Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/510 Fri, 13 Dec 2019 11:39:41 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) What to Watch for When the City's Property Tax Commission Finally Issues Its Report https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8987-what-to-watch-for-when-city-property-tax-commission-finally-issues-report https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8987-what-to-watch-for-when-city-property-tax-commission-finally-issues-report bay ridge vnb

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


“To be the fairest big city, you need a fair tax system. For too long, New York City taxpayers have had to grapple with a property tax system that is too opaque, too complex, and just feels unfair,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in May 2018 after announcing the creation of a commission to examine the issue. “New Yorkers need property tax reform, and this advisory commission will put us on the road to achieve it,” he said.

When the New York City Advisory Commission on Property Tax Reform releases its final report, promised by the end of the year, it has the potential to upend the city’s methods for collecting real estate taxes, impacting its most stable source of revenue -- supporting roughly a third of the current $94.4 billion budget. The result is expected to be recommendations to create a more rational and equitable system, and with it a new field of winners and losers.

Commission Chair Marc Shaw told Gotham Gazette last week that the report would be “out soon,” at which point a slew of public debates will be triggered before the hard work of policy-crafting begins for city and state lawmakers. Much of the city’s property tax system is governed by state law. De Blasio has promised to push for reform once he receives the report and the next state legislative session begins in January.

“This commission is coming back this year with recommendations,” the mayor said in a July WNYC radio interview. “Two things then happen. Some [recommended changes] will be part of city law, which means they can be voted on by the City Council, and then I decide of course whether to sign or not, and the other [changes have] to be done by state law.”

“The state legislative session begins in January,” de Blasio continued. “We’re coming up to the point where these things are going to be put on the table and resolved.”

The commission was created by de Blasio and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson in May 2018 as a way to lay the groundwork for reforming a system described as byzantine, illogical, and unequal -- and one that is largely controlled by state law. It was also partially a response to a lawsuit filed against the city and state calling the property tax system unconstitutional (the suit survived a motion to dismiss, which is currently being appealed).

The commission held a series of public meetings throughout the first half of 2018 to hear from experts and solicit recommendations. Since February, the commission has been working out of public view as it attempts to tackle a complex problem.

“It deserves some care. There is no single easy or obvious way to create a fairer system,” a spokesperson for Johnson told Gotham Gazette in May. But the spring turned to summer, then fall and now winter, with no commission report.

"Property taxes were a top issue in the Mayoral race and Mayor de Blasio committed then to establish a property tax commission to address the inequities with the current property tax system,” said Staten Island Assemblymember Nicole Malliotakis, de Blasio’s Republican challenger in the 2017 mayoral race, in a statement Wednesday asking for the results of the commission. “People across the five boroughs testified over a year ago and he promised that his commission would present a report of its findings and recommendations before the end of the year.”

Everyone feels the effect of property taxes, from small-home owners to local businesses to landlords and tenants. For almost all property owners -- and those who pay property taxes through rent -- property taxes have risen every year over the past two decades with the relatively stable growth in the real estate market. Almost everyone feels they are too high, even those who pay relatively little.

The property tax system, by and large, is a creature of state law, which dictates the criteria for valuing property in each of its statutorily-designated “classes:” small homes, apartment buildings, utilities, and commercial property. But the city controls the rate at which taxes are levied and the Department of Finance comes up with the formula for determining a specific property’s value based on the state’s broad requirements. Experts say each of these steps comes with flaws the commission could address.

“The Advisory Commission’s recommendations for property tax reforms should reduce inequities in property tax burdens both within and across the existing tax classes, while improving the system’s transparency and simplicity,” wrote Ana Champeny, Director of City Studies at the Citizens Budget Commission, in an email to Gotham Gazette.

With the promise of the commission’s non-binding recommendations, state legislators have been spurred to consider potential changes they may be facing, with some beginning to prepare their staff, committees, and constituents for potentially groundbreaking shifts. But the commission, which is mandated to avoid recommendations that would diminish city revenue, may also offer a reality check to local officials who have historically tried to insulate themselves from the political fallout of raising taxes or cutting services.

At the heart of the issue is inequity across the system. State law divides properties into categories, each to be valued and levied differently, based on the outdated logic of the way land was used when the current system was enshrined in the 1980s. A system of assessment limitations created at the state-level to shield property-owners from rapid market value growth, who would otherwise see their taxes skyrocket, has over the decades distorted the relationship between assessed value and market value.

In perennial attempts to ease the tax burden on particular constituencies, politicians have created a labyrinth of abatements and exemptions that experts say makes understanding one’s real estate taxes virtually impossible for everyday New Yorkers.

“Bottom line is right now owners of multi-million dollar brownstones are paying less in property taxes than people in my district who live in a two family attached house. If that’s not a tale of two cities, I don’t know what is,” wrote City Council Member Justin Brannan, a Brooklyn Democrat representing Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, and Bensonhurst, in an email, with apparent reference to Mayor de Blasio’s 2013 campaign slogan.

The phenomenon Brannan describes is likely the result of multiple intertwined issues. The one experts point to most frequently, and which was raised at several commission meetings, is the inconsistent methodology with which different state-defined categories of property are valued.

In Class 1 are 1-, 2-, and 3-family homes, which are assessed on their market value (their actual or estimated sales price). In Class 2, are rental properties, valued based on the income they earn in a year. In Classes 3 and 4 are utilities and commercial properties, assessed based on the utility costs or net income, respectively.

Oddly, co-ops and condos -- which include some of the city’s most expensive apartments -- fall into Class 2 with rental property, valued based on the annual income “comparable” apartments receive in rent, even though they more closely resemble Class 1 properties, which also tend to be occupied by the owner.

What recommendations could be on the table?

>Property Classifications and Value Assessments
Among the suggestions most frequently raised by experts are to rationalize the classification of property types and to assess taxes based on market value (which is not often the case now), with a mechanism of relief for property-owners with low or fixed incomes. But changing that formula will mean some New Yorkers will see their taxes rise, including those who already feel constricted by tax collectors.

Many experts want to see classification changes with co-ops and condos in Class 1, where they would be evaluated based on sales price. Doing so would require a change in state law.

Then there is the way the city identifies comparable properties for the purpose of estimating value, which is done by the Department of Finance. Some of the inequities of the system may be helped by adjusting the department’s criteria for determining whether a property is comparable to another.

>Annual Assessment Increases and Circuit-Breakers
State law also imposes limits on the amount the assessed value of a property can grow over a one- or five-year period, which can result in inequity within a given tax class. In areas experiencing acute gentrification this can mean property tax rates lag behind the market value. Studies have found homeowners in the Bronx and Staten Island pay a much higher effective tax rate than the owners of similar property in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens.

Many want to see the state eliminate those “caps and phase-ins.” But doing so could have consequences for homeowners with low, fixed, or even middle incomes -- especially in up-and-coming neighborhoods -- who purchased property when prices were low. To help them keep their homes when the market leaps, a number of experts and elected officials have called for “circuit-breakers,” which offer relief by mitigating property tax liability based on a household’s annual income.

Champeny said circuit-breakers are a more efficient and targeted form of relief than many of the piecemeal abatements and rebates currently in place.

But while contributing to inequities across the system, caps and phase-ins also provide a degree of stability, which is important to maintain the city’s largest revenue stream. When a small home experiences market growth that outpaces the statutory limits on assessment growth over a few years or decades, the assessed value will continue to increase even if the market slows. This provides a buffer for the city during periods of economic contraction. Eliminating caps and phase-ins without undermining the city’s fiscal stability will be one of the challenges the tax commission faces.

“The city’s fiscal health has benefited from the stability inherent in the structure of the current system,” Champeny wrote. “Proposed changes should not adversely impact the long-run stability and reliability of the tax as the City’s primary revenue source.”

>Adjusting the Tax Rate
The city under Mayors Bloomberg and de Blasio has harnessed the skyrocketing price of real estate to increase property tax revenue without changing the tax rate. One way to deal with potential fluctuations in property taxes, either as a result of market changes or changes in the law, is for the mayor and City Council to adjust the tax rate, which has been frozen since 2009.

The Citizens Budget Commission supports a system that favors residential over commercial property and utilities, which Champeny says can be achieved with differential assessment methods or through different tax rates. Class 1 should be saddled with the lowest tax burden (as measured by market value), followed by rental buildings, utilities, and finally commercial properties, she recently said in testimony to the state Senate.

If co-ops and condos are moved into Class 1, like many advocates and elected officials want, over half of the city’s roughly 3 million taxable residential units will fall within it. That new arrangement, along with any changes to the way co-ops and condos are valued, will have implications for the city’s tax rate if it is to maintain its current levy.

>Considering Tenants
Property-owners are not the only ones squeezed by the system. Often the property tax burden for rentals is felt by both landlords and tenants. Some advocates and elected officials want to make sure tenants are considered when lawmakers approach reform.

“Tenants of rent-stabilized units need guarantees that savings will be passed on to them if property taxes decline on rental properties,” Brannan wrote. There are roughly 2 million tenants in about 1 million rent-stabilized apartments in the city.

“Lessening the burden on rental properties can only help the city’s considerable challenge in preserving affordable housing,” he added.

Property taxes make up about 30 percent of the operating cost of rent-regulated units and increased assessments contribute to the rising cost of housing, according to a spokesperson for the Partnership for New York City, an advocacy group for the city’s business community. Kathryn Wylde, the Partnership’s President and CEO, supports reclassifying rent-regulated housing to reduce the tax liability of those properties.

Suing for Reform
The city’s commission is not the only thing compelling lawmakers to act. The aforementioned lawsuit filed by Tax Equity Now New York, a group led by former Department of Finance Commissioner Martha Stark, is challenging the property tax system on constitutional grounds.

“The property tax system is in need of a complete overhaul that should be guided by legal principles enunciated by the court. While the Commission may come up with some good ideas, without the court's guidance those ideas may fail to garner the support of those who need to enact any changes,” Stark wrote in an email to Gotham Gazette.

“The system is unconstitutional, illegal, and discriminatory,” she wrote, “the court is in the best position to offer the parameters for an overhaul that balances these fundamental issues.”

[Read: State Senators Look Ahead to Complicated Task of Property Tax Reform]

[Read: An Old, Unfair System: New York City's Property Tax Conundrum]

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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What to Watch for When the City's Property Tax Commission Finally Issues Its Report Wed, 11 Dec 2019 05:00:00 +0000
State Senate Looks Ahead to Complicated Task of Property Tax Reform https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8969-state-senate-property-tax-reform-albany-new-york-city https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8969-state-senate-property-tax-reform-albany-new-york-city sen br be3

Wednesday's Senate roundtable (photo: @NYSenBenjamin)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In a statement to Gotham Gazette, Marc Shaw, chair of the commission and senior advisor at the CUNY Institute on State and Local Governance, wrote, “This is an enormously important issue for our city, and we want to get this right. We have made significant progress on the majority of the issues we believe are needed for reform, but a few do remain. Those issues need to be resolved before we release any report. We expect to have a preliminary report out soon for the public to review.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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State Senate Looks Ahead to Complicated Task of Property Tax Reform Thu, 05 Dec 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Assembly to Evaluate Mayoral Control of City Schools for First Time Under Recent Reforms https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8965-assembly-to-evaluate-mayor-control-of-city-schools-for-first-time-under-recent-reforms https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8965-assembly-to-evaluate-mayor-control-of-city-schools-for-first-time-under-recent-reforms bdb chancellor comm

Mayor and Chancellor testify in May (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photo Office)


Just six months after the state Legislature approved a three-year extension of mayoral control of the New York City school system, stretching well past the end of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s term, the state Assembly is holding a hearing later this month on whether the mayor’s stewardship has been effective.  

The hearing will be held in New York City on December 16 by the Assembly’s education committee and will be, according to a public notice, the “first in a series of hearings and other informational forums throughout the City of New York to assess the effectiveness of mayoral control of the New York City School District and hear from stakeholders on the ways to address the inequities in our schools and improve student performance.”

De Blasio had an easier time getting an extension, and a longer one at that, of mayoral control this year under a Legislature where both houses were under Democratic control for the first time in a decade, compared with past years when Republicans who held the Senate used it as leverage to extract concessions, chiefly related to charter-school friendly policies, and often agreed to only one additional year at a time. But the latest extension nonetheless came with some conditions.

Among the changes, which the de Blasio administration says it is fully implementing, were increasing the membership of the Panel for Educational Policy from 13 to 15, with one member appointed by Community Education Council presidents and the other by the mayor. The PEP approves certain major Department of Education contracts and policies, and the mayor will now appoint nine of its members, up from eight. The two new members have yet to be appointed. Under the changes agreed to this year, the mayor will have to give a ten-day notice and a written explanation before removing a PEP member.

The city must also appoint a task force to issue recommendations on elections to Education Councils, of which there is one for each of the 32 local school districts and four with citywide purview; allow CECs to issue non-binding votes on school building utilization changes; and make changes to the Chancellor’s Regulations to give parents a greater say in hiring principals and superintendents – for instance, CECs will be able to meet with candidates that the Chancellor is considering for superintendent and provide their feedback before the appointment is made.

“Mayoral accountability is working - graduation and college enrollment is up, dropout rates are down, and Pre-K for All is narrowing the achievement gap,” said Jane Meyer, a spokesperson for the mayor, in response to a request for comment about the upcoming hearing. “We’re fostering supportive learning environments that empower families, and delivering Equity and Excellence to every child, no matter their zip code.”

When asked, Meyer did not say whether Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza would testify on the administration’s behalf at the December 16 hearing, and while she did say the new changes were being implemented by the DOE, she did not respond to questions seeking clarification.

The Assembly education committee is chaired by Assemblymember Michael Benedetto, a Bronx Democrat. In a phone interview, Benedetto said the hearing is the beginning of a process of ongoing assessment of the current mayoral control system.

“Maybe there are changes we can make to the system that we have right now, to make it better,” he said Tuesday. “When we made some minor changes to the school governance law, we also made at that time a promise among ourselves that we would going forward take a look and see, are there better ways to govern the schools of the City of New York? So to that end, we made it a point of agreement that we will meet, that we will have hearings, that we will have roundtables, that we will actively seek out and look and investigate other models to see if what we’re doing is in the best interest of communities and most importantly children.”

Benedetto said he had “no expectations” of the de Blasio administration’s testimony and that the hearing is more of a fact-finding exercise. “I think it’s quite possible that every issue under the sun is gonna come on up if it involves education,” he said. He does, however, hope to hear from parent and teacher groups, educators, and elected officials about the pros and cons of mayoral control, which, under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, replaced the old Board of Education localized system and has been renewed several times since. “Come 2022, we can formulate a piece of legislation that we think will be best for the City of New York and maybe that is just what we have now and maybe it’s not. So we’re looking,” Benedetto said.

Gotham Gazette also reached out to other elected officials who would seem likely to attend or be particularly interested in the hearing. A spokesperson for State Senator John Liu, who chairs the Senate’s New York City education committee, acknowledged a request for comment but did not respond to follow-up inquiries.

New York City Council Member Mark Treyger, who chairs the Council’s education committee, said he plans to attend the hearing and push for greater accountability over the schools system. “The DOE is the largest city department, it takes up about a third of the entire city budget, and yet the City Council lacks a lot of critical authority over this department,” he said, noting that the Council cannot make appointments to the PEP, does not have advice and consent power over the chancellor’s appointment, and cannot pass laws affecting DOE functions except for requiring certain reports. The Council, he said, is relegated to exercising its power during annual budget negotiations to force the city to institute needed reforms. “It speaks to a real imbalance in terms of authority and proper oversight over a critical agency,” he said.

The mayor’s oft-examined six years at the helm of city schools have indeed seen the improved metrics mentioned by Meyer, and often touted by de Blasio and Carranza at legislative hearings and elsewhere (the two testified together at a March 15 hearing on mayoral control held by the Senate, a few months before the latest extension was granted).

But there have been stumbles along the way. The much-touted Renewal Schools program, which spent nearly $800 million over four years on struggling schools with limited results, was scrapped earlier this year for a new approach. The school system, which serves more than 1.1 million students, remains deeply segregated and the mayor has failed to articulate a comprehensive strategy to tackle the problem. A task force he created for that purpose released its final report in August, recommending, among many other things, that all Gifted and Talented programs, where white students are overwhelmingly admitted, be replaced for universal enrichment programming.

De Blasio has also unsuccessfully sought to get rid of the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT), which requires state legislative action for the three largest of the eight schools that use it for admissions, in order to diversify the student population at the city’s specialized high schools where black and Latino students are severely disproportionately underrepresented. Chancellor Carranza has vowed to keep pushing that proposal, though de Blasio has said he is back to the drawing board and planning a new approach next year, while also pledging to hold a series of conversations based on his task force’s reports about how to integrate the broader school system.

Assemblymember Nicole Malliotakis, a Staten Island Republican who challenged de Blasio when he ran for reelection in 2017, welcomed the Assembly hearing as an opportunity to grill the mayor’s administration. She is new on the education committee and noted in a public statement that she has been pushing for a hearing since before the budget was decided earlier this year.

She said in part that “critical questions still remain about inappropriate spending of precious education dollars, as well as the dismantling of school discipline under de Blasio. I made a point to have hearings on mayoral control because under de Blasio it has been terrible. Now that we have these hearings, I urge my constituents to speak out and to ensure that their taxpayer money is being spent properly.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - this article has been updated to note that the New York City education committee is no longer a subcommittee. 

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Assembly to Evaluate Mayoral Control of City Schools for First Time Under Recent Reforms Tue, 03 Dec 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: Debating Major Criminal Justice Reforms Taking Effect in January https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8957-max-murphy-podcast-debating-major-criminal-justice-reforms-bail-discovery https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8957-max-murphy-podcast-debating-major-criminal-justice-reforms-bail-discovery nycpba wbai 600

SI DA McMahon at a press conference (photo: @NYCPBA)


November 27, 2019 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Debating Major Criminal Justice Reforms Set to Take Effect in January

da mcmahon marie nidaye 150Staten Island District Attorney Michael McMahon and Marie Ndiaye of Legal Aid Society joined the show to discuss their respective concerns about and support for major criminal justice reforms passed earlier this year in Albany an set to take effect in January, especially bail reform and discovery reform.

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

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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Max & Murphy Podcast: Debating Major Criminal Justice Reforms Taking Effect in January Fri, 29 Nov 2019 05:00:00 +0000
State Lawmakers Criticize Campaign Finance Commission Results While Legislative Leaders Stay Mum https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8960-state-legislators-criticize-campaign-finance-commission-outcomes-while-legislative-leaders-mum-cuomo-heastie https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8960-state-legislators-criticize-campaign-finance-commission-outcomes-while-legislative-leaders-mum-cuomo-heastie state legislators hearing

(photo: @FairElectionsNY)


A state commission charged with creating a system of public financing for state elections has prompted harsh rebukes from several state legislators for proposing what they say is watered down campaign finance reform and for ostensibly advancing a political agenda that targets longtime critics of Governor Andrew Cuomo.

The New York State Public Campaign Financing Commission was appointed by Cuomo and state legislative leaders after a failure of consensus on overhauling the state’s campaign finance system. It was tasked in state law to create a public campaign finance system and, per Cuomo’s goals, to examine political party qualifications.

Advocates have long called for a setup at the state level modelled on New York City’s successful public matching funds system, which incentivizes candidates to seek small dollar donations rather than relying on wealthy contributors, includes low maximum individual contributions, requires a great deal of transparency, and comes with robust oversight.

But the system proposed by the commission, in its final vote on Monday, fell short of the expectations of advocates and reform-minded legislators. Though it voted to reduce contribution limits across the board for statewide and legislative seats, candidates will still be able to raise vast amounts of private money for elections. For instance, the limits for statewide candidates were reduced from about $70,000 to $18,000 for a full election cycle. But that is more than three times higher than the $5,400 that a candidate for president can raise in a cycle.

Unless the state Legislature returns to amend the commission’s recommendations within three weeks, the system will be adopted. The Legislature could, however, choose to pass new campaign finance laws and tweak the program in the next legislative session, which begins in January.

The commission also approved a higher threshold for parties to obtain a ballot line, increasing it from 50,000 votes in a gubernatorial election to 130,000 votes every two years, and increased the ballot petition signature requirement for statewide candidates from 15,000 to 45,000. To observers, the ballot threshold change in particular seemed intended to kneecap third parties like the Working Families, Conservative, and Green Parties and appeared to be carried out at the behest of Cuomo, who has feuded with the WFP for years. But that controversial mission was also carried out with at least the acquiescence, if not full support, of Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, both Democrats, as is Cuomo.

Yet several Democratic Assembly members and Senators from New York City were displeased by the recommendations the commission made and the process through which its work was carried out over the last several months and quickly made their concerns known.

Queens Senator Jessica Ramos, a progressive elected last year with support from the WFP, took to Twitter to air her criticism of the commission’s proposals, as did other legislators. “We worked HARD last session to fix NY’s broken electoral system. We made it easier to vote & got closer to a people-powered government. The Public Finance Commission's vote is a disservice to our democracy & will eliminate @NYWFP. We need to engage more voters, not limit them!,” she tweeted.

Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou of Manhattan agreed with Ramos, simply tweeting “Yup” in response.

Senator Julia Salazar of Brooklyn tweeted, “This is shamefully undemocratic. We need to act swiftly in the legislature to reject it.”

Brooklyn Assemblymember Walter Mosley tweeted that the party qualification issue should never have been on the commission’s agenda. “Third parties are an essential part of the electoral system in New York, shining light on important issues that otherwise may not get the attention they deserve,” he wrote, calling the proposals “unacceptable” and promising to oppose an increase in the threshold for ballot access. “We should be making it easier for third parties to make it on the ballot, not harder,” he wrote.

In a series of tweets, Assemblymember Bobby Carroll of Brooklyn cited his “no” vote on this year’s state budget deal because of the inclusion of the “poison pill” provision on the state campaign financing commission. “I have said it from the beginning that this commission was rotten! Now we just know how rotten,” he tweeted. “This isn’t a public matching program this is a farce. The legislture (sic) needs to take back control.”

Manhattan Assemblymember Harvey Epstein tweeted, “Deeply concerned w Public Campaign Financing Commission’s vote to recommend legislation riddled w inadequacies, including overly high contrib caps at every level & a measure to kill minor parties."

In response, Manhattan Assemblymember Richard Gottfried wrote, "Protect voters & 3rd parties. The Legislature must reject the commission scheme!"

Brooklyn Assemblymember Jo Ann Simon tweeted, "I’m disappointed w/the Public Campaign Financing Commission’s vote to make it more difficult for minor parties to access a ballot line. We need a special session to address this, the still-too-high contribution limits, & limiting matching donations to a candidate’s district only."

Bronx State Senator Alessandra Biaggi has repeatedly let her disappointment be known. She credited the commissioners for their service but said she does not like the product, writing in part, "The Commission was created to put forth a plan that empowers everyday NYers & reduces the influence of money in our politics – the existing proposal only scratches the surface in achieving that aim, failing to significantly lower contribution limits." Biaggi also cited a "political agenda" at play in the attempt to "increase barriers for third parties."

"This proposal is half-baked & does not reflect the vision of the NYer who testified at the Commission’s hearings, & who raised their voices throughout this entire process," Biaggi continued. "The Legislature now has the responsibility to fulfill our promise to the people and get the job done."

In a phone interview, Bronx Senator Gustavo Rivera reiterated his call for the Legislature to vote on a “clean bill” on campaign finance reform. “I'm terribly disappointed, but I'm certainly not shocked,” he said of the commission’s recommendations.

Rivera blamed the governor’s machinations for derailing the process. “The governor, sadly, does not really care about establishing a campaign finance system. All he cares about is getting even with the folks who are his political rivals. That is his M.O.,” he said.

The “pièce de résistance” he said, was the ballot access threshold requirement, “which is ultimately, with a wink and a nod, trying to get rid of the WFP, which is really what this was about from the beginning.”

“The overwhelming majority of people made it very clear that they should create a campaign finance system that actually tries to at least minimize the impact of big money but that they should steer away from third parties, from fusion voting altogether. All those folks were ignored,” he said.

It’s unclear whether legislative leaders have any intention to support the idea of modifying the binding proposals. Assembly Speaker Heastie’s appointees on the commission generally went along with Cuomo’s appointees, while those commissioners appointed by Senate Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins tended to break from the pack.

Heastie’s office did not return a request for comment about the commission’s plan. Carolina Rodriguez, a spokesperson for Stewart-Cousins, referred Gotham Gazette to comments the senator made in a November 22 interview with WXXI News’ Karen DeWitt. “I’m not trying to destroy parties or make it impossible,” Stewart-Cousins said. “I definitely know, however, that we must reform our campaign finance (system).” She said she would prefer the party conversation to be separate from the campaign finance one, but also seemed open to legislative tweaks come January.

A spokesperson for Senator Mike Gianaris, the deputy majority leader, acknowledged a request for comment but did not provide one by publishing time. Senator Liz Krueger’s office did not respond to a request for comment. Jonathan Timm, a spokesperson for Senator Zellnor Myrie, declined additional comment until the commission’s recommendations are formally released. “Senator Myrie has made clear his support for public financing of campaigns, lowering contribution limits, and keeping the commission's hands out of fusion voting (which he stated explicitly in his testimony to the commission),” Timm wrote in an email. 

The WFP itself appeared to threaten primary challenges against legislators who fall in line behind the governor’s “power grab.” “Instead of designing a strong system of public financing of elections, this commission has designed a weak one, as a cover for a politically motivated attack on the Working Families Party,” Bill Lipton, WFP director, said in a Monday statement. 

He added, “Our opponents believe they can kill us. They are wrong. We will bring the full power of the WFP and our allies to bear in 2020 challenging those who block progressive change and electing the next generation of progressive leaders. We will build the biggest WFP GOTV operation yet to meet these new thresholds. And we will win.”

“If New York Assemblymembers don't speak up about and act to stop this public financing commission, they will be primaried with some amazing, energetic, democratic candidates. We are ready to go,” tweeted Fordham Law professor Zephyr Teachout, who ran against Cuomo in the Democratic primary in 2014, last year sought the Democratic primary nomination for attorney general, and is something of an inspirational leader for the New York left.

At a media gaggle on Tuesday, Cuomo downplayed the changes made to ballot thresholds while praising the commission. “I think the commission was charged with a very difficult task, which was to reform the campaign finance system,” he said. “I have to read the full report, I haven’t done it yet, but they made a number of inarguably great and dramatic reforms.”

He said the state shouldn’t be doling out public funds to political parties “without accountability and responsibility.”

“They’ve set a threshold by percentage and number, which they believe is a threshold that a credible party should reach,” he said. “If it’s not a credible party, then it shouldn’t be getting public tax dollars in primary races, et cetera. The Working Families Party, I think, would meet that threshold. You have to work to meet the threshold, but if you’re not working to meet a threshold, then you shouldn’t be qualifying for public money anyway.”

[Read: State Commission Approves New Campaign Finance System, Raises Bar for Political Party Ballot Access]

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

This article has been updated with additional comments from legislators.

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State Lawmakers Criticize Campaign Finance Commission Results While Legislative Leaders Stay Mum Tue, 26 Nov 2019 05:00:00 +0000
State Commission Approves New Campaign Finance System, Raises Bar for Political Party Ballot Access https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8952-state-commission-approves-new-campaign-finance-system-and-raises-bar-for-political-party-ballot-access https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8952-state-commission-approves-new-campaign-finance-system-and-raises-bar-for-political-party-ballot-access pubic hearing 1

the state campaign finance commission at its final meeting


The New York State Public Campaign Financing Commission held its final meeting on Monday, voting to institute the creation of a new system for public funding of campaigns for statewide and state legislative offices, with lower contribution limits intended to reduce the effect of money in elections. Though the commission did not act to eliminate fusion voting, as minor political parties and their allies feared, it did move to increase the threshold for parties to obtain a position on the ballot, creating uncertainty about their survival.

The commission, recommendations from which become law unless the state Legislature takes action before Christmas, also voted to establish a new body to administer the campaign finance system. While it advanced historic reforms for New York State, the commission was also criticized by good government groups for not going far enough, and by many members and supporters of political parties like the Working Families, Conservative, and Green parties for what it did do. The entire process also appeared marred by Governor Andrew Cuomo’s desire to punish the WFP, which has long been a thorn in the governor’s side.

Earlier this year, Cuomo and the Democrat-led state Legislature failed to come to an agreement on major campaign finance reforms including a new public matching system. Instead, they compromised and left the task up to a nine-member commission of gubernatorial and legislative appointees, charging it with creating a system with an annual budget of $100 million. The commission’s recommendations, approved with seven votes in favor and two opposed, become law within three weeks unless the state Legislature chooses to hold a special session to amend them.

State leaders can also always adjust the law in the next session and beyond, of course. It is slated to take effect after the 2022 election cycle, the next year with a gubernatorial race. The entire state Legislature is on the ballot in 2020, and every two years.

Under the system proposed by the commission, candidates will be able to opt into a program to receive matching public funds for small dollar donations up to $250. The first $50 will be matched at a 12-to-1 ratio; the second $100 will be matched 9-to-1; and the last $100 will be matched 8-to-1. Only contributions from donors within a candidate’s district will be matchable (for statewide candidates that is the whole state).

The program will be administered by a seven-member Public Campaign Finance Board made up of the four existing commissioners of the state Board of Elections and one member each appointed by the governor and by the majority and minority leaders in the state Legislature.

Despite its mandate to effectively curb the influence that large donors can have in elections, the commission voted on lower contribution limits that are nonetheless quite high. Statewide candidates can raise $18,000 in total from an individual donor in each election cycle, down from about $70,000 currently; candidates for State Senate can raise up to $10,000 from individuals, down from $19,300; and Assembly candidates can raise $6,000, down from $9,400. Notably, the commission did not address limits for party committees, which can raise as much as $117,300 from a single donor and then dole it out to candidates as they see fit. dd

Commissioner John Nonna, an appointee of Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, expressed his discomfort with the contribution limits but conceded that the commission had to make compromises to ensure the recommendations would receive consensus. “The Legislature could not pass this bill….Our process is kind of like a legislative process. There have to be some concessions,” he said. “As reluctant as I am, I’m willing to compromise on this.”

The limit for Assembly candidates was the focus of some last-minute controversy. At their previous meeting, commissioners settled on a $5,000 individual donation limit, and a motion made on Monday to increase it to $6,000 initially failed. But, following a brief break, commissioners returned and reconsidered the motion and approved the increase of $1,000. At least two commissioners reversed their “no” votes, including Jay Jacobs, chair of the State Democratic Party and a Cuomo-appointed member of the commission.

That wasn’t the only motion where commissioners could not make up their minds. Commissioner Kimberly Galvin, co-director of the State BOE’s Campaign Finance Compliance Unit and an appointee of Republican Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, suggested that the commission vote to increase the number of petition signatures required for a statewide candidate to get on the ballot from 15,000 currently to 45,000. The motion was defeated, as was another that would have increased the signature requirement to 30,000. Again, in a later reconsidered vote, the commission ultimately voted to approve the 45,000 signature threshold, which could hurt opportunity for smaller or new political parties to field candidates for statewide offices.

But perhaps the most controversial move approved by the commission was an increase in the qualifying threshold for third parties to appear on the ballot and win an ongoing ballot line. Currently, parties like the Working Families Party and Conservative Party only require 50,000 votes in the previous gubernatorial election to make the cut and field candidates across the state on their ballot line in various elections over the course of four years. Instead of qualifying in every four-year gubernatorial election, parties will have to meet a threshold every two years of 2% of votes cast or 130,000 votes, whichever is higher, in the gubernatorial or presidential elections.

To many, the move was clearly intended as a reprisal against the WFP, which endorsed his primary opponent, Cynthia Nixon, in last year’s election. The WFP could lose its ballot line if the threshold is allowed to stand, limiting the role it plays in state politics as a driver of progressive candidates and policy.

Henry Berger, who was jointly appointed to the commission by the governor, Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Heastie, sought to rationalize the move, saying the lower threshold allows for the creation of “vanity parties” that clutter the ballot and could lead to primaries that will “bankrupt” the system. Jacobs agreed, insisting, “We’re not looking to target any particular party.”

The WFP wasn’t buying the argument. “This is a power grab by the Governor and his allies to consolidate power and weaken independent progressive political organizing,” said WFP New York director Bill Lipton, in a statement on Monday. “The result is that New York will be the most hostile state in America to minor parties — if the changes hold up to legal scrutiny.”

Other ‘minor’ parties, including the Greens and Conservatives, also criticized the move, and at least one legal challenge may be imminent. The commission was already the source of a lawsuit from the Conservative and Working Families parties over its apparent targeting of fusion voting.

The commission’s recommendations were just as swiftly criticized by government reform groups.

“The public financing commission is a ploy to divert responsibility from the Legislature to unelected representatives,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause/NY, in a statement. “The Senate and the Assembly should vote no on these proposals and craft their own bill with hearings and public input. With unreasonably high contribution limits and the gratuitous raising of the threshold for third party ballot access, the commission's work represents a set-back not a step forward. Public financing of elections is too important to get wrong -- but there's still time for the Legislature to get it right.”

Alex Camarda, senior policy advisor at Reinvent Albany, said the new system is better than the current one, but was nonetheless disheartened.

“It's an improvement over the status quo but it doesn't rise to the level of our support because it doesn't do enough to mitigate big money,” he said. He noted that the commission did not reduce contribution limits for corporations, unions, or vendors with business before the state.

He also said the structure of the proposed PCFB seems to undercut the power of the state BOE’s enforcement counsel, currently Risa Sugarman, by giving it authority over all candidates who choose to participate in the new program. With contribution limits being the same for participants and non-participants, Camarda said there would likely be few who do not opt in, “which means that her enforcement office will have much less jurisdiction, really only over non-participating candidates and independent expenditure committees. That's far less jurisdiction than she currently has. So I think that's something that's been overlooked.”

Of the nine commissioners, only the two Republican appointees – Galvin and David Previte – voted against the final proposal package. Several of the other commissioners expressed some frustration with the outcome but said it was a set of compromises they could support.

“It's the funding mechanism that gives me pause that won't allow me to vote for this bill,” Galvin said, agreeing that the system is “workable” but saying it should not be funded through taxpayer money.

Previte was disappointed that the commission diverged from the “gold standard” set by New York City’s three-decade old public funds program which was the model that many thought the state program should emulate. “The incentive to fundraise endlessly is still there,” he said. “And until those aspects of the program are removed, I don't think you're really developing a taxpayer-funded publicly financed program. You're really creating a base subsidy for candidates.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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State Commission Approves New Campaign Finance System, Raises Bar for Political Party Ballot Access Mon, 25 Nov 2019 05:00:00 +0000
What New York Can - and Must - Do Right Now to Help End the Addiction Crisis https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8951-what-new-york-cuomo-must-do-now-to-end-addiction-crisis https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8951-what-new-york-cuomo-must-do-now-to-end-addiction-crisis gov protecting womens

(photo: Mike Groll/Governor's Office)


When your medical career is bookended by two of the worst public health emergencies in modern American history – the heroin epidemic of the 1970s and our country’s current crisis of overdose and addiction – it gives you a unique perspective on the problem and the solutions.  

To overcome this deadly crisis we must begin by viewing addiction for what it is – a treatable disease – and then bring to scale evidence-based medical strategies that we know give patients the best chance for a positive outcome. 

Medication Assisted Treatment – or MAT – is the quickest, easiest-to-start weapon we have to prevent patients from exposure to possible overdose. In combination with counseling as needed, it is the most effective tool we have to combat the opioid epidemic.

MAT involves prescribing medication approved by the Federal Drug Administration to treat opioid dependence. The medications reduce cravings and withdrawal and support patients who are recovering from illicit opioid use. Patients respond differently to the dose, formulation, and delivery method given their histories and prior experiences, as agreed upon with their physician. In my experience, MAT coupled with regular counseling and medical supervision is the best chance patients have for success.

New York is poised to become the latest to join a growing list of states – politically blue, red, and purple – that are removing obstacles to MAT and instead rightly focusing on patient care and access. On-demand access to all FDA-approved medications for opioid dependence is the national trend because it is smart public health policy. California, Ohio, Texas, and Missouri are just some of the states to embrace the wisdom of MAT and pass laws or regulations to increase access and availability.

New York’s bi-partisan legislation removes burdensome and potentially deadly barriers to treatment like prior authorizations and covers the medicine under both private insurance and Medicaid. Enacting these reforms now requires Governor Andrew Cuomo’s signature. 

At Damian Family Care Centers, in our various clinics in New York City and hard-hit Upstate New York, we regularly witness the difficulties involved when a patient has to wait for MAT because the insurance company or Medicaid requires prior authorization. Patients who are struggling with opioid dependence often have challenges with impulse control as part of their addiction. It is essential that the medications prescribed for the patient are available to the patient as soon as possible. Otherwise the patient will not tolerate the wait and will turn to the streets. And the streets are more dangerous than ever because of the proliferation of fentanyl, which is exponentially more powerful than prescription opioids or heroin. When fentanyl becomes part of the equation, a “regular” dose can easily become a lethal dose.

Any delay, let alone 24 to 48 hours or more, can make the difference between life and death for a patient who agrees to Medication Assisted Treatment. 

The bottom line is we are in the midst of a raging opioid epidemic. If people were dying from an infectious illness, would we think it was ethical to require prior authorization for any of the possible medications? Would it be effective to limit the medicines we know can help? The doctors, nurse practitioners, and physician’s assistants on the front lines of the crisis must be able to make medical judgments in the best interests of their patients. That requires the ability to prescribe all the medications the FDA has approved for the treatment of opioid dependence.

Nearly 4,000 people died in New York State from drug overdoses in the last year, including one every six hours in New York City. 

The barriers to treatment – while well-intended – were built during a different time under vastly different circumstances. The most meaningful action New York State, and all states, can take right now regarding the opioid, heroin, and fentanyl crisis is to ensure MAT is readily available to the thousands of people who need it. 


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Sonia Lopez, MD, is the Director of Addiction Medicine at Damian Family Care Centers.

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

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What New York Can - and Must - Do Right Now to Help End the Addiction Crisis Sun, 24 Nov 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Advocates Remind State Leaders of Approaching Deadline to Name Redistricting Commission https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8917-advocates-remind-state-leaders-redistricting-commission-deadline https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8917-advocates-remind-state-leaders-redistricting-commission-deadline new york start capitol

(photo: Mike Groll/Governor's Office)


New York State government leaders are fond of appointing commissions, but those bodies are not known for meeting their deadlines. With those facts in mind, an advocacy group released a public letter Tuesday with an important message about governmental machinations that will significantly impact the state’s future.

With the 2020 Census around the corner, the League of Women Voters of New York State is urging the state Legislature to keep its eye on a key deadline that falls ahead of the all-important population count. By February 1, the state constitution mandates that the Legislature must appoint an “independent” commission that will draw district lines for Senate, Assembly, and congressional seats based on the census results.

The next round of redistricting is meant to be carried out by a new, untested Independent redistricting commission, which was approved by voters in a 2014 ballot referendum after being passed by the Legislature. The commission is meant to be largely immune from political influence to avoid drawing partisan districts, as was the case in the previous statewide redistricting. But, to ensure the commission does its job right, it needs sufficient funding and time to complete its work, said LWVNYS President Suzanne Stassevitch, in a letter sent on Tuesday to the state Legislature.

“The League of Women Voters of New York State believes that in order for this commission to fulfill its constitutional obligations, it must receive adequate funding from the state in the 2020-2021 fiscal budget year,” she wrote. That budget is due to be decided by April 1, but is largely determined by the governor’s executive budget, which is typically released in January.

New York’s representation in Congress and the carving and apportionment of legislative districts at the state and local levels are products of the census count. In the 2010 Census, New York’s population was acutely undercounted and the state lost one seat in the House of Representatives.

The subsequent redistricting, by a state Legislative task force, was considered particularly partisan when it came to the state Senate, strengthening rural and suburban representation, which tends to favor Republicans, and weakening the power of Democrat-leaning districts in New York City. Highly-gerrymandered and -disfigured districts can be found all over the state, with Senate districts designed to benefit Republicans and Assembly districts benefiting Democrats. It was adopted by a split Legislature, where Democrats held the Assembly and Republicans controlled the Senate, and ultimately approved by Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat. Congressional districts were drawn by a judge-appointed special master after the Legislature could not come to an agreement on proposed maps.

At the same time, as the process faced broad criticism for its opacity and skewed results, the Legislature moved to amend the state constitution and provide for an independent commission to oversee the next redistricting. It was later approved by voters and must be created by February 1, 2020.

However, the state government doesn’t have the best reputation when it comes to meeting legally mandated deadlines. A separate commission – the New York State Complete Count Commission – that was meant to create a strategy for census outreach was only named months after its first report was due. The Legislature and governor then allocated $20 million in the April budget for that outreach, far short of what advocates and some legislators had sought. And the commission only submitted its report in early October and did not propose a plan for spending the money, which has yet to be released by Governor Cuomo’s budget office.

“Without timely appointments and adequate state funding, the Independent Redistricting Commission will experience the same dysfunction as the recent New York State Complete Count Commission,” Stassevitch wrote. 

The governor has no say in naming the ten-member redistricting commission, which has strict criteria to ensure independence and a nonpartisan composition, though its design did fall short of what some reformers had sought.

Two members each are meant to be appointed by Democrats Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, and Republicans Senate Minority Leader John Flanagan and Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb. Those eight appointees will then, by a majority vote, choose two members who cannot be part of either major political party. The members, who will all be paid, will choose two co-executive directors, one each to represent Democrats and Republicans. The commission is required to hold at least 12 public meetings in counties across the state.

“We will absolutely fulfil our constitutional obligation and be represented on the Independent Redistricting Commission. While concerns over timeliness are certainly valid, the effectiveness of redistricting will be determined only if the Commission achieves true independence – something Albany has been sorely lacking in these types of endeavors,” said Assembly Minority Leader Kolb, in a statement through a spokesperson.

“If they follow the requirements the commissioners have to meet in order to be appointed, that will take us some way towards a less partisan group,” Stassevitch said in a brief phone interview. “And I think the level of transparency that is required with the public meetings, and also with the choices that can be made for commissioners, I think it's going to do a lot to open up the process to public scrutiny and allow a more robust conversation where it's needed.”

One major change from last time is full Democratic control of the Legislature. In this situation, the law creating the commission protects against one party wielding undue influence over the final district lines by requiring a two-thirds majority vote in each chamber to be adopted, instead of a simple majority.

Stassevitch was optimistic that the process will yield more equitable legislative districts. “The hope is that we can get the voters and the citizens and people in all of these districts at the center of this process instead of the politicians,” she said. “It was meant to be about the people, not about the politicians, and the politicians have had us, across the country in many instances, bamboozled into thinking otherwise for a long time.”

However, even though the commission will follow a nonpartisan process, its recommendations will not be binding. The Legislature could adopt its own plans after rejecting the commission’s proposed district lines twice. This next round will also be the first redistricting to take place after the United States Supreme Court invalidated parts of the Voting Rights Act, which mandated federal approval of redrawn districts in certain counties including Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx.

A spokesperson for Flanagan acknowledged a request for comment but did not provide one. Spokespeople for Stewart-Cousins and Heastie did not respond to requests for comment.

[Read: New York’s New, Untested Redistricting Process Set to Unfold After 2020 Census]

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Advocates Remind State Leaders of Approaching Deadline to Name Redistricting Commission Tue, 12 Nov 2019 05:00:00 +0000
First Deputy Mayor on Next Steps for Voter-Approved 'Rainy Day Fund' https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8905-first-deputy-mayor-on-next-steps-for-voter-approved-rainy-day-fund https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8905-first-deputy-mayor-on-next-steps-for-voter-approved-rainy-day-fund control board bdb

(photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photo Office)


With voter approval of a city charter amendment to pursue the creation of a budgetary “rainy day fund” in New York City, de Blasio administration officials are now looking to change state laws so that the city can actually start one.

“We’re going to have to work together to make this happen,” said First Deputy Mayor Dean Fuleihan at a breakfast event hosted by the Citizens Budget Commission Wednesday morning, just a few hours after polls closed on Tuesday night.

Voters had overwhelmingly approved an amendment to the city charter that would allow the city to set aside revenue in a savings account meant to cushion the impact of a future economic downturn and city revenue dip — the inevitable rainy day. Until the charter amendment passed this week, provisions in both city and state law required the city to balance its budget every year, meaning savings cannot be carried over from one fiscal year to another. Now, only state law requires a balanced city budget.

While the city continues to enjoy a period of economic prosperity since the 2008-2009 fiscal crisis, economists say it must brace for potential dips, whether slowing growth or recession. In the last two national recessions, the city economy contracted significantly and took years to rebound, according to a Citizens Budget Commission report, “To Weather A Storm: Create a Rainy Day Fund.” According to the CBC analysis, the gross city product (GCP) fell 7.6 percent from 2000 to 2002 and took another three years to reach its pre-recession size; from 2007 to 2009 GCP fell 9 percent and did not reach its previous peak until 2013.

In situations like these, the city can quickly exhaust any reserves that may be available, and, in the absence of a rainy day fund, must cut services, raise taxes, and/or fall on short-term borrowing, all of which have consequences that are exacerbated in a recession.

Currently, the city is able to put public funds into “reserves,” which are created through budgetary maneuvers that, among other things, allow the city to prepay for certain resources, debt service, and retiree health benefits costs. But fiscal watchdogs say the reserves would not be sufficient to combat a serious dip in the economy or an emergency crisis, and are a fraction of what a rainy day fund could cover.

The city budget has grown tremendously since the last recession in 2008-2009. Since the beginning of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s tenure in 2014, it has risen nearly $20 billion to $92.8 billion in the current fiscal year. About $6 billion of the total is currently in year-of reserves.

“It’s a historic level of reserves,” which the city has not previously achieved, said Fuleihan, a former director of the Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget and a veteran fiscal policy advisor in the State Assembly. “But it is not a rainy day fund. It’s not a traditional way of doing that, and now we have the opportunity to do that.”

The rainy day fund amendment was one of 19 proposed changes to the city charter, which voters in New York City had an opportunity to approve or reject this fall based on the work of the 2019 Charter Revision Commission, to which the mayor had several appointees along with other citywide and boroughwide officials. The proposals came in the form of five questions covering elections, police oversight, ethics and governance, city budget, and land use. All five questions passed by wide margins.

The laws requiring New York City to balance its budget each year came out of the city’s 1975 fiscal crisis, in which the city’s debt obligations brought it close to bankruptcy. In response, the state enacted the Financial Emergency Act, which required a balanced budget and the use of generally accepted accounting principles as a way to ensure the city’s fiduciary obligations do not exceed its revenue. In 2005, those requirements were incorporated in the city charter.

With the charter amendments that remove those requirements, state laws are the only remaining statutes preventing New York City from adopting a rainy day fund. State Senator Brian Benjamin, a Manhattan Democrat who is considering a run for city comptroller, has introduced a bill that would authorize the city to create a rainy day fund (the fund is described in the bill as a “municipal contingency and tax stabilization reserve fund”). 

For the de Blasio administration, the issue at hand now is not simply a matter of changing the state law. Fuleihan says he hopes to work with the state to devise a partnership that gives the city ultimate control over its budget and rainy day funds. Budget watchdogs are also hoping state lawmakers include statutory restrictions on when the rainy day funds may be spent to ensure that they are used as intended during periods of economic hardship.

“The first step occurred [Tuesday] and now we need to talk about what that looks like,” Fuleihan told the CBC audience Wednesday, “and to make sure that the city is the determining factor in what this rainy day fund looks like.”

“I think we do have to be careful about that,” he added.

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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First Deputy Mayor on Next Steps for Voter-Approved 'Rainy Day Fund' Wed, 06 Nov 2019 05:00:00 +0000
As Election Proceeds, Affidavit Ballot Bill at Center of Queens Controversy Continues to Languish https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8895-election-approaches-no-apparent-movement-on-affidavit-voting-bill-queens-controversy-cuomo https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8895-election-approaches-no-apparent-movement-on-affidavit-voting-bill-queens-controversy-cuomo gov cuomo casts

(photo: the governor's office)


Few New York elections go by without controversy, and this year’s relatively quiet slate has been no exception. As voters head to the polls during the inaugural early voting period and heading into Election Day, one major question that came up during the June primary continues to hang over the general election.

A bill that could change the way provisional affidavit ballots are counted as soon as this year is languishing in Albany, having passed both houses of the state Legislature in June. The bill would make it harder to disqualify those ballots on technicalities if the intention of the voter is clear, thus keeping some number of voters from disenfranchisement.

The legislation was the subject of controversy during the Democratic primary for Queens District Attorney earlier this year, a race that was decided in a recount, with many affidavit ballots left uncounted. While it’s unclear if any general election race, in New York City or elsewhere in the state, will be anywhere near as close, the bill would impact whether some votes are counted.

“The bill protects otherwise-eligible voters from having their ballots thrown out on highly-technical, unfair grounds. Had it been signed in a timely way after passage on June 12 and 13, this protection would have been in place for the June primaries and the 2019 general election,” said Jarret Berg, a voting rights lawyer and elections watchdog.

“Instead, the safeguard is either being ignored or intentionally delayed as elections they would help to improve come and go," he said, adding that the law would go into effect immediately and wouldn’t cost the state or localities anything to implement.

Caitlin Girouard, a spokesperson for Governor Andrew Cuomo, told Gotham Gazette Tuesday that the legislation was “under review.” As of Thursday, it had not been sent to the governor by the Legislature or called to his desk by Cuomo, the two mechanisms that would force the governor’s decision to sign or veto it much more quickly ahead of the final December 31 deadline.

Registered voters in New York City have the opportunity this fall to cast ballots for public advocate, Queens District Attorney, a Brooklyn City Council seat, some judicial positions, and five referenda containing proposed amendments to the city charter. For the first time in New York State, polls are open during a nine-day early voting period, which began October 26 and ends November 3. Election Day is Tuesday, November 5.

After the primary polls closed in June and the close race headed toward counting absentee and affidavit ballots, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz and public defender Tiffany Cabán, along with their respective teams of lawyers, fought over reinstating ballots disqualified by the city’s Board of Elections. As a recount unfolded, one major question became which affidavit ballots would be counted and which wouldn’t, a debate that often starts with the envelope containing the ballot.

Appearing before a judge, lawyers for the two candidates argued over validating discounted ballots, often discarded on the basis of minor technical errors, like failing to put a return address on the ballot envelope or not listing a previous address, despite a qualified voter making a clear vote in the race.

Many of the disqualified affidavit ballots were believed to favor Cabán, while absentee ballots, often cast by older voters, favored Katz, in part due to targeted campaigning by the borough president. Cabán supporters pushed for Cuomo, a Democrat, to sign the affidavit ballot bill during the recount in hopes of preserving more of those votes. Legislators passed the bill weeks before the primary election, but the governor would not sign it after the ballot counting had begun. Cabán ultimately lost by about 60 votes, with more than 350 potential votes uncounted, according to a court filing related to the race.

“With that portion of the election cycle over, it is my hope that the governor gets this legislation on his desk and signs it before November 5 so that those ballots can be appropriately considered under what is a much more reasonable standard,” said Assemblymember Kevin Cahill, a Hudson Valley Democrat and one of the bill’s sponsors.

"We are very supportive of this bill and believe that where a voter's intent is clear, their ballot should count,” wrote State Senator Zellnor Myrie, a Brooklyn Democrat who chairs the Senate Elections Committee, in an email to Gotham Gazette. “The will of the legislature is clear from the passage in both houses so it is our hope, given the importance of every election, that the bill is signed as expeditiously as possible."

Leroy Comrie, the bill’s Senate sponsor, did not respond to requests for comment.

Affidavit and absentee ballots are placed in individual envelopes and have “a variety of other circumstances associated with them that could put them at risk of being considered technically flawed,” said Cahill. One of those circumstances is the fact poll workers hired by the city Board of Elections often advise voters on how to fill out affidavits, according to Cahill, which he says makes it unfair to penalize ballots for technical errors.

Voters use affidavit ballots when they believe they are registered to vote but are not found in the voter rolls at a poll site. Roughly 2,800 affidavit and 3,400 absentee ballots were reportedly cast in the high-profile Democratic primary for Queens District Attorney.

As it became clear the vote was close and headed to a recount, some called on Cuomo to sign the legislation and allow more votes to be counted. Part of the concern, expressed by some, in enacting the legislation before the recount had finished was that it would change the rules of the game by which voters and the poll workers often advising them had been operating.

“The rule is the rule,” Cahill said.

“We wouldn’t want to be impacting a result, after the fact. That wouldn’t be fair,” he added, in apparent reference to changing the rules of how certain votes are counted after they’ve been cast.

Given that Cuomo did not sign the bill before early voting began, the same issue is now at play for the general election. Generally speaking, the legislation is not seen as beneficial to particular candidates, but many believed more affidavits were likely to be for Cabán than Katz in the Queens primary because she appeared to be the favorite of newer, younger, more transient voters who may have been more likely to have to fill out an affidavit ballot.

“This legislation is not a partisan issue, nor does it help or hurt any particular candidate or party in any given election, and it has already passed both houses,” said Berg.

“It’s not that radical a bill,” Cahill said, “it really is just a common sense piece of legislation that says…[a voter] should be permitted to have that vote counted notwithstanding some minor technical differences between what that ballot says and what the law requires.”

The decision to send a bill to the governor for enactment is, practically speaking, a collective one among the Assembly, the Senate, and the governor’s office, according to Cahill. The chamber that first passes a two-house bill is responsible for sending it to the governor’s office; if it is sent to the governor and not signed or vetoed within ten days, in most cases it becomes law. If Cuomo’s administration is not prepared to address the legislation, sending the bill to his office for consideration could lead to its demise, he said. The governor can also at any time call to his desk a bill that has passed both houses.

“It is a shared decision when a bill gets sent to the governor. If it gets sent prematurely before the governor’s office wants it, we’re putting the bill at risk of being vetoed just for procedural reasons and we don’t want to have that happen,” Cahill warned.

“But in this case we are very anxious for this bill to get before the governor, to be on his desk and get his signature so we can start to have people’s votes counted when they should be,” added the member of the Assembly, which was the house to first pass the affidavit bill.

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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As Election Proceeds, Affidavit Ballot Bill at Center of Queens Controversy Continues to Languish Sun, 03 Nov 2019 04:00:00 +0000