Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/510 Mon, 11 Nov 2019 22:04:21 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) 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
     

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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
Senate Bill Would Complement City Voter Approval of Budget 'Rainy Day Fund' https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8877-senate-bill-would-complement-city-voter-approval-of-budget-rainy-day-fund https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8877-senate-bill-would-complement-city-voter-approval-of-budget-rainy-day-fund senate bill complement

Senator Benjamin at Thursday's press conference (photo: @BrianKavanaghNY)


New York State Senator Brian Benjamin, a Manhattan Democrat who is exploring a possible 2021 run for city comptroller, introduced a bill on Thursday that would allow New York City to create a “rainy day fund” to weather fiscal emergencies.

Currently, the city lacks the authority to set aside revenue in such a dedicated pot, one result of the city’s fiscal crisis of the 1970s. But a question on this year’s general election ballot in the city could change the City Charter to facilitate the creation of such a savings account, though it would also need state action to go into effect. That’s where Benjamin’s bill would come in.  

After years of unprecedented expansion following the 2008-2009 recession, New York City’s budget has grown significantly. For the current fiscal year, which runs through June 30, 2020, it is a whopping $92.8 billion – a $20 billion increase since Mayor Bill de Blasio took office – with about $6 billion set aside in reserves to combat potential emergencies or revenue shortfalls. Those reserves include $1.15 billion in the general reserve, $250 million in the capital stabilization reserve, and about $4.6 billion in the Retiree Health Benefits Trust Fund.

But the city is required to balance its budget each year, which means that dedicated savings cannot be carried over from one year to the next in order to save for a potential recession. Each penny in the budget must be spent. That arrangement was a result of the Financial Emergency Act passed by the state 1975 when the city was facing insolvency and the state stepped in to impose new fiscal controls.

“The last recession that we had in 2009, there were about 14,000 municipal workers who were let go, taxes that were raised,” Benjamin said at a Thursday news conference at the steps of City Hall. “This is a very important issue so we have got to make sure that we are doing the right thing to protect our future, to protect our citizens in a responsible way.”

Benjamin’s bill would authorize the city to build a municipal contingency and tax stabilization reserve fund. He raised the widely shared concern that the current economic expansion will eventually come to an end and that the city could face a recession, the signs of which have begun to show. In that situation, the city could be forced to make cuts to programs and social services as well as potentially make significant layoffs in the municipal workforce, which has grown to more than 344,000 full-time employees under de Blasio.

Benjamin approximated that a potential rainy day fund should hold anywhere between $10-15 billion, particularly emphasizing that the city needs to stop using the Retiree Health Benefits Trust fund as a reserve for other possible uses. Benjamin’s estimate is close in line with what City Comptroller Scott Stringer suggested in his assessment of the city budget earlier this year.

As it stands, the city already faces projected outyear budget gaps of $3.5 billion in fiscal year 2021, $2.9 billion in fiscal year 2022, and $3.1 billion in fiscal year 2023, though those gaps can quickly be closed if the billions in set-aside savings are not used, typically-conservative revenue estimates are exceeded, and other actions are taken by the city’s budget office. A slower economy or a recession would complicate matters, however.

When asked, Benjamin denied that he introduced the proposal because he may run for city comptroller. Instead, he said it was a “proactive move” so that the city can avoid cutting services to its most vulnerable residents and districts like the upper Manhattan one that he represents. He also pointed to this year’s election and the several ballot proposals that will be presented to voters once early voting begins on Saturday.

One of the 19 proposals, contained within five overarching questions, would amend the charter to allow the use of a rainy day fund. Benjamin, who did not take a position on the question itself, said he hoped to pass his bill in the early days of the next state legislative session, which starts in January, so it can allow the city to follow through on the ballot proposal if it is approved. That would also be in time for budget season for the city and state governments.

“If the citizens of New York City decide that there would be a rainy day fund, that they authorize it on ballot question number four, the state has to act as well,” he said. “So we want to get ahead of that by introducing this now.”

Specifically, Benjamin’s bill makes amendments to the state’s General Municipal Law, removing limits on the amount of money in the budget that could be placed in a rainy day fund and defining the conditions under which the city could dip into it in the case of an economic recession. It also changes the Financial Emergency Act so that a rainy day fund does not count towards balancing the budget. He also said the bill would contain safeguards so the state, which would be far more vulnerable to a recession, cannot dip into the city’s reserves in the case of a shortfall.

Though Benjamin said the bill does not have a sponsor in the Assembly yet, he was backed by one colleague, Senator Brian Kavanagh, who represents parts of lower Manhattan and western Brooklyn. “This is an important issue to ensure that the city, if the voters choose, has the opportunity to smooth out their finances so that the city's revenue can be used in good times and in tougher times to provide core services for people,” he said at the news conference.

Caitlin Girouard, a spokesperson for Governor Andrew Cuomo, said in an email, “We will review the bill.” A spokesperson for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie did not respond to a request for comment.

Also in support of the bill were Jonas Shaende, chief economist of the Fiscal Policy Institute; Cathy Gray, co-president of the League of Women Voters New York; and Iesha Sekou, CEO of Street Corner Resources, a nonprofit service-provider. Separately, the Citizens Budget Commission has been arguing for passage of question four to move a rainy day fund closer to reality, and several city officials have expressed support for it in correspondence with Gotham Gazette, including Comptroller Stringer, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer. There does not appear to be any organized opposition to ballot question four.

At the press conference, Sekou noted that organizations like hers that depend on city funding to provide services are the first on the chopping block when the city hits hard times. “Our main work is to provide support services to interrupt and de-escalate violence, and we have been successful with that. But in the event of a recession, that work can unwind, get undone, because we won't have the money when the rainy day comes to keep the work going,” she said. 

[Read: State Senator Brian Benjamin Explores Run for City Comptroller]

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Senate Bill Would Complement City Voter Approval of Budget 'Rainy Day Fund' Thu, 24 Oct 2019 04:00:00 +0000
The Governor's Signature is Next Step in Protecting New York Children from Toxic Toys https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8841-protecting-new-york-children-from-toxic-toys-cuomo https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8841-protecting-new-york-children-from-toxic-toys-cuomo children toys

(Dreamstime: Photo 3882847 © Jose Manuel Gelpi Diaz - Dreamstime.com)


Perhaps few items in society hold the same universal delight as children’s products. They are an important part of children’s wellbeing and development and can remind all of us of simple joys of childhood. We expect products designed specifically for children to be safe and free from chemicals that could cause harm.

Nobody wants their child to play with a toy containing alarmingly high levels of lead, cadmium, or mercury. However, there are many toys and products on the market today that do indeed contain chemicals that are hazardous to children’s health. Media reports of product recalls of children’s jewelry tainted with lead and arsenic, colored chalk contaminated with mercury, and baby soaps containing a chemical called 1,4 dioxane raise serious questions as to how manufacturers have been able to get these products into the market in the first place.

These products have been able to enter our state because of gaps in our regulation. Our regulations in New York have struggled to keep pace with the thousands of new combinations of materials and manufacturing processes involved in making children’s toys and products.

The good news is that New York has taken significant steps to remedy the issue through the state Legislature, with the new Child Safe Products Act, which passed in April 2019. By signing it into law on or around National Children’s Environmental Health Day, Friday October 11, Governor Andrew Cuomo could prevent further unnecessary harm to children on his watch.

The Child Safe Products Act, once signed, is poised to provide protections to keep toxic products out of the marketplace for all children. It would prevent the sale or resale of items containing the most dangerous chemicals — particularly important where consumers have less money for costlier toxic-free alternatives.

Low price and discount retailers that are commonplace in New York’s less affluent communities have been found to sell items containing very high levels of so-called “chemicals of concern.”

For example, a 2015 study by the Campaign for Healthier Solutions and HealthyStuff.org tested products commonly sold at dollar stores, like toys and jewelry for children, and found alarmingly high levels of lead, mercury, and cadmium. The new law would take a measured approach to regulating chemicals in products developed for children and includes a comprehensive list of chemicals that are currently known to have adverse effects on human health.

The Child Safe Products Act would also provide clear directives for each member of the supply chain – from the manufacturer to the seller. Manufacturers would be required to report to the state the chemicals included on the list that are found in their products. The state would in turn provide this information to an interstate chemical clearinghouse. Retailers would be notified which items they are forbidden to sell, due to their toxicity, and they would be held accountable for selling such items, prompting greater scrutiny in their buying processes and supply-chain management.

Intergenerational principles urge us to be mindful of our responsibility to ensure the health and safety of the next generation. This applies to all aspects of a child’s environment – where they live, learn and play. Governor Cuomo has lent his support to several environmental causes. Signing this act would demonstrate our joint commitment to future generations of New Yorkers and solidify our place as leaders in protecting children’s environmental health. Other states like Maine, California and Washington have similar policy mandates.

Let’s ensure that the next generation of New York’s children comes to associate products designed for them with happiness. Governor Cuomo, please sign the Child Safe Products Act into law and affirm New York’s commitment to a greener, more sustainable future for everyone.

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Christine Appah, Senior Staff Attorney for Environmental Justice at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, a member of the JustGreen Partnership that supported passage of the Child Safe Products Act. On Twitter @NYLPI.

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

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The Governor's Signature is Next Step in Protecting New York Children from Toxic Toys Thu, 10 Oct 2019 04:00:00 +0000
State Census Commission Releases Report, with Funding Decisions Kicked Back to Cuomo Administration https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8837-state-census-commission-releases-report-with-funding-decisions-kicked-back-to-cuomo-administration https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8837-state-census-commission-releases-report-with-funding-decisions-kicked-back-to-cuomo-administration mmv president attends

(photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


A state commission charged with creating a plan for ensuring a complete count of New York residents in the 2020 Census has finally released its report, nine months after it was due and with continued ambiguity over how state census funding will be distributed.

The New York State Complete Count Commission, made up of executive and legislative branch appointees, spent months holding hearings across the state to solicit input on the challenges posed by the decennial census and how the state should respond. The commission was co-chaired by New York State Secretary of State Rossana Rosado and Jim Malatras, president of the Rockefeller Institute of Government and a former top aide to Governor Andrew Cuomo.

This year’s state budget included $20 million for census efforts and the commission’s report, approved in a unanimous vote on Tuesday morning, is meant to be a roadmap for allocating that funding and avoiding an undercount, which could lead to less federal funding for the state, a loss of possibly two seats in the House of Representatives, and a whole host of other ancillary effects over the course of a decade.

Many of the concerns the report outlines were already apparent to advocates and observers: That New York is home to potentially 4.8 million hard-to-count individuals (particularly children under the age of 5) and that several communities lack language access, that the new online methodology could lead to lower responses among seniors or those lacking computer literacy, that the Census Bureau is having trouble recruiting workers and that communities of color and immigrants are particularly wary of the process, owing in no small part to the Trump administration’s unsuccessful efforts to add a citizenship question.

That question threat, in particular, has “created a lot of controversy, and had a potential chilling effect and created consternation in many of our communities, especially our foreign-born communities,” said Malatras, at Tuesday’s meeting where commissioners video-conferenced in from across the state. “Besides California, New York State has the highest percentage of foreign-born communities and people in the nation. So, in particular, it hits our state hard.”

The report also noted worries about data protection because of the digital-focused questionnaire, and omissions of home addresses from the Census Bureau’s records.

The challenges are by no means small. There are more than 200 languages spoken across the state but the Census Bureau will only provide video and printed guides in 59 languages and will translate the online questionnaire into only 12 other languages besides English. As many as 113,000 New Yorkers will have no language support from the Census Bureau, the report notes.

About 13.5% of households across the state also lack access to the internet at home, which could depress their self-response rate. The federal government has also yet to provide a waiver to the New York Census office to hire non-citizens as enumerators, who go door-to-door surveying residents in communities where the self-response rate is low. Advocates and officials agree that in immigrant-heavy communities, non-citizens are often the most effective at gaining people’s trust and soliciting responses.

Failing to meet these challenges could mean that New York State could see a drop in self-response rates to 58%, down from 62% in 2010 when the national average was 76%, according to Census Bureau estimates.

The report lays out several recommendations for a strategy the state should follow. It includes an analysis of hard-to-count census tracts, identifying where the state should expend its resources. The commission recommends a targeted communications campaign for communities at risk of an undercount and additional support for areas that lack internet connectivity and populations that rank low on digital literacy.

It also pushes for expanded translation services and building trust with immigrant communities. The report notes that if federal immigration authorities seek to misuse Census data, the state’s Liberty Defense Project should be pressed into action to provide legal assistance to immigrants.

Acknowledging that certain sections of the population fly under the radar, the report specifically urges the state to ensure an accurate count of people experiencing homelessness. It also pushes for ensuring that individuals in group-living situations – students in dormitories, seniors in nursing homes, inmates in correctional facilities – are counted.

The commission laid out a detailed plan for how the state can support municipalities with their efforts to conduct census outreach including providing aid to local complete count committees, collaborating with “trusted voices” like nonprofit service providers, labor, and faith-based organizations, enlisting all state agencies in the census effort, collaborating with the philanthropic community and establishing Census Assistance Centers in hard-to-count census tracts.

One place the report falls short is on details of how the $20 million in state funding will be spent. It’s unclear in what form that funding will be utilized.

“We are reviewing the report and the insight it provides on how the State, local governments and our partners can work together so that every New Yorker is counted in the 2020 Census,” said Freeman Klopott, a spokesperson for the state Division of the Budget, in an email.

At the hearing, Malatras acknowledged that the commission’s work had been delayed – it was only appointed after its first report was already due. “What we have to do today is we get this report to the state so they can release those resources that they provided in the budget,” he said. The commission is also meant to release a second and final report in January that details progress on its recommendations, he pointed out.

Commissioner Henry Garrido, executive director of labor union DC37 (who was appointed when Commissioner Hector Figueroa of 32BJ SEIU unexpectedly passed away -- the report includes a dedication to Figueroa) raised concerns about mistrust in immigrant communities and the question of hiring non-immigrants. Though Malatras admitted that “there was no clarity” on the use of the federal waiver, he urged local authorities to move ahead either way. “So we're going to go forward as if it would be okay to hire,” he said.

He also noted that, with a lack of support from the federal government, the state would have to step up. He pointed to the Department of Labor, in particular, noting that it has a robust census outreach plan in place already and said that the state would use SUNY and CUNY as recruiting centers for census outreach workers. 

Commissioner Jose Calderón, president of the Hispanic Federation, raised the issue of the release of state funds. “We are already really late in the game,” he pointed out, wondering about the process and timeline on which the money would be awarded to community-based organizations. “It is those trusted sources that are going to help us deliver on the promise of getting a complete count in New York State,” he said.

Calderón’s worries were echoed by other commissioners including Esmeralda Simmons, founder and executive director of the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College, CUNY. “It's a roadmap,” she said of the report, “but unfortunately, it doesn't get us to our destination.”

She said CBOs have been waiting for months for funding to assist their work and the report provides few details on that front. “Everyone's waiting for recommendations on how the money is going to be spent, and how it's going to be utilized,” she said. “And we all know state government is not usually that swift. I appreciate all the actions that are anticipated but we have said none of that in this report. We've talked about no plan on how to get the money out there.”

Malatras sought to downplay those concerns, insisting that the next report due in January will address any funding issues and that it wasn’t within the commission’s authority to dictate whether the state dole out funding through a competitive bidding process or through agencies. “We want to make sure there's maximum flexibility for the state Legislature, the executive and others to say this is how they want to do it,” he said.

Simmons later pushed a motion to send a message of urgency in writing that the $20 million in census funding “be appropriated by the most efficient and expeditious method using state entities.” The motion was unanimously approved.

[Read: As City Rolls Out Census Funding for Outreach Efforts, State Lags Behind]

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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State Census Commission Releases Report, with Funding Decisions Kicked Back to Cuomo Administration Tue, 08 Oct 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Reining in the Maleficent Middlemen: Governor Cuomo Should Sign America’s Toughest Prescription Drug Legislation https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8821-maleficent-middlemen-governor-cuomo-to-sign-america-s-toughest-prescription-drug-legislation https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8821-maleficent-middlemen-governor-cuomo-to-sign-america-s-toughest-prescription-drug-legislation gov cuomo legislation 200 million

(photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of the Governor)


Like the rest of America, New York State is ensnared in the stranglehold of our byzantine healthcare system, which today is best known for skyrocketing pharmaceutical drug prices and a rapid decline in quality of care. One of the most vicious, insidious, and disingenuous tentacles of that system choking the life out of us is the group of corporations known as Pharmacy Benefit Managers (PBMs). 

While just three Fortune 25 companies – CVS, Express Scripts, and OptumRx – control nearly 80% of the pharmacy benefits market, most Americans are unaware of the outsized role PBMs play in their healthcare. And PBMs want to keep it that way.

Hired by insurance companies as their prescription drug middlemen, PBMs claim they play an important role in making prescription drugs accessible and affordable for consumers – including in New York’s Medicaid program – by negotiating prices with manufacturers.  

In reality, however, PBMs control which medications are covered by insurance, what patients pay out-of-pocket and the amount pharmacies get reimbursed for dispensing them. PBMs are unregulated thieves who are not required to — and therefore don’t — disclose how much money they take in, how much they pay out, or the savings they achieve through this process. 

When challenged to provide more transparency about their business practices, PBMs flat-out refuse. Why? Because a lack of oversight is their key source of power. And it’s the consumers, and the pharmacies that dispense medications, who pay the price.

According to a study by the Pharmacists Society of the State of New York (PSSNY), PBMs last year pocketed 24% of New York State Medicaid managed care spending. That adds up to more than $300 million in taxpayer money in the hands of giant corporate middlemen that do not actually provide any healthcare service. 

How did they do that? Through a nasty practice called “spread pricing,” in which a PBM bills an insurer for prescription drug claims at one rate and then reimburses the pharmacies that filled those prescriptions at a substantially lower rate. The difference, which PBMs pocket, is called the “spread.”

Thanks to Governor Cuomo and the state Legislature, New York in April became among the first states in the country to eliminate spread pricing in Medicaid managed care. This was a tremendous step in the right direction. But PBMs continue to hurt patients, taxpayers, and independent pharmacies.

The good news for New Yorkers — potentially excellent, game-changing news — is that the New York Senate and Assembly recently passed legislation that at last would impose common-sense requirements on PBMs aimed at fostering greater transparency. 

These new regulations, which await Governor Cuomo’s signature to become law, have been described as the toughest PBM legislation in America, offering significant, critical protections to patients, taxpayers, and neighborhood pharmacy owners — and a roadmap for the rest of America to follow.

In short, the regulations would further curtail spread pricing beyond Medicaid managed care, require PBMs to disclose previously confidential information, and give pharmacies the mechanisms they need to seek recourse for abusive PBM practices.

We know that deep-pocketed PBMs — which only care about their profits — have an array of lobbyists trying to water down, if not outright kill these regulations. We cannot afford to be bullied and manipulated by PBMs any longer. It is time to end this abusive system that preys on citizens. 

Other states are taking action, too. Ohio recently dumped PBMs for billing Medicaid $244 million more than they paid pharmacies, awarded $100 million to independent pharmacies for their losses, and introduced a new state program, transparent in nature and defined as a pass-through PBM. We applaud that action, too. But New York has an opportunity to take a major step forward here. 

That is why we stand behind Governor Cuomo, who time and again has proven that he fights for New Yorkers and is one of America’s most progressive leaders.

PBMs are destroying our healthcare system. We need to reign in their ability to control the medications physicians prescribe. Let me ask: Who do you think should be dictating healthcare strategies? Soulless PBMs, who are not in the healthcare business, but the money-making business, or our doctors and pharmacists, trained and licensed professionals dedicated to keeping us healthy?

PBMs are not going away. But we are on the verge of a historic moment, not just for New Yorkers, but for all Americans. And when Governor Cuomo signs these regulations into law, we will be there to celebrate.

***
Yuriy Davydov, Pharm D., is the Founder & CEO of Zero Copay Program (ZCP), a pass-through PBM. On Twitter @ZCP_Inc.

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

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Reining in the Maleficent Middlemen: Governor Cuomo Should Sign America’s Toughest Prescription Drug Legislation Sun, 29 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: The Future of Fusion Voting in New York https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8817-max-murphy-podcast-the-future-of-fusion-voting-in-new-york https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8817-max-murphy-podcast-the-future-of-fusion-voting-in-new-york fusion voting 600

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


September 25, 2019 - Max & Murphy Podcast: The Future of Fusion Voting in New York

stan fritz wbaiA commission established by Governor Cuomo and the State Legislature is designing a system of public campaign financing for New York, and also considering whether to try to end the practice of fusion voting. Its binding recommendations are due by December 1, but everything is complicated. Stanley Fritz of Citizen Action New York, which is part of the Working Families Party, joined the show to discuss the governor's push to end fusion voting, why he and others from the WFP and beyond are fighting to save it, and what comes 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

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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Max & Murphy Podcast: The Future of Fusion Voting in New York Wed, 25 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
An Unsigned Piece of New York’s Decarceration Puzzle https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8796-an-unsigned-piece-of-new-york-s-decarceration-puzzle https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8796-an-unsigned-piece-of-new-york-s-decarceration-puzzle dannemora cuomo

(photo: the governor's office)


Where is Assembly Bill 6980? It updates New York’s Charitable Bail Fund Act to allow approved organizations to bond more people out of jail. The bill passed the Assembly on June 17 and the Senate on June 19, but it hasn’t been sent to Governor Andrew Cuomo, or requested by the governor for his signature, and it’s not clear why.

Bail reform activists finally had their day this year when the New York Legislature passed a comprehensive law that more than overhauled -- it essentially overturned -- the state’s money bail system. It didn’t eliminate the way people pay cash for freedom when they’re legally innocent, but it came close. Of the almost 205,000 criminal cases arraigned in New York City in 2018, only 10 percent of defendants would have needed money for bail if the new law had been in effect.

The new law wasn’t enough for some, though. Carl Heastie, the speaker of the Assembly, admitted that the bail reform law “didn’t go as far as we had liked.”

And that’s exactly why Assembly Bill 6980’s stall-out is both puzzling and problematic. A full and fair reform of the state’s money bail system can’t be realized without it being codified, which members of the Legislature recognized by passing it in June.

Even with the new bail reform law in effect, approximately 20,000 people in New York City alone stand to have their lives uprooted if they’re picked up by police, arrested and subjected to monetary release requirements. Thousands more outside the city face the same risk.

If a judge decides to set a monetary bail amount over $2,000 for a defendant charged with a felony, that person lands in the same situation as before: if he can’t afford to bond out, his freedom will be snatched from him when he’s still presumed innocent and while he can best help his attorneys with a defense. Currently, no bail bond fund can touch him; the law caps the allowable amount at $2,000 and limits assistance to those charged only with misdemeanors.

Assembly Bill 6890 will help fix that. It raises the amount that a charitable bail fund can post to $10,000 and imposes no restrictions on the nature of the charges of the beneficiary of the bail fund, the person who gets bonded out.

Charitable bail funds aren’t new. The first in New York, Bronx Freedom Fund, started in 2008. But it was far from welcomed; a judge sought to shut it down, saying it was illegal. But because it addressed a real need in a state that couldn’t solve the problem of a pretrial detention system that disproportionately pens poor people of color, New York State licensed charitable bail funds in 2012 through the Charitable Bail Fund Act, the law that currently constrains their ability to more fully do what they’re designed to do.

New York City started its own bail fund in 2017 -- the Liberty Fund -- precisely because the city doesn’t control state law, and uprooting the monetized scheme that we call pretrial release wasn’t something the city could accomplish on its own. Charitable bail funds are safety valves when the law doesn’t provide sufficient justice.

It would seem like New York bail funds will have limited utility after the bail reform package goes into effect on January 1, 2020. After all, if money isn’t an issue for 90% of the arrested population, then what can these organizations do?

The short answer is: a lot. In New York City alone, only 43 percent of the almost 5,000 pretrial detainees on April 1, 2019 would have been released under the new legislation. That means that 57% of detainees may remain in custody, even under this revolutionary reform. A study from the Center for Court Innovation found that almost half of all defendants were incapable of paying their bonds immediately after arraignment.

And the likelihood that they will plead guilty, even to crimes they didn’t commit, is about four times higher than if they were kept from confinement while they’re prosecuted. Pretrial release increases the chance that a defendant will be found guilty by about 14.8%. The fact that people enter guilty pleas simply to get out of custody accounts for much of that increase.

While a good number of these people will benefit from and be freed by the new reform law, failing to send this revision of the Charitable Bail Fund Act on to the governor for the final step suggests that lawmakers might have a tad too much confidence in their accomplishments.

Several states have proven that things don’t go exactly as planned when they try to jettison money bail. In California, the bail reform statute never reached fruition even though it was signed by the governor; opposition to SB 10 prevented its implementation.

Even when legislative efforts succeed and laws go into effect, the results can fail. In Illinois, Cook County Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans implemented new rules designed to stop judges from setting unaffordable bond amounts. Initially, it looked like the new rules were working, until judges started setting bonds in untenable numbers to keep people they deemed dangerous incarcerated during the pendency of their cases. The dollar of money baiI set in 30% of cases in Cook County was unaffordable. In Maryland, the system overhaul backfired and ended up causing more people to be remanded to custody than before.

New York legislators had the advantage of knowing about these miscarriages as they drafted their bail reform bill, so they sidestepped many potential pitfalls. They had on their side the fact that New York is the only state to prohibit judges from considering a defendant’s alleged dangerousness in deciding pretrial release conditions. And, luckily, judges in New York City had unofficially decided to lean more towards releasing the people appearing before them prior to the bill’s passage.

But they can’t ignore the opposition to the new bail law that exists and the unfortunate reality that judges will do what they please. If reform does go haywire in New York, poor defendants need a back-up plan. A necessary part of that plan is charitable bail funds being able to fulfill their mission.

The New York Assembly should send 6980 over to Governor Cuomo post-haste. 

***
Chandra Bozelko writes The Outlaw column for GateHouse Media and was a 2018 Pretrial Justice Innovator with the Pretrial Justice Institute.

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

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An Unsigned Piece of New York’s Decarceration Puzzle Tue, 17 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
New York's Election Administration Accountability Vacuum - Part II: Partisanship, Patronage & Potential Fixes https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8786-new-york-s-election-administration-accountability-vacuum-part-ii-partisanship-patronage-potential-fixes https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8786-new-york-s-election-administration-accountability-vacuum-part-ii-partisanship-patronage-potential-fixes mayor bdb voting

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


This is part two of a two-part series. Read part one: New York's Election Administration Accountability Vacuum: ‘Bad Choices at Every Step'

New York City’s Board of Elections, the maligned ten-member commission responsible for overseeing the administration of voting in the five boroughs, has been the subject of criticism for decades owing to inefficiency and ineffectiveness that often characterize its operations. At the root of the many problems the Board of Elections has in managing voter rolls, poll sites, and other aspects of its domain, are partisanship, patronage, and, as some put it, collusion between the two major parties in order to protect the politically powerful at the expense of regular voters.

The commissioners of the board are appointed by the City Council, but only from selections made by Democratic and Republican party leaders in each borough, giving the major parties ultimate control over election administration and limiting public accountability.

Michael Ryan, the board’s executive director since 2013, receives the harshest censure from elected officials and voters who are frustrated by recurring election failures, but he is accountable almost exclusively to the commissioners who hired and alone can fire him. Nevertheless, he answers questions before the City Council and State Legislature in oversight hearings following each election cycle, where he alternately apologizes for unforeseen circumstances or asserts the limits of his authority to address them.

Reform advocates say the board’s accountability problems stem from its bipartisan structure and a lack of professionalized staff and management. State law requires an even number of commissioners from each of the two parties earning the most votes serve on the board, each checking the actions of the other. In New York City, the board is balanced with a Democrat and Republican from each borough.

While the bipartisanship was intended as a reform to keep election administration fair over a century ago, many say it has led to the entrenchment of political parties and allows the board to operate as a patronage mill, awarding party loyalty over competence, with little concern for achieving the most inclusive and effective democracy possible. The results are administrative blunders -- failing ballot scanners, purged voter rolls, a lack of interpreters and signage at poll sites -- that can deter and even disenfranchise voters.

When Ryan attends oversight hearings at City Hall and in state hearing rooms he has the opportunity to explain these failures but is not otherwise compelled to fix them.

Partisan, or Non-Partisan, Election Administration
The idea of partisan representation in voting administration as a safeguard to the democratic process is highly disputed. One of the biggest criticisms is that power is concentrated in the hands of too few, and leaves unaffiliated voters, so-called third parties, and even rank-and-file major-party voters without a voice in election administration.

Over one million registered voters in New York City -- about one in five -- are not affiliated with either the Republican or Democratic parties. Statewide, nearly 3.5 million registered voters, roughly a third of the total, are not affiliated with either major party.

“If you’re going to have partisans run elections, then you should account for the actual partisanship of the electorate, which is not limited to the two major parties,” Benjamin noted, adding that he is opposed partisan election administration.

Jessica Thurston, communications director of New Kings Democrats, a reform-focused Democratic club in Brooklyn, believes the problem has less to do with partisanship and more to do with county party leaders controlling appointments. The process, she told Gotham Gazette, should be more inclusive of rank-and-file members with the goal of being “representative of the [Democratic] electorate, in as great a proxy as we can summon.”

There are alternative forms of election administration, but they carry their own risks. Thirty-four states have a single administrator -- often called the secretary of state -- who is either elected, appointed by the governor, or selected by the legislature to run elections, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures website.

“I have never been persuaded that there’s an easy solution to this because...there have been multiple instances of politicized secretary of states’ offices around election administration,” said Alex Camarda, senior policy advisor at the good government group Reinvent Albany.

“In 2000, during the controversial Bush v. Gore election, Katherine Harris was the secretary of state in Florida and her name became infamous with politicization of the recount process,” he added. More recently, then-secretary of state for Georgia, Republican Brian Kemp, was accused of suppressing minority voters leading up to his 2018 election as governor over Democrat Stacey Abrams, who has still refused to formally concede the race.

Patronage
The city Board of Elections is one of a few places where “old style political party control of appointments and resources” -- the type used by party machines to influence voting in the era of Tammany Hall -- still thrives in New York, according to Ester Fuchs of Columbia University, a former Bloomberg administration official. “It’s sort of ironic that it’s concentrated in the Board of Elections, where you want ‘nonpartisanship’ and ‘professionalism’ to be the bywords, not ‘party control.’”

‘Professionalism’ is a common refrain for modern reformers who are wary of a patronage system that rewards party loyalty and connections over qualifications.

“Why is it because you’re a political leader that you can’t pick somebody very competent,” asked Frank Seddio, the leader of the Brooklyn Democratic Party. “Who would decide who those nonpartisan people should be that get hired?”

“What method would he choose?,” he asked of a hypothetical nonpartisan appointment authority.

One solution reformers have proposed is for commissioners and the staff they hire to be professional civil servants like at other city agencies -- subject to competitive hiring and screening by the city -- with the hiring entity also held responsible by other parts of government and the public.

“A lot of times the county election commissioners are the county party chairs, or their wives, or their cousins. So it turns out it’s used as a way for giving financial support to a person who spends most of their time on partisan activities,” according to Gerald Benjamin of SUNY New Paltz.

Some feel the bigger problem is the patronage concentrated in the lower ranks of the elections bureaucracy, like the coordinators and part-time employees needed to certify the voter rolls and manage polling locations in the lead-up to and on election days.

“It’s a patronage mill particularly for the people at the bottom who are probably getting minimum wage or very slightly above,” said Esmeralda Simmons, a veteran election lawyer and founder of the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn.

State law gives Ryan the discretion to hire the staff of the city Board of Elections under the supervision of the commissioners, with deference to the two-party split, which the board interprets as extending throughout the agency’s ranks. The lack of accountability “arises out of a particular portion of the law that gives the board absolute, unreviewable discretion regarding who to hire,” according to Lerner. “Now that’s clearly designed to protect patronage.”

Ryan told Gotham Gazette in 2017 that the BOE, according to state law, cannot question the credentials of workers forwarded by district leaders. “It’s up to the local party’s discretion who they want to designate and it’s not for us to question,” he said.

The hiring procedures based on party affiliation and the low pay means the board is often hiring under-qualified candidates who have limited employment options. “They only got the job because a district leader or the county leader asked for them to be hired, otherwise they never would be there,” according to Simmons.

“It has nothing to do with intelligence, but it does have a lot to do with where you can get a job,” she added.

Experts say the patronage leads to inefficiencies and limits the capacity of the city Board of Elections. “These are not professional civil servants that can be easily removed…[nor is there] any kind of broad based accountability to somebody who is elected, like a mayor or even a member of the City Council,” said Fuchs.

The outcome is a system that is antiquated and resistant to change, she said, and inefficiencies contribute to mishaps in election processes, especially at the polls.

Inefficiencies
At the city Board of Elections operations are largely paper-based, a surprise to many observers who have seen government agencies across the board embrace digital technologies. While acknowledging the importance of paper ballots to protect the integrity of elections against cybersecurity threats, reform advocates have pushed for a process of fully online voter registration.

The State Legislature passed a law earlier this year to allow the use of electronic poll books, rather than cumbersome and limited paper books, which many view as essential to implementing the new early voting process that was also approved.

Another commonly cited problem is that poll workers are overworked and under-trained leading to disorganization and misinformation on election days. Poll workers navigating large poll books by hand is often cited as a contributor to long lines and confusion at poll sites. But there are new concerns about whether poll workers will be trained well enough in the use of electronic books for the new technology to be as effective as intended.

Ryan has asked for, and Council Speaker Johnson and Mayor de Blasio have expressed openness toward, a municipal poll worker program to help recruit the tens of thousands of vetted employees needed to staff poll sites on election days. The program would require a partnership with city agencies and raises collective bargaining questions, which it appears the city has not tackled.

Since the State Legislature passed a series of voting reforms this year, like early voting and voter registration transfers, reformers and administrators alike have been concerned about the board’s capacity to roll these out effectively.

“I don’t think [the Board of Elections is] really trying to adversely impact elections,” said Fuchs. “They can’t roll out the whole thing more efficiently than they are proposing because they don’t have the capacity and they don’t want to let go of control,” she said referring to the BOE’s plan to open just 38 early voting sites despite the city’s offer to fund 100 locations.

For Simmons, it comes down to a “basic question: If the operations don’t work, how are the elections working? They are not...Let’s see how they do with all of these great good government improvements still within the same system.”

There is a feeling among reformers that, if the board is not required to act by law, it will not implement changes to improve the voter experience. Attempts have been made to encourage the city Board of Elections to improve poll worker staffing, increase accessibility, and conduct more comprehensive voter outreach. Mayor de Blasio and the City Council have offered the board significant additional city funding to implement some of these, which it has turned down.

A major issue for advocates is language access. Simmons’ center, along with other groups, has been pushing the Board of Elections to provide non-English materials at poll sites. “The only time the Board of Elections would translate materials is when the Justice Department required them to do it -- this is real, this is still happening -- even if they knew there was a large population that did not speak English,” she said, referring to events within the last decade.

An Agency of the City?
What makes failed attempts for accountability and improvement so frustrating to reformers is that the city Board of Elections appears to be a city agency in many senses, yet it operates largely beyond the influence of the mayor and City Council.

The city funds the board’s budget almost entirely, according to Bernard O’Brien, a senior budget analyst at the Independent Budget Office; and the City Council technically appoints its commissioners (though it doesn’t ‘select’ them). An informal opinion issued by the state attorney general in 1989 determined “the Board is a local agency.”

But boards of elections are ultimately given their authority by state law. “Any powers the city enjoys are really delegated powers,” said Joseph Viteritti, chair of the Urban Policy and Planning Department at Hunter College.

While state law outlines its general format and obligations, it gives considerable authority to localities. The election law is structured so that local laws still apply unless they are explicitly prohibited by the state. There are also provisions of the municipal home rule law that give the city authority to deal with aspects of voting and elections.

For example, lower and appellate courts have upheld the city’s campaign finance law as a valid exercise of the city’s home rule powers, according to Rick Schaffer, chair of the city Campaign Finance Board, which is nonpartisan. (The city campaign finance system is more robust and extensive than the state’s regulations, which were established in the same provision that created the State Board of Elections as an oversight body in 1974.)

The same process that established the city’s campaign finance system -- a charter revision commission -- will place a new voting system known as ranked-choice voting on the ballot this November. If voters approve it, the city charter will be amended and the Board of Elections will have to implement the changes.

Yet, despite the city’s enormous political and fiduciary interest in election administration, many argue city elected officials have limited tools with which to compel action. Short of offering funding in exchange for certain obligations, deputizing the (new) chief democracy officer to work with the board, or empanelling a charter revision commission, the city has few options. “This mayor and this Council I think have done a lot, particularly the mayor, to try to encourage the board [of elections] to perform better,” Camarda of Reinvent Albany told Gotham Gazette.

Not everyone agrees. Some advocates feel that one of those tools -- the city’s budget authority, and the use of binding terms and conditions -- is not being employed effectively to direct the actions of the board. “Other counties use the budget to rein in or prohibit the board from doing unacceptable things. Our city does not,” according to Lerner. “And I think again it’s because of the political nature of the body.”

Ryan’s arrival in City Hall after the general election provided reformers a tiny foothold on which to seek accountability, even from the Council. “If there is a problem, if the Council has passed a law that the Board of Elections is not following, and the Board of Elections refuses to follow it after negotiations and various requests, frankly, the city is going to have to sue because otherwise the law is useless,” Lerner told the Council members assembled.

"What we have is a showgame,” she said in an interview with Gotham Gazette, “where elected officials are more than happy to criticize the board publicly, but are not doing anything effective to rein it in."

[This is part two of a two-part series. Revisit part one here.]

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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New York's Election Administration Accountability Vacuum - Part II: Partisanship, Patronage & Potential Fixes Tue, 10 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
New York Must Pass the 'Rape is Rape' Bill https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8783-new-york-must-pass-the-rape-is-rape-bill https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8783-new-york-must-pass-the-rape-is-rape-bill gov andcuomo doc

(photo: the governor's office)


At the end of August, NBC New York ran a story about a young woman who was raped after going out to a Manhattan bar. Despite the fact that she came forward, wanting justice to be done, the Manhattan District Attorney refused to prosecute the case.

When a reporter questioned his decision not to pursue charges, DA Cyrus Vance’s staff shared a letter he wrote to Governor Andrew Cuomo insisting that he cannot bring forth rape charges in cases in which victims were voluntarily intoxicated. In other words, if you go out in Manhattan, get drunk, and end up being raped, there is nothing the Manhattan DA can do for you.

It’s a disingenuous claim.

The idea that “prosecutors cannot bring sex crime charges in cases where the victim becomes voluntarily intoxicated and was unable to consent” is simply untrue. We know it’s untrue because the Manhattan DA himself brought charges in a similar case: People v. Johnson.

In that case the Manhattan DA secured a Rape 1 indictment where the victim was voluntarily intoxicated. The Appellate Court ultimately vacated the conviction, but only because DA Vance’s office botched the plea deal. 

This is not the first time DA Vance has declined to press charges in a sexual assault investigation, and he’s not the only one with a follow-through problem. Time and time again, law enforcement fails survivors of sexual assault. It’s not a problem unique to DA Vance or New York City but a nationwide “epidemic of disbelief” as Atlantic writer Barbara Bradley Hagerty put it.

Survivors of rape are regularly met with skepticism. Though it’s the police who investigate and DAs who secure convictions, the state Legislature cannot be absolved of responsibility.

Currently, under New York state law, only forced vaginal penetration is considered rape while forced oral and anal contact are labeled criminal sexual acts. Not only is this definition restrictive, it is archaic. There are consequences to this omission: refusing to call rape by its name reduces the perceived severity of the crime.

The Rape is Rape bill (A00794C) would amend the penal code to redefine rape to include forced anal and oral contact, and eliminate the penetration element that is legally necessary to establish that a vaginal rape has occurred.

At first glance, the bill appears an easy sell. Who would disagree that forced anal or oral sex should be considered rape? Equally important is the underlying question. Who would argue that the law shouldn’t recognize that a man has been raped? Well, the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York, for one. The lobbying arm of the state’s DA association has proved a major hindrance to any sort of progressive reform and in 2013, then-DAASNY President Cy Vance wrote to the Assembly opposing the bill on bogus claims that it would reduce penalties for sex crimes. 

A similar reluctance to evolve has pervaded the NYPD’s approach. Up until this year, the NYPD was undercounting rape in New York City by as much as 38%, excluding reports of forced oral and anal contact in its official reporting system despite a state mandate to include these crimes in its statistics. Following the Newsy report, we called on the NYPD to immediately bring its system up to federal standards, and the department did.

While the NYPD works to implement a “victim-centered” approach – a result of a scathing city Department of Investigation inquiry that found the Special Victims Division was undertrained and understaffed – the Legislature must do its part and pass the Rape is Rape bill in January, when the next legislative session begins.

And our work does not end there.

We must also elect District Attorneys who will be thoughtful in their prosecutions of sex crimes and take all rape cases seriously, not just the ones they think they can win.

It is especially important that we have DAs who understand that the Penal Code should not only be used to prosecute crimes, but to inform the public of what is acceptable behavior. When we call a rape—whether it is vaginal, oral, or anal—anything but rape, we delegitimize the crime and invalidate the survivor’s experience.

Perhaps the Me Too movement is the cultural awakening this country needs to take sexual violence seriously. That being said, these cultural changes will not happen overnight and in the meantime, we implore the NYPD, New York’s District Attorneys, and the state Legislature to do better.

Everywhere we look our institutions, designated to protect, serve, and deliver justice, are failing survivors. We must take responsibility for these failures and adopt survivor-centered policies while we work to change society.

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Dan Quart & Aravella Simotas are members of the New York State Assembly representing parts of Manhattan and Queens, respectively. On Twitter @amdanquart & @AravellaSimotas. (Quart is also a candidate for Manhattan District Attorney.)

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

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New York Must Pass the 'Rape is Rape' Bill Mon, 09 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000