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Bills Stadium Deal Tests Hochul's Ethics Promises and Legislature's Oversight Role


Gov. Hochul at a Bills game (photo: @GovKathyHochul)


Last week Governor Kathy Hochul announced a deal to build a new stadium for the Buffalo Bills with hundreds of millions of dollars in state subsidies, and that she was planning to push it through the state budget with little time for scrutiny by the Legislature or public. It was the exact type of Albany politics many feared of the secretive negotiations with Hochul’s hometown team – and the type she promised to leave behind when she took office last year.

The new stadium deal is also the first major test of a non-binding conflicts-of-interest policy the governor signed shortly after taking office last summer. Under the policy she promised to recuse herself from state business involving the work of her husband, an executive at the company that has held the concessions contract of the Bill's current stadium for the past 30 years. But the governor did not recuse herself, instead negotiating the deal between the Bill's owner, billionaire Terry Pegula, the NFL, and the office of Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz.

Hochul and legislative leaders are in the throes of negotiating a roughly $220 billion, late state budget for the current fiscal year, which began Friday, April 1. The announcement last week of the $1.4 billion Bills stadium deal, which includes $880 million in state funding and another $250 million from Erie County, has been one of several major last-minute additions to Hochul's proposed budget that have caught legislators off guard. If approved, it would be the highest direct public subsidy for a football stadium in recent history, possibly ever.

"I went into these negotiations trying to answer three questions - how long can we keep the Bills in Buffalo, how can we make sure this project benefits the hard-working men and women of Western New York and how can we get the best deal for taxpayers?" Hochul said in a statement last week announcing the deal.

The governor’s gambits on the stadium deal and a 10-point public safety plan have been decried as a “Cuomo move” that the disgraced former governor’s replacement had said were ending in a new era of transparency, ethics, and collaboration.

Few details have been released about the deal itself but the governor's office estimates the new stadium will generate $1.6 billion in tax revenue over thirty years, stimulate the local economy, and create 10,000 union jobs, which are part of a project-labor agreement the state is subsidizing. New York State Building and Construction Trades Council President Gary LaBarbera called the deal "exactly what's needed for hard working families in Western New York."

A memorandum of understanding (MOU) among the Bills, New York's Empire State Development, and Erie County includes broad strokes of contributions to be made by the parties, with significant governmental investments made in exchange for an agreement by the Bills to remain in New York for the next 30 years. It doesn't say where the public funding will come from and leaves other elements, like the terms of a community benefits agreement, to be determined. It remains unclear how the deal will fit into the adopted state budget. Other than in a small number of limited circumstances, Hochul has declined to discuss either the stadium deal or the public safety plan in public, instead opting for closed-door negotiations.

"The logic here again and again is that the deal is way more important than public transparency or public understanding or even approval," said John Kaehny, executive director of the good government group Reinvent Albany, which closely tracks state business subsidies.

Each year, governors pack the budget with unrelated policy matters and big spending plans that get decided at late-hours with little review from the legislators who vote on them. Former Governor Andrew Cuomo was notorious for this and lawmakers roundly hailed Hochul's early management style as "a breath of fresh air" when she took office last August.

"Even Cuomo didn't actually do something that Hochul did with this deal, which is to drop it right into the budget in the last week of the budget negotiation," Kaehny said.

Over $418 million of the state's contribution would come from Seneca Nation casino revenue the state has been seeking in court for the last five years. The settlement on the revenue ($564 million, in total) came after significant legal pressure from the Hochul administration and a day after the stadium deal was announced, something Hochul celebrated and appeared to tout as the largest part of how the stadium subsidy would be funded.

Hochul's first state budget will measure her skills as a powerbroker as much as her commitments to "a new era of transparency" and "a fresh and collaborative approach." With the budget now late, in large part because of her last-minute machinations, even some lawmakers who have praised her early tenure are balking.

Hochul may stand to gain personally from the potential deal. Her husband, William Hochul, is a senior executive at Delaware North, the international entertainment corporation that holds the concession rights at the Bill's current home, Highmark Stadium.

The MOU includes an agreement that the Bills' current Highmark contract – expiring in July 2023 – will be renewed on a year-to-year basis until the new stadium is completed.

Given the ongoing Bills-Delaware North relationship and potential for the company to benefit from the new stadium, there are questions as to why Hochul did not recuse herself from the negotiations between her office, Erie County, the Bills, and the NFL.

"As Governor you will recuse yourself from any and all matters relating to Delaware North," states the recusal policy Hochul signed last August, just after becoming governor. Hochul said the policy, which her office only released after Gotham Gazette inquiries and a report on its absence in October, would be "ironclad."

"As Governor, you will not intentionally take any action, formal or informal, that would in [sic] benefit Delaware North in any direct, foreseeable, and proximate way," it reads. The policy designates the Secretary to the Governor to make decisions on Hochul's behalf when she is recused. That position is currently held by Karen Persichilli Keogh, who is married to Mike Keogh, a partner at Bolton-St. Johns, the lobbying firm that represents Delaware North in Albany.

According to the governor’s office, there is no guarantee Delaware North will get the concessions contract at the new stadium and the company was not at the negotiating table. The governor’s office and Delaware North both said William Hochul has recused himself from any dealings with the state.

“Governor Hochul is committed to the strictest ethical standards and restoring trust in government. Delaware North is not a party to the negotiations and any future decisions about vendors at the new stadium would be made by the Bills alone,” wrote Hazel Crampton-Hays, a spokesperson for the governor, in an email.

The governor's office also pointed to the fact that recusal policy Hochul signed also said Delaware North had agreed to bar her husband from any "incentive-based compensation" resulting from ventures in New York State.

A spokesperson for Delaware North said neither the company nor William Hochul were involved in the stadium negotiations.

"Delaware North implemented a robust recusal process for Bill Hochul regarding our business in New York based on the advice of expert outside ethics counsel," the company said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. "Mr. Hochul is recused from all elements of our work in New York; he does not engage on any company business in the state, including with any New York State government officials, departments or agencies. Every element of his portfolio that would even potentially involve business in New York has been delegated to other leaders in the company."

The governor's office called the interests of Delaware North speculative and indirect, though critics have argued otherwise.

"Our current contract runs through the next season so we remain focused on providing an outstanding experience for Bills fans and guests in the coming year," Delaware North wrote in a statement to Gotham Gazette. "If selected by the Bills as the concessionaire at the future stadium, we would be proud to continue serving Buffalo Bills’ fans and stadium goers."

There is no external party in the room ensuring the governor's or Delaware North's recusal policies are followed. The governor's compliance is monitored by her own senior counsel, according to the policy.

For the governor's policy "to be credible it would have to be overseen by an independent third party, for instance the Comptroller or the Attorney General,” said Kaehny, of Reinvent Albany.

The Office of State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli did not comment directly on the policy or a potential conflict of interest, but urged transparency before the stadium deal is voted on by lawmakers.

"The Bills are important to the people of western New York and it’s encouraging to hear the agreement will provide for unionized jobs in the construction of a new stadium. Nevertheless, New York state and Erie County would reportedly pay for more than half the cost, and the details of such a significant investment should be disclosed and debated publicly before the plan is approved," wrote DiNapoli spokesperson Mark Johnson in an email to Gotham Gazette.

"We’ll be reviewing the project closely as more details are made public," Johnson said.

But that review is unlikely to take place before a version of the deal struck by Hochul is approved in the new state budget, which is expected to be passed by legislators early this week. Details of the deal and Hochul’s approach to recusal could be part of a legislative oversight hearing before lawmakers agree to it, but neither house of the Legislature has insisted on such public oversight.

The deal was harshly criticized by some state lawmakers when it was announced last week and became fodder for Hochul's opponents in this year's Democratic gubernatorial primary. A letter to Hochul from 20 mostly-progressive Democratic legislators said the deal was "negotiated in secret and only announced days before the final budget is due." The lawmakers questioned the projected economic benefits of the new stadium, calling it "a billionaire giveaway."

"I'm calling on the NYS Legislature to hold public hearings regarding the secretive, backroom deal orchestrated by Kathy Hochul," wrote Rep. Tom Suozzi, a primary opponent of Hochul's, in an email to his campaign mailing list. "This is not about football, or the players, or the fans. What this is REALLY about is the people who will financially benefit from this bad deal."

"If billionaires are allowed to drive pandemic and post-pandemic policy, then the structural inequities in New York’s economy will persist," wrote New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, another Democratic candidate for governor, in a recent op-ed published by the Albany Times Union, entitled, "This is not the way to spend a billion on Buffalo." (The title is an apparent allusion to Cuomo's “Buffalo Billion,” an economic revitalization program that unfolded with limited oversight and was marred by a bid-rigging scandal.)

This is "a process that does leave a lot to be desired," said Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt, a Republican who represents part of Western New York near Buffalo, in an interview with Gotham Gazette.

"It's not done until it's voted on and I suspect there's a lot more the Legislature is going to want to see in a final budget before [Hochul] can start counting votes to approve this deal," Ortt said.

A report from the Investigative Post this week found a study commissioned by Erie County estimated renovating the current Highmark Stadium would cost around $44 million – far lower than the $862 million estimate cited by the team and state and county officials as a justification for what they claimed was a more cost-effective new stadium.

Fiscal watchdogs have questioned the pay-off for the public of large stadium subsidies in general and concerns persist about whether Hochul negotiated the best deal for taxpayers. Those have led to questions about the governor's hometown allegiances – almost as soon as she took office, the Erie County native said she, like Cuomo, was committed to ensuring the Bills remained in the Buffalo area – and how the deal could benefit her husband's company. For months Hochul has declined to provide insights into discussions, saying only that she does not “negotiate in public” and would make an announcement when she had one -- which ultimately came just a few days before the state budget deadline.

Spokespeople for Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, both downstate Democrats, did not return requests for comment on the way the deal was negotiated, whether Hochul should have recused herself, and the oversight role of the Legislature.

Hochul, Stewart-Cousins, and Heastie -- along with top aides and other legislative leadership -- are currently negotiating the final details of the new state budget.

When asked by reporters Monday how big an issue the stadium deal was to legislators and whether it would be taken out of the budget deal, Heastie said it was too early to tell. "We haven't conference the Bills stadium issue as of yet but, you know, we have to look at everything in the context of an entire budget. Finally we are now to start to concentrate on the financial side of the budget so that will be part of that discussion," he said.

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

What to Watch For as a New York State Budget Deal is Reached


Gov. Hochul addresses the Legislature (photo: Darren McGee/Governor's Office)


New York officials are in the final stages of negotiating what is likely to be a roughly $220 billion state budget for the next fiscal year, which begins Friday, April 1. While the Legislature will not pass the budget bills by the start of the fiscal year, a deal between Governor Kathy Hochul and the two houses of the Legislature is expected within a few days.

The budget contains hundreds of funding and policy priorities that will impact government services at the state and local levels and the short- and long-term fiscal health of New York. Marquee issues include funding for child care, the CUNY and SUNY systems, responding to climate change, affordable housing, and much more. The largest chunks of the state budget are always local education aid, Medicaid, and running state government itself.

Decisions may include next steps on contentious political issues like changes to recent criminal justice reforms, the 421-a real estate tax break, a potential Buffalo Bills stadium subsidy, health care for undocumented New Yorkers, mayoral control of New York City schools, and many others. Some policy issues may be kicked beyond the budget into the legislative session to follow that is scheduled until June, when primary elections for statewide and state legislative seats will also occur.

The final budget talks are unfolding among Governor Hochul, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie – all Democrats – largely behind closed doors. It is Hochul's first and potentially only state budget as she runs for election to the position this year after taking the reins from disgraced former Governor Andrew Cuomo last August. The extent to which Hochul is able to achieve her priorities will be a telling test of her power and style, and the biggest marker, by far, of the direction she will set for state government in her first year as governor.

At $216.3 billion, Hochul's executive budget proposal released in January factored in massive pandemic federal aid to New York as well as higher than expected tax revenue, and included significant savings as well as no projected out-year gaps. Two months later, the Senate and Assembly one-house budget resolutions, non-binding statements of priorities and bargaining tactics, called for additional billions to be spent on programs leaders say are needed to address numerous crises and help empower New Yorkers.

Leaders had not reached an agreement by Thursday afternoon making it clear a deal was unlikely before the April 1 deadline. Legislators were being sent home for the weekend, to return Sunday or Monday, while the governor, state budget director Robert Mujica and other top administration appointees, legislative leadership and their staffs will stay in Albany to finalize a deal.

"I am continuing to have productive conversations with Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins and Speaker Heastie and I appreciate their collaboration and good faith approach to these negotiations," Hochul said in a statement.

"We are getting closer to agreement, with consensus on major policy items," Hochul continued. "New Yorkers should know that progress is being made and that we will put in the time it takes to reach an agreement that delivers for them and moves our state forward."

"We're going to have a timely budget because we are making progress," Stewart-Cousins told reporters Thursday when pressed about the timing of the budget. "But the reality is this isn't the way it was years ago. We're living in a hybrid world. And I am able to pull together my conference within an hour [digitally]."

When asked whether changes to the bail law were the primary sticking point, Stewart-Cousins stated: "There are certainly a lot of things that we are now weighing that were not in the original governor's budget presentation, but that being said we are working through them."

"We are making progress and continuing to discuss the budget with our members," wrote Assembly spokesperson Michael Whyland in an email Thursday afternoon.

The parties are hoping to get to agreements over the next few days in order for legislators to vote through the budget bills on some combination of Sunday and/or Monday. Any later than Monday could disrupt state payroll.

This will be the third state budget of the pandemic. It comes as the economy continues its recovery and amid uncertainty about COVID-19's ongoing impact on New Yorkers' health and beyond. Unemployment remains high compared to national and pre-pandemic levels, especially in New York City. Some industries have exploded during the pandemic, like healthcare, life-sciences, and tech, while others – tourism, in-person retail, bars and restaurants – continue to struggle.

This will also be the first state budget to pass during the tenure of Mayor Eric Adams, with a number of decisions that will impact the state's largest city and economic engine. Adams has a number of campaign and early administration promises that depend on state actions now unfolding in the budget. The Democratic mayor outlined his Albany agenda during a February legislative budget hearing and has refined parts of it since, with major asks on education, housing, criminal justice, tax policy, and more. The details of the final deal will in part be a measure of Adams’ intergovernmental skill.

“The administration has clearly laid out its priorities for the upcoming state budget, and continues to engage with state lawmakers to ensure we are delivering for New Yorkers and building an equitable and inclusive recovery,” said an Adams spokesperson, in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “We look forward to reviewing the budget when it is finalized.”

There are many areas that the major parties -- from the governor to the legislative majorities to less powerful forces like Adams -- agree on and are just a matter of working out the details, like expanding child care and higher education funding. Other topics are more controversial.

Here are many of the key things to watch as a final New York state budget deal for the 2022-2023 fiscal year comes together:

Childcare and Social Safety Net
Governor Hochul and the legislative majorities have proposed major expansions in subsidized child care. Hochul proposed an additional $1.4 billion in January to expand subsidy eligibility to more families and increase payments to providers, a proposal then dwarfed by the Senate's plan of $2.2 billion in the upcoming fiscal year (growing to $4.1 billion over four years), and the Assembly's plan of $3 billion. Of the Assembly's $3 billion, $2 billion will go toward childcare subsidies and expanding eligibility to four times the federal poverty rate. Another $500 million would go to providers to cover wages, rent, and other operational costs.

Movement toward "universal child care" was one of Adams' budget priorities – namely asking state lawmakers to pass two tax incentives to help create more space for providers. One is a tax abatement for retrofitting existing space for child care and the other is a tax credit for companies that cover child care, in whole or in part, for their employees. It’s unclear whether either is in the budget mix, but Adams has also said he’s pleased to see the likely major funding investment in expanding child care subsidies for more families and providers.

The governor’s executive budget included a 5.4% cost of living adjustment for human service providers under a number of state agencies. The Senate proposes a 5.4% increase in each of the next two fiscal years and to extend the increase to the state's Supportive Housing Program, operated out of the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, which is currently excluded from Hochul's plan. The Assembly proposes an 11% increase, inclusive of the Supportive Housing Program, and making it permanent.

Advocates are calling for a $3 billion replenishment for the Excluded Workers Fund (for New Yorkers ineligible for other pandemic assistance due to immigration status) and permanent unemployment benefits for excluded workers. The $2.1 billion allocation to the excluded workers fund in the current budget has been exhausted and none of the major parties have proposed another round of funding, instead focusing on other areas of investment and relief for the impacted communities, such as expanded state health care coverage and child care subsidies to undocumented New Yorkers.

In his budget testimony before the Legislature in February, Adams urged lawmakers to allow the city to increase its Earned Income Tax Credit match to up to 30% of the federal level. He also asked for a $250 million state investment in the tax credit, which he said would match the city's contributions. The credit is an anti-poverty measure accessible to low- and moderate income families. Both houses of the Legislature included hundreds of millions of dollars for an expanded EITC in their budget resolutions, but it is unclear where the issue may land.

Housing
Much must be reconciled on housing where the governor, Senate, and Assembly have proposed roughly $5 billion, $8 billion, and $10 billion, respectively, on housing programs.

All three of the governor and legislative majorities agree on at least $4.5 billion for the state's five-year housing plan, with the Assembly calling for $6.1 billion, including an additional $1 billion for limited-equity coops, $100 million for land banks, and $130 million more to Mitchell-Lama preservation for a total of $250 million.

Both the Senate and Assembly are seeking funding for a number of programs left completely out of Hochul's executive budget. Both are looking to renew funding into the Emergency Rental Assistance Program – by $1 billion and $1.25 billion, respectively – after the federally-funded program has been exhausted. Hochul has asked for more federal money but only received a small portion of the state’s ask, and appears against using any more state funds for ERAP, which is meant to make whole renters and landlords hurt by lost income due to the pandemic.

In the current fiscal year, 2021-2022, the state allocated $250 million to the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, but Hochul did not renew funding in her executive budget, even amid the end of the eviction moratorium, instead pressing federal officials for more funds.

The Legislature also wants a slew of other housing stabilization measures. They include a homeowner assistance fund (Assembly: $400 million; Senate: $500 million), $400,000 for utility arrears assistance, and $250 million for the Housing Access Voucher Program (HAVP), a subsidy for homeless and at-risk New Yorkers sought by housing advocates. The potential new state voucher program could be a significant addition to New York City’s anti-homelessness efforts, complementing the city’s voucher programs created under Mayor Bill de Blasio. Among the questions about the launch of the program is whether it would include eligibility for undocumented New Yorkers, which the Legislature would like to see.

Both one-house budgets include half a billion dollars for NYCHA public housing and $150 million for housing conversion for distressed commercial property, enabled by legislation passed in 2021 that has stalled (there is also discussion about loosening some of the regulations involved in the program).

No budget proposal included Good Cause Eviction legislation to the disappointment of some housing advocates and progressive lawmakers, who are hoping to take the issue up in the post-budget legislative session.

There is also a fight over the fate of the controversial real estate tax break for creating some affordable housing in new development in the city, often known as 421-a. The program is widely criticized as a give-away to developers, though industry leaders and some elected officials like Hochul and Adams argue it is necessary to produce housing, and Hochul is proposing to reform it with her version, called 485-w, with a few changes around greater affordability requirements and higher worker wages.

The measure has support from Mayor Adams and some key legislators, but faces strong opposition among many others, including Senate Finance Chair Liz Krueger. It is another issue that may be punted into post-budget consideration as the current version of 421-a does not expire until June.

Adams is seeking other measures to make it easier to create affordable housing. He has backed the conversion of distressed hotels to housing and raising the Floor Area Ratio cap, which would allow more density and is something Hochul included in her budget but does not appear to have strong support in the Legislature.

The mayor was also a proponent of legalizing accessory dwelling units, like basement and garage apartments, as a way to create affordable housing and regulate illegal flats. Hochul included it in her original budget proposal but withdrew it after pressure from suburban parts of the state where lawmakers are often against adding affordable housing.

Health Care
Both the Assembly and Senate included $345 million for "Coverage for All" in their proposals to expand state health insurance coverage to an estimated 154,000 New Yorkers, regardless of immigration status. A broad coalition of advocates are urging Hochul to support the measure, as is the Adams administration.

“As City agencies tasked with promoting the health and wellbeing of all New Yorkers, including immigrants, we urge the Governor and the Legislature to include these changes in the final New York State budget and continue to lead the nation in recognizing healthcare as a human right,” said the leaders of the Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs, health department, and public hospital system in a recent joint statement.

But officials in the Hochul administration have said the Legislature might be underestimating the costs, which they said could reach $1.9 billion in the first year. Legislators like Senator Gustavo Rivera, a Bronx Democrat and the Senate’s health committee chair, have pushed back, saying the administration is overestimating likely uptake and that overall this type of programming winds up saving money and/or providing economic benefits.

Both one-house budgets included full funding for “Fair Pay for Home Care,” legislation that would set minimum wages and Medicaid reimbursement levels for home care workers – a measure backed by advocates for older adults and people with disabilities and some of the state's biggest labor unions. The houses each put $625 million toward the program. Hochul's plan instead contains one-time bonuses for some healthcare workers of up to $3,000.

In another alignment with Adams, Hochul is also pushing for the expansion of Kendra's Law, which allows judges to mandate outpatient treatment for people with serious mental illness and commit people with mental illnesses if they refuse to take medication.

Hochul and Adams claim the expansion to include individuals who cannot "accept" help will ensure people with severe mental illness receive needed treatment and help law enforcement and outreach workers to remove people who pose a danger to themselves and others from the streets and subways. But civil rights and mental health advocates want to see less restrictive and more targeted outreach and warn the expansion could be unconstitutional. Legislative leaders have expressed openness to renewing Kendra's Law, which expires this year, but whether it will be expanded remains an open question.

Kendra's Law is part of a larger push by Hochul and Adams to enhance psychiatric offerings, including by increasing bed capacity across the state. Hochul is looking to fund an additional 140 Safe Haven beds, 350 stabilization beds, 600 psychiatric hospital beds, and 500 scattered-site supportive housing units.

Education
Hochul's executive budget includes $31.3 billion for public schools around the state to fund pre-K through 12th-grade, a number amenable to both houses of the Legislature and, given its massive size, removing a typical major point of contention in past state budget negotiations.

Hochul's plan would increase Foundation Aid by $1.6 billion and fully phase it in by the 2023-24 school year, compared with $1.5 billion in the Assembly and $1.2 in the Senate plans. All include funding for pre-K and mental health services in schools.

Levels of funding and their specific focus for the major public university systems, SUNY and CUNY, are a significant point of negotiation in the state budget.

The Senate budget has $13.8 billion for SUNY and CUNY, including a $1.1 billion "New Deal" for the public university systems to reduce tuition, restore pandemic cuts, and close the Tuition Assistance Program gap, along with $153 billion for each system to hire more full-time staff. The Assembly budget also includes funding to close the TAP gap and $88 million for new full-time hires. Hochul's higher education general fund budget is $8.1 billion, with $53 million for full-time staff and funding to close the TAP gap. There are also questions over funding for the CUNY capital budget.

Also on the table is the possible return of availability of the state's Tuition Assistance Program to people in prison, part of a larger "Jails to Jobs" plan Hochul has advocated and for which there appears to be legislative appetite.

Hochul's budget extends mayoral control of New York City schools for four years, while both houses of the Legislature left it out of their one-house resolutions and appear content to allow it to be dealt with in the post-budget session. Mayoral control expires in June and all indications are that Mayor Adams will get an extension, but questions linger about what length and whether there will be tweaks to the law to add certain requirements, like additional parental involvement or changes to the structure of the Panel for Educational Policy.

There is no indication at this point that an increase in the cap on charter schools in New York City, which has been reached, will be increased in the budget, or that the deal will include the request from Mayor Adams and others that so-called zombie charters be authorized for re-issuance. Zombie charters are those that were given to schools that have since shut down, and the call for re-issuing them is seen as something of a potential compromise in the debate over the charter school cap.

Criminal Justice
The item dominating much of the negotiations are changes to criminal justice reforms enacted by state lawmakers over the last three years. Hochul is pushing to expand the list of crimes eligible for bail and to allow judges to consider an individual's past violations in setting bail. The effort has lent a powerful hand to Adams' push for state-level bail reform as part of his public safety plan. But it has incensed some Democratic lawmakers and criminal justice advocates who fought hard to eliminate cash bail for most offenses as a way to make the legal system more equitable for low-income New Yorkers and people of color.

Hochul is also pushing for changes to the state's discovery and Raise the Age reforms, along the lines of changes Adams also wants to see that would slightly loosen what prosecutors have to ensure they are turning over in terms of evidence and toughening how certain alleged gun crimes are handled among 16- and 17-year-olds.

While she has driven a wedge between herself and many lawmakers, upsetting both leaders of the Legislature and others, Hochul appears likely to get some tweaks to the criminal justice reforms into the budget, in part by packaging them into the larger deals.

One could be passage of the Clean Slate Act, which would allow criminal records to be sealed post-incarceration, thus helping eliminate a source of housing and employment discrimination for formerly incarcerated New Yorkers. The governor and Senate included it in their proposals but the Assembly did not. That appears to be because the Assembly removed all non-budget-related policy from its resolution, though the adopted state budget is likely to have a significant amount of policy baked in, which could include Clean Slate.

Climate
Under Hochul's plan, state funding for the Environmental Bond Act, which is due to go before voters for approval or disapproval this fall, would increase from $3 billion to $4 billion to support conservation and climate change-mitigation projects. The Assembly is proposing an increase to $5 billion and the Senate to $6 billion.

The Senate's budget includes suspending a state gas tax, used to support roads and other infrastructure, from May through the end of the year in response to inflation and rising gas prices. The Assembly did not include it in its plan but Heastie has suggested he's open to talks, while Hochul has been more reticent.

The gas tax holiday is opposed by a broad coalition of transit, climate, community-based, and good-government advocates who say it disproportionately benefits the wealthy and places burdens on mass transit riders. The tax raises roughly $2 billion in state revenues annually.

There’s a push from advocates and some officials to pass a bill creating an Extended Producer Responsibility system, which would require packaging companies to reimburse municipalities for recycling their products. Hochul and the Senate included EPR in their budget proposals, but the Assembly did not, again likely due to its stance to exclude most non-budgetary items from its budget resolution. It’s unclear how much of a priority the policy is and whether the parties can get to an agreement on specifics.

One other major climate-related policy being negotiated is what could be, in effect, a ban on new gas hook-ups in newly-constructed buildings, a potential state law that could look a lot like something New York City enacted last year. Points of contention beyond broad agreement on the general principle are what year regulations would take effect and whether, like in the city, there would be different start dates for smaller and larger buildings.

Buffalo Bills Stadium
On Monday, Hochul announced a $1.4 billion deal with Erie Country, the Buffalo Bills, and the NFL to build a new stadium for the football team near Buffalo. Under the deal, the state would pay $600 million and Erie County would pay $250 million, while the Bills and NFL would contribute a total of $550 million.

Hochul is now trying to secure the deal in the budget, but lawmakers have raised opposition, citing concerns about the state's return on the massive investment and the lack of public transparency and the last-minute nature of the deal.

The Hochul administration estimates the new stadium – and a requirement the Bills stay in Buffalo for at least 30 years – will generate $1.6 billion in tax revenue over the 30-year period. Economists and fiscal watchdogs say similar projects are often not cost-effective and many critics have questioned whether the state needed to commit such a large subsidy.

Ethics and Campaign Finance Reform
One of Hochul's top promises, when she took over from the scandal-marred Cuomo, who resigned last year amid multiple sexual harassment and corruption allegations, was to bolster government transparency and ethics. High on the list was replacing the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE), the state's dysfunctional ethics watchdog, with a new body with more teeth and independence from political leaders.

Hochul proposed a plan in her State of the State agenda, to replace JCOPE with a five-member body made up of deans from the state's accredited law schools or their appointees. Good government groups supported the plan but the Legislature rejected it. Advocates still want to see JCOPE replaced but have criticized proposals that would fail to change the fundamental issues of independence that JCOPE has become known for. A plan now being discussed in Albany would strengthen ethics and lobbying enforcement but would leave appointing authority with state lawmakers, which good government groups said would do little.

Also part of state budget negotiations is funding for the implementation of the state's new public campaign finance system, which will go into effect after this year's elections. In order to be implemented effectively, the new system, which includes public matching of certain small-dollar campaign donations, needs millions of dollars, but just how much it needs and will get are a matter of debate.

Revenue and Reserves
Leaders have left tax increases off the table this year and appear to be leaving in place increases on high earners that were enacted last year. Along with a gas tax holiday of some sort, also under consideration is the proposed acceleration of planned middle class income tax cuts.

Hochul's spending plan seeks to build reserves to 15% of state operating funds over multiple years and projects a balanced budget through 2027. Fiscal watchdog groups like Citizens Budget Commission say more is needed to protect against future recessions based on the frequency and severity of recent downturns.

Watchdogs are also warning against adding recurring spending without reducing existing recurrences, particularly given that federal pandemic aid will run out over the next few years. State operating funds are expected to grow on average $4.6 billion a year after the coming fiscal year, according to CBC, which suggests, among other changes, that recurring funds can come from the $2 billion in school aid that goes to wealthy districts.

And the state is looking at other ways to boost revenue and keep its budget balanced. Lawmakers are expected to agree on licensing three casinos in the downstate area on a faster timeline than planned, and Mayor Adams has said he wants two of the sites to be in the five boroughs.

Other Issues to Watch
Dozens of other budget items remain up in the air. Areas to watch are how the state will allocate some $2 billion in federal funding set aside in Hochul's executive budget that she planned to determine with the Legislature.

Also on the table are how much state Medicaid spending will increase and capital spending on major infrastructure projects, like the next phase of the Second Avenue Subway, the Gateway project, JFK and LaGuardia Airport overhauls, and others.

The fate of to-go cocktails is also uncertain. Hochul included permanently legalizing the pandemic-era favorite of bars, restaurants, and imbibers but the one-house resolutions rejected it, in apparent deference to liquor store owners. But, indications are that the Legislature may be coming around to Hochul’s side of things.

Other Adams Asks
The Adams administration and a group of legislators called on Albany to give New York City control of its speed limits and traffic cameras, among other things, but transference of ‘home rule’ is unlikely. Some changes to relevant laws, like the hours that speed cameras can operate, may be in the offing, however.

The mayor is also hoping lawmakers will raise the city's borrowing capacity by increasing the bonding limit by $19 billion. The city's debt limit is based on average property values, which shrank during the pandemic. Comptroller Brad Lander is among those who have opposed the request, saying it is unnecessary at this time.

Adams is also seeking $117 million for foster care, adoption, and related child welfare programs and funding for safety-net hospitals.

In a memo outline budget priorities, Adams strongly opposed Hochul's plan to make permanent the Distressed Hospital Fund Tax Intercept, which he said diverts $200 million annually from the city's public hospital system, NYC Health + Hospitals, and $50 million a year from counties outside the city. "The City strongly opposes this proposal," the memo states. "We implore the State to mimic our partnership with Goldman Sachs on the creation of the Hospital Loan Fund to support safety-net hospitals with creative and sustainable solutions."

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

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Max Politics Podcast: Senator Gustavo Rivera on Crunch-Time State Budget Negotiations


State Senator Gustavo Rivera (photo: NYS Senate Media Services)


March 30, 2022 - Max Politics Podcast: Senator Gustavo Rivera on State Budget Negotiations

State Senator Gustavo Rivera, a Bronx Democrat and chair of the Senate health committee, joined the show to discuss final state budget negotiations, touching on a variety of key issues, as well as the overarching process, Mayor Adams' Albany agenda, and more.

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 Gustavo Rivera on Crunch-Time State Budget Negotiations

Max Politics Podcast: Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt on State Budget Priorities


Senate GOP Leader Rob Ortt at a rally (photo: NY Senate GOP)


March 29, 2022 - Max Politics Podcast: Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt on State Budget Priorities

Rob Ortt, the State Senate Republican Minority Leader, joined the show to discuss state budget negotiations and top priorities for the GOP conference, including bail reform and more, as well as the potential Buffalo Bills stadium deal.

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: Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt on State Budget Priorities

Will New York Form a Covid Response Review Commission?


Gov. Cuomo holding a covid briefing (photo: Governor's Office)


In 2018, a sight-seeing helicopter crashed into the East River near Manhattan's Upper East Side, killing five passengers. A year later it happened again on the roof of a skyscraper in midtown. The pilot died. After the second crash, Senator Chuck Schumer called for the FAA to require helicopters be equipped with "black boxes," like airplanes, so officials could examine what goes on in the cockpit before a wreck and avoid future tragedies.

Two years after the first recorded COVID-19 deaths in New York, facing the threat of a new strain and on the heels of another deadly winter surge, public health experts, legislators, and survivors are asking why there hasn't been a similar black-box review of the government's pandemic response and the decisions of those in charge – why New Yorkers experienced one of the most concentrated waves of coronavirus fatality in the world and why city and state emergency response plans failed them.

COVID-19 has killed 70,000 people statewide since March 2020, including 40,000 in New York City and more everyday. More than half the city's deaths occurred in the chaotic ten-week period after the virus was first detected in New York, over a month after international health organizations sounded the alarm.

At the time, the state faced shortages of critical medical supplies like ventilators and surgical masks. Thousands died in nursing homes and a disproportionate number in Black, Latino, and immigrant communities where health-care resources are relatively scarce. Then-Governor Andrew Cuomo was making daily addresses urging New Yorkers to take up protective measures and blaming the Trump administration for a lack of leadership and support.

On March 2, a day after the first case was discovered in Manhattan, Cuomo and then-Mayor Bill de Blasio assured New Yorkers that the state and city were prepared, having known for weeks that the virus would spread in New York and with the experience of past disease outbreaks that, according to Cuomo, were "frankly more frightening than this."

"Excuse our arrogance as New Yorkers – I speak for the mayor also on this one – we think we have the best health-care system on the planet right here in New York," Cuomo said that day at a rare joint press conference with de Blasio. "We don’t even think it’s going to be as bad as it was in other countries. We are fully coordinated, we are fully mobilized."

The decisions state and city officials made in those first weeks and in the years preceding them – to wait to limit public activity, to stockpile or not to stockpile equipment, to defund hospitals in low-income communities – all came with trade-offs, and directly shifted the balance of life and death during the pandemic.

"A fundamental principle of emergency response is to have an after-action report, a good, comprehensive, transparent analysis of what went right and what went wrong during any type of response," said Dr. Jay Varma, de Blasio's top health advisor during the pandemic, in an interview with Gotham Gazette.

"The single most important mission of a commission should be, how do we prepare New York State to be resilient against future pandemics," he said of a hypothetical review panel, which he supports assembling at the state level. Varma, an international expert on disease control and prevention, joined the administration in April 2020, only after the city had become inundated with the virus.

There are a number of forms a comprehensive study could take. It could be conducted by a commission created through legislation at the city or state level, or through executive order by the governor or mayor. It could also be carried out by government watchdogs like the state attorney general or comptroller, or by a private academic institution.

The administration of Governor Kathy Hochul has given mixed signals about backing a pandemic response study, but the governor recently indicated she would conduct one when the crisis is over. Hochul, a Democrat, took over in August 2021 after Cuomo, facing several scandals including two related to his handling of the pandemic, resigned.

Spokespeople for Mayor Eric Adams, a Democrat who took office in January, pointed to new research institutions and public health initiatives to respond to the pandemic (efforts that originated under de Blasio), but no government-wide probe.

The approach of officials in other branches of government – like the State Legislature, comptroller, and attorney general – has been sporadic, uncoordinated, and narrow.

Experts studying the government's response to the pandemic say that along with reckoning with decisions by top government officials, any examination should look at the state's involvement in the medical supply chain, hospital capacity, and the regulatory framework governing public and private healthcare systems. It could also shed light on the cost-efficiency, in terms of lives and funding, of the allocation of resources from hand sanitizer to vaccines.

"This would be a mid-stream effort to understand what's been happening over the last two years…to say this is where we are and where we go from here," said Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the Pandemic Resource and Response Initiative at Columbia University (not to be confused with the new Pandemic Response Institute, also at Columbia, and supported by city government).

"It's important because there are a lot of things that happened in the beginning that were not, by any stretch, perfect and are things that we should document and try to understand the dynamics of," he told Gotham Gazette.

Some of those include the corollary problems associated with inundated hospitals and a buckling health-care system, particularly in poor and underserved parts of New York, Redlener said. "We knew for a fact that many people were experiencing long waits and there was probably excess morbidity and mortality with those excess waits," he said. These same communities were known to disproportionately rely on emergency rooms for primary care and have higher incidences of underlying conditions. Those residents were also more likely to live in overcrowded housing and work in fields deemed “essential” during the pandemic, meaning they were unable to work from home.

Hospital surge plans and ventilator allocation guidelines were developed after the SARS and H5N1, or avian flu, outbreaks in the mid-aughts, and refined after MERS and Ebola a decade later.

Bill Hammond, a health policy fellow at the Empire Center for Public Policy, believes a review should scrutinize the details of those plans, whether they were germane, up to date, and followed. It should also interrogate the group of Cuomo administration officials in and out of the state health department who led New York's response, he argues.

"Why isn't anyone in the health department, in the legislature, in the governor's office jumping on this as just a basic duty of state government," asked Hammond of a systematic review.

Hochul's After-Action?
After Hurricane Ida flooded downstate New York and drowned 13 people last summer, the Hochul administration produced a 140-page study of each responding agency’s actions, in some cases down to the half-hour, in the days before and after the storm. While the scale of the pandemic response is massive, experts say the underlying principle is the same.

In mid-March, after a State Comptroller's audit found Cuomo's Health Department "misled the public" about covid deaths among nursing home residents, Hochul hinted at the possibility of launching a full-scale governmental review at some point in the future.

"Once we get through the urgency of dealing with the pandemic at hand, I do want to look back," she told reporters at an unrelated press conference at the Javits Center in Manhattan, which in the last two years had been a field hospital, a mass vaccination site, and the scene of the city's first known Omicron-variant case.

"I want to continue working with the comptroller and find out every aspect of the pandemic, what was done right, what was done wrong, and make sure that we're positioned to deal with this should we be in that same situation again," she said in response to questions about the nursing home report. "That's the responsible thing so we're going to continue to be transparent, continue to release data, continue to work with anyone, whether it's the comptroller or legislators, to get to the bottom of information but make sure that we never make mistakes again."

"That's my commitment," the governor added.

The remarks were a departure from her health commissioner, Dr. Mary Bassett, who riled some lawmakers at her Senate confirmation hearing in January when she said she was not going to review the decisions of her predecessor, Dr. Howard Zucker, related to nursing homes, where over 15,000 residents have died. "I decided when I took up this post that I wasn't going to try to unravel what had happened in the nursing homes under the previous commissioner, but simply look forward," she told lawmakers.

Advocates for and relatives of nursing home residents have vehemently criticized Cuomo and Zucker for a March 25, 2020 order forcing nursing homes to receive covid-positive patients from cramped hospitals and for under-reporting the number of residents who died. The matter became part of a raft of corruption allegations against Cuomo, including serial sexual harassment, that led to an attorney general investigation, Assembly impeachment probe, and his ultimate resignation. Zucker stepped down weeks later as part of a slew of management changes under Hochul and after weeks of pressure related to his handling of the pandemic.

The governor's office wouldn't say what form the future review would take or what its scope would be. "As Governor Hochul said publicly, she is exploring all options to review our pandemic response and protect New Yorkers from future public health crises," wrote spokesperson Avi Small in an email.

Mark Johnson, a spokesperson for Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, would not comment directly on Hochul's statements but said the office "welcome[s] any suggestions about how we can be of assistance to the state in the future."

"Our team will do a risk assessment to determine what areas to audit. Our objective is not to overlap what the federal government and other independent monitors are examining," Johnson wrote in an email when asked about conversations with Hochul about a full-scale review.

Review Models
A number of models have been proposed for the after-action. Public health experts have suggested government committees along the lines of the federal 9/11 Commission, formed after the September 11 terrorist attacks, and public-private partnerships with research institutions conducting the study. There have been proposals for more granular bodies to look at individual aspects of the pandemic response like a bill in the State Legislature to establish a bipartisan commission to examine deaths in nursing homes.

If passed, that commission would be able to subpoena witnesses and documents to examine the effectiveness of nursing home precautions and the state and federal regulations that were in place. It would be appointed by the Legislature's majority and minority leaders and chaired by an appointee of the New York Attorney General, currently Democrat Letitia James. Hiring investigators and administrative staff would require funding (the fiscal impact is "to be determined," according to a memo from the bill sponsors).

"People think this is about going after Andrew Cuomo but it's not, this is about bad policies and making sure, whoever the governor is moving forward, we know what not to do," said Assembly Member Ron Kim, a Queens Democrat and sponsor of the bill.

Kim, an outspoken critic of Cuomo, chairs the Committee on Aging in the Assembly where the bill has bipartisan support. But he told Gotham Gazette it looked like a "stalemate" in the state Senate. In the upper chamber, the bill is sponsored almost entirely by Republicans, with the exception of Senator Julia Salazar, a Brooklyn Democrat and another vocal critic of the former governor.

The bill's prime Senate sponsor, Senator Jim Tedisco, an upstate Republican, said he was pushing the legislation in part because he was "shocked and dismayed" by Dr. Bassett's remarks at her confirmation hearing. "We owe it to the memories of all those who lost their lives from COVID-19 in our nursing homes and their families to thoroughly investigate what happened in 2020 and for the state Health Department to develop and recommend an action plan to prevent a terrible tragedy like this from ever happening again,” he wrote in a statement.

Spokespeople for Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousin, a Westchester Democrat, and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, did not respond to requests for comment on the legislation. A spokesperson for Hochul said the governor would review the bill if it passes both houses.

There are no similar proposals at the city level in the New York City Council, according to a spokesperson for Speaker Adrienne Adams. Council Member Lynn Schulman, a Queens Democrat who chairs the Council’s health committee, declined to comment for this article through a spokesperson.

Government Pandemic Oversight
Government watchdogs like the city and state comptrollers and state attorney general have assessed parts of New York's pandemic policy. But there has been no broad investigation on the "whole-of-government response" city and state officials frequently reference.

DiNapoli is currently auditing the actions taken by the Office for People With Developmental Disabilities, as well as mental health services at the city and state education departments, according to his office. He has conducted a number of other health-related probes over the last two years. Attorney General James has conducted her own investigations into nursing homes and other public and private health practices, first shedding light on the Cuomo administration’s cover-up of the nursing home death toll in January 2021.

While piecemeal legislative oversight hearings and investigations have deposed executive branch officials, few have exercised subpoena power to compel decision-makers to provide records and answer questions. Some areas have never been the subject of a hearing or probe, like preparations in state-run psychiatric hospitals, where COVID-19 deaths among residents are disproportionately high. Federal-level covid commissions have been floated but have failed to gain momentum.

Spokespeople for James, Stewart-Cousins, and Heastie did not return requests for comment about an after-action commission or study on the pandemic response.

The Legislature "hasn't had a hearing on the stockpile [of ventilators and PPE], it hasn't had a hearing on the pandemic plan and whether that was adequate. It hasn't had a hearing on why the state was blind to the existence of a virus," said Hammond, of Empire Center, who has written extensively on the state’s missteps.

Despite having systems in place, much of the state's response was reactionary, coming only after cases were detected – something that depended largely on delayed federal approval for the state to do its own testing, which took six weeks after the first COVID-19 case was discovered in the United States. Only after the first case was detected in New York's Wadsworth Lab and the first death in the state was confirmed on March 10 – six weeks after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a "public health emergency of international concern" and 18 days after Italy, experiencing its own healthcare system on the verge of collapse, issued a nationwide shutdown order – did Cuomo ban large gatherings and shutter major indoor tourist attractions like Broadway.

The WHO declaration, on January 31, 2020 stated "all countries should be prepared for containment, including active surveillance, early detection, isolation and case management, contact tracing and prevention of onward spread of 2019-nCoVinfection." It did not, however, recommend any "travel or trade restriction."

"So much of decision making was what is the least bad choice," said Dr. Varma, who joined the de Blasio administration in April 2020 after several years fighting infectious diseases abroad. "Every choice was awful."

"What would be clear very early on is that the state and city were caught off guard," he said of an after-action survey. "I'm not saying that to assign blame," he added. "There was an expectation that the federal government would step in and address these problems."

The state's pandemic response was a massive operation involving virtually every city and state agency, federal agencies like the CDC, FEMA, and the national guard, and major private health institutions like Northwell Health and the Greater New York Hospital Association.

"There are interests out there who feel like they might be burned by the process and they don't want the boat to be rocked," Hammond observed.

Learning the lesson of self-reliance, Varma said, the state should focus on how it can shore up its supply chain, underserved communities, and health-care infrastructure. "In my mind those would be kind of like three areas that I think a commission could focus on in a way that doesn't generate too much finger-pointing and blame and also leads to a productive outcome in the future," he said.

New York City
After the first covid wave in 2020 and on the campaign trail a year later, Mayor Adams (then the Brooklyn Borough President) criticized City Hall, Albany, and Washington for not being prepared.

In a May 2020 letter to the Department of Justice, Adams, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, and other elected officials nationwide called for an investigation into the causes of covid's disparate impact on communities of color. Adams referenced the letter on the campaign trail.

“Why did we have a drive-through testing center on Staten Island before Brooklyn? We treated Black and brown people differently,” he said at one candidate forum in 2021. He criticized de Blasio’s response at another, saying, “we have a reactive plan, not a proactive plan.”

The Adams administration would not say whether the mayor or city health departments supported forming a commission to study the city's pandemic preparedness at the height of the pandemic.

In response to Gotham Gazette inquiries, officials in the mayor's office, Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and the city's public hospital system, NYC Health + Hospitals, pointed to a number of institutions established to respond to health issues related to and revealed by the pandemic.

One of them is the Pandemic Response Institute, a research facility launching in Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health and seeded with a $20 million capital grant from the city last September. Its mission is to "develop and deploy locally tailored health solutions, information, and capacity to prevent, prepare for, respond to, and recover from future health crises," according to a press release.

“A full recovery from this pandemic must include learning from our response and strengthening our public health infrastructure to prepare for the next one," wrote Kate Smart, a spokesperson for Adams, in an email. "That’s why we invested in the Public Health Corps and the Pandemic Response Institute, which, in addition to constantly monitoring COVID-19, is preparing New York City for future health emergencies and epidemics in a more effective and equitable manner."

But the institute is not the type of government-sanctioned retrospective and investigatory body needed to publicly account for the state's response, said Dr. Redlener, the Columbia pandemic specialist.

"I'm not holding my breath about what that will do or won't do," he said.

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

Read more by this writer.

Max Politics Podcast: What to Know as State Budget Negotiations Enter the Home Stretch


Governor Hochul speaks to the Legislature (photo: Mike Groll/Office of Governor Kathy Hochul)


March 23, 2022 - Max Politics Podcast: What to Know as State Budget Negotiations Enter the Home Stretch

With a new New York state budget due by the April 1 start of the next fiscal year, two top Albany journalists -- Susan Arbetter of Spectrum News and Luis Ferré-Sadurní of the New York Times -- joined the show to break down the key issues being negotiated among Governor Kathy Hochul and the State Legislarture in the home stretch.

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: What to Know as State Budget Negotiations Enter the Home Stretch

‘Go Visit Charter Schools’: NYC Charter School Center CEO James Merriman on Growth, Challenges, and Raising the Cap


A past rally for charter schools with James Merriman, right (photo: @nyccharters)


“We have a lot more friends in private than we do in public,” James Merriman, the CEO of the New York City Charter School Center, told host Ben Max in a recent conversation on Gotham Gazette’s Max Politics podcast. Half-joking about the political environment related to charter schools in New York, Merriman outlined the current duality for the controversial sector of privately-run public schools: they are wildly popular, especially among Black and Latino families unhappy with their district schools, but they face significant skepticism and barriers to further expansion.

Merriman joined the podcast to discuss the virtues of and address concerns about New York City’s charter school sector, and assess the political landscape as he and other charter school supporters seek a lifting of the state cap, which has been hit, on the number of charters in New York City. Despite that cap, existing charters continue to grow as they add grade levels each year and expand enrollment.

The growth of charter schools, particularly in New York City, has remained divisive in education circles and beyond, a long-standing hot-button political issue that is often debated as part of policy decisions and elections. Most charter schools are allowed to operate outside the purview of the New York City Department of Education and the vast majority of charter schools do not employ unionized staff. Though the schools receive public authorization and funding, they are privately run and their budgets are often complemented by massive philanthropic fundraising, especially among the big networks like Success Academy, the largest and most controversial.

In New York City, the roughly 270 charter schools are now responsible for the education of over 140,000 students, 90% of them Black or Hispanic.

Merriman has led the New York City Charter School Center for well over a decade, a time period of significant fluctuation in the charter school movement’s political fortunes in New York. In terms of top officeholders, the sector has lost champions like former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Governor Andrew Cuomo, but has now seen former Mayor Bill de Blasio, an outspoken charter school opponent, replaced by a charter-friendly Mayor Eric Adams, who has said he wants to see more charters allowed to open in the city. Governor Kathy Hochul has kept the issue of charter school expansion at arm’s length. The sector has also in recent years lost longtime champions in the State Senate Republican majority that was a force behind its expansion for years.

Along with advocating for the growth of the sector, the NYC Charter School Center works to help schools get started, support existing schools, and drum up political support.

In speaking on the virtues of charter schools, Merriman framed the conversation around bringing school choice to low-income families. The idea, he said, is to “break that monopoly and give low-income folks the opportunity to choose in a way that middle-class people like myself take for granted.”

If a student is born where the district school is not a good school or not the right fit, without charter schools, that student is forced to remain at that school, unless their family has the means to pick up and move to a different district or enrollment zone, Merriman said. Simply put, Merriman said, many New York City public schools in lower-income communities are not providing a strong enough education and parents are seeking out alternatives, where charter schools often come in, and that’s why 80% of charter school students are low-income.

While in some places, charter schools remain the sort-of “small lab” concept aimed at giving educators freedom to try out new styles of pedagogy, as originally intended in New York City, they have largely grown into a large, alternative sector, Merriman explained, giving a lifeline to hundreds of thousands of families.

While Merriman acknowledged that there are some charter schools that similarly fall short, those schools will close, he says, whereas the district schools will continue on operating the same way. “Parents see that charter schools have a mission-driven view that the children that they enroll need to reach certain benchmarks and see certain achievements if they’re even to hope to participate fully in their economic and social life when they reach adulthood,” Merriman explained on the podcast. 

So what makes the difference? Is it the resources? The freedom from teachers union contracts? Merriman pointed to that freedom from union contract and district rules, as well as the ability to attract many strong school leaders. The ability to work with teachers directly and to not abide by a collective bargaining agreement that “literally rules every second of every day” is critical, he said, as is the ability for a principal to hire the team they want and fire those teachers that don’t work out.

Merriman also referenced control of the budget and stability so as not to run every which way when a new superintendent is hired as factors important to the success of charter schools. Asked about the high rates of teacher attrition, Merriman noted that low-income children experience a lot of teacher turnover whether in district or charter schools. 

The true success of any school, but particularly a charter, Merriman said, lies in the ability to attract and retain quality leadership. “No matter how talented a group of teachers you may have,” he explained, “I think most teachers would agree they need a great leader to bind them together in a common mission.” In fact, Merriman called the shortage of what he sees as high-quality leaders, “the scary part of public education.”

Since there is a state cap on the number of charters that can be issued for schools, and a sub cap in New York City of 290, which has already been hit, the proliferation of charter schools in the city is on pause, though existing charters do continue to expand.

Merriman hopes to change that but acknowledges it will be an uphill battle. “It’s tough out there — we need to persuade more folks in Albany in both the Assembly and the Senate that this is worth doing,” he said on the podcast.

For his part, Mayor Adams has called for the reissuing of 21 charters that were given to what are now referred to as “zombie charters,” schools that have ceased to run. Merriman called this an easy and common sense step and signaled gratitude for the mayor’s willingness to get it done.

There are groups of educators and social service agencies that are ready to start new schools, Merriman said, and the center has its eyes on increasing the number of schools headed up by people of color. The fight to increase the overall charter school cap is a bit more complicated though – and Merriman says a lot of that has to do with the United Federation of Teachers, the city’s politically-potent teachers union.

“A vote in favor of charters is considered an enemy act on the part of the legislator,” Merriman said of representatives in Albany and the UFT, which he said has threatened lawmakers with primary challenges if they support charter schools. His movement, right now, just doesn’t have the same political heft, money, or organizing power, he acknowledged.

“The number of substantive conversations that we’ve had with legislators is very very few,” Merriman explained. At Max’s suggestion of more public hearings, Merriman said the real nuanced and thoughtful conversations on the issue happen most often more quietly in someone’s office with experts who can really dig into the data.

As for the wild care of Governor Hochul, Merriman said he wouldn’t make any assumptions on her stance, preferring to let her speak on the issue while he looks to continue to build support.

As for broader education reform, Merriman acknowledged he’s not an educator himself and that he doesn’t like amateurism, but offered the idea of more principal autonomy, as well as a move toward content-rich curriculum including a science of reading and, explicitly, phonics instruction. These principles are shared by the Adams administration, it appears, as new schools Chancellor David Banks has indicated support for them in a speech laying out his vision not long after Merriman spoke on the podcast.

Merriman expressed optimism about Adams and Banks, and reiterated the need to refocus on student achievement, which both city leaders have also cited as a priority.

The conversation wound down with a question on recent discipline reckonings within the charter school community, especially with regard to the record of Success Academy, the city’s largest charter network with long lists of both impressive academic statistics and troublesome policies and allegations. Merriman acknowledged it was an issue and an ongoing conversation within the sector. It is important to meet students where they are, he said, and also to build a culture of discipline so that students can feel a sense of safety and security in their school buildings.

“The only thing I want folks to do is to go visit charter schools,” Merriman said. The leaders and teachers love to have visitors, he assured, before expressing the desire that voters and city residents see “it’s just New Yorkers educating New Yorkers.”

[Listen to the full conversation: Max Politics Podcast: The Growth of Charter Schools in New York City, with James Merriman]

‘Our Community Is Incredibly Angry’: Asian American Federation President Jo-Ann Yoo on Anti-Asian Violence


"Stop Asian Hate" (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)


“Right now our community is incredibly, incredibly angry,” said Jo-Ann Yoo, executive director of the Asian American Federation, a New York City-based nonprofit, during a recent appearance on Gotham Gazette’s Max Politics podcast. “We feel ignored. We feel unseen,” Yoo said, discussing the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes and violence, including several high-profile murders in recent months, and the lack of resources dedicated to the problem.

“You know, there's this crime wave against Asian-Americans,” Yoo continued. “But yet, there seems to be no solution. We finally met with the mayor this week…I asked that we have many, many more meetings with the mayor. But right now, our community, our tempers are running hot…And rightly so, because we've had to endure watching really gruesome videos in the media for two years and feeling unsafe when we walk out of the house. Our parents are refusing to send their kids to school because they're afraid; seniors are afraid to go out for a walk for all of these reasons. And I hope it's not just the Asian-American community that's angry about what is happening, and it's not just the Asian-American community that's horrified and afraid. I hope it's all New Yorkers.”

The Asian-American Federation, dedicated to amplifying the influence of the Pan-Asian community and putting forth research, policy, and services while coordinating its many members, has taken additional action to both serve Asian-American New Yorkers directly and push the city and state governments to do more. At times, that work is being done in larger coalitions, like the new “AAPI Equity Coalition,” which recently released its $64.5 million ask of New York state government ahead of the new state budget due by the April 1 start of the new fiscal year.

With a still-new governor, a brand new mayor, and many other new city office-holders, as well as the urgency of the problem, Yoo sees the opportunity to make a major push for the attention and resources the larger Asian-American Pacific-Islander (AAPI) community needs. “We don’t just live in enclaves anymore,” she explained, “We are 18% of the [New York City] population, there’s 10% of us in at least half the City Council districts throughout New York City.”

The time for thoughts and prayers is over, Yoo said, stressing a need for action, though she acknowledged some differences of opinion among Asian-American New Yorkers on certain potential solutions, like more ubiquitous police presence. “It’s hard to feel safe anywhere,” she said, expressing acute concern for those with no choice but to leave home for work and other reasons, those who must venture out into a city that appears increasingly hostile to them.

At the recent meeting of AAPI leaders with Mayor Eric Adams, a Democrat, and members of his administration at City Hall, Yoo said her “bold ask” was to request $30 million for mental health programs. Calling out former Mayor Bill de Blasio’s embattled ThriveNYC program for not investing in Asian-American communities, Yoo said those communities are in desperate need of more mental health resources. She will give Adams a little grace, she said, given that he’s only been in office for under three months and inherited various crises, but he has to engage systemically and call upon experts.

The need for increased mental health services in the AAPI community has been compounded by recent attacks, Yoo explained, speaking from personal experience about fighting back tears in her own home so as not to alarm her children. “We are sick of this but we need to talk to somebody and we need to have this investment made,” she said, adding that the resources should be spread to all communities of color.

For its part, the Asian American Federation has just launched a mental health directory, aimed at providing community members with the culturally competent resources they need should they decide to seek support. With the directory, the AAF hopes to decrease stigma and target long wait times and linguistic barriers.

As for public safety, the conversation around responding to anti-Asian violence in New York City often consists of a debate over more or less police presence on the streets and subways. Yoo said both points of view have merit and that there is debate within AAPI communities. While there are some elders in the community who want an extremely robust police presence, she said, others don’t see it as a panacea and police responses to attacks on Asians have been fraught with errors, Yoo said. She pointed to several challenges in interactions between AAPI New Yorkers and members of the NYPD, as well as some uncertainty among AAPI New Yorkers about what they should even report.

Yoo referenced the recent killing of Christina Lee in her apartment after being followed as a prime example of a police response that discouraged individuals from reporting incidents. Police jumped to conclusions, she said, by quickly saying it was not a hate crime before any investigation. “It dismisses our community's pain,” Yoo said of that and other responses AAPI New Yorkers have gotten from the police.

She also pointed to language barriers when reporting incidents, pointing to a larger debate around the need for the demographics of law enforcement to mirror the communities in which they serve and the importance of staffing certain precincts and divisions with a targeted diversity of officers.

Additionally, community members are at times unsure of where the line is drawn for a hate crime, Yoo said, and what degree of physical harm has to be inflicted before it crosses that line. 

Along with Yoo’s $30 million ask of Mayor Adams for mental health resources, she and the AAF are part of the coalition seeking more from the state. In late February the Asian American Federation joined other community groups to announce the formation of the AAPI Equity Coalition, which is calling for a historic $64.5 million in equity funding in the upcoming state budget.

This is the fastest-growing population in the country, Yoo explained, but the investment hasn’t matched that. “With the AAPI Equity Budget, we seek to finally correct the long-standing underfunding of the AAPI community by supporting the intricate network of on-the-ground community organizations that are already well known as lifelines to our struggling community,” says a statement from State Senator John Liu, a Queens Democrat and among the elected leaders of the city’s AAPI communities, in backing the equity budget agenda.

When asked about working with other member coalitions and partner organizations, Yoo explained that both unity and specificity exist at the same time. Each non-profit organization is working to lift up their own specific neighborhood, she says, but they are bound together by pan-Asian identity and by a common frustration.

“When you have nothing you share,” Yoo said on the podcast. “We share resources. There’s a lot of solidarity and sympathy and empathy work that is happening.” In particular, protecting seniors has emerged as a common goal. In response, the federation has convened its first-ever seniors working group dedicated to ensuring community elders feel safe and respected in their neighborhoods.

It is important for the AAPI community to have advocates not just on the ground, but in the halls of government as well, Yoo explains. When asked about the significance of representation her response was that Asian-American elected officials are vital because it is lived experience that makes for great champions. Yoo expressed gratitude for the work of U.S. Representative Grace Meng, State Senator Liu, Assemblymember Ron Kim, and others, but clarified that you don’t have to be Asian-American to represent Asian Americans, referencing new City Council Member Christopher Marte, who serves Manhattan’s Chinatown as part of his district. What’s most important, she says, is that the leadership has your back no matter what. 

It is that principle that Yoo blames in part for the recent Republican swing in Asian voters in the city, saying she saw the trend coming for a few years now. While every community has partisan diversity, the documented shift in the city presents a wake-up call for Democratic leadership, Yoo said. “Shame on you for taking the Asian-American community for granted,” she said.

[Listen to the full conversation: Max Politics Podcast: Asian-American New Yorkers Fight To Be Seen, with Jo-Ann Yoo]

Max Politics Podcast: A Vision for Limited Government in New York


The Capitol Building in Albany New York (photo: Mike Groll/Governor's Office)


March 16, 2022 - Max Politics Podcast: A Vision for Limited Government in New York

Peter Warren, research director at the Empire Center for Public Policy, joined the show to discuss a limited government vision for New York's economic and fiscal policies, including lowering taxes and reducing government spending.

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: A Vision for Limited Government in New York

'Database of Deals' for State Business Subsidy Accountability Backed by Both Houses of Legislature


Gov. Hochul talks economic development (photo: Darren McGee/Office of Governor Kathy Hochul)


In their separate one-house budget resolutions passed this week both houses of the State Legislature included a "database of deals," a public register of state business subsidies that would shed light on billions of dollars in government incentives to corporations.

The legislation, which has been around for years but not passed, would require the state to publish a searchable database of state subsidies for economic development projects that would document the corporate recipient, the state benefits received, and number of jobs committed to and created.

Supporters of the proposal including legislators and transparency advocates say the tool would allow the government and the public to evaluate the efficacy of roughly $5 billion in annual business and economic development incentives and could make it possible to track the total flow of state money to businesses across the state.

Passage in State Senate and Assembly budget resolutions does little more than show significant legislative support for the proposal. In order to become law, it would have to survive final state budget negotiations, which are now unfolding among Governor Kathy Hochul and legislative leaders ahead of the April 1 start of the next state fiscal year. Alternatively, the bill could be passed at any time by the two houses of the Legislature.

Hochul has not taken a public position on a database of deals nor did she put it in her $216 billion executive budget or State of the State policy agenda, both released in January.

Calls for a database of state economic development deals and subsidies have grown over the years amid related corruption scandals, high-profile failures, evidence of pay-to-play politics, and general questions about the necessity and effectiveness of such tax breaks and other incentives favored by former Governor Andrew Cuomo.

"The public wants to know how their dollars are being spent and we think this database of deals legislation will go a long way to ensure that we can capture exactly what is happening, especially in economic development projects," said State Senator Leroy Comrie, a Queens Democrat who has sponsored the bill.

The legislation will "help the public see which businesses are getting state subsidies, how much they are receiving, and whether those subsidies are creating jobs, as intended," said Assembly sponsor Monica Wallace, in an email statement urging lawmakers to back its inclusion in the final enacted budget.

Economic development subsidies can take many forms, from government grants and loans to tax benefits to utility assistance. They can be administered through a range of state agencies where reporting on them is decentralized and often incomplete. One of the largest, the New York State Film Tax Credit Program, gives $420 million a year in tax breaks to businesses that produce films in New York.

Opaque and unaccountable subsidies have helped prop up billionaires and political insiders. Tech mogul Elon Musk received upwards of $950 million in state incentives to open a spectacularly overvalued solar panel factory in upstate New York that created few jobs before being absorbed by Musk's company Tesla. Another economic development project, the billion-dollar nanotech initiative spearheaded by Cuomo as part of “the Buffalo Billion,” incubated one of the biggest bid-rigging scandals in recent state history and ended with close Cuomo allies going to jail.

Like her predecessor, Hochul has continued to tout state incentives for major economic development projects, like the "Finger Lakes Forward" initiative that includes a $500 million state investment promised to “incentivize private business to invest well over $2.5 billion” to revitalize the region and create “up to 8,200 new jobs.”

As part of that effort, on Wednesday Hochul announced that a French yogurt and desserts company, La Fermière, “will establish its U.S. production operations in New York State” and committed to constructing a large new production facility in Batavia. The company, the governor’s office said in a press release, “expects to create up to 135 new jobs in the region.” The press release did not say what types of incentives the company was getting from the state.

In January, the State Senate held a long-awaited public hearing on the state's business subsidies after calls from advocates for greater oversight.

The language in the new one-house legislative budgets, passed on Monday, includes detailed definitions of subsidy categories and job commitments, allowing cost-efficiency comparisons across projects. Because it would be a centralized system – housed in the Empire State Development Corporation (ESD), where most of the state's economic development dollars pass through – it would make it easier to see the total number of state tax dollars going to individual companies.

After related scandals and significant pressure, including the threat of database of deals legislation, ESD began voluntarily reporting some business subsidies under Cuomo in its Database of Economic Incentives, but it doesn't cover as many subsidies and there are no penalties or sanctions for failing to report information.

"Putting it in law gives it much more teeth and also makes it subject to oversight by the Legislature, which is crucial," said John Kaehny, the executive director of the good government group Reinvent Albany, which has been pushing lawmakers to adopt the database of deals for years.

"The database of deals we expect will become one of the fundamental ways that the Legislature and the Governor measure the success or failure of different kinds of subsidies," Kaehny said. "Right now the state's database is simply too incomplete to be a useful analytic tool."

The database of deals would still contain gaps. It would not cover subsidies from local governments, worth another roughly $5 billion annually. And individual beneficiaries would still be able to hide behind limited liability companies to obscure the total state subsidies they are receiving.

"It would still be a huge, huge step forward," Kaehny said.

The database is not a done deal. The State Senate and Assembly both included some form of it in their one-house budgets in 2017 and 2019, but the proposals got whittled out during budget negotiations with Cuomo, who used business subsidies prolifically and often with little oversight.

Hochul has staked her early tenure as governor on a burgeoning reputation for intragovernmental cooperation and transparency but has not said whether she supports the legislation.

"Governor Hochul’s Executive Budget includes bold initiatives to embrace this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to invest in our future, and we look forward to continuing to work with the legislature to finalize a budget that serves all New Yorkers," wrote Avi Small, a spokesperson for Hochul, in an email to Gotham Gazette.

Comrie was optimistic it could pass under Hochul. "The new administration is more cooperative and committed to making sure government is more transparent," he told Gotham Gazette.

"I'm getting very positive feedback from all members that we talk about it with because it does more things to ensure that taxpayer funds that are being allocated are allocated fairly and equitably," said Comrie, a Democrat representing a predominantly Black district in Queens.

Part of that means being better able to track tax dollars going to minority- and women-owned businesses, he noted.

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie did not respond to requests for comment. All three Albany leaders -- Hochul, Stewart-Cousins, and Heastie -- are Democrats.

For the first time, the Senate and Assembly database of deals proposals use roughly the same language. That means the bills won't have to be reconciled further down the line and indicates broad agreement among legislative leaders as they enter negotiations with the Hochul administration.

The database of deals enjoys more support in the Legislature this time around in part because it no longer includes subsidies from local governments, according to Kaehny.

"That was done very deliberately to make the politics simpler, basically," he said, adding that advocates want to see it expanded to localities in the future.

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

Read more by this writer.

'Clear Proof Lives Have Been Saved': Will New York Expand on First Overdose Prevention Centers?


An Overdose Prevention Center (photo: @nycHealthy)


In December, New York City became the first municipality in the country to establish Overdose Prevention Centers to allow people with substance use disorders to safely use drugs under medical supervision while receiving services such as medical care, mental health treatment, and more. After years of consideration and discussions with other levels of government, the de Blasio administration gave a longtime nonprofit service-provider the go-ahead to offer safe injection sites.

Within the first three months, the two sites in East Harlem and Washington Heights have received more than 10,000 visits and reversed nearly 200 overdoses, according to data provided by the nonprofit that runs the sites, OnPoint NYC. No one has died at either of the centers. The initial results of the overdose prevention programs have encouraged some elected officials and advocates who are now calling for an expansion of the program to other parts of the city.

Proponents of overdose prevention centers, also known as safe injection sites, point to the data as proof that they are an effective measure in tackling the ongoing opioid overdose crisis, which peaked during the pandemic. Rather than risk unsupervised overdoses, allowing substance use disorders to go untreated, or putting people through the criminal justice system, OPCs help keep people alive and provide various other forms of treatment they need, with consistent efforts to help those using drugs enter counseling or other programming.

“We've proven it works and proven it’s an important health intervention and we just need more,” said Sam Rivera, executive director of OnPoint NYC. OnPoint is among the organizations that have run clean needle exchanges and other public health programming to reduce negative outcomes of drug use.

The sites are controversial, with many Republicans and moderate Democrats arguing that they encourage higher rates of drug use or simply provide social approval to the use of illegal substances. OPCs are also illegal under the federal Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. Specifically, under what is known as the “crack house” statute in the law, which makes it a felony to “knowingly open, lease, rent, use, or maintain any place, whether permanently or temporarily, for the purpose of manufacturing, distributing, or using any controlled substance.”

While the Trump administration used the law to prevent an overdose prevention center from opening in Philadelphia, the Biden administration has held off as the president himself has indicated support for less punitive policies focused on harm reduction. 

The results in New York City may provide the Biden administration with enough cause to continue to at least look the other way, if not use the data to encourage changes to the law. The city initially estimated that the two OPCs would save between 100 to 130 lives each year. In just the first few months, the centers have already surpassed those numbers. As of Wednesday, March 9, the sites had been visited 10,470 times by 857 individual participants, with interventions in 180 overdoses.

OnPoint’s Rivera said the effects are farther reaching than just saving lives. There has also been an improvement in the quality of life for the surrounding communities. He said that in Highbridge Park in Washington Heights, the Sanitation Department is collecting far fewer discarded syringes, from 13,000 a month down to roughly 1,000.

“For me, just the biggest concern overall is funding to operate them which has to come from the federal government making a change to the ‘crack house’ statute,” he said. “We don't want such an amazing health intervention that's already shown pretty significant outcomes to be taken away…or closed because the funding isn't available.”

The OPCs are run by existing service providers, which receive city funds for other services such as needle exchange programs but have to raise private funds for the overdose prevention services. The centers are currently open for certain hours but plan to provide all-day services later this year.

The question in New York City, and perhaps other parts of the state, now appears to be whether more safe injection sites will open in the coming months and years.

“Every overdose death is a tragedy and we must use all tools available to prevent them,” said Kate Smart, a spokesperson for Mayor Eric Adams, a Democrat who took office January 1, in a statement. “Overdose prevention centers are evidence-based solutions that save lives and make communities safer. While no community should carry too heavy of a weight in serving New Yorkers with these critical supports, we hope to build on the success of existing OPCs to serve more New Yorkers, and build a safer, healthier city.”

In a March 9 appearance on Gotham Gazette’s Max Politics podcast, outgoing New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Dave Chokshi said the OPCs are his proudest achievement as health commissioner. “[I]f we weren't in a pandemic, this would be the five-alarm fire in public health,” he said of the opioid overdose crisis. “And we should still treat it as the emergency that it is. And so I'm really proud that we were able to be pioneering in this respect. And, you know, I hope that it's an example for the entire country.”

City Council Member Diana Ayala has focused on social services and substance use treatment as chair of two relevant committees in the Council. Her East Harlem and South Bronx district is home to many people struggling with drug and alcohol addiction, and one safe injection site is near her district, just over the line into the district of new City Council Member Kristin Richardson Jordan.

Ayala hails the success of the OPC and encourages her colleagues to push for an expansion of sites. “I love it. I love it,” she said in an interview. “I don't want to give the appearance that I'm condoning drug use because I'm not, but I'm trying to be a realist and understand that people with substance use disorder have a very difficult time getting the assistance they need, and it takes some time to get to a place where they no longer want to use and are ready to accept help.”

Ayala said without the OPC, people will use drugs at home or out in the community, leading to additional drug exposure, syringe litter and, most consequentially, fatal overdoses. “It is a great tool to have in the toolbox and I think that it should be replicated,” she said. “I'm hoping that this is something that the administration really highly considers doing because I think that is the only way to really make a dent on the opioid crisis.”

The Washington Heights site is in City Council Member Carmen De La Rosa’s district. Like Ayala, she is a Democrat.

De La Rosa is slightly more circumspect about the OPC in her district, while acknowledging that the results are largely positive. “I'm encouraged by the news that lives have been saved by the safe injection sites,” she said. But, she added, “I do have concerns though about the way that safe injection centers came into our community.” Both sites opened in December, just weeks before De La Rosa took office as a newly-elected Council member and in the final stretch of Bill de Blasio’s tenure as Mayor.

“Without robust community input, the program's successes aren't necessarily celebrated by the full community…We can't run away from community backlash. We have to include the community in decisions that we're making that will impact whether it's their quality of life or their surrounding neighborhood,” De La Rosa, previously a State Assembly member, said in an interview.

She also said the centers should be accompanied with more wraparound services including outreach workers to bring in people off the street, social workers to follow up with them, mental health professionals to treat them, and sanitation services for syringe clean-ups. “It's hard to be opposed to something when there's clear proof that lives have been saved…I guess my opposition is to the public outreach…I think that that was truly lacking,” she said.

As elected officials of virtually all political stripes and many advocates have pointed out, it has never been more urgent to dedicate more resources to overdose prevention. In 2020, overdose deaths were the highest ever on record in New York City and nationwide. But those who support safe injection sites often are quick to note that their larger fight is at the state level, where they are hoping that Governor Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, and State Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett will authorize overdose prevention centers across the state, which would allow state and city funds to flow to service-providers who currently have to rely on private donations.

Jasmine Budnella, director of drug policy at VOCAL-NY, a nonprofit advocacy and service group, said short of state health department authorization, the Legislature should pass State Senator Gustavo Rivera’s bill, the Safer Consumption Services Act, which would also accomplish that.

“We're at a critical moment of the overdose crisis where if we don't have immediate action by the government, we are going to continue to see record breaking years like 2020 every single year going forward,” Budnella said.

She also pointed out that overdose prevention centers are particularly critical for homeless New Yorkers, for whom overdoses have been the leading cause of death for the last eight years. “There's absolutely no reason that the political will to ensure that all New Yorkers are able to stay alive and healthy and safe while using substances isn't afforded to them,” she said.

“I proudly carry the bill to authorize Overdose Prevention Centers in the New York State Senate,” Senator Rivera, a Bronx Democrat, said in a statement. ”These centers are not only safe places where people who use drugs can receive medical care and be connected to treatment, but they also help address the valid concerns that certain New Yorkers have regarding the increased presence of substance use on our streets and its impact on our communities. We already have two overdose prevention centers operating in New York City and they have saved over a hundred New Yorkers from an overdose death. I look forward to working with Governor Hochul and my colleagues in the Legislature to authorize them throughout New York State and prevent unnecessary overdose deaths as we deal with putting an end to the opioid epidemic.”

While Hochul has said the state would study OPCs, she has otherwise been noncommittal about authorizing them. “Governor Hochul is deeply and personally committed to combating the opioid epidemic, and all options are on the table to save lives,” said Hazel Crampton-Hays, a Hochul spokesperson, in an email. “Together with our Department of Health and Office of Addiction Services and Supports we will continue to explore the efficacy of this approach and how it impacts our communities to determine how best to reduce harm and keep New Yorkers safe.”

Hochul, in her first and potentially only full year as Governor, may not want to get involved with the issue during an election year. Dr. Bassett has been a proponent of overdose prevention centers since her time as New York City health commissioner, if not prior to that, when she and de Blasio first announced support for them in 2018.

“We are pleased that these centers have helped save hundreds of lives, and we look forward to learning more from NYC’s experience. No decision has been made on whether to expand to other parts of the state,” said Jeffrey Hammond, a state Department of Health spokesperson, in a statement.

The fiercest opposition to the overdose prevention centers has come from U.S. Rep. Nicole Malliotakis, a Republican who represents Staten Island and parts of Southern Brooklyn. In December, Malliotakis introduced a bill to “defund” OPCs by witholding federal funds from any city, state, tribal, or private entity that operates one.

"In 2018, the Department of Justice committed to me that it would intervene if Mayor de Blasio proceeded with his illegal scheme to open heroin injection centers in New York City," Malliotakis said in a statement at the time, referring to the DOJ during President Trump’s tenure. "Now that Mayor de Blasio has gone forward with these plans, I've called on the Biden Administration to take the same course of action. If they don't, I've introduced this legislation to ensure any federal funds sent to entities that operate these unlawful facilities are stripped for good. We've already identified millions of federal dollars that have been sent to these facilities. Gifting money to heroin shooting galleries that only encourage drug use and deteriorate our quality of life is an egregious abuse of taxpayer dollars."

Malliotakis' bill could see more momentum if Republicans take the majority in the House of Representatives through this year's elections.

On the other side of the argument, some City Council members are looking to open additional facilities in the near future.

“I'm certainly going to be working with my colleagues to urge deeper investment in OPCs because…they're undeniable, the results are undeniable,” said Council Member Tiffany Cabán, a Queens Democrat, who asked Dr. Chokshi about the overdose prevention centers during a recent City Council budget hearing.

Asked by Cabán if the city has plans to expand the number of centers and even to make the current ones operate 24/7, Dr. Chokshi, who is leaving the post March 14 for Adams’ chosen health commissioner, Dr. Ashwin Vasan, said he is hopeful that the Adams administration will partner with Council members and service-providers to do so.

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

Read more by this writer.

Note: this story has been corrected to reflect that one of the two initial OPCs is not in Council Member Diana Ayala's district, but just nearby it in a neighboring district.



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