Gotham Gazette

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How De Blasio Fared in Albany This Year

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Mayor de Blasio with Senate Leader Stewart-Cousins (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

Democrats in control of the state Legislature for the first time in a decade ended a whirlwind legislative session last week, having notched a raft of progressive victories that were denied to them when Republicans controlled the state Senate. 

At a news conference in Albany on Friday, Governor Andrew Cuomo declared it the “the most productive legislative session in modern history,” and in New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio agreed.

“As we tally up the scorecard for the end of session, one thing is clear: New Yorkers have won big on a host of progressive legislation that will help make our state fairer,” de Blasio said in a statement on Friday.

Among the bills passed this year were several sweeping packages with significant ramifications for the city’s 8.5 million residents. Registering to vote will become easier. Tenants will have stronger protections. Wealth will no longer determine, in most cases, if someone accused of a crime loses their freedom. Marijuana possession won’t land people in jail. The subways will get new funding and the streets will be a little less crowded by vehicles. Cameras will catch speeding drivers near schools. Construction projects will be completed more efficiently. Undocumented immigrants will be able to apply for driver’s licenses and receive education funding. And that’s not all.

Among de Blasio’s top stated priorities, he saw movement on stronger rent regulations, mayoral control of city schools, congestion pricing, election reform, design-build authority, criminal justice reform, and more.

Nonetheless, there were a few professed priorities for the mayor that did not get approved this year including legalizing adult use of recreational marijuana, scrapping the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT), and reforming Section 50-a of the state Civil Rights Law, which shields police officer disciplinary records from public disclosure, among others.

“We haven’t seen a session this daring, productive and progressive in decades, and while we have much more work to do for New Yorkers, I want to thank Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and the rest of the legislature for passing these sweeping reforms,” de Blasio said. “I also would like to thank Governor Andrew Cuomo for taking swift action on many of these pieces of legislation.”

The city has already or will soon begin the process of executing some of the various reforms that passed, including creating new local regulations for e-bikes and e-scooters to expanding contract awards for MWBEs, and implementing bail reform. Some reforms will also take effect immediately while other programs are scheduled to ramp up over time.

Here’s a rundown of approved bills and programs, some broad and others more specific, that will impact New York City:

Expanded MWBE Program
The Legislature gave the city greater authority to award discretionary contracts to Minority- and Women-Owned Business Enterprises (MWBEs) as well as Emerging Business Enterprises run by socially and economically disadvantaged business owners.

The legislation increases the value of contracts that the city can award without a formal competitive process to such businesses from $150,000 to $500,000 million. It also allows adding MWBE or EBE status as a criteria for creating pre-qualified vendor lists, allows the Department of Design and Construction to create a mentoring program for MWBEs and EBEs, and allows those businesses to apply for School Construction Authority contracts.

De Blasio had called this a top priority, holding a press conference on the subject in late March (he wanted the threshold raised to $1 million, but was pleased with $500,000) and reiterating its importance as the session moved toward completion. A $1 million threshold would have allowed the city to increase annual MWBE awards by $500 million, he had said.

“Our city is fairer and more vibrant when everyone – regardless of race, gender or ethnicity – has an opportunity to participate in our economy,” de Blasio said in a statement. “With the help of State lawmakers and persistent advocacy from our minority and women entrepreneurs, we managed to once again expand economic opportunity for people who have historically been left out of our economy. A $500,000 discretionary award limit for minority and women entrepreneurs will strengthen our thriving economy and entrepreneurial backbone.”

Expanded Design-Build Authority
Design-build is a procurement method intended to cut infrastructure costs by allowing government to solicit a joint design and construction contract. De Blasio has been pushing for the commonsense measure for years but it was repeatedly used as a leverage item by the governor and Republican Senate, with at times small gains allowed to the city.

Democrats this year expanded the city’s design-build authorization to several city agencies: the Department of Design & Construction, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Environmental Protection, the School Construction Authority, the Department of Parks & Recreation, the New York City Housing Authority and New York City Health + Hospitals.

Legalizing Electronic Bikes and Scooters
The Legislature legalized e-bikes and e-scooters (with a maximum speed of 20 miles an hour), mandated safety requirements for e-scooters, and gave municipalities the ability to regulate e-scooters within their jurisdiction.

In New York City, the bill could end a de Blasio-ordered crackdown by the NYPD on e-bikes, which are often used by immigrant food delivery workers. It will also allow the City Council to create new regulations where earlier its hands were tied. Several bills were introduced and discussed at a Council hearing in January, which can now move forward. When pressed on his e-bike crackdown, de Blasio repeatedly pointed to Albany, saying he wanted state regulations so the city could then act, but also expressing safety concerns not backed up by any data.

Governor Cuomo did say Friday that he is still reviewing the legislation, and he expressed safety concerns about where and how e-bikes and e-scooters riders would operate, saying he didn’t think they should be in bike lanes or on sidewalks with those riding traditional bikes or walking. De Blasio has expressed similar concerns.

Rent Regulations
The Legislature passed and governor signed a package of sweeping tenant-friendly rent regulations, with no expiration dates unlike previous rent laws, which are expected to affect more than 2.4 million rent-regulated tenants in the city. 

The bills ended high-rent and high-income vacancy decontrol, limited rent increases from “major capital improvements,” and banned blacklisting of tenants for being sued in housing court, among other regulations.

De Blasio called the rent regulations “extraordinary” in an interview on NY1’s Inside City Hall. “[W]e created the biggest affordable housing program this city has ever had, we gave free lawyers to stop evictions, we’ve done a lot of things here that are working – rent freezes for two years, obviously. But the missing link was to get action in Albany,” he said. “Now we have the strongest rent laws we’ve ever had and that’s extraordinary. And I think this has been – this is one of the watershed moments in terms of protecting New York City as we love it, you know, keeping New York New York, making sure it’s a city for everyone.”

Environmental Regulations
In a last-minute agreement, the governor and Legislature approved the expansive Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, said to be the strongest environmental regulation of its kind in the country. It mandates goals for cutting carbon emissions to zero in the electricity sector by 2040, invests heavily in wind and solar energy, and will direct state agencies to invest 40% of clean energy funds in disadvantaged communities.

The bill also empanels a Climate Action Council charged with creating a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 85% from 1990 levels by 2050.

De Blasio has already set New York City on a path to reduce emissions by making large buildings more energy efficient and other measures, including related to how the city gets its energy and uses automobiles. The mayor announced in April that all city operations would be powered by renewable energy sources within five years. The CLCPA, with its aggressive goals, will add fuel to those efforts and beyond.

The Legislature also passed a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags at retail and grocery stores (a few years after the state overruled a new city law to a similar effect). The bill does include several exemptions, however, and also allows municipalities a choice to impose a 5-cent fee on single-use paper bags. 

Voting and Elections Reform 
The Legislature passed several laws this year to remove hurdles to voting and registering to vote, most of them early in the year. In New York City, where the New York City Board of Elections has shown repeated failures in administering elections, some of those reforms promise to make voting processes far more efficient. 

Among the measures the Legislature passed were early voting, electronic pollbook authorization, three hours of paid leave on Election Day, consolidating the federal and state primary, pre-registration of 16- and 17-year-olds, changing the party enrollment deadline to allow more time for voters to pick a party, and universal portability of voter registrations.

The Legislature also approved measures to amend the state constitution to allow same-day voter registration and no-excuse absentee ballots by mail. Those measures will have to pass through another Legislative session and a ballot referendum.

De Blasio has already been wrangling with the city Board of Elections, which the city does not control but funds, about some of the changes, including how many early voting sites will be operated for the November election.

Extended Mayoral Control
The state budget deal passed in April gave de Blasio a three-year extension on mayoral control of city schools, compared to the one- and two-year extensions he’d received in the past. The extension gets him through the rest of his term.

The deal also required no concessions from the mayor, unlike when Republicans used mayoral control to pass measures friendly to charter schools or require more oversight. In fact, the charter school cap, which has been hit in New York City, was not lifted at all this year, pleasing the mayor.

The budget did add two members to the city’s Panel for Educational Policy, and changed how members of local parent councils are appointed.

The city will also have to do additional new reporting on where state education aid is going, which could lead to conflict next year if Cuomo believes the city is not moving enough state dollars to the most needy schools.

Criminal Justice Reform
De Blasio’s plan to close the Rikers Island jails hinges on reducing the population of the jail complex to below 5,000 (the city's entire correction facility population was slightly under 7,500 as of this week, according to the de Blasio administration). The mayor has repeatedly insisted that that would require broad criminal justice reforms at the state level, and the Legislature obliged with a broad package.

The Legislature ended the use of cash bail for most offenses, save for violent crimes; they overhauled the discovery process, allowing defendants access to evidence against them earlier and more easily; and they guaranteed a defendant's right to a speedy trial.

De Blasio had wanted a change in the recently-passed bail laws, asking the Legislature to give judges the ability to assess a suspect’s “dangerousness” in order to set bail in cases of violent crimes, but the measure proved controversial and failed.

At a June 3 news conference in Albany, he explained, “Remember, there are some people who are profoundly dangerous who have a proven, unfortunately, a proven record of being dangerous to their communities, but are not a flight risk. In those cases, judges’ hands are tied and they do not have a ready way to hold them in, in the way they need to. We need to come up with a very precise definition of dangerousness so that it is not overused. But I think that's something that can and should be done while this legislature is still in session.”

The Legislature also decriminalized possession of low quantities of marijuana, but failed to legalize the recreational adult use of marijuana which would have also allowed commercial sales.

De Blasio has insisted that he would only support legalization done responsibly and with investments for communities long adversely affected by enforcement. “I want to see legalization of marijuana for sure, but I want to see it done in a way that does not create a new monster corporate class that takes advantage of people, that profits in a very inappropriate way,” he said at the June 3 Albany news conference. Cuomo has promised to pursue marijuana legalization again next year.

Transit, Traffic and Congestion Pricing
After opposing it for years, de Blasio embraced a congestion pricing program to impose a charge on drivers entering Manhattan’s central business district, 60th street and below. The Legislature this year approved something of a broad plan -- though it will not take effect till 2021 and must be designed by a committee where de Blasio has little control -- which will create an annual stream of $1 billion in revenue for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) and allow it to leverage to raise about $15 billion in bond funding to repair and maintain the city’s struggling subways. 

The governor and Legislature also mandated reforms at the MTA, including an overhaul of its management structure. But Governor Cuomo seemed to make a last-minute power grab at the state authority, where he already appoints a plurality of board members and its top leadership.

Cuomo nominated his budget director, Robert Mujica, to the board and was successful in pushing the Legislature to waive the requirement that Mujica be a resident of the city. In fact, he had state law changed so that the state budget director is always a member of the MTA Board.

One new de Blasio nominee to the board, former city labor commissioner Bob Linn, was approved by the Senate.

At the same time, the governor failed to advance the mayor’s other nomination for MTA Board member, Dan Zarrilli, to the Senate for confirmation, which leaves de Blasio and the city with one fewer representative.

“It is disappointing the City will have less say on the board during this critical time of change for the MTA, especially that of Mr. Zarrilli, a Staten Islander and professional engineer who is ideally suited to the role,” said Seth Stein, a de Blasio spokesperson, in a statement. “We will continue advocating for the residents of New York City.”

The governor’s office has not fully explained why Zarrilli’s nomination was held up. A spokesperson for Cuomo, Patrick Muncie, said in a statement to Gotham Gazette, “Mr. Zarrilli’s recommendation was received after Mr. Linn’s, and he is currently going through the background process.” Muncie did not respond to a question about whether Cuomo prefers to have the city at less than full strength on the Board.

Aid for the Undocumented
The Legislature approved the Jose Peralta New York State DREAM Act, named for the state Senator who sponsored the bill but died last year before seeing it passed. The bill gives undocumented immigrant students access to state tuition assistance to attend college and also creates a privately-funded scholarship fund. It’s likely to be significantly impactful in New York City, which is home to about 150,000 DREAMers, according to the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs.

The Legislature also approved the Driver’s License Access and Privacy Act that would reinstate undocumented immigrants’ eligibility to apply for drivers licenses, which was banned following the September 11, 2001 terror attacks. 

Cameras Near Schools and on Buses
Democrats reauthorized and dramatically expanded a speed camera program around New York City schools this year, after Republicans had let it lapse last year. Cameras are expected to be installed in 750 school zones, up from 160, and will operate for longer hours.

And the state moved to allow for cameras mounted on city buses in order to ticket vehicles parked in bus lanes, which will aid de Blasio's effort to speed up the city's slow bus fleet.

Veteran Firefighters
Working with city officials, the Legislature crafted and approved a bill that would allow military veterans to subtract seven years from their age (up from six) to qualify for the city’s Fire Department. “If you’re a veteran who has served this country proudly, your age shouldn’t be a barrier to continue serving our fellow New Yorkers,” de Blasio said, according to a Wall Street Journal report.

LGBTQ and Gender Equity
The Democrat-led Legislature moved forward on a number of bills that Republicans had repeatedly blocked in past years. They banned conversion therapy for minors, passed the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA), prohibiting discrimination based on gender and sexual identity.

The Legislature also passed the Reproductive Health Act, which codified federal abortion protections established by Roe v. Wade into state law, and passed the Comprehensive Contraception Coverage Act, mandating that insurers cover the cost of contraception. They also banned employers from discriminating against employees based on reproductive health decisions.

Child Victims Act
The Legislature approved the Child Victims Act, which raises the statute of limitations for adult survivors of child sexual abuse to file civil and criminal complaints.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

In ‘Most Historic and Productive’ Session, Albany Democrats Move Extensive Agenda to Transform New York

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(photo: the governor's office)

Just after it ended, Governor Andrew Cuomo deemed 2019’s “the most productive legislative session in modern history” at a news conference on Friday in Albany.

The Democrat in the first year of his third term went through only a partial list of the many laws and investments he and state legislators had made between January and June, in what was the first period of full and functional Demcratic control of state government in decades.

Though the session included a good deal of sparring between Cuomo and legislators, especially with the governor repeatedly attacking or needling Senate Democrats, a pattern that intensified after the demise of the deal to bring an Amazon campus to Queens, almost all of the priorities laid out by the governor and the legislative majorities were accomplished in some form.

"Six months ago we laid out our 2019 Justice Agenda - an aggressive blueprint to move New York forward - and today I'm proud to say we got it done," Cuomo said on Friday, adding, “...this was the most progressively productive legislative session in modern history. The product was extraordinary, and we maintained our two pillars - fiscal responsibility and economic growth paired with social progress on an unprecedented and nation-leading scale."

As the Legislature wrapped up its work, similar boasts came from the two majority leaders -- Carl Heastie in the Assembly and Andrea Stewart-Cousins in the Senate -- as well as many other Democratic state lawmakers, advocates and activists, and like-minded officials from around New York, including Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson.

“This session we’ve chosen to stand up with the people over special interests,” Stewart-Cousins said in her closing remarks as the Senate completed its session. “We’ve chosen to invest in the future over the failed policies of the past. We’ve chosen science over rhetoric. We’ve chosen equality over divisiveness. This is the most historic and productive legislation session in New York State history, period.”

“We haven’t seen a session this daring, productive and progressive in decades,” de Blasio said in a long, celebratory Friday statement about the session. The mayor highlighted many of the bills that were passed, from stronger rent regulations to congestion pricing, criminal justice and voting reforms to driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, and more.

In many ways it was a historic session, with Democrats following through on much of what they promised during last year’s campaigns, when Cuomo easily won a third term and the party took a commanding new majority in the Senate to couple with long-standing control of the Assembly. There were roughly 800 bills passed by both the Senate and Assembly, according to Stewart-Cousins.

But Republicans also believe the session provides them with significant new ammo to flip Senate seats back next year and begin to line up the pieces to eventually retake the chamber and win their first statewide office come 2022, when Cuomo has said he’ll seek a fourth term.

Much of life for New Yorkers will be altered by what Democrats in Albany decided this year, with impacts -- social, economic, environmental, and political -- for many years to come. The party in power is certain it has produced for New Yorkers who will benefit in many ways. The results will start to be seen soon.

Here’s a look at what got done this session in Albany:

>Election Reform
Lawmakers started off the session passing legislation aimed at reforming voting and elections in New York. The Legislature passed a series of bills to establish early voting and no-excuse absentee voting, expand voter registration, impose limits on LLC campaign contributions, and extend primary election voting hours.

>LGBTQ and Women’s Issues
They also passed the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA), which prohibits discrimination based on gender identity or expression. This act also added transgender people to those protected under New York’s Hate Crimes Law, which defines a hate crime and specifies mechanisms for punishing those who commit hate crimes.

Also in an effort to protect members of the LGBTQ community, lawmakers banned conversion therapy for minors.

They also codified Roe v. Wade abortion protections into state law through the Reproductive Health Act. The RHA legalized abortion past 24 weeks of pregnancy if the woman’s health or life is at risk, or if the fetus is not viable.

The Legislature also passed the Comprehensive Contraception Coverage Act, which requires health insurance companies to cover all FDA-approved contraceptive options, and the Boss Bill, which ensures that employees are able to make reproductive healthcare decisions without fearing adverse employment consequences.

>Children, Immigrants, and Survivors
The Legislature passed the Jose Peralta New York State DREAM Act, which would allow undocumented students in New York to qualify for state aid for higher education and create a Dream Fund for college scholarship opportunities for these students. It was named after the late Senator Jose Peralta, who had championed the bill in the past.

They also passed the Child Victims Act, which reformed the state’s statute of limitations for child sexual abuse. The legislation provides that the statute of limitations doesn’t start until someone turns 23 years old, where it previously started when a child turned 18. It also allowed a temporary look-back window to allow individuals to file civil claims for long-ago incidents.

>Gun Control
Lawmakers also passed a gun control bill package that bans bump-stocks, creates regulations for gun buybacks, extends the background check period for people trying to purchase a gun, and institutes the “red flag” law to allow teachers and others to petition judges to order removal of firearms from a troubled student’s home.

After an onslaught of legislation in January that opened the floodgates after years in which Democrats saw their agenda items often stall in the state Senate, February was slower. This was in part due to the fact that there are often fewer session days in February due to the annual school vacation-aligned break.

Legislators did pass a bill that criminalizes “revenge porn,” or the distribution of intimate images with the intent to cause harm to another person.

The Legislature passed additional gun and voting reforms in March just ahead of the budget deal that came together at the end of the month: a bill that creates stronger regulations for gun storage, aiming to prevent unintentional gun violence, and the Voter Friendly Ballot Act, which aims to create a more readable ballot layout.

As usual, the state budget was perhaps the most consequential piece of legislation to pass during the month of March. Along with spending decisions adding up to about $175 billion, it included sweeping legislative changes.

Lawmakers and Cuomo reformed the criminal justice system, the electoral system, health care, and public transportation. From bail and discovery reform to a plastic bag ban and congestion pricing and the expansion of speed cameras allowed in New York City, the budget was home to many major changes for the state and city.

It also increased funding for education through local school aid and grants across the state. And, they made the property tax cap, which prevents annual increases in property taxes from exceeding 2% of the previous assessment or rate of inflation, into permanent law (it applies everywhere outside New York City).

The budget passed a compromise on campaign finance reform, creating a commission to propose a public campaign finance system, with recommendations due before the end of this year.

The budget agreement came together in the final days and hours of March, and was given final passage on April 1, the day of the start of the new fiscal year.

As is often the case in Albany, the post-budget months of April and May were relatively quiet times between the big budget push in late March and the end of session flurry in June.

But, just after the budget, in April, lawmakers raised the age to purchase tobacco products in the state from 18 to 21. This legislation includes cigarettes, chewing tobacco, and vape products.

The Legislature also passed a bill package aimed at promoting environmental protection and conservation. Among the provisions of this bill package is a ban on harmful pesticides and the establishment of a constitutional right to water and life and strict regulations on the toxic chemicals in children’s toys.

In May, the Legislature passed a series of bills aimed at protecting victims and survivors of domestic violence. These bills varied from special ballots for victims of domestic violence to requiring companies to allow victims of domestic violence to cancel contracts.

Among the domestic violence protection bills, the Legislature also passed a bill banning the manufacturing and selling of undetectable or “ghost” guns, such as 3D printed guns. It makes it illegal for anyone to knowingly possess, manufacture, sell, transport, or possess undetectable firearms.

They also created protections for disabled New Yorkers through a bill package that: creates an advocacy office for those living with disabilities, expands Medicaid coverage for people with autism, and provides housing for New Yorkers with therapy animals.

Things in Albany got very busy again in June, especially toward the end of the legislative session and at its very end, with movement on a variety of bills, though Democrats did not find compromise on some professed priorities.

>Rent Regulations
Expiring rent regulations that apply to roughly 1 million New York City apartments was the marquee issue of the end of session. After a great deal of debate, advocacy, negotiation and consternation -- including some conflict between the governor and Senate -- the Legislature passed and the governor signed the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act of 2019, which was called the strongest tenant protection bill in state history.

The legislation makes the rent regulations permanent, with no sunset clause as had been the precedent, repeals two key elements that had led to many thousands of units leaving regulation over decades, vacancy decontrol and the “vacancy bonus,” drastically reduces what landlords can recoup in rent for “major capital investments” into buildings, and more.
The legislation also allows other areas of the state to opt into the regulations if they have a housing emergency based on a lower than 5% vacancy rate and the local legislature votes to adopt them.

>Fighting Climate Change
During the last month of session, there was increased pressure from lawmakers and activists on passing the Climate and Community Protection Act, an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and move New York toward renewable energy and a cleaner economy. The legislation, which had fairly aggressive timelines and requirements, as well as mandates around environmental and economic justice to ensure investments in communities hardest hit by climate change and pollution, was opposed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who said in a June 7 interview with WAMC radio that “it actually doesn’t do, in my opinion, any of the main goals or initiatives.”

Despite Cuomo’s repeated criticism and opposition, a compromise was reached with lawmakers that included elements of the CCPA into a bill more aligned with Cuomo’s related bill, with the new law known as the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. The legislation that was passed has New York transitioning to 70 percent renewable energy by 2030 and 85 percent greenhouse gas emissions reductions by 2050.

Part of the reason for Cuomo’s opposition related to the redistribution of funding to communities most vulnerable to climate change and hurt by pollution. The agreed-upon bill has between 35 and 40 percent of the funds allocated by transition requirements going to impacted communities. It also creates wage and labor standards for state-supported green jobs.

>”Green Light”
Undocumented immigrants now have access to driver’s licenses in the state with passage of the Driver’s License Access and Privacy Act (known as “Green Light NY” as termed by supporters). This legislation was a priority for many progressive organizations, and it repeals a 20-year-ban enacted after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001 on undocumented immigrants obtaining driver’s licenses.

>Farmworkers’ Rights
Another of several major pieces of legislative to move in the final week of the session, the legislature also passed the Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act. The legislation is aimed at addressing the standards of working conditions for farm workers across New York. It grants collective bargaining rights, workers’ compensation, unemployment benefits to farm laborers, as well as bringing them in line with other workers in terms of mandatory overtime and time off, where they had been carved out of labor law decades ago.

“We are correcting a historic injustice, a remnant of Jim Crow era laws, to affirm that those farmworkers must be granted rights just as any other worker in New York,” Senator Jessica Ramos, a Democrat and the bill’s sponsor, said in a statement.

Some lawmakers and farm owners who would be affected by the bill were opposed to it, saying that the legislation disregarded the interests of Upstate New Yorkers.

“The new One Party Rule continued to steamroll over Upstate interests, this time targeting our farmers,” Republican Senator Fred Akshar said in a statement.

>Sexual Harassment and Rape Law Udpates
The Legislature moved and Governor Cuomo supported significant changes to the state’s sexual harassment and rape laws, lowering what was called an exceedingly high bar to proving sexual harassment in the workplace and extending the statue of limitations on rape in the second and third degrees from five to at least 10 years, with specifications at times allowing more than that.

"Sexual abuse is a far too widespread and pervasive stain on our society, and the five-year statutes of limitations for rape in the second and third degrees has been an abject dereliction ofjustice,” Cuomo said in a June 19 statement. “By providing victims more time to bring claims in court, we are honoring those who suffered pain, endured humiliation, and had the courage to come forward.”

>E-scooters and E-bikes
The legislature also passed a bill to legalize e-scooters and e-bikes, but would allow localities to determine implementation and regulation. But unlike most other high-profile measures passed by the Legislature, this bill does not necessarily have Cuomo’s blessing.

“That's a bill that's going to I think need more review and discussion,” Cuomo said in his end of session news conference when asked if he’d sign it.

Not Passed
The most high-profile measure not to pass this year despite widespread expressions of support for it from Democratic leaders is the legalization of adult-use marijuana. It was a priority for many Democratic legislators and activists, and was listed on the governor’s early 2019 agenda and top ten end-of-session priorities when he put forth that list after the budget.

The Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, which would have legalized marijuana use for people at least 21 years of age, came close to passing but ran out of time, according to its lead sponsor in the Senate, Senator Liz Krueger, a Democrat.

"It is clear now that MRTA is not going to pass this session,” Krueger said in a statement just before the end of session. “This is not the end of the road, it is only a delay. Unfortunately, that delay means countless more New Yorkers will have their lives up-ended by unnecessary and racially disparate enforcement measures before we inevitably legalize.”

Although the MRTA didn’t pass, lawmakers did pass legislation to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana and establish procedures for record expungements for past and future convictions. Cuomo said marijuana legalization efforts should have been included in the budget, as he initially recommended, but indicated he would sign the decriminalization measures.

Lawmakers also failed to pass the Human Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement (HALT) Act, which according to the bill “limit[s] the amount of time an inmate can spend in segregated confinement, end the segregated confinement of vulnerable people, restrict the criteria that can result in such confinement, improve conditions of confinement, and create more human and effective alternatives to such confinement.”

The governor, Stewart-Cousins, and Heastie did, however, form a joint agreement on addressing some of the goals of the legislation administratively, to be executed by Cuomo’s administration in the prisons.

"While we are disappointed that HALT legislation could not be passed this year, we have reached an agreement to dramatically reduce the use of solitary confinement in correctional facilities,” reads a joint statement released by the three parties. “These new steps build on this year's landmark reforms and will further help to correct inequities and end inhumane practices in our criminal justice system.”

Lawmakers were also unable to pass bills on automatic voter registration (though legislative leaders promised to move it in 2020), the legalization of paid surrogacy, and an expansion of the prevailing wage requirement for building projects that receive state subsidies. And though it was much-discussed in last year's elections, the New York Health Act to institute single-payer health care in the state did not come to a vote.

What the Session Means
This session marked the first time in about a decade that Democrats have been the majority party in both houses of the Legislature, and the first time in well beyond that where they had a functional majority in both houses. For party members and progressive activists, this session proved that the party is capable of accomplishing big things.

“We demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that not only we can govern, but we can govern like gangbusters,” Democratic Senator Gustavo Rivera said, with reference to the questions facing the Senate Democrats as they took power with remnants of 2009-2010 dysfunction and chaos hanging over them.

The session included a good deal of infighting between Cuomo and legislators, especially in the Senate, with Cuomo repeatedly questioning the Senate’s ability to find consensus, focus on policy over politics, and move controversial legislation -- most of which was proven unfounded in the end, Rivera and others note.

“Across the board, I think we've had an incredibly successful year, which I put right at the feet of our leader,” said Rivera, who has repeatedly criticized Cuomo on multiple fronts, in part in defense of Stewart-Cousins. “And she has been very ably dealing with all the difficulties like of us figuring out how to be a majority conference which has its own idiosyncrasies, and the fact that we have been fighting somebody downstairs on the second floor [where the governor’s offices are], who would not like us to be successful, everything that we've been able to achieve has not been because of the governor, it's been in spite of him.”

Republican Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb disagreed on the session’s successes and called it a six-month parade of irresponsible progressivism.

“One-party rule in Albany is an unmitigated disaster,” Kolb said in an end-of-session statement. “The best part about the 2019 Legislative Session is that for now, the damage is over. What we saw during the last six months was unchecked liberal extremism too eager to show what could be done, without giving any consideration to what should be done.”

The results of what Democrats passed are yet to be seen: much of the legislation doesn’t go into effect right away, and even after it does, only time will tell.

“We still have a long laundry list of things that we need to pass, because our communities have been under resourced and over criminalized for so long that we have to undo those harms,” Javier Valdes, co-executive director of Make the Road New York, an immigrant advocacy organization, told Gotham Gazette. “So this is a long term process. But the thing this session has shown us that we're building momentum, even better things to come.”

And there’s another session before the next state legislative elections in 2020, when the entirety of both chambers will again be on the ballot.

“All of those things speak to the energy that's got us here, and that's the same energy is going to carry us next year,” Rivera said of Democrats’ long list of 2019 achievements and the 2020 elections.

by Caitlyn Rosen, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

Cuomo's Unfinished Business: 3 Issues the Governor Says Will Form Basis of His 2020 Agenda

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Gov. Cuomo (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)

Governor Andrew Cuomo celebrated the achievements of 2019 on Friday, calling the legislative session an “overwhelming success” at a wrap-up news conference in the Capitol. During the January to June session, Cuomo and the state Legislature, with its two Democratic majorities for the first time in a decade, moved legislation dealing with a long list of issues, from combating climate change to expanding voting and reproductive rights, new gun regulations to a cap on annual property tax increases, and much much more.

However, while Cuomo did achieve most of what he outlined for 2019 in speeches delivered late last year and early this year, he said on Friday that three big issues remained unresolved: the Legislature did not pass bills to legalize adult-use marijuana or paid gestational surrogacy, nor to expand prevailing wage requirements that govern how union workers are paid on projects that receive public dollars.

When asked about what did not get done and would thus form the basis for his 2020 agenda, Cuomo first joked about the question and said that almost everything he wanted to get done was achieved -- “Are you kidding me?” the governor half-joked, “you want to go through what we didn’t do?”

“We did 99.9%,” Cuomo said. “It was an overwhelming success.” With a smile, he held up a glass about half-filled with water and said that, usually, that’s representative of a session and it can be debated whether it is half-full or half-empty. He then filled the glass almost to the top, to represent his view of the session’s success rate based on the goals.

“What didn’t get done?,” Cuomo continued, getting serious, “I’m disappointed that surrogacy did not get done, and I will continue to fight for that. Legalization of marijuana. Prevailing wage. Those are really the issues that did not get done, and I will revisit all of them next year.”

While he identified those three issues, there were several other items he hoped to accomplish -- like raising the cap on charter schools in New York City -- also left off the final, very lengthy tally of what did get done.

A look at the three issues Cuomo named to set the table for the future:

After calling it a “gateway drug” not long ago, Cuomo began moving on marijuana legalization in 2018 and indicated support for its legalization during his successful campaign for a third term, though he didn’t run on the issue. He then introduced adult-use legalization in his beginning-of-the-year budget proposal, but said that the two houses of the Legislature did not have the “political support” to pass the budget with marijuana legalization as the April 1 deal came together.

Legalization efforts continued in fits and starts, with some sniping between lawmakers and the governor, but ultimately the votes were not there in the Senate, there wasn’t significant momentum in the Assembly, and Cuomo did not appear to make a big push for a policy he had called particularly important as both a social justice issue and revenue-raiser for the state.

“It was clear they didn’t have the votes for legalization, then we went to decriminalization,” Cuomo said at the Friday press conference looking back on the session.

A decriminalization deal was reached in the final days of the session, creating a system of fines for possession of “small amounts” of marijuana, “reducing the penalty for unlawful possession of marijuana to a violation,” according to a press release from the Senate Democratic majority. It removes criminal penalties for possession of under two ounces of marijuana, and adds a penalty of $50 for possession under one ounce and $200 for between one and two ounces.

It also creates a program to automatically expunge past and future convictions. And, it adds “marijuana to the definition of “smoking” under the Public Health Law so that smoking marijuana will be prohibited in any circumstances where smoking tobacco is prohibited by law.”

“This monumental legislation will decriminalize small amounts of marijuana and establish procedures for record expungements for both past and future convictions,” according to a press release from the Senate Democratic majority.

Cuomo has pushed for marijuana reform since 2012. In that time, he has twice proposed legislation to categorize possession of small amounts of marijuana as a violation rather than a misdemeanor. The legislature did not pass either proposal. In 2014, Cuomo and the Legislature made medical marijuana legal across the state.

In 2018, Cuomo began pushing for marijuana legalization. He ordered a Department of Health study on regulated marijauna legislation, which determined that legalization of recreational use would have positive ramifications across the board, including reducing racial disparities in criminalization and incarceration rates. The report found that there have been more than 800,000 arrests for possession of small amounts of cannabis in New York, with the majority of those arrested people of color.

The Legislature also failed to pass a bill legalizing paid gestational surrogacy. The bill would have allowed gay or infertile couples to contract with a woman to serve as a surrogate.

Paid gestational surrogacy is legal in 47 states, but not New York, where it was banned under Governor Mario Cuomo in 1992. Current state laws also fail to define who the legal parents are when a child is conceived with a gestational surrogate.

“Before the end of the legislative session, we need to fix these two violations that are repugnant to what we believe and who we are and an injustice to the LGBTQ community,” Cuomo said in May, speaking on gestational surrogacy and the ‘gay and trans panic defense’ that was ultimately banned before the end of session.

Cuomo called legalizing surrogacy the next logical step after he helped pass marriage equality in the state in 2011, allowing LGBT couples to marry and to have children through a surrogate if they so choose. But, there were significant concerns from some lawmakers, especially in the Assembly, about protections for potential surrogates and the notion that surrogacy can be viewed as taking advantage of women from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

Cuomo and others disputed those concerns, touting the legal protections for surrogates in the proposed legislation and pointing to the idea of letting women decided what to do with their bodies, but his advocacy did not prevail.

Prevailing Wage
Discussing the prevailing wage bill before the end of the legislative session, Cuomo decried the Democrat-controlled state Assembly, claiming its members didn’t want the bill to pass.

“The Assembly does not want to pass because it has no immediate effect on New York City,” Cuomo said Thursday on WAMC radio’s The Roundtable, referring to the fact that an updated prevailing wage bill had carved New York City building projects out, giving in to a call from real estate industry leaders and some affordable housing developers who said that an expanded prevailing wage could really hurt housing production.

The prevailing wage is a state-set wage that says if a project gets government subsidies and support, then its developers must pay workers a wage set by the state. It is primarily applicable to construction projects, and is especially prevalent in New York City, where construction abounds. Cuomo has been especially close to the building trades union, though he also has close ties to the real estate industry.

Cuomo’s favored bill would have changed the prevailing wage on Long Island and upstate, but not in New York City. “And the Assembly then basically said why should we pass it, you don't have any interest if it does anything immediate in New York City that's it,” Cuomo said on WAMC Thursday. The bill at hand at the end of the session would have mandated a study on New York City to potentially expand the wage there in the future.

Cuomo promised to return to each of the issues next year.

“I’m going to get on with the other part of my job, which is actually doing things,” Cuomo said at the press conference. “This has probably been the most successful legislative session,” he said.

by Noah Berman, Gotham Gazette

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Ethics Officials from Around the Globe Discuss Challenges, Strategies

bdb remarks class

(photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayor's Office)

“In some ways, we are all victims of corruption,” Huguette Labelle told attendees of the Global Cities III conference Thursday morning, giving opening remarks at the two-day event organized by Columbia University’s Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity. The event brings together leaders and ethics officials from major cities across the world, including New York City and Barcelona.

Labelle was the board chair of Transparency International, a non-governmental organization with the mission of combating global corruption with chapters in over 100 countries. She delivered the keynote address Thursday in Manhattan, making a direct connection between corruption and a lower quality of life for citizens. Corruption, Labelle said, “manifests itself with poverty around the world and a lack of essential servings, creating a barrier for justice to take place and regulations to be implemented.”

More directly, she declared “corruption is a crime against humanity that has many faces.” Labelle’s speech and the ensuing panel discussion, which featured Carolyn Miller of the New York City Conflicts of Interest Board, considered several contemporary problems and best practices for public integrity.

A recurring theme, brought up by Labelle and other speakers, was the need for transparency in governmental contracts with private businesses. Transparency can be beneficial for both good government purposes, but also for the businesses that seek these contracts. She told the audience, “businesses are victims [of corruption], too.” One proposal that she said worked well in other countries was “getting businesses to publish what they pay” as part of winning government contracts.

She used an example of a Norwegian company doing business in an African country. A governmental official asked the company for a bribe to ensure that they were awarded the contract. When the company informed the official that Norwegian law would require them to publicize this as part of their transparency law, “that was the end of discussion” regarding the bribe.

Corruption in the process for awarding contracts for infrastructure projects can cost taxpayers up to 50% more than what the project would normally. “This means that the quality of the infrastructure is not what’s required,” Labelle said, which will lead to infrastructure lasting for shorter periods of time and requiring frequent costly repairs.”

In the ensuing panel discussion entitled “Effective Ethics Systems for Local and National Governments and Intergovernmental Organizations,” four integrity officials from New York City, the United Nations, Barcelona, and Cape Town discussed what they do well and what challenges they face in the positions.

Gemma Clavert, the director of the Transparency Agency of the Metropolitan Area of Barcelona, said that while her agency is officially independent of the government, “really it’s not correct” because her agency’s budget is set by the officials she is tasked with holding accountable.

“In order to be effective, we need autonomy,” Calvert said, adding that independence is impossible “if you depend on another service the bigger structure.”

New York City’s 2019 Charter Revision Commission recently put forward a proposal for independent budgeting for the Public Advocate and the Borough Presidents, elected officials who are supposed to at least in part act as checks on the mayoral administration, which largely determines the city budget. There has also been discussion about the need for the city’s Conflict of Interest Board (COIB) to have independent budgeting. COIB currently relies on the Mayor and City Council, whom the board is tasked with overseeing, for its funding.

COIB monitors potential conflicts of interest and enforces the ethics code for New York City’s over 325,000-person workforce, from the Mayor to City Council to Department of Sanitation workers, teachers, and beyond.

Miller, COIB’s executive director, said, “it’s a challenge to reach so many people,” for training and educating city employees about potential conflicts of interest. Noting the wide variety of jobs in city government, one of Miller’s biggest challenges is “getting humans in a room.” She pointed to teachers and sanitation workers as two professions where schedules and work conditions do not allow them to take time out of their day for a training on conflicts of interest.

Elia Armstrong, the director of the U.N. Secretariat’s Ethics Offices, said that her office recently saw a spike in the volume of sexual harassment reports it received after it conducted a series of training sessions on the issue. She said this is emblematic of a trend where reports for a particular issue area often spike in the aftermath of her office providing training on that issue.

“One of the things we’re most proud of,” Miller said, was the promptness with which COIB responds to requests for ethics advice. She brought up the board’s attorney-of-the-day hotline, where the public can receive legally-binding conflict-of-interest advice from a staff attorney. The board receives 400-500 requests for advice per month, through phone calls and emails, and most of those are answered within the same day, Miller said.

Armstrong noted how important that is because officials often wait until the last minute to seek counsel on potential conflicts. She said many U.N. officials, for example, wait until the day before a speaking engagement to check with the ethics office to see if there may be a conflict of interest, putting her office in a difficult position.

Miller also spoke about the need for confidentiality when giving advice to public officials. It is necessary for officials to have a “safe space,” where they feel that they can go to seek ethical advice, or the system would not work. “The only way people feel they can be transparent is confidentiality,” Miller said.

“There’s the political world to deal with” when fighting corruption, noted Marianne Camerer, the director of the Building Bridges Program at the University of Cape Town’s Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance. For example, she said, the Mayor of Durban, South Africa, Zandile Gumede was suspended from office over corruption charges relating to a waste management contract. Her supporters then marched, demanding that she be reinstated.

Comparing that case with New York City, Miller said “the kinds of desperate ethical issues we deal with are city employees wanting to take free tickets” for baseball games. Instead of marches in the streets, COIB faces “the righteous indignation of someone who can’t take free Yankees tickets.”

When asked by the moderator about New York City being a “one-party town,” Miller said that “even though New York City is mostly Democrat, there are only so many positions” and “ethics can become political” when politicians seek to distinguish themselves from the competition, so confidentiality is important, because COIB does not want to influence the political process.

Miller also noted some emerging trends in the types of conflicts-of-interests cases her office reviews. Social media use, second jobs, and political speech rank among the top issues that COIB currently contends with.

With the rise of ride-hail apps and similar services, many city employees seek out permissions from COIB to work part-time as Uber or Lyft drivers, for example, as a means of earning a supplemental income.

Additionally, city employees are prohibited from using their offices for political purposes. This means that they should not be promoting political causes from their official social media accounts.

A question Miller said that the board often faces is “what is political and what is policy?” She gave an example of a public official speaking out against the federal government’s immigration policy as an example of a gray area for this rule. Just in the last several days, two City Council members requested that COIB investigate Department of Education officials’ involvement in a press conference in support of Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza organized by the City Council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus (BLAC).

COIB will have to decide if DOE officials were supporting Carranza’s policy or engaging in political activity, although the investigation request itself has been seen as political. As Camerer noted at Global Cities, “there’s a whole politics to this” and all four panelists noted that integrity investigations can be difficult when they overlap with political battles.

Frequently, throughout their panel discussion, the four integrity officials commented that they would seek to incorporate ideas that their peers on the panel had discussed. Armstrong expressed admiration for COIB’s attorney of the day hotline and fast response time to advice requests, saying that she would like to implement both at the United Nations.

In her opening remarks, Labelle told the audience that there are many current challenges to public integrity, from the “shrinking space of civil society and the media” to the withdrawal in “commitments to international treaties” to “A.I. and big data becoming both part of the solution, but also a facilitator of all types of corruption.”

She said “the rule of law remains a top priority,” but said that “the other part is enforcement.” It is not simply enough to have strong anti-corruption laws on the books, but those laws must be properly enforced to be effective, she said.

In discussing the myriad of problems that currently threaten public integrity, all of the speakers appeared to agree on a common theme, expressed by Camerer, that “ethics needs to come back on the agenda.”

by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette

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Max & Murphy Podcast: Breaking Down the Queens District Attorney Race

queens da seven

(l-r)Tiffany Cabán, Melinda Katz, Rory Lancman, Greg Lasak, Betty Lugo, Mina Malik, & Jose Nieves

June 19, 2019 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Breaking Down the Queens District Attorney Race

Journalists Emma Whitford, who has written for Gotham Gazette and other outlets, and David Brand of the Queens Daily Eagle joined the show to discuss the Queens District Attorney race, just days before the June 25 Democratic primary vote.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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Max & Murphy Podcast: Landmark Climate Legislation in Albany

water environment climate protection

Ord Falls Rapids upper Hudson River (photo: NYS DEC)

June 19, 2019 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Landmark Climate Legislation in Albany

priya mulgaonkarAfter the passage of the landmark Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act in Albany, Priya Mulgaonkar from the NYC-Environmental Justice Alliance and NY Renews coalition joined the show to discuss the legislation, what it does and does not do, where activists, legislators, and Governor Cuomo found compromise, and what comes next in the fight against climate change and toward a renewable economy.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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Legislators Search for Common Ground on Expansion of Equal Rights Amendment

Cuomo New York equal rights pride

(photo: Governor's Office)

The state Senate embraced the notion that the civil rights protections enshrined in the New York state constitution should be more inclusive when it decisively passed an expansive version of an equal rights amendment Monday.

The Senate’s amendment goes a step farther than other equal rights amendments by expanding the equal protection clause of the state bill of rights to outlaw discrimination not only based on sex, but also on sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, national origin, ethnicity, age, and ability. Currently, the state constitution only prohibits discrimination based on a person’s “race, color, creed or religion.”

“Today, we further the fight for justice for women by moving this crucial amendment forward. At the same time, we are standing up for the rights of the LGBTQ community, the elderly, and the disabled,” said Democratic Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins in a statement.

The amendment, which had unanimous support in the Senate (it passed 62-0 in the 63-seat chamber), differs significantly from the version that passed in the Assembly in February, namely on the number of protected classes added and language clarifying the meaning of “civil rights.”

The Assembly’s version, which also passed with a groundswell of support, simply adds the word “sex” to the equal protection clause, extending constitutional protections to women but no further. These differences will have to be reconciled for the amendment to advance.

Governor Andrew Cuomo made passing an equal rights amendment that would ban discrimination based on sex a top priority this year, including it in his “2019 Justice Agenda” released in December, and listing it at the end of May among ten priorities identified for the final stretch of the legislative session, which is scheduled to end this week.

Unlike other state law changes, which simply need to pass both chambers of the Legislature and be signed by the Governor, amendments to the state constitution must be passed by two consecutive Legislatures and then be approved directly by voters via ballot referendum. The current Legislature was sworn-in in January to a two-year term, meaning the second passage of the amendment would have to take place in either 2021 or 2022 in order for it to be put before voters in a referendum. The earliest the amendment could go into effect is late 2021, if it is passed this year or next, then again in 2021 by both houses of the Legislature and voters.

A number of the protections in the Senate’s equal rights amendment are already contained in the state’s Human Rights Law, including for gender expression thanks to the passage of GENDA earlier this year, but putting them in the state constitution makes them stronger.

“Generally when things are listed in the equal protection clause there’s a standard of review that’s attached to constitutional principles that do not attach to statute,” said Alphonso David, the governor’s counsel, at a press conference on June 3.

The Senate’s version, by defining the phrase “civil rights,” would also make the constitutional provision self-executing, meaning protections for individual civil rights won’t have to be affirmed in subsequent legislation, as is currently the case.

The Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was first introduced in 1923, but has never been ratified. Since then, 11 states have adopted equal rights amendments that protect women’s civil rights, according to a press release from state Senator Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat and the amendment’s main sponsor in the upper chamber. “New York is not one of those 11 states. No state has explicitly granted equal rights to LGBTQ people or the disabled,” the press release reads.

At the June 3 press conference, the governor said he would support an expanded version of the amendment in the future but didn’t believe the Assembly would pass one in the final days of the legislative session.

“I am totally open to, in the future, adding other classes -- which is what the Senate wants to do. But let’s achieve what we can achieve today and where we have agreement today,” Cuomo said at the press conference, referring to the addition of “sex” to the amendment.

He blames the uncertainty of the amendment on the “failed Albany game” of feigning support for a concept but falling short of passing legislation. With different versions of the amendment on the table, much of the political heavy-lifting of securing majority support in both chambers lays ahead even as nearly everyone agrees equal rights protections should be broadened.

“There’s 11 days left,” Cuomo said on June 3. “Pass that bill. Next year, come back and I fully support expanding the class even greater.” This is “the old Albany formula for failure. Assembly wants to do this, Senate wants to do this, nothing happens.”

“I don’t believe we can get agreement on it this year in 11 days,” Cuomo said of an expanded amendment.

Discussions are ongoing to bring the equal rights amendment closer to passage.

“We are continuing to urge colleagues in both the Assembly and the Senate to search for common ground.  We will see when the dust clears how much more work has to be done,” said Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright, in an email to Gotham Gazette. Seawright, a Manhattan Democrat, is the main sponsor of the narrower version of the amendment that passed her chamber in February, and also of a broader companion to the Senate’s amendment.

With the clock ticking on the session, the governor has said his focus now is on the passage of other marquee reforms, namely expanding the prevailing wage and legalizing recreational marijuana, but a host of issues are finding resolution among the Senate, Assembly, and governor’s office, and an end-of-session “big ugly” omnibus bill could be in the works, with untold number of aspects.

“Fortunately we have until the end of next year's legislative session to get first passage in both houses in order to stay on schedule with the amendment process,” said Justin Flagg, communications director for Krueger.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette      

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Cuomo, Legislative Majorities Reach Deal on 'History-Making' Climate Bill

Cuomo climate

(photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)

The state Senate, Assembly, and Governor Cuomo have reached an agreement on a version of the Climate and Community Protection Act (CCPA), setting the stage for passage of a bill to significantly reduce New York’s greenhouse gas emissions and transition the state toward a green economy. The bill has previously passed three times in the Democratic-led Assembly, but stalled in the Senate, which was controlled by Republicans for virtually all of the past several decades until this year.

As support for the CCPA mounted in recent weeks, Cuomo had questioned the bill, criticized its supporters as "playing politics" with important policy matters, and explained that key differences on the bill related to timelines and goals around moving to renewable energy, as well as how and where new state environmental funding would be allocated.

Compromise was reached over the weekend as the three parties negotiated a host of issues, and came to a number of agreements, just ahead of the scheduled end of the Albany legislative session on Wednesday.

The agreed-upon bill sets ambitious standards to curtail greenhouse gas emissions, including transitioning to 70 percent renewable energy by 2030 and 85 percent emissions reductions by 2050. Between 35 and 40 percent of the money allocated by the bill’s transition requirements will be invested in communities most vulnerable to climate change. The bill will also create provisions for wage and labor standards for state-supported “green jobs” or those that improve sustainability.

“I believe we have an agreement. I believe it's going to pass,” Governor Andrew Cuomo said on WAMC radio’s The Roundtable on Monday morning. After repeatedly calling the bill both too ambitious and not ambitious enough, and dismissing advocates and elected officials pushing for it as promising too much too quickly because they wanted to score political points, Cuomo indicated at the end of last week that he was hopeful to reach a deal on a climate bill. The governor has also repeatedly cited his own version of a “New York Green New Deal,” with targets for reductions in emissions and transitions to renewables.

“We all knew we had to make some compromise to get a three way agreement, but we’ve done a lot of good stuff in this bill. We’re going to see New York lead the world,” Assemblymember Barbara Lifton said at a Monday press conference hosted by legislators and the broad NY Renews coalition that has been organizing behind the bill. Lifton was an early supporter of the CCPA when it was first passed in 2016.

In recent weeks NY Renews had helped secure majority sponsorship of the CCPA in both houses and rolled out high-profile endorsements of the bill from much of the New York congressional delegation, including both Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, as well as Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.

A key area of compromise was reached around the mandated investments in hard-hit and vulnerable communities, areas of the state in need of “environmental justice.”

“Climate change especially heightens the vulnerability of disadvantaged communities, which bear environmental and socioeconomic burdens as well as legacies of racial and ethnic discrimination,” the proposed bill reads. “Actions undertaken by New York state to mitigate greenhouse gas should prioritize the safety and health of disadvantaged communities.”

Cuomo had maintained that his lack of support for the CCPA stemmed from “a question of the distribution of funding.”

“Taxpayers' money is taxpayers' money and if it's taxpayers' money for an environmental purpose, I want to make sure it's going to an environmental purpose,” Cuomo said on WAMC Monday. “This transformation to the new green economy is very expensive and we don't have the luxury of using funding for political purposes.”

Monday’s press conference hosted by NY Renews was celebratory, even if some advocates were slightly disappointed by the compromise and the governor’s claims that legislators backing the CCPA were “playing politics.”

“This is not just a moment for New York but has implications for the world,” climate equity campaign strategist Adrien Salazar said.

Because of its investment in disadvantaged communities, the CCPA is a widely intersectional bill, Senator Jessica Ramos of Queens said at the press conference.

“The CCPA is a huge, history-making piece of legislation, but it can only be the start,” Ramos said.

“While DC sleeps through a crisis, NY steps up,” Long Island Senator Todd Kaminsky tweeted Monday. Kaminsky serves as the chair of the Senate Environmental Conservation Committee and lead sponsor of the bill.

The bill is expected to be voted on in both legislative houses on Wednesday, the final scheduled day of the session.

[READ: Pushed on Climate Legislation, Cuomo Tries to Set Himself Apart]

by Noah Berman, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

End of Albany Session, Primary Election Crunch Time, & More: The Week Ahead in New York Politics, June 17

New York City Hall

New York City Hall

What to watch for this week in New York politics:

All eyes are on Albany as the week begins and there are just three scheduled days of this year's legislative session left - Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday - with a number of issues on the table for potential deals, from legalization of adult-use marijuana to driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants, sweeping environmental legislation to changes to the state's sexual harassment laws, and much more. Will there be a "big ugly" voted through in the wee hours as Wednesday turns to Thursday? Stay tuned...

There's also a good bit of action at the City Council this week, including several interesting hearings - see the rundown below. Those hearings come just after a city budget deal was announced Friday by Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson. The $92.8 billion spending plan kicks in July 1, and includes just about everything that advocates and Council members had wanted to add in after the mayor released his executive budget plan earlier this spring. After that announcement, de Blasio headed to New Hampshire on Saturday to campaign for president, just after he had learned he'd officially be among the 20 candidates participating in the first primary debate, which will occur over two nights on June 26 and 27 from Miami.

Speaking of primaries, this Tuesday will mark just one week until primary election day in New York. There are not many elections on the ballot, but the Democratic primary for Queens District Attorney is massively important. Others of note include the Democratic primary for City Council District 45, the second special election in the district within about six weeks, and a number of judicial races.

 And there's more -- see our day-by-day rundown below.

***Do you have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics?
e-mail Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.***

The run of the week in detail:

Monday, June 17
The state legislature will be in session on Monday in Albany.

At the City Council on Monday:
-At 10 a.m., the Committee on Fire and Emergency Management will hold a meeting on oversight of private ambulances, including two new bills which would require the New York City Fire Department to submit reports to the Council on its use of private ambulance services.
-Also at 10 a.m., the Committee on Housing and Buildings & the Committee on Oversight and Investigations will hold a joint oversight meeting on “the third party transfer system in modern day New York.”
-At 1 p.m., the Committee on Mental Health, Disabilities and Addiction, the Committee on Criminal Justice, & the Committee on Justice System will hold a joint meeting on recidivism for individuals with mental illness. Additionally, two new pieces of legislation will be discussed: one which requires defense attorneys to be made aware of their client’s mental health diagnosis, and another which would mandate that the Department of Correction inform inmates scheduled for release if they have funds remaining in their accounts, and instruct them on how to request a refund.

At 8:30 a.m. Monday, “Congressman Max Rose and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) will be making an announcement on public transit on Staten Island on Monday, June 17 at MTA’s Yukon Bus Depot.” Rose will be joined by MTA New York City Transit President Andy Byford, among others.

At 9:30 a.m. Monday at NYC Sanitation Pier 99, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer will host a press conference to announce the Manhattan Paper Recycling Challenge.

At 10:30 a.m. Monday, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza will appear on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show.

At 10:30 a.m. Monday, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams will speak at the Broome Street Academy Graduation. “The Public Advocate will speak to the graduating seniors and their families on the theme of P.R.I.D.E. (Professionalism, Resilience, Investment, Dignity and Empathy).” At 5:45 p.m., Williams will attend a rally and press conference on the Central Park Five Case. “Public Advocate Williams will join Justice League NYC to put pressure on Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance to investigate Linda Fairstein's past cases and remove Elizabeth Lederer from her post in light of their conduct in the Central Park Five case.”

At 1 p.m. on Monday, the City Planning Commission will hold a review session.

At 5:30 p.m. Monday, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz will host a Borough Board meeting.

At 6 p.m. the New York City Council will host a Pride Celebration at The Joyce Theater. City Council Speaker Corey Johnson will deliver remarks.

At 6 p.m. on Monday, the New York City Commission no Gender Equity will host its Brooklyn Gender Equity Summit. “Summit participants [will] join small group discussions to help CGE identify ways to involve men and youth in the fight to advance gender equity; ensure greater gender diversity at all levels of public service; and prevent, reduce, eliminate gender based violence in all communities.”

Also at 6 p.m. Monday, candidates running in the Democratic primary for Queens District Attorney will participate in a candidate forum at the Jacob Riis Settlement in Queensbridge. The forum is sponsored by organizations including 696 Queensbridge, CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities, Justice 4 All Coalition, Legal Aid Society, Urban Upbound, VOCAL-NY; and will be moderated by Bishop Mitchell Taylor of Urban Upbound and Jarrett Murphy, Executive Editor of City Limits.

Mayor de Blasio will appear in his usual Monday evening segment on NY1’s Inside City Hall at 7 and 11 p.m.

Tuesday, June 18
Tuesday will mark just one week until the June 25 primary elections, including the Democratic primaries for Queens District Attorney and City Council District 45, among others. Tuesday also marks the last day to postmark an application for an absentee ballot.

The state legislature will be in session on Tuesday in Albany.

At the City Council on Tuesday: At 10 a.m., the Committee on Health will hold a meeting to discuss 12 new bills and three resolutions, all of which broadly concern animal welfare. Among the most major are bills establishing a Department of Animal Welfare, requiring the NYPD to publish semi-annual reports on complaints and investigation of animal cruelty, and increasing fine and civil penalties for persons engaging in animal abuse, as well as a resoltuion providing a tax credit for taxpayers who adopt household pets from animal shelters (corresponds with A.286 in the state legislature).

At 9 a.m. on Tuesday, the New York City Bar will host a conversation with U.S. Representative Carolyn Maloney to “discuss her work in Congress on many issues important to New Yorkers.”

At 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Jamaica Performing Arts Center, the New York City Rent Guidelines Board will hold a public hearing.

At 6 p.m., the 2019 Charter Revision Commission will hold a public meeting. “The Commission will continue to consider proposals for revisions to the New York City Charter for presentation to the voters of the November 5, 2019 election, and such other matters as may be necessary.”

At 6 p.m. on Tuesday, the New York City Commission on Gender Equity will host its Queens Gender Equity Summit. “Summit participants [will] join small group discussions to help CGE identify ways to involve men and youth in the fight to advance gender equity; ensure greater gender diversity at all levels of public service; and prevent, reduce, eliminate gender based violence in all communities.”

Also at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, City Comptroller Scott Stringer will host a celebration of the history and culture of the Russian-speaking community. The event will honor Sanobar Babakhanova, President of the Uzbek American Association; Emanuil Kalendarev, President of the Rego Park Seniors Club; and Irina Roizin, Executive Director of the Brighton Ballet Theater.

Wednesday, June 19
The state legislature will be in session on Wednesday in Albany.

At 9 a.m. on Wednesday, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, together with the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce and several New York City agencies, will host a Hell’s Kitchen small business roundtable.

At 10 a.m. Wednesday at the City Council, the Committee on Youth Services & the Committee on Mental Health, Disabilities and Addiction will hold a joint oversight hearing on mental health services for LGBTQ+ youth.

Also at 10 a.m. Wednesday, the City Planning Commission will hold a public meeting.

At 5 p.m. Wednesday, this week’s Max & Murphy show will air on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or, and feature the latest from the end-of-session in Albany and, with just six days before the vote, analysis of the Queens District Attorney Democratic primary, featuring journalists Emma Whitford and David Brand of the Queens Daily Eagle.

At 5 p.m Wednesday in Nautilus playground, Council Member Mark Treyger, NYC Parks, and Alvin Ailey Extension will host a Juneteenth celebration “commemorating the abolition of slavery and the emancipation of enslaved African-Americans throughout the former Confederacy of the southern United States.”

At 5:30 p.m. Wednesday in Queens Borough Hall, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz and City Council Members Daniel Dromm and Jimmy Van Bramer will host a Pride Month celebration.

Also at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli will host a Caribbean Heritage celebration event at the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Plaza.

At 6 p.m. on Wednesday, the Panel for Educational Policy will hold a meeting at High School for Fashion Industries in Manhattan.

Also at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, the Manhattan Institute will host a discussion with political commentator George Will to “hear Will present a strategy for renewing the nation’s core ideals in our present political and cultural context.”

Thursday, June 20
At the City Council on Thursday:
-At 9:30 a.m., the Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises will hold a meeting.
-At 10 a.m., the Committee on Civil Service and Labor will hold a meeting to discuss several bills and resolutions, including three new bills designed to expand the prevailing wage law for building service employees at city development projects, prevent employers from requiring freelance workers to sign uncompensated non-compete agreements, and modify the way that workers’ compensation data is reported.
-At 1 p.m., the Committee on Contracts will meet to discuss four new bills concerning Minority and Women-owned Business Enterprises (M/WBEs). The bills proposed would add Native Americans to the definition of “minority group,” require the Comptroller to conduct annual M/WBE-specific audits, require City contractors to hire a consultant for every M/WBE contract over $10 million, and require the chief procurement officer to more frequently update M/WBE operational protocols.
-Also at 1p.m., the Committee on Governmental Operations will meet to discuss three new bills. One bill prohibits candidates who have been convicted of corruption- and fraud-related felonies from receiving public matching funds; another reduces the per-contributor amount required for the public funding threshold for eligibility from $10 to $5; and the third amends the definition of “business dealings with the city” to include uncertified applications under ULURP and uncertified applications for zoning text amendments.
-Also at 1 p.m., the Subcommittee on Landmarks, Public Siting and Maritime Uses will meet.

At 8:30 a.m. on Thursday in the Manhattan Borough President’s Office, there will be a meeting of the Borough Board.

At 9 a.m. on Thursday, the New York City Board of Correction will hold a CAPA hearing regarding proposed rules on the prevention, reporting, and investigation of injuries, where members of the public will have the opportunity to make oral comments.

At 5 p.m. Thursday at the Oberia D. Dempsey Multi Service Center, the New York City Rent Guidelines Board will hold a public hearing.

At 6 p.m. Thursday at the Abron Arts Center, the Manhattan Solid Waste Advisory Board will host a panel on “the need for strong policy inclusion and infrastructure concerning NYC’s State of solid waste management within New York City’s development of Green New Deal policy.” Panelists will include Antonio Reynoso, City Council Member; Robert Hockett, Professor of Law at Cornell University and Co-Author of "The Way Forward;” Ron Gonen, Co-Founder and CEO of Closed Loop Fund; and Jennifer McDonnell, Resource Recovery Program Manager at NYC Environmental Protection.

At 6:45 p.m. Thursday, the New York Young Republican Club will host its general club meeting, featuring City Council Member Joe Borelli and others.

Friday, June 21 and the weekend
Mayor de Blasio may make his weekly appearance on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show at 10 a.m. Friday.

At 6 p.m. Friday, State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli will host a Pride Month celebration reception at the Elmo Restaurant and Lounge in Manhattan.

At 7 p.m. on Friday, Council Member Rafael Espinal will host a Bushwick town hall & resource fair.

Have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics? E-mail Gotham Gazette executive editor Ben Max any time: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. (please use "For Week Ahead" as email subject).

by Joey Fox and Ben Max

Stuck on Marijuana Legalization, Could Lawmakers Offer a Referendum as Cuomo Suggested?

state capitol new york

the state capitol (photo: Mike Groll/Governor's Office)

In an interview at the end of May, Governor Andrew Cuomo made a provocative assertion: he said opponents to recreational marijuana legalization in the state Senate have argued no state in the country has legalized the controversial measure without first putting the question to voters in a ballot referendum. No such referendum has taken place in New York, but Cuomo -- who has pushed for marijuana legalization this year -- indicated on WNYC radio that it was a possibility as legislative efforts to legalize and regulate recreational, adult-use cannabis in the state have stalled.

In a state government with virtually no tradition of holding referenda on policy initiatives, what this means for the embattled marijuana push in the final days of the legislative session is uncertain. Reports indicate that negotiations on legalization among the Democratic majorities in the Senate and Assembly and Cuomo’s office have continued throughout the weekend, with the parties eyeing the scheduled end of the session on Wednesday.

“The opposition Senate position is, there is no state that has passed it without a referendum. It’s never been done just by the Legislature,” Cuomo, a third-term Democrat, told Brian Lehrer on WNYC on May 28. “They think it’s an overreach by the Legislature,” he added.

While it appears true that this narrative has floated around Senate circles fearing the consequences, both political and pragmatic, the assertion itself that no state has legalized recreational marijuana without a referendum, is not (Vermont legalized marijuana possession through its legislature in 2018, and Illinois did the same for marijuana sales just days after Cuomo’s comments). Nevertheless, the governor appeared to lend credence to the notion that it could be done this way in New York, despite the state’s historically closed attitude toward referenda.

The goal of making recreational marijuana legal in New York became a realistic prospect when Democrats took control of the state Legislature earlier this year, joining a slew of priorities backed by progressives that had been backlogged under the previously Republican-controlled state Senate. It was spurred on by parallel efforts in New Jersey, which have since collapsed. Garden State lawmakers now plan to put the issue directly before voters in a referendum in 2020.

As the end of the legislative session in Albany approaches, the momentum on some reforms has faltered as more centrist, and vulnerable, Democrats from Long Island and north of New York City hedge against political backlash.

“New Jersey was going to legalize it, New Jersey stopped. I think that started to shift the political environment. The senators say on the record that they don’t have the votes to pass it politically,” Cuomo told Lehrer. This is true, but senators, led by Manhattan’s Liz Krueger, the lead sponsor of her chamber’s marijuana legalization bill, have said that it’s in part due to Cuomo’s lack of engagement on the issue. As he did on rent regulations, Cuomo has mostly sat back and said senators are being cowed by political considerations, and he’d sign whatever the legislative majorities could agree on.

The effort may only require support from two additional senators to reach a majority in the 63-seat chamber, the Democrat and Chronicle reported at the beginning of June. While a legislative path may be there, especially with new compromises packed amid a “big ugly” end-of-session omnibus package, Cuomo did indicate another potential path.

In the WNYC interview, after Cuomo pointed out the national referendum trend, he was asked whether a referendum approach could work in New York. The governor responded, “Yes, the short answer is you could do a referendum for a sense of the people where you sketch out the provision and have a referendum, and if it passes then the Legislature could say, ‘We will pass it.’”

The long answer is not as clear. While certain types of measures require ballot referenda, like state constitutional amendments and bond issues, New York does not have the mechanism known as “initiative and referendum” at the state level, which many other so-called “direct democracy” states do (New Jersey doesn’t have it either). Initiative and referendum is a process that allows either the legislature or the public through petitions to put proposals directly onto the ballot to be advanced or blocked by voters.

In some states, referenda are also used to solicit public opinion to provide non-binding guidance (and political cover) to legislators. This may be more along the lines of what the governor was describing in his comments on WNYC.

New York does not have the infrastructure or political tradition of conducting either type of referendum, according to Gerald Benjamin, an expert on New York State government and director of the Benjamin Center at SUNY New Paltz.

“It’s just a matter of fact that we don’t have the institutional design that supports decision-making by referendum in state government on policy,” Benjamin told Gotham Gazette.

The governor’s office has not returned a request for comment to provide more information about Cuomo’s assertion or thinking on the matter.

At the state level, referenda are used in a narrow set of matters that invoke the self-determination of the people, when the form and structure of the government is at stake and lawmakers’ interests pose a conflict to changing them. New York has a lengthy and politically exhausting legislative process for constitutional amendments that culminates in a referendum after passage in consecutive legislative sessions.

The question of whether to hold a constitutional convention to amend the state’s foundational document is also mandated by law to be placed on the ballot every 20 years. And any bond issue requiring borrowing on the “full faith and credit” of the state is supposed to be approved by voters in a referendum (though much borrowing, like by public authorities, is not), according to Benjamin.

Calling for a referendum can also be a political tool for lawmakers to diffuse responsibility on contentious issues, like recreational marijuana.

“We have at least some body of law that says the representative bodies and the elected representatives of the state government should make these decisions, not try to essentially diminish their accountability by turning to the public on matters that are controversial,” Benjamin said.

Other practical considerations also complicate the equation. There is a difference between the concept of putting a question of importance directly to voters and the pragmatic demands of getting a meaningful response.

In the world of referendum politics there are state rules about qualifying a ballot proposal, and a number of considerations can change the meaning of the question to voters. On a complex topic where the merits are also the subject of current debate, the language of a marijuana question is significant.

Stakeholders are still weighing the particulars of what legalizing adult-use cannabis would mean, and the outcome of that discussion could impact how a potential referendum is framed. Debates are far from settled on questions like whether criminal records for marijuana offenses should be sealed or completely expunged, the legally permissible quantities, and what the state should do with the revenue generated from licenses and taxes.

Outside the issue-specific questions are more technical ones that would have to be answered: will the referendum be written in plain language that is easily understood; how much of the issue will make it onto the ballot; and how will it be explained to voters?

“It’s an easy thing to say, ‘Well, let’s ask the public,’” said Benjamin, and another thing to do it. “We’re not set up to do it, we don’t have the rules and regulations and process. Would we just commission a Siena poll?”

Still, some lawmakers are pushing for that approach to legalizing recreational marijuana, and the governor’s comments may give them traction. Especially for state Senate Democrats, who were elected to the majority last November by flipping swing districts and unseating party members who shared power with Republicans, the political ramifications of supporting marijuana legalization in conservative-leaning or recently Republican-led districts could be treacherous.

“I do believe that it is true that certain members may have said we should do this through referendum because it’s a way of saying we should let the public vote on this,” a spokesperson for Senator Krueger told Gotham Gazette in an interview.

Some senators seem to be in favor of the most progressive elements of the marijuana debate but fall short of supporting it through the legislative process. State Senator Monica Martinez, a first-term Long Island Democrat representing a swing district, has said she would not support Krueger’s bill but a spokesperson told Gotham Gazette she is in favor of decriminalizing marijuana and of expunging the records of people with prior offenses. (Expungement is considered a stronger stance than sealing because it means records are destroyed completely rather than sealed but still accessible by police.)

“Senator Martinez does support the legalization of Marijuana through a statewide referendum,” wrote a spokesperson for the senator in an email.

According to a Siena College poll conducted in April, 52 percent of registered voters statewide supported legalization while 42 percent were opposed at the time. The math was flipped in the suburbs, where several of the Democratic state senators who don’t support the legislation live: 44 percent support the proposal and 49 percent oppose it. A more recent Siena poll conducted in the first week of June found those numbers had balanced out, with support both statewide and in the suburbs at 55 percent. (Earlier this year the Democratic county executives of both Suffolk and Nassau on Long Island said their counties would opt out of allowing marijuana sales if the governor’s bill, which includes opt-outs for localities, was passed.)

The marijuana bill in the state Assembly, sponsored by Assemblymember Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo Democrat, appears to have stronger support in the majority conference, where the partisan balance isn’t as delicate.

New Yorkers have not always been warm to the referendum mechanism in the past. At the turn of the 20th century, the Progressive Movement in the state was concerned with changing the institutions of government, in part, to mitigate the power of political parties. While New Yorkers adopted a number of proposals like electing party officials and statewide party nominees (at times, through constitutional convention referenda), they spurned the idea of initiative and referendum, according to Benjamin.

“Historically, referendum is regarded as essentially the ducking of responsibility by the representative government elected to make decisions,” he told Gotham Gazette.

Still, the idea of going directly to the people appears to be attractive as the new cohort of state senators that swept into office this year grapple with the potential loss of a signature progressive campaign promise.

“I think that’s the problem here, is the political reality that you don’t have the votes in the Senate,” Cuomo told Lehrer.

Later he added, “Everything else is smoke.”

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette      

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