Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/510 Fri, 07 May 2021 09:15:06 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) New York’s Congressional Redistricting Could Be Tipping Point in Midterm Battle for Control of the House https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/10442-new-york-congressional-redistricting-biden-midterms-control-us-house-representatives https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/10442-new-york-congressional-redistricting-biden-midterms-control-us-house-representatives congressional redistricting bureau

State Senate chambers (photo: Philip Kamrass/Governor's Office)


The Census Bureau released its population counts for the nation and the states on April 26, including changes for the states in the apportionment of 435 seats in the United States House of Representatives. New York State will drop one House seat, going from 27 seats to 26, even though it actually gained more than 800,000 people, from 19.4 to 20.2 million, since 2010. Extraordinarily, the Census reported that New York would have held its 27th seat if  89 more persons had been counted.

The changes come at a time when the Democratic majority in the House is deeply threatened. Historically, the party in power (this time, the Democrats) loses seats in the midterms, the congressional elections halfway through a president’s term. This is a fact Democratic President Joe Biden is surely keenly aware of given his long political history in the U.S. Senate and as Vice President.

The Republicans have more power over drawing new state district maps than the Democrats do because they have more “trifectas,” where one party controls both houses of the state legislature and the governor’s office. The Republicans now have 23 states with trifectas compared to 15 for the Democrats, including New York. These national Republican advantages mean the outcome of redistricting in New York could be vital to the Democrats holding the House of Representatives. Democrats now dominate both Houses of the New York State Legislature and have the power to eliminate a number of Republican House seats, despite the existence of an Independent Districting Commission created to make redistricting fair to both political parties. 

The apportionment changes across the country were less dramatic than anticipated, although the shift in the allocation of House seats continued to the South and the West. New York and a handful of other states will lose one seat each. Texas will gain two, and Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Montana, Colorado, and Oregon gain one each. The apportionment changes, however, are just a prelude to the national power struggle over redistricting. The 2022 midterm elections for control of the House of Representatives will take place on the new district lines drawn by the states.

Some states have set up nonpartisan commissions to achieve fair districts; in some states one political party has a trifecta and has only the exercise of self-restraint to curb ruthless partisan gerrymandering. In other states, divided government, where there’s some political split within the two houses of the legislature and governor’s office, can result in political compromises in the drawing of the lines. Virtually every districting plan ends up challenged in the courts, whose decisions can sometimes, but not always, act as a final restraint on partisanship.

Partisan gerrymandering of legislative districts is virtually synonymous with redistricting itself, and is well known to the general public. Gerrymandering has been a political fact of life since the early 19th century and includes state and local districts as well as the House of Representatives. Both parties historically have gerrymandered where they had the power to do so, but the 1960s produced some restraints on the process, like the Voting Rights Act and the one-person, one-vote 1964 decision of the United States Supreme Court.

New York State has been no stranger to partisan gerrymandering, but there was a division of power in the state for decades, with Republicans in control of the State Senate and Democrats in control of the State Assembly. The division of power forced compromises on the House seats, but for the state legislative districts in the Assembly and the Senate the party in power controlled the process. Voting Rights Act and one-person, one-vote protections, as well as court challenges, continued to force modest restraints on partisanship, and elections always produced unique results. In my 32 years in the State Legislature, I went through three redistrictings, in 1992, 2002, and 2012. They were never fun, even for a Democratic incumbent Assembly member from Brooklyn.

Demands for greater fairness in the process finally produced a constitutional amendment in New York creating an independent redistricting commission in 2014. I voted for the legislation that put the constitutional amendment on the ballot after the 2012 redistricting of the House seats and legislative districts. The Republican Party still controlled the State Senate in 2012 and 2014 but the Democrats were becoming ever more competitive. The Democrats in the State Senate gained an outright majority against the Republicans in 2016, gained more seats in 2018, and in 2020 won 43 out of the 63 seats in the Senate, or more than two-thirds of that body. Democrats in the State Assembly have had two-thirds majorities for decades, primarily because nearly every single one of the 65 Assembly districts in New York City is represented by a Democrat.

In the past decade, the United States Supreme Court, in two major decisions, undermined the fight for fair processes in redistricting, despite the creation of a number of independent districting commissions in the states. In 2013, in Shelby County v. Holder, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out the preclearance of district maps of the states by the Justice Department under Section V of the Voting Rights Act, claiming Section V was no longer necessary. In 2019. the U.S. Supreme Court, in Rucho v. Common Cause, halted the efforts to reform partisan gerrymandering in the federal courts, saying gerrymandering was ultimately a political question over which the federal courts did not have authority.

The Supreme Court decisions have now left the door wide open for ruthless racial and partisan gerrymandering over House districts, especially in the southern states like Texas, Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina (the Democratic Governor in North Carolina has no role in redistricting there), which the Republicans control and where there is no longer preclearance by the Justice Department to halt racist gerrymanders.

Dave Wasserman, a political analyst for the Cook Political Report and one of the nation’s foremost experts on redistricting, has examined the state of redistricting across the nation. His analysis presents the current status as follows for the 435 House seats across the country: 187 seats with districting controlled by Republicans, 75 controlled by Democrats, 121 under independent/bipartisan districting commissions, 46 seats under divided party control, and 6 at-large seats. In some states, however, like Florida, the Republican Party is likely to aggressively draw new lines to eliminate Democratic incumbents and shore up newly-elected Republicans from South Florida. As many as 3 Democratic House seats are at risk there.

There are likely to be aggressive efforts to draw the district lines where one party or the other controls the process, but the fact remains that the Republican Party is in control of more states than the Democratic Party. The Republicans, just through redistricting alone, are capable of eliminating enough Democratic seats across the country on a net basis to offset the current 222-213, thin, five-seat majority the Democrats have in the House, making it ever more challenging to hold House seats for the Democrats in the midterm elections. In addition to New York, other important states like California, Ohio, Virginia, and Michigan have districting commissions that could neutralize partisanship. But even in those states the outcome is far from certain.

At the national level, there is still a chance that Congress could put the brakes on partisan or racial gerrymandering. H.R. 1, which has been passed in the House, requires non-partisan districting commissions for Congressional districts, and uniform standards for fair districting, like geographic compactness and communities of interest. H.R. 4, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, would restore Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act and re-establish Justice Department preclearance of district lines. A version of H.R. 4 passed in 2019. These bills, advanced by Democrats, proffer a truce on redistricting to the Republicans, a chance to avoid an all-out war over district lines. The demographic data and individual population counts for each district, information essential for the lines to be drawn, won’t be released until August. The redistricting will then begin in earnest. There is still time to negotiate, but in my opinion Republican acceptance of reforms is unlikely.

The design of New York’s redistricting commission still puts the Legislature in ultimate control in a set of circumstances that have already come to pass. The plans submitted by the commission to the Legislature can be rejected twice, and, upon two-thirds vote of each house, the Legislature can then draw the lines.

Democrats currently have a 19-8 majority in the New York House delegation, and the state must lose one seat.

Compliance with certain standards in New York’s law on redistricting, such as compactness and communities of interest, must be adhered to regardless of whether the commission or the Legislature draws the district lines in New York. Every Congressional district must have about 760,000 people, and it is not yet known how many persons are within each district or what their minority populations are, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, among many others, is probably vitally interested in what the final lines will look like in New York.

Wasserman, in a set of New York maps put out on his twitter account, depicted New York’s current lines and envisioned a districting alternative that eliminates five Republican districts. New York goes from a 19-8 Democratic majority to 23-3. See below for more.

New York’s current district map from @redistrict April 27, 2021:

jb image1

New York’s Republican House districts are 1, 2, 11, 21, 22, 23, 24, and 27.  Republican Congressional Reps. Lee Zeldin from the 1st C.D. just launched a campaign for Governor in the 2022 election and Tom Reed from the 23rd announced he is retiring, meaning two Republican-held seats are likely to be vacant.

Here is Wasserman’s concept for a redistricting in New York that goes to 26 seats and has a 23-3 template for Democratic wins: 

jb image2

The above map is just a concept. But the Democrats have enough flexibility shifting Democrats around to take all three of the Republican seats downstate (two on Long Island and the Staten Island-Brooklyn seat), and convert them into winning districts for Democrats. That would leave three Republican seats in Upstate New York instead of five.

Partisan maps don’t guarantee victories in elections. No one knows what the overall national tone will be like in the fall of 2022. Will Biden stay popular? Will there be a conservative counter-reaction to Democratic spending, leading to a Republican wave like the Tea Party in 2010? Will Democrats in New York (and elsewhere) go to sleep and fail to come out to vote? The answers to these questions are unknown. But I think if the legislative leaders in New York offered Nancy Pelosi an elimination of five Republican seats I know what her answer would be.

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Jim Brennan was a member of the New York State Assembly for 32 years, where he chaired four committees. On Twitter @JimBrennanNY.

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New York’s Congressional Redistricting Could Be Tipping Point in Midterm Battle for Control of the House Mon, 03 May 2021 04:00:00 +0000
10 Reasons to Oppose 'Albanycare' https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/10434-10-reasons-oppose-albanycare-new-york-health-act-single-payer https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/10434-10-reasons-oppose-albanycare-new-york-health-act-single-payer gov cuomo protect

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


Lawmakers in Albany are again advancing the New York Health Act, which would abolish private health insurance and herd all New Yorkers into a state-run “single payer” plan financed with massive tax hikes.

Instead of building on recent progress—which has brought us closer than ever to universal health care coverage—this proposal would demolish the current system and put one-fifth of the economy under state control.

Here are 10 reasons why “Albanycare” is the wrong way to go.

It’s a Major Leap of Faith
Instead of modeling their plan on an existing system with a track record, the authors are attempting something radically different: a 100% tax-funded health plan, covering everyone and everything, with no limits on choice of provider, no premiums or copayments, and no private alternatives allowed. Nothing quite like it has ever been tried before—in the United States or anywhere else.

It’s Unnecessarily Disruptive
As of 2019, New York’s uninsured rate had dropped to a historic low of 5%, or about 1 million people, many of whom are eligible for existing programs. That puts universal coverage within reach through relatively modest investments and policy fixes. With a conversion to single-payer, the vast majority of the cost and effort would be focused on people who already have coverage—and who are by and large content with it. A single-payer system would also redistribute resources among providers, creating winners and losers with unpredictable effects on the stability of the system.

It Will Break the Bank
Even if you believe the new system can cover more people and more benefits at roughly the same cost (which is dubious in the extreme) this proposal would put the entire $300 billion health system on the state’s balance sheet—making the rest of government look small by comparison. At a minimum, the price tag could be expected to grow at roughly the rate of medical inflation year after year. Figuring out how to balance the budget of this one program—by cutting costs, raising revenue or both—would become Albany’s dominant obsession. Some level of rationing would be almost inevitable. Lawmakers would face choices between reducing payments to providers or limiting benefits.

It Requires Economy-Busting Tax Hikes
Financing single-payer—even at a cost-neutral level—would require state tax hikes on a scale never before seen in U.S. history. Some lower-income New Yorkers might save money compared to premiums, but only because their higher-income neighbors would pay drastically more. Those hardest hit by the taxes would be incentivized to move away, triggering a spiral of falling revenue and soaring tax rates. The state’s ability to raise money for other priorities—such as mass transit or renewable energy—would be diminished if not eliminated.

It Lacks Viable Cost Controls
The proposal would abolish existing restraints on spending (as flawed as they may be) without clearly identifying alternatives. For starters, most reimbursement would be on a “fee for service” basis, a model that encourages over-consumption—and rewards bungling providers by paying them twice, first to make the mistake, and then to fix it. The promise of “free” service without a consumer contribution, and without other constraints imposed by health plans, would encourage excessive use of certain tests and treatments, including many with limited or dubious value.

It’s Authoritarian
The bill mandates state-sponsored coverage for all New Yorkers, whether they want it or not, while effectively banning private insurance and private fees. Imagine imposing that level of government control over other necessities such as food, housing or education.

It Gives New Yorkers More Reasons to Leave
Wealthy individuals and businesses can easily avoid the new single-payer taxes by setting up residence in another state. People of even modest means who are happy with their current coverage might choose to live elsewhere. Medical providers who do well under the present system might decide they’re better off leaving. On the other hand, the offer of free long-term care would incentivize people to move here just before they enter a nursing home or seek other costly services.

It Leaves Too Many Questions Unanswered
The bill is long on promised benefits but short on details about the trade-offs. The most consequential decisions—starting with where to set tax rates and how to compensate providers—are left to be determined by future legislators, a future governor and a future panel of appointees. Nor has the proposal been subject to a full-fledged analysis or proper public hearings. Lawmakers should do their homework before passing what would be the most complicated and high-stakes program in state history.

It Depends on Trusting Albany
Running a health plan for 20 million people demands a level of competence and honesty that the state government has never demonstrated before. For a preview, look no further than New York’s Medicaid system, which is hugely ineffici ent and riddled with waste and corruption. Time and again, Albany puts the interests of players in the system—especially those who can afford lobbyists and campaign contributions—over the needs of the vulnerable people Medicaid is supposed to serve.

It’s the Wrong Response to a Pandemic
The best way to fight a viral outbreak is to prevent it from spreading in the first place. That’s primarily the job of the public health system—which focuses on entire populations rather than individuals and does not depend on insurance companies for money. Doctors, hospitals, nurses, etc., play the essential role of treating those who do become sick, but they’re not the ones who order quarantines, limit crowd sizes, shut down non-essential businesses or mandate mask-wearing. Most hospitals and doctors became less busy during the height of the pandemic, to the point that many hospitals furloughed employees and needed financial bailouts. When hospitals did become overwhelmed with patients, it wasn’t because people lacked coverage, but because the public health system had broken down.

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Bill Hammond is senior fellow for health policy at the Empire Center. On Twitter @NYHammond.

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

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10 Reasons to Oppose 'Albanycare' Thu, 29 Apr 2021 04:00:00 +0000
What to Know About New York's Shifting Voting Rules and Deadlines Ahead of the June Primary https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/10412-what-to-know-about-new-york-shifting-voting-rules-june-primary-mayor https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/10412-what-to-know-about-new-york-shifting-voting-rules-june-primary-mayor 2 democracy registers people

Voter registration (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


Voting rights advocates are beginning to wonder if the gusto to transform New York's elections embraced by state lawmakers last year -- changes many considered necessary adjustments, if still a work in progress -- will extend into the pandemic's second election cycle and the decisive New York City primaries in June.

There are already signs it has waned with the completion of the presidential election, the availability of vaccines, and new sights set on New York's full reopening. Many improvements to last year's provisions -- which included the near-universal expansion of absentee voting -- are still on the table, and some emergency measures have expired as New Yorkers gear up for another pandemic-era election.

As in the presidential election last fall, all voters will be allowed to vote absentee under a law that includes the risk of COVID-19 and other transmittable diseases as an acceptable reason to apply for a ballot.

The only piece of new absentee voting legislation both houses of the state Legislature have agreed on in 2021 would, if signed, allow voters to request ballots earlier but would create a more restrictive deadline to request a ballot, which advocates say will suppress votes.

New York City primary voters will be able to vote early in-person at assigned polling sites from June 12 through 20 and on primary day, June 22. That is also the last day absentee ballots can be postmarked or dropped off at designated sites for voting in the party primaries -- where only registered party members will have a chance to nominate candidates in a flood of competitive races, mostly on the Democratic side, including for mayor, comptroller, City Council, borough president, and more. There are several Republican primaries, including for mayor.

The last day to register to vote in the June primaries is May 28. Registered voters may file to change their address up until June 2. (The deadline for voters to switch their party enrollment has already passed.)

A final list of early voting polling locations, which may be different from voters’ assigned primary day site, is expected by a May 1 deadline, according to the New York City Board of Elections. There are far fewer early voting poll sites, with many more voters assigned to each. A bill to require an early voting site for every 25,000 voters was introduced last year but remains in committee.

June is the first citywide election to use ranked-choice voting. Voters will be able to rank up to five candidates in order of preference in each primary race on their ballot for city government positions. Those rankings will be used to redistribute ballots if no one candidate wins an outright majority of first-place votes and the elimination process begins. (See more about the ranked-choice voting process here.)

The city's Campaign Finance Board (CFB) and Board of Elections are both working to educate voters on the new method through mail and digital ads in multiple languages. The CFB is also conducting local trainings with community leaders and voters through its voter outreach arm NYC Votes, which has a $2 million ranked-choice voting advertising budget. Both agencies have information pages on their websites and the BOE will have instructional displays and palm cards in multiple languages at poll sites.

Most Democratic primary ballots will be very long this year, and voters should be aware of all the races they can vote in, as well as how to carefully fill out their ballots using ranked-choice voting.

Absentee Voting
The state's first experiment with fully-available absentee voting last year -- a change sought by voting reform advocates pre-pandemic to expand the franchise -- showed flaws in the roll-out and technicalities in the law that likely disenfranchised voters, albeit under the exceptional circumstances. State lawmakers have made few covid-related changes to elections since last year and none related to absentee voting, though a number of proposals have been made in the Legislature.

Even laws to allow absentee ballots to be requested online and to be requested earlier in the election cycle, both of which remove obstacles for administrators and voters, sunset at the end of last year. Both can still be renewed before June.

The New York City and State Boards of Elections are both maintaining absentee application portals on their respective websites, pursuant to an executive order, despite the law's expiration.

In February, Governor Cuomo signed legislation to reduce petition signature requirements for candidates to get on the ballot under the notion of trying to limit the spread of COVID-19. He also signed legislation eliminating “opportunity to ballot,” which allows petitioners to take the ballot line of a party when no candidate is nominated in the primaries, which is common for smaller parties.

The only absentee ballot measure to pass both houses is one that allows ballots to be requested more than 30 days before an election. But the bill also creates a more restrictive deadline to apply, moving it from seven to 15 days before the election day. Advocates are urging the governor to veto it and for the state to pass a similar version without the tighter deadline restriction. State lawmakers say it is necessary in order to follow postal service guidelines and requests from the State Board of Elections.

"We recommend that jurisdictions immediately communicate and advise voters to request ballots at the earliest point allowable but no later than 15 days prior to the election date," a United States Postal Service (USPS) spokesperson told Gotham Gazette last August. Only one state, Rhode Island, has an absentee application deadline more than 12 days before an election.

"Although the Legislature is considering many progressive absentee voting measures that would expand voting access and ensure all voters are able to vote in a way that is most safe and convenient for them, [this bill] would have the opposite impact and seriously limit a voter’s ability to request an absentee ballot," wrote the League of Women Voters of New York State, in a memo of opposition to legislation, which they called "regressive."

"Instead of rolling back absentee access as so many other states are doing, we are counting on the two houses to work together to improve the system, based on Election 2020 resiliency needs and the many significant issues from past elections that needed fixing during more normal times," wrote Jarret Berg, co-founder of the reform group Vote Early NY, in an email to Gotham Gazette.

Advocates have suggested other practical changes in addition to passing certain existing bills. At the very least, Berg said, the 15-day cutoff should not apply to online applications (should they be in place for the primaries), which don't require mail delivery.

"Marginalized voters and those who tune in closer to an election and want to exercise their rights will be impacted by this roll back," Berg wrote. "The absentee request option will cut off just at the point in the cycle when they wish to avail themselves of it."

Other Proposed Voting Changes
Some legislation has been percolating in Albany, but what will make it across the finish line before June remains a question. Spokespeople for Governor Cuomo, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, all Democrats, did not return requests for comment for this article.

In January, the State Senate passed a package of bills to address problems with New York’s first go at mass absentee voting that arose last year. They included measures to create designated absentee ballot dropboxes and an absentee ballot tracker, and to expedite the mailing and counting of ballots. It also included a new online absentee ballot request system and the two bills related to an earlier request period, including the one with the more restrictive 15-day deadline. Only the latter has also passed the Assembly.

One of the Senate bills would require ballots to be counted when a voter makes errant markings, as long as their intent is "unambiguous." Similar legislation to ensure ballots are counted even when un- or partially-sealed, has remained in committee. These mistakes should at least be made "curable" under a law passed last year to allow voters to correct certain mistakes on the ballot envelope, advocates say, but they have not been.

The Senate also passed a potential state constitutional amendment to allow absentee voting without an excuse, making absentee voting open to all. Absentee voting is already universal this year because the Legislature and governor expanded the definition of an illness to include the risk of spreading a disease. That law, intended to give a previous executive order more permanency and extend it to potential future disasters, expires at the end of this year with no indication that it will be renewed. A separate amendment to allow voters to register on Election Day also passed the Senate. Each would need to pass the Assembly and be approved by voters in a referendum, which could happen as early as this fall, before they can take effect.

Let New York Vote, a statewide coalition, commended the Senate package in a letter to Cuomo and legislative leaders but sought more reforms to address disenfranchisement that occurred in Oneida County in the race for Congressional District 22 between then-U.S. Rep. Anthony Brindisi and his challenger, Rep. Claudia Tenney. In that race, the county board of elections failed to process at least 2,400 ballots in time for the general election. The letter called for the Oneida County BOE to be removed, registration processing reporting, and more staff and resources from the state.

With uncertainty around what legislation could move through the Assembly and which might get the governor's signature, the period to request an absentee ballot in the June New York City primaries is in flux. If nothing else passes the Assembly or is signed by Cuomo, voters will be able to request absentee ballots from the Board of Elections by mail, email, or fax through June 15. In-person applications will be accepted at BOE offices until June 21.

Absentee ballot tracking is a priority for Assembly election chair Latrice Walker, according to a spokesperson. So are the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act of New York -- a bill to create more actionable offenses for protected classes, demographic data reporting, and certain pre-clearance requirements -- and a voting machine security law to ensure ballots cannot be marked after they are cast. There is a chance ballot tracking and the Voting Rights Act could advance in the Assembly before the primaries, Walker’s spokesperson told Gotham Gazette, "but she is still a part of a larger body."

Last year, Cuomo signed an executive order requiring the state to pay absentee ballot postage in the June 2020 presidential primaries. A bill to make that permanent was introduced after the order expired last year but has not gained traction in either house.

A bill to restore voting rights to people on parole passed in the Assembly Wednesday after passing the Senate earlier this year. The bill needs Cuomo's signature to become law. People on parole, who are disproportionately Black and Latino, are currently eligible for a conditional pardon from the governor that would re-enfranchise them, but advocates say the bill would make the measure permanent and less discretionary, and would include more proactive education and registration efforts.

Another bill still in committee would expand the franchise to people in prison, but without a constitutional amendment it could be subject to a court challenge if passed, which is unlikely this session.

The good government groups also want to see a bill pass to require polling sites on college campuses with 300 or more registered voters. “College students have one of the lowest voter turnout rates in the country," wrote Tom Speaker, an election analyst with Reinvent Albany, in an email. "Passing this legislation can help get more young people to exercise their most fundamental right.”

Recently-passed automatic voter registration, which requires certain state agencies to register voters unless they opt-out, does not begin to go into effect until 2023 and will not be fully implemented until 2025.

"Since the political balance of power in Albany shifted in 2019, New York has taken several steps to modernize its antiquated election infrastructure," wrote Berg, referring to the Democratic-control of the State Legislature and Executive Chamber. "Early Voting and Automatic Voter Registration are two of the more transformative measures enacted. However, the pace of progress remains slow and incremental. Americans may be surprised to learn that the voting wars rage on, including even in places like Albany where some insiders have remained generally resistant to democracy and ethics reforms for decades."

Berg and others have suggested the state return to proactively mailing out absentee ballot applications to registered voters, which was done last June under a one-time executive order. Another proposal is to allow ballots be emailed to voters if they have not received them in the few days before an election day.

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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What to Know About New York's Shifting Voting Rules and Deadlines Ahead of the June Primary Wed, 21 Apr 2021 04:00:00 +0000
The Next Essential Step in New York’s Climate Future https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/10367-next-essential-step-new-york-climate-change-future https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/10367-next-essential-step-new-york-climate-change-future The Next Essential Step in New York’s Climate Future Mon, 12 Apr 2021 04:00:00 +0000 What the New State Budget Means for New York City https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/10360-what-new-fy22-state-budget-means-new-york-city https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/10360-what-new-fy22-state-budget-means-new-york-city maj leader andrea

Senate Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins & Mayor de Blasio (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


Governor Andrew Cuomo and the Legislature approved a $212 billion state budget this week, an immense spending plan bolstered by new state tax increases on the wealthy and massive federal aid, with major investments in education, infrastructure, the green economy, rent relief, benefits for undocumented immigrants, child care, and more. The budget includes direct and indirect support for New York City, aimed at reviving its economy and aiding its residents as the city begins to claw its way out of the throes of the coronavirus pandemic.

From rent relief to support for small businesses and tax credits for property owners and tourism, the state budget contains a great deal of aid for New York City and its residents, as well as a number of policy initiatives that impact the city. The state budget adoption now sets the stage for the city to move ahead with its annual budget process, with an updated spending plan for next fiscal year due from Mayor Bill de Blasio later this month, and a new city budget due by the July 1 start to the new fiscal year.

The highlights of the state deal -- reached among the two Democratic legislative majorities and the third-term Democratic governor embroiled in several major scandals -- include:

Education Aid
Education activists cheered the state budget deal for including increased funding for schools. The budget directs $29.5 billion to schools statewide, including a $1.4 billion increase in Foundation Aid to the neediest schools. Though the aid will be phased in over three years, New York City alone stands to receive as much as $1 billion more annually.

“Generations of parents, community leaders and students across New York State, year after year, have led the advocacy to hold New York to the promise of a sound, basic education for every child,” said Jasmine Gripper, executive director of Alliance for Quality Education, an education advocacy group. “Parents, educators and students put their bodies and hearts into this difficult, but necessary fight. This victory shows the power of the people, the power of never giving up, the power of ‘we,’ and it belongs to all of us.”

The budget also adds other streams of funding, largely from the federal government, that should benefit the city including $13 billion in federal funds to help schools across the state reopen and $500 million for emergency assistance to nonpublic schools and reimbursements to school districts for transportation costs.

Colleges and universities also saw an increase in the budget with $7.7 billion in funding, up by $283 million compared with last year, and a tuition freeze imposed on CUNY and SUNY over three years. There are also increases in state tuition assistance for low-income students, and other programs to bolster New York’s public universities and their students. This is on top of billions headed to New York higher education institutions from the federal government’s American Rescue Plan.

Still, the state budget is short of the “New Deal for CUNY” that some advocates and legislators had been pushing, funded by major tax increases that did not occur.

“But in a year that cried out for bold investment in public higher education and an end to racist austerity for the Black and brown communities CUNY serves, Albany missed the opportunity to pass a transformative budget for CUNY,” said Barbara Bowen, president of the Professional Staff Congress at CUNY. “Rejecting a tuition increase without adding the funds to replace the lost revenue will ultimately undermine the quality of education CUNY can offer. CUNY needs investment on a larger scale if it is to recover from decades of underfunding and realize its potential for the people of New York. A fully funded CUNY would be a linchpin of a recovery that not only rebuilds New York, but reimagines it.”

Tax Increases and Cuts
Though Governor Cuomo has long opposed increasing taxes on the wealthy, his politically tenuous position this year made it possible for the Legislature to override his wishes, though not nearly to the extent that the Invest in Our New York coalition had been pushing for, with a series of tax increases on individuals, corporations, and transactions that it said would raise tens of billions of dollars in new revenue.

The budget includes a personal income tax surcharge on the state’s highest earners to raise $2.7 billion and a corporate franchise tax to raise $750 million in the first year, according to the governor. The corporate franchise tax will be in place for three years and the surcharge for six years. Wealthy New York City residents will effectively pay the highest marginal tax rate in the country because of the additional local income tax, sparking warnings of flight (or lack of return) by some number of top earners.

The budget also includes the next step in a multi-year middle-class tax cut that the governor estimated will save more than $2.2 billion for 4.8 million New Yorkers. And it provides pass-through of $2.3 billion in federal funds to expand the child care tax credit. It also includes $440 million in tax credits for homeowners with incomes up to $250,000 if their total property tax exceeds a fixed percentage of their income.

“By raising essential revenue from the wealthiest New Yorkers to support low-income, immigrant and Black and brown communities, we are starting to build a state where all of us can afford to live,” said Invest in Our New York Coalition campaign manager Rebecca Bailin. “This revenue will make possible historic investments to fund our public schools, create a first-in-the-nation fund for excluded workers, and stop many of the dangerous cuts that Governor Cuomo imposed on our communities.”

“However, our state leaders failed to raise anywhere near the full extent of revenue within reach. Many of the investments necessary to build a New York that lets us all thrive were left unfunded,” Bailin continued, going on to specifically cite a lack of attention on reducing and preventing homelessness. She also said that by not going further on tax increases, the state is not on sound long-term fiscal footing given much of this budget relies on federal stimulus.

That structural medium- to long-term state budget question is shared across the political spectrum, even as the proposed solutions differ greatly, as did the responses to the tax increases that are in the new budget.

In its reaction to the budget, Citizens Budget Commission, a nonprofit think tank and watchdog, praised many of the state actions to help suffering New Yorkers, but questioned the tax increases.

“Unfortunately, the State’s leaders did not appropriately leverage the opportunity provided by the infusion of funds to stabilize New York’s fiscal picture and maintain its economic competitiveness, which would best sustain the State’s ability to help all New Yorkers over time,” said CBC President Andrew Rein. “Despite having $22 billion more in funds available over the next two years than when the Governor proposed the budget in January, leaders agreed to raise personal income and business taxes and to use some portion of federal funds to inflate spending that likely cannot be supported in the out-years.”

“The tax increases simply are unnecessary and economically risky,” Rein continued. “Sufficient resources already are available to New York’s governments, people, businesses, and institutions to address the continued substantial needs. Additionally, the tax increases both provide incentive for highly taxed New Yorkers to leave or not return to the State, and increase the cost of doing business here. Furthermore, using temporary federal funds to support recurring spending sets the stage for future budget cuts or tax increases when the federal aid is exhausted.”

Transit Funding
The state budget restored hundreds of millions of dollars to the MTA that Cuomo had planned to redirect to the state’s general fund even as the transit authority was facing fiscal ruin and proposing a fare hike.

“By restoring transit funding, the budget saves riders from service cuts and fare hikes,” said Danny Pearlstein, policy and communications director for Riders Alliance, a transit advocacy group, in a statement. "Now that legislators have stopped governor's raids, and with $15 billion in federal aid, there is no excuse for hiking transit fares or cutting service. The governor must work with legislative leaders to protect fares and service while ridership recovers,” he added.

The MTA is also getting about $6 billion from the federal government in order to retain staff and keep service levels up despite massive reductions in subway, bus, and commuter rail ridership and thus revenue.

Renter and Homeowner Relief
The budget creates a $2.4 billion program using state and federal funding to help New Yorkers pay back-rent and utility bills for the last 12 months. The program will be invaluable for city residents who owe as much as $1 billion in rent in sum, according to a survey by Community Housing Improvement Program (CHIP), an organization that represents more than 4,000 landlords in the city.

Additionally, the budget includes $600 million in homeowner assistance and $25 million for blighted home rejuvenation.

“This program will deliver more than $2 billion to renters in need, while also helping housing providers who have been struggling to make ends meet,” said Jay Martin, Executive Director of CHIP, in a statement. “It is a product of thoughtful work by State Legislators, under difficult conditions, to deliver for New Yorkers. This program is also a thorough rejection of the #CancelRent movement and rightly seeks to help property owners continue to provide safe affordable housing. We encourage the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA) to quickly implement this program so renters get help in weeks, not months.”

Housing and Homelessness
The budget invests $100 million for converting distressed and unused hotels and office buildings into affordable housing, which could make an impact in New York City where those buildings have emptied as people transitioned to working from home and tourism came to a standstill.

The budget also includes $200 million for the New York City Housing Authority, a sum advocates and some legislators called far too paltry for the housing authority home to about half-a-million people and in need of roughly $40 billion in capital upgrades.

There was also significant disappointment among advocates and some legislators that the new state budget does not include new funding for housing vouchers to help people leave home lessness.

“This budget provides no meaningful relief to the over 92,000 New Yorkers sleeping in shelters and streets across the state, nor did it make critical investments to reverse historically high overdose deaths that continue to grow,” said Bailin of Invest in Our New York. “The budget does not guarantee the state can continue to fund schools, healthcare and housing for the long-term.”

Small Business Relief
The state budget contains $1 billion in relief for small businesses, arts, entertainment, and restaurants, all industries that have been decimated by the pandemic, and on top of the billions in federal aid headed to New York for such businesses and programs. About $800 million of that funding will be awarded in grants to small businesses, including arts and cultural institutions. Another $25 million will be granted to restaurants that provide food to “distressed and under-represented communities,” according to the governor’s office.

The budget also includes $35 million to provide tax credits to restaurants and $40 million in grants for nonprofit arts and cultural organizations.

Relief for Undocumented Immigrants
Progressive lawmakers scored a massive victory with the approval of a $2.1 billion “excluded workers” fund to provide direct cash payments to some number of the estimated 500,000 undocumented immigrants who are ineligible for unemployment insurance or federal stimulus relief.

“New York’s Fund for Excluded Workers will be the first entirely State run and State funded program in the nation to bring relief to individuals excluded from government-issued economic relief,” said a press release from Queens State Senator Jessica Ramos, who pushed for the fund and also credited Assembly sponsor Carmen De La Rosa of Manhattan, and the many groups who advocated for it, an effort that included a hunger strike over the past few weeks.

According to Ramos’ office, eligible New Yorkers can receive a $15,600 payment or a $3,200 payment, depending on what they can prove about residency and income loss.

“From Brooklyn to Buffalo, hundreds of thousands of immigrant New York families will now have access to unemployment assistance  through the first-of-its-kind program in the nation,” said Murad Awawdeh, interim co-executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, in a statement. “Because of the Excluded Worker Fund, immigrant New York families will be able to to pay their rent, feed their families and buy diapers, formula and other essentials to help their families get through this challenging time. Additionally, the 2022 budget ensures that countless low-income New Yorkers will have access to a lawyer when they face the country’s immigration courts.”

The budget also includes a $10 million Liberty Defense Fund for free legal assistance for undocumented immigrants.

Infrastructure
The budget funds a $311 billion infrastructure program, according to Cuomo, which includes funding toward a massive redevelopment proposal for Midtown West in Manhattan. It includes a $16 billion proposal to renovate Penn Station, eight new tracks to expand its capacity, and an extension of the High Line to the recently opened Moynihan Train Hall. 

Among the major investments is $29 billion for public and private green energy projects.

Low-Cost Broadband
As part of the budget, the Legislature approved the Comprehensive Broadband Connectivity Act, which directs the Public Service Commission to study broadband access across the state. The budget also mandates that low-income households should receive broadband plans for as low as $15 a month. Those low-cost plans will be particularly helpful in New York City where almost 20% of residents don’t have access to high-speed internet at home or on a mobile device.

Tourism
A crucial industry for New York City, tourism all but disappeared during the pandemic. In 2019, the city saw tourism peak with 66.6 million visitors, according to the city-run NYC & Company. Last year, the number of tourists decreased to just 22.3 million. The state budget aims to boost those numbers with $100 million set aside over two years for the New York City Musical and Theatrical Production Tax Credit.

Public Safety
As part of the budget, the Legislature approved the Community Violence Intervention Act, which declares gun violence a public health crisis and provides funds for violence intervention programs.

“In an historic statement, New York became the first state to officially declare gun violence a public health crisis, and is responding accordingly by establishing a fund for violence intervention and interruption programs that serve our communities,” said a press release from State Senator Zellnor Myrie, a Brooklyn Democrat.

“Today, we are sending an unmistakable message: gun violence is an epidemic in communities across New York State, and we must take a proactive approach to address it,” said Myrie. “Violence intervention and interruption programs have a research-based, proven model for breaking the cycle of handgun violence that plagues our streets and takes the life of an estimated one in forty Black boys in America.”

Myrie reported that the budget includes “$10 million to hospital-based violence intervention programs and community-based violence interruption programs, and dedicates ten percent of New York’s federally-funded Victims of Crime Act funding to these groups in future years. These programs provide a credible, non-police response to gun violence, and have a remarkable track record of success in the communities most vulnerable to gun violence.”

The budget also provides an additional $25 million for the Securing Communities Against Hate Crime Program and $15 million for health and safety outreach to communities disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Amid spikes in hate crimes against Asian-Americans, Myrie reported that the new state budget includes “a $19.5 million investment in additional support for the Asian-American community,” including “$10 million to Asian-American community-based organizations to support short- and long- term programming to address inequalities, support racial healing and promote relief and recovery from the pandemic. The Budget further provides $2.5 million for enhanced data disaggregation at the State Health Department, to better assess the needs facing New Yorkers of Asian descent.”

Elections, Voting and Democracy
The budget includes $25 million in capital funding to modernize state and local voting infrastructure. It also gives $2 million to local boards of elections and $1 million to the state BOE to enact voting reforms.

It also allocates $4 million to the Independent Redistricting Commission, which will begin the process of redrawing legislative and congressional districts this year based on data from the 2020 Census.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

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What the New State Budget Means for New York City Wed, 07 Apr 2021 04:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: State Senator Gustavo Rivera on the New State Budget https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/10357-max-murphy-podcast-state-senator-gustavo-rivera-state-budget https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/10357-max-murphy-podcast-state-senator-gustavo-rivera-state-budget state senator gustavo rivera

State Senator Gustavo Rivera (photo: New York Senate)


April 7, 2021 - Max & Murphy Podcast: State Senator Gustavo Rivera on the New State Budget

State Senator Gustavo Rivera, a Bronx Democrat, joined the show to discuss the new state budget, key highlights from the massive spending plan, and what's next.

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

Max & Murphy · Episode 288

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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Max & Murphy Podcast: State Senator Gustavo Rivera on the New State Budget Wed, 07 Apr 2021 04:00:00 +0000
State Legislature on Verge of Passing Bill to Restore Voting Rights to People on Parole https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/10353-new-york-legislature-passing-restore-voting-rights-parolees https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/10353-new-york-legislature-passing-restore-voting-rights-parolees Legislature on Verge of Passing Legislation to Restore Voting Rights for Parolees

Voters (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


A bill to restore the voting rights of people on parole is moving through the New York State Legislature and could land on Governor Andrew Cuomo's desk this spring, according to the bill's Assembly sponsor. Assemblymember Daniel O'Donnell told Gotham Gazette the legislation, which was passed in the State Senate in February, is likely to pass the Assembly "soon" after the state budget is finalized. 

"I expect our house to take up the bill shortly. What does shortly mean or what does soon mean depends on when the budget is moved," said O'Donnell, a Democrat representing parts of the Upper West Side and Harlem, in a phone interview Monday. As of Tuesday afternoon, the Legislature appeared on track to pass all the necessary state budget bills by the following day.

The bill would codify a two-year-old policy, enacted through executive order by Governor Andrew Cuomo, to restore voting rights for New Yorkers on parole, reversing a longtime contributor to the mass disenfranchisement of Black and Latino people across the state. It would also require people leaving correctional custody be given notice of their rights and a voter registration form, and includes a public outreach program to educate criminal justice professionals.

"There is no justification for denying someone who is living a law-abiding life the opportunity to vote," O'Donnell said. Because of the strictures of parole supervision, "the reality is that if you are on parole successfully you are living a law-abiding life."

There were roughly 31,000 people on parole in New York last November, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, which analyzed state correctional data obtained under the Freedom of Information Law. Forty-seven percent of them were Black.

In a statement Tuesday afternoon, Cuomo announced his office had reached an agreement on the budget with Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, less than a week after the April 1 start of the new fiscal year. The last day lawmakers will be in session this year is June 10, according to the current legislative calendar, though that is subject to change.

Representatives for Cuomo and Heastie did not return requests for comment for this story. The Senate version of the bill, introduced by Sen. Leroy Comrie, a Queens Democrat, passed on February 24.

A version of the franchise restoration bill was first introduced in the State Legislature in the 2009-2010 legislative session, according to the Senate website, when Democrats briefly controlled the chamber. While a raft of long-stagnant voting reforms has moved forward under the new Democratic control, which since 2019 has extended to both houses of the Legislature and the governor's office, rights restoration has stayed on the back-burner.

In April 2019, Cuomo signed an executive order to do much the same thing. It restored voting rights to people on parole, but through a condit ional pardon system entailing a review and approval of each case by the Cuomo administration. By December, over 49,000 New Yorkers were re-enfranchised, though for roughly 8,000 of them in that initial eight-month span it was only to have those rights revoked either for a parole violation or a new conviction. At the time, officials wouldn't say how many eligible individuals still were not re-enfranchised after the administration's review. Black people in New York City are 12 times more likely to be locked up for parole violations than white people, according to the Center for Employment Opportunity, a reentry service provider.

From 2010 to 2020, the average length of parole was 2.5 years, not including individuals sentenced to parole for life, according to the Brennan Center.

"Part of restoration and second chances should also include your opportunity to participate in the complete civic process," said Victor Pate, an organizer with HALT Solitary, a successful statewide campaign to reform New York's use of solitary confinement. "Once you have been incarcerated and you have been released then it is considered your debt has been paid to society."

Voting rights are also "a core piece of a person's constitutional right to be able to participate wholly and completely in the process," said Pate, who since his release from prison over two decades ago has been an advocate for criminal justice reform including rights restoration legislation. He is part of a coalition of formerly-incarcerated New Yorkers and grassroots organizations pushing for other prison reforms as well, including a bill known as the "fair and timely parole" act to change parole standards and another called the "elder parole bill" to give people over 55 who have served more than 15 years of their sentence the opportunity for parole. "For me, I think there could be no better way to show that we are a system of forgiveness and redemption and second chances," he said.

Advocates like Pate say the re-enfranchisement legislation will improve upon the current executive order by making rights restoration permanent, seamless, and less discretionary, guaranteeing re-enfranchisement immediately upon release from custody. Currently, conditional pardons come with a lag time after release and the entire system could be dismantled by a future governor.

"It's not that this bill will give voting rights to a large class of people that are currently disenfranchised but it makes that policy more permanent...and it also makes the process for restoration more automatic, more transparent, and easier for folks to understand," said Sean Morales-Doyle, a voting rights expert at the Brennan Center, in an interview. The legislation is a top priority for voting reform groups and has for years been on the agenda for the Let NY Vote coalition, a group of organizations pushing statewide election changes.

There is some urgency to enact the legislation now, he said, noting the upcoming June primaries in New York City, when the next mayor of the heavily-Democratic city will likely be chosen. The last day to register to vote before the primaries is May 28. "One of the main benefits of this bill passing is to give clarity and to give people an opportunity to participate. It's important that we not let elections continue to pass by without that clarity," he said -- especially when there seems to be a philosophical agreement across the branches of state government.

The bill requires the state to provide notice to individuals about when their voting rights are revoked and reinstated following involvement in the criminal legal system.

O'Donnell told Gotham Gazette he does not believe the bill will come at a cost to taxpayers; though he did suggest the public education component could be conducted through advertisements on television or at government agencies.

Felony disenfranchisement has been a part of the New York State Consitution since the 19th Century when it was added to circumvent the 15th Amendment, which prohibited racial disenfranchisement following the de jure end of American Slavery. Before that, New York was the only state in the country that required Black men to own land in order to vote, according to a 2009 Brennan Center report entitled "Jim Crow in New York."

Another bill, introduced in 2019 by Senator Kevin Parker and Assemblymember Nily Rozic, both New York City Democrats, is intended to restore voting rights for people who are incarcerated. The legislation does not include a constitutional amendment, which means it could pave the way for the issue to be decided in the courts, if it is ever passed.

Morales-Doyle sees a symbolic element in passing re-enfranchisement legislation, on top of the practical one. "The effects that we are seeing now of a disproportionate disenfranchisement of Black and Latinx voters is exactly what was intended right from the start and it is a shameful relic of Jim Crow still on the books in New York," he said.

Many Black and Latino New Yorkers most directly harmed by racial disparities in policing and the courts "are legally locked out of participating through democracy. They are disenfranchised as a matter of law," he pointed out.

For some New Yorkers, having voting rights restored means having the chance to vote for the first time. Billy Davis, a Rochester resident who has been on parole for the past decade, was arrested when he was 17 -- before he reached voting age -- and spent the next roughly 20 years in prison.

"It feels like you're being left out," he said over the phone Monday. "It feels like you have no choice other than to do something negative as opposed to trying to do something the right way."

Davis' voting rights were restored two years ago under Cuomo's conditional pardon. He says he was told he had the right to vote "one day and I just went down and registered and I've been voting ever since. It gave me the opportunity. You can make a complaint about it or try to do something about it, you know?"

"It gives you a choice because it's always choices at the end of the day," he said. "That's how I think about life anyway -- making decisions, right or wrong."

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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State Legislature on Verge of Passing Bill to Restore Voting Rights to People on Parole Tue, 06 Apr 2021 04:00:00 +0000
With Significant Federal Aid on the Way, CUNY Awaits Key State Budget Decisions https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/10333-cuny-federal-aid-state-budget-tuition-costs-covid https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/10333-cuny-federal-aid-state-budget-tuition-costs-covid cuny fvm cha

CUNY amid COVID (photo: Chancellor Félix V. Matos Rodríguez)


On the second Thursday of March in 2020, all City University of New York campuses closed their doors to students indefinitely, following an announcement the previous day from CUNY Chancellor Félix Matos Rodriguez that the university would transition to a remote format due to the coronavirus pandemic.

This Thursday — April 1, 2021 — is the first day of New York State’s 2021-2022 fiscal year, when a new state budget is due, though it may be slightly late as in several other recent years. The new state budget will answer some key questions about the future of CUNY and the hundreds of thousands of students, professors, staff, and others who are part of the massive university system or rely on it in some way. The budget comes amid great uncertainty due to the ongoing pandemic and its extensive damages, but also as massive federal aid is flowing to New York, including hundreds of millions of dollars directly to CUNY, vaccinations are moving ahead, and the economy is reopening.

Schools across New York are eyeing a full return to in-person classes for the fall. As the state budget is being negotiated among Governor Andrew Cuomo and legislators from the State Senate and Assembly, there is a push being made by some lawmakers, advocates, and others -- including PSC-CUNY --, for the deal to include passage of large tax increases on the wealthy and corporations in order to fund, among other priorities, the “New Deal for CUNY,” which would eliminate undergraduate tuition for New Yorkers and raise adjunct salaries to match those of full-time professors, among other things.

State funding covers about 60% of CUNY’s operating budget for its senior colleges and their entire capital budgets, while student tuition provides about 40%, according to the Professional Staff Congress — CUNY’s faculty and staff union. 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,” according to the PSC analysis. Sever al of those programs have faced recent funding cuts.

Amid the pandemic and its ensuing economic crisis, CUNY had already been under a hiring freeze due to state-imposed budget cuts while it was also being pushed to increase pay for adjunct professors, who work part-time and on contract. 

In December 2019, the CUNY Board of Trustees voted to raise tuition and fees by $320 per student per year during a monthly meeting at Baruch College, as student- and professor-led protests erupted in the meeting room and, after the meeting was closed to only board members and press, in the halls and lobby of the college. On February 3, 2020, shortly before the pandemic hit New York and forced the state into a near-shutdown, the central CUNY administration and the PSC ratified a new salary contract, which included pay increases for adjuncts and back pay to 2017.

COVID-19 pushed the university to transition fully online on March 11, 2020, spelling unforeseen and immense change for CUNY and its many stakeholders, including to the university’s financial situation.

In March 2020, the federal government passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, which included a Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund. As part of this fund, money was allocated to universities to provide grants to students in financial need due to losing their jobs because of the pandemic and for institutional costs, such as paying professors and making up for lost tuition revenue. CUNY received just under $237 million from the CARES Act, which was then reallocated among the individual campuses. 

In June 2020, CUNY laid off over 400 adjunct professors by either cutting their classes or not sending them reappointment notices. Not only did the fired faculty members lose their salaries, but many also lost health insurance, during a pandemic, as a portion of adjunct professors receive insurance from the university. 

Additionally, CUNY failed to begin implementing a 2% salary increase for staff and an equity pay increase for assistants to higher education officers, full-time but low-level positions, by its February 1 deadline. After protests were planned to take place outside of Matos Rodriguez’s home, CUNY decided to reverse its decision to postpone these pay increases.

Now, as the state budget is about to be passed — with the city budget due July 1 — it remains to be seen whether state funding for CUNY will be cut, especially as more federal funds come in. Governor Cuomo has in the recent past used federal funds as rationale for pulling back state funds.

On March 18, U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Senate majority leader, announced that more than $2.6 billion will be allocated to New York colleges and universities as part of the recently passed American Rescue Plan. Of this amount, approximately $836 million will go toward CUNY colleges. For public colleges and universities, half of their allotted American Rescue Plan funding has to go to emergency financial aid grants to help students with housing, food, and healthcare. The other half will go to institutional costs and additional student support services.

“As New York’s colleges, universities, and students face over a year of unprecedented hurdles, they do so at a steep cost that it is our responsibility to address and overcome,” Schumer said. “In prioritizing the health and safety of students, faculty, and staff, New York’s higher education institutions have ripped massive holes in their budgets and are now facing down financial devastation – and we simply can’t let that happen. As Majority Leader, I was proud to make funding for New York’s higher education institutions and students a top priority, and the American Rescue Plan will deliver this much needed $2.6 billion in assistance to help our world-class institutions through the crisis, get students safely back to classes, and get campuses across the state back to ‘normal.’”

“Increased CUNY funding and the New Deal for CUNY legislation are critical to building an inclusive economy and a stronger university,” Bowen told Gotham Gazette in a new statement. “New York is on the cusp of reversing the pattern of planned poverty for CUNY that has systematically denied students the resources and support they need. To reverse that pattern — and to address the structural underfunding of New York State — the final budget must include at least the $7 billion in increased revenue supported by both the Senate and the Assembly. Revenue is the key; the pandemic revealed the damage that has been done by decades of racialized austerity. History will judge us on whether we had the political will to undo that damage.”

Schumer’s announcement of additional federal funding for CUNY came after a February 4 state legislative budget hearing on higher education that included testimony from Matos Rodriguez, Senior Vice Chancellor and Chief Financial Officer Matthew Sapienza, and PSC President Barbara Bowen, and questions from members of the State Senate and Assembly.

At the hearing, Matos Rodriguez asked for additional state funding for construction projects and information technology systems, as well as the money to continue offering the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs, or CUNY ASAP, which help students adapt to  and succeed in college.

On March 15, the State Senate passed a one-house budget resolution, which included emergency aid for schools and colleges. The resolution provides an additional $174 million for the Tuition Assistance Program to raise the maximum award to $6,165 from $5,165; $4 million to CUNY for mental health supports; an additional $13.6 million for CUNY community college base aid; $148 million to close the TAP gap at public city and state universities; and a 20% increase to opportunity programs and for establishing a new Diversity in Medicine program at CUNY and the State University of New York. The Assembly also had significant CUNY investments in its one-house budget.

“CUNY applauds the State Senate and Assembly budget proposals that strongly support public higher education and most importantly would help us continue to provide much-needed opportunity to our students, particularly in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic,” Matos Rodriguez said in a statement. “We are grateful for the proposed increase in capital investments to support facilities improvements and critical maintenance and for additional operating supports. We welcome aid for childcare services, students with disabilities, mental health initiatives, and the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies. We are pleased to see additional supports for community colleges that would enable CUNY to expand workforce training in response to the pandemic, train workers for green energy jobs and continue our acclaimed Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP).”

Throughout the state’s 2021-2022 budget process, however, the CUNY Rising Alliance advocacy coalition has been calling for funding for its proposed “New Deal for CUNY” legislation, which has been sponsored by Brooklyn State Senator Andrew Gounardes and Bronx Assemblymember Karines Reyes. 

“I’ve fought hard to include funding to jump start the CUNY New Deal,” Gounardes told Gotham Gazette in a statement just ahead of the budget deadline. “The CUNY New Deal has always been a multi year plan, but it’s crucial we get the initial investment this year to not set us back any further.”

The legislation, if adopted, would increase the amount of full-time professors to meet the national average ratio of 1-to-14 full-time faculty to full-time students, raise adjunct salaries to equal full-time professor salaries, and significantly increase the number of mental health counselors and academic advisors at the university. Possibly the most notable aspect of the plan, however, is that the New Deal for CUNY would make CUNY tuition and fees free for all in-state undergraduate students. Advocates stress that this would be a return to a tuition-free CUNY given that the university was free for city residents for much of its existence until the late 1970s.

“I’m proud the Senate’s budget plan restores the Governor’s cuts to @CUNY, closes the TAP Gap, freezes tuition & increases funding. But students need more profs & counselors, adjuncts need pay parity & it’s time for free higher ed. Let’s #InvestInOurNY & pass the #NewDeal4CUNY,” Gounardes tweeted on March 22.

So far, it doesn’t look like all the parts of the New Deal for CUNY that Gounardes and others have been pushing for will be included in the adopted state budget, but nothing in Albany is really known until a deal is reached and bills are printed.

In terms of city funding to CUNY, there is more time before the City Council and Mayor Bill de Blasio must finalize the budget, but the Council’s Committee on Higher Education held a hearing on CUNY funding on March 3 as part of its series on de Blasio’s preliminary spending plan. It included testimony from Sapienza, CUNY Executive Vice Chancellor and Chief Operating Officer Hector Bautista, and University Director of Capital Budget and Finance Gwen Perlman. The hearing was led by Committee Chair Inez Barron of Brooklyn.

Barron explained early in the hearing that the City Council is waiting to see what money is coming down from the state before making decisions on its own funding for CUNY.

“It has been my honor to sit as chair of this committee since fiscal 2015, and in those 11 — and now 12 — separate budget hearings, I have made clear just how important faculty and upper management diversity is, tuition increases and those impasses on affordability and accessibility for students are and childcare supports and increases in the base aid for the state are,” Barron said. “Today, I am re-emphasizing my position in these areas.”

During their testimonies, Sapienza and Bautista said that the CUNY budget asks of the city are to fund the university’s construction projects on its campuses, IT support and solutions for distance learning, technology for students, mental health counselors, a diverse faculty and a nursing pipeline program. 

Not included in the preliminary CUNY budget, as pointed out by Barron during questioning, were the Peter F. Valone Merit Scholarship, the remediation program, and the ASAP program, which has faced cuts in the past year. Sapienza explained that the university wants funding restored for these programs, but just chose not to include them in the budget out of respect to the fiscal constraints of the pandemic that the Council has to contend with when making allocations.

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With Significant Federal Aid on the Way, CUNY Awaits Key State Budget Decisions Wed, 31 Mar 2021 04:00:00 +0000
Workers Were Left Vulnerable to Covid; We Must Better Protect Them In Its Aftermath https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/10326-workers-vulnerable-covid-protect-aftermath https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/10326-workers-vulnerable-covid-protect-aftermath isit highbridge rec

Covid care training (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


Just over 110 years ago, on March 25,1911, workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in Manhattan’s Garment District began their day just like any other.

For 146 of them, it ended in tragedy when a fire engulfed the factory, leading to their deaths. When the fire started many of them were unable to leave the factory because there were no fire escapes and the building exits were locked. Some died jumping from the building in an attempt to escape. The youngest victims were only 14 years old.

Out of the wreckage of this horrific tragedy a new wave of labor organizations emerged and, thanks to their advocacy, safety rules and regulations were created, paving the way for the modern system of worker protection.

Though we have obviously made tremendous progress over the past century, there is more work to be done — something that was made abundantly clear by the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the past year we saw that many corporations simply did not care about the health and safety of their workers. Powerful corporations kept their doors open without the proper health and safety protocols, despite a clear danger to employees. Many did ever ything possible to avoid accountability. In New York City, Amazon allegedly put its workers in harm's way and attempted to squash complaints about safety procedures.

One key lesson from the pandemic and four years of the Trump administration is that states like New York must have their own robust system of worker protections.

As complaints flooded in from workers, OSHA completely fell down on the job. The fines that the world’s largest companies received were a pittance, and the agency had the fewest number of inspectors in decades. When that happens, the fallback is state and local agencies.

It was a relief to see President Joe Biden’s executive order on worker safety earlier this year, which requires OSHA to review its standards and update safety recommendations for businesses, among other steps. Just last week, OSHA announced further steps to protect workers at a high risk of infection.

But there is an important role for New York State to play. It doesn’t matter to workers whether it’s state or federal inspectors who are protecting them. Furthermore, strong state laws go hand in hand with federal enforcement, as evidenced by Biden’s executive order, which includes provisions that focus on partnering and consulting with state and local governments.

New York took an important step forward after the State Senate recently passed legislation allowing the Department of Labor to mandate safety protocols in workplaces, such as requiring PPE and social distancing measures. This bill should be enacted into law, and we must ensure the labor commissioner issues timely, stringent, clear, and enforceable rules that will protect all workers across the state.

We need to empower our regulatory agencies to do what they’re designed to do and keep workers here in New York and across the country safe. We have a legal and moral responsibility to protect American families both at home and on the job. 

New York has suffered once unimaginable tragedies over the past year, like it did 110 years ago. We must do everything we can to turn this moment of pain and loss into progress for working men and women, just like workers and others did when the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory burned. We cannot wait for the next deadly moment to act.

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Jessica Ramos represents New York’s 13th District in the New York State Senate and is Chair of the Committee on Labor. Edward Steinberg is President of the New York State Trial Lawyers Association. On Twitter @JessicaRamos & @EdwardSteinber1 of @NYSTLA.

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

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Workers Were Left Vulnerable to Covid; We Must Better Protect Them In Its Aftermath Tue, 30 Mar 2021 04:00:00 +0000
First New York Election with Absentee Ballot 'Curing' Shows Progress and Mysteries https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/10313-new-york-absentee-ballot-curing-mysteries-progress-elections https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/10313-new-york-absentee-ballot-curing-mysteries-progress-elections 2 votes president

Examining ballots (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayoral Photo Office)


Over 8,000 New Yorkers across the state who voted by mail in last fall’s election were able to save their ballots from being thrown out, according to the New York State Board of Elections, thanks to a new ‘ballot curing’ law that gave them a chance to fix certain technical defects on their ballot envelope.

While curable rejects accounted for only a fraction of the total number of invalidated absentee ballots, overall far fewer mail-in votes were thrown out in the 2020 general election compared to the June primaries and to previous general elections. According to a Gotham Gazette analysis of state election data, the rate of absentee ballot rejections in New York fell by roughly two-thirds from 23% to the 2020 general election. 

In total, 20,000 general election voters statewide were given the opportunity to correct disqualifying mistakes after receiving notices from election administrators that the errors fell under a limited set of "curable" absentee ballot envelope errors, though more than half failed to take it.

Still, most rejected ballots did not come with a second chance under the law, and curable envelopes made up only a quarter of the nearly 78,000 total absentee ballots invalidated statewide. Voting reform advocates say the list of curable errors should be expanded to avoid disenfranchising New Yorkers, especially while pandemic rules allowing universal absentee voting remain in effect and nearly 2 million New Yorkers are voting by mail.

The information comes from State Board of Elections officials and a statewide survey of county-level absentee data provided after a Gotham Gazette inquiry. Last fall, local elections boards mailed 2.35 million absentee ballots to voters, including about 1 million in New York City, nine in ten of which were to first-time absentee voters. In total, over 1.8 million mailed ballots were counted statewide, with roughly 700,000 coming from the five boroughs. Over 48,000 absentee ballots were rejected in New York City alone.

The data also contains some vaguaries that raise questions about how both voters and elections administrators dealt with mishaps that arose in the mass mail-in voting.

After New York State's first experiment with wide scale mail-in voting during the June primaries last year, state lawmakers passed a number of reforms to address snafus that had arisen, including the cure provision. It allows voters to correct some mistakes on an absentee ballot's outer envelope, known as the oath envelope, where registered voters must swear to the validity of their ballot. Advocates said the law injected a measure of due process for some voters but did nothing to address other disqualifying errors, like having stray marks on the ballot itself, or returning an envelope un- or partially sealed. Measures to address both of those were introduced in the State Legislature but never advanced out of committee to the floor.

Lawmakers also sought unsuccessfully to have the state cover the cost of postage for mail-in ballots, as it had in the primaries under executive order, which could help explain why more than 500,000 New York voters, including roughly 300,000 in New York City, requested an absentee ballot but never returned it.

State Senator Zellnor Myrie, a Brooklyn Democrat and chair of the Senate elections committee, said the number of successfully cured ballots demonstrate the success of the legislation, which he sponsored. "My bill allowing voters to cure minor technical errors with their absentee ballots was the right way to ensure the law honored voters' intent; but last year it became even more important with record turnout and many times more absentee ballots than usual," he wrote in an email.

All together, significantly fewer absentee ballots were rejected in the general election than in the primaries a few months before, with the new law passed in between. In New York City, about 7% of absentee ballots were rejected, compared to between a fifth and a quarter seen in the primaries and recent previous elections, when far fewer mail-in ballots were cast. Statewide, just 4% of submitted absentee ballots went uncounted last fall.

"I think more voters were especially careful in filling out absentee ballots during this most unusual recent election," Myrie told Gotham Gazette. "Our law gave the Board a framework for assessing which ballots could be cured by the voter, requiring the BOE to be much more deliberate about deeming ballots invalid. It's not surprising that, with a formalized cure process in place, the Board found fewer reasons to disqualify otherwise-valid absentee ballots."

About 9,200 of the 20,000 notified voters took advantage of the option to cure their absentee ballot by returning a corrected ballot and affirming its validity and, of those, about 8,700 were found to be sufficiently corrected and counted, according to the New York State Board of Election.

In New York City alone, 6,950 cure notices were sent with 1,228 ultimately returned and counted, according to the New York City Board of Elections -- a much lower rate than the state overall, both in terms of notices per registered voter and in terms of returns per notice.

"More than half of these voters who could remedy the issue with their ballot envelope didn't manage to do so in time, perhaps because there was no statewide ballot tracking system in place,' wrote Jarret Berg, co-founder of the advocacy group Vote Early NY, in an email to Gotham Gazette, responding to the statewide data.

He said another reason could be the dissonance that voters who originally requested their ballots online through their local board's website were required to submit cured ballots physically by post -- the result of a broader settlement agreement between the State Board of Elections and the League of Women Voters last September over cumbersome absentee ballot verification procedures in place during the primaries last June.

Berg believes the cure process needs to be streamlined and expanded to include other ballot errors, including on provisional affidavit ballots "so that more legitimate lost votes are saved and counted each year."

Myrie said more voting reforms were on the agenda this legislative session. "Overly-complicated ballot instructions, insufficient language access and extremely long lines at polling sites are just some of the issues challenging voters' right to have their vote counted," he wrote. "We expect to address these concerns and more at an Elections Committee hearing next month."

New York City
The new data raises questions about the efficacy of absentee voting in New York City last year compared to the rest of the state. The city made up roughly 43% of the total absentee ballots cast statewide but 62% of the total rejected mail-in ballots.

About 15,000 absentee ballots were returned to the New York City Board of Elections by the post office without ever having reached the voter and were marked as undeliverable, according to county survey data provided by the State Board.

About 10,800 absentee ballots were rejected after a voter later cast an in-person vote at a poll site, which usurps previously mailed ballots and means the voter was not disenfranchised.

Bizarrely, the next most common error was from voters submitting multiple ballots in a single envelope, which disqualified over 7,600 New York City voters but only 16 voters outside the five boroughs. Conversely, outside of New York City 930 absentee ballots were thrown out because they were returned in an unofficial envelope, while no city voter had that problem.

Missing signature on the oath envelope, a curable defect, accounted for about 2,400 absentee rejections in New York City. Signatures that didn't match the ones in the voter roll, also curable, numbered about 1,500 citywide.

Over 1,600 ballots were thrown out because the envelope was unsealed or partially sealed. Roughly 1,000 attempted votes were invalidated because they lacked a postmark or were postmarked Election Day or later, according to the survey data. It is not clear why a ballot postmarked on Election Day would be disqualified.

Just over 6,000 absentee votes were disqualified for "other" reasons in New York City compared with roughly 1,200 in the rest of the state. The discrepancy comes almost entirely from 4,800 voters in Brooklyn -- a borough frequently beset with election snafus, including the mismailing of as many as 100,000 2020 general election absentee ballots to the wrong registered voter, an error the New York City Board of Elections chalked up to a printing malfunction.

It is unclear how many Brooklyn voters mistakenly submitted someone else's absentee ballot, which under the mismatched-signature provision should have been curable. The city board sent a total of 3,750 cure notices to Brooklyn voters but only about 240 of them corrected their ballot. Last summer, the board issued new absentee ballots to voters impacted by the printing error with the stipulation, under state law, that the ballot received last gets counted as long as it is cast by Election Day.

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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First New York Election with Absentee Ballot 'Curing' Shows Progress and Mysteries Mon, 29 Mar 2021 04:00:00 +0000