Gotham Gazette Sat, 04 Apr 2020 08:48:21 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Bail Reform Rollbacks are a Dangerous Failing of Moral Courage 3 albany ltgov duffy grad

State lawmakers wrongly bowed to law enforcement pressure on bail reform, the author writes (photo: governor's office)

Predictably, and disappointingly, the New York State Legislature rolled back last year’s historic and hard fought bail reforms at the eleventh hour. It was an act of cruelty after providing our communities the briefest of reprieves following the historic enactment of bail reform just three months ago, on January 1.

Less than two minutes of floor debate allowed racists and prison profiteers to win in their crusade to diminish the reforms, condemning thousands more black, brown, and poor New Yorkers to our broken system of mass incarceration. While the debate was over quickly, the consequences will be felt for generations.

The changes decrease public safety and increase New York’s role in mass incarceration. More misdemeanors are back on the books as eligible for money bail, as are several non-violent felonies like grand larceny in the first degree and criminal possession of a controlled substance in the first degree. In practice, the law blames poor people for the conditions our governments impose on them, allowing factors like lack of stable housing and employment to increase the likelihood of destabilization, arrest, and pretrial detention.

District Attorneys will almost certainly exploit the expansion of bail eligible cases, maximizing their ability to jail the poor pre-trial by upcharging and overcharging incidents as hate crimes or domestic violence. Worse, the rollbacks will result in at minimum hundreds, possibly thousands, more to be incarcerated — possibly preventing the supposedly imminent closure of the Rikers Island jails.

From the moment the clock struck midnight on January 1 and New York’s bail reforms went into effect, critics of the changes and defenders of the status quo went on the attack, determined to undo key measures of justice. They painted a false picture of chaos and anarchy throughout the state, perpetuating the assumption that not forcing legally innocent poor people to remain in jail would make our communities unsafe.

The myth that bail reform would lead to lawless anarchy was absurdly false, but effective at creating a bogeyman. The reality is the now-rolled back bail laws worked. For every cherry-picked, misrepresented case in the media, thousands of black, brown, and poor people were being released pending trial like their wealthy, white counterparts had been for so long. They returned to court, and rates of violent crime did not increase. Lives were saved. Families were spared the intergenerational violence and trauma of incarceration. Housing and jobs were kept. Communities are safer because people with mental health and substance use issues had opportunities for treatment, instead of suffering the cruel, dual punishments of inadequate healthcare while locked in a jail cell.

If the opposition’s aim was merely to create safe and healthy communities, they would be working alongside criminal justice reform advocates to expand public health interventions, affordable housing, education and community-based programs. Opponents of bail reform had a different aim than public safety. Their goal is to reclaim more control over the justice system that remains filled with black, brown and poor New Yorkers. This twisted investment in systemic racism and addiction to punishment comes at the cost of real human lives.

There are legislators who will look at this archaic return to yesteryear and try to tell you the rollbacks aren’t as bad as it could’ve been. That they saved us from “dangerousness” being added to the books, but we know better. One missing tool in a toolbox of oppressive measures isn’t enough to stop a system that is swallowing entire communities whole.

Do not be fooled. There are no heroes here. Any call that these changes are minor is an act of deceit. When taken from the state Capitol building and brought into our criminal courtrooms, the increase in incarceration will be anything but minor.

What is happening here in New York isn’t new. When slavery was abolished, racists adapted and we were met with the Black Codes and convict leasing. When that system as it existed “fell” we eventually received mandatory minimums, three strikes, stop-and-frisk, and broken windows policing. It is no different today. As we fight to dismantle our racist oppressive systems, our opponents are working tirelessly to build new supports to continue to prop them up.

In these recent state budget negotiations, New York’s elected officials had the choice to stand strong and defend bail reform. Instead they chose to retreat and uphold a system of mass punishment -- based on the lies of the very people who directly profit from incarceration and state violence against black, brown, and poor people.

Governor Cuomo and the New York State Legislature failed the test of moral courage.

Tiffany Cabán is a national organizer with the Working Families Party. On Twitter @tiffany_caban.

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Bail Reform Rollbacks are a Dangerous Failing of Moral Courage Thu, 02 Apr 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Previously Struck Down in Court, New State Campaign Finance System and Political Party Ballot Thresholds Passed in Budget Cuomo Heastie Stewart-Cousins

State government leaders Stewart-Cousins, Cuomo, Heastie (photo: The Governor's Office)

A new state campaign finance system, with public matching money for candidates who choose to participate and lower individual contribution limits, will be enshrined in law through inclusion in the new state budget. It is accompanied by new and highly-controversial ballot-threshold requirements for political parties.

Using a modified system due to the coronavirus outbreak, the state Legislature voted through various budget bills on Tuesday and into the late hours on Wednesday, meaning the spending plan is late given the April 1 start to the new fiscal year, as negotiations continued among the governor and legislative majorities.

The campaign finance system had already been approved last year based on the recommendations of a state-created commission but was struck down in mid-March by a supreme court judge who ruled that such a commission could not be tasked with writing laws.

[Read: Judge Strikes Down New State Campaign Finance Law]

Last year, despite mounting public pressure and their own promises to get it done, Governor Andrew Cuomo and the Democratic majorities in the state Legislature could not come to an agreement on a new campaign finance system including public matching of small donations and lowering New York’s sky-high contribution limits. They chose instead to punt that responsibility to the state Public Campaign Financing Commission, which was created in the budget.

After months of public hearings and expert testimony, the commission’s report was released and automatically became law in December, when the Legislature neither rejected nor amended it. But, the commission’s creation invited legal challenges from New York’s Working Families Party and Conservative Party, which saw it as a threat to the system of fusion voting that allows candidates to appear on a ballot with numerous party lines. One of those challenges succeeded when, on March 12, Niagara County Supreme Court Justice Ralph Boniello ruled that the commission’s powers were unconstitutional and that only the Legislature could create or change state law.

The budget bill approved on Wednesday addressed that mistake, and passed the same recommendations the commission had made. The law allows candidates for statewide office and the Legislature to opt in to a system of public financing that incentivizes small dollar donations by matching them with public funds. It’s similar to the system that has been used in New York City for over three decades.

The law drastically lowers contribution limits across the board, though government reform advocates say the limits remain too high nonetheless. Candidates for statewide office can now raise a maximum of $18,000 in a four-year election cycle from an individual contributor, down from about $70,000; state Senate candidates can raise $10,000, down from $19,300; and state Assembly candidates can raise $6,000, down from $9,400.

The most controversial aspect of the new law is the change it makes to party thresholds and ballot access requirements, along the lines of what had minor party leaders concerned when the commission was created last year, and what led to immense uproar as the commission’s recommendations were released and temporarily became law.

Statewide candidates now have to get 45,000 signatures from voters to get on the ballot, up from 15,000. For an automatic ballot line, a party must receive at least 130,000 votes or 2% of the vote, whichever is higher, every two years in a gubernatorial or presidential election, up from 50,000 votes every four years in a gubernatorial election. These new thresholds also take effect immediately, while the new contribution limits and campaign financing system won’t take effect till after the November 2022 general election. As was true when the commission crafted its recommendations last year, many see the results as especially favorable to Cuomo, who has said he plans to run for reelection in 2022 and is well-known to raise immense sums from wealthy interests, and who has sought to diminish the Working Families Party that he has warred with.

Candidates will only be able to qualify for funding once, regardless of the number of ballot lines on which they run. The system will be based on dual thresholds. Candidates for governor will have to raise at least $500,000 in qualifying contributions from a minimum of 5,000 contributors; those running for lieutenant governor, attorney general and comptroller will have to raise $100,000 from at least 1,000 contributors. State Senate candidates need to show $12,000 in fundraising from a minimum of 150 donors, and Assembly candidates will need at least $6,000 from 75 donors.

Statewide candidates can receive a maximum of $7 million in public funds between both the primary and general election, while Senate candidates can get $750,000 and Assembly candidates can get $350,000

The law creates a new State Campaign Finance Fund, but it makes no mention of how much money will be put towards the new system. The state commission-created law had set it at $100 million for a four-year election cycle. Funding will come from the state’s general tax revenues and from the abandoned property fund. State taxpayers can also choose to contribute to the fund when filing their taxes, and the fund can also receive private contributions. It will be overseen by the state comptroller and the state commissioner of taxation and finance.

The new system will be administered by a Public Campaign Finance Board within the state Board of Elections, made up of the four existing Board of Elections commissioners and three more appointed by the governor and the legislative leaders of the two main parties in both the Senate and Assembly.

The Working Families Party, which is among a handful of smaller parties that could see their automatic ballot lines at risk, reacted quickly and sternly.

"Governor Cuomo claims that now is not the time for politics — yet behind closed doors he is blocking voters from supporting minor parties and the values they stand for,” said Sochie Nnaemeka, state director of the New York Working Families Party, in a statement. “At a time when many Democrats are calling for fair and open elections, the Governor has made New York the most hostile state toward third parties in the entire nation. When he created a commission to wipe out third parties we sued and won. We feel as strongly now as we did then that the law is on our side — and we will win again in court."

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note - this article has been updated with details about the new campaign finance system including qualifying thresholds, maximum payments and the new state Campaign Finance Fund. 

Previously Struck Down in Court, New State Campaign Finance System and Political Party Ballot Thresholds Passed in Budget Wed, 01 Apr 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Push for Online Voter Registration Bill as Coronavirus Prevents Registration Drives voting

Coronavirus complicates voter registration efforts & voting itself (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

A bill before the state Legislature expanding online voter registration in New York City has taken on particular urgency amid the coronavirus pandemic, its sponsors say, as in-person voter registration drives become impossible and New Yorkers are told to avoid leaving their homes but for essentials and emergencies.

The New York City Board of Elections currently only allows an individual to register to vote online through the Department of Motor Vehicles website. But any potential voter must first have a DMV-approved identification. In New York City, at the end of 2018, 3.8 million people had driver’s licenses in the city, which has a population of over 8.5 million, though many are under voting age of course. Driver’s licensing rates tend to be higher in rural and suburban counties, compared to the city’s dense and transit-rich boroughs.

The New York City Council attempted to open up the voter registration process through legislation under which the city’s Campaign Finance Board created an online voter registration portal that was ready last year. But the Board of Elections imposed additional burdens on the process, making it even more onerous than registering by mail, amid contradictory opinions about whether the city had the authority to create such a portal.

A bill sponsored in the State Legislature by Senator Zellnor Myrie of Brooklyn and Assemblymember Michael Blake of the Bronx, both Democrats, would give the Campaign Finance Board the express permission to launch that portal. It has passed the Senate’s election committee, which Myrie chairs, but has not yet moved to a full chamber vote or anywhere in the Assembly. Both legislators say it is particularly important that it be approved as the coronavirus crisis brings the state to a virtual standstill.

“We need to find every possible way to make sure democracy stays intact,” said Blake, in a phone interview. “We need to make sure that people are able to exercise their democratic rights. And just because someone is unable to go outside and live their lives should not mean that democracy should stop.”

The pandemic has already led to upheaval in the state’s democratic processes. Two special elections in New York City, for a Brooklyn City Council seat and Queens Borough President, as well as the statewide presidential primary were all postponed to June 23 to coincide with the congressional and state legislative primaries. Governor Andrew Cuomo suspended ballot petitioning and reduced the threshold for getting on the ballot.

Along the lines of the online voter registration push, there are calls for expanding automatic absentee and mail-in voting.

“Moments such as this, the crisis and challenge should lead to us having creativity,” Blake said. He said he has been raising his bill as well as expanded voting measures with leaders in his chamber. “We don't know when this will end. So what we should be doing is doing everything possible to make sure people are part of the process. You're using your phone to get news updates, you're using your phones to check on your loved ones. You should be able to use your phones and laptops to be registered.”

The registration deadline for new voters to participate on June 23 is May 29, and the deadline for the November 3 general election is October 9.

In a statement, Senator Myrie said, “If there ever was a time to bring New York’s democracy into the 21st century, it’s now. While we know there are a lot of issues on the table right now, our commitment to this issue hasn’t changed and we will continue to work with our colleagues to get it done.”

The Legislature is doing modified, social-distance appropriate voting in Albany this week as legislators and Governor Cuomo attempt to finalize a state budget by the April 1 deadline of the new fiscal year. As usual, many policy issues are on the table as well as fiscal ones.

Myrie and Blake aren’t the only ones pushing for their bill to become law. Jessica Rosario, a 21-year-old junior at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY, has launched an online petition calling on the governor and Legislature to approve the bill and is working with other youth activists to organize a virtual day of action. “We're supposed to be socially distant but I think that we could still be socially aware at the same time,” she said in a phone interview.

She noted that the only other means of registering if you don’t have a DMV identification is if you print out and mail a form to the Board of Elections. “I don't know about anyone else but I'm in Queens, and I don't really feel like it's safe to go out if you don't have to for food or medical purposes,” she said. “And not everyone has a printer. Not everyone has that access.”

“I feel like it's never been more important than right now for things to move digitally. We have education moving digitally, people working remotely. Why not create a digital space for democracy?”

If the bill should pass, the Campaign Finance Board would be able to launch its portal almost immediately. The bill would then become redundant in 2021, when the state Board of Elections is meant to launch a statewide registration portal.

"We urge our state leadership to protect our democracy during this emergency by establishing an online voter registration system that all New Yorkers can access,” said Amy Loprest, executive director of the New York City Campaign Finance Board, in a statement. “With in-person voter registration events shut down, we are concerned that young voters and naturalized citizens, in particular, will be disenfranchised during this critical election year.”

"The NYC Campaign Finance Board's online registration system is a sensible, secure and timely alternative to paper applications and in-person registration efforts during this unprecedented public health crisis, “ said Luis Feliz Leon, a spokesperson for DemocracyNYC, a de Blasio initiative aimed at improving voter participation in the city. "We hope the City Board of Elections will work with the CFB to accept voter registrations submitted this way."

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note - this article has been updated with comment from a spokesperson for DemocracyNYC. 

Push for Online Voter Registration Bill as Coronavirus Prevents Registration Drives Mon, 30 Mar 2020 04:00:00 +0000
State Budget Negotiations are Focused on the Wrong Priorities; We Need an Emergency Coronavirus Package Robert Carroll State Assembly

Assemblymember Carroll, the author (photo: New York State Assembly)

In a few days the New York State Legislature will pass a new state budget. In a normal year, this is the most consequential task the Legislature does. In a crisis year, it may be the last thing we do.

What we do now could help New Yorkers weather the storm. Unfortunately the discussions we are having, which are few, are emphasizing the wrong issues.

To understand New York’s politics, one must understand that New York’s budget is not just dollars and cents, but also a way to enact legislation. In normal years, this is a poor way to run government because it stifles debate and lacks transparency. In a year where the Legislature cannot meet in large groups and advocates and stakeholders are quarantined, it is downright anti-democratic.

Currently, via text and conference calls, the Legislature is discussing Medicaid cuts and big policy decisions like legalization of marijuana and gestational surrogacy, and rolling back bail reform. This is frustrating and frightening. Governor Cuomo has done a phenomenal job in responding to the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, but he is acting like this year’s budget process is no different than last year’s.

There is a common-sense solution to this problem. Push off major policy debates and legislation that are not connected to COVID-19.

This includes policy issues I support, like the legalization of adult use marijuana and surrogacy, and issues I don’t support, like rolling back bail reform or creating new criminal penalties. Rolling back bail reform is especially distressing since we know jails and prisons are particularly vulnerable to epidemics. No one deserves to die from coronavirus, but it would be especially tragic if individuals held in detention died awaiting trial on minor charges. Sticking to criminal justice, Governor Cuomo should be bold and release prisoners who have served at least 50% of their sentence and are vulnerable to COVID-19 due to age or underlying health conditions. Our prisons are bad enough, we should not allow them to become death traps.

Thankfully, the governor has moved the presidential primary from April 28 to June 23, but now the Legislature must act to protect every New Yorker and ensure participation in our elections by mailing every New Yorker a ballot for the primary and general elections.

Second, we should suspend rent payments for the next 90 days for residential and commercial tenants who lost their job or business due to coronavirus. Landlords should get a similar reprieve from mortgage payments in an amount consistent with their lost rent. The governor already barred foreclosures and evictions for 90 days, this is the logical next step.

Third, we should require insurance companies to honor business interruption insurance. It is unconscionable that insurance companies that were bailed out in 2008 won’t pay out business interruption policies because they say “viruses” were either explicitly carved out of policies or because adjusters claim a “virus” is not a “physical” interruption.

Last and most importantly, we cannot cut Medicaid. Yes you heard that right – the current state budget plan, as outlined by the governor, would cut Medicaid funding to some of our neediest communities and hospitals. What we need to do is increase funding to our hospitals and other critical pieces of infrastructure that are currently taxed or are facing severe deficits, like the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA).

The only way to do that is to raise taxes. Raise them on second homes over $5 million, raise them on individual earners over $1 million, raise them on luxury goods, or charge fees on non-essential online deliveries. No matter what we do, we need the revenue because the federal stimulus has not addressed lost state revenue.

In the last 20 years, New York lost thousands of hospital beds because of a medical system that is built on profit. Land that was valuable was sold to real estate speculators and hospital beds were lost. We had our priorities out of whack. Let’s not do it again. Governor Cuomo, if you are able to do all that and get the Legislature to go along with it, #CuomoForPresident will no longer just be trending on Twitter and might just become a reality.

Assemblymember Robert Carroll is a Democrat who represents Park Slope, Windsor Terrace, Kensington, Ditmas Park, and other neighborhoods. On Twitter @Bobby4Brooklyn.

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State Budget Negotiations are Focused on the Wrong Priorities; We Need an Emergency Coronavirus Package Sun, 29 Mar 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Prevailing Wage is Economic Stimulus - New York Should Expand It Now gov cuomo moynihan

Construction workers, and many others, can benefit from prevailing wage expansion (photo: governor's office)

Massive unemployment following a period of slow recovery left 19 percent of Americans out of work. That was in 1938, when New York officially wrote the prevailing wage into the State Constitution, requiring projects that receive taxpayer funds to pay fair wages to their workers. Still deep into the Great Depression, New Yorkers understood that blue collar workers were the foundation of the economy and key to sustained economic growth.

Fast forward to today’s crisis and opponents of the prevailing wage are recycling old arguments against current prevailing wage legislation — arguments that did not work then and should not work now.

New York has an opportunity to provide a powerful economic stimulus at a critical time in our history by closing a loophole in its prevailing wage law so that private projects receiving significant public subsidies are covered. The underlying principle of the prevailing wage is straightforward: when public funds are used to subsidize and incentivize construction, public assistance should not be used to drive down wages or undercut benefits. It should instead uphold a community’s labor standards. This policy protects local economies and small businesses by maintaining higher consumer demand for goods and services.

Much has changed in the way projects are procured and financed since the prevailing wage was enacted by statute in 1894 and written into New York’s Constitution in 1938.  Today public resources are leveraged creatively to attract private economic development. State policy needs to reflect this modern reality. However, New York is one of only 11 states that enable private developers to receive public assets without paying prevailing wages and benefits.

There are many reasons why expanding the prevailing wage is good public policy, especially during a weak economy. These standards provide a powerful economic stimulus for working families and local communities while generating much needed tax revenue for public programs. That’s how it helped spur New York’s economy during the tail end of the Great Depression.

The economic impact is significant. Total family income for construction workers is estimated to be at least 12.5% higher in prevailing wage states. Every dollar spent on prevailing wage jobs is estimated to generate $1.50 for local economies. Fair wages empower working families to buy cars, homes, appliances, and clothing. More discretionary income means larger turnout at restaurants and theaters and a greater ability to secure the necessary savings for education, health care, and retirement. 

Stimulating New York’s economy, increasing state revenue, and wise management of public resources has never been more important than now. One very practical and fair way for lawmakers to do that is by expanding New York’s prevailing wage law, and they should do it now.

Fred B. Kotler is a policy analyst at the New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations, Cornell University. He is the author of New York State Prevailing Wage Law: Defining Public Work, a report prepared for the New York State Senate in 2018.

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Prevailing Wage is Economic Stimulus - New York Should Expand It Now Fri, 27 Mar 2020 04:00:00 +0000
The State Legislature in a State of Emergency num limited senate

A near-empty chamber conducts Senate business (photo: NY Senate Media Services)

As New York has become the country’s epicenter of the global coronavirus pandemic, Governor Andrew Cuomo has stepped onto the national stage as New York's (and the region's) captain, coordinating the state's response to the outbreak with a profusion of executive orders and fireside chats from the State Capitol, streamed daily and with PowerPoint.

The governor has signed 11 executive orders, suspending dozens of laws, as he, his top aides, and public health officials respond to the most pressing needs presented by the emergency. He has been speaking regularly with President Trump and is leading a growing coalition of states in taking unified action to battle the novel coronavirus.

"I accept full responsibility," the governor said Friday when he signed a sweeping order to require all non-essential businesses statewide to close or stop having employees commute to work. "If someone is unhappy, somebody wants to blame someone, people complain about someone, blame me. There is no one else who is responsible for this decision."

While the Legislature retains some significant power in an emergency, like the ability to override any executive emergency decree, it so far has settled into a role of limited checks on Cuomo's executive power as the disaster unfolds. Few question the necessity of swift, resolute government during a crisis like the COVID-19 outbreak in New York. But some watchdogs note the legislative branch has become marginal in governing during the crisis, while much of the state's complex legal and regulatory framework is pushed aside.

The governor's emergency powers come from a set of statutes known as the Executive Law, which give Cuomo virtually unilateral discretion to modify or suspend any law or regulation in a disaster. At his request, the governor's power in such circumstances was recently expanded through legislation passed by the two Democratic majorities of the Legislature, along with a $40 million package to help him fight the virus.

"The governor has very broad power to set aside, modify provisions of state and local law in a disaster to address the disaster," said Evan Davis, senior counsel at the law firm Cleary Gottlieb and former counsel to Governor Mario Cuomo in the 1980s. "And the limit on that power is: the Legislature may terminate...anything that the governor has done."

"They do have an ability to pull the governor back, but whether or not they have the interest in doing so is another question entirely," said Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), a good government watchdog.

The reasons are complicated. The State Legislature is a huge, two-house, many-member body that operates on majority rule, and simply cannot act as quickly as the governor. Because of its congregational nature, its day-to-day operations have been profoundly disrupted by social distancing mandates (somewhat unique to the coronavirus, as opposed to a hurricane, terrorist attack, or many other emergency events). And the speed of new information about the outbreak and the number of new directives being issued by state, city, and federal officials daily is unprecedented in recent history.

On March 3, the Legislature passed and Cuomo quickly signed the bill freeing up $40 million in state funds to go toward emergency coronavirus management and amending the Executive Law to give the governor greater powers during an emergency, which will not expire until April 30, 2021, a move that has raised concerns among advocates like Horner.

The amended law gives Cuomo the power to suspend any law and authorizes him to issue "any directive" as long as it is "necessary to cope with the disaster." But the statute retains an important clause, which gives the Legislature power to terminate any order of the governor's through concurrent resolution. A majority vote in both chambers is sufficient to block any executive action.

"So it's sort of important that the Legislature stays open for business at the capacity to act, otherwise they lack all capacity to be a check on an absolute power by the chief executive," Davis said.

"Obviously you want to defer greatly to the chief executive in this kind of situation but absolute power is never a good idea," he added.

How exactly the Legislature "stays open for business" poses another challenge, with three lawmakers already testing positive for COVID-19, all in the Assembly, and activity in the chambers reduced to a trickle as government employees move mostly to remote work. Davis suggests the Legislature can use its termination power under the Executive Law as a check on Cuomo, to bring him to the table in setting the parameters for executive orders.

There is no provision in state law that requires the governor to give advance notice of executive orders to the Legislature, Davis noted.

"We are working closely with the Executive and the Assembly," wrote Gary Ginsburg, a spokesperson for the State Senate majority conference, by email. Spokespeople for Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, and Cuomo (all Democrats) did not respond to inquiries about the nature of communication among the leaders around executive orders, or whether norms around their vetting are being established.

Legislators have returned to Albany to pass some key bills, including paid sick leave, doing so using a special new approach to social distancing while debating and voting in the chambers.

Having moved largely to tele-commuting and facing the pressures posed by the outbreak, Horner fears legislators may have also lost ground in negotiating the state budget, which is due April 1.

"The governor is in the driver's seat to begin with, the Legislature now really is not even in the front seat anymore. They've moved to the back seat when it comes to the budget," he said.

Budget negotiations are happening, and legislators may return to the capital this week, possibly to vote on a deal if one comes together. Cuomo has insisted that legislators should continue to travel to the capital to do their work and pass a budget before the April 1 deadline, which starts the new fiscal year. He’s also said he wants to include a variety of policy decisions in the budget deal, an annual Albany practice but where the governor is potentially able to exercise even more leverage this year.

"It's not like they haven't thought about the [Executive Law], they just passed an amendment to it a couple of weeks ago,” Horner said of legislators. “They are well aware of their powers, they are well aware they could put the brakes on the governor if they wished, and there's no evidence that they wished to do so.”

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

The State Legislature in a State of Emergency Mon, 23 Mar 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Coronavirus Crisis Spotlights Importance of Food Delivery Workers and Need to Legalize Their E-Bikes ebike leg

The push for legalizing e-bikes continues (photo: @nily)

Right now, our colleagues in Albany can deliver immediate justice and help keep New York fed and moving during a time of crisis. They must legalize electric-bikes in the state budget being finalized right now.

As part of the effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, the de Blasio and Cuomo administrations announced this week that restaurants, bars, and cafes would close for dine-in customers, but that take-out and delivery would remain available. This move made it clear that New York City’s food delivery workers, a workforce largely comprised of low-paid immigrant Americans from China and Latin America, would be shouldering a large burden, and would soon become a lifeline for potentially millions of New Yorkers during the pandemic.

That is why we are renewing, with urgency, the call for the legalization of e-bikes which most delivery workers use to complete their rounds.

About three-quarters of New York City’s 40,000 food delivery workers rely on throttled e-bikes, which are technically illegal to operate in New York because of a gray area in the state’s vehicle code. These e-bikes, which are different from the pedal-assist e-bikes deployed by Citi Bike, are critical equipment for delivery workers, many of whom are older than 60 and work 10-12 hour days. Try doing that job on a traditional bike and you might not last half as long. 

Most e-bikes are legal in most states, including right across the Hudson in New Jersey. Yet here in the city, where making food deliveries makes the most sense on bicycles as opposed to cars, they are still somehow illegal. Most delivery workers’ median hourly wage is about $10. When stopped by police they are routinely ticketed upwards of $1,000 and have their bikes confiscated. When a worker’s bike is confiscated it means they can’t work to pay the fine, let alone feed their family. 

However, while the de Blasio administration heard our demand to decriminalize e-bike enforcement in tandem with the coronavirus-related limitation on food service, there is no guarantee that this will be permanent after the crisis is over. To criminalize their work after such public service, even after they risk their lives and their families’ lives during this pandemic, would be a travesty of justice.

That is why we are calling on our elected leaders in Albany to (once again) pass and enact legislation to create a legal framework for e-bikes. Last year, the New York State Legislature passed legislation sponsored and impressively championed by Senator Jessica Ramos and Assemblymember Nily Rozic that would have legalized e-bikes and given municipalities throughout New York the authority to determine their use. Governor Cuomo vetoed that bill citing safety concerns, but he reignited the conversation with an admirable e-bike legalization proposal of his own in January.

The push to legalize e-bikes has a broad base of support, not only from groups fighting for immigrant and workers’ rights like Make the Road New York and the Legal Aid Society, but also environmental and transportation safety groups, like the New York League of Conservation Voters and Transportation Alternatives. 

We are counting on all state legislators and Governor Cuomo to unite and pass a budget that guarantees permanent relief for delivery cyclists. Crises can lead to social change, and we expect one positive outcome of the era of social distancing will be a newfound social solidarity with the hard-working delivery workers who keep our city fed, and an end to the shameful police harassment they have weathered for too long.

By ensuring e-bike legalization right now more than 40,0000 hard-working New Yorkers would not have to fear retribution and confiscation of their tools during and after the coronavirus crisis, as they, with their own bodies on the front line, continue to feed New Yorkers, and keep restaurants, farmers, and other companies in business in these trying times.

City Council Members Carlos Menchaca and Margaret Chin represent portions of Brooklyn and Manhattan, respectively. On Twitter @cmenchaca & @CM_MargaretChin.

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Coronavirus Crisis Spotlights Importance of Food Delivery Workers and Need to Legalize Their E-Bikes Thu, 19 Mar 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Health and Housing are Inextricably Linked; My Patients Need Home Stability Support rafael sala holds

A push for a new state homelessness-housing voucher continues (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

As a doctor in the hospital, I bear witness to some of the most severe downstream effects of health inequity in our community. In my field, I care for any person who presents to the emergency room and is then deemed too sick to be discharged. Through years of clinical service, I have come to appreciate housing as the most vital component of a person’s ability to stay well.

More recently, research surrounding individuals experiencing homelessness has highlighted the increased risk of trauma, rapid aging and development of geriatric syndromes, and increased risk of death at an earlier age compared to people who have stable housing.

In essence, people in our community who are experiencing homelessness are becoming sicker faster and dying at an alarming rate. Compounded with the fact that we are facing the worst homelessness crisis since the Great Depression, our state needs to act now.

A proposed statewide rent subsidy program known as Home Stability Support would be a critical step forward in changing the trajectory of so many people and families struggling with one of the most basic human needs. The proposal would help individuals and families who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless in providing realistic rental assistance that would result in successful housing. 

The majority of my patients are highly medically complex and experiencing social struggles that complicate their recoveries. I have the privilege and honor of hearing people’s stories while working in my field and am humbled each time a person describes the painful experience of attempting to maintain their health while concurrently managing an unstable living situation or navigating the shelter system.

Being discharged from the hospital with a new list of medications and follow-up instructions after a severe disease state can be complicated in otherwise ideal situations. For a person experiencing homelessness, who is tasked with the additional worry of safety, exposure, or navigating the housing system, we can easily see their diseases rapidly worsen after leaving the hospital and see them end up back in the emergency room. This is no cycle that any human being should experience. 

Even if not homeless at the time, my patients have additionally asked to leave the hospital before medically treated because missing another day of work would put their ability to pay rent in jeopardy. As a doctor, tasked with attempting to alleviate suffering and treat disease, it pains me to witness people having to choose between keeping their housing and their health. With 23,000 more New Yorkers becoming homeless than leaving homelessness each year, Home Stability Support would critically address people at risk of eviction in addition to people currently homeless, preventing so much of the endless suffering and potential health complications that accompany losing your home.

Homelessness, while not officially recognized as an Adverse Childhood Experience (events linked to increased risk of numerous conditions including cancer, lung disease, heart disease and early death), does place children at higher risk of ACE exposure and poor health outcomes later in life. In hearing frequent stories of childhood trauma amongst my patients with high biopsychosocial complexity, I can only think of the needless suffering that a program like Home Stability Support would prevent. We already know, but clearly don’t fully appreciate, the potential risk we take allowing 150,000 children in our state to experience homelessness, as was the case in the last two years.

In hearing the critical steps this statewide proposal would take to effectively alleviate and prevent immediate homelessness, this is our chance to speak out as citizens and urge our State Legislature and Governor to work together to pass, fund, and quickly implement this initiative and help move people from the shelter systems to homes where they can begin to heal. I encourage any healthcare provider who has had the privilege of caring for patients with unstable housing to speak out similarly and support the Home Stability Support proposal.

Amanda Ramsdell, M.D., is an Internal Medicine Physician at New York Presbyterian in New York City and Assistant Professor of Clinical Medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College. On Twitter @ARamsdell3.

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Health and Housing are Inextricably Linked; My Patients Need Home Stability Support Mon, 16 Mar 2020 04:00:00 +0000
'Open' Government Amid an Outbreak 4 mbdb holds

Wrestling with government during a pandemic (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

Governor Andrew Cuomo suspended aspects of the state's Open Meetings Law with an executive order Friday, as officials grapple with how to keep government running during a pandemic without jeopardizing public health or sacrificing accountability.

As state and city officials continue to prepare for the long haul of coronavirus (COVID-19) management, and as most public events are postponed to limit the virus’ reach, one emerging question is how government agencies will continue to hold meetings in full public view, as is required by the Open Meetings Law, while maintaining recommended social distancing.

Cuomo’s executive order, one of several he’s issued in recent days, permits government bodies to move in-person meetings to a remote form of conferencing, "provided that the public has the ability to view or listen to such proceeding and that such meetings are recorded and later transcribed." Transparency watchdogs say the move goes much further than provisions in his March 7 emergency declaration, when he authorized just two public health bodies to meet and take action without quorum or in-person public access, as long as the meetings were webcast and provided a "means for effective public comment."

"The Executive Order signed by Governor Cuomo today is less in the spirit of the Open Meetings Law than the order from last week," said John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, a good government group with a focus on transparency, on Friday.

New York State law requires most meetings in which government officials convene to "conduct public business" or "[perform] a governmental function" to be open to the public, meaning they are held in accessible locations, broadcast whenever possible, and occur with advanced notice to the news media and public bulletins. According to the Open Meetings Law, which outlines these requirements, doing so "is essential to the maintenance of a democratic society" and "is the only climate under which the commonweal will prosper and enable the governmental process to operate for the benefit of those who created it."

Under normal circumstances, this means most government hearings and meetings, and many instances of official decision-making, are held in public locations where people can attend in person, often with an opportunity to testify before officials. But as the coronavirus outbreak shuts down many aspects of typical daily life, essential government actions that cannot be postponed are being moved out of the settings where they are generally known and away from public view.

"There are concerns," said Kristin O'Neill, assistant director of the Committee on Open Government, a state agency responsible for interpreting and providing advisory opinions on the Open Meetings Law, during an interview with Gotham Gazette. "We have received inquiries from municipalities about having open meetings and having large gatherings of individuals in a confined space."

Some public meetings have been cancelled or postponed, and others moved online. The news has been trickling in piecemeal, leaving a dearth of information about where New Yorkers should be going to remain enfranchised and civically engaged, and how government will remain transparent and accountable to the public.

Cuomo's Friday executive order came just after Senator Brad Hoylman, a Manhattan Democrat, proposed a similar legislative solution to in-person meetings, which has more safeguards from abuse but lacks a companion bill in the Assembly and could take time to pass.

Like the executive order, the proposal would allow public meetings to be held remotely during a state of emergency. But it would require the public to be notified about the alternative platform for viewing or participating in it, and would require the body, like a commission or council, to justify why the emergency precautions must be taken. The bill is more in line with what transparency watchdogs, like Reinvent Albany, wish to see.

State and city officials have been moving to curtail “community spread” of coronavirus by reducing the density of people in public spaces. On Thursday, Cuomo announced regulations on large crowds, banning gatherings of over 500 people and requiring any smaller ones to cut their capacities by half (that closed Broadway theaters, but left exceptions for public places like schools, hospitals, grocery stores, and mass transit, though all will likely see changes in operation because of the outbreak).

Mayor Bill de Blasio declared a state of emergency in New York City on Thursday, further encouraging businesses to institute work-from-home policies, and setting his own example with 10 percent of the city workforce set to be given work-from-home orders in the coming days. On Sunday, de Blasio announced the closure of city schools through at least April 20.

But some public meetings simply cannot be cancelled if the city and state are to maintain a functioning government. In New York City, community boards are raising alarms about how they will hold their City Charter-mandated monthly meetings, while avoiding undue risk to their attendees, who skew older and are thus more susceptible to coronavirus.

The New York City Council continued to hold budget oversight hearings at City Hall, which draw crowds like the one Friday on the city's parks department budget that prompted one Council member to call for the Open Meetings Law to be suspended.

“The Council has an obligation under the charter to hold public budget hearings,” said a Council spokesperson in response to a Gotham Gazette inquiry. “Under State law, the mayor may proclaim an emergency and suspend local laws such as this requirement. Guidelines on all public events are evolving rapidly but we will alert the public to any changes on hearings as soon as possible. We are taking measures to allow social distancing and we encourage the public to watch online and submit written testimony when possible.”

"We are looking into this and will have more to say soon," a spokesperson for the mayor wrote in response to a Gotham Gazette inquiry.

And it appears that what's more is that the mayor will on Monday sign an executive order "temporarily suspending the deadlines for council budget hearings, ULURP related votes and the requirement for the Council to hold two stated meetings each month. Therefore hearings and the Stated Meeting next week will not be held," according to a letter from City Council Speaker Corey Johnson to Council colleages that was shared with Gotham Gazette on Saturday night (just after the Daily News first reported the Council decision).

"The City Council’s offices at 250 Broadway and in City Hall are also closing," the letter continues. "Council Staff are not to report to 250 Broadway and City Hall unless asked to as part of our effort to move Council staff to a work-from-home posture. The aforementioned offices will be otherwise closed until further notice."

News also broke on Saturday night that two members of the New York State Assembly, Helene Weinstein and Charles Barron, both Brooklyn Democrats, have tested positive for COVID-19. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Governor Cuomo announced the cases and said the state Capitol and legislative office building will undergo a major cleaning and the Capitol will be closed to visitors immediately.

"We are working hand in glove to contain and mitigate the impacts of COVID-19 in New York but we will continue to act aggressively to protect the public health," the governor and speaker concluded. State legislators are due back in the capital this week for legislative session days, with a new state budget due by April 1.

The State Legislature's 'interest and intent' in a state of emergency
"The question is, can open meeting laws be applied during a period when public meetings processes are being suspended because of public health concerns. The answer is no," said Kaehny.

Both Cuomo's executive order and Hoylman's bill get at the ability to flex the existing rules to more easily facilitate remote access to public meetings. But unlike the executive order, which effectively suspercedes aspects of the Open Meetings Law, Hoylman's bill works within its framework. It sets up more protocols for and restrictions on its usage and maintains the existing law's enforcement mechanism, which subjects abuse to challenge in the courts.

Hoylman's bill was drafted in consultation with the executive director of the Committee on Open Government, Shoshanah Bewlay, according to a press release issued by Holman’s office.

"One of the reasons we support it is because it provides a sensible framework instead of just leaving a vacuum where local officials and state officials have to try to make do in impossible circumstances," Kaehny said of Hoylman’s bill.

Kaehny believes it is important for the state Legislature to fully exercise its powers and duties, and passing Hoylman's legislation would help establish norms during an emergency. That concern is heightened, he said, because of the sweeping powers the Legislature recently granted Cuomo as part of an emergency response to the coronavirus outbreak.

Along with an emergency $40 million appropriation, the Legislature expanded the governor's emergency powers to suspend laws in times of impending danger, not only after disaster strikes, as well as to require quarantines, and more. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle criticized the move as a power grab but it still passed the two houses with wide margins.

"FOIL [the Freedom of Information Law] and open meeting laws are essentially legislative mandates on the executive branch and this re-enforces the Legislature's interest and intent here," he said, of a legislative solution to shortcomings in the Open Meetings Law. "If anything the Legislature should be more energetic and assertive during an emergency about clearly establishing norms so that they are not establishing a temporary dictatorship."

Those new powers, the governor "hasn't abused yet but the potential for abuse is huge and everyone should be keeping a careful eye on it," Kaehny told Gotham Gazette, shortly before Friday's executive order was made public.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Note: this story has been updated with news of the City Council's temporarily suspension of business, with news of the positive COVID-19 tests of two state Assembly members from Brooklyn and related fallout, and news of the city's closure of public schools.

'Open' Government Amid an Outbreak Sat, 14 Mar 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Judge Strikes Down New State Campaign Finance Law new york state capitol

Big decisions to be made in the state capitol (photo: Mike Groll/Governor's Office)

A State Supreme Court judge in Niagara County struck down the state’s new campaign finance law which was based on the recommendations of a controversial state-created commission that took effect in December. The state Legislature could not give the commission the authority to make binding changes to state law, the judge ruled.

The New York State Public Financing Commission, established in the state budget last year, was a nine-member body made up of appointees of the governor and leaders of both major parties in the State Senate and Assembly. The commission was created as a compromise after the Legislature and Governor Andrew Cuomo could not come to agreement on a major campaign finance overhaul, including lower contribution limits and public matching funds for candidates, long-time demands of advocates and some elected officials who criticized the preponderance of wealthy donors and special interests in state elections.

The commission was tasked with formulating a new campaign finance system for state elections (similar to the system currently used in New York City) with a price tag of $100 million for a four-year election cycle. But seemingly at the behest of Cuomo, the commission also recommended changes to ballot petition requirements and party qualification thresholds, claiming that too many candidates of various parties on the ballot would bankrupt any new system and raising questions about how valid some of the state’s parties really are.

The commission recommendations became law in December after the Legislature took no action to amend or reject them.

A lawsuit against the commission led by the Working Families Party and joined by several rank-and-file members of the state Legislature, challenged the constitutionality of the law that created the state commission. A judge ruled in the WFP’s favor in a summary judgement handed down on Thursday.

Niagara County Supreme Court Justice Ralph Boniello ruled that “the Legislature, clearly and unequivocally, empowered the commission to legislate new law and repeal existing statutes. The line between administrative rule-making (which can be delegated) and legislative action (which cannot be delegated) has clearly been transgressed.”

Boniello wrote that creating new laws or repealing existing ones “is a function reserved solely to the Legislature under the Constitution.”

The judge also noted that though the statute that created the commission had a severability clause so that if one aspect was struck down, the rest would survive, “the Statute is an improper and unconstitutional delegation of legislative authority to the Commission.”

“This ruling is a victory for the voters of New York State,” said Sochie Nnaemeka, state director of the New York Working Families Party, in a statement. “We need more choices, not fewer, to build a strong democracy.” She added, “As we have consistently said and the courts confirmed today, an unelected commission has no right to interfere with New Yorkers’ constitutional right to fusion voting.”

Besides establishing lower contribution limits (though they remain relatively high) and creating a system to provide matching public funds for small-dollar campaign contributions to qualifying candidates, the commission had increased the number of petition signatures required for a statewide candidate to get on the ballot to 45,000 from 15,000.

Most controversially, it also increased the number of votes a political party needs to earn on its gubernatorial and presidential ballot lines in order to automatically qualify for a ballot line in subsequent elections within the same two-year period, from 50,000 votes every four years in a gubernatorial election to 130,000 votes or 2% of total votes cast, whichever is higher, every two years. Those moves seemed to be aimed at undermining New York’s smaller parties and the fusion voting system that keeps them alive. As a result, multiple lawsuits including the one by the WFP were filed against the commission, legislative leaders, and the governor (who was later dropped from the suit).

The Legislature could still choose to pass the struck down recommendations into law, though several elected officials and advocates have called for tweaks including reducing contribution limits further, quicker implementation, and placing the system under a new administrative body that is completely separate from the state Board of Elections. And there are many calls to also do away with the ballot status requirements in the event of a new system moving forward.

Jessica Wisneski, co-executive director of Citizen Action of New York, called on the Legislature to enact a small-donor public matching funds program through the regular legislative process. “New Yorkers have demanded action for years to reduce the influence of hedge fund billionaires, luxury real estate developers and the charter school industry,” she said in a statement. “We need immediate solutions that put power in the hands of those without the resources to write thousand-dollar campaign checks.”

The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law urged the governor and legislative leaders to avoid using the legal ruling as an excuse to let publicly financed elections wither on the vine. “Albany can’t use today’s court ruling as an excuse to derail a public financing program that was promised to New Yorkers,” said Lawrence Norden, director of the Election Reform Program at the Brennan Center, in a statement.

Norden noted that the commission crafted its law after hearing months of testimony from campaign finance experts and members of the public who agreed on the need to reduce the influence of money in elections. “For decades, Albany’s wealthiest donors have drowned out everyone else. By following through on their promise of public financing, the governor and lawmakers can give more New Yorkers a say in the decisions that shape their lives,” he said.

Spokespeople for Governor Cuomo, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie did not respond to requests for comment.

The commission’s recommendations made for odd bedfellows. The Conservative Party lies on the opposite end of the political spectrum from the WFP but nonetheless the two were allies when it came to opposing the new party thresholds. The Conservative Party had filed a separate lawsuit against the commission, mirroring the WFP’s. New York Conservative Party Chair Gerard Kassar called Thursday’s judgement a “total victory for political freedom in New York, and a reminder to Governor Cuomo that he is an executive and not an emperor. Reason has won out over Machiavellism, and New York is better for it.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Judge Strikes Down New State Campaign Finance Law Thu, 12 Mar 2020 04:00:00 +0000