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New York state school property tax reduction gets support from left, right

Albany Times/Union - Tue, 03/24/2015 - 8:07pm

Senate Republicans are talking about a revived STAR (School Tax Relief) rebate check and Gov. Andrew Cuomo is calling for a school-tax circuit breaker that would be based on income.

Property tax reform advocates supported an income-based plan on Wednesday as the best way to ease the state's enormous middle-class tax burden.

A circuit breaker, said Democratic Sen. Liz Krueger, "is the kind of smart targeted policy that provides a break to those who need it most."

Under the circuit breaker proposed by Cuomo, homeowners would get an income tax credit if their property taxes exceeded a certain proportion of their annual income. While that proposal could cost the state more than $1 billion, supporters say it's the fairest way to even out New York's tops-in-the-nation property and school taxes, which pose a burden on many residents.

They note some $50 billion in property taxes are collected each year, which dwarfs the cost of a circuit breaker.

The circuit breaker idea has support from an array of groups.

"We applaud the governor and the Assembly for putting forward rational property tax proposals," said Ron Deutsch, executive director of the Fiscal Policy Institute, a labor-backed group that has been critical of state budget cutbacks.

"Circuit breaker programs are the best way to provide relief to those New Yorkers most burdened by property taxes because benefits are condition on income," said Elizabeth Lynam of the Citizens Budget Commission, a spending watchdog group.

Also supporting the circuit breaker during a news conference on Wednesday was the League of Women Voters; New York State Property Tax Reform Coalition, TREND and New Paltz Supervisor Susan Zimet.

Under Cuomo's proposal, homeowners with incomes up to $250,000 would get an income tax break if their property taxes exceed 6 percent of their annual earnings. But to qualify, the school districts or municipalities taxing the property would have to adhere to the state's 2 percent cap on increases.

Homeowners would get a maximum credit of $2,000.

Some, including the Fiscal Policy Institute, don't like the tax cap connection. But they say a circuit breaker, which could yield thousands of dollars of relief for middle income families in highly taxed areas, is preferable to a revived STAR rebate.

Until 2009, homeowners received modest rebates — an enhanced tax break — on school taxes. That was cut in the lean times after the 2008 Great Recession but Senate Republicans want to restore it.

The STAR rebate would apply to households with incomes of up to $500,000. Republicans said the higher income widens the pool of taxpayers who would benefit.

rkarlin@timesunion.com518-454-5758@RickKarlinTU

Categories: State/Local

Medical marijuana program debated

Albany Times/Union - Tue, 03/24/2015 - 6:07am

Albany

It was all about hitting the "sweet spot" at a discussion of the state's new medical marijuana law on Wednesday.

Speakers at Capital New York's "Medical Marijuana: Is N.Y. Doing It Right?" argued over striking the right balance in the regulatory environment. Some said avoiding running afoul of federal officials will require tight rules. Others worried that too-strict rules will limit patient access.

Marijuana for medical use was made legal in New York last year. Regulations needed to get a program under way will be finalized by the end of the month, said Alphonso David, incoming counsel to Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Once the rules are completed, companies can apply to become one of five dispensaries in the state.

The regulations as proposed were cause for concern for lawmakers and patient advocates at the event, held at 60 State Place. Among the critics was the lawmaker who first introduced a bill to legalize medical marijuana in the state 18 years ago.

On Wednesday, Assembly Health Committee Chair Richard Gottfried, D-Manhattan, said the regulations demonstrate "unjustified hostility" toward the medical marijuana program by the Cuomo administration.

Among Gottfried's complaints: five dispensaries are not enough to serve the needs of New Yorkers, and the cumbersome regulations will restrict dispensaries' ability to operate and patients' ability to get the drug.

The regulations are so restrictive that a plumber going to a dispensary to fix a toilet would need prior authorization from the state Health Department, Gottfried said.

David stressed the need for a narrowly tailored program because the use of marijuana for any purpose violates federal law.

Though the federal government has signaled it will not enforce those laws in states that have made marijuana legal, state Sen. Diane Savino said U.S. attorneys would have the law behind them in an enforcement action.

The Staten Island Democrat sponsored the medical marijuana legislation in the Senate.

Too-strict regulations might limit patient access to the drug by driving prices up, said Julie Netherland, deputy state director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

The alliance wants assurances that low-income New Yorkers will be able to get the medical marijuana, once it is available.

Whatever changes need to be made to the program, investment banker Scott Greiper said New York must move faster if its medical marijuana businesses are to attract funding.

There are plenty of investors interested in backing a fledgling industry, but the cash is going to states that are moving quicker, Greiper said.

The event was sponsored by Civita Medical, whose founder, Josh Stanley, was one of the first people to open a medical marijuana dispensary in Denver, which has also legalized marijuana for recreational use. Stanley is among those credited with creating a non-psychoactive strain of marijuana with low THC content that some say has been beneficial to epileptics.

chughes@timesunion.com518-454-5417@hughesclaire

Categories: State/Local

Quinnipiac poll: N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo's approval rating drops in teacher clash

Albany Times/Union - Tue, 03/24/2015 - 1:07am

Albany

Gov. Andrew Cuomo's battle with teachers unions is fatiguing voters.

A Quinnipiac University poll out Wednesday shows Cuomo's job approval rating has dropped to 50 percent, with 39 percent rating his performance unfavorable. That's down from 58-32 in a December Quinnipiac poll. Last month's Siena poll had the governor's favorable-unfavorable rating at 59-37.

The drop in numbers correlates with more trust being placed in teachers unions than the governor to improve education.

Fifty-five percent of voters say the unions can do a better job at improving education, while 28 percent say Cuomo can, the poll found.

"Gov. Andrew Cuomo gets his lowest grade on education, which is the top priority for voters, a grade so bad it pulls down his whole job approval score. He's just at the 50 percent mark," Quinnipiac University Poll Assistant Director Maurice Carroll said in a statement. "Gov. Cuomo gets a rap on the knuckles from the teachers unions. By better than 2-1, voters trust the unions more than the governor to fix the schools."

The other major issue this budget season is ethics — a deal on which may be near. Voters aren't too high on the governor's handling of ethics. Thirty-five percent support the way Cuomo has handled ethics, while 54 percent disapprove.

The governor said at a news conference Wednesday that budget season is a contentious time, "so as you're stirring that pot, you're bringing up opposition and everybody's doing rallies and sending nasty emails. It's very much the nature of the beast."

mhamilton@timesunion.com 518-454-5449

Categories: State/Local

Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos reminds Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Speaker Carl Heastie his party has a voice on ethics reform

Albany Times/Union - Tue, 03/24/2015 - 1:07am

Albany

Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Assembly Democratic Majority Speaker Carl Heastie laid out an ethics reform package Wednesday that would include sharp limits on how campaign funds are used.

In addition, the plan calls for greater disclosure of how lawmakers earn outside income, including naming of clients and denying public pensions to officials convicted of wrongdoing.

Cuomo and Heastie praised their agreement, first announced Tuesday night, as establishing some of the nation's toughest ethics laws.

But some six hours later, the Senate Republican majority broke its silence on the deal.

"It's a two-way and you need three ways to get an agreement," Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos said Wednesday evening after emerging from a conference with fellow Republicans. "I've said all along that we're going to get a strong ethics package, but it also has to include executive branch reforms and I was just sort of surprised that the governor's counsel announced that certain parts were off the table."

Skelos was referring to a statement by Cuomo counsel Alphonso David that domestic partners, such as Cuomo's girlfriend, Sandra Lee, would not be considered under the Cuomo-Heastie plan. The Senate majority leader also said better disclosure of expenses for the executive branch should be under consideration, as should the naming of campaign donors who are awarded state contracts.

Earlier in the day, Cuomo and Heastie, who took over as Democratic speaker in February after his predecessor Sheldon Silver stepped down under indictment, lauded the two-way agreement with little reference to the still-needed agreement of Senate Republicans.

"It was as hard an issue to grapple with as I have seen," Cuomo said as he sat next to Heastie in the Capitol's Red Room.

Heastie called the measure was a "monumental step" toward bringing back integrity in government.

The two-way agreement is a nearly identical to what Cuomo sought in February, when he inserted an ethics overhaul in amendments to his budget plan. At the time, Cuomo said that if the five pieces he put within the spending plan weren't passed, he would let the budget miss its April 1 deadline, a position he maintained Wednesday.

It's not known how much Cuomo had to fight behind closed doors to get Heastie and 104 Assembly Democrats to sign on to the reforms. But pieces that would seemingly be unpopular to many lawmakers made it into the agreement, including strict outside income disclosure requirements that will force lawmakers who practice any profession licensed by the state (including law and real estate) to make public their clients.

Under that provision, a lawmaker must disclose the nature and source of his or her income if it is more than $1,000. Client or customer names must be disclosed if the income tops $5,000, though lawyers working on things like wills or divorce cases will be exempted.

David, the Cuomo counsel, said the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, a panel sometimes criticized for a lack of enforcement, will be in charge of monitoring lawmakers' disclosure.

If approved, the new requirements would take effect at the end of the year, meaning the first client names would begin appearing on the May 2016 JCOPE filings. If lawmakers fail to properly disclose the necessary information, David said they could face fraud, misrepresentation, false filing or other charges.

Also new for legislators would be a stricter per diem system that would force them to use swipe cards to sign in when they are in Albany. No swipes would mean no payments for food, travel and lodging.

In terms of total government reform, the deal would bar any elected official from using campaign funds for personal use, including for mortgage payments, rent, clothing, tuition and country club dues. Lawmakers could still use their campaign cash for legal fees, just not if they are convicted of a crime.

The Cuomo-Heastie announcement put the focus on Senate Republicans. But even if the Republicans balk, Heastie indicated the Assembly would look to implement reforms in-house.

While Silver's work with the Manhattan law firm Weitz & Luxenberg was well known (and got him into trouble with federal prosecutors), the Senate GOP conference, perhaps more so than the Assembly, has a high proportion of lawyers who earn handsome incomes outside of their legislative salaries. Moreover, good government groups stressed that they would have liked to see the detailed legislation enacting these reforms before passing judgement. David said the bills would be available soon, but did not offer a specific time.

Before Skelos appeared from his conference, longtime observers cautioned that there were only two parties in agreement at this point.

"This is a two-way agreement," said Barbara Bartoletti of the League of Women Voters. "Is the governor squeezing the Senate or is he assuming the Senate is not going to come to the table on this?"

rkarlin@timesunion.com518-454-5758@RickKarlinTU

Categories: State/Local

Cuomo, Assembly strike ethics deal

Albany Times/Union - Tue, 03/24/2015 - 1:07am

Albany

Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Assembly Democratic majority leader have struck a two-way deal on ethics overhaul, placing significant pressure on the state Senate Republican majority to sign on to the deal within the framework of the state budget.

Few details were immediately available about the agreement announced at an impromptu news conference late Tuesday evening. Details of the deal are supposed to be revealed at least in part on Wednesday morning, though Cuomo on Tuesday discussed requirements for disclosing outside income that would force lawmakers to explain what non-legislative duties they are paid for.

"I want to applaud the speaker (Carl Heastie) and the Assembly for really stepping up and setting a standard never established before," the governor said, adding that he set the goal of having the strongest government ethics laws in the country "and I think we're there." "There is going to be more disclosure, more transparency than has ever existed in this government."

A Senate Republican Majority spokesman declined to comment.

Cuomo has been pushing ethics changes since his State of the State address earlier this year. In February he issued an ultimatum: Pass five points of his ethics plan or risk a late budget. Included in that ultimatum was disclosure of elected officials' outside income, including legal fees and the clients who pay them; a change to the per diem system; and new campaign finance rules that would prohibit personal use of campaign funds.

Heastie said little about the agreement.

"We're happy we're at this place," he said. "It was a good conversation, and the conference is ready to move forward."

The deal with Cuomo comes a week after Heastie said ethics overhaul was on the table and could be done in the budget, but "I continue to challenge the media and the public to be concerned about the Legislature being threatened into negotiation."

The two-way deal put pressure on the Republican-led Senate to agree or risk being blamed for a possible late budget, and Cuomo also heaped praise on Heastie for agreeing to his terms. The governor said the speaker made ethics a top priority when he was elected earlier this year after Sheldon Silver stepped down amid scandal.

As for why the Senate isn't included in the current deal, Cuomo said if there's a deal, there's a deal.

"If you have a three-way agreement, you sign a three-way agreement," he said. "If you have a one-way agreement, you sign a one-way agreement."

Cuomo said he didn't know if the Senate has specific objections to the agreement. He said he came to a deal with the Assembly majority first.

Government ethics has been a hot topic for more than a year and has flared up at various times since the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption was disbanded by Cuomo last April as part of an ethics package in that budget.

Following the panel's demise, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara picked up the commission's work.

The new year brought the arrest and indictment of Silver on corruption charges related to his outside work for a pair of Manhattan law firms. Those charges were brought by Bharara, who, when asked about his next target, said the public should "stay tuned."

When it was apparent that Silver would no longer be able to lead the chamber, Assembly members formed a coalition to call for internal fixes for what they saw as the chamber's shortcomings. Heastie was elected to succeed Silver and said he was open to discussing internal and overall legislative ethics changes.

Senate Republicans haven't said what their next move might be. The conference said it supports enhanced disclosure and will modify Cuomo's ethics proposals. Majority Leader Dean Skelos has said that he's confident a strong ethics package will come and that the budget will be on time.

mhamilton@timesunion.com • 518-454-5449 • @matt_hamilton10

Categories: State/Local

New York mayor tries to mend fences during St. Patrick's Day

Albany Times/Union - Tue, 03/24/2015 - 1:07am

New York

Mayor Bill de Blasio sang the praises of Irish favorites like soda bread and corned beef hash at a tony St. Patrick's Day breakfast at Gracie Mansion on Tuesday.

He attended the traditional morning Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral. He sported a green tie.

But for the second straight year he did not march up Fifth Avenue in the nation's largest St. Patrick's Day parade, a boycott over the parade's lack of acceptance for most gay groups that also drew attention to de Blasio's at times bumpy relationship with New York City's sizeable Irish population.

Irish eyes were decidedly not smiling on de Blasio two weeks ago when he showed up 30 minutes late to a St. Patrick's parade in Queens and was jeered as he only marched a few blocks. His plan to ban horse carriages from the city's streets infuriated some who noted that many drivers are recent Irish immigrants. And many of the rank-and-file police — and NYPD union leaders — who recently clashed with the mayor are of Irish descent.

"There have been rough spots in this journey and whatever he could do to smooth them out would be good," said Brian O'Dwyer, a lawyer and prominent lobbyist for Irish causes. "There's a need for the mayor to reach out."

De Blasio took care on Tuesday to praise the contributions Irish immigrants have made to the United States' largest city.

"This city has a distinct character shaped substantially by an emerald thread that runs through that tapestry of New York," he said in a speech at the Gracie Mansion breakfast, where he honored Irish-American writer Pete Hamill. "They made the city and the nation stronger."

De Blasio, who is of Italian and German ancestry, said that the city was home to 15,000 Irish immigrants and that more than 800,000 New Yorkers were of some Irish descent.

But that population has shrunk in recent decades, and as more and more Irish move to the suburbs, other ethnic political groups — including black and Latino groups that compose much of the mayor's political base — have risen in stature.

DeBlasio praised changes in rules for participation of gay groups in the parade, but said the changes did not go far enough.

Categories: State/Local

New York Colleges Need the DREAM Act

Gotham Gazette - Tue, 03/24/2015 - 1:00am

Francisco Curiel, one of the co-authors

Queens College is a special place. As one of the country's most culturally diverse campuses—we serve men and women from more than 150 countries—the college seeks to "prepare students to become leading citizens of an increasingly global society," as our mission statement notes. We pride ourselves on being accessible and offering a rigorous education. In keeping with our motto—"We learn so that we can serve"—we provide an education that will enable our graduates to better serve their communities and the needs of our beloved New York State.

We strive to make Queens College as accessible as possible to all New Yorkers who meet our high admissions criteria. But there is a major roadblock confronting many DREAMers (undocumented immigrant students). The roadblock is that, because of their status, DREAMers are ineligible for financial aid.

All of New York State's colleges and universities would benefit from the passing of the DREAM Act. Its passage would open up the state's Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) to DREAMers who meet TAP's eligibility criteria. We would also be better able to achieve our goal of educating all New Yorkers and putting them on the path to high-skilled employment.

There are three main reasons why the DREAM Act should be passed immediately. First, the DREAM Act would open the doors of educational opportunity to thousands of students who otherwise would be unable to earn a college degree. This would be life changing for these young people and their families. The DREAM Act would also benefit immigrant youth who already are on campus. One of us (Mr. Curiel) is an undocumented youth and a Queens College student who maintains good grades and participates in campus life. However, he has no access to state-funded financial aid, which means significant financial strain on his family, as it does on thousands of other New York families.

Second, the DREAM Act could further advance academic excellence on our campuses. Numerous studies show that all students benefit when they are part of a diverse student body. Queens College students benefit from the rich exchange of ideas and experience that occurs in our classrooms, cafeterias, and common spaces among students from different backgrounds—whether those be national origin, race, culture, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. Having more DREAMers on our campuses would further invigorate classroom discussions and campus life, benefiting DREAMers and non-DREAMers alike. It could also help DREAMers feel more comfortable on campus by eliminating the arbitrary barrier that immigration status can sometimes impose.

And third, the DREAM Act would enable us to fulfill our mission of educating all New Yorkers and developing a skilled workforce grounded in a liberal arts and science education. In today's global economy, it is essential that we develop an educated workforce to keep New York State ahead of its competition. To do this, we must ensure that every qualified young person who wants to go to college can do so.


Queens College President Matos Rodriguez

A report by the Office of the State Comptroller (OSC) found in 2014 that "the short-term costs of extending financial assistance to undocumented students would be outweighed by the long-term economic benefits." Having more DREAMers in our colleges would significantly increase the ranks of high-skilled workers contributing to our state economy. It would also strengthen our state's tax base, as the OSC found that "a person earning a bachelor's degree would pay more than $60,000 in additional State taxes, compared with a maximum TAP award of $20,000."

In short, the DREAM Act makes sense on three fronts: expanding educational access to New York's youth, enriching our campus life, and benefiting our state economically and socially.

The only challenge now is the willingness to act. By passing the DREAM Act, New York State would be standing up for its talented immigrant youth. It also would be standing up for the continued excellence and vibrancy of our higher education institutions. These are goals we can all support.

****
by Félix V. Matos Rodríguez and Francisco Curiel. Matos Rodríguez is the President of Queens College; Curiel is a Queens College student and a Youth Power Project member of Make the Road New York.

***
Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? E-mail editor Ben Max: bmax@gothamgazette.com

Categories: State/Local

Education Isn't Either/Or

Gotham Gazette - Tue, 03/24/2015 - 1:00am

Assembly Member Rodriguez, the author (photo: investined.org)

Each year education advocates head to Albany to fight for our children, this year was no different as thousands arrived on the steps of the Capitol last week clad with signs, flyers, and banners. Yet, among all the differences, all the arguments they bring to the table, one thing is clear – our children need our help.

There are a bounty of choices for parents: public schools, charter schools, private and parochial schools; I hear the benefits of each and we feel the successes of their graduates in our community. There are a million reasons to choose one over another, but the choice is limited if they don't receive adequate funding to stay open.

There are 143,000 children, the majority of them children of color from low-income neighborhoods, stuck in failing schools that are crippled by a lack of basic resources, including equitable funding. The $1.8 billion increase in school funding put forth by Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, myself, and my colleagues will fill the Gap Elimination Adjustment and start meeting the $4.9 billion Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) commitment we so badly need to keep schools funded.

It's simple to fix this problem by allocating more money in the budget for schools through tax proposals - we already have a school system that has been hurt by property tax caps. However, dedicating a larger portion of the State's bank settlement funds towards CFE will allow us to make the needed improvements to our schools.

As we fight for what we deserve from the CFE settlement, we must also explore education reforms. Funding and improving our schools must not be an either/or conversation; we should willingly implement reasonable changes that provide the best results for our kids.

First, we must ensure adequate funding for quality pre-Kindergarten programs. Pre-K is integral in identifying and helping special needs students early in the educational process. The ability to detect special needs early will allow parents to work with teachers to identify the best course of action to ensure their child gets the help they need and can potentially eliminate their need to be enrolled in special education (SPED) to begin with.

Second, we need to reevaluate our SPED programs. African-American and Hispanic children are more than twice as likely as their white counterparts to be identified by teachers as having serious learning disabilities, and they are 1.5 times more likely to be funneled into SPED services than all other racial and ethnic groups combined.

In New York City, district schools receive an extra $2,309 to $8,609 per SPED student, and often even this is insufficient. Further, If a school graduates a student out of SPED status and provides only supplemental support, the extra school aid drops to just $500, creating a disincentive for schools to graduate students from SPED. While there are schools, both district and charter, which do serve special needs students, and serve them well, many do not. We should increase special education funding for students who can be in mainstream classrooms but need additional services, eliminating the disincentive to move students out of SPED.

Third, we need to explore what accountability looks like through fair and unbiased evaluations. Our teachers can't be portrayed as villains, they are our greatest ally in ensuring our children get the best education.

Last, where teachers and principals have been found to have committed a violent crime, been involved in misconduct involving the sexual abuse of a student, or found incompetent through a pattern of ineffective teaching, a swift suspension or removal process must be implemented to protect our children. Lengthy processes hurt our schools' abilities to educate our children and thus hold our students back.

As we work toward a budget that includes what is owed us from the CFE lawsuit, we must not ignore the areas where we can learn and enhance the opportunities we provide to our children. Our educators and communities, our teachers, our district schools, our charters, and ultimately, our students, have too much on the line to ignore the necessity for bold action, structural improvements, and needed investments to end our state's failing school crisis.

***
Assembly Member Robert Rodriguez represents East Harlem/El Barrio and the Upper East Side.

***
Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? E-mail editor Ben Max: bmax@gothamgazette.com

Categories: State/Local

New York Colleges Need the DREAM Act

Gotham Gazette - Tue, 03/24/2015 - 1:00am

Francisco Curiel, one of the co-authors

Queens College is a special place. As one of the country's most culturally diverse campuses—we serve men and women from more than 150 countries—the college seeks to "prepare students to become leading citizens of an increasingly global society," as our mission statement notes. We pride ourselves on being accessible and offering a rigorous education. In keeping with our motto—"We learn so that we can serve"—we provide an education that will enable our graduates to better serve their communities and the needs of our beloved New York State.

We strive to make Queens College as accessible as possible to all New Yorkers who meet our high admissions criteria. But there is a major roadblock confronting many DREAMers (undocumented immigrant students). The roadblock is that, because of their status, DREAMers are ineligible for financial aid.

All of New York State's colleges and universities would benefit from the passing of the DREAM Act. Its passage would open up the state's Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) to DREAMers who meet TAP's eligibility criteria. We would also be better able to achieve our goal of educating all New Yorkers and putting them on the path to high-skilled employment.

There are three main reasons why the DREAM Act should be passed immediately. First, the DREAM Act would open the doors of educational opportunity to thousands of students who otherwise would be unable to earn a college degree. This would be life changing for these young people and their families. The DREAM Act would also benefit immigrant youth who already are on campus. One of us (Mr. Curiel) is an undocumented youth and a Queens College student who maintains good grades and participates in campus life. However, he has no access to state-funded financial aid, which means significant financial strain on his family, as it does on thousands of other New York families.

Second, the DREAM Act could further advance academic excellence on our campuses. Numerous studies show that all students benefit when they are part of a diverse student body. Queens College students benefit from the rich exchange of ideas and experience that occurs in our classrooms, cafeterias, and common spaces among students from different backgrounds—whether those be national origin, race, culture, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. Having more DREAMers on our campuses would further invigorate classroom discussions and campus life, benefiting DREAMers and non-DREAMers alike. It could also help DREAMers feel more comfortable on campus by eliminating the arbitrary barrier that immigration status can sometimes impose.

And third, the DREAM Act would enable us to fulfill our mission of educating all New Yorkers and developing a skilled workforce grounded in a liberal arts and science education. In today's global economy, it is essential that we develop an educated workforce to keep New York State ahead of its competition. To do this, we must ensure that every qualified young person who wants to go to college can do so.


Queens College President Matos Rodriguez

A report by the Office of the State Comptroller (OSC) found in 2014 that "the short-term costs of extending financial assistance to undocumented students would be outweighed by the long-term economic benefits." Having more DREAMers in our colleges would significantly increase the ranks of high-skilled workers contributing to our state economy. It would also strengthen our state's tax base, as the OSC found that "a person earning a bachelor's degree would pay more than $60,000 in additional State taxes, compared with a maximum TAP award of $20,000."

In short, the DREAM Act makes sense on three fronts: expanding educational access to New York's youth, enriching our campus life, and benefiting our state economically and socially.

The only challenge now is the willingness to act. By passing the DREAM Act, New York State would be standing up for its talented immigrant youth. It also would be standing up for the continued excellence and vibrancy of our higher education institutions. These are goals we can all support.

****
by Félix V. Matos Rodríguez and Francisco Curiel. Matos Rodríguez is the President of Queens College; Curiel is a Queens College student and a Youth Power Project member of Make the Road New York.

***
Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? E-mail editor Ben Max: bmax@gothamgazette.com

Categories: State/Local

Education Isn't Either/Or

Gotham Gazette - Tue, 03/24/2015 - 1:00am

Assembly Member Rodriguez, the author (photo: investined.org)

Each year education advocates head to Albany to fight for our children, this year was no different as thousands arrived on the steps of the Capitol last week clad with signs, flyers, and banners. Yet, among all the differences, all the arguments they bring to the table, one thing is clear – our children need our help.

There are a bounty of choices for parents: public schools, charter schools, private and parochial schools; I hear the benefits of each and we feel the successes of their graduates in our community. There are a million reasons to choose one over another, but the choice is limited if they don't receive adequate funding to stay open.

There are 143,000 children, the majority of them children of color from low-income neighborhoods, stuck in failing schools that are crippled by a lack of basic resources, including equitable funding. The $1.8 billion increase in school funding put forth by Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, myself, and my colleagues will fill the Gap Elimination Adjustment and start meeting the $4.9 billion Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) commitment we so badly need to keep schools funded.

It's simple to fix this problem by allocating more money in the budget for schools through tax proposals - we already have a school system that has been hurt by property tax caps. However, dedicating a larger portion of the State's bank settlement funds towards CFE will allow us to make the needed improvements to our schools.

As we fight for what we deserve from the CFE settlement, we must also explore education reforms. Funding and improving our schools must not be an either/or conversation; we should willingly implement reasonable changes that provide the best results for our kids.

First, we must ensure adequate funding for quality pre-Kindergarten programs. Pre-K is integral in identifying and helping special needs students early in the educational process. The ability to detect special needs early will allow parents to work with teachers to identify the best course of action to ensure their child gets the help they need and can potentially eliminate their need to be enrolled in special education (SPED) to begin with.

Second, we need to reevaluate our SPED programs. African-American and Hispanic children are more than twice as likely as their white counterparts to be identified by teachers as having serious learning disabilities, and they are 1.5 times more likely to be funneled into SPED services than all other racial and ethnic groups combined.

In New York City, district schools receive an extra $2,309 to $8,609 per SPED student, and often even this is insufficient. Further, If a school graduates a student out of SPED status and provides only supplemental support, the extra school aid drops to just $500, creating a disincentive for schools to graduate students from SPED. While there are schools, both district and charter, which do serve special needs students, and serve them well, many do not. We should increase special education funding for students who can be in mainstream classrooms but need additional services, eliminating the disincentive to move students out of SPED.

Third, we need to explore what accountability looks like through fair and unbiased evaluations. Our teachers can't be portrayed as villains, they are our greatest ally in ensuring our children get the best education.

Last, where teachers and principals have been found to have committed a violent crime, been involved in misconduct involving the sexual abuse of a student, or found incompetent through a pattern of ineffective teaching, a swift suspension or removal process must be implemented to protect our children. Lengthy processes hurt our schools' abilities to educate our children and thus hold our students back.

As we work toward a budget that includes what is owed us from the CFE lawsuit, we must not ignore the areas where we can learn and enhance the opportunities we provide to our children. Our educators and communities, our teachers, our district schools, our charters, and ultimately, our students, have too much on the line to ignore the necessity for bold action, structural improvements, and needed investments to end our state's failing school crisis.

***
Assembly Member Robert Rodriguez represents East Harlem/El Barrio and the Upper East Side.

***
Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? E-mail editor Ben Max: bmax@gothamgazette.com

Categories: State/Local

Albany Sunshine Week Looked Like an Eclipse to Advocates

Gotham Gazette - Tue, 03/24/2015 - 1:00am

Cuomo and Heastie embrace over ethics deal (photo: Governor's Office via flickr)

The Cuomo administration and the state Legislature are doing battle on a variety of fronts, perhaps none more intense than that over ethics reform. Last week, the administration launched a two-pronged attack in response to criticism of its 90-day email deletion policy and over a push for increased financial disclosure by administration employees and their significant others.

The pushback came during Sunshine Week, when state government is supposed to be focused on transparency and accountability. And while there were several announcements related to efforts to let more sunshine into government, the week was dominated by bickering. Cuomo's office was often focused on deflecting attention back onto the Legislature with surprisingly ugly attacks, even by Albany standards, rather than promoting transparency.

"Instead of sunshine we have an eclipse," said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG). "This is a Sunshine Week where the major players aren't even acknowledging the week with major initiatives. Instead we are fighting about whether the governor should automatically delete email after 90 days and disclosure for girlfriends."

Past Sunshine Weeks have seen the announcement of major open-data portals and other transparency initiatives. To be sure, the governor is pushing his ethics reform package, and even announced a two-way deal with the state Assembly on measures to require lawmakers disclose their outside income, verify their presence in the capital to collect per diems, and more. But, controversy over the email purge and the limited nature of the ethics reform plans have often kept the governor and other legislators on the defensive.

Cuomo responded to criticism of his email policy and new bills to require longer retention of government emails by insisting the Legislature must agree to be subject to FOIL for him to consider making changes. When pushed by Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, Cuomo did declare that he is ready to revisit the policy and said he will be convening a summit around email retention.

In response to the push for more financial disclosure from his administration and, specifically, his wealthy live-in girlfriend Sandra Lee - who Capital New York reported has business with a company that has business before the State - Cuomo spokesperson Rich Azzopardi tweeted, "The administration is glad to negotiate disclosure of all girlfriends," in a thinly-veiled insinuation that legislators have extra-marital relationships.

"This is not anything that is personal," Republican Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos told reporters of his push for Lee to disclose her income. He went on to declare interest in more disclosure from Cuomo's "minions," of which Azzopardi clearly qualifies. "You can find out where any of our council staff people went, how much they paid for lodging, their gas expenses, whatever they chit," Skelos said. "The governor, his staff, when they move their minions for a press conference, other than for security purposes, they don't have to disclose."

"It is getting really nasty," Horner said of the debate over increased disclosure from legislators and the administration. "It is sort of embarrassing."

Bills have been introduced that would do away with the executive's controversial policy that sees all state emails deleted after 90 days unless they are specifically saved. Advocates say the policy interferes with transparency and the freedom of information law, and state employees say it complicates their work.

A bill introduced by State Senator Liz Krueger and Assembly Member Daniel O'Donnell would both drastically reform the email retention policy and make the Legislature subject to FOIL. Attorney General Eric Schneiderman ended his office's 90-day email deletion policy and said it would be formulating a new one, provoking Cuomo to act.

On March 12 Cuomo called for a state government summit on email and transparency, but a date has not yet been set. "We believe the policy should honor transparency while maintaining efficiency," Cuomo's head spokesperson Melissa DeRosa said in a statement. "To that end, as the Attorney General and the legislature appear open to revising their policies, the governor's office will convene a meeting with representatives from the Legislature, the attorney general and the comptroller to come up with one uniform email retention and [Freedom of Information Law] policy that applies to all state officials and agencies."

With no sign of a conference in sight Krueger and O'Donnell issued a statement on the 18th calling on Cuomo to end his policy regardless of a conference. "We don't need to hold a summit before we halt the current indefensible email deletion policy," said O'Donnell. "An immediate suspension and then a summit as soon as possible will enable us to have the intelligent conversation we need regarding a unified state policy." Krueger noted that Schneiderman did not wait for a summit to end his policy.

John Kaehny of good government group Reinvent Albany said that it is "unfortunate" that Sunshine Week was dominated by the email deletion policy, and calls the policy a "big step backwards" that could be adjusted quickly, thereby ending the public outcry against it.

Last Tuesday, perhaps looking to break up a newscycle dominated by his email policy, Cuomo made an impromptu announcement of an ethics package that he had agreed to with Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie but not Skelos, who heads the Senate. The agreement would require tighter disclosure of legislators' outside income, take pensions away from officials convicted of corruption offenses, force lawmakers to check in with a swipe card to collect per diem reimbursements, and tighten rules pertaining to the personal use of campaign funds.

Skelos rejected the package for not holding the Executive to the same disclosure standards as the Legislature and good government groups criticized it for not going far enough, especially considering the indictment of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

The announcement also came on the heels of Schneiderman's unveiling of a drastic reform package that would create a full-time Legislature, among other sweeping reforms. Schneiderman explicitly stated that he was pushing the conversation further than the governor and that incremental steps at ethics reform would no longer suffice. His proposals are likely to go nowhere any time soon.

Sunshine Week did have its moments in the advancement of government transparency. Schneiderman's office announced that it will release an application programming interface, or API, that will allow app developers to use data from the Attorney General's NYopengovernment.com database. Kaehny and Schneiderman's office believe the API will make it easier for programmers to provide real-time data analysis of things like campaign finance, lobbying, and state contracts. "Giving the public direct access to this data will help shine a much-needed light on our state government," Schneiderman said in a statement.

The Senate passed a bill that would codify its practice of livecasting its proceedings and posting votes to the internet - the catch is that the Assembly would also have to pass the same bill. The Senate has passed the bill for years while the Assembly has refused to consider it.

The Assembly, meanwhile, passed a slew of one-house bills that work at strengthening response to freedom of information requests.

"This Sunshine Week was all about passing the buck," said Horner.

***
by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing

Categories: State/Local

N.Y. Legislature bills from Republicans ask parent alert to Common Core test opt-out

Albany Times/Union - Mon, 03/23/2015 - 1:07am

Albany

Scotia-Glenville parent Megan Beauchamp isn't pulling her fifth-grader, Grace, from Common Core tests this year as an act of resistance to the school district or Grace's teacher.

"It's the total opposite," she said. "I love my children's school. It's the same one I went to myself 25 years ago. I admire my children's teachers, but they are in the fight of their life. My refusal of the state tests is my choice to take a stand, my choice to help reclaim public education for the district, for the teachers, and most importantly, for the children."

Beauchamp was one of the parents who spoke at a news conference Tuesday to support a bill before the Legislature that would require school districts to clearly notify parents that they can opt out their children from the Common Core tests this year. The hope is that 200,000 to 250,000 children don't take the test, forcing the Board of Regents to reopen the discussion about using the standards.

"There are a whole bunch of parents who are home dealing with this Common Core situation who don't know what their rights are," Assembly bill sponsor James Tedisco, a Glenville Republican, said. "What we would like to do with this bill is not only inform them but get them engaged in the process. ... Help us starve the beast so we can have a discussion, have a voice, get back to the drawing board and move forward in a very positive way."

Neither the Assembly nor Senate versions of the bill would suspend the tests or pull back the standards. The Assembly bill memo said the idea is to notify parents of third through eighth graders via written communication that students may refuse to participate in all state testing provided by Pearson Inc., the controversial authors of Common Core tests, or any other state test based on Common Core standards.

The Senate bill is carried by Republican Sen. Terrence Murphy, who said his own children are having difficulties with the Common Core standards.

The bill has bipartisan sponsorship, although from few Democrats. But Tedisco said Assembly Education Chairwoman Cathy Nolan has indicated a majority bill similar to Tedisco's is in the works, although he was unsure of when such a bill might be introduced. A message left for Nolan was not returned.

Tedisco said he has not spoken with Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Democrat, about whether he would allow the current bill to come to the floor. Murphy, a member of the Senate majority, likely would have a better chance at getting his version to the floor for a vote.

Critics of Common Core opt-outs are concerned federal school funding might be in jeopardy if test participation drops.

"I believe opt-out is irresponsible. I believe that it undermines what we are trying to do in terms of ... academic standards," Senate Education Committee Chairman John Flanagan, a Republican, said Sunday at a state School Boards Association event. "If there is something wrong with the test, fix the test. ... I believe that we put ourselves in harm's way, not only with the state of New York, but more importantly with the federal government, which nobody wants to talk about. If there is a failing within the system, fix it within the system, find a way to bring it forward so it's in the best interest of students."

mhamilton@timesunion.com 518-454-5449 @matt_hamilton10

Categories: State/Local

Inaugural Student Voter Registration Day Kicks Off at 25 City Schools

Gotham Gazette - Mon, 03/23/2015 - 1:00am

CM Rosenthal addresses students (photo: Cici Chen)

NEW YORK - The 2013 New York City mayoral election’s record low 24 percent voter turnout rate is largely reflective of and dragged down by 11 percent youth voter participation. This especially paltry turnout among voters 18- to 29-years-old has spurred advocates and policy-makers to act. Friday saw the city’s first Student Voter Registration Day (SVRD), during which programming occurred in 25 schools across the five boroughs.

City Council members; representatives from NYC Votes, the voter engagement arm of the city’s Campaign Finance Board; and advocates led workshops at the schools during which they sought to connect students to local government and encourage them to register to vote.

Council Member Helen Rosenthal, who initiated SVRD, led the session at Frank McCourt High School in her Upper West Side district. Rosenthal half-jokingly told the students in attendance, “If I suck, I want you to vote me out of office, but you have to register and vote [to do so].”

Rosenthal said that the first SVRD day was received with unbelievable enthusiasm. “I'm getting tweets from other council members who were at [schools], and also those who really wanted to participate but couldn’t. When you're at the school you can really see that it is so important to the students to have their voices heard.”

Rosenthal and those with her at Frank McCourt, which is one school located in the Brandeis High School Campus building, spoke to about 40 juniors during one class period and then about 100 seniors in another. She also spoke with students from two of the other schools in the Brandeis complex.

When Rosenthal learned that 80,000 voter registration cards go out to high schools each year and very few get sent back, she says she started thinking about how more could be done to ensure that 18-year-olds know their rights and the value of voting.

Rosenthal said that the Department of Education (DOE) would be the entity to really make SVRD a successful annual event in all high schools, but she is happy to lead the initiative and implement the pilot program. For the first SVRD, participants utilized a curriculum created by NYC Votes, which already leads other civic engagement workshops in city schools. If SVRD is to expand from the initial 25 schools to all of the hundreds of city high schools, NYC Votes will likely be integrally involved along with the DOE.

It is not immediately clear how many registration forms were collected at Friday’s workshops, but Rosenthal said that she cannot wait to find out.

Kaylah Bilal, a junior at one of the schools in Brandeis, had naturally never heard of the new SVRD, and she did not see a banner or poster in her school. Her enthusiasm was limited when she learned about it. “I’m just not into politics, the whole system,” said Bilal, who lives in Bronx.

SVRD is aimed at helping students like Bilal connect their everyday lives to issues and to voting. During a 45-minute workshop, volunteer facilitators at each school gave presentations and asked questions following the standard curriculum specifically designed for SVRD. The brain behind the programming is Chyann Sapp of NYC Votes and the Campaign Finance Board. Her full-time job for the past four years has been increasing youth voter engagement and turnout in New York City, a post that exists in few other cities in the country.

Sapp says that lack of education probably ranks higher than apathy as the top reason young voters are particularly inactive voters. Statistics show that eligible voters who do not cast ballots are mostly not registered to vote at all, and that being registered makes potential voters much more likely to go to the polls.

There are, of course, other barriers people point to in explaining low voter turnout, and efforts are underway to improve access to absentee ballots, among other changes.

The seminar style of SVRD is especially effective to educate students in comparison to simply handing out fliers and forms because students ask real-life questions face-to-face, Sapp says. She added that students “need to know why” voting matters, not just be given a piece of paper that allows them to register.

Beth Newcomer from Rosenthal’s office assisted Murad Awawdeh and Betsy Plum from the New York Immigration Coalition in facilitating the two workshops with McCourt students. Awawdeh and Plum started by asking students to rate how much power they perceive having in their circles of family, friends, school, community, and government. Students largely explained that they perceived themselves to have much more power in their family and friends circles than in their government circle, in which some cited zero percent influence.

As the workshop progressed, questions became more concrete; “Do you know what a community board is?” and “Do you know which elected official oversees the MTA?” among them. Few students raised their hands to indicate they did; one student wondered out loud about the meaning of the word “controller” when facilitators said, “Do you know who your city controller is?” (The answer, of course, is Scott Stringer, one of just three popularly-elected city-wide elected officials along with the mayor and public advocate.)

Students responded with an overwhelming “no” when asked if they had studied the Constitution and its amendments at school, but when Plum asked what was going on around 1976, a few students said the Vietnam War. She then explained the context of 1976’s 26th Amendment, which granted 18-year-olds the right to vote. “Young people were drafted, and they thought, ‘well if I can go fight and maybe die for my country, shouldn’t I be able to vote for my country?’”

Almost none of the students had heard of DACA, President Barack Obama’s immigration program that gives students who came to the U.S. as children protection from deportation and permission to work, though not the right to vote. Promoting awareness of DACA was a secondary aspect of the SVRD initiative. “If you have friends who are immigrants please spread the word and let them know” about DACA and access to the right to work, Plum told the students.

Near the end of the presentation voter registration forms were passed out to students, along with stickers, bracelets, and candies. One student told her friend, “I’m a voter” after turning in her completed registration form.

Micah Dicker, Drilona Bajrami, and Chelsea Solis, all graduating seniors at Frank McCourt High School, were among the few students in the workshop who knew of Rosenthal, the local city council member. The three teens were involved with participatory budgeting in the council district; Dicker and Bajrami interned for Rosenthal.

Dicker and Solis mentioned that their families’ financial situations make them want to do more to change the political system. “I think a lot of people don’t vote because they just think of what happens now rather than what would happen in the future if you can’t pay for something or you can’t find a job,” said Solis.

All three registered to vote during Friday’s workshop. “It’s our future that we need to take into account,” said Bajrami, adding that for those that don’t vote, “we shouldn’t be complaining if something doesn’t go our way.”

***
by Cici Chen, Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette

Categories: State/Local

Santorum in Albany on Tuesday

Albany Times/Union - Sun, 03/22/2015 - 7:07pm

Albany

Rick Santorum's message is simple: Keep the faith.

Speaking from "behind enemy lines" in Albany on Tuesday, the 2012 — and possible 2016 — Republican presidential candidate urged Christians to keep fighting in New York for religious freedom and for what they believe.

He took a largely national view with his speech, haranguing an American government that he says has attacked religious liberties, while saying little about New York and its politics — other than the fact that in his first visit to the state Capitol he felt like a fish swimming against the tide.

"We have an obligation to speak out and to try to influence that tide," he told the hundreds gathered at Empire State Plaza Convention Center. "It was not always the way it is, and one of the reasons that the tide is swimming in a different direction is because for far too long we have sat like the frog in the pot. And we have simply just allowed the stove to be turned up and turned up and we have been silent."

Speaking with reporters after his speech, Santorum cited the recent case of a couple who refused to host a same-sex wedding on their farm as an example of the need for New York to protect religious freedom.

A staunch foe of abortion, Santorum shared stories from his debate on a partial birth abortion bill while he was a U.S. senator and what he thought was a failure when the Senate didn't override a veto of that measure in 1999. But, again hitting on his central theme, he said he received an email from a college student days later who said his girlfriend had been scheduled to have an abortion but changed her mind after hearing Santorum.

"God has a different measure of success," he said. "So when you think you're out there fighting the fight, giving it all, making the sacrifice, taking the hits and you think you're failing, just remember, the only reason you feel that way is because you haven't gotten the email yet."

Some members of Loundonville Community Church said they agreed with Santorum's message.

"Government is part of the problem, not the solution," said Paul Hayford of Albany. "To abandon families, to relegate our churches to the low level of significance that he described them all going shows that the country is in bad shape, is sinking, is going to become a third-world country if it doesn't watch out."

Santorum did not discuss efforts in New York to codify into state law Roe v. Wade, as proposed in the 10-point Women's Equality Act that has failed to pass muster in the GOP-controlled state Senate. Once seen as necessary to get other planks of that package of bills passed, the Assembly has said it will now take up individual pieces of that package, as the Senate did in January.

Santorum also spoke briefly about politics.

"I think Gov. Cuomo's got his hands full here in New York," he said when asked what he thought of Gov. Andrew Cuomo's presidential prospects.

As for his thoughts on a George Pataki run for president, "I saw George in Iowa. I encourage lots of voices to come out." Santorum said he'll make his decision about whether to run again around June.

Rick Karlin contributed. mhamilton@timesunion.com 518-454-5449 @matt_hamilton10

Categories: State/Local

Funeral on Thursday for state trooper

Albany Times/Union - Sun, 03/22/2015 - 1:07am

The funeral service for State Trooper Donald R. Fredenburg, who died during a training exercise last week in Albany, will be Thursday, State Police said.

Calling hours will be from 3 to 7 p.m. Wednesday, and the funeral will begin at 11 a.m. Thursday, both at Our Lady of Lourdes Church, 2222 Genesee St., Utica.

Burial will be private.

Fredenburg, 23, died of a previously undetected heart ailment, according to autopsy results released Monday.

The Utica resident was in his 10th day at the State Police Academy and was about a quarter mile into a 6:30 a.m. run, troopers said.

Troopers restarted Fredenburg's heart with an automated external defibrillator. He was taken to Albany Medical Center Hospital emergency room, where he died about an hour later.

Fredenburg served in the Marine Corps from 2009 until 2013 and remained in the Marine Corps Reserve.

He is survived by his wife, Angela; his father, Donald Sr.; and his mother, Joanne Cowley.

The funeral will include full military and State Police honors.

Categories: State/Local

26 Years Since the Board of Estimate's Demise

Gotham Gazette - Sun, 03/22/2015 - 1:00am

The mayor, council members, & advocates (photo: William Alatriste)

New York City politics might seem convoluted now, but for nearly a century the city was governed by the Board of Estimate, an eight-member body as opaque and sinister as it sounds. On March 22, 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the Board of Estimate unconstitutional. The subsequent revision to the City Charter created the political system we have today. Twenty-six years after the Court's decision, a few of the attorneys involved with this landmark case have mixed reviews of exactly how major a turning point it was for the city.

Richard Emery was driving in his car when the idea for a lawsuit hit him. It was 1982, and a federal court had just declared New York City's use of "at-large" Council members unconstitutional. At the time, New Yorkers were represented by 35 local Council members, along with ten at-large reps, two per borough. The court held that this violated the principle of "one person, one vote," which, despite sounding like a sacred democratic principle, had only been a requirement in local government for about twenty years - since the Supreme Court's decision in Reynolds v. Sims.

Emery, an ACLU attorney in his mid-30s, and his colleague, Art Eisenberg, debated whether the courts would apply a similar standard to the Board of Estimate, which had a far bigger impact on city life than the City Council.

The Board of Estimate had run New York City politics since the five-borough consolidation of 1898. Comprised of the mayor, comptroller, city council president - all of whom were elected citywide - and the five borough presidents, the Board of Estimate was responsible for land use, city contracts, and budgeting. Most citizens never saw the Board of Estimate in action, testifying in front of their proxies while the real power brokers cut backroom deals.

Emery's lawsuit charged that the Board of Estimate violated "one person, one vote," by granting the Staten Island Borough President, who represented fewer than 400,000 people, the same power as the Brooklyn Borough President, who represented more than two million.

For Emery and his plaintiffs ("friends from Brooklyn"), the lawsuit wasn't just a Constitutional Law exercise. "Services and funding for specific projects were very disproportionate," with Staten Island much more likely to receive city support than underfunded parts of Brooklyn, Emery claimed. In addition, "Virtually all corruption was focused at the Board of Estimate."

That charge was validated when U.S. Attorney Rudy Giuliani rained down a hailstorm of criminal indictments on elected officials across the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens, a tale of corruption told masterfully by investigative journalists Wayne Barrett and Jack Newfield in City for Sale. The corruption scandal wrecked Mayor Ed Koch's third term, but not before he set in motion two commissions that dramatically shaped New York City politics to the present day.

Frederick A.O Schwartz, Jr. (descendant of the toy retailer), whose brilliant legal career included uncovering CIA assassination plots, had been named by Koch as New York City's Corporation Counsel in 1982. The "Corp Counsel" represents the City in everything from sidewalk slip-and-falls to massive municipal contracts. By 1985, Schwartz was pretty sure that the Board of Estimate was losing in court, and advised Koch to plan for an alternative. Koch appointed legendary New York crisis-fixer Richard Ravitch to head a City Charter revision commission. That commission ultimately recommended the creation of the city's first public financing system for elections.

Meanwhile, Emery and his plaintiffs won a string of federal court decisions before the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the city's appeal. For oral arguments in 1988, Emery faced off against the city's new Corp Counsel, Peter Zimroth. Zimroth called the Board of Estimate "the glue which has kept the City of New York together" and argued that the Board of Estimate had been a compromise between the many boroughs, villages and towns that had voted to unify in the 1894 consolidation referendum. Though he made other legal arguments, Zimroth hung his hat on the city's longstanding political support for the Board of Estimate system.

On March 22, 1989, the Supreme Court delivered a resounding 9-0 vote against the Board of Estimate for violating "one person, one vote."

There's a lot more to this story:
visit Janos.NYC to continue reading

***
by Janos Marton for Gotham Gazette and Janos.NYC
@janosmarton

Categories: State/Local

After Making History, James Seeks Change

Gotham Gazette - Sun, 03/22/2015 - 1:00am

Public Advocate James at a recent rally (photo: @PA_Outreach)

During Women's History Month, the New York City YWCA holds weekly discussion and networking events, leading to a celebration honoring a "YW Woman of the Year." This year's theme is Leadership and Generosity: A Call to Action and the honoree, to be recognized at the celebration Tuesday night in Manhttan, is Public Advocate Letitia James. According to a YWCA spokesperson, James is being honored for "her hard work towards gender and racial equity" and because she "is a shining example with her tireless efforts to advance the agency of women and girls in New York City."

No individual better epitomizes the progress made by women of color in New York City than Letitia "Tish" James. The first woman of color elected to city-wide office, James is a force. She is a powerful public speaker with a commanding physical presence, including a big, broad smile that she flashes judiciously. A labor-friendly attorney, James is also a proud Brooklynite and former City Council member whose 2013 election to the office of public advocate was met with widespread celebration due to its historic nature.

Since becoming one of New York City's three publicly-elected city-wide officials in January of 2014, she has shifted the focus of the office toward her legal background and identified new causes to champion in fulfilling the role's mandate - for example, she filed suit to unseal documents in the Eric Garner grand jury case and she has taken on the issue of sexual assault on college campuses. Her advocacy has at times brought her into direct conflict with her allies, including Mayor Bill de Blasio, though some say James has not been critical enough of her friend and fellow Brooklynite, the mayor. James has tended toward taking on the administration in court over calling out the mayor individually, a different tack that that taken by past public advocates. Among other areas of disagreement, the public advocate has sued the de Blasio administration over school co-locations and in an effort to open up school leadership meetings to the public.

As February rolled into March and Women's History Month follows Black History Month, the city has been celebrating the legacies of black leaders and women leaders. Like no other public figure in New York City, James is a symbol of this history, as well as the present, and the triumphs and struggles of specific constituencies and demographics.

But James hopes, and strives, she says, to be more than just a symbol. "Obviously its an honor and a privilege that New York elected me," she said in a recent phone interview with Gotham Gazette. "There's a historical sentiment to that victory. However, that means nothing. It won't be more than a historical footnote if I don't do anything as Public Advocate."

Since her election, which she won after a tough Democratic primary culminating in a run-off, James has worked to redefine the office of Public Advocate - held prior to her, for one term, by de Blasio. She's also been able to expand the staff of the office due to additional funds allocated by the mayor in his first budget.

Coming from limited resources herself, James' political path has been especially challenging, and she has called for campaign finance reform as a means to level a political playing field dominated by men with access to deep pockets. "For me, the challenge was raising funds, and that continues," she said. "That's unique to women. They are mostly involved in pink collar industries, not white collar ones that pay more. I would not be in this position but for campaign finance reform and the support of working class people." Even then, James says she was outspent three to one in the primary. "But it kept me in the game," she says of the City's system of public matching funds and spending caps.

An active proponent of the "Why She Ran" campaign launched last year by the Working Families Party (WFP) to provide a push to women considering running for public office, James seeks to contribute to a pipeline of those who decide to do so. The WFP has organized a host of events again this year and James will be joining forces with electeds, advocates, and activists to encourage more women to participate in the political arena. James was first elected to the City Council on the WFP ballot line and is a fixture at its rallies and other events - and it at hers, such as at a recent rally at City Hall calling for fair school funding from the State and decrying Governor Andrew Cuomo's education reform proposals, which are vehemently opposed by teachers unions.

James at Sunday's rally (photo: @leoniehaimson)

Even while she's receiving awards, as she will Tuesday evening, James' attention in the next weeks and months, she said, will be on broad, sweeping issues that affect all New Yorkers and particularly women. "We're going to keep our heads down and raise issues on the ground," she said. In forums across the city, James has promised to discuss issues of pay equity, child care, student debt, sexual assault on college campuses, criminal justice reform, jobs, education, and the "feminization of poverty in New York. There are more women living in poverty now than ever," she said.

"I'll be going around college campuses and meeting young people so they can recognize that politics is the way to effect change in the system," James said. "As more women see elected officials who happen to be women, they'll be inspired by the advocacy of this office to join political office."

James has just finished a five-borough series of "Mayoral Control Forums," in which she's led community discussions about how New Yorkers want to see the power over the school system allocated. While that will ultimately be a decision made at the state level, James is doing what she often does, pushing a conversation forward - the community recommendations that her office aggregates will be presented to lawmakers.

Her tenacity and focus on her constituents has won her respect in many quarters. "I think it's great every time that we break a glass ceiling and somebody makes history," said new State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie when asked, given his own history-making, to discuss James'. Heastie is the first African-American to hold the post of Assembly Speaker, which he attained in early February. "But as I've said," Heastie continued, echoing James, "just making history is not the most important thing, it's what you do once you get elevated to that position."

Praising James for "doing a wonderful job," Heastie said he hopes that one day "people say the same thing about me."

Other elected officials see James as a role model. Bronx City Council Member Vanessa Gibson, a woman of color herself, looks up to James' example. "[She made] history, but for us it's just an affirmation that women are changing the game and we are stepping up to leadership roles that were never planned nor designed for us," Gibson told Gotham Gazette. "When I look at Tish James and all that she stands for - fairness and equity, always fighting against inequities and fighting against the stigmas, the statistics that are used to define New Yorkers and Bronx residents - it's really an honor to work with her, to call her a friend, to call her my big sister."

James with young constituents (photo: @PA_Outreach)

James has emphasized that she is a representative for all New Yorkers, not just one or two demographic groups that she may fall into or certain neighborhoods. Council Member Julissa Ferreras believes that approach is requisite for the city's progress.

Ferreras is the first woman and person of color to chair the Council's powerful Finance Committee. "Having Tish James in city-wide office shows that we are making our way towards a more inclusive city government," Ferreras emailed. "I have also been welcomed into communities that previously were not open to women and people of color. Still, there is room for improvement and the most practical way I see of improving is by paying careful attention to hiring practices. Government officials appoint hundreds of individuals in their offices — making sure those individuals accurately represent their constituents is a first step."

It is here that James hopes she will leave her mark, in encouraging political participation not only of women and people of color, but all New Yorkers, as artificial ceilings eventually become remnants of the past. "I would hope that we get to the point in history that there are no longer any barriers to break, and qualifying an election as being 'the first' is no more," she said. "It's important that individuals, whether they are people of color or not, recognize their position to effect change. The power lies in their hands, to be the change that so many people are protesting for."

New York Representation, by the Numbers
It is an unfortunate fact that women and people of color are underrepresented in elected office in New York, which is but a microcosm of the representational imbalance in American politics.

At the state level, there are only 51 women legislators out of 213 members of the State Senate and State Assembly. New York's 23.9 percent representation of women falls marginally below the national average of 24.1 percent, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Although that is an increase in the state over 2014, when the number stood at 45, it is the same as five years ago.

The New York State Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus has 53 members, of which 18 are women (meaning 8.4 percent of the Legislature is women of color).

More locally, the New York City Council has 15 women members, making up 29.4 percent of the 51-member body. The Council's Black, Latino and Asian Caucus makes up more than half the body, 26 of 51 members; and of course Melissa Mark-Viverito is the first woman of color to be elected Speaker - she is Puerto Rican.

City-wide History-makers
Tish James may be the first woman of color to hold the post of public advocate, but she is not the first person of color or the first woman to hold city-wide office. In all, there have only been four politicians of color to hold one of the three current city-wide elected offices in New York, and only four women - James holds each distinction.

Betsy Gotbaum was Public Advocate between 2002 and 2009, serving two terms. Before her, Carol Bellamy held the post when it was still termed President of the City Council, from 1978 to 1985. Besides them, Elizabeth Holtzman was Comptroller between 1990 and 1993, the only woman to ever hold that position.

David Dinkins is the only person of color to ever be elected Mayor - he is African-American. The only other politicians of color elected city-wide are Comptrollers William Thompson (2002-2009) and John Liu (2010-2013).

Could Letitia James become the first woman and first woman of color to be Mayor? Stay tuned.

***
by Samar Khurshid, Gotham Gazette
@samarkhurshid

Categories: State/Local

The Week Ahead in New York Politics, March 23

Gotham Gazette - Sun, 03/22/2015 - 1:00am

New York City Hall

What to watch for this week in New York politics:

We're getting close to the state budget deadline of April 1. This week will be full of both private negotiations and public sessions in Albany, where lawmakers attempt to come to a budget deal while showing significantly divergent takes on key issues - as well as central mechanisms related to the budget and policy. Governor Andrew Cuomo has jammed quite a bit of policy into his budget, attaching initiatives to appropriations in an attempt to strong-arm the Legislature into agreeing to his policy demands. This is especially true around ethics and educaiton reforms, but Cuomo has also used creative tactics to push compromise, tying an education tax credit favored by Republicans to the DREAM Act, which is favored by Democrats, for example. The Legislature is in session Monday through Thursday again this week.

Meanwhile, New York City officials await decisions in Albany (while also trying to affect those decisions, of course) and carry on their own budget work. The City Council will wrap up its month of preliminary budget hearings this week and then formulate a formal response to the mayor, who will then issue his Executive Budget in April, leading to another round of council hearings and a final budget deal by July 1. The City is eagerly awaiting word from Albany on things like funding for schools, homelessness prevention, public housing, and much more.

De Blasio is in Boston on Sunday and Monday, participating in the U.S. Conference of Mayors Cities of Opportunity Task Force Summit; on Monday, "there will be a press conference on transportation issues at 12:30pm" at Faneuil Hall; he'll return to New York City on Monday evening. De Blasio was in Albany on Saturday for the Somos el Futuro Conference, where he reiterated his push for full education funding from the State and other top priorities, and received "the Champion for Latinos Award at the dinner gala."

And the whole week builds to the annual Inner Circle Show this Friday (dress rehearsal) and Saturday, at which the press will roast the mayor, and vice versa.

There's plenty happening this week. See our day-by-day rundown below for more.

***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: bmax@gothamgazette.com***

The run of the week in detail:

Monday
Monday morning, schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña will visit a "CTE program to make an announcement" at the Thomas A. Edison Career and Technical Education High School in Queens.

Comptroller Scott Stringer's only public event scheduled for Monday is an 8:15 a.m. appearance on "Buen Día New York," WADO 1280 AM.

Also Monday morning, the Downtown-Lower Manhattan Association will host a breakfast with United States Senator Charles Schumer at Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association’s headquarters.

At 10:30 Monday morning, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer "will issue a report, Small Business, Big Impact: Expanding Opportunity for Manhattan's Storefronters, with case studies and policy recommendations to help small businesses grow and thrive in New York City." At The Halal Guys on the Upper West Side, Brewer will be joined by Robert Cornegy, Chair, New York City Council Small Business Committee; The Halal Guys co-founders Muhammed Abouelenein, Ahmed Elsaka, and Abdelbaset Elsayed; and Noel Hidalgo, Executive Director, BetaNYC. The report's recommendations include "Take the pressure off lease renewals"; "Overhaul regulations and city policies governing street vending" and "Help established, successful small businesses threatened by rent increases by encouraging "condo-ization" of storefront space." [Read our recent report on key issues facing small business in New York City and the City's new efforts to help ease regulatory burdens]

On Monday’s Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC, three of the five borough presidents will appear together: “Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams talk about borough and city-wide issues facing Queens, Brooklyn and Bronx residents.

Monday at 10 a.m. at City Hall, preceding the relevant City Council preliminary budget hearing, "hundreds of New York City seniors and service providers were invited to descend upon City Hall's Council Chambers and make their voices heard at the Department for the Aging budget hearing to advocate for $33 million in critical funding for senior services."

At 11 a.m. on Monday at City Hall, Rep. Nydia Velázquez and other local leaders will release a report on how the Republican congressional budget would impact New York City: “From transportation, to housing, to health and human services, New York would be acutely affected by proposed cuts,” says a media advisory on the event.

At noon at City Hall, there will be a "Rally for action by Earth Day on plastic bag reduction bill" hosted by Council Members Brad Lander and Margaret Chin, who sponsor the relevant bill, and Council Member and Sanitation Committee Chair Antonio Reynoso, as well as other elected officials: "The bill (Int. 209) will reduce disposable bag use by requiring retail and grocery stores to charge 10 cents per single-use plastic or paper bag. Supporters of the bill turned out in large numbers at a public hearing before the Council's Sanitation Committee last fall, and will rally again for its passage by Earth Day (April 22)."

Monday’s City Council schedule consists of two preliminary budget hearings: a meeting of the Committee on Aging jointly with the Subcommittee on Senior Centers; and a meeting of the Committee on Health.

CUNY Journalism School's brown bag lunch series continues on Monday with a conversation between Errol Louis and Tom Robbins, both journalists and CUNY J-school professors. "Tom Robbins, investigative journalist in residence at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, will discuss his recent piece on the brutal beatings of former Attica Prison inmate George Williams...Errol Louis, director of the Urban Reporting Program and host of NY1's Inside City Hall, will pick Robbins' brain on the work that went into the nine-month project, as well as the larger issues of prison violence that it illuminated."

At 2 p.m. Monday, outside FDNY headquarters at MetroTech Center, Brooklyn BP Adams "will announce a borough-wide fire safety education campaign, following a fatal fire Saturday in Midwood that claimed the lives of seven siblings, aged five to 16, from the Sassoon family. His effort will include multilingual outreach and the distribution of free smoke detectors...Adams will call for the creation of a burn center in Brooklyn...Adams will be joined by local elected officials and Jewish leaders."

Also Monday, in Albany, Citizen Action of New York will hold Moral Monday to Raise the Wage: “Nearly 3 million workers – 37% of New York’s workforce – earn less than $15 an hour. Thirty-six percent of adults earn less than $15 an hour; 41% women earn less than $15 an hour, and 28% of workers with at least some college education earn less than $15 an hour. A full-time worker earning $9 an hour will bring home just $18,720 per year – still below the federal poverty line for a family of three. Under the Self-Sufficiency Standard guidelines, a more accurate measure of the cost of living in New York, the hourly wage that 2 full-time workers must each earn to meet basic budget needs ranges from $13.40 in Schenectady County, to $16.15 in New York City, to $20.73 in Suffolk County.”

Monday at noon, there will be meeting of the New York State Gaming Commission at the New York State Department of Labor.

Monday afternoon in Albany, the Senate Standing Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions will hold a hearing to consider several pieces of legislation.

Monday evening, “The Middle Class Action Project will host a candidates forum with Republican District Attorney Daniel Donovan and Democratic Councilman Vincent Gentile to discuss economic issues facing the middle class,” according to the Staten Island Advance.

Tuesday
Tuesday morning, the New York Bar Association will host Campaign Finance: The Current State of Affairs and Where We Go From Here: “Since the Supreme Court's 2010 decision in Citizens United, campaign finance law has moved at a rapid pace, leading the way for the creation of various entities that facilitate the injection of billions of dollars into elections. And Congress just increased the power of political party committees by significantly increasing applicable campaign finance limits. This program will consist of three panels composed of top-tier campaign finance law experts, regulators, reporters and political consultants.” Panelists will include Nicholas Confessore from The New York Times; Dave Levinthal from the Center for Public Integrity; Eric Friedman from NYC Campaign Finance Board; Bill Hyers from Hilltop Public Solutions; Fritz Schwarz, Jr. from the Brennan Center; Douglas Kellner from the NYS Board of Elections; and Jerry Goldfeder from Stroock & Stroock & Lavan.

Tuesday’s City Council schedule will include a meeting of the Committee on Fire and Criminal Justice Services for a preliminary budget hearing; a meeting of the Committee on Zoning and Franchises to review proposed Land Use Applications; and a meeting of the Subcommittee on Planning, Dispositions and Concessions to review land use applications.

Tuesday morning in Albany, the Senate Standing Committee on Environmental Conservation will hold a hearing to consider a variety of bills to amend the environmental conservation law; the Senate Standing Committee on Transportation will meet to consider several bills amending the highway law and the vehicle and traffic law; the Senate Standing Committee on Judiciary will meet to discuss the reappointments of several judges at the New York Court of Claims; and in the afternoon, the Senate Standing Committee on Codes will meet to discuss a series of act to amend the civil rights law and the penal law.

Tuesday evening, the YWCA will host its Women's History Month Reception 2015. The theme of this year's series of events is Leadership and Generosity: A Call to Action; and as it culminates on Tuesday, the YWCA is honoring Public Advocate Letitia James as "YW Woman of the Year" for her hard work toward gender and racial equity for women and girls. [Read our new profile of PA James as a recent history-maker, the first woman of color elected to city-wide office]

Tuesday evening, City Council Member Andy King and his staff will be hosting one in a series of Constituent Services Nights in different NYCHA housing developments. The program will include resources and solutions for housing, food stamps, immigration, Access-A-Ride and more.

Tuesday evening, Parsons DESIS Lab and Lower Manhattan HQ will host Public Space: New Ideas for Civic Life: “New York City has an abundance of public spaces rich in culture and design, from Central Park to the New York Public Library. However, despite these places’ role as the physical center of civic life, digital platforms have emerged as the preferred way for government to engage the public. How can we revitalize public spaces as places to enhance civic life and public participation in government?” Speakers will include Mary Rowe of Municipal Arts Society and Victoria Milne of the city's Department of Design and Construction.

Also Tuesday evening, Columbia School of International and Public Affairs presents Public Policy Challenges: Women’s Empowerment in NYC: “Come learn from and engage with leading practitioners on New York law, policy, and services related to violence against women.” The panel will include Ana Oliveira, President and CEO of the New York Women's Foundation; Rose Pierre-Louis, Commissioner of the NYC Mayor's Office to Combat Domestic Violence; and Maria Torres-Springer, Commissioner of the NYC Department of Small Business Services.

Wednesday
Wednesday’s City Council schedule will include two preliminary budget hearings: a meeting of the Committee on Education and a meeting of the Committee on Sanitation and Solid Waste Management.

Wednesday morning in Albany, the Senate Standing Committee on Social Services will meet to discuss a variety of potential amendments to the social services law.

Wednesday at noon, the New York State Bar Association will host Human Trafficking in New York State: Legal Issues and Advocating for the Victim, “to educate attorneys across the country on how to identify potential victims of human trafficking.” [Read Manhattan DA Cy Vance's recent op-ed on the need to strengthen sex trafficking laws in New York]

Wednesday evening, the city's Panel on Educational Policy (PEP) will host a public meeting at Murry Bergtraum High School in Manhattan.

Also Wednesday, at 6:30 p.m., the Digital NYC Five Borough Tour will hit Queens. Panelists will include Kristin Hodgson, Communications Director at Meetup, and Jukay Hsu, Founder of Coalition for Queens.

Thursday
Thursday morning at Fordham University Lincoln Center Campus, “All alumni are invited to join us for the inaugural interview session and breakfast for the new Oral Archive on Governance in New York City: The Bloomberg Years” featuring Howard Wolfson, former Deputy Mayor for Government Affairs and Communications.

Thursday’s City Council schedule will include a meeting of the Committee on Public Housing for a preliminary budget hearing; a joint meeting of the Committee on Small Business and the Committee on Economic Development for a preliminary budget hearing; and a meeting of the Committee on Land Use to review all items reported out of the Subcommittee hearings.

Thursday evening, “Join us at Civic Hall – the new beautiful co-working space for civic tech and VRL’s new NY home! – for an evening of workshops and an engaging panel of women leaders.” The event is hosted by VoteRunLead, Veracity Media, Civic Hall, Republican Majority for Choice, Women's Information Network NYC (WIN NYC), She Should Run, Emerge America, Rising Stars and Greater NYC for Change.

Thursday at 5:30 p.m., CUNY Institute for Educational Policy at Roosevelt House will host Challenging the Tenure Laws in New York State: Why or Why Not?: “Davids vs. New York, a highly publicized lawsuit challenging New York's teacher tenure and seniority laws, is underway. Plaintiffs contend that the current laws violate children's constitutional right to a sound, basic education by keeping ineffective teachers in classrooms; defendants claim the lawsuit is a spurious attempt to destroy hard-won protections for the state's teaching profession.”

Thursday evening, Council Speaker Mark-Viverito and members of the Council's Irish caucus - Council Members Danny Dromm, Corey Johnson, Liz Crowley, and Jimmy Van Bramer - along with other council members, will host the Council's Irish Heritage and Culture celebration at City Hall. 

Also Thursday evening, City Council Members Donovan Richards and Member Daneek Miller, and the Mayor’s Office for Immigrant Affairs will host an IDNYC Community Meeting in Queens.

Thursday at 6 p.m., City and State will host Above and Beyond: Honoring Women of Public and Civic Mind: “Each year, City & State honors 25 women who exhibit exceptional leadership in their fields and have made important contributions to society."

Friday and the weekend
Friday at City Hall, the Committee on Contracts, the Committee on Courts and Legal Services, the Committee on Community Development and the Committee on Youth Services will all hold preliminary budget oversight hearings throughout the day.

Friday afternoon, in celebration of Women’s History Month, City Council Member Elizabeth Crowley will host a special film screening of a documentary on Geraldine Ferraro’s life titled “Geraldine Ferraro: Paving the Way,” the film about the life of the first female Vice Presidential nominee of a major political party.

Friday evening, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, Councilwoman Laurie Cumbo, Assemblywoman Jo Anne Simon, District Leader Shirley Patterson and Green Earth Poets Café will host Shirley Chisholm Women of Excellence Awards and Reception: “Brooklynite Shirley Chisholm was a catalyst of change who made history by becoming the first African-American woman elected to Congress. Because of her values Barack Obama became the first African-American President in 2008. Senator Hamilton will continue her legacy by recognizing the achievements of iconic Brooklyn women on Friday, March 27th at the historic First Baptist Church in Crown Heights.”

Friday evening, the Inner Circle Show will hold its rehearsal; with the main event on Saturday night, both at the New York Hilton Hotel.

On Saturday at noon, Zephyr Teachout and others are holding a rally: "Gov. Cuomo has turned his back on our students. Join us as we rally outside his Midtown Office to demand that he fully fund our public schools, support struggling schools, not raise the cap on charter schools, and limit high-stakes testing!"

***
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: bmax@gothamgazette.com (please use "For Week Ahead" as email subject).

***
by Rati Mukhuradze, Marco Poggio, and Ben Max
@GothamGazette

Categories: State/Local
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