Governor & Legislative leaders (photo: Darren McGee/Governor's Office)

Eight of the top Democratic mayoral candidates appeared at a virtual forum on Monday to outline their legislative and budget priorities at the state level, and their strategies for achieving those goals. To varying degrees, they laid out tactics for partnering with, even opposing, Governor Andrew Cuomo and corralling the state Legislature to their side. But there were clear differences among the candidates, informed by their own background and experiences, and some seemed to take the candidate privilege of overestimating the heft they would have as the next mayor of New York City. 

Monday’s forum was hosted by Empire State Indivisible, a progressive advocacy group, and moderated by Gotham Gazette executive editor Ben Max. Empire State Indivisible is part of a coalition that has been urging the passage of the Invest in Our New York Act, a package of six bills to raise taxes on wealthy New Yorkers, corporations, and Wall Street activity to fill the state’s massive revenue shortfall, prevent cuts to public services and local aid, and provide additional revenue to achieve progressive priorities. Among many other topics, the candidates were asked to weigh in on that proposal.

The forum featured two 90-minute panels with four candidates each. The first panel included City Comptroller Scott Stringer, former counsel to the mayor Maya Wiley, Brooklyn City Council Member Carlos Menchaca, and former city sanitation commissioner Kathryn Garcia. On the second panel were Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, former federal housing secretary Shaun Donovan, former city veterans services commissioner Loree Sutton, and former nonprofit executive Dianne Morales. Ray McGuire’s campaign did not respond to invitations to the forum and Andrew Yang had been set to participate until he was diagnosed with COVID-19 and experiencing symptoms.

A great deal of what happens in New York City is determined by state law and state government, where power resides on a host of issues from tax policy to education aid and much more. A mayor’s ability to navigate the intricacies of Albany can make or break their overall agenda and have major impacts on the lives of New Yorkers.

New York’s governor and New York City’s mayor have historically had a frosty relationship even when they hail from the same party. That holds particularly true for third-term Governor Cuomo and two-term Mayor Bill de Blasio, both of whom are Democrats. Over the last seven years, the two have feuded over matters existential and inconsequential to New Yorkers, though most of the slings and arrows tend to fly from the governor’s hands. Cuomo has sought to dominate and undermine de Blasio while showing frustration with the mayor’s often stumbling efforts to manage city government and forge strong intergovernmental relationships -- de Blasio has also struggled to work well with the State Legislature.

With Cuomo expected to run for a fourth term in 2022 and de Blasio term-limited this year, the next mayor of New York City, almost certainly a Democrat because of the party’s heavy enrollment advantage, should have a clear idea of what awaits them in Albany. De Blasio’s dreams often died at the steps of the Capitol, where for years Republicans and moderate Democrats in the State Senate and Cuomo, a Democrat who often takes moderate stances, invariably stood in the way. Cuomo has also repeatedly sought to offload costs onto the city during the state budget process.

There are now allies in both houses of the Democratically-controlled state Legislature that have been friendlier to the city and the mayor. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie represents a district in the Bronx and has a keen interest in ensuring that New York City is protected, and he has been de Blasio’s long-standing top ally among the leaders in Albany. The new-as-of-2019 State Senate Democratic majority includes a number of New York City-based legislators with significant influence and a city-focused agenda.

Even with legislative supermajorities in both houses, Cuomo’s power has far from waned, and it is not always easy for the mayor of New York City to advance priorities in state government. Nevertheless, there is broad agreement that the next mayor has much room to improve upon the approach taken by the current one, making the importance of Monday night’s discussion paramount. 

Articulating an agenda
Most candidates offered specifics about their agenda in Albany while some offered generalities and buzzwords. 

Garcia presented a six-point agenda that included immediate investment in the city’s recovery, expanding healthcare access, passing elements of NYCHA’s “Blueprint for Change” proposal, investing in mass transportation, education, and combating climate change. She said she would push for expanding Medicaid eligibility and greater mental health services, restoring 24/7 subway service, funding for the MTA’s Fast Forward plan, among other items.

“[W]e need to create a strong foundation for the long term so that New Yorkers have the essentials – quality health care, affordable housing, a world class transportation system, a thriving economy, and an education system we can really be proud of,” she said. 

Menchaca said his Albany agenda was three-pronged: “political,” climate change, and equity in the city’s recovery. “I think we have to understand that the political dynamics are shifting,” he said. “The City of New York helped create a supermajority in the Senate. I think we need to continue to support our state legislators to keep that super majority. That's going to continue to shift the way that the governor works.” 

Besides pushing for more climate action at the state level, he said he would advocate for an equitable recovery by through taxes on the wealthy, ‘cancelling rent’ and ensuring that essential workers, particularly undocumented immigrants, receive direct emergency aid. He specifically spoke of a bill sponsored by State Senator Jessica Ramos that would create an excluded worker fund for those purposes.   

“Our recovery will run through Albany, and we've got to fundamentally reset the Albany relationship,” said Stringer, who cited his own Albany experiences as an Assemblymember for 13 years. “New Yorkers cannot afford to have a mayor walk flat-footed in the capital, especially not now,” he added, in a clear shot at Mayor de Blasio. 

Stringer said he would enlist the help of a slew of progressive legislators, including Ramos, who have backed him to create the largest childcare program across the country, to repeal the 421-a tax credit for building affordable housing, and to raise taxes on the rich. 

Wiley was the only candidate who released a detailed Albany agenda in the hours before the forum, announcing her support for the Invest in Our New York Act along with a large slate of other bills related to housing, worker and tenant protections, education, jobs and small businesses, criminal justice reform, electoral reforms, and climate change policies. 

At the forum, Wiley honed in on issues of affordability, specifically housing, child care, and health care. “Those things were already deeply broken, and deeply broken before covid, for communities of color in particular and for the middle class. And so to solve them, yes, we need to have a partnership with Albany,” she said. 

Adams’ focus was somewhat narrower than the other candidates as he repeatedly said it is essential to push state government to adequately fund education in New York City. He pointed to the State Court of Appeals’ 2006 decision in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity case, which has become something of a quagmire. Advocates say the state should provide billions more in foundation aid to struggling schools to live up to the ruling, while Governor Cuomo has largely rejected that argument while attempting to change the formula for foundation aid.

“It is imperative that we get our fair share, and we are not,” Adams said. He said he would establish greater coordination between city and state agencies, which currently “operate in silos,” push for greater city representation on the MTA board with a new member for each borough, and pursue for a real-time monitoring system for affordable housing stock. He also said he wants to see reform at the State Liquor Authority so that it stops targeting Black-owned businesses and changes to how private health insurance is taxed.

Donovan has his own six-point agenda that covers building affordable and supportive housing and tackling homelessness, creating jobs by restructuring tax programs, fair funding for education, a public option for health care that includes undocumented immigrants, investing funds in the MTA in exchange for more seats on the board, and his “equity bonds” proposal to give every child $1,000 when they’re born and $2,000 every year after.

“I think I'm a unique candidate in this race given that I've worked at all levels of government to lead through crisis,” he said. “No one else in this race has that deep experience in working not only with the state, but with the federal government and with the local government as well.”

Morales offered few specific policy ideas but outlined some of her planned tactics for dealing with Albany. “My agenda for Albany aligns with my agenda for New York City. It's centered on the interest of everyday New Yorkers,” she said. “Everything that we do and everything that we need is connected to Albany. Our schools, our housing, our health care, our transportation. Everything needs Albany approval.”

She did say she would work with Assemblymember Richard Gottfried to pursue passage of the New York Health Act, which would establish a single-payer health-care system in the state, along with increased taxes on the wealthy to pay for it. “I think that there is increasing political will towards doing both of these things,” she said. 

Sutton stressed the need to ensure New York’s economic recovery, preventing an exodus of residents, bringing back tourism, repairing the fiscal hole, reopening businesses, and keeping the streets and subways safe. She is among the more centrist candidates and has repeatedly raised concerns about New York’s business friendliness, issued warnings about going too far with new taxes, and pointed to issues with public safety. 

But, while Sutton spoke mostly of what was at stake, she did not offer any concrete solutions or specific policies when asked for her Albany agenda. “[I]f we cannot work together, the city and Albany with our electeds, with the myriad private sector leaders, our philanthropy leaders, our state and federal partners, and treat them truly as respected partners, bringing together community input and community needs, the rest of what we're talking about, it really won't matter, because New York City will not come back,” she said. 

When asked for something specific, she later said her first priority in Albany would be to sit down with Assemblymember Gottfried to discuss his proposal and to explore measures to improve public health infrastructure, linking public health with public safety, both cornerstones of her platform. She also said she would work to create a coalition with the governor and state lawmakers around the state’s recovery while trying to “disrupt” the way state and local governments work. “Let's figure out what are the things that we need to permanently change. Let's look to improvise, let's have a sort of a skunkworks,” she said. 

Approach to Albany
Along with proposing a firm agenda, any successful mayor will have to use their political capital and skills to move the levers of power in Albany. Between the governor and the two legislative chambers, that task is easier said than done and the candidates offered different approaches. They also sought to define how they would specifically deal with Governor Cuomo, who is known for his heavy-handedness and zero-sum approach to power. 

Garcia said she has a track record of bringing people together on “really thorny issues” over the course of her 14-year career. “[Y]ou have to find those key stakeholders, particularly within the Legislature who are going to be advocates for your program,” she said. Mayor de Blasio’s agenda, she pointed out, was often haphazard and created last-minute, leading it to flounder in Albany. She recalled being enlisted in the administration to make last-minute calls for the extension of mayoral control of city schools. “So my approach is we need to be collaborative, but really also clear and long-term in our thinking,” she said. 

Menchaca emphasized the shifting political balance in Albany, and seemed to set his focus on progressives in the state Legislature asserting their power against the governor. But he also stressed the need for the mayor and City Council to present a united front in Albany along with state legislators and congressional representatives, something he said has been lacking under de Blasio. “I think that can really send a message to the governor. And I think his tone is going to change. It's already changing,” he said, though he did not explain what he was referring to. 

Notably, Menchaca endorsed Cuomo’s primary opponent, Cynthia Nixon, in 2018, which would likely come back to haunt him if he should win the mayoral primary given the governor is known for his exacting grudges. Asked about what he would say to the governor if he wins, he said, “I'm gonna say both looking forward to working with you and watch out,” (which were the two options offered to him by the moderator). 

Having been members of the State Legislature in the past, both Stringer and Adams fell back on their personal Albany connections and experience. 

Stringer noted that, as comptroller, he already has an agenda that he takes to the capital every year and he pointed out his close working relationship with the younger crop of progressives elected to the Legislature in recent years. He repeatedly mentioned his contributions to helping some of them defeat members of the rogue Independent Democratic Conference, which partnered with Senate Republicans, along with the efforts of the host group, Empire State Indivisible.

“But I also have a relationship with this governor and we respect each other,” Stringer added. “And we will work to build the bridge between our progressive legislators in the Assembly, in the Senate, with the governor, because we have one thing in common: the future New York City.” 

He had harsh words for the mayor. “I think time and time again, the mayor's lunch money was stolen even before he walked into the state Capitol,” he said. “He was constantly with a limited Albany agenda because he did not do the groundwork to create a specific legislative agenda and rally people around it.”

Wiley said she would prioritize partnerships with the leaders of the Legislature and create a “shared agenda” with rank-and-file legislators. But she stressed the greater importance of building groundswell support for policies among communities that are affected. “[I]t's fundamentally about partnering with the people who are impacted, who have a voice and should have a voice in Albany, and we should be facilitating that voice,” she said. 

She particularly went out of her way to distance herself from her old boss. “First of all, I have a very different personality from the current mayor,” she said, underscoring that she would not undermine senior leadership in her mayoralty like de Blasio has done. 

Of all the candidates, she seemed most willing to let the governor take center stage. “You have to have a relationship with the governor, you have to have a back channel with the governor,” she said. “You have to recognize there are times when you're going to get what you want done because you'll let the governor take credit. But that's not every time and it's not the only way to work.”

Morales presented the most critical approach, decrying the preferred tactics of politicians. “We've been getting our asses kicked, and it didn't start with Cuomo and it's not going to end with him,” she said. “I don't want to work within this broken system that has repeatedly and consistently failed our people. What we have seen work is exposure and escalation,” she said of how to get the political best of Cuomo. 

She said she would marshal everyday New Yorkers, rather than lobbyists, to advocate for her agenda. “My agenda and more importantly, my approach will not be driven by inside baseball machinations that have gotten us nowhere. I'm not going to focus on bragging about my network or making backroom deals or holding private meetings at the Fort Orange club,” she said. “I'm an organizer on issues, it's what I do best. So that's what I'm going to do. I'm going to bring the fight to Albany if I have to.” But she did concede that her approach would also be “relational” and that, as an organizer, she shares common interests with elected representatives.

Adams took a middle-of-the-road approach, speaking of the need to “mobilize people” as well as forging alliances with legislators, visiting their districts and inviting them across the city. “But have well thought out plans with some clear results in mind that they can look at and see as we move our target forward,” he said. 

Adams noted that passing legislation through Albany would require aligning the interests of legislators from diverse parts of the state, particularly in the state Senate where moderate Democrats tend to be wary of progressive legislation. 

He also insisted he would never feud with the governor. “Leadership is not only substantive, it’s symbolic,”he said. “I am not going to have public disputes with the governor. We'll have our disagreements behind closed doors, but we will have a united front.”

Though Donovan has experience working with elected officials on policy, he said his approach would also start with the people. “A wise person once told me politics is felt need, and unless you feel the need, unless it is organized and relentless, you are not going to get things done to build those coalitions,” he said. He also took a shot at the mayor for always planning during crises rather than having comprehensive plans ready proactively. “If you believe that you can plan in crisis and get things done, you will fail. You need to have those plans ready before the crisis hits,” he said. 

Donovan noted in particular that he has worked with the governor in the past. “When Sandy hit, and President Obama asked me to lead the recovery efforts, I worked very effectively with Andrew, to get stuff done,” he said of Governor Cuomo. “We didn't agree on everything. But we were able to work out those differences, and get the biggest, most important things we needed to get done, done.”

Sutton didn’t shy away from criticizing de Blasio’s relationship with Cuomo, which she witnessed firsthand in the mayor’s administration and described as “a dysfunctional relationship that was grounded in disrespect and disdain even for each other.” “That just has no place in our public life and New Yorkers in the city and the state paid a huge price for it,” she said. 

Invest in Our New York Act
The forum was an opportunity for Empire State Indivisible to gauge the candidates’ support for the Invest in Our New York Act, which could raise as much as $50 billion in revenue for the state at a time when it faces a roughly $60 billion shortfall over four years, according to the coalition pushing the package of six bills. 

There were varied opinions among the candidates on the tax package, though they all agreed on the need for a more progressive tax system. 

Wiley, Morales, and Menchaca all unequivocally expressed support for it in full. Stringer hedged during the forum, but a spokesperson later clarified that he is in full support.

Adams would not commit to supporting the heir’s tax or the billionaires tax, and raised concern about the legality of the corporate tax bill. Instead, he discussed finding ways to cut city agency spending and find savings through attrition. 

Donovan too did not support the full slate of bills. But he, like Adams, focused on the federal government instead. “Fundamentally, the place we need a far more progressive system is in Washington, so that we're not disadvantaged in New York City or New York State compared to other places around the country,” he said. 

Sutton took issue with the Invest in Our New York campaign, saying its rhetoric demonizes the rich rather than including them in the city’s recovery. “I think that New York City doesn't work without all of us working together in an inclusive, respectful process,” she said. Though she said she supports parts of the package, she did not make clear which ones. 

Garcia hedged in her response. “I absolutely think that revenue is going to be essential. I also think growing our economy is going to be essential to get through this fiscal crisis,” she said without directly saying whether she supports the package. She also raised a warning about the exodus of rich New Yorkers during the pandemic, citing a large drop in residential trash pickup from Manhattan. 

Various Other Issues of State Policy
The candidates varied on several other issues as well. 

Stringer, Donovan, and Adams warned against the city taking over control of the subways or a large chunk of what is now the MTA. “That would be a recipe for disaster,” Donovan said, noting that it is part of a regional system. Stringer said, “I've done the numbers, and maybe in a utopian society, we could control the MTA but we can’t. The debt service would crush the city.” 

Garcia and Morales, similarly, said municipal control of parts of the MTA would be ideal but not without the revenue to support it. Sutton was among several candidates, including Donovan, Adams, and Stringer, calling for greater city representation on the MTA board. Adams’ push for five new borough-based appointees would also mean the city would have a plurality and significantly more authority on the board. Donovan said his goal would be for city and state appointees to have equal footing on the board and a clearer power-sharing agreement, with the city contributing more capital funds to the agency through several mechanisms including congestion pricing and value capture funds. 

Menchaca was the only one to unreservedly call for city control of the MTA

Nearly all the candidates supported repealing the Urstadt Law, which gives the state control over rent regulation and prevents the city from establishing its own rent rules. Donovan, however, had concerns about it. “I think there are real issues about the city taking over Urstadt given the rent control and rent stabilization powers that exist outside of the city,’ he said. “I am certainly open to more control. I don't think you would be able legally to give the city full control on it.” 

When asked about the law, Sutton instead said that recent rent regulations passed by the state Legislature went too far, particularly in the burdens they placed on small landlords. 

Most of the candidates extolled the virtues of mayoral control of city schools, with several saying it should be permanent. Only Adams suggested that the regular expiration and renewal of mayoral control was necessary. “I believe we should every two years, go back and see it for review. You should earn the right to have that level of power,” he said. And Morales was again the only candidate who expressed an interest in doing away with the current model of mayoral control of schools and establishing a new, more community-focused model.

Only three members of the second panel were asked whether they would support repeal of the 1971 Hecht-Calandra Act, which created the Specialized High School Admissions Test as the sole entrance criteria for the city’s three most selective high schools (Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech) that has become a subject of intense controversy in recent years. They were also pressed on whether the city should have the authority to control the cap on charter schools rather than the state. Stringer, who was on the first panel, volunteered his support for repealing Hecht-Calandra to give the city the power to determine admissions to all the specialized high schools.

Donovan and Morales both said they support repeal and said the city should have control of the charter school cap.

“I believe the state should make that determination,” said Adams, who also called for creating five more specialized high schools in the city. “I'm not running for state office. I'm running for city office. They need to decide and debate that and give them the opportunity to come to a conclusion.” Asked if he thought the mayor’s voice was important in the debate, he said, “No, I don't.” Similarly, on the charter school cap, he said, “I believe that should be a state decision. They should make the determination.”

The candidates were also somewhat split on the bail reforms approved by the state Legislature in 2019 that were subsequently partially rolled back in 2020 after significant opposition from law enforcement officials, Republicans, and some Democrats.  

Both Menchaca and Morales said they were disappointed that the law was watered down. Adams and Garcia seemed satisfied with where the law stands now. And Donovan and Stringer said they would have to wait to see how the law is currently working -- though a Stringer spokesperson again clarified after the forum that the comptroller still opposes the rollbacks and would prefer the original reforms passed in 2019 to be the law.

Watch the full forum here.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Democratic Mayoral Candidates Offer Albany Agendas, Strategies for Accomplishing Them Tue, 09 Feb 2021 05:00:00 +0000
WATCH: Democratic Mayoral Candidates Outline Their Albany Agendas 4x4mashup edit

 l-r (top): Kathryn Garcia, Scott Stringer, Maya Wiley, Carlos Menchaca; bottom: Shaun Donovan, Dianne Morales, Loree Sutton, Eric Adams

Eight leading Democratic mayoral candidates appeared in two sessions at the "Albany Agenda" forum hosted by Empire State Indivisible and moderated by Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max. The candidates — Kathryn Garcia, Scott Stringer, Maya Wiley, Carlos Menchaca, Shaun Donovan, Eric Adams, Dianne Morales, and Loree Sutton — discussed their state policy agendas and how they would navigate the processes, politics, and personalities of Albany to accomplish their goals. They also weighed in on issues from tax policy to mayoral control of city schools, MTA governance, and more. Watch:

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

WATCH: Democratic Mayoral Candidates Outline Their Albany Agendas Tue, 09 Feb 2021 05:00:00 +0000
State Legislators, Advocacy Coalition Launch Push for ‘New Deal for CUNY’ CUNY students

CUNY graduates (photo: CUNY)

Brooklyn State Senator Andrew Gounardes, Bronx Assemblymember Karines Reyes, the CUNY Rising Alliance, and others are holding a virtual press conference Friday to promote the proposed “New Deal for CUNY.”

The New Deal for CUNY includes three main goals that deal with the university’s funding, spending, staffing, and campuses, would be implemented over the course of five years, and would make CUNY tuition- and fee-free for New Yorkers.

Gounardes and Reyes are the prime sponsors of the legislation that would accomplish the key goals of a CUNY New Deal. Representatives of CUNY faculty and staff union, the Professional Staff Congress (PSC CUNY), leaders from the University Student Senate (USS), and a long list of State Senators and Assembly members from the city will also participate.

CUNY Rising Alliance is a coalition of advocacy organizations and individuals who aim to improve CUNY and garner more funding for the sprawling public university system that educates hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers every year at four-year and two-year schools as well as a graduate center.

“The communities and constituencies we work with are the most hurt by policies of austerity and disinvestment from public institutions like CUNY,” reads the PSC CUNY website, in describing the CUNY Rising Alliance. “Living in a city with record income inequality and profound, systemic racial disparities in education, our constituencies depend on a quality CUNY education to begin to level the playing field of opportunity.”

The centerpiece of the New Deal of CUNY is more funding for the university system from all three levels of government so that conditions and outcomes improve for faculty and students alike.

“New Yorkers have always thought big,” the policy’s opening statement reads. “More importantly, we have had the courage to face challenges, to reimagine public life when necessary, and to make visionary investments of public money to support the change we need. We have understood that government at its best invests in the health and wellbeing of those most in need, and in doing so enriches life for us all. It is in this tradition of public commitment that New Deal for CUNY legislation reimagines federal, state and city investment in the City University of New York and makes the country’s premier urban public university a central component of New York’s public health and economic recovery.”

The CUNY New Deal’s first goal is to increase the ratio of full-time professors to full-time students, in addition to “professionalizing” adjunct professors’ and lecturers’ salaries. Adjuncts are part-time faculty members with temporary contracts who get paid less than full-time faculty.

According to the plan’s concept paper, the nation-wide average full-time faculty to full-time student ratio is 1-to-14, as was reported by the National Center for Education Statistics. CUNY’s current ratio is 1-to-29, or 35 full-time faculty to every 1,000 full-time students.

CUNY Rising Alliance is calling for work to improve the ratio so that it is 65 full-time faculty to every 1,000 full-time students, which is the equivalent of a classroom ratio of 1-to-15.

The two main reasons the proportion of full-time professors to full-time students is so stark is because the university system relies heavily on adjunct faculty and because class sizes tend to be larger than those of private universities.

“No single factor is more important in student success and a university’s academic stature than the student/faculty ratio,” the concept paper says. “As a result of decades of inadequate public funding, the number of full-time faculty at CUNY has plummeted by more than 4,000 positions even as enrollment has soared. Full-time professors have been replaced by temporary, part-time instructors, adjuncts. Even tuition increases of more than 50 percent over the last ten years at both senior and community colleges have been insufficient to offset the loss of public funds.”

“New York cannot accept a substandard ratio of full-time faculty to students and unprofessional compensation for adjunct instructors,” the plan continues. “They hurt our students and they hurt our state. The New Deal for CUNY mandates public funding to lift the ratio of full-time faculty to undergraduate students and close the equity gap between full-time and part-time pro-rated salaries.”

CUNY currently employs more than 12,000 adjunct faculty members and only 7,500 full-time faculty, the paper says.

The alliance is arguing that this is detrimental to students, as adjuncts have less time to spend on courses and office hours, since many have to work multiple jobs to support themselves. They also typically have less time to spend on research, which can deprive students of an opportunity to learn from their professors’ active work.

PSC worked with CUNY administration to come up with a salary increase for adjuncts last year, but these part-time workers are still paid less than full-time faculty members, and thousands of adjuncts were let go amid the budget tightening and uncertainty of COVID-19.

The New Deal for CUNY lays out a plan for hiring 5,000 more full-time faculty members, with special preference for current adjuncts, within the next five years. It also has a plan for increasing adjunct salaries to equal those of the full-time and tenured faculty.

The total cost for this initiative over five years is expected to be $636.5 million, according to CUNY Rising Alliance.

Another New Deal for CUNY goal is to make CUNY tuition and fees free for all in-state undergraduate students across its 19 senior and community college campuses.

“Now, when the national conversation has shifted back to CUNY’s original great idea of providing free college education to all, it is time for New York to define the national higher education agenda again,” the plan says. “Nothing is more important in taking leadership than instituting genuinely free tuition. Reintroducing free tuition at CUNY would be especially powerful as a public investment in communities currently under attack because of rising racism, anti-Semitism and anti-immigrant bigotry. Free undergraduate tuition at CUNY would send an unmistakable message to the rest of the country that New York believes that ‘the children of the whole people,’ regardless of origin, race or citizenship status, should be educated together and with equal resources.”

CUNY Rising Alliance proposes the university phases out tuition and fees for so many of its students by eliminating students’ eligibility for the New York State Tuition Assistance Program, or TAP, and using that funding toward free tuition for all.

CUNY Rising Alliance estimates this would cost a total of $796 million over the five years.

The final component of the New Deal for CUNY plan is to increase the number of mental health counselors and academic advisors at the university.

“More than 60 percent of CUNY undergraduates have family incomes under $30,000 a year. 80 percent are people of color. 42 percent report food insecurity. Many are parents, and more than half work at least half-time. For thousands of CUNY students, every day is a struggle with poverty, hunger, racism, homelessness, low-wage work and parenting,” the concept paper states. “That CUNY students absorb the stresses they do and nevertheless persist in their college education is testament to their hunger for knowledge and commitment to transforming their lives. They know what is at stake in earning a college degree.”

The plan is to hire enough mental health counselors and then distribute them fairly among the colleges to reach the national standard, which is a counselor-to-student ratio of 1-to-1,000. CUNY currently has a ratio of about 1-to-2,700.

Additionally, CUNY would retrain its current financial advisors — whose roles would become obsolete with the end of college tuition — as academic advisors, so that it’s easier for students to get appointments with academic advisement.

According to the New Deal for CUNY concept paper, the Center for an Urban Future recently recommended an academic advisor-to-student ratio of 1-to-600, and the successful CUNY ASAP program has an academic advisor-to-student ratio of 1-to-150.

The total cost over five years for this initiative of mental health counselors and academic advisors would be $40 million.

Along with Gounardes and Reyes, legislators slated to participate in Friday’s press conference include State Senators Alessandra Biaggi, Jabari Brisport, Brad Hoylman, Robert Jackson, John Liu, Shelley Mayer, Julia Salazar, and James Sanders Jr., and Assemblymembers Kenneth Burgos, Harvey Epstein, Phara Souffrant Forrest, Jessica González-Rojas, Richard Gottfried, Marcela Mitaynes, Michael Montesano, Robert Rodriguez, Linda Rosenthal, Nadar Sayegh, Jo Anne Simon, Al Taylor, and David Weprin.

State Legislators, Advocacy Coalition Launch Push for ‘New Deal for CUNY’ Thu, 04 Feb 2021 05:00:00 +0000
It's Time to Stop Tolerating Wrongful Convictions and How They Undermine Our Legal System edit width despair hope resillence

State Senator Myrie, a co-author, with other electeds and advocates

2020 was a year of tragedy and despair, hope and resilience. In 2021 we must take long overdue steps to address the myriad injustices laid bare by the pandemic, and others plainly evident well before COVID-19.

We must shore up our medical system and our schools. We must rebuild our social safety net. And we must once and for all, decidedly and without hesitation, address the long-standing harms perpetrated by the criminal legal system against communities of color. This is why, in 2021, we will be advocating for legislation that will finally start to address the pernicious issue of wrongful convictions in New York.

We are a Black State Senator representing parts of Brooklyn most deeply impacted by mass incarceration and a person wrongfully convicted of a shooting in Brooklyn during the 1990s. This summer we marched alongside thousands of New Yorkers to protest police brutality and the racial injustices that are ingrained in our criminal legal system. We were saddened, but not surprised, by the tragic and avoidable deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many other Black Americans at the hands of police in recent years, and those going back decades. For us, and the community that we live in and serve every day, stories of injustice are all too common.

Our criminal legal system has been failing the Black community forever. Black Americans make up only 13% of the U.S. population, but almost 40% of the prison population. This stark racial disparity is a result of years and years of inequality and injustice. After slavery was abolished in 1865, the number of Black people arrested and incarcerated surged, leading to the country’s first prison boom. Since then, the incarceration of Black Americans has been used as a form of social, political, and economic control

We are both proud of the pre-trial reforms the New York State Legislature passed in 2019, thanks, in part, to years of advocacy by groups like VOCAL-NY. But bail, discovery, and speedy trial reform enhance legal protections for people accused of crimes going forward, and does not repair the harm committed against Black people and other communities of color by racist or biased policing and prosecutions prior to 2020. Justice demands that we not only look forward, but also bring to light past harms committed by the state against our communities.

In 2020, Senator Myrie (a co-author of this column) introduced in the Senate, along with Assemblymember Dan Quart in the Assembly, a bill to affirmatively address wrongful convictions in New York. The bill, drafted with input from directly-impacted people including Roger Clark (the other co-author here), will remove barriers to post-conviction review to ensure that people who were wrongfully convicted have a meaningful opportunity to clear their names. Under the current law, they do not; people who have been wrongly convicted can only bring their case back to court if their case fits into a very narrow category. Because of this, judges routinely deny hearing new evidence in a wrongful conviction case because of procedural and technical roadblocks. 

Since 1989, 2,619 people nationwide have been cleared of all charges against them after being wrongly convicted of a crime. In New York alone, 291 people have been exonerated, and significantly, over half of those people are Black. But those exonerations are only the tip of the iceberg. There are thousands more wrongly convicted men and women in New York who, because of the way the law is currently written and interpreted, have no legal avenue to bring their case back to court. We must fix that. 

Wrongly convicted men and women may have faced racial injustice or police brutality that was not caught on camera. They may have pled guilty to a crime they did not commit in order to avoid the lengthy prison sentences that arose during the ‘Tough on Crime’ era. Or they may have been denied their constitutional rights while being funneled through a racially-biased legal system. 

No matter what the circumstances were, people who have been wrongly convicted in New York deserve a chance to be heard. Their stories and evidence deserve to see the light of day. Denying people that opportunity discredits our entire criminal legal system.  

2021 provides a crucial opportunity for New York to address decades of systemic racism against the Black community. Passing the Wrongful Conviction Bill is a long overdue first step.

Senator Zellnor Myrie represents the 20th State Senate District in Brooklyn. Roger Clark is a Community Leader and criminal legal system reform advocate at VOCAL-NY and the Founder of the Crimmigration Initiative. On Twitter @SenatorMyrie & @VOCALNewYork.

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It's Time to Stop Tolerating Wrongful Convictions and How They Undermine Our Legal System Sun, 31 Jan 2021 05:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: State Senator Liz Krueger on New York’s Finances Gotham Gazette:

Senator Liz Krueger (photo: NY Senate)

January 20, 2021 - Max & Murphy Podcast: State Senator Liz Krueger on New York’s Finances

State Senator Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat who chairs the Senate's finance committee, joined the show to discuss the state's fiscal picture, the governor's new executive budget plan, aid from Washginton, 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

Max & Murphy · Episode 270: State Senator Liz Krueger On New York’s Finances

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Max & Murphy Podcast: State Senator Liz Krueger on New York’s Finances Wed, 20 Jan 2021 05:00:00 +0000