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Covid Surge in State Psychiatric Centers Kills Two Patients in January, Hundreds Remain Infected


rockland psychiatric center main buildings

Rockland Psychiatric Center (photo: @Acroterion via Wikimedia Commons)


The winter COVID-19 surge in state-run psychiatric centers has continued, killing two patients in January and with roughly 200 patients still infected as of February 2.

The facilities, 24 in all, are home to New Yorkers deemed to have severe mental illnesses that require segregation from the community and/or on-site treatment. There are currently 4,400 people living in close quarters in state-run psychiatric institutions, some with underlying medical conditions, making the facilities more vulnerable to the virus than other congregate settings. Most of those patients are in state custody involuntarily and for indefinite terms, whether or not they entered willingly, under the strictures of the state Mental Hygiene Law.

Since the pandemic began, 55 state psychiatric patients are confirmed to have died of COVID-19, with more suspected casualties. Thousands of infections have been detected. But lawmakers in the Legislature's mental health committees have not conducted any public oversight of conditions in state psychiatric centers since the pandemic began.

“OMH mourns the loss of all who have succumbed to the COVID virus over the last two years," wrote James Plastiras, a spokesperson for the state's Office of Mental Health (OMH), in an email. "Although the winter surge and more contagious Omicron variant have increased infection rates across the nation, as well as in some OMH-operated Psychiatric Centers, the infection control measures we implemented and our ongoing attention to encouraging vaccinations have helped us to keep infections, serious illness, and deaths to a minimum among the 11,589 vulnerable patients served in our in our facilities since the pandemic began.” (The figure refers to the combined number of people in in-patient and residential programs.) 

The two January deaths occurred from separate facilities, Rockland Psychiatric Center and Buffalo Psychiatric Center – two large hospitals that both saw small outbreaks in the first three weeks of January, according to state data. They are the first confirmed covid-related state psychiatric patient deaths since the fall.

A vast majority of COVID-19 deaths in OMH's in-patient facilities occurred in the first year of the pandemic when state regulators struggled to keep up with the myriad challenges posed by the airborne disease. The biggest single leap was in April of 2020, when the virus killed 20 people under state psychiatric care in the span of a week. Since then, OMH has seen a steady trickle of fatalities.

The winter surge in state psychiatric centers peaked at over 300 positive cases in mid-January. While the numbers in many facilities have fallen in recent weeks, 19 centers still have confirmed cases in their wards and five have over a dozen. Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Queens, the largest in the system, had 41 covid-positive patients out of 471 total patients, down from 71 positive patients last week.

This winter, OMH activated many of the same precautions it has taken on and off throughout the pandemic – limiting visitation, distributing personal protective equipment, disinfection, screening for symptoms, and postponing nonessential training, according to Plastiras.

The state requires employees to be vaccinated. Visitors must show proof of vaccination or a negative test in counties with a seven-day test positive rate above 3%, which included all but Rockland County as of February 3.

Facilities encourage social distancing "when possible," but that can be difficult in the few available shared spaces and dining halls. During the surge, patients in some facilities would eat in their living quarters when the virus was detected in their unit.

Psychiatric facilities are also testing patients and staff "regularly," Plastiras said. Since December 2020, the agency has administered over 313,000 rapid tests. But at Rockland Psychiatric Center, where one patient died last month, only two units a day on average were being tested in January, according to one employee who spoke anonymously. With 13 units, that means a unit could go an entire week without being tested. Staff who, at the beginning of January, had daily access to testing at work are now encouraged to be tested no more than twice per week.

"Testing is very very important," Assembly Member Aileen Gunther, chair of her chamber's mental health committee, told Gotham Gazette. "Do you do it on a daily basis, every other day– how often? That's really for an Ann Sullivan to make that call on how frequent the testing is," she said, referring to the head of OMH.

"The most important thing that you can do is infection control precautions. You have to really have due diligence," she added. "Unfortunately a lot of these places have a staffing shortage on top of it all."

Asked whether the Legislature has held any oversight hearings on COVID-19 in psychiatric centers, where Commissioner Ann Marie Sullivan or other OMH officials would have to testify, Gunther couldn't say.

"I haven't been involved in any. I don't really think that we have had that but it's actually a good suggestion," said the Sullivan County Democrat. "I think that sometimes what happens is that we do it afterward [but] it seems that this is not going away," she said of the virus. "It's actually a great idea and I will bring that up to the commissioner."

In a statement to Gotham Gazette, State Senator Samra Brouk, a Rochester Democrat and the Senate's mental health chair, wrote: "As Omicron and other highly contagious strains of COVID-19 spread across the state, we must take care to protect at-risk, vulnerable populations, including those living in in-patient psychiatric centers. My office is actively looking into the conditions at such facilities because needing the care provided by an in-patient mental health facility should not mean putting yourself at risk to disease."

When asked about holding oversight hearings on conditions in psychiatric centers, a spokesperson for Brouk, Frank Sainato, wrote by email: "There has not been a hearing on this specific issue, though our office has been in regular contact with OMH and our legislative colleagues throughout the pandemic. We are concerned about the spread of COVID-19 among those in congregate settings and are committed to ensuring patients receiving care in any state-run facility are kept safe from COVID-19 and other communicable diseases. Senator Brouk is looking into this."

A Ward of the State
Rockland Psychiatric is one of the largest state centers with roughly 470 patients. It had a relatively small covid outbreak of just over a dozen cases at the beginning of January, which has shrunk since then. But by the third week in January, one patient had died of the virus.

In the same span of time, Buffalo Psychiatric Center, a 230-patient facility, saw at least nine patients contract the virus and another die from it.

Both facilities house people who came into state custody through the criminal legal system, including people who may have pleaded not guilty or were found unfit to stand trial because of mental incompetence. Carceral settings like prisons and jails have become the focus of activists seeking the swifter release of detainees, in part because of the dangers of COVID-19 in cramped congregate sites.

Patients in psychiatric centers run by OMH are ten times more likely to be killed by COVID-19 than people held in state prisons, available data shows. They tend to be older and have more medical conditions than prison populations, and their movement is less restricted making it easier to spread the virus, according to Plastiras, who called it a "false comparison." While criminal justice advocates have decried a "humanitarian crisis" unfolding in prisons and jails, like Rikers Island, little attention has been paid to conditions in psychiatric centers.

“So many of those impacted are being held in these facilities involuntarily, pending civil commitment determinations, many of them linked to unresolved criminal charges,” said Marc Fliedner, director of the mental illness program at Disability Rights New York, a federal-mandated legal advocate for people with disabilities.

“These individuals are languishing in what amounts to a carceral existence, disproportionately exposed to risk of serious illness or death from COVID-19 on a daily basis," wrote Fliedner, a former prosecutor and candidate for Brooklyn then Manhattan District Attorney, in an email. "They would be far safer if they were living in the community, but development and sustainment of safe community alternatives has simply not been prioritized in New York State.”

For all OMH in-patients, whether civilly or criminally committed, discharge is decided by a judge relying heavily on the recommendations of facility doctors. In those proceedings, patients are represented by a lawyer appointed from the state's Mental Hygiene Legal Services and independent doctors are rarely called in to testify – a practice that has raised alarms among civil rights attorneys. The average length of stay for people discharged in 2020 was 14 months, around 60 days longer than the year prior, according to data shared by OMH. Many patients are committed for years.

The current surge among patients and staff in many facilities has followed an uptick in the general population. But in one OMH center housing patients of a unique "quasi-criminal" profile – the Secure Treatment and Rehabilitation Center (STARC) outside of Utica – the numbers of infected patients began to grow, not shrink, in the last days of January into February.

STARC contains people who have been "civilly confined" under a 2007 law enacted under Governor Eliot Spitzer to prolong the custody of sex offenders after they've completed their criminal sentence. The law empowers the State Attorney General to seek confinement (or a form of "strict and intensive" parole-like supervision) for post-sentence convicts who are alleged to have a "mental abnormality" that predisposes them to commit sex crimes. The decision is made by a judge or jury and revisited by a judge at what are supposed to be annual hearings.

The burden of proof for civil confinement is typically lower than criminal confinement and Mental Hygiene Legal Services lawyers tend to have less access to these individuals once they enter STARC, according to one attorney who has represented defendants in these cases. Release from civil confinement under this law is infrequent and for many it can be a life sentence. There are 366 currently detained in STARC.

"There just aren't the resources for people to get full-on bench trials every year," the attorney said, speaking anonymously because they were not authorized by their employer to speak with press. "I don't think in reality people can really get the experts to have full due process every year."

"It's indefinite in the sense that, only until another judge finds otherwise, they stay under the civil management system," the attorney said, referring to STARC. "Once it gets set in motion nobody wants to undo it, but how reliable are these [mental abnormality] assessments?"

Six people detained in STARC have died since the pandemic began. 

In the last two weeks, the OMH in-patient census has increased by 41 patients statewide. The influx mirrors the first wave of the pandemic in the Spring of 2020: OMH centers filled up as medical hospitals cleared psychiatric wards to make room for the flood of covid-positive patients in intensive care. At the time, facilities were forced to accept covid-positive patients from overwhelmed hospitals.

STARC saw 3 new patients last month, though data shows infection among patients was already rising before they were reported in the census.

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Q&A: Andrew Giuliani, Republican Candidate for Governor of New York


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Andrew Giuliani (photo: Instagram)


Andrew Giuliani, Trump administration alum and son of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, is outperforming his rival GOP candidates in the polls early in this year’s race for governor.

Statewide, Republican leadership has dubbed Long Island Congressional Rep. Lee Zeldin the presumptive nominee, and Zeldin’s campaign has far out-fundraised the other candidates. But Giuliani is confident in his chances, and early polling is bolstering his case.

Just 36 years old, Giuliani is a first-time candidate for office and running on reducing crime, increasing school choice, rolling back business regulations and covid mandates. An ardent ally of former President Trump, Giuliani expresses doubts about the validity of the 2020 election and equivocates over whether Joe Biden is a legitimately elected president, despite the facts.

Gotham Gazette recently spoke with Andrew Giuliani about his campaign for governor. Below is that interview, slightly edited for clarity.

Gotham Gazette (GG): What qualifies you to be Governor?

Andrew Giuliani: During the last year I have not worked in the White House, but [I spent] the previous four years working under President Trump in the Office of the Public Liaison. I worked on issues including the Paycheck Protection Program, making sure MTA had funding through the CARES Act, the 9/11 Health Bill, and also making sure that the 9/11 first responders were able to have the full pool of money that was due to them.

There was a mix up between the Treasury Department and [Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services] where about $4 million was missing. And this was something that had happened not just during the Trump administration. It actually started under Bush in 2007, continuing under Obama, and continued under our administration, and basically it was a clerical error. But by the time you know, 14, 13 years had wound up, you're talking about $4 million that was missing. So we were able to correct that.

And on top of that, I ended up working on regulatory issues. I've played a small role in this. But the promise that President Trump made during his campaign in 2016, which is for every regulation he signed into law, he would cut two, and that number was over eight to one by the time he left office. I think that's one of the reasons why we saw economic success certainly until the pandemic hit during the administration.

GG: One of the themes of the Republican primary in any state, but perhaps especially in New York, is a candidate’s ties to Trump. Lee Zeldin has often touted himself as somebody who has been a longtime ally of the former president. You also have a personal relationship with the former president. So how do you feel that your ties to the former president will maybe help you in the primary and possibly hurt you in the general election? Do you think that this is something that New York voters are passionate about?

Andrew Giuliani: Well, I think that there's no doubt that President Trump is the head of the Republican Party. That's going to be the case in 2022 and it's going to be the case in 2024. Whether President Trump chooses to run or whether he's not, he's going to obviously play a massive role in deciding who the Republican nominee is. And he's going to play a massive role in getting him elected … For me, I let other people handicap whether or not being close with President Trump or having the last name Giuliani helps or hurts. The only thing that I could do is be genuine with voters. And what I've told voters before is, I'm not going to back away from the fact that I worked four years in the Trump administration. I've known the former president for 25 years, and we still have a good relationship. Some people may say that helps, some people may say that hurts, but I think more [importantly], it's important to be genuine to voters and to New Yorkers, and that's where I stand on it. I still consider him a friend and mentor. And I'll let everybody else determine whether or not that hurts or helps.

GG: How do you feel about what President Trump has said about the 2020 election? Would you say that you agree with the former president that the election was stolen? Do you believe that Joe Biden is a legitimate president?

Andrew Giuliani: So I'll say this, I ended up volunteering in campaign headquarters after November 3. And I read through over 200 of the over 1000 affidavits that came in signed under penalty of perjury talking about different election issues that they saw and some that I would claim would be fraud. I think to me, the thing that's very sad about all of this is, you had a judiciary that [just did not] want to touch it because it was too political. And so I have concerns about the 2020 election. I have concerns moving forward for our election in 2022 [and] 2024. When you see a Democratic Party that wants to push outlawing voter identification, when literally 80% of Americans agree with us, that's a Monmouth poll that came out last year. That's not you know, my number. That's a Monmouth poll. I think it shows that you're trying to skirt election integrity. So I certainly have my concerns with the 2020 election.

GG: But do you believe that Joe Biden is a legitimate president?

Andrew Giuliani: I believe that we will never know who legitimately won the 2020 election to be perfectly honest, and that is a big concern. And then if you look back at 2016, at the 2016 election, I think if you were to talk to a lot of Democrats, they would have said they don't know who the legitimate president [is]. So you're talking about probably over 85% of Americans who question over the last two elections, who the legitimate president was, who legitimately is elected. That's a problem we need to fix. And I think that's got to be bipartisan. And that's not going to be fixed by a completely partisan January 6th committee. I mean, you can tell me that there are two Republicans on there, but they may hate Trump more than most Democrats do. So you know, once Kevin McCarthy was denied representation on there for the minority, it became a political hack job and it didn't become an actual discovery into what happened on January 6th, and certainly did not become a discovery on what happened in the weeks and months leading up to the election and after the election.

*NOTE: There is no evidence to suggest that the 2020 presidential election was fraudulent or stolen, or that Joe Biden was elected illegitimately.*

GG: Another thing that's going to be unique about this election is that this is the first time since 1998 that Andrew Cuomo will not be on a statewide ballot in New York.

Andrew Giuliani: By the way, we have until March 30 until the filing deadline, so who knows, don’t hold your breath there, you know, you never know.

GG: So, we're assuming that Andrew Cuomo is not going to be in the race. These are obviously uncharted waters, right? Because he's had a hold on the Democratic Party in New York for a very long time. What is going to be different about this race, seeing as Cuomo isn't going to be there?

Andrew Giuliani: Well, you know, look, obviously, as you pointed out, he's had a hold on the Democratic Party in the state of New York for a long time. But I look at it and say, let's look at the last 15 years, not just Andrew Cuomo's ten-and-a-half years as governor, look at Spitzer and Patterson and Cuomo and now Hochul and unfortunately, we're just seeing more and more of the same. I would actually argue that Kathy Hochul has shifted further left faster than Andrew Cuomo. Andrew Cuomo, in some ways, would resist the radicals in his party, for the wrong reasons, mind you, it was for power, not for the right reasons, but he would. Unfortunately, I think what I've seen with Kathy Hochul over the past few months is she has gone as far to the left as fast as possible in order to secure the Democratic nomination.

So my concerns didn't start with Andrew Cuomo and they don't end with Andrew Cuomo. It's Democratic leadership in New York. And unfortunately, it's why we've led the country in out-migration over the last year, right. I mean, we lost 1.7% of our population, over 300,000 New Yorkers, and it's why you hear countless people and businesses that are looking and saying “you know what, I'm heading to Florida or Texas or Tennessee.” I'd rather, from an economic standpoint, compete with the likes of Florida than I would California.

GG: This is an issue that Lee Zeldin talks about all the time as well: out-migration on account of New York’s cost of living. It has definitely informed a lot of what he's talking about. So I'm curious, if you could distill your platform, what is Andrew Giuliani for?

Andrew Giuliani: So what I'm for is reducing crime in New York. That's first and foremost. I think in the light of officer Rivera and officer Mora, who were 22 and 27 years old, [who] made the ultimate sacrifice for New York. I think first and foremost, we need to make sure from the state level we repeal bail reform on day one. I was very, very concerned listening to Kathy Hochul's State of the State speech…that she never mentioned bail reform or cashless bail.

Traveling around the state, this is not just talking to Republicans, this is also talking to independents and some Democrats, the number one issue is crime around our state. Look, it's why Eric Adams became the Democratic nominee out of that massive Democratic primary because he was the first candidate, really, the only candidate, to acknowledge that crime is a problem. It's why I've called on Hochul to remove [Manhattan District Attorney] Alvin Bragg because I believe he is violating his oath of office. When you look and you read the New York State Constitution, Article 8 Section 13B, she can remove him, and I would remove him or any other prosecutor that looks at resisting arrest and armed robbery as non-dangerous crimes and doesn't want to prosecute them as felonies. So crime is certainly number one.

Education, I want more parents, I want more children, to have more choice…over their children's education. That's introducing a tax voucher program in New York. That's making sure that we up the charter schools cap from 460 statewide to over 1,000 in my first term, which I've pledged to make happen. And look, those tax vouchers, going back to that…New York is one of the highest states in the country in property taxes. Certainly when you look at each county, like a county like Westchester County, I think they might be the highest county in the country in property taxes. Those parents, if they don't ultimately like a school or the fact that school is not back in, or if they don't necessarily agree with the curriculum, they should have the option to take their tax dollars and use it toward a parochial school or homeschool. So I'm a big believer in the free market. And that's one way to introduce the free market into education.

And transitioning on into the economy, I mentioned regulatory reform. That's certainly something in New York we need to look at, to reduce the regulation, one of the most overly-regulated states, and we need to make sure we take the approach that President Trump took in the country and reduce regulation in New York, but also we need to cut taxes. We cannot be the highest taxed in the country or [continue] to compete with California, as I had said, for who's going to be the highest taxed state in the country.

I would ask for a quick comparison. Florida has a million more people than New York. Florida's budget is $97 billion. At least that was last year's budget, I'm not certain what the new number is. $97 billion. New York's budget is now $216 billion, over two times what Florida's is with a million less people. Who's doing it better and where are people deciding to go for more economic opportunity?

And then I would also add, too, I am anti-mandate [for COVID vaccination]. I believe that this should be a decision that parents, people, their families, and their doctor make. This is not something that the government should impose on any New Yorker. And I'm very happy with what I'm seeing not just in the Supreme Court, but also in New York State court here. I think that we're going to continue to see that these mandates are unconstitutional. And I would roll them back. Look, I'm very proud of President Trump and Warp Speed, and I think it gave Americans an option, but that's what it was, an option, not a mandate.

GG: If you were to be elected, what would you do if you're looking at what is most likely going to be Democratic supermajorities in the State Legislature? How do you think you're going to be able to get these things done?

Andrew Giuliani: Well, what I would say is this: Yes, we have Democratic supermajorities, obviously, in the Assembly and the State Senate now. I do think, with a strong top of the ticket, we are going to eliminate both of those supermajorities in the State Senate and the Assembly. Now, it'll be very difficult to win back the Assembly. The State Senate, we might have a shot at winning back, but that's going to be also tough to do.

So I would certainly concede that it's likely that we would at least have to work with Democratic majorities in the Senate and Assembly. Look, for us, I am a big believer in giving each Senator, each Assembly member, the opportunity to pitch their case to the governor and have a working relationship. But if I feel at some point that they want to play politics, rather than actually put their constituents first, what I will do is I will take the message and the bully pulpit on the road, and I will make sure that we talk to every single New Yorker who I believe is being misrepresented by their member of the Assembly and member of the State Senate. So I think you'll see in 2023, you'll see certainly Andrew Giuliani on the road all across the state talking to as many New Yorkers as possible at what I believe is going to be the path to truly make New York one of the safest and most prosperous states in the country again.

GG: How are you being received as you travel around the state campaigning? The most recent data from the Board of Elections say that the downstate share of the vote has increased, the downstate share of the vote being of course most likely predominantly Democrats. Rob Astorino, who is also in the race, has said that he's uniquely capable of not necessarily winning New York City, but, having served as Westchester County Executive as a Republican, is something that is indicative of his ability to flip districts. Do you think that you have a shot at winning the downstate share of the vote? 

Andrew Giuliani: So first off, Rob is a good guy and a good friend. And, you know, I think it's a math equation on this, right? You've got to win at least 30% of New York City, and mattering on turnout, up to 33% of New York City. It's all depending on turnout, obviously. You highlighted the fact that the downstate share has increased, it has. But what I would also point to you is the successes in Nassau County, in Suffolk County, in Erie County, for Republicans, not just specifically Buffalo with the Byron Brown/[India] Walton issue, but you know, in Erie County outside of Buffalo, I would say really everywhere. But let's say Monroe County, Rochester County, Republicans had a very, very positive night on November 2. I think what it did was it showed us that there is a real path.

You know, one of the men who has endorsed me is Curtis Sliwa, who ran for mayor of New York. As you know, he ended up getting about 29% of New York City. And I think running against probably the toughest candidate he could have ran against, right? I mean, he ran against somebody who was a former Republican, who was acknowledging the crime was an issue, and was telling New Yorkers what they wanted to hear, what they needed to hear. So I think that path, getting 30-plus percent in New York City, is right there. And what I would point to you as one of the differences between myself, the congressman from Long Island [Zeldin], and Rob Astorino, is if you look at the most recent Siena polls, at least the last couple, I don't know where the ones in September, in October stood, certainly in December and January; I ask you to look at Democrats when they asked about favorability, what you'll see with the other Republican candidates is nobody really cracks 15 percent. In the last two polls among Democrats, 25 and 26 percent of Democrats statewide find my candidacy favorable. That is the key to being able to win in New York State, and that is why we have the best path to victory when we are the nominee on June 29. And it's why we get the best chance on November 8.

GG: A big part of getting there is the money. Lee Zeldin, even while in Congress, has solicited donations from some big players. Stephen Schwarzman has given him money, other people of national political prominence have bought into his candidacy, and he's done pretty well on the finance front. What does your strategy look like in terms of beating him financially?

Andrew Giuliani: [Zeldin has] outraised us, and our grassroots campaign has been really focused on the people. That's really what it's been focused on, trying to shake as many hands, talk to as many New Yorkers as possible. So we continue to focus on it. But you know, I would look, even just at the last two presidential elections, right? In 2016, Donald Trump was outraised and he won. In 2020, Biden was outraised and he was sworn in on January 20. So you know, money is not the only thing in this. It's about connecting with voters. And that's what I implore you to look at.

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by John Besche, Gotham Gazette

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Agency Heads Explain Hochul's Plan for State Hiring Spree


(photo: Mike Groll/Office of Governor Kathy Hochul)

Gov. Hochul with state employees (photo: Mike Groll/Office of Governor Kathy Hochul)


Despite recruitment and retention challenges, state agencies will be able to achieve Governor Kathy Hochul’s plan to return staffing to pre-pandemic levels, officials testified Monday at a legislative budget hearing.

"I believe that all agencies will be able to attain that goal," said Acting Commissioner of the Department of Civil Service Rebecca Corso, referring to the governor’s vision for next fiscal year, which begins April 1, as outlined in her recently-released Executive Budget. The state's plan is "to incentivize, it's to recruit. It's to go out and try to encourage individuals to come into the state workforce," Corso told legislators from both houses at Monday’s hearing, one in a series being held jointly by the two houses.

That will be a formidable task, according to lawmakers at the budget hearing focused on workforce development, who grilled Hochul administration officials about aspects of the governor's $216 billion budget proposal. The legislators noted changing labor needs, ongoing pandemic-related fatigue, an aging government workforce, and the steep competition agencies are facing from private employers, particularly in growing sectors like healthcare.

Hochul wants to raise the portion of the state workforce in the executive branch to 118,700 full-time employees, up from 107,500 in August, one of the lowest levels in decades. The plan entails shrinking some departments while building up others, and the administration is relying on the ability to attract job candidates from other states and the private sector, and keep most of the employees it has. Across all 59 executive agencies, as well as SUNY, CUNY, and the offices of the state attorney general and comptroller, Hochul's proposed budget would bring the state workforce to 184,000. (That doesn't include the over 100,000 employees at public authorities like the MTA.)

The pandemic has created new needs for New Yorkers and forced agencies to shift programming to meet them. Hochul's executive budget includes billions in new spending to respond to the ongoing public health and economic crises, including hiring more agency staff.

"My understanding is that in all areas across state agencies they are increasing their workforce to meet these critical needs," said Corso.

In September, Hochul lifted a hiring freeze on state agencies through the end of the current fiscal year, which allows agencies to bring on staff without a waiver from the state Division of Budget. Attrition since the freeze was enacted by Governor Andrew Cuomo in March 2020 as the pandemic took hold has dragged the state employee headcount down.

"As we continue to combat the pandemic, we must keep New York moving forward and that includes building our workforce to ensure we can support New Yorkers at the highest level," Hochul said at the time. Hochul was able to make the move in large part because the state’s fiscal position is quite strong thanks to higher-than-expected tax revenues and massive amounts of federal aid.

"I'm very very thankful that Governor Hochul, one of the first things she did when she came in is she lifted the hiring freeze, so we have been hiring at a pretty rapid clip and it's impactful across the agency," said Department of Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon at the hearing Monday. Reardon’s agency is receiving seven times as many unemployment-related calls as it did pre-pandemic, she said.

Hochul's executive budget includes multiple measures aimed specifically at retaining and expanding the state workforce. The proposal contains measures to make the civil service exam more accessible and equitable, expand tech roles in government, and increase state hiring for people with disabilities. It also involves particular support for the state's healthcare workforce, like worker retention bonuses, part of a larger $10 billion plan to expand the sector by 20% over the next five years. And it includes $106 million to hire 880 full-time faculty at SUNY and CUNY.

At the hearing, Corso said a key effort to retain staff was ensuring employees had the opportunity for advancement, something made easier by lifting the hiring moratorium. Another was making the state workforce more diverse.

The executive budget includes $1.6 million in proposed funding to expand the Department of Civil Service's Office of Diversity and Inclusive Management. The office helps agencies "with the development of their strategic plans around diversity, inclusion, and equity" and provides training. That includes implicit bias training for 21,000 state employees since that training program was launched in late 2020, Corso said.

"We do recruitment and outreach across the state to identify and to find talent to come into the state workforce,” she said.

The state is also working to make the civil service exam, a tool to promote merit-based hiring in government, more accessible. That means new testing centers on SUNY campuses, legislation to speed up civil service hiring, and $2.2 million in funding to create a "test evaluation and validation unit" to ensure the exam is fair and unbiased.

"We think we should be doing this for all of our titles because it allows us to make sure that we are updating our data, updating our exam questions, and that we are making sure we're not unfairly discriminating against or making it more difficult for any populations to get into the state workforce," Corso said of her department’s review of civil service exams for certain positions.

State Senator Jessica Ramos, a Queens Democrat and chair of the Senate labor committee, said the state needs to do more to accommodate remote work or safety needs of pregnant employees in high covid-exposure roles.

"The truth is you have no policy for pregnant people," she told Corso. "That's something I want you to be very concerned with."

When asked by lawmakers what incentives the state had for healthcare workers to compete with private employers or who may be contemplating leaving the state to avoid the covid vaccine mandate, Corso cited $3,000 one-time worker retention bonuses. According to Hochul's executive budget, the program will cost an estimated $1.2 billion, including $120 million for state employees. When the bonuses run out, Corso pointed to a "robust" benefit package available to all state employees.

"New York State as an employer is a great employer to work for," she said. "We have a retirement plan that's available to them to the extent that they want to stay in the state workforce until they retire."

State Senator Robert Jackson, a Manhattan Democrat and chair of the civil service and pension committee, lambasted the state's pension program. "You must have heard from people even in your office that Tier 6 is terrible and about nurses being underpaid, and that's just giving you a couple of examples," he told Corso. "Because, I'm telling you, I'm hearing it."

"I want to know what's being done to address that so people can be able to live in New York and work in New York State and be able to afford to pay rent, pay for their home, educate their children, so forth and so on," he said.

Even if the state does achieve pre-pandemic workforce levels, that would still pale in comparison to the size of the workforce historically. In 2010, the employee headcount under the control of the governor was 131,000, about 25% smaller than it was two decades earlier.

"I heard you say that the governor has committed to repopulate the agencies back to pre-pandemic levels," said State Senator Diane Savino, a Democrat representing parts of Staten Island and Brooklyn, "but to quote my colleague, Senator Jackson, 'that sucks,' because we are at the lowest point we've been in more than 30 years."

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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'I'm Coming Back for $3 Billion More': Jessica Ramos on the Excluded Workers Fund, Child Care Expansion, Nail Salon Wages, and More


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State Senator Jessica Ramos (photo: NY Senate)


New York should more aggressively tax the state’s billionaires and large businesses to support workers, provide child care, and boost a just economic recovery from the pandemic, according to State Senator Jessica Ramos.

Speaking on a recent episode of the Max Politics podcast from Gotham Gazette, Ramos, a Queens Democrat and chair of the Senate's labor committee, outlined her 2022 goals. At the top of the list is vastly expanding affordable child care across the state through legislation Ramos is sponsoring. Also on her agenda is replenishing, with $3 billion at that, the Excluded Workers Fund, passing legislation to tie increases in the state’s minimum wage to inflation, establishing a wage board for workers in the nail salon industry, and more.

“I’ve always said I’m interested in helping more New Yorkers become millionaires,” Ramos told podcast host Ben Max. “We need to pump more money into our smaller communities, and really invest in entrepreneurship, which is why I also fight so hard for street venders and for small business owners, especially restaurant owners. We have to stop letting billionaires pay fewer taxes than us, because they’re hoarding the money. They’re keeping all of their assets and it doesn’t get pumped back into our streets.”

Ramos is focused first and foremost on negotiating the passage of a version of her recently-introduced Early Learning Child Care Act. It would provide universal access to child care across the state by subsidizing child care for 93% of New York's working families. Under current policies, New York is able to subsidize daycare and early childhood education for families making up to 200% of the poverty line, but Ramos’ bill would double that threshold to 400% of the poverty line. The bill would also set a minimum wage for daycare workers, $45,000 a year, and support the small businesses that often run the programs through increased government funding.

“I feel like our society has been treating our daycare providers as some sort of babysitters when actually, they're educators and they are helping us raise our children and play a great, great, role,” said Ramos. “That's why we want their wages to be comparable to teachers and why we want to take the money out of the equation, so that the daycare professionals can focus on the task at hand.”

To pay for the bill, Ramos proposes a tax increase for New York’s top 5% of big businesses. Ramos believes that by providing support for early childcare, these businesses will eventually benefit from a better educated workforce.

“A lot of these kids are really only 20-25 years away from working for some of the biggest companies here in New York State,” said Ramos. “We believe this is a smart investment for them to make for their current workforce and their future workforce.”

Ramos said she is happy that Governor Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, has made child care a focus and she wants to negotiate increases to what the governor is proposing to expand offerings. When asked, Ramos also explained to Max that she is supportive of her colleague, Brooklyn Senator Jabari Brisport, who has introduced his own version of a universal child care bill. Ramos explained that she believes her bill is more practical, but that she is a co-sponsor of Brisport’s bill and supports its operating principle of the state simply offering free, universal child care for all. Brisport, a member of the Democratic Socialist of New York City, is chair of the Senate’s committee on children and families. Both Ramos and Brisport went on separate child care tours of the state and introduced separate bills, but Ramos said there is no rivalry at play.

Eyeing the April 1 deadline for the state’s next budget (fiscal year 2023), Ramos also wants to pass a renewed Excluded Workers Fund. Approved right before the budget’s deadline last year, the $2.1 billion Excluded Workers Fund provided one-time pandemic era grants of up to $15,600 to New Yorkers, primarily undocumented immigrant workers, who were not able to recieve Federal covid relief or unemployment insurance and bore the brunt of the pandemic’s economic burden. However, Ramos sees this fund as only an initial step towards covering the state’s excluded workers.

“With that first version of the Excluded Workers Fund that we passed and implemented last year, we had created two tiers and yet 99% of those who were approved, were approved for tier one.” said Ramos. “That means that they had paid taxes in 2019, 2020, and 2021, and yet they didn't qualify for any [prior] benefits. I mean, I don't know about you, but to me, that's wild, right? Because that means that that system is completely out of whack with how the actual workforce is maneuvering in our economy.”

With a second round of funding, Ramos wants to create a more permanent and sustainable fund that will be more “fair” for the state’s taxpayers. “I’m coming back for $3 billion more,” she said.

Another priority for Ramos in 2022 is to pass her bill that would raise the minimum wage to keep up with inflation, and ensure it continues to do so, instead of the state government having to pass additional increases. Making the minimum wages “pegged” to inflation would help New Yorkers keep up with increasing costs of living, she said. 

On the podcast, Ramos touched on an array of other topics from addressing mental illness to bail reform to unfair labor practices “sector-by-sector” or industry-by-industry. Ramos wants to wield the power of her office and role chairing the Senate labor committee to mediate labor disputes in the nail-salon industry and ensure Uber and Lyft pay into unemployment insurance via what she says is hundreds of millions of dollars owed. Ramos has recently introduced legislation that would create regulations around "sectoral bargaining" in the nail salon industry, something of a follow-up to her work on farm-workers passed in 2019.

Ramos stressed her support for the Good Cause Eviction bill that would “prohibit the eviction of residential tenants or the non-renewal of residential leases without good cause.”

She said there are conversations happening in the Legislature about revisiting bail reform, but defended changes to the bail law that have been made in recent years, and spoke of her bill to expand and support treatment servics for individuals arrested with serious mental illness, drug misuse issues, and more.

In the podcast’s final minutes, Ramos spoke about this year’s elections, including the gubernatorial primary, and whether she has any concerns about how far left she is pushing the Legislature, which includes a number of Democratic colleagues who represent more moderate districts. Ramos endorsed Attorney General Letitia James in her run for governor, but James then announced in December not to run against Hochul and instead to seek reelection. Ramos declined to say whether she was looking at backing Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, a Brooklyn progressive, in the race and said she is always hoping to have a good working relationship with the governor.

“Petitioning is starting in February, but really I’m hunkered down trying to figure out my own operation, Ben, to be honest with you,” said Ramos. “But as we know, the cookie crumbles very fast in politics, so we might have to check in again in a few weeks.”

[Listen to the full conversation: Max Politics Podcast: Senator Jessica Ramos on Expanding Child Care, Replenishing the Excluded Workers Fund, & More]

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by Lachlan Hyatt, Gotham Gazette

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Max Politics Podcast: New York's Clean Energy Vision


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NYSERDA CEO Doreen Harris, left, with DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos (photo: @Doreen_M_Harris)


January 28, 2022 - Max Politics Podcast: New York's Clean Energy Vision

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photo: Rex Linga Jr. 

Doreen Harris, President & CEO of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, joined the show to discuss the state's clean energy goals, mandates, and implementation strategies. She discussed the opportunities, challenges, and more with host Ben Max.

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 wherever you get your podcasts at "Max Politics."

Read more: Max Politics Podcast: New York's Clean Energy Vision

Leading Immigrant Advocacy Group Endorses Jumaane Williams for Governor


(photo: office of Public Advocate Jumaane Williams)

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams (photo: office of Public Advocate Jumaane Williams)


With more than 23,000 members across the state, Make the Road is New York’s largest member group of immigrant advocates and its political arm is putting its heft behind Jumaane Williams’ bid for governor this year.

The endorsement from Make the Road Action is the latest in a recent series of progressive support announced for Williams, along with other groups and elected officials such as New York Communities for Change, New York Progressive Action Network, and City Council Members Alexa Avilés, Tiffany Cabán, Jennifer Gutiérrez, Lincoln Restler, Julie Won, and Sandy Nurse.

Williams, the New York City Public Advocate and a Brooklyn Democrat, is running in the June gubernatorial primary against Governor Kathy Hochul and U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi, who represents much of Nassau County and part of Queens. Two other Democrats, Attorney General Letitia James and former New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, had both explored bids but have since dropped out or decided not to run, leaving Williams as the progressive candidate in the race against his two more centrist opponents.

With his history of activism and progressive bonafides, Williams was the unanimous choice for Make the Road Action, which previously endorsed Williams’ bid for reelection last year and his unsuccessful campaign for lieutenant governor in 2018. In that latter campaign, Williams lost to Hochul as she sought reelection alongside then-Governor Andrew Cuomo. The endorsement process, which involved an issue questionnaire and interviews with the candidates, came down to Williams and Suozzi; Hochul did not participate.

“We need a Governor who is going to stand up to ensure tenant protections and keep community members in their homes, fully and permanently fund excluded workers, and make sure all New Yorkers have access to healthcare,” said Theo Oshiro, co-executive director of Make the Road Action, in a statement accompanying the endorsement. “Jumaane Williams is deeply committed to all of these issues, and he has the track record as Public Advocate, Council Member, and community organizer to prove it.”

Williams has been aligned with Make the Road Action’s priorities for years, and has pushed with it and other allies for a variety of progressive policies, many of which have come to fruition in recent years with Democrats in full control of the New York City and State governments. Those have included police reform, making New York City a “sanctuary city,” driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, the New York Dream Act, the $2.1 billion Excluded Workers Fund enacted last year, and more.

Currently, Make the Road Action is pushing for a slate of bills and budgetary measures, all of which Williams supports, at the state level that will aid immigrant New Yorkers and working people of color. “I’m proud to once again have the support of Make the Road Action, an organization I've long worked with to bring justice and equity to our city and state for immigrants, working families and tenants alike,” Williams said in a statement. “As we work to rebuild and renew New York from the ongoing pandemic, we can't go back to normal because normal didn't work for most folks. As Governor, I'll look forward to continuing to partner with Make the Road Action's broad based coalition to bring transformational change to our state."

One of Make the Road Action’s top priorities is getting a $3 billion infusion for the state’s Excluded Workers Fund, which was created during the pandemic to provide aid those who didn’t qualify for federal relief, mostly undocumented immigrants. The $2.1 billion fund has been depleted and Governor Hochul has not proposed additional funds for it in her executive budget for the next fiscal year that starts April 1.

“Immigrant workers were on the frontlines of the pandemic and won a historic victory to fund excluded workers. But the Excluded Workers Fund was supposed to reach all excluded workers, and now it’s run out,” said Olga Vásque, a Make the Road Action member from Westchester, in a statement. “Jumaane Williams understands that excluded workers need an additional $3 billion in funding and a permanent solution. He also knows that too many of us remain at risk of being displaced from our homes and excluded from health coverage because of our immigration status, and stands with us for Good Cause and Coverage for All. He understands what life is like in our communities, and I’m thrilled to encourage my neighbors to vote for him.”

The passage of the “good cause” eviction legislation is a top priority for Williams and Make the Road Action, among other progressives, and has been gaining momentum in the state Legislature. It would give tenants the right to automatic lease renewals, among other things. Proponents of the bill say it has become particularly urgent since the state’s eviction moratorium expired on January 15 and after the state’s $2.2 billion pandemic-era Emergency Rent Assistance Program ran out of funds. Hochul has not included any additional funds for the ERAP in her budget either but has set aside $2 billion for pandemic relief that could be used in part for that purpose upon negotiations with the Legislature. She has also repeatedly asked the federal government for significantly more in rent relief funding, including a request issued Wednesday for $1.6 billion for 174,000 unfunded applications from tenants.

Among the other measures Make the Road Action wants to see approved are the Coverage for All bill, which would give undocumented immigrants access to health insurance through the state's low-income public option (groups like MRA Action also have pushed for years to pass the New York Health Act, which would create a single-payer health insurance system in the state); passage of the Solutions Not Suspensions Act, which would limit the use of school suspensions, which tend to disproportionately harm children of color; the creation of a $1 billion Housing Access Voucher Program for people at risk of homelessness and those living in homelessness; passage of the Stop Violence in the Sex Trades Act, which would decriminalize sex work, among other measures; expanded access to child care; and other proposals.

For Williams, the endorsement is among several he received this week, and others in past weeks and months, such as from New York City Comptroller Brad Lander and Brooklyn Borough President Antonio Reynoso, both fellow Brooklyn progressives, as well as former Buffalo mayoral candidate India Walton.

“Jumaane Williams is a rare public official, one who's dedicated his time in office to empowering all New Yorkers,” Council Member Nurse of Brooklyn said in a Tuesday statement endorsing Williams. “We need progressive leadership in Albany that will empower and be accountable to working class communities across this state, and that's exactly what Jumaane would provide.”

For her part, Hochul has been out-fundraising the field by many millions and also racking up endorsements, including from many Democratic county party chairs and members of the State Legislature, among others.

On Thursday, New York Communities for Change, an advocacy group focused on housing, economic justice, and climate change and claiming more than 20,000 members, also endorsed Williams. “Make no mistake: Jumaane knows us, and we know Jumaane. He is up against a very well-funded corporate Democrat, which is why we urge other grassroots groups around the state with large bases of voters to get off the sidelines,” said Marie Pierre, NYCC board chair, in a statement. “From Brooklyn to Buffalo, it’s time for progressives to unite around Jumaane and jump into this Democratic primary with full and energetic support for his campaign. Our state needs a robust Democratic primary in which Hochul is held accountable for her failure to deliver for tenants and communities hit hardest by COVID. Jumaane is ready to deliver that accountability, present a better alternative to Hochul, and campaign to win.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Amid Federal Inaction, New York Democrats Look to Advance State Voting Rights Act


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State Senator Zellnor Myrie of Brooklyn (photo: NY Senate)


With the failure of federal voting rights legislation this month in the U.S. Senate, advocates in New York are redoubling a push to pass a sweeping state bill that would shore up voting protections for historically disenfranchised groups.

Legislators introduced the John R. Lewis New York State Voting Rights Act in 2020 to fill at the state level some of the holes left in the federal Voting Rights Act after successive defangings by the U.S. Supreme Court in the past decade. The bill would enshrine a range of protections against voter dilution, require language access, and give the State Attorney General preclearance authority over potentially-discriminatory voting policy changes. But it has not yet advanced in either house of the Legislature.

Governor Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, supported the concept in her State of the State agenda earlier this month but did not include it in her Executive Budget last week, setting the stage for negotiations over the next several months and tempering optimism about the bill's prospects for passage in the current legislative session, which runs until June. That same month, New Yorkers will vote in state and federal primaries.

In a statement last week, State Senator Zellnor Myrie, who chairs his chamber’s elections committee and sponsors the bill, called the failure in Washington "an insult to all Americans, especially to Black and Brown voters who are most often targeted by discriminatory and racist state laws."

"States must now urgently move to protect and expand voting rights, and New York can lead the way," Myrie said in a statement. "My bill, the John R. Lewis New York State Voting Rights Act, would enact the strongest voter protections in the country."

"This legislation is exactly what is needed for this time," said Lurie Daniel Favors, executive director of the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn. "[It] really does set a model for how we have to return to the states in order to secure protections that the federal government is unable to provide."

U.S. Senate Democrats this past week fell short in an effort to move toward advancing major voting legislation – the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act -- that would set ballot access standards, restore parts of the federal Voting Rights Act, and scale back Republican-led voting restrictions in many states. Before and after the (anticipated) defeat in Washington, New York lawmakers positioned themselves to take up the voting rights mantle locally, part of a three-year wave of progressive changes to the state election law since Democrats took control of both houses of the Legislature in 2019.

The New York bill would make it easier to sue the state and local governments for violating the voting rights of racial, ethnic, and language minority groups. It also contains language access requirements, protections against voter intimidation and deception, and would require the state to create a database of voting and election information to help the public track potential rights violations. Among its most significant measures, the bill would give the State Attorney General "preclearance" authority over elections changes in areas with a history of discrimination – an instrument that covered the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Manhattan before it was stripped out of the federal VRA by the Supreme Court in 2013.

That could include anything from the drawing of district maps to the placement of poll sites to what interpretation assistance is offered. California and Washington also have state-level voting rights acts, but New York's would be the first with a preclearance provision.

"Having preclearance on the state level and putting this in the New York State Attorney General's office puts the burden on the local government, the state government, and the board of elections to show that the changes they are making will not have a significant impact on marginalized groups," said L. Joy Williams, president of the Brooklyn NAACP.

At a Martin Luther King Day event hosted by National Action Network in Manhattan, Hochul called voter suppression an "insidious virus." In her State of the State policy book, the governor promised to advance "a state-level voting rights act" that roughly aligned with the provisions of the New York State Voting Rights Act, carried by Myrie and Assembly Member Latrice Walker, who like Myrie is a Brooklyn Democrat and elections committee chair.

"Practices that suppress voter turnout can still be found in our elections, and the legacy of voter suppression can be seen in the persistent gap between white and non-white New York voter participation," reads Hochul's State of the State policy book.

In the 2020 general election in New York, 63% of Black citizens of voting age voted, well below the 69% of white eligible voters, according to Census data cited by the governor. The turnout rate among eligible Latino voters was 55% and 52% among eligible Asians voters. Civil rights advocates and reformers say the problems can be even worse in local elections, like for school boards, water and sewer districts, and village elections.

"What we have seen unfortunately in some of those elections is that minority voters rarely get to elect representatives that look like them," Myrie told Gotham Gazette. "Those [New York] districts can sometimes mirror the worst gerrymandering problems that we see on the national level."

Upsetting local power structures could also pose one of the biggest challenges to getting his bill passed. "There will be implications on local races and local political dynamics that I think have to be fleshed out," he said.

In the last 25 years, there have been 14 documented cases of federal voting rights violations in New York, according to a report for the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. These include instances of Black and Latino voter dilution in at-large school district and town board elections, and minority fracturing in the drawing of district lines, among others. Had the federal voting legislation passed, New York would be one infringement short of falling, statewide, under its preclearance provision, the report states. Suffolk, Westchester, Albany, Orange, and Bronx Counties have some of the most documented violations.

When Hochul released her Executive Budget, advocates who had applauded her State of the State nod to voting rights were surprised to see the Voting Rights Act left out, despite the sizable funding it would require and the fact that she wrote many other policy priorities into bill language for the budget documents. The governor's office would not say whether Hochul supports the current bill or if there are potential concerns about it.

"It's unclear to me why it was dropped from the Executive Budget but I don't take it to signal the governor's lack of support or that there is some other nefarious reason," Myrie said. "I think there's a whole universe of reasons why that may have happened. We'll continue to talk with the governor's office to ascertain what that was."

"There is absolutely no reasonable explanation for why it wouldn't be [in the Executive Budget]," said Daniel Favors. "We have a legacy of unfunded mandates in this state that make voter protection extraordinarily difficult."

The fiscal implications of the Myrie-Walker bill are significant. Under the bill the state would be responsible for the cost of building a comprehensive election database and attorney's fees in successful voting rights cases. The additional staffing in the Attorney General's Office could be significant by itself. Between 1998 and 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice employed between 31 and 45 attorneys in its voting section working on preclearance submissions.

"The bill will require resources, there's no doubt about that. The Attorney General's Office has never done this before," said Sean Morales-Doyle, a voting rights expert at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School. "A preclearance process is not helpful if there is no one there to do the preclearing."

The governor and legislative majorities will be negotiating Hochul's $216-billion Executive Budget ahead of the April 1 start of the fiscal year. Budget agreements often include a great deal of policy, especially when those policies have fiscal implications. Either or both houses of the Legislature could decide to pass the bill before, or after, April 1.

The bill has 31 sponsors in the 63-seat State Senate and Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Westchester Democrat, has said voting rights are a priority. But it appears to have a longer road in the Assembly, where only 18 sponsors have signed on.

"We're definitely looking at getting more voting reforms done this year. And both of these bills are highly likely to be part of that package," said Michael Murphy, a spokesperson for Stewart-Cousins, referring to the Voting Rights Act and another bill that would change the structure and management of the New York City Board of Elections.

"I think it's incumbent on us to kind of lead the way and show what can get done if Democrats work together," he added.

"We review all issues with our members," wrote Michael Whyland, a spokesperson for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, in an email.

Assembly Member Walker is optimistic. “A number of colleagues recently signed onto the bill and others continue to do so, indicating a wave of support for the New York Voting Rights Act," she said Monday through a spokesperson. "There is the political will to get this done in New York, especially in the wake of last week’s derailed efforts of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.”

Asked about Hochul’s approach to the bill thus far, Walker said, “As we work in the Legislature to protect voting rights in New York, we will continue to call on Gov. Hochul and other elected officials across the country to enact meaningful laws that make it easier to vote. The laws must include a preclearance provision to stop discrimination before it starts and provide penalties for voter suppression, intimidation and the intentional dilution of minority voter strength.”

Especially if federal efforts continue to come up short, a state-level voting rights act would be a particularly notable achievement to top a stack of major voting and election reforms in New York in recent years. The slew, beginning in 2019, includes early voting, consolidated state and federal elections, automatic voter registration, expanded pre-registration, and others. That momentum came to halt this past November when voters rejected state constitutional amendments to enact no-excuse absentee voting and same-day registration.

Lawmakers have vowed to reintroduce those amendments this year. So far the Senate passed an initial 2022 package of voting rights bills, including related to counting affidavit and absentee ballots, requiring poll sites on college campuses, and reducing the voter registration deadline to the constitutional minimum of ten days before an election, among others. And both houses of the Legislature quickly passed a temporary extension of universal absentee voting – which has been allowed during the COVID-19 pandemic – while several other bills, including the state Voting Rights Act, remain on the table.

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Legislators to Introduce Bill to Reform New York City Board of Elections


Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

Voting in NYC (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


State lawmakers are amending a bill that could change the make-up and management structure of the New York City Board of Elections in an attempt to make the troubled agency more effective and accountable.

"We've been working with both the State Board of Election for guidance, many election lawyers, many people familiar with the problems that the city has had forever with their elections. And I think that we've come up with a good model," said the bill's State Senate sponsor, Senator Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat, in a Wednesday interview on Gotham Gazette’s Max Politics podcast.

Krueger said that she and Assembly sponsor Nily Rozic, a Queens Democrat, plan to introduce the new version of their Board of Elections reform legislation in the coming weeks and expressed cautious optimism about passing it this legislative session.

The New York City Board of Elections has been criticized for years for recurring calamities that have plagued New York City elections cycle after cycle – poor interpretation services, long lines at the ballot box, misprinted absentee ballots, an illegal voter purge; the list goes on. In many cases, a tradition of political patronage and nepotism has led to incompetence, enabled by the Board's explicitly partisan structure, lack of professionalization, and weak oversight from city and state officials.

The Krueger-Rozic legislation would give the New York City Council more leverage in appointing commissioners and give city officials greater insight into budgetary matters. It would also set qualification standards for Board members, and outline some of their duties in more clear terms.

New York City has ten elections commissioners who are selected by the Democratic and Republican party leaders from each borough and confirmed perfunctorily by the New York City Council. The Krueger-Rozic legislation would reduce that number to two commissioners, voted on by the City Council from nominations by each of the county parties. The change would streamline and clarify leadership roles and give lawmakers a greater voice in who ultimately runs local elections, but the Council would still have to pick one Democrat and one Republican because of a bipartisan requirement in the state constitution.

The bill also replaces the current executive director with Democrat and Republican co-executive directors hired by the mayor with approval of either the City Council Speaker or Public Advocate from lists of candidates provided by the Board.

Justin Flagg, a spokesperson for Krueger, said amendments to the bill had not been finalized but could give the Council more input in the appointment of commissioners. The office is considering "refining the number of commissioners," requiring public hearings on board nominations, and giving the Council the authority to remove commissioners – a power currently held only by the governor, and rarely used. Krueger's office is also looking into a requirement that a nationwide search be held for the board's co-executive directors, something good government groups had pushed for.

"We will likely introduce amendments in the next few weeks, though any more action will most likely be after the budget," Flagg said, referring to the upcoming hearings and negotiations around the state budget, which is due by the April 1 start of the new fiscal year. Krueger, the chair of the Senate finance committee, co-chairs budget hearings and helps negotiation the budget.

"Those ideas for improving the bill sound encouraging, and align with some of the best practices and recommendations we've identified in our research into election administration across the country," said Chisun Lee, an elections expert at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School, in an interview with Gotham Gazette. "They're a good starting point for transforming our elections agencies in a way that New York's voters really need."

The bill focuses only on the New York City Board of Elections, by far the largest and most complicated local elections board in the state, covering 5.6 million registered voters. A recent report from State Senator Zellnor Myrie, a Brooklyn Democrat who chairs the Senate elections committee, recommended a number of election reforms but avoided calling for sweeping changes to the make-up of boards of elections statewide. It followed a series of hearings he held in which a number of voters, administrators, and experts testified to the success of some upstate elections boards.

"There are counties that have more cattle than voters and do not have a parallel storyline to New York City's," said Krueger, who represents some of the country’s densest neighborhoods on Manhattan’s East Side. She said she has been working on the bill "in coordination with Senator Myrie, who is in support of our trying to accomplish this for the city of New York, which so desperately needs reform and modernization of how we run our elections."

"When we announced these hearings last year, we committed to look at every aspect of election administration in New York and we are having conversations with the entire conference about the universe of ideas for reform," said Matt Baer, a spokesperson for Myrie, without saying whether Myrie specifically supports the Krueger-Rozic bill.

The legislation has the support of Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and is expected to pass after working its way through the Democratic conference. "We're definitely looking at getting more voting reforms done this year. And both of these bills are highly likely to be part of that package," said Mike Murphy, a spokesperson for Stewart-Cousins, referring to the Krueger-Rozic bill and the John Lewis New York State Voting Rights Act sponsored by Myrie, which would require election-change preclearance, language assistance, and other protections.

But reforming the City BOE may face an uphill battle in the Assembly, where it has few co-sponsors and where leadership is closely tied to the Democratic Party apparatus. A spokesperson for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, Michael Whyland, did not say whether the bill was expected to move in his chamber. "We review all issues with our members," he wrote in an email. Heastie, the former head of the Bronx Democratic Party, and his majority conference have been far cooler toward government reform than the State Senate Democrats led by Stewart-Cousins.

A spokesperson for Rozic did not return a request for comment.

"Governor Hochul is committed to restoring faith in government and elections, which is why she expressed her support for election reforms in her State of the State, and she will review the legislation if it passes," wrote Avi Small, a spokesperson for Governor Kathy Hochul, in an email.

"I don't know how successful we will be with this because there are many political issues tied in to, obviously, who controls the Board of Elections," Krueger cautioned Wednesday.

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Max Politics Podcast: Senator Liz Krueger on Assessing the Governor's Budget and Top 2022 Priorities


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State Senator Liz Krueger (photo: NY Senate)


January 19, 2022 - Max Politics Podcast: Senator Liz Krueger on Assessing the Governor's Budget and Other 2022 Priorities

State Senator Liz Krueger, chair of the Senate's finance committee, joined the show to discuss Governor Kathy Hochul's Executive Budget and the hearings Krueger will soon hold on it, as well as other priorities for the Manhattan Democrat including ethics and elections reforms, implementation of the state's marijuana legalization, 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 Liz Krueger on Assessing the Governor's Budget and Top 2022 Priorities

Max Politics Podcast: Analyzing Governor Hochul's 2022 Agenda


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Governor Hochul delivers her State of the State (photo: Darren McGee/Governor's Office)


January 19, 2022 - Max Politics Podcast: Analyzing Governor Hochul's 2022 Agenda

Governor Kathy Hochul has delivered her first State of the State address and presented her first Executive Budget, in combination laying out much of her 2022 agenda. Hochul, seeking election this year to a full term as governor after ascending to the position after Governor Andrew Cuomo's resignation last August, has limited time but flush state coffers to make her initial mark.

Joining the show to break it all down: Bernadette Hogan, Albany bureau chief for the New York Post, and Anna Gronewold, Politico New York Playbook writer and Albany correspondent.

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: Analyzing Governor Hochul's 2022 Agenda

Hochul Presents $216 Billion Executive Budget with Major Spending Plans, Promise of Fiscal Responsibility


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Gov. Hochul presents her budget (photo: Mike Groll/Office of Governor Kathy Hochul)


Governor Kathy Hochul on Tuesday put forth a $216.3 billion Executive Budget for the 2023 fiscal year, which begins April 1, making massive proposed investments in education, health care, and infrastructure as the state continues on its road to recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hochul touted a “socially responsible and fiscally prudent” budget plan that will rebuild the state’s health-care and education workforces, provide tax relief to middle class New Yorkers, build affordable housing, invest in infrastructure and climate action, promote public safety and increase confidence in state government.

“We need to embrace this moment of possibility and use it to redefine York's destiny,” said Hochul, delivering her first budget presentation as governor after taking over after Governor Andrew Cuomo’s resignation last year. Hochul is running for a full term in the position in this year’s election, with a Democratic primary in June.

The Executive Budget, which puts numbers to many policy agenda items Hochul announced in her early January State of the State as well as more detailed plans for the expenditure of billions in federal aid, now becomes the subject of state legislative hearings and negotiations as the two branches move toward an adopted budget by the start of next fiscal year.

Despite the economy being hampered by the pandemic, Hochul’s budget increases state operational spending to just under $119 billion, an increase of about $3.6 billion or 3.1%, because of higher tax revenues from increased taxes on the wealthy and a booming stock market, and a massive infusion of federal relief funds. All those factors and others, including additional expected economic growth in the next few years, mean that Hochul was able to craft a fiscal plan with major spending increases but no budget gaps through 2027, she said. It includes no new taxes or fees, according to state budget director Robert Mujica, but does include new potential revenue-raisers.

The state will also set aside $2 billion in federal funds for pandemic recovery programs, Hochul announced. The governor did not outline how she proposes to spend that sum but said that she would work with the state Legislature “to identify the most impactful use of these funds in the short term, whether that's help for struggling small landlords and their tenants or the hardest hurt industries and workers or for other purposes."

Two possible areas where the funding could be disbursed is to replenish the Excluded Workers Fund, which provided relief to undocumented immigrants ineligible for federal aid, and the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, which helped renters and landlords who lost income during the pandemic. Both those programs have been depleted and did not receive any new funding in the budget. Instead, Hochul has called on the federal government to provide additional rent relief funds, and at least some federal money is coming to New York.

“This is a once in a generation opportunity to make thoughtful purpose-driven investments in our state and in our people that will pay dividends for decades and that's exactly what my budget will do,” she said. To prepare for possible future shortages, the state will put away about $5 billion in reserve funds, for a total of $14 billion in reserves by the end of the fiscal year and building to about $19.3 billion, or 15% of spending by 2025. Unlike her predecessor, Hochul is eschewing the tradition of keeping state spending growth around 2%.

Pre-kindergarten through high school education spending is the largest part of the proposed budget, with Hochul planning $31.2 billion on state aid to localities, an increase of $2.1 billion, or 7.1%, over the current fiscal year, including a $1.6 billion increase in Foundation Aid.

Under Hochul’s plan, Medicaid spending will increase to $26.5 billion, about $1.6 billion or 6.3% higher than last year because the state is continuing to increase its pick-up in the growth of local Medicaid expenses.

She has also said she wants to “overhaul” SUNY but has not presented a full plan for doing so, though she did pledge $1.5 billion in additional operational support for the SUNY and CUNY systems over five years and a $150 million increase in the Tuition Assistance Program.

The state’s capital budget funds infrastructure projects and Hochul’s budget includes a $32.8 billion Department of Transportation five-year capital plan to fix roads, bridges and highways, as well as a $1 billion investment to pave potholes across the state. She is also moving ahead on several major infrastructure projects begun under Cuomo and prior governors, including measures in New York City like the next phase of the Second Avenue Subway, the Gateway project, JFK and LaGuardia Airport overhauls, and more.

Hochul specifically spoke of “reconnecting neighborhoods that were severed by asphalt highways,” which disproportionately impacted communities of color. She has, for instance, proposed covering up parts of the Cross-Bronx Expressway to build green space, in line with proposals from Bronx Rep. Ritchie Torres and others. “For me, infrastructure is a quality of life issue,” Hochul said. “It's about creating connections, connecting neighborhoods, connecting people to jobs, connecting people to their family members and loved ones.”

The state’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which runs New York City’s subway and bus systems, is set to receive $6.6 billion in operating funds from the state under Hochul’s plan, an increase of about $997 million, or about 18%, from last year.

The state should invest, Hochul proposed, $10 billion in New York’s health-care system over multiple years including $1.2 billion for health care worker retention bonuses, $500 million for Cost-of-Living Adjustments for human services workers, and $2.4 billion for health-care capital infrastructure.

Under Hochul’s plan, state investment in childcare subsidies will increase to $1.4 billion, making 400,000 more New York families eligible to receive them. More than 6 million middle class taxpayers will receive $1.2 billion in expedited tax cuts, which were originally meant to take effect between 2023 and 2025. Another $2 billion in property tax rebates would aid about 2 million middle class homeowners, she said. About $350 million would be awarded to small businesses, theaters, and musical art venues for pandemic-related expenses.

Hochul’s budget proposal includes $4 billion for the state’s Clean Water, Clean Air and Green Jobs Environmental Bond Act, an increase of $1 billion from Cuomo’s plan. The proposed Act will be put to a ballot referendum in November this year and is meant to spur investment in climate resiliency and clean air and water infrastructure, creating hundreds of thousands of green jobs in the process. Hochul also added a new $500 million investment in offshore wind energy, which she had previously announced in her State of the State address. 

Hochul also unveiled a $224 million planned investment into programs to reduce gun violence, such as state funding for gun tracing programs, direct support for local law enforcement and community-based organizations, and a $400 million multi-year investment in opioid and substance abuse addiction services.

The governor also announced a $25 billion, five-year plan to create and preserve 100,000 units of affordable housing, including 10,000 units with supportive services, which builds off a prior state housing program launched by Cuomo in 2016, which was budgeted at $20 billion over five years. Cuomo had committed to building 20,000 supportive housing units over 15 years, attempting to outdo a separate commitment by Mayor de Blasio to build 15,000 such units in New York City.

In a briefing after the governor’s presentation, state budget director Robert Mujica acknowledged that there are still risks to the state’s fiscal outlook including rising inflation, labor shortages, stubborn unemployment in certain industries, especially hospitality-related sectors in New York City, and supply chain disruptions, among other factors. But, he emphasized several positive indicators and projections including the high rate of vaccinations, declining covid cases and state revenues bouncing back faster than previously expected.

“Overall, this budget invests smartly, we prepare for the future, we're mitigating risks that we're seeing and we're building reserves at a level that has not been seen before,” said Mujica, who noted that the state had never before had a budget plan with no out-year gaps.

Mujiica also said the state has no plans to change the increased taxes on top earners and corporations that were approved last year, and acknowledged, when asked, that there was no evidence that the taxes caused any out-migration of wealthy New Yorkers or companies. He did note that high-earners may have left New York City for the suburbs amid the pandemic and that they may return as the pandemic abates, but there is uncertainty around those trends given the moves to remote work. He also noted that prior federal tax policy, particularly the cap on state and local tax deductions from federal taxations put into place under then-President Donald Trump’s tax overhaul, would have provided more impetus to high earners to relocate out of state.

Besides major capital investments which will benefit New York City, the budget contains several other items of importance for the five boroughs and new Mayor Eric Adams. Hochul proposed a four-year extension of mayoral control of New York City schools, which is longer than Cuomo ever agreed to provide to former Mayor Bill de Blasio. Her budget also expedites the planned authorization of three additional casino licenses, which could potentially be located in or near the city.

In the coming weeks, the State Legislature will analyze the spending plan in joint legislative hearings led by the two Democratic majorities, which will include testimony from state agency leaders, local officials like Mayor Adams, and others inside and outside government. The State Senate and Assembly will also each release its own one-house budget proposal as part of the negotiations.

State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli issued a cautious statement on the governor’s budget, promising his office’s usual fuller vetting in the coming weeks. “State revenue is running well ahead of projections, and the proposed budget includes significant federal aid to support our recovery,” he said. “The state has the opportunity to provide needed relief to the many individuals, small businesses and sectors that are still struggling. We must make sure these funds are allocated effectively and properly used.”

Andrew Rein, president of Citizens Budget Commission, a nonprofit watchdog, urged the governor and Legislature to take more steps to rein in recurring spending. “The budget recognizes an eye-popping additional $5 billion in receipts in each of the next four years, dependent on the continued economic recovery,” he said. “As strong as the receipts and federal aid are, this year’s budget negotiations risk a feeding frenzy that could destabilize the State’s future finances.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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