Gotham Gazette Mon, 24 Feb 2020 21:09:28 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) After Cuomo Veto, Uncertain Future for Civic Education Fund While State Task Force Moves Ahead regis voter cha

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

In response to several trends, including low voter turnout and civic knowledge, the past few years have seen a sporadic push for stronger civics education in New York and beyond.

In the spring of 2018, New York City launched a ”Civics For All” Initiative, which “provides resources, programming, and professional learning to all NYC schools. The initiative focuses on education models that are interactive, project-based, and relevant to students’ lives,” according to the Department of Education. 

That same year, the New York State Education Department created the Civics Readiness Task Force, composed of 33 members from across the state, in an effort to determine how best to include civics education in school curriculum. According to the task force website, one goal is for students to “demonstrat[e] mastery in civics knowledge and participation in the civics process.” The task force came up with three recommendations, unveiled last month, including to come to a definition for civic readiness.

Meanwhile in Rhode Island students are suing the state board of education for denying them sufficient civics education. The lawyer representing the students said that they have the “constitutional rights to a robust civics education” and that Rhode Island is “failing its students by not instructing them in the values needed to participate in a democratic society,” as reported by the Providence Journal.

New York State Senator Velmanette Montgomery, a Brooklyn Democrat, introduced a bill (S3951) about a year ago, in February 2019, that would establish a civic education fund, money from which would be used by localities to contract with “community-based organizations, non-profits and other non-traditional organizations to implement civic education projects including, but not limited to, mock trials, debate forums, voter registration activities, and projects that demonstrate  an understanding of the connections between federal, state and local politics including issues that may impact the students’ community.”

The bill subsequently passed both the Senate and the Assembly, where its lead sponsor is Democratic Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon of Brooklyn, before it was vetoed by Governor Andrew Cuomo on December 13.

Cuomo’s veto memo explained that because it has a financial component it should be included in the state budget -- the bill had no specification for its fiscal implications, only saying they are “to be determined.” The bill was set to go into effect immediately upon its adoption.

“There is a civic education movement brewing across the country. In response to the recent political divide, rhetoric and lack of civic participation, educators, academics, community institutions, non-profits, and local governments, have banned together to implement civic education for students using a simulation-based approach,” the justification text of the bill reads.

DeNora Getachew, who heads the New York City branch of nonprofit Generation Citizen, which leads civic education programming in schools across the country, says that ensuring young people have the foundation and the skills to become informed voters is essential.

“We don’t put drivers on the street without making them take driver’s ed and actually passing a test, right? Why are we treating this any different?” Gretachew said.

Simon said that she, Montgomery, and others “really feel civics education hasn’t been happening in our schools” and pushing bills like this, that encourage civic learning and engagement, are important to the state’s future.

According to Simon, she and Montgomery are working on a new version of the civic education fund legislation and other bills to help encourage civic participation in New York schools.

Montgomery announced in January that she will not be seeking reelection this year and is retiring after a 35-year career in public service. It’s unclear if she’ll make a push for the civics education fund legislation in her final session, especially before the next state budget is due April 1. Montgomery’s office did not respond to several requests for comment for this story.

What Simon likes about the civic education fund is that it is a simple way to address the problem and provide New Yorkers with greater access to civic education. Money from the civic education fund would go toward local contracting with organizations like Generation Citizen, which currently works through the New York City Department of Education and individual city schools.

Getachew believes that while the fund is a great idea that could help with smaller projects from community organizations, to really teach students civics, a huge investment needs to be made in professional development for teachers. She cited a recent Massachusetts law as a good example of a comprehensive bill that establishes a fund for civic education.

In late 2018, Massachusetts passed the bill, called “an act to promote and enhance civic engagement”, which mandates civic education in schools and establishes a Civics Project Trust Fund to “assist Massachusetts communities with implementing history and civics education state requirements.”

The law says that “in all public schools, history of the United States of America and social science, including civics, shall be taught as required subjects to promote civic service and a greater knowledge thereof and to prepare students, morally and intellectually, for the duties of citizenship.” It mandates that eighth-grade students undertake a civics project that is consistent with the curriculum - in a sense, the law mandates the kind of “action civics” work that organizations like Generation Citizen lead in schools. (Massachusetts is another of the six states where Generation Citizen currently operates. In testimony given on the New York State education budget last week, Generation Citizen said it is working with 6,175 New York students and with educators in 247 classrooms across 70 schools statewide.)

The Massachusetts law includes funding for teachers to learn. “The Department of Elementary and Secondary education shall provide professional development opportunities for educators on the history and social science framework,” it reads.

Massachusetts Education Secretary James Peyser said in a press release, “civics education is about both learning and doing, and effective civic engagement is not simply about advocacy or action, it’s about listening, questioning, respectful dialogue, and compromise.”

This bill, along with Project Soapbox, a public speaking competition, and the Judicially Speaking Program, a Colorado-based initiative that “uses experiential learning to demonstrate the role of the judiciary in the American legal system,” were cited as part of the justification for the establishment of a civic education fund in New York.

Assemblymember Simon said that over the last decade there has been a push to encourage civics education in New York schools and “it’s not going away.” She emphasized that she will continue to push for civic education legislation going forward during this legislative session.

Currently, to graduate, students in New York State are required to get credit for a “participation in government” course. This requirement includes teaching students about current events, and a component of it has to be experiential in nature, according to Getachew.

“The reality is teachers aren't being taught how to teach students that. So what ended up happening in most participation in government classes is the teachers bring in the news and then maybe they invite in a speaker or two and that's it,” Getachew said.

The Civic Readiness Task Force empaneled by the State Education Department is looking to fill the gap in New York. Getachew is also a member of the task force, and said she is proud of the recommendations it just put forth.

They were presented to the New York Board of Regents in January. The first of the task force’s three recommendations is defining civic readiness, meaning clarity of what students should gain out of the work of civic education and engagement, which would then help in the design of that work. Getachew said that by defining civic readiness, New York State can become a “vanguard” for other states to follow.

Second, the task force recommends creating the criteria for a new “Seal of Civic Readiness,” a classification that students can achieve and get credit for on their diploma.

The final recommendation is a capstone project, urging students to explore a topic of their choice. Getachew explained that such an idea is grounded in social studies primarily, but ultimately should be interdisciplinary, allowing schools tol “ensure that all students have the knowledge, the skills, the dispositions, the actions and experiences to participate in democracy long term.”

The task force’s proposed next steps include seeking feedback from stakeholders, creating a manual for relevant professional development, creating the Seal of Civic Readiness, and returning to the Board of Regents for approval in Spring 2020.

The task force also presented two ideas for future action, including creating a statewide survey to collect data on effective civic engagement strategies one year after implementation and exploring criteria for a recognition system for schools that engage in civic readiness.

The task force’s mission statement is to “Encourage students to believe in the power of their own voices and actions. Equip students with the skills and knowledge necessary to engage responsibly in our culturally diverse democracy. Empower students to make informed decisions to enhance our interconnected world.”

by Katie Kirker, Gotham Gazette

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After Cuomo Veto, Uncertain Future for Civic Education Fund While State Task Force Moves Ahead Thu, 20 Feb 2020 05:00:00 +0000
To Protect New Yorkers’ Health, New Patient Protection Laws Must be Enforced doctors health care

(photo: Governor's Office)

When it comes to determining the proper course of care for a serious health issue, decisions should be made by a patient and their health care provider. But too often, health insurers have been undermining providers’ decisions in efforts to cut costs — forcing them to navigate burdensome bureaucratic roadblocks before agreeing to cover prescribed treatments and services. That can result in patients facing delays in care or going untreated altogether.

To address this problem, New York lawmakers recently worked to protect patients by requiring health plans to ensure timely access to care. Unfortunately, new findings suggest that these new requirements are frequently not being met, and it should be the priority of patients, health care providers, and advocates throughout New York to ensure that these new laws are being enforced.

With health care costs continuing to spiral, many health insurers have explored ways to rein in spending. Policies such as prior authorization, which requires health care providers to receive approval from an insurer before prescribing a costly treatment or service, or step therapy, which requires patients to try and fail on alternative, typically older medications before moving on to newer and sometimes costlier treatments, have become widely integrated among health insurance plans in recent years.

However, these policies often end up creating unnecessary burdens by delaying treatment and undermining what practitioners deem to be the most effective course of care. Providers have long complained that prior authorization requests can often take anywhere from a few hours to a few weeks to be approved — or worse yet, denied — leaving patients without necessary care during this lengthy and frustrating process.

In fact, a 2018 survey from the American Medical Association found more than one in four physicians reported that these cumbersome requirements “led to a serious adverse event” for patients under their care.

New York lawmakers took action in recent years to strengthen patient protections, passing a pair of bills that would increase efficiency with prior authorization and grant more timely exceptions to step therapy requests. For example, under the new laws, health insurers must now respond to prior authorization requests in 72 hours for routine care and 24 for urgent situations. Similarly, patients can receive an exception to step therapy protocols if the plan’s required treatment is expected to be ineffective or the patient already tried and failed on the required treatment.

But many providers have come forward to express concerns that health insurers are not abiding by these new requirements. According to a recent survey of New York providers, for example, just 30 percent say that health plans are meeting these approval request times “every time,” and 33 percent say that the paperwork process has not been simplified or see no difference.

Meanwhile, more than 79 percent of providers say that the changes in step therapy laws either have made the process to request an exception more difficult or have not made a difference. Worse, given their frustrations, many providers do not seek to appeal the denial and instead will simply prescribe another medication — which may not be as effective as the originally prescribed treatment.

While health plans are still adjusting to these new regulations, these findings suggest there is significant room for improvement when it comes to increasing access to care. Physicians and patients should go through the appeals process to petition insurers for their treatments and file complaints for egregious behavior. At the same time, lawmakers and regulatory agencies can take a more proactive approach to ensuring that these policies are being enforced appropriately, including collecting data from insurers to measure compliance.

The passage of these bills was a landmark moment for patients, providers, and advocates throughout New York in guaranteeing better access to health care. Now, they must make their voices heard to state lawmakers and regulators in order to ensure that they are able to realize the promise that these bills once held.

Stacey Worthy is a staff attorney for Aimed Alliance, a non-profit health policy organization that seeks to protect and enhance the rights of health care consumers and providers.

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To Protect New Yorkers’ Health, New Patient Protection Laws Must be Enforced Thu, 20 Feb 2020 05:00:00 +0000
'Urgent' Bill to Enhance Census Language Translation Services Approved by Senate, Awaits Assembly Counterpart salazar census rally

State Senator Julia Salazar at a Census rally

The U.S. Census Bureau will soon kick off the 2020 Census count by sending mail to households to inform them about filling out a questionnaire that lists their names, where they live and how many people live with them, their race and ethnicity, and other information. Self-response to the Census yields the most accurate information about households and given that New Yorkers speak more than 200 languages, Brooklyn State Senator Julia Salazar wants to take steps to ensure that as many people are guided toward participation in the most effective way possible.

The Senate recently passed a bill sponsored by Salazar, a Democrat, that would direct the New York Department of State to expand access to translation services to state agencies and institutions that interact with the public.

This year, the Census will largely be carried out through digital methodology, with the Census Bureau encouraging people to fill out the questionnaire online. That is expected to pose a particular challenge in communities that lack access to high-speed internet and among those with a limited ability to navigate an online form. The Census Bureau will provide translation through print and video guides for 59 non-English languages, which fails to capture the linguistic diversity of New York’s population, home to many hard-to-count communities of immigrants and people who either cannot speak English or have limited English proficiency, among others where response rates are often especially low.

Salazar’s bill would extend the state resources to localities, mandating that the Department of State identify translation services and make them available to state agencies and municipalities. The department would have to make best efforts to publicize the services, through online notices and in collaboration with organizations that work with limited or non-proficient English speakers, and it would also have to submit a report on its efforts next year.

Separate from state government, New York City officials have taken steps to ensure their own outreach effort is robust, providing $19 million in grants to community-based organizations, many of which work with immigrants on the ground on a day-to-day basis. It’s an effort to ensure that the city surpasses it’s self-response rate of 62% in the last Census (which was 14 percentage points below the national average at the time). Another $3 million in city funds is going to advertising in community and ethnic media to reach the widest possible audience in the city.

The state’s efforts, on the other hand, have been fairly lethargic. Governor Andrew Cuomo has pledged a roughly $70-million effort, of which about $20 million is for direct grants to organizations viewed as “trusted voices” that can conduct outreach in hard-to-count communities with a low-self response rate. The grants have yet to be awarded, and the rest of the funding is chalked up to the value of yet-to-be-seen operational plans for state agencies to contribute to ensuring a complete count. It’s unclear what, if any, of the funding is earmarked for a multilingual media campaign.

Salazar’s bill would fill in some of the apparent gaps, though it does not seem to have a companion bill in the Assembly and time is of the essence given the count officially begins April 1. Salazar seems hopeful, however, that the issue will be taken up quickly in the other chamber, particularly since Cuomo backs it, she said. “The prospect is that Assembly will move it quickly since it’s urgent, non-controversial, and has the Governor’s support,” Salazar said, in a statement through a spokesperson.

In her remarks on the Senate floor when the bill was passed, Salazar spoke of the “urgency” of ensuring that the Census is accessible. “All of us should be concerned about potentially losing congressional seats in our state but especially those of us whose communities are already underrepresented,” she said. “The action we’re taking today is necessary, given that over 113,000 New Yorkers speak a language at home that the Census Bureau does not provide language support for. Today, we’re choosing to do everything we responsibly can to count those people and to count nearly a quarter of all New Yorkers who did not respond to the last census in 2010.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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'Urgent' Bill to Enhance Census Language Translation Services Approved by Senate, Awaits Assembly Counterpart Mon, 17 Feb 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Bill Allowing Online Voter Registration in New York City Moves in State Senate, Stalls in Assembly bill online voter

State Senator Myrie, middle, is pushing his online voter registration bill (photo: @SenatorMyrie)

Last year, the New York City Board of Elections hobbled a City Council effort to create an online voter registration portal for city residents, claiming it conflicted with state law. But the state Legislature may take steps to correct that situation this year by clarifying the law and allowing an online portal that would act as a test case for a statewide system slated to launch next year.

The New York City Council passed a bill, sponsored by Council Member Ben Kallos, in late 2017 that mandated that the Campaign Finance Board build an online portal to expand access to voter registration. Currently, the state only allows online registration through the Department of Motor Vehicles website and requires an official DMV driver’s license, permit, or non-driver ID. This effectively shuts out many New York City residents who rely on mass transit and do not have a DMV-issued document.

The CFB created the portal and was ready to launch it in June of last year. It would have allowed residents to fill out the form online, with an electronic signature, and the CFB would then transmit the information to the City Board of Elections for processing. But a week before the site was to go live, the BOE added an additional hurdle that essentially negated the purpose of the portal – commissioners voted that, after receiving a form from the CFB, the BOE would mail the form to the potential voter, who would then have to return it with their physical signature. The process would have been slower than mailing in a registration form.

At the time, the State Board of Elections’ Democratic and Republican commissioners had contradictory positions on whether signatures collected electronically would be acceptable under state law, even though a legal opinion from the state attorney general’s office had already put that question to bed in 2016. This year, legislation sponsored by Brooklyn State Senator Zellnor Myrie, chair of the Senate’s elections committee, and Bronx Assemblymember Michael Blake seeks to clarify state law and give the city the necessary authorization to begin collecting registration forms electronically.

The law would go into effect immediately and would be repealed 90 days after a statewide registration system becomes operational. The registration deadline for this year’s April 28 presidential primary is April 3. The deadline to register for the June 23 state and congressional primary is May 29, and the deadline to register for the November 3 general election is October 9.

“An online voter registration system that all New Yorkers can access is long overdue,” said Amy Loprest, executive director of the CFB, in a statement. “This legislation will make it easier for millions of city voters to register and vote in this critical election year.”

Though the bill has not moved in the Assembly, it was passed by Myrie’s Senate committee last month and he is hoping to see it approved by the full Senate and Assembly as soon as possible. “Time is of the essence,” he said in a phone interview, stressing the importance of launching the portal in a presidential election year when turnout is massive, with this year’s expected to be even moreso. “It allows for the state to see how this system rolls out.”

Neither Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie’s nor Assemblymember Blake’s office provided comment on the status of the bill in their chamber.

A trial of online voter registration by New York City would help inform the state’s effort, Myrie noted. Last year’s state budget included legislation that ordered the state BOE to create an online voter registration system for the entire state by January 2021. Once that system takes effect, it will supersede the city’s.

“As we have seen the national discussion hit a fever pitch, there will be many folks interested in registering and getting engaged in their democracy and we want to make that as easy for them as possible,” Myrie said.

He pointed out that it will require few resources and would barely be a burden for the Board of Elections. “This is not a labor-intensive endeavor,” Myrie said. “This is a system that has already been built, that has already been designed. Let's give the city the authorization to have it up and running. And then we can see whether or not the state should adopt it as a model statewide.”

Myrie seems to have the support of Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins. "We are committed to making it easier for eligible New Yorkers to vote, that is why this session we built upon the historic voting reforms of last year by making improvements to early voting and passing automatic voting registration. We look forward to reviewing this bill as a Conference to ensure it works as intended,” said Senate Majority spokesperson Mike Murphy, in a statement.

Mayor Bill de Blasio is also a supporter of the online voter registration effort and was critical last year of how the BOE meddled in it. “The City Board of Elections should allow the CFB’s online voter registration system to roll out immediately, so thousands of New York voters can register this year for the critically important 2020 elections,” said Luis Feliz Leon, a spokesperson for DemocracyNYC, the office the mayor launched to improve voter participation in the city, among other things. “The Administration appreciates that the Legislature is taking a close look at this issue.”

BOE spokesperson Valerie Vazquez said in a text message, “No comment on pending legislation.”

“New York City’s online voter registration system is ready to go for all the people who are inspired to vote in the presidential election and the coming primaries,” said Council Member Kallos, in a brief phone interview. “Thank you to State Senator Zellnor Myrie for getting this done in the Senate and we’re looking to the Assembly to get it done and the governor to sign it in time to enfranchise a whole generation of voters in time for the presidential election.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Bill Allowing Online Voter Registration in New York City Moves in State Senate, Stalls in Assembly Wed, 12 Feb 2020 05:00:00 +0000
In Albany, De Blasio Enlists Legislators' Help to Fight Cuomo Budget Proposals budget hearing jfc

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

Mayor Bill de Blasio made his annual trip to Albany on Monday to testify before the state Legislature on Governor Andrew Cuomo’s executive budget proposal, which is $178 billion for the 2021 fiscal year, and urged lawmakers to help prevent what he called nearly $1.4 billion in potential funding “cuts” to the city that could result largely from a proposed overhaul of the state Medicaid program.

Testifying before the joint fiscal committees of the State Senate and Assembly over the course of two-and-a-half hours, the mayor issued dire warnings about how Cuomo’s budget proposal would affect New York City and fielded pressing questions from lawmakers about a range of issues including the city’s special education services and property tax system, the impact of recent criminal justice reforms, and more. Facing two Democrat-controlled chambers, it was a mostly friendly reception for the mayor and there were few areas of disagreement with lawmakers.

Naturally, the issue at the center of the mayor’s testimony was the governor’s proposed Medicaid overhaul. “The cuts in this year's executive budget are of a magnitude we have never seen before,” de Blasio said. “These cuts would be nothing less than devastating for everyday New Yorkers.”

In reality, de Blasio’s $1.4 billion in threatened state “cuts” to the city is a combination of cost-shifts, less-than-expected funding increases, and actual programmatic aid cuts. And within that number is a disagreement between the de Blasio and Cuomo administrations about how to quantify the potential fiscal risk to the city from the governor’s Medicaid proposal, which the governor’s office says is far less than the mayor’s is asserting, even if fully realized. Like all of the executive budget, the details will be the subject of negotiation between the governor and the Legislature ahead of the April 1 deadline for the new state fiscal year.

With the state confronting a $6.1 billion budget gap, mostly from rising Medicaid spending, the governor this year is seeking to implement drastic changes to how the state assumes the cost of Medicaid for municipalities. He reconvened a Medicaid Redesign Team to find $2.5 billion in savings and also proposed that localities that exceed a 2% property tax cap (which doesn’t apply in New York City) and where Medicaid spending grows past 3% annually must pay for the entire cost above that growth rate. For the city, where the Medicaid growth rate was about 7% last year, that would mean a $1.1 billion cost increase over the $5 billion the city already spends annually, according to the de Blasio administration (according to the governor’s office, the full liability for the city is only $221 million).

De Blasio sought to drive home the negative consequences of that move, noting that the proposals this year alone would eclipse the cumulative $1 billion in cuts, cost-shifts and unfunded mandates that the city has absorbed from the state in the last six years. “We need your help more than ever before,” he pleaded to legislators, worried that if the MRT does not find the requisite savings, it could translate to further cost-shifts and outlining for lawmakers what some of the projected impacts could be, from closed health care facilities to reduced public hospital system staff.

Additionally, he said the state budget proposal leaves the city with shortfalls of $136 million in school aid from the city’s expected increase and $100 million over two years through a 5% cut to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (which was already cut by 10% last year). “These cuts year after year are adding up and are going to take away our basic capacity to serve people,” he said.

The governor's office sought to later refute the mayor's testimony point by point. Freeman Klopott, a spokesperson for the Division of Budget, said in an email that over the years, local Medicaid costs taken on by the state and school aid sent to the city totalled about $27.8 billion in additional support, rather than a $1 billion cumulative cut as the mayor claimed. He also noted that the proposed budget increases school aid to the city by $224.4 million and that there is no cut to the TANF program (the state will pay 85% of the program and the city will pay 15%). 

“The mayor used his time on the soapbox to misinform the public about our Medicaid reforms," said Robert Mujica, state budget director, in a statement. He said the MRT "will bring spending in line with targeted growth while ensuring 6 million New Yorkers maintain the same high-quality care they have now. The Mayor’s solution to raise taxes and increase spending without any accountability is a recipe for fiscal instability and inefficiency in a program charged with caring for the most vulnerable among us, and that’s unacceptable. Also, he claimed he hasn’t raised property taxes – and no New Yorker believes that one."

De Blasio however painted a grim portrait of the results of the city having to take on another $1.4 billion in spending – it would not only jeopardize New York City Health+Hospitals, the public hospital system that the administration pulled back from the verge of bankruptcy, but would also necessitate broader cuts to services the city provides. “This would literally set us back years,” he said.

The city would have to consider the closure of 19 neighborhood clinics that serve 140,000 city residents and lay-offs for 1,300 doctors and nurses; they may have to eliminate both the Summer youth Employment Program which enrolls 70,000 young people and the COMPASS after-school program which serves 120,000 students. What de Blasio did not acknowledge is that the city’s own fiscal picture, with flush coffers even as the mayor has drastically increased city spending during his tenure, would likely allow it to make up for even the worst-case scenario, though potentially exhausting a good chunk of the city’s surplus and fairly robust reserves. The mayor has insisted that the city needs to keep those reserves at significant levels to be prepared for an economic recession or unexpected catastrophe, not to help the state balance its books.

De Blasio particularly pushed back against Cuomo’s suggestion that the growing Medicaid costs are because localities lack the incentive to find savings – the governor called it “blank check syndrome” in his budget presentation – as the mayor noted that the state controls the program while localities simply act as “enrollment agents” for Medicaid. “The state of New York sets the rules. The state of New York sets the rates,” de Blasio said, while stressing that the city is ready to work with the state to identify any efficiencies possible.

The mayor proposed three solutions. He called on the MRT to work with localities to find savings (the mayor said the city had identified as much as $260 million in basic efficiencies, building on $180 million that the city has already saved the Medicaid program over three years). Notably, the governor did not include any city representatives on the MRT. De Blasio also said the state should revise the “artificial restraint” of the Medicaid Global Cap that sets limits on how much spending on the program can increase; and he pushed for increasing taxes on the wealthy to raise revenue rather than risk cutting health care services or Medicaid enrollment.

Legislators all seemed to agree with the mayor that the governor’s Medicaid proposal would either bankrupt localities or severely curtail services and lead to New Yorkers losing their healthcare.

The mayor did have some praise for the governor’s budget proposal, welcoming legislation on legalizing e-bikes and e-scooters, and recreational adult-use of marijuana, though he called for a dual licensing structure that would give the city some control over the system and for a greater degree of “economic justice,” which has been the source of some challenges in negotiations among Cuomo and the Legislature.

The hearing was, of course, also an opportunity for the mayor to ask the Legislature to fund various initiatives and to pursue non-budgetary policy goals. Hat in hand, he quickly ran through a list of requests.

He asked for more funding to fight homelessness and called for the passage of the Home Stability Support bill that would increase the value of rental vouchers for low-income residents and would keep about 25,000 people in their homes, he said. He pushed for more transparency in the MTA’s $51.5 billion 2020-2024 capital plan, which calls for a $3 billion contribution from the city that de Blasio has yet to agree to. He pointed out that $2.5 billion already sent to the MTA from the city under the previous capital plan had yet to be spent and that the agency has completed only 30% – 380 out of nearly 1,300 – of the projects approved in 2015.

As he continues to try to restore and rehabilitate the crumbling housing stock of the New York City Housing Authority, he asked the state to pitch in another $2 billion.

The mayor also raised several proposals that he unveiled in his State of the City speech last week. He called for authorization to levy a storefront vacancy tax and pushed the Legislature to start considering the preliminary recommendations of a city commission on property tax reform (the mayor praised those recommendations and said that after more public dialogue a final set will be available soon). He also pushed for the passage of new renter-friendly legislation including universal renter protection for the 2.5 million New Yorkers who live in non-regulated apartments and measures to regulate security deposits.

De Blasio also repeatedly aired his concerns about reforming the state’s bail reform law that went into effect this year. The mayor has said the law should give judges more discretion to assess the potential dangerousness of a defendant before deciding whether to set bail. He ascribed a recent uptick in crime last month in part to the effects of the bail reforms, though such a direct relationship isn’t matched by evidence. While that concern was shared by some legislators, Senator Robert Jackson, a Manhattan Democrat, implored the mayor to be more patient, noting that it has been less than a month-and-a-half since the reforms became effective. “Give it a chance to work. That’s what I’m asking,” Jackson said. De Blasio said that the good effects of the law would remain under his proposal for change, though critics say adding judicial discretion would lead to many more defendants, mostly people of color, being locked up pre-trial.

The mayor did have to defend his administration on certain fronts. Senators Jackson and Simcha Felder, a Brooklyn Democrat, pushed him to explain the city’s apparent failure to provide sufficient services for students with special needs.

Senator Diane Savino, a Staten Island Democrat, tried to dissuade him from pursuing a vacancy tax that she said would be burdensome on small businesses that are already struggling with the city’s regulatory framework. “Instead of looking for a culprit, perhaps we should have a more holistic approach,” she said.

The mayor emphasized though that his approach is not meant to be punitive. He reiterated the many proposals in his State of the City aimed at helping small businesses, including committing a $500 million investment in local businesses from the city pension fund, continuing to reduce fines, and providing low-interest loans and free legal assistance.

Assemblymember Robert Carroll, a Brooklyn Democrat, urged de Blasio to significantly expand screenings and programming for dyslexic youth, saying that such efforts would have a major impact on student reading and overall progress. De Blasio said he would look more closely at the issue.

Some of the lawmakers were dubious of the recent property tax commission’s preliminary recommendations, which are meant to reduce various inequities in the current system.

Assemblymember Nicole Malliotakis, a Staten Island Republican, urged the mayor to impose a 2% property tax cap, which is in place everywhere outside the city, while the commission completes its work. Senator James Gaughran also asked the mayor to consider keeping within the cap as a means to control Medicaid spending similar to other localities. As he has done each year, de Blasio said that such a cap is not in the city’s plans or interests.

“The recommendations sound great but I don’t know how workable they are,” said Senator John Liu, a Queens Democrat. Assemblymember Tremaine Wright, a Brooklyn Democrat, expressed similar reservations, specifically citing concerns about the bills that many homeowners of color in neighborhoods that have rapidly gentrified may have to pay under a new system.

Emphasizing that the commission’s proposals are only preliminary, de Blasio said he would take their feedback into consideration as the process moves ahead, adding, “We’re trying to come up with something that will address the reality of the whole city.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Note - This article has been updated with comment from State Division of Budget director Robert Mujica. 

In Albany, De Blasio Enlists Legislators' Help to Fight Cuomo Budget Proposals Mon, 10 Feb 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Time for Public Power for New York crowds gather witness

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

New York’s Public Service Commission recently approved another rate hike for Con Edison, as it does every three years. This hike will increase electric rates by 13% and gas rates by 22% over the next three years.

Con Edison won. Like always, it requested and was granted its rate hike. It doesn't matter that New Yorkers already pay the second highest municipal rates in the country. Nor the $200 million for new fossil-fuel infrastructure baked into Con Ed's request. Despite this, state regulators are once again allowing them to increase rates and their return on investment. The regulators ignored that Con Edison has been absolutely disastrous for New Yorkers.

Last year, hundreds of thousands experienced blackouts, brownouts, and shutoffs. Some of these happened on the hottest days of the year. And they mostly happened because Con Ed hasn't done routine grid maintenance. But when you are an unaccountable monopoly, profits to your shareholders will always win out over safety and health.

The reason Con Ed is so profitable is simple, we allow them to be. It cannot fail financially because it is a privately-owned monopoly providing an essential service: energy. For this, state regulators don't care if projects complement or harm New York's goals of reducing our carbon footprint. To regulators, there is no difference between a solar farm or a new fracked gas pipeline. For Con Ed, new fracked gas pipelines are easier and cheaper to connect to the existing grid, so with their contractually guaranteed return, they choose and advocate for a gas pipeline over a microgrid every time. In this rate case Con Ed did just that!

And don't get us started on the coercive actions of National Grid, whose self-imposed gas moratorium hurt thousands of New Yorkers. This phony crisis was all an attempt to bully New York into approving another dirty fracked natural gas pipeline. Luckily, National Grid lost, but it is still asking for a rate increase of over 17% this year.

The science tells us that we have a decade to shift from a fossil-fuel based economy to one of renewables. That won't happen with Con Ed or National Grid. Only one PSC Commissioner, Tracey Edwards, had the courage to break the insane cycle of ever- increasing rate hikes coming at the expense of the environment. In voting against this increase she said, "I can't support it because I want to just push us [the state] further and further to go faster and faster [toward renewable energy].” She's right. Con Ed and National Grid have proven that they will not get us there. They have proven that profits and shareholders come before our environment and ratepayers. 

That is why there is only one thing for New York to do: make our utilities and electric generation publicly owned, 100% renewable, and democratically controlled.

First, New York should invest in the necessary energy generation to make all state-owned properties 100% renewable by 2025.

Second, turbocharge renewable energy production by allowing the New York Power Authority to own renewable energy production. With our current for-profit model, New York generates only 5% of our energy from wind and solar. To meet the state's codified climate goals, and to face environmental realities we need to do much better. Direct investment and ownership of renewable energy production is the only way to make a meaningful change. 

Finally, consolidate the privately-owned downstate utilities into the Downstate Power Authority, a democratically-controlled and publicly-owned utility.

This publicly-owned distribution utility will provide rates cheaper than what we pay now, while having democratic oversight. With this, we will finally have a distribution utility run for and by the rate-payers.

If we do these three things we will transform our energy system into one that recognizes the scale of the environmental crisis we face. We know our current utilities have no interest in being part of this transition. That is why we have introduced three bills that will give power to the people by bringing Public Power to New York.

Robert Carroll represents the 44th Assembly District in the New York State Assembly. Aaron Eisenberg is a climate activist with the NYC Democratic Socialists of America. On Twitter @Bobby4Brooklyn & @ae53 of @nycdsa_climate.

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

Time for Public Power for New York Sun, 26 Jan 2020 05:00:00 +0000
After Court Rulings, Unclear Future for Push to Restrict State Legislators' Outside Income Cuomo legislative leaders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neither the office of Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie nor the office of Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins responded to multiple requests for comment for this article. It's unclear if either majority chamber has any appetite for taking on additional legislative pay increases and/or a cap on outside income.

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

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

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

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

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

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been updated to reflect that neither Heastie's nor Stewart-Cousins' office responded to requests for comment.

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

(photo: Don Pollard/Office of the Governor)

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

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

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

On Tuesday, January 21, Cuomo released his executive budget proposal for the 2021 fiscal year, which included proposed legislation to create the Digital Marketplace Worker Classification Task Force, charged with recommending measures to regulate the gig economy. It would cover everything regarding “wages, classification, employment criteria, safety and health regulations, collective bargaining, and anti-discrimination protections for on-demand workers.” The task force would be comprised of nine members, seven appointed by the governor and one each by Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note - this article has been updated with details from Governor Cuomo's executive budget proposal, which includes a task force on gig economy regulations. 

With Cuomo Promising Gig Economy Regulations, New York Leaders Consider Pros and Cons of California Model Mon, 20 Jan 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Cuomo Proposes $178 Billion Budget, Closing $6.1 Billion Gap and Funding Top Priorities gov cuomo albany fy21 exec budget

(photo: Darren McGee/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo)

Governor Andrew Cuomo released his 2021 executive budget proposal in Albany on Tuesday, presenting an $178 billion spending plan for the next fiscal year, including $105.8 billion in state operational spending, a 1.9% increase over the current year, according to the governor’s budget documents.

The governor proposed significant reforms to quickly-increasing state Medicaid spending and a radical rethinking of education aid to localities, the two largest parts of the budget that he’s forecasting will nonetheless grow at 3% each this year.

Cuomo’s budget plan closes a daunting $6.1 billion projected budget gap through several broad measures: a still-vague plan to slice projected Medicaid spending by billions, a far lower increase in education aid than is sought by many officials and advocates, and holding other state operational spending growth to typically low levels. But it still accounts for ongoing and increased spending for a wide variety of the governor’s priorities, from economic development to infrastructure, housing and homelessness to child care.

The governor promoted tax cuts for the middle class that are continuing to go into effect and proposed a new tax cut for small businesses. And he spoke of his top line priorities including legalization of adult use of marijuana and gestational surrogacy, passing the Equal Rights Amendment, and reforming the state’s bail reform laws, among other items.

“All of this done, there's no gimmicks, there's no new casino revenue, there's no major fee increase, there are no new revenues,” he said. “This is not the time to come up with creative, although irresponsible, revenue sources to solve a problem which doesn't really exist.” Though there are indeed no new fee increases, the governor’s budget proposes extending fees on oil and gas wells and other facilities, which was due to expire March 31, though the 2024 fiscal year. He also proposed imposing a Certificate of Need fee on hospital construction projects, projected to bring in $70 million, and creating a new Motion Picture Theater alcohol permit. Altogether, Cuomo’s budget document shows a net $51 million increase in revenue from those and other actions.

“You can be a progressive and you can be fiscally sound, and that's exactly what this budget does,” Cuomo said. His proposal sets the stage for negotiations with the Legislature over the next few months. Both the State Senate and Assembly will release their own one-house budget resolutions that detail each chamber’s budget and policy priorities. The three sides have just over two months to come to an agreement before the April 1 start of the 2021 fiscal year.

The governor has delivered nine budgets that have been on time or close to it since he has been in office, a marked sea change from the period before his tenure. But this year presented him with the second-largest budget gap he has ever faced, after his first year when he closed a whopping $10 billion hole through major cuts to school aid and a redesign of the state Medicaid program.

In total, Cuomo is projecting Medicaid spending to grow to about $20 billion in the 2021 fiscal year, up from $19.4 billion this year, a 3% increase. Education aid is also expected to increase at the same rate, to $28.5 billion, an increase of $826 million, far below the state Board of Regent’s request of $2 billion. Executive agencies are expected to increase spending by only $100 million.

The $6.1 billion projected hole for next fiscal year, which Cuomo alternately raised alarms about and downplayed as very manageable, owed largely to an uptick in Medicaid costs, prompting the governor to reinstitute the Medicaid Redesign Team that he formed in 2011.

Cuomo announced Tuesday that he is tasking the “MRT II” with finding $2.5 billion in savings, and imposed several mandates that would, he said, protect localities from adverse impacts while making them more responsible for Medicaid spending. Under his proposal, localities will have to absorb any cost increases beyond 3% annual growth and those that fall below that threshold would receive 25% of the “savings.”

Another $2 billion to fill the budget gap came from higher-than-expected tax receipts, while the budget also reduces projected spending on assistance to localities by $1.78 billion. Agency operations saw a $359 million reduction in spending from the original forecast and $252 million came from other savings and spending revisions.

“The Executive budget tackles some tough issues but we need to more closely examine the specifics and the broader impact of these proposals,” said State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, in a statement, citing the challenge in finding Medicaid savings. “The best way to get the state back on solid financial footing is with recurring actions and higher reserves that will better position the state for when the economic downturn in the cycle arrives.”

Bemoaning the disparities in education spending between the richest and poorest schools, which spend $36,000 and $13,000 on average, respectively, per pupil, according to Cuomo, the governor proposed scrapping the current Foundation Aid formula that determines how a lot of school aid is distributed. Instead, he proposed sending about 85% of the $826 million increase in foundation aid to the poorest schools across the state.

“The current formula is designed to achieve political needs, not equity,” he said, insisting that the formula is not progressive and must be recrafted. The exact details of Cuomo’s long-term restructuring of education aid are yet to be seen, but the assertions for both this year and beyond could set up one of the most significant areas of debate between the governor and legislators.

Cuomo is also proposing a $257 million increase, about 3.4%, in higher education aid, while calling for an expansion of his Excelsior Scholarship program to provide tuition-free public college to middle-class students.

New York State GOP Chair Nick Langworthy had harsh words for the governor’s budget proposal. “Andrew Cuomo has run New York’s budget into the red to the tune of at least $6 billion, but all we heard from him was dishonest rhetoric, obfuscation, and his fuzzy Albany math,” he said in a statement, calling the governor’s time in office a “colossal economic failure.”

There were progressive critiques of the governor as well, including from Sochie Nnaemeka, state director of the New York Working Families Party, who noted that the governor does not support increasing taxes on the wealthy to fund housing, education and healthcare. “With this budget, Governor Cuomo has again shown that he cares more about the bank accounts of the wealthiest New Yorkers than the basic well-being of working New Yorkers,” she said in a statement.

In his speech, Cuomo largely reiterated many proposals he advanced in his State of the State speech earlier this month, many of which call for major investments in the state’s capital program that funds long-term infrastructure projects, as well as continuing investments in programs that are already underway. Notably, though he spoke of legalizing adult use of marijuana, he did not address the revenue implications of doing so. "Legalize adult use cannabis," Cuomo said. "I believe it is best done in the budget. I said that last year. I believe the budget is the opportunity, frankly, to make some tough decisions and work through tough issues. That without the budget, can often languish, and I suggest that we get it done in the budget."

After not mentioning changing the bail reform laws passed last year, which have become the source of significant debate and controversy, during his State of the State speech, Cuomo briefly addressed the high-profile issue in his budget presentation. "Bail laws," Cuomo said. "Reform is an ongoing process, it's not that you reform a system once and then you walk away. You make a change in the system. It has consequences and you have to understand those consequences. We need to respond to the facts but not the politics. And we need to act on information and not hyperbole. Let's understand the facts, understand the consequences discuss it intelligently, rationally and in a soluble way and then let's make the decisions that we need to make, and we will do that as we move forward over these coming weeks."

While Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins has indicated a similar openness to altering bail reform, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie has said the law, which only went into effect January 1 of this year, needs more time to be implemented and that he has no appetite to revisit the changes at this time.

Cuomo yet again brought up protections for gig economy workers, and his budget proposal includes a bill to establish a Digital Marketplace Worker Classification Task Force that would provide recommendations on how to approach new regulations related to "wages, classification, employment criteria, safety and health regulations, collective bargaining, and anti-discrimination protections for on-demand workers." The nine member task force of mostly gubernatorial appointees would have to submit its proposals by May 1. 

[Read: With Cuomo Promising Gig Economy Regulations, New York Leaders Consider Pros and Cons of California Model]

Cuomo proposed a $10 million increase in funding for outreach efforts for the 2020 Census, building on a $20 million allocation last year and an announcement that another $40 million in state resources would be redirected towards the undertaking.

He cited a $33 billion five-year plan to tackle climate change, including a $3 billion Restore Mother Nature Bond Act that he wants to put before voters this fall, with another $740 million in additional state funding. About $28 billion is set aside for renewable energy projects while $1.5 billion is pegged for carbon-free transportation alternatives. It is not immediately clear how much of this or other monies Cuomo discussed is cumulative including prior allocations or new only to the next budget.

Cuomo added another $25 billion for state infrastructure projects, bringing his regularly-updated long-term plan to $275 billion overall. He allocated another annual commitment of $750 million to the Regional Economic Development Councils, which he credits for decreasing the upstate unemployment rate, but critics have questioned for their effectiveness and efficiency in creating either short-term jobs or long-term economic sustainability in distressed areas of the state.

Cuomo also proposed a $133 million allocation, which he called “the most funding ever to provide supportive housing and services primarily to the mentally ill.” That includes $128 million for the Homeless Housing Assistance Program (up from $64 million currently) and $5 million to house homeless veterans.

To combat child poverty, the governor proposed expanding the Empire State Child Tax Credit at a cost of $157 million in 2021. That expansion would provide an average of $400 to about 400,000 working families with children under the age of four, he said.

The governor also spoke of a spate of proposals that will not have a budget impact but that he has made his top priorities in the legislative session including new gun control measures, a ban on flavored vaping products, legalizing e-scooters and e-bikes, and passing a new domestic terrorism law that is one piece of his response to an increase in hate crimes.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Note - this article has been updated with details about the governor's proposal regarding gig economy legislation.  

Cuomo Proposes $178 Billion Budget, Closing $6.1 Billion Gap and Funding Top Priorities Tue, 21 Jan 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Cuomo's Missing Ethics Agenda Cuomo corruption ethics

Cuomo in 2013 (photo: Governor's Office)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

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

Cuomo's Missing Ethics Agenda Tue, 14 Jan 2020 05:00:00 +0000