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Brooklyn's Democratic-Socialist Senators on State Budget Wins and Losses and What's Next


 

The State Senate (photo: NY Senate Media Services)


The details of the new $220 billion New York state budget, which included many funding and policy decisions, are still being deciphered and debated. The package, negotiated by the Democrats who hold the governor’s office, Gov. Kathy Hochul, and have super-majorities in the two houses of the Legislature, includes massive education aid to localities, significant increases in funding for child care and public universities, changes to criminal justice laws, a large subsidy for the Buffalo Bills to build a new stadium, and much more.

State Senators Jabari Brisport and Julia Salazar, two democratic socialists representing parts of Brooklyn, recently joined Gotham Gazette’s Max Politics podcast to discuss the new state budget and their own priorities for the upcoming legislative session, which will run from the end of April until early June. They also shared a few thoughts on the recent Brooklyn subway attack, which occurred on the outskirts of Brisport’s district, as well as the indictment and resignation of Lieutenant Governor Brian Benjamin.

[Listen to the podcast here]

Senator Brisport represents District 25 in Brooklyn, encompassing the neighborhoods of Fort Greene, Boerum Hill, Red Hook, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Sunset Park, Gowanus, and Park Slope. He chairs the committee on children and families. Salazar, who chairs the committee on crime and correction, represents District 18, which includes Bushwick, Cypress Hills, Greenpoint, and Williamsburg, as well as parts of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brownsville, and East New York.

Before diving into their views on the wins and losses of this year’s state budget and what comes next, Brisport and Salazar were asked by host Ben Max to address the Sunset Park subway shooting, in which ten people were shot and more than twenty injured. Calling the attack “vicious,” as Salazar put it, the two senators expressed disagreement with Mayor Eric Adams’ ongoing prescription for subway crime, which is led by greater police presence. They cited the number of officers already in stations who didn't prevent the attack and emphasized instead the need for a well-resourced public transit system, as well as broader measures to help reduce violence through prevention.

“As a legislator, I always seek to think in terms of prevention,” Brisport said, adding that though he wanted to acknowledge people around the city were scared and confused, he doesn’t see a way to police a way out of deeply-embedded problems. Salazar, for her part, expanded on the need to look at the transit system more closely and make sure it is functioning effectively, including security cameras, some of which apparently faltered around the time of the shooting. 

On the larger issue of public safety, and the necessary steps to create a safer city and state, topics that continue to be debated as Adams implements his agenda, officials negotiate criminal justice policies, and funding decisions are made, both Brisport and Salazar continued to stress their belief that the Legislature should focus more on violence interruption and investment in communities than traditional law enforcement.

Brisport criticized Governor Hochul’s 10-point public safety plan, presented privately very shortly before a state budget was due and including a number of rollbacks to landmark criminal justice reforms passed in recent years. He pointed to the alternative agenda released by the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic, and Asian Legislative Caucus (BPHA). That plan focused on investment into diversionary programs for people awaiting trial as well as Cure Violence, and after-school and job programs for young people. It also emphasizes the importance of getting credible messengers and mentors on the streets.

Salazar reiterated the need for investment in youth and making sure there are community centers and public places for young people to gather. She referenced the importance of putting money into mental health resources for the communities both she and Brisport represent. All of these things, she said, are directly related to public safety whereas the state budget focused more on changes to bail and discovery reforms.

Senators Salazar and Brisport both spoke briefly as well on the resignation of Lieutenant Governor Brian Benjamin after he was charged with federal corruption crimes in connection with an alleged use of his office as a state senator to provide a grant to a donor who was also breaking the law to provide Benjamin with straw donations.

“It’s certainly relevant to the need for ethics reform at the state level in New York,” Salazar said of the incident, explaining that the current ethics body, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOP) has gotten what she perceives as due criticism for being a tool former Governor Andrew Cuomo used to protect political allies. Notably, in the new budget, legislators and the governor made changes and renamed the state ethics body with the goals of making it more independent and giving it more teeth.

Generally, discretionary grants, like the one Benjamin allegedly secured in exchange for donations, are a good thing, Salazar argued, as they give people closest to the community control of funds. Accountability and enforcement need to come in tandem, though, she said, before mentioning a so-called slush fund Governor Hochul snuck into the budget last-minute to send $350 million to Long Island that will be decided by elected officials representing Suffolk and Nassau Counties, key battlegrounds in the coming statewide and state senate elections.

“It casts a shadow over the entire legislature,” Brisport said of the Benjamin scandal, calling it “disappointing” while cautioning against presuming guilt.

Drilling down into the details of the state budget, Salazar said her points of pride were also areas where she felt funding nevertheless remained inadequate. She cited “fair pay for home care” workers, where advocacy led to permanent minimum wage increases, but at only $3 per hour over the next two years.  “I really feel that we need to increase wages for home care workers much more substantially,” Salazar said. “We’re really going to need to see a much bigger investment in our home care work force in the immediate future in order to meet the demands of what is really becoming a long-term care and home care crisis in New York."

She also cited funding for financially distressed hospitals as a point of pride, referencing safety net hospitals like Woodhull in her own district. “We were able to secure about $800 million to assist those hospitals in particular,” Salazar said, “that really is a victory. We want to make sure that hospitals, especially those that were facing more economic challenges because of the pandemic, that they are able to survive.”

Salazar also touted the comparable investment in replenished state funding for emergency rental assistance as a big win in the new budget. “There are thousands of people who were unable to apply for ERAP [the Emergency Rental Assistance Program] before the federal funds were exhausted, as well as people who continue to need that assistance who maybe didn’t need it earlier in the pandemic,” said Salazar, for whom housing has always been a top priority.

Brisport pointed to the Transgender and Gender-Nonconforming Wellness and Equity fund as a major win. “As an openly queer legislator that means a lot not just to me but also to the community,” he said. His other wins were somewhat blunted, he said, like Salazar, because the investments did not meet the degree he sought.

While he said it was great to see the influence of his universal child care act on the outcome of negotiations -- raising the income eligibility threshold for state child care subsidies to families, and increasing reimbursement levels to localities and providers -- he was frustrated by the exclusion of undocumented children, and by what he deems an inaccurate model for the sector due to the governor’s under-estimatation of participation in the program.

“I’m very worried that we will be telling people that they’re now eligible for child-care and there is actually no money for them to get child care,” Brisport said. “It is definitely a historic investment, although the bar was low, for how much money we invest into child-care," he said, adding later that the investment is “not actually meeting the desperate need of a sector that’s really in free-fall.” Asked to quantify the investment, Brisport explained that the subsidized income threshold has been raised from 200% of the federal poverty level to 300%. In layman’s terms that means a three-person household – two parents and one child – has qualified for subsidized childcare if the total household income was $45,000 or less, but under the expansion that threshold will be $69,000.

Both senators voted no on several budget bills. When prompted, Salazar said her issue was with process more so than substantive policy disagreement. She’s generally opposed to including policy in the budget if it doesn’t have a fiscal impact to the state, she said, explaining the body spent a lot of time in the final weeks on Hochul’s push for bail and other criminal justice changes thrown into the mix at a late stage, with proposals many legislators disagreed with. Salazar said she was frustrated when it then became the focus of the state budget and held up other important decisions.

“I don’t think we should be holding people pre-trial for what are essentially crimes of poverty,” Salazar said on the substance, citing a change in the law that makes any arrest eligible for bail should the defendant have an open desk appearance ticket. “That’s certainly a problem to me and I think for the communities that I represent,” Salazar explained, “a lot of people are really struggling.” She was also disappointed by the last-minute deal for a large state subsidy to build a new Buffalo Bills stadium, classifying it as a bad demonstration of the state’s priorities. “Giving away hundreds of millions of dollars of public funds to a football team that’s owned by a billionaire – I really want to see true economic development in Western New York and am certainly never opposed to that, but I question that use of public funds,” she said.

Brisport voted no on the revenue section of the budget and called Governor Hochul “austere” for saying early on that she would refuse to raise taxes on the wealthy. “There’s two things at play here, the fact that she refused to raise taxes on the rich and then throughout the budget process said I don’t have money for that,” he said of Hochul’s approach. It was frustrating, he said, to go through the budget process and be told there wasn’t enough money for certain services, only to find out that there was $600 million for the Bills stadium and a $350 million pot of money to be spent on Long Island, calling it “absolutely ridiculous and deceitful.”

As for upcoming priorities, both senators said they would be pushing for Salazar’s “good cause” eviction legislation, among other policies they each mentioned.

Brisport also said he will fight for a bill to divest the state teachers pension fund from fossil fuel holdings, while Salazar said she will push for parole justice legislation and a ban on gas hook-ups in new buildings.

The end of the conversation turned toward politics, and the upcoming state elections, with primaries in June and the fall general election.

Neither senator was ready to openly endorse a candidate for Governor or Lieutenant Governor, though both appeared open to the suggestion from the host that they may jump behind progressive Lieutenant Governor candidate Ana Maria Archila, especially given Benjamin’s resignation.

[LISTEN: Max Politics Podcast: Senators Julia Salazar & Jabari Brisport on the New State Budget]

What's The [Data] Point? $220 Billion, with Senate Finance Chair Liz Krueger


State Senator Liz Krueger (photo: NY Senate Media Services)


What's The [Data] Point? Episode 117 -- $220 Billion, with State Senate Finance Chair Liz Krueger [You can find What's The [Data] Point? wherever you get your podcasts, including on iTunes]

$220 billion is the reported size of the New York State fiscal year 2023 budget that the Governor and Legislature adopted on April 10. The budget includes a property tax rebate and a tax holiday, and increases State spending about $14 billion, with more money for education aid, day care, rent relief, health care, and a new stadium, among other programs.

Joining the podcast to unpack the new budget is Chair of the State Senate Finance Committee, Senator Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat who takes us inside several of the major decisions and gives her perspective on a number of key topics.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think: @TweetBenMax & @andrewsrein@CBCNY. Listen below or wherever you get your podcasts!

Read more: What's The [Data] Point? $220 Billion, with Senate Finance Chair Liz Krueger

During Earth Week, Advocates Press New York State and City Leaders to Go Bolder on Climate Policy


Climate action (photo: Paige Polk/Mayoral Photography Office)


With the global climate crisis heading to the point of no return, dozens of climate activist groups are rallying ahead of Earth Day, April 22, calling on Governor Kathy Hochul and the state Legislature to pass a a raft of bills they say are crucial to the local and global effort to fight climate change, global warming, and their ill effects.

The bills include efforts to cut carbon emissions, build green infrastructure, reduce the state’s reliance on fossil fuels, prevent harmful cryptocurrency mining, and create tens of thousands of green jobs, among other measures. Advocates and like-minded elected officials argue that the measures are necessary to mitigate and adapt to climate change, and as part of New York’s implementation of the landmark 2019 Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA), which mandates ambitious carbon emission reduction targets and transition toward widespread renewable energy use in New York.

The CLCPA puts the state on the path to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by requiring a 40% reduction in emissions by 2030 and an 85% reduction by 2050. It requires the state’s energy sector to source 70% of electricity from renewable sources by 2030 and 100% by 2040.

The latest report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released earlier this month warned that the global community must take immediate action to forestall the continuing warming of the planet to avoid disastrous consequences. “It’s now or never, if we want to limit global warming to 1.5°C (2.7°F),” said Jim Skea, co-chair of the IPCC Working Group III, in a statement accompanying the report’s release. “Without immediate and deep emissions reductions across all sectors, it will be impossible.”

In a Tuesday appearance on the Max Politics podcast, Daniel Zarrilli, special advisor on Climate & Sustainability at Columbia University and former New York City Chief Climate Policy Advisor, said that New York’s leaders need to move with more urgency in combating the climate crisis. “There's a clear sense that we all need to be moving faster,” he said. “And for all of the leadership that New York City and New York State, California, others are showing, we need more of it and we need it to go faster."

“Both the state and the city have adopted really ambitious laws,” said Julie Tighe, president of the New York League of Conservation Voters, on the podcast. “They need to go about implementing them now."

New York State Efforts
In New York, activists say state legislative action has not been sufficient, prompting a flurry of activity by the Climate Can’t Wait coalition, made up of 43 groups from across the state including Food & Water Watch, New York Communities for Change, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, NYPIRG, New York Youth Climate Leaders, PAUSE, People's Climate Movement-NY, Sunrise Movement NYC, and WE ACT for Environmental Justice,  among others.

Members of the coalition began a bike trek to Albany on Saturday, starting off from Manhattan and making stops in Yonkers, Peekskill, Beacon, Newburgh, Poughkeepsie, and New Paltz. On Thursday, they will cross the Hudson region and arrive in the state capital on Friday, where other activists will join them to march and rally outside the Capitol building.

The coalition is demanding action on a series of bills that have yet to pass and implementation of measures that have already been approved by the state.

Among the bills are the All Electric Building Act, which would ban new gas and oil hookups in new buildings across the state starting in 2024. Though Governor Hochul had made a similar proposal in her executive budget, her ban would begin in 2027, a crucial difference from the Legislature’s proposal, which led to no agreement in the state budget adopted earlier this month.

There are several other proposals on their agenda:

-To “fully” fund implementation of the CLCPA, activists are calling for a $15 billion investment to expedite the state’s path to a fully renewable energy economy.

Such revenue-related measures would likely now have to be part of the next state budget, due by April 1, 2023. But the adopted budget for the fiscal year that just began includes a number of climate-related investments, as well as a $4.2 billion environmental bond act that will go for voter approval or disapproval on the fall ballot and would fund a number of climate-related priorities.

Activists have called for other proposals that could help implement the goals of the CLCPA, including higher taxes on the richest New Yorkers and the Climate and Community Investment Act, among others.

-The Climate and Community Investment Act would create a new state authority, funded by fines on corporate polluters, to invest in major green energy projects, public housing retrofits and green vehicles. The bill would also provide for grants to community groups for climate resiliency and mitigation projects and prioritizes investments in disadvantaged communities, among other provisions.

-Raising $10 billion through taxes on uber wealthy New Yorkers to fund housing, mass transit, green energy and other infrastructure projects while creating thousands of jobs and investing in low-income communities of color.

-The Clean Futures Act, which would prohibit the development of new major electric generating facilities that would be powered in any way by fossil fuels.

-A proposed three-year moratorium on cryptocurrency mining, which uses massive amounts of energy.

-The Cumulative Impacts Act, which would require environmental impact statements to environmental facilities being placed in minority communities, economically distressed areas or disadvantaged communities.

-A proposal to require the state’s Public Service Commission to undertake energy efficiency measures for utilities, to encourage the efficient use of energy and to promote hiring and job training of priority populations.

-The Fossil Fuel Subsidy Elimination Act, which would repeal more than $330 million in state tax exemptions for the fossil fuel industry.

- The New York Build Public Renewables Act, which requires the New York Power Authority to provide only renewable energy and power to customers. It would allow the NYPA to own and build new renewable energy infrastructure, and to provide renewable energy to all state and municipal properties by 2025. It also bans for-profit Energy Service Companies (ESCOs), setting the stage for a 100% publicly owned energy system.

-The Renewable Capitol Act, which requires the use of renewable energy systems for state buildings in the Empire State Plaza complex, including the State Capitol.

-The Teachers’ Fossil Fuel Divestment Act, which requires the New York State Teachers' Retirement System to divest from fossil fuel producers.

“New York has the unique opportunity to lead the nation in creating a healthy and abundant future in which all of us - not just the powerful billionaires and corporations - can thrive,” said Veekas Ashoka, an organizer with Sunrise NYC, in a statement. “The Climate Can’t Wait bill package has given the Governor and Legislature that opportunity to create that hopeful future for us all. It’s our job to demand that they take it.”

The governor and other elected officials have taken a few concrete, and symbolic, measures before and during Earth Week, which culminates with Earth Day on Friday, April 22.

The $220 billion state budget approved earlier this month included significant allocations for the state’s climate goals. That includes a $500 investment in offshore wind energy infrastructure and a $400 million Environmental Protection Fund. It also includes the $4.2 billion Clean Water, Clean Air, Green Jobs Environmental Bond Act, set for a ballot referendum this fall during the general election. If approved, $1.5 billion of that amount will be set aside for climate change mitigation projects, including $500 million for electric school buses.

Last week, the governor announced that the State Public Service Commission had approved contracts for two new transmission lines that will deliver renewable solar, wind, and hydroelectric power from upstate New York and Canada to New York City, a key step hailed by government officials and advocates as essential progress toward the state’s energy transition.

“New York continues to lead the nation with innovative green energy initiatives and has been an example to the rest of the world how to confront the perils of climate change, the existential threat of our time,” Hochul said in a statement at the time. The same day, she also announced that the PSC had approved a new framework to expand the state’s solar energy network and achieve at least 10 gigawatts of distributed solar energy by 2030. 

On Tuesday, Hochul announced that the new one-acre rooftop farm at the Javits Center in the city, which was completed last year, had joined the New York State Grown & Certified program and will produce up to 40,000 pounds of fruits, vegetables, and greens annually. “As we celebrate Earth Week, it’s important to reflect on our existential fight against climate change and continue our pursuit of historic, innovative solutions to bring us closer to a cleaner, greener New York State,” she said.

New York City Efforts
One of the earlier moves Mayor Eric Adams made was to create the Mayor’s Office of Climate and Environmental Justice, consolidating several offices that previously existed under the leadership of Rohit Aggarwala, the new chief climate officer and commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection.

“I think the mayor has got a great team and can do amazing things,” said Zarrilli, a top climate policy official under Mayors Bloomberg and de Blasio, on the Max Politics podcast. “The big question is how he's going to direct them and where he's going to set them loose and spend the political capital to deliver big transformative change and I'm excited to see where they go.”

This week, city elected officials have also been making a series of Earth Week announcements while activists have been busy with organizing efforts.

On Wednesday, Adams and newly-appointed Department of Sanitation Commissioner Jessica Tisch launched a containerized waste bins pilot project in Times Square. “Environmental justice begins at the street level, and it starts now,” Adams said in a statement. “Clean streets are vital to vibrant neighborhoods and to New York City’s economic comeback. We need to stop dodging black garbage bags and instead fund and test container models throughout the city that will make our streets cleaner and more inviting for both New Yorkers and visitors.”

Earlier this week, Comptroller Brad Lander unveiled his office’s NYC Climate Dashboard, tracking the city’s progress in meeting its target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050.

“Climate change is this century’s most pressing crisis and most urgent opportunity. Protecting our city from rising sea levels, devastating flash flooding, and deadly heat waves requires government, businesses, property owners, financial institutions and everyday New Yorkers working strategically to hit ambitious, but achievable goals,” Lander said in a statement. “The NYC Climate Dashboard will track our collective efforts to drastically reduce our emissions, convert to 100% clean energy, make a just transition to a green economy, and adapt our infrastructure to protect New Yorkers.”

On Thursday, City Council Members, including Pierina Sanchez and Lincoln Resler, are holding a press conference outside City Hall with Louise Yeung, Chief Climate Officer at Comptroller Lander’s office, and climate activists and experts from the New York Public Interest Research Group, Food & Water Watch, and New York Communities for Change. They are calling on Mayor Adams to strongly commit to implementing and enforcing the city’s Green New Deal Law, which puts strict limits on emissions from the city’s largest buildings starting in 2024. Questions have been raised about whether the city will be ready to implement the landmark law and whether Adams in particular is on board.

Also on Thursday, advocacy groups led by Riders Alliance and elected officials are set to rally at City Hall to call on Mayor Adams to support the City Council’s request for $3.1 billion in additional funding for the “streets master plan.” Under the Council’s proposal, the funding would help create, over five years, 500 miles of new protected bus-only lanes, 40 miles of car-free busways, 500 miles of protected bike lanes, and 38 million square feet of open pedestrian space. Also participating in the rally will be members of Transportation Alternatives, the New York League of Conservation Voters, TWU Local 100, and other groups.

Last month, Department of Transportation Commissioner Ydanis Rodriguez announced that the city would hold its largest ever car-free Earth Day celebration on Saturday, April 23. The initiative, which was first launched in 2016, will bring together 150 partners including elected officials, city agencies, nonprofit groups, artists, musicians, and more for programs across the city. According to DOT, it will  connect more than 100 Open Streets, 22 plazas, and access more than 1,000 miles of the city's bike lane network.

“Earth Day is when we can all commit to protecting our Earth – and one way we can do that is by repurposing our roadways,” Rodriguez said in a statement. “Car-Free Earth Day is a growing tradition that allows New York City’s car-free streets to come alive. The last two years – of Open Streets, Open Restaurants, the surge in cycling and so much more -- have only made us appreciate even more how much better we must treat Mother Earth -- and a day without cars allows us to envision a more sustainable world for more than just one day.”

***
by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Max Politics Podcast: Earth Week 2022, with Julie Tighe & Daniel Zarrilli on New York Climate Policy


Earth Week 2022 in New York (photo: Office of Governor Hochul)


April 19, 2022 - Max Politics Podcast: Earth Week 2022 in New York, with Julie Tighe & Daniel Zarrilli

Julie Tighe, President of the New York League of Conservation Voters, and Daniel Zarrilli is the Special Advisor on Climate & Sustainability at Columbia University and former New York City Chief Climate Policy Advisor, joined the show during Earth Week 2022 to discuss New York climate and environmental policy. 

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think, on Twitter @TweetBenMax. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts at Max Politics.

Read more: Max Politics Podcast: Earth Week 2022, with Julie Tighe & Daniel Zarrilli on New York Climate Policy

12 Issues to Watch in Albany's Post-Budget Legislative Session


Legislative leaders Stewart-Cousins and Heastie (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of the Governor)


With a whopping $220 billion state budget approved, Governor Kathy Hochul and the State Legislature now move on to the post-budget legislative session with a long list of issues to address. The governor and two legislative majorities, all Democrats, have their own priorities, and New York City Mayor Eric Adams also has unfinished state business that he is hoping to accomplish before the session is over.

But the clock is ticking, with the legislative session scheduled to end June 2, just ahead of the June 18 start of early voting in this year’s primaries for statewide and state legislative seats. Primary day is June 28.

The governor had several measures in her executive budget plan that didn’t make it into the final budget agreement, including awarding Mayor Adams a four-year extension of mayoral control of schools, replacing the soon-to-expire 421-a housing tax credit with a new 485w program, banning gas and oil hookups in new buildings, passing the Clean Slate Act, and more. And though Hochul has a more cordial relationship than her predecessor with Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, the legislative leaders haven't been shy about flexing their political muscle, which means Hochul may have to make concessions to her colleagues to achieve her goals.

Stewart-Cousins, Heastie, and their conferences have their own agendas they will pursue. In both houses, progressive members have been vocal in their critique of the budget deal as they continue to press unmet policy demands. There is opposition to the proposed 485w program, clamor to pass a “good cause” eviction bill to expand housing regulations, and debates over a number of other housing-related policies being offered by stakeholders across the Democratic political spectrum. While the Senate made its policy priorities more clear in its one-house budget resolution, the Assembly did not, making a point of trying to limit the amount of policy in the budget agreement that Heastie said his conference wanted to try to keep more focused on fiscal decisions.

Here are roughly a dozen issues to watch in the post-budget session:

Benjamin on the Ballot
Every statewide and state legislative seat is on the ballot this year. Many current officials, including Hochul, must first make it through the June primary. The governor is running for a full term as governor after taking over from Andrew Cuomo after his resignation in August 2021. Until last week, Hochul had her chosen Lieutenant Governor, Brian Benjamin, running alongside her, though the two would appear on the ballot separately in the primary. But in a seismic turn of events, Benjamin was indicted on corruption charges and resigned last week.

Benjamin is likely to remain on the primary ballot, though Hochul and her allies appear to be exploring ways to remove him as she also starts vetting governmental replacements. State election law only allows a candidate to be removed from the ballot if they die, move out of state, or are nominated for another position. While there is some discussion of Benjamin relocating as he fights his charges, Democratic Assemblymember Amy Paulin is reportedly planning to introduce a bill that would allow that to happen, with little time to waste. Under state law, the Legislature cannot make any changes to election rules within 53 days of an election and the state Board of Elections is required to certify the primary ballot by May 4.

“If we could get it done very quickly, it could address the current quagmire that we’re in,” Paulin told The New York Post. “If we can’t hit that deadline, it should be for future elections.”

But the Senate majority has called the bill a nonstarter. “We are not introducing or taking up this bill,” said Mike Murphy, a Senate spokesperson, in an email.

Mayoral Control of New York City Schools
Governor Hochul proposed a four-year extension of mayoral control of the New York City school system, which expires June 30, a more generous offer for Mayor Adams than his predecessor ever received from former Governor Andrew Cuomo or legislators.

Adams welcomed the proposal and has insisted that the regular cycle of renewing it more regularly is necessary to hold the mayor accountable. “I need to be held responsible for improving our schools and it's challenging to do so without having a four-year period that's needed,” he said in testimony before the state Legislature in February (though a year prior, during a campaign forum, he had said he believed mayoral control should only be extended for two years at a time).

But neither legislative chamber included a mayoral control extension in their one-house budgets and the adopted budget ultimately did not deal with the issue at all. Though there’s little doubt that it will be extended, questions remain about the strings that legislators will attach to it including about the structure of the city’s Panel for Educational Policy and increasing parent input.

“We will get mayoral control done by the end of the session, when it expires,” Hochul said in a PIX-11 interview after the budget passed. “No doubt about it.”

Also on education, the issue of the cap on charter schools in New York City could be revisited, though there is apparently little appetite among Democrats to raise the cap, which has been reached. During his legislative budget testimony, Mayor Adams suggested the compromise position of legislation to allow the reissuing of so-called zombie charters, where a charter school license has been revoked or returned by a school that no longer operates, but the governor and Legislature took no action in the budget.

Building Gas Ban
In her executive budget, Hochul proposed a ban on gas and oil hookups in all new buildings starting in 2027, mimicking legislation passed in New York City in order to cut emissions from the city’s largest buildings, which are its largest polluters.

But legislators and climate activists had called for the passage of the All-Electric Building Act, which would institute the ban starting in 2024, three years earlier. The governor’s proposal, they say, doesn’t address the urgency of the climate crisis.

Neither proposal was approved in the budget but the concept remains a priority for many officials.

421a
The state’s 421a housing tax exemption, which is meant to encourage the creation of affordable housing, expires on June 15. Proponents of the decades-old exemption say it is a valuable tool for residential development in New York City while opponents argue that it is a giveaway to big real estate developers that has exacerbated the city’s housing crisis. According to an analysis from Comptroller Brad Lander, the program will cost the city as much as $1.8 billion in lost revenue in the current fiscal year.

Hochul proposed replacing 421a with a new 485w program, which mandates deeper levels of affordability and extends the tax break to condominium developments, but was otherwise little-modified from the current program. Mayor Adams supported the broad concept of Hochul’s proposal. “I'm a supporter of the governor’s plan. I think that we need to do it strategically,” he said in his budget testimony before state legislators. “It should not be just a blanket anywhere. There's certain areas we need to continue to promote development and do so with affordable housing.”

But many legislators opposed the new program or dealing with it in the budget. It remains to be seen what, if any, form of new housing development tax break may be approved in the next two months.

Good Cause Eviction
A top priority for progressives this year is passing the “good cause” eviction bill, which would prevent tenants from being evicted or non-renewal of leases without good cause. It also limits how much rent can be increased while allowing landlords to raise rents for repairs.

The bill has broad support among progressive Democrats who say it is urgently needed, particularly as the pandemic has led to concerns of an eviction crisis. But the powerful real estate and landlord lobbies have been ardently opposed to it, arguing that it places an undue burden on property owners and over-regulates the private marketplace. Moderate and conservative Democrats have mostly thus far cast a skeptical eye on the legislation.

None of the governor’s or legislative budget proposals included the good cause eviction bill, leaving it to be considered in the legislative session. State Senator Julia Salazar, a Brooklyn Democrat who is the lead sponsor of the bill, said it’s her “top priority for post-budget” in an April 13 interview with the Max Politics podcast.

Accessory Dwelling Units and Basement Apartments
Mayor Adams had called on the state to legalize Accessory Dwelling Units and basement apartments, as part of his plan to address the city’s lack of affordable housing.

Assemblymember Harvey Epstein co-sponsored a bill legalizing basement apartments, while the governor proposed allowing ADUs in neighborhoods zoned for single-family housing and an amnesty program for existing ADUs in the city. But neither were approved in the budget. Legislators from suburban districts in particular expressed concern about the ADU proposal, which they said could override local zoning regulations, and Hochul balked. She also did not push her proposal to lift the cap in New York City on floor-area ratio, a move Adams also supported, that would allow for more dense development.

These housing policies may continue to be a priority for Adams, who is facing pressure from housing and homelessness advocates to present a comprehensive housing plan and to dedicate more funding to affordable, supportive, and public housing.

Property Tax Reform
Adams’ predecessor, Mayor Bill de Blasio, spent years promising to reform the city’s property tax system, which is widely considered to be inequitable and burdensome. But reforms require state legislation and a commission that de Blasio created to explore any changes only released final recommendations on his penultimate day in office. 

“It is my desire to get this resolved within the first year. Let’s put together a task force that sits down and comes up with real recommendations and solutions,” Mayor Adams said in an October interview on Bloomberg Television.

But it’s unclear whether the new mayor will try to make anything happen this legislative session, with little time to operate. Adams has yet to present his own plan and there have been no other comprehensive proposals at the state level from the governor or Legislature.

In the city, Comptroller Brad Lander and City Council Members Tiffany Caban and Pierina Sanchez, among others, have called for structural property tax reform, including scrapping the 421a program. “Tinkering around the edges may be what developers want, but it’s not what New York City needs,” Lander said in a statement in March. “It’s time to let 421-a sunset — and take our best shot to build a fair and stable property tax system that eliminates disparities, facilitates rental development, and focuses our scarce affordable housing resources on genuinely affordable housing. Today, we are laying out the path to do it.”

Clean Slate Act and Parole Reform
In her executive budget proposal, Hochul included the Clean Slate Act, which would automatically clear a person’s conviction record once they have finished their sentence and become eligible based on additional criteria. The legislation is also backed by a coalition of labor unions, criminal justice advocates, law firms, faith groups, business leaders, and more.

But Hochul and legislators disagreed on provisions of the law and it was left out of the budget deal. Under both the governor’s proposal and the legislative proposal, an individual’s felony conviction record would be sealed seven years after they complete their sentence, and misdemeanor records would be sealed after three years. But the governor’s proposal involves a different method of calculating that time, which proponents of the law say will significantly increase waiting periods.

“Despite tremendous statewide support, the Governor missed the opportunity to bring relief to 2.3 million people by insisting on unworkable waiting periods that would have rendered the promise of Clean Slate meaningless,” the Clean Slate New York coalition said in a statement. “It is past time to remove barriers to employment, housing and education, and give people the opportunity to fully contribute to their communities and provide for their families. The ball is now in the Legislature’s court. We call on the Assembly and Senate to pass the Clean Slate Act on the first day back to session and for the Governor to make good on her word to get the bill done.”

There are also two bills to reform the state’s parole system that activists and legislators are still pursuing – the Fair and Timely Parole bill, sponsored by Senator Salazar, which allows for parole eligibility based on good behavior and merit; and the Elder Parole bill, sponsored by Senator Brad Hoylman, which gives parole eligibility to incarcerated individuals 55 years and older who have served at least 15 years of a sentence. Neither bill has passed committee and could be taken up before the legislative session is over.

Also under criminal justice reform, Mayor Adams has said he plans to pursue further changes to the state's bail and other laws, but it is unclear if there will be any appetite at all among more than a few legislators to make additional changes after a series were included in the state budget after significant negotiation.

Voting, Elections, and Redistricting
In the lead up to the budget, the State Senate passed a raft of bills making changes and reforms to election and voting laws, including increases in poll worker pay, professionalizing election boards, and more, but the Assembly didn’t pick them up. 

A Senate source said all the bills aren’t likely to move ahead in the post-budget session but at least one will be the main priority, the New York State Voting Rights Act. The bill was introduced after Congress failed to restore protections of the federal Voting Rights Act, which has been diluted over the years, particularly in a 2013 Supreme Court ruling. The bill will be on the Senate election committee agenda by the end of the month, the source said.

While the Senate has been leading on election reform, advocates say the Assembly has been a roadblock. “The way that the state has made voting policy is not ideal,” said Jarret Berg, an attorney and co-founder of VoteEarlyNY, an advocacy group. “And what we'd like to see is the two houses and the governor's office work together to modernize and professionalize New York's elections.”

“What I don't like about the way these folks are lawmaking is you get a lowest common denominator of policy…the Senate passes a dozen bills the first day of session, they pass a dozen bills a month later, and now the Assembly gets to sort of cherry pick which ones they may or may not do,” he added.

With the primary election around the corner, lawmakers will have to move quickly to enshrine any new voting laws if they are going to apply. But on one major issue, they will have to simply wait and see. The future of New York’s state and federal legislative district boundaries is up in the air, with courts currently examining whether the state’s redistricting process after the 2020 Census was fair or not.

Last month, a lower court judge rejected the new congressional and state legislative district maps, which was created by the Democrat-led Legislature after a purportedly independent commission failed to come to an agreement on new district lines. The ruling was soon put on hold by an appellate judge and the issue remains unresolved.

“The challenge before the courts now is whether the Legislature has that right or not” to create new district lines, said Jeff Wice, a senior fellow at New York Law School’s Census and Redistricting Institute. Even if the court should find that the Legislature acted legally in creating the lines it already drew, there’s also a legal challenge on the alleged partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts. 

The decisions in those cases could potentially delay the primary, though Wice noted that other courts have allowed elections to go forward even after finding redistricting plans to be illegal or improper, at times mandating new maps for subsequent elections. “Courts usually try not to interfere with an election cycle that's already started,” he said. “But here we have a situation where not only did the cycle start, but petitioning and qualifying will have been completed by the time the court rules.”

Home Rule on Speed Cameras
Mayor Adams called on the Legislature to give the city home rule over speed cameras and its speed limit, in order to tackle recent spikes in traffic deaths. “[We] believe that if we get this home rule message, and have control over our speed cameras and our red-light cameras, we can make a difference,” Adams said at a March 25 event at the site where Isaiah Benloss, a Lincoln High School student, was struck by a speeding driver. Benloss later died of his injuries. “Since the pandemic 59% of traffic fatalities occurred during hours when the city speed cameras are turned off. Just doesn't make any sense,” Adams said.

He also insisted that the speed camera program was not revenue-focused. “This is not about dollars and cents, this is about common sense,” he said. “A common sense approach to stopping the culture of speeding in our city.”

Adams’ request wasn’t approved in the budget and he is likely to keep advocating for it in the weeks ahead, though Albany lawmakers traditionally show little appetite for relinquishing power to the city.

Still More
There are many other issues and bills that legislators may prioritize in the legislative session, such as protections for freelancers or items sought by climate advocates like a clean fuel standard or extended producer responsibility for packaging waste, and many others.

***
by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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State Budget Roundup: Ethics, Transparency, Spending Accountability, Campaign Finance, and Voting


Gov. Hochul signs orders (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of the Governor)


Good government groups and reform-minded officials have for years called for New York State’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) to be scrapped and replaced with more independence from the elected officials it is meant to regulate. But since the details of a deal to replace the troubled commission began to emerge last month, reformers have raised alarms that the new body would hardly be better than the old.

A new state ethics commission is one of several measures related to government ethics and accountability, voting, and campaign finance reform included in the $220 billion state budget lawmakers adopted earlier this month.

They include funding to launch the statewide public-matching campaign finance system previously crafted by lawmakers, and steps to make voting more accessible. The budget also includes greater oversight of some state spending on infrastructure and business subsidies. But other long-sought measures, like restoring some of the comptroller's contracting oversight, were left out, while questions remain about some of the details of the policies that were included.

​​The budget, negotiated by Governor Kathy Hochul, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie -- all Democrats -- will undoubtedly be the biggest legislative action of the year. It will likely factor prominently in Hochul's attempt to win her first full term later this year.

"We've had a good start, there's always more to do," Hochul said when asked about ethics reform in an interview scheduled to air Thursday on WAMC radio that her spokesperson point to in response for a request for comment for this article. "When I first became governor on August 24, I said my number one job is to restore people's faith in government once again, and it won't happen overnight. I'm supposed to change an entire culture that has been embedded in Albany for a long time."

"The Senate Democratic Conference is once again proud to lead the way on ethics reforms from replacing the flawed JCOPE, to much needed voting reforms and increased government accountability and transparency," wrote Mike Murphy, a Senate spokesperson, in an email. "Since winning the Majority, we have proven that we understand the importance of transparent and ethical government."

Spokespeople for Heastie did not return requests for comment on this story.

Sunshine enthusiasts have said the budget agreement itself – with its closed-door negotiations and Messages of Necessity to force through a deal with little time for public or legislative review – is a sterling example of an opaque and unaccountable process ripe for change.

"In many ways, the process by which the budget agreement was cobbled together was an example of Albany at its worst," said the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) in a statement. But the outcome leaves reformers with some victories and an appetite for more advocacy.

JCOPE Replacement
Since it was created in 2014 by then Governor Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders Dean Skelos and Sheldon Silver, all of whom have since left government due to scandal, the state's primary ethics watchdog, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, has itself been marred by scandal.

The body, with commissioners appointed by the governor and legislative leaders from both major parties, is responsible for investigating ethics law violations and issuing civil penalties, as well as overseeing lobbying and the financial disclosures of government employees. It has repeatedly failed to investigate or hold accountable state officials in a number of high-profile cases leading ethics advocates to call for its replacement.

Hochul embraced that spirit in her State of the State policy agenda earlier this year as a prelude to her executive budget proposal. "It is clear that JCOPE is irreparably broken and has failed to earn the public's trust," the governor said in January. "We must replace JCOPE with a new, truly independent watchdog with real teeth."

But the appointment structure of the replacement body that was ultimately approved by lawmakers, the Commission on Ethics and Lobbying in Government (CELG), was watered-down to the point good government groups called for it to be rejected and some lawmakers voted against it. A proposal by Hochul to ban communications with outside parties about ongoing investigations was also dropped from the final agreement.

Hochul proposed creating a rotating five-member body of the deans of the state’s accredited law school (or their appointees) rather than appointees of any elected official – a proposal lauded by good government groups and others. Instead, the new 11-member body will be appointed by the governor (3), Senate and Assembly majority leaders (2 each), minority leaders (1 each), the attorney general (1), and the comptroller (1). The appointments will be confirmed by a committee of accredited law school deans, who can reject nominees. The chair of CELG would be selected through a majority vote of CELG members.

"The Budget will improve ethics and restore New Yorkers' trust in state government by creating a new entity…[that] will work differently and more transparently than before," the Hochul administration said in a press release after the budget was adopted. The legislation would eliminate a voting mechanism that allowed one party to veto investigations, subject the body to the Open Meetings Law and Freedom of Information Law (FOIL), and improve staff training. It would also make "any breach of confidentiality referable to the Attorney General," according to the governor's office, a provision apparently spurred, at least in part, by a JCOPE leak scandal involving Cuomo and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.

"I first wanted to have the law school deans or their designee be able to be involved in being members, but I had to get this through the legislature," Hochul said in the WAMC interview. "This had a lot of concerns raised about doing anything at all, which I said we have to deliver."

"There's at least another screening process," the governor added.

But good government groups have said the new commission is still subject to domination by elected officials and it isn't empowered enough to deal with sexual harassment and discrimination – a central issue in Cuomo's resignation and the downfall of other state leaders in recent years.

"Just like in the former, broken system, elected officials will directly select and appoint their own ethics commissioners," wrote a coalition of good government groups in a press release criticizing the deal. "It gives the deans the perilous option of rejecting a particular appointee made by a member of the state’s top political leadership."

The groups include Citizens Union, Committee to Reform the State Constitution, Common Cause New York, New York State League of Women Voters, New York City Bar Association, NYPIRG, Reinvent Albany, and Sexual Harassment Working Group.

Voting Reforms
Beginning in November, local boards of elections will be required to open polling sites on college campuses, a measure long sought by good government groups and lauded by them upon its passage. "Undoubtedly, that will increase voter participation rates for young voters, among those who have the lowest rates now," NYPIRG said.

Lawmakers delivered a win to voting rights advocates when they allocated $4 million for pre-paid return envelopes for absentee ballot applications and ballots. The state paid for postage in the June 2020 primaries, the first state election of the pandemic, using federal stimulus money, but has since left it to voters to cover the cost.

A proposal from Hochul to shorten the voter registration deadline from 25 days before Election Day to the constitutional minimum of 10 days was left out of the final budget agreements. Good government advocates also lamented a lack of action to close loopholes in the state's campaign finance system, like its anemic enforcement and high contribution limits, and structural changes to election administration.

The budget includes no new funding to local elections boards to cover the costs of implementing and expanding early voting. Roughly $3 million was reappropriated from previous years, most of which has already been spent, according to a spokesperson for the State Board of Elections.

Public Campaign Financing
The enacted state budget contains $20.5 million for the new statewide public campaign finance program slated to go into effect this fall for future state-level elections. That includes $10.5 million for the day-to-day operations of the Public Campaign Finance Board, a new entity within the State Board of Elections responsible for administering the program. The remaining $10 million will go towards public matching funds for participating candidates.

The program, passed by the Legislature and signed by then-Governor Andrew Cuomo in 2020, will create a voluntary public matching system for small-dollar donations (with public matching of up to $250 from qualifying donors) to participating candidates in exchange for certain raise and spend limitations.

The system, which applies to candidates for statewide and state legislative offices and will be overseen by the Public Campaign Finance Board, will apply to the 2024 state legislative elections for all 213 seats in the State Senate and Assembly, and the 2026 statewide races for Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Comptroller, and Attorney General, as well as any special elections that occur beginning after the 2022 general election this November.

It significantly lowers contributions limits for all candidates, whether or not they are receiving a public match. The measure is intended to boost the contributions of everyday New Yorkers and the attention paid to them by candidates, and dilute the power of major campaign donors, who especially since the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision have dominated the political process.

“Small donor public financing will give all New Yorkers a greater say in the policies that can have the heaviest impact on historically marginalized and low-income communities, like criminal justice, education, housing, and healthcare," said Joanna Zdanys, senior counsel in the Elections and Government Program at NYU Law School's Brennan Center for Justice, in a statement. "It will make small-donor constituents a viable source of funding for candidates who would rather rely on community support than on a few big checks."

Term Limits
Despite being included in Hochul's State of the State agenda and executive budget, term limits for statewide elected officials did not make it into the adopted budget. Hochul had sought to limit statewide elected officials to two four-year terms to help "ensure New Yorkers are the focus of the State’s elected officials," according to her executive budget briefing book.

That would require changes to the state constitution, which would have to be passed in two consecutive legislative sessions and approved by voters in a ballot referendum. There are currently no term limits for statewide officials or state legislators, who serve two-year terms. Hochul’s State of the State agenda also included a ban on outside income for statewide officials, another proposal that did not make the adopted budget..

Open Meetings Law
Lawmakers have also made changes to the state's Open Meetings Law (OML), which governs the public's right to participate in state and local government meetings. Since the onset of the pandemic, lawmakers and advocates have been looking for ways to adjust OML to allow for remote participation -- a boon especially for some people with mobility impairments, as well as for parents and others with challenging schedules -- without sacrificing the transparency benefits of an in-person attendance option.

The state budget requires an in-person quorum at public meetings, except in the case of a state of emergency, during which meetings may be entirely remote. Only one in-person location must be publicly available, eliminating a concern among officials that participating from home opens their living room to members of the public.

The law authorizes but only requires a public video conferencing option if an agency or board opts into it, rather than the universal remote option good government groups sought in a letter to Hochul earlier this year. It also sets standards for video conferencing but that does not include specific instructions on closed captioning and sign language interpretation.

Recordings of the meetings must be publicly posted online within five days and saved for five years.

Spending Oversight
As they do every year, lawmakers packed the budget with subsidies to businesses looking to move to, stay, or grow in New York State.

This year Governor Kathy Hochul pushed through more than $600 million in state subsidies for a new Buffalo Bills stadium she said will create jobs and keep the team in New York. There are numerous other subsidies, from the three-year, $1.3 billion Film and TV Tax Credit to $585 million gas tax holiday.

But the budget also includes some measures to help publicly account for that spending, which often takes place with little oversight and scant reporting on the promised outcomes.

Database of Deals
The enacted budget calls for the creation of a database of state business subsidies, known as the "Database of Deals," to allow lawmakers and the public to track taxpayer incentives to corporations. For close to a decade transparency advocates have said a public database that lists subsidies, commitments, and outcomes for job creation would help shed light on billions in largely unaccounted for economic development spending.

Both chambers included a version of the Database of Deals in their one-house budget resolutions. While good government groups lauded its inclusion in the enacted budget as a victory, they raised concerns that the final agreement left out critical components.

Key among them is the fact that the database requires the state to list subsidies received after October 2022, potentially obscuring previously awarded incentives that could amount to billions. It also fails to differentiate between full-time, part-time, and contract jobs created, according to the good government group Reinvent Albany. They and others have pointed out other loopholes for reporting and displaying information that could undermine its purpose.

The new database, which will be run by Empire State Development (ESD), the state's economic development public benefit corporation, goes into effect 90 days from the April 9 bill-signing. ESD currently operates a more limited database with a narrower range of subsidies listed and fewer details about job creation and other aspects.

MTA Capital Dashboard
Hochul and legislators codified certain reporting practices on tens of billions of dollars in MTA capital projects and required data to be put in a single spreadsheet on the state's Open Data Portal. The reporting will allow the public to more easily see information on the types of projects, amounts budgeted, changes to spending plans, and final outcome.

The dashboard builds on the MTA Open Data Law, passed last fall, which requires the MTA to establish a plan to release public datasets, among other measures. Advocates like Reinvent Albany say the dashboard is a positive step but want to see it eventually include more information like contract data and vendor names, and for it to be searchable by more project categories like accessibility or resiliency improvements.

Authorities Budget Office
The enacted budget includes $2.85 million for the Authorities Budget Office, a little known office with oversight over hundreds of public authorities and their subsidiaries. The funding was an increase over the $2.05 million allocated in previous years, but far below the $5 million good government groups said was the minimum needed to bring on enough staff to make it function as intended.

Economic Development Audit
The enacted budget requires the state Department of Taxation and Finance to hire a firm to analyze the return on investment of tax credits and other benefits meant to spur economic activity. While the firm must be contracted via a competitive bidding process, Reinvent Albany has raised concerns that having an executive branch agency auditing the projects of ESD, which is effectively controlled by the same branch, could defang the process. The group has proposed that power be given to a more independent entity like the state comptroller.

Comptroller's Contract Oversight
In 2011 and 2012, then-Governor Andrew Cuomo used the budget to remove much of the state comptroller's power to review state contracts for various SUNY and CUNY entities, and the Office of General Services, before they are signed. That allowed major portions of his economic development programming under the now-infamous Buffalo Billion initiative to take place through a SUNY research subsidiary and forgo comptroller sign-off. The subsidiary, the SUNY Research Foundation, was later found to have rigged the bidding for a $750 million contract for a solar panel factory in upstate New York -- landing a close Cuomo ally in prison.

Both chambers' one-house budget resolutions included restoring at least some of those "pre-audit" powers but neither plan made it into the enacted budget.

***
by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been corrected to accurately reflect the details of funding around early voting implementation.

Max Politics Podcast: Senators Julia Salazar & Jabari Brisport on the New State Budget


State Senators Julia Salazar, left, & Jabari Brisport


April 13, 2022 - Max Politics Podcast: Senators Julia Salazar & Jabari Brisport on the New State Budget

State Senators Julia Salazar and Jabari Brisport, both Brooklyn Democrats and members of the Democratic Socialists of America, joined the show to discuss major recent events -- the Brooklyn subway shooting and resignation of Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin -- as well as the recently-passed state budget and upcoming legislative session.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think, on Twitter @TweetBenMax. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts at Max Politics.

Read more: Max Politics Podcast: Senators Julia Salazar & Jabari Brisport on the New State Budget

Max Politics Podcast: Bob Hardt on the Subway Shooting and Lieutenant Governor's Resignation


Gov. Hochul announcing Brian Benjamin as her Lt. Gov. (photo: Darren McGee/Office of the Governor)


April 13, 2022 - Max Politics Podcast: Subway Shooting, Lieutenant Governor Resigns & What's Next in New York Politics

Bob Hardt, New York political director for Spectrum News, joined the show to discuss the major events of the week: the Brooklyn subway station shooting and the resignation of Lieutenant Governor Brian Benjamin, and what comes next.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think, on Twitter @TweetBenMax. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts at Max Politics.

Read more: Max Politics Podcast: Bob Hardt on the Subway Shooting and Lieutenant Governor's Resignation

State Budget Includes Big Boost for CUNY


City University of New York (photo: CUNY)


The $220 billion state budget passed by Governor Kathy Hochul and the state Legislature over the weekend included a significant increase in operational and capital funding for CUNY, the City University of New York that educates roughly 275,000 students across 25 schools.

The new funding will help cover student tuition assistance, faculty hiring, child care programs, fringe benefits for staffers and more. But while significant, the increase of roughly $240 million in CUNY funding falls short of the “New Deal for CUNY,” a massive infusion of billions of dollars over several years that legislators and advocates say they will continue to fight for in order to reverse years of underinvestment in the public higher education system.  

“The opportunity to pursue a quality education is the silver bullet for so many New Yorkers," Governor Hochul said in a statement, touting the budget’s investment in education. "With this budget we are going to unleash the power of higher education to lift up the people of our state by investing in our institutions and our teachers.”

The $240 million in increased state budget operating support for CUNY includes $53 million to hire more full-time faculty at four-year colleges and community colleges, funds to cover fringe benefits for CUNY staff (which the system had to previously pay for itself), about $69 million to expand the Tuition Assistance Program for part-time students. The budget deal also includes $965.8 million in capital funds for CUNY facilities, many of which are in disrepair.

Another $15.6 million was allocated to help CUNY and SUNY campuses create child care centers. The budget also froze tuition at CUNY colleges for another year and averted about $80 million in cuts at community colleges that would have resulted from declining enrollment, a trend officials are hoping to reverse coming out of the pandemic. 

CUNY Chancellor Félix V. Matos Rodríguez called the budget a “transformative spending plan” for the system. “The adopted budget includes a $1.2 billion increase for CUNY over FY 2022, the largest and most consequential expansion of public support for postsecondary education in years, and will enable the University to make major strides for our students,” he said in a statement.

He estimated that the expansion of the TAP program would aid thousands of students and that additional operating funds would help the system hire 540 full-time faculty members, helping to reverse the “adjunctification” trend at CUNY.

The increased funding was broadly hailed by elected officials and advocates as a good first step towards achieving the New Deal for CUNY, which is a proposed five-year plan to make CUNY free of tuition and fees for New York residents.

The lead sponsors of the legislation are Brooklyn State Senator Andrew Gounardes and Bronx Assemblymember Karines Reyes, and it is backed by CUNY Rising Alliance composed of student groups, advocates, and unions, including CUNY’s Professional Staff Congress (PSC-CUNY).  

The budget was “all in all, a pretty big win for CUNY and one that I think helps set the stage for future investments and future fights in the years ahead, but something that we're very happy with right now,” said Gounardes, in a phone interview.  

In total, the New Deal for CUNY calls for a $1.47 billion increase in operating funds over five years, or about $294 million each year. That includes $1.14 billion for senior colleges and universities and $331.5 million for community colleges. Additionally, it includes a demand for $5.1 billion in capital funds over the same period, including $3.79 billion for senior colleges and $1.41 billion for community colleges.

The New Deal plan lays out several goals for operational funding including increasing the ratio of full-time faculty to students, professionalizing compensation for adjuncts, increasing the ratios of mental health counselors and academic advisors to students, and more.  

“The biggest takeaway of this entire campaign for me has been that, for the first time in a very long time, people have been talking about public education as they have not been in the past,” Gounardes said. “So I think we've succeeded on that front, to elevate the importance of a strong public higher education system both at the city and state levels.” 

“The New York State legislature has solidified its commitment to changing course on years of disinvestment in CUNY,” said Reyes, also a CUNY graduate, in a statement. “The 2022-2023 budget addresses the most urgent of CUNY’s needs, allocating funding to repair crumbling infrastructure, hire more advisors, faculty, and mental health counselors. It paves the way for the New Deal for CUNY that we, alongside our dedicated and passionate advocates, will continue to fight for.”

Despite this year’s budget achieving the biggest year-over-year increase for CUNY in decades, senior colleges will continue to have per-student funding that is below 2009 levels, said James Davis, president of PSC-CUNY, the union that represents CUNY staff and faculty.

“We have a budget now that is probably the best state budget for CUNY since the 2008 recession, if not longer. So that is really important,” he said in a phone interview. “The general contours of the budget adhere pretty closely to the priorities that are in the New Deal for CUNY. But they don't get us all the way there.” 

Davis did note that the budget doesn’t advance the goal of eliminating student tuition, which would require additional revenue raising measures which weren’t taken up this year. The state is flush with cash from federal pandemic relief funds and better-than-expected tax revenues and the governor was opposed to any new taxes. 

“But for now, anyway, none of these major advances that have been made in the budget are on the backs of our students, which is important,” said Davis, insisting that the fight for a New Deal for CUNY “still continues.” 

Davis pointed out that Hochul dispensed her predecessor’s tradition of limiting increased state spending at an arbitrary 2% (though even that was accomplished through budget gimmickry). “I think having torn that up, we're just on different terrain now,” he said. “Of course, we're always concerned…the economy changes, the federal stimulus evaporates, and where are we? But I think we now have a really important reset this year to work from.”

The next immediate challenge he pointed to was New York City’s ongoing budget process. Mayor Eric Adams has proposed a $98.5 billion preliminary budget, which includes a 3% cut in spending at most city agencies and departments, including millions cut from CUNY, where the city is typically largely responsible for funding the community colleges. “We don't just need a break-even budget on the community colleges. So we'll need the city to come through with additional investments there,” Davis said.

***
by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Expansion of Kendra's Law, Funding for Psychiatric Beds Among State Budget Decisions on Mental Illness Policy


Gov. Hochul speaks to health care providers (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of Governor Kathy Hochul)


Embedded in the $220 billion state budget lawmakers adopted this past weekend is a controversial expansion of Kendra's Law, which allows judges to mandate mental health treatment, including inpatient commitment, to people with mental illness deemed a danger to themselves or others.

The change to the state's mental hygiene law, one of a handful of contentious final proposals pushed by Governor Kathy Hochul, was among the last questions lawmakers labored over before delivering an overdue budget for the new fiscal year, which began April 1.

The expansion of Kendra’s Law, which makes it easier for people to petition courts and for judges to impose treatment, comes after a fatal subway attack in February by an alleged assailant reported to have long-suffered from serious mental illness. In response to that and other incidents, a rising chorus, led by Mayor Eric Adams and Hochul, called for both the expansion of Kendra’s Law and its more frequent use. Others, however, say the power to coerce mental health treatment comes with due process concerns and should be used only in rare circumstances with robust guardrails in place.

There are currently 3,440 people under an AOT order, including 1,496 in New York City, according to data from the state Office of Mental Health. 

The expansion of Kendra’s Law is one of several components in the state budget meant to bolster New York's mental health crisis response system. Money is also going to create a suicide hotline, psychiatric beds, homeless outreach teams, supportive housing, and a loan forgiveness program for psychiatrist and psychiatric nurse practitioners.

The budget includes $55 million in state and federal funds to restore up to 1,000 inpatient psychiatric beds to hospitals that had been taken offline as part of the pandemic surge plan.

"When it comes to the safety of New Yorkers, we cannot go backward - we must move forward toward a safer and more just state, and I applaud Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins and Speaker Heastie for this collaborative process that led to meaningful and significant changes to our public safety laws," Hochul said in a statement after signing the budget legislation, referring to her fellow Democratic state leaders with whom she negotiated the budget.

"By putting an end to the trafficking of illegal guns, protecting victims of hate crimes and domestic violence, stopping the cycle of repeat offenders, and investing in our mental health infrastructure, we are proving that justice and public safety are not mutually exclusive," said the governor.

Kendra's Law
Kendra's Law allows the courts to order a person to receive supervised mental health treatment in the community, or "assisted outpatient treatment" (AOT), if they meet certain criteria including a standard of dangerousness. Under the conditions of the law, if a person fails to comply with the treatment order, they can be temporarily committed to a psychiatric hospital.

To be eligible, a person must be exhibiting violent behavior and have a recent history of repeated hospitalization after refusing treatment for a mental health disorder.

In the recently-passed state budget bills, lawmakers extended the law, which would have expired in June, for another five years. They also expanded its reach to also allow officials to seek new AOT orders within six months of the expiration of a previous order. That can now be done without the previous criteria of violence, if a person's mental illness "substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities."

They also expanded its parameters in two other significant ways: allowing doctors to make virtual court appearances and requiring hospitals to share patient records with the county health officer supervising the AOT.

According to a statement from the governor's office, the state will conduct "an independent study" comparing outcomes for people on AOT versus people receiving treatment voluntarily. The study will be conducted by June 30, 2026.

Proponents see Kendra's Law as a measure to ensure people with severe mental illness are receiving the care they need while protecting public safety and diverting them from the criminal legal system.

Critics have raised concerns that Kendra's Law, especially with its new expansion, is subject to abuse and should be used only in narrow circumstances. They stress the importance of abundant proactive services over coercion, while also noting that only a very small percentage of people suffering from serious mental illness become violent. They also allege racially-biased enforcement.

People on both sides of the issue said the new changes were rushed through the budget negotiations with little input from practitioners, leaving language that is vague or inconsistent and likely to be challenged in the courts.

Adams and Hochul rallied for the idea when they announced the mayor's "Subway Safety Plan" in February after the killing of Michelle Go, who was pushed in front of a train by Martial Simon, who reportedly has a history of schizophrenia. That week, State Mental Health Commissioner Ann Sullivan issued guidance to law enforcement and emergency personnel that said they may take into custody "persons who appear to be mentally ill and who display an inability to meet basic living needs, even when there is no recent dangerous act" – a similar standard to the new AOT criteria. Hochul included a version of that in her proposal to expand Kendra's Law in the budget – part of a 10-point public safety agenda revealed two weeks before the April 1 start of the fiscal year that also included controversial changes to the state's bail, discovery, and Raise the Age laws.

"Governor Hochul has made the development of a comprehensive behavioral health crisis system in New York State one of her administration's key priorities, and worked closely with the legislature to enact a State Budget with significant investments in mental health crisis infrastructure as well as the most substantial changes to Kendra’s law in nearly two decades," Jim Urso, a spokesperson for Hochul, told Gotham Gazette.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, and Assembly Mental Health Chair Aileen Gunther did not respond to requests for comment on Kendra's Law or other crisis response measures.

In a statement, Senate Mental Health Chair Samra Brouk, a Rochester Democrat, lauded the budget's mental health investments but did not mention Kendra's Law specifically. "This budget marks progress towards larger investments in mental health services and living wages for workers in this field," Brouk said. "My next priority will be passing legislation that will bring more behavioral health professionals and peer advocates into the workforce to help individuals in crisis and those who need ongoing services.”

When asked for comment on the changes to Kendra's Law and the crisis response system, a spokesperson for Mayor Adams referred Gotham Gazette to a part of his statement on the adopted the state budget: "The budget also reflects our call to action on a number of public safety measures and elements of our ‘Blueprint for Public Safety,’ including improvements to the discovery process, gun and mental health laws, and judges’ ability to keep repeat offenders off the streets."

Of the nearly 3,500 people currently under an AOT order in New York State, 38% are Black, while Black people make up 17% of the statewide population. About 70% are diagnosed with schizophrenia and 15% with bipolar disorder, according to the data. Roughly half have "coexisting alcohol and/or substance use."

Assemblymember Thomas Abinanti, a Westchester Democrat, chairs the chamber's Committee on People with Disabilities and raised concerns on the Assembly floor last week that Kendra's Law could mistakenly capture people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, like autism. He ultimately voted for the expansion but told Gotham Gazette the proposal opened his eyes to the risks of people with intellectual disabilities in the state's crisis response system. Abinanti said he was introducing legislation that would divert Kendra's Law cases to the Office for People with Developmental Disabilities when they are believed to fall into that category.

"I can't vote against the budget because it does too many good things but this is a clear defect that needs to be remedied," he told Gotham Gazette, adding that the final Kendra's Law expansion was a step in the right direction.

Critics say the language of the new criteria, especially the reference to "major life activities,'' is ambiguous and overly broad, likely leaving it to later interpretation by the courts. The language leaves unclear whether courts will have to make their own determination of a person's mental illness or rubber stamp that of county officials seeking to extend an AOT, lawyers told Gotham Gazette. Much of the discussion around Kendra's Law has related to apparently homeless people on the city's streets and subways, and that the expanded definition has been touted by officials as allowing more removal of people who appear to be unable to care for themselves

"I don't think any of our 'wins' here are going to be very helpful in our work to expand the use of Kendra's Law unless we have an opportunity to clean them up in subsequent legislation," said Brian Stettin, policy director of Treatment Advocacy Center, who drafted Kendra’s Law in 1999 when he was a New York State assistant attorney general. At the time officials sought to respond to the death of Kendra Webdale who, like Go, was fatally pushed in front of a moving subway train by a man with schizophrenia. Stettin supported Hochul's call to expand Kendra's Law last month but said the ultimate agreement with the Legislature "has the potential to really muck things up."

Assemblymember Andrew Hevesi, a Queens Democrat, was outspoken against the Kendra's Law proposal but ultimately voted for the much larger budget bill containing it. "Giving any government the right to lock up people with diagnosed or presumed mental illness, is one of the most dangerous red flags in human history," he said in a statement earlier this month. "I implore all of my colleagues and Governor Hochul to not endanger who we are as Americans and New Yorkers by adopting this dangerous and functionally useless proposal."

A spokesperson for Hevesi told Gotham Gazette that while he voted in favor of the budget legislation, he was "dissatisfied" with the inclusion of Kendra's Law.

Beth Haroules, a senior staff attorney at the New York Civil Liberties Union who has been working on Kendra's Law, said its expansion was riddled with due process concerns. She also said the law was hastily written, basing its new criteria (i.e. interfering with "major life activities") on the federal Americans with Disabilities Act rather than existing definitions in state law. She said that made it hard to reconcile with the rest of the procedures established by Kendra's Law.

"I've never seen the ADA used as a sword against a person. Generally the ADA is intended to be a way by which society has to accommodate the needs of people with disabilities," she told Gotham Gazette.

Haroules also said the new information-sharing provision could jeopardize private medical records and believes the state should issue more guidance around information sharing. "A person's entire mental health and medical record could be shared with law enforcement," she said due to changes in Kendra's Law that appear to circumvent existing privacy shields. "Basically they're getting a potpourri of access to people's private information outside the due process protections that the state law previously has provided."

James Plastiras, a spokesperson for the Office of Mental Health, disagreed with that assessment. "There is nothing in the new amendments to Kendra’s law that would allow law enforcement access to a person’s medical records," he wrote in an email to Gotham Gazette.

Other Mental Health Spending
The enacted state budget contains other mental health crisis services, including others aimed at getting people with mental illness off the street.

That includes $55 million (half state, half federal) to restore up to 1,000 inpatient psychiatric beds that were taken offline and converted to treat COVID-19 patients at the height of the pandemic. That move has put a strain on local hospitals and mental health systems throughout the state. As part of that process, hundreds of patients were rushed from hospitals into state psychiatric institutions where some languished.

The state Office of Mental Health would not provide a timeline for bringing the beds online.

"OMH and DOH will continue to actively engage with hospitals across the state to ensure that adequate inpatient capacity is available and hospitals bring beds back online as soon as operationally possible," wrote Plastiras.

State lawmakers also added $10.2 million in recurring annual funding to OMH to staff and resource psychiatric beds that, according to Plastiras, were slated to be cut in previous budgets. Another $9 million will go to a loan forgiveness program for psychiatrists and psychiatric nurse practitioners to help recruit needed staff.

The budget includes $12.5 million for 500 supportive housing beds for people experiencing homelessness along with the promised state creation of 10,000 more units of supportive housing over five years, part of the governor’s $25 billion housing plan.

Hochul secured $11.3 million this year and an annual investment of $21.5 million starting next year for the Safe Options Support (SOS) homeless outreach teams she announced alongside Adams in January. The teams are supposed to deploy mental health specialists to direct people experiencing street homelessness to shelter and other services.

The budget allocates $35 million this year and $60 million next year to bring 9-8-8, a national suicide prevention and crisis hotline, online. According to the Hochul administration, another $10 million will go to "crisis response infrastructure." As it is written in the budget, that could go to "intensive crisis stabilization centers, intensive mobile treatment, low barrier housing, supportive and reentry transitional housing and inpatient alternatives to detention and treatment."

Update: This article was updated to include a statement from Office of Mental Health spokesperson James Plastiras on medical records access under the Kendra's Law amendments.

***
by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Max Politics Podcast: Senator John Liu on Final State Budget Negotiations


Senator John Liu (photo: NY Senate)


April 6, 2022 - Max Politics Podcast: Senator John Liu on State Budget Negotiations

State Senator John Liu, a Queens Democrat, joined the show to discuss final state budget negotiations, hitting on a wide range of key topics being decided among the State Senate, Assembly, and Governor.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think, on Twitter @TweetBenMax. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts at Max Politics.

Read more: Max Politics Podcast: Senator John Liu on Final State Budget Negotiations



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