NYSUT Names New Director Of Legislation

From the Morning Memo:

The New York State United Teachers union is filling a key legislative role ahead of the 2020 session.

The union has named Alithia Rodriguez-Rolon its director of legislation, a role that will have her supervising and managing NYSUT’s team of representatives for the Legislature, analyze legislation and shape formal legislative positions for the group.

Rodriguez-Rolon has worked as a legislative representative since 2014, working as the director of state government affairs for the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators. Before that, she lobbied on behalf of the state Department of Health and the New York State Nurses Association.

“Alithia is a fierce advocate for our public schools, colleges and hospitals,” said NYSUT President Andy Pallotta in a statement.

“I’m looking forward to working alongside her and NYSUT’s entire legislative team during the 2020 session to advocate for policies that benefit our students and their families and hard-working unionists across New York.”

IG Report Finds Persistent Pattern Of Sexual Harassment And Abuse By Ex-Open Government Official

For years, the state’s leading authority on open government laws would advise reporters, editors, students and members of the general public on how to file for public records and their rights to attend a public meeting while writing briefs asserting the right of the public to know what their government was up to.

But at the same time Robert Freeman was being praised as an ally and advocate for the press in New York, he was the subject of complaints by women, dating back to at least 2003, surrounding allegations that he would kiss women, download inappropriate images to his work computer and send emails to female students and journalists that made them deeply uncomfortable.

Inspector General Letizia Tagliafierro on Thursday released a report detailing the numerous allegations against Freeman, the former executive director of the Committee on Open Government, who resigned earlier this year after a report at The Journal News in Westchester County complained about his inappropriate behavior, which state officials had known about for years.

The report details years of behavior — ranging from asking a woman for a kiss to sending emails telling a journalism student if he wanted to touch her — dating back to at least 2003.

Freeman had been the subject of formal and informal complaints over the years, and had been investigated by the New York Department of State. An editor at the Democrat and Chronicle sent a letter to Freeman admonishing him for having a conversation with a reporter that left the woman uncomfortable.

“Mr. Freeman habitually engaged in sexual harassment of multiple women over many years,” Tagliafierro said.

“Given the stature Freeman attained during his tenure as executive director, his role as the sole authority on government transparency, and the power dynamic he repeatedly promoted, many of the women who spoke with my office said they believed it would be futile to report his misconduct. However, there are now multiple pathways for reporting such behavior and my office stands ready to assist anyone who believes they have been victimized by state employees.”

Freeman occupied a unique position of trust for reporters navigating the state’s Freedom of Information Law and Open Meetings Law. He was often referred to as an unfettered expert open records laws and was a reliable person to contact for advice.

But after his firing in June, numerous allegations by women, both co-workers, students and journalists surfaced, according to the report.

Freeman was asked voluntarily to testify to the inspector general about the allegations. He declined.

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Lawmakers Want Legal Fund For Survivors Of Childhood Sexual Assault

State lawmakers in the Senate and Assembly on Wednesday announced support for a measure that would create a civil legal services fund for the survivors and victims of childhood sexual assault.

The bill is meant to be a companion measure alongside the Child Victims Act, approved earlier this year, which makes it easier for childhood sexual abuse survivors to file lawsuits.

The fund is meant to help childhood sexual abuse victims afford legal counsel or if private law firms are reluctant to take on cases that did not occur in an institutional setting. The measure is meant to assist non-profit entities that provide legal services on behalf of victims and survivors as well as those who may come forward in the future.

The bill creating the fund is backed by Sens. Jim Gaughran and Alessandra Biaggi and sponsored by Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou and Assemblyman Charles Lavine.

“This year we passed landmark legislation to give long-awaited justice to countless victims of child sex abuse,” Gaughran said.

“Unfortunately, many victims are now facing barriers to pursuing justice against their alleged abusers. I am proud to work side-by-side with these brave victims, including my colleagues Senator Biaggi and Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou, to establish a legal fund to ensure that every victim of child sex abuse has access to funding for legal services to seek the justice they deserve.”

Total Property Tax Levies Rise Slightly In New York

From the Morning Memo:

The total amount of money raised in property taxes by local governments increased by 2.4 percent this year to a total of $36.6 billion, according to a report released Tuesday by Comptroller Tom DiNapoli’s office.

The report found the majority of that revenue, nearly $23 billion, was levied by school districts.

County governments collected $6 billion in property tax levies, about 16 percent of property taxes in the state.

Property taxes in the state are capped at 2 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower. Local governments can vote to override the cap, which has been in place since 2012.

New Yorkers pay some of the highest property taxes in the country and the highest as a percentage of home value. Still, the last decade has led to a slower growth of tax levies statewide.

The report found that from 2017 to 2019, property tax levies grew the most in cities, 6.1 percent. In towns, the levies grew 4.4 percent. School district leaves have grown an even 4 percent.

During that same time period, home values have grown the fastest in western New York and on Long Island.

Rensselaer County Clerk Moves Forward With Green Light Law Challenge

Rensselaer County Clerk Frank Merola says he’s undeterred by the failure of Erie County Clerk Mickey Kearns’s lawsuit against the measure known as the Green Light law.

And he’s forging ahead with his own: Filing an injunction this week to block the measure from taking effect. Merola hopes his challenge will have more success.

Last week, a federal judge tossed Kearns’s lawsuit challenging the Green Light law, a measure that allows undocumented immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses, finding he does not have standing in the case.

“Fifty-one county clerks are doing DMV business across the state,” Merola said in an interview. “We run over 100 DMV offices. I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t have more standing than the county clerks.”

The county clerks who run local motor vehicle offices have pledged to not enforce the law if it is allowed to stand by the federal courts. Merola insists he won’t issue driver’s licenses to those he believes are in the country illegall.

“There are county clerks that are adamant they will not do it,” Merola said. “Maybe the state will do it on its own, but I know the clerks are really fighting backing.”

Supporters of the measure, including New York Attorney General Letitia James, believe the measure is constitutional and will withstand legal scrutiny. They argue the law is necessary for public safety and to allow undocumented immigrants to drive to work and take their kids to school.

Merola, meanwhile, does not want the law to take effect on Dec. 14 if legal challenges are ongoing.

“I think that date has got to be pushed back,” he said. “There has been no correspondents between the state DMV and the clerks. I think that date is unrealistic right now.”

And Merola says he and his fellow county clerks have reached out to President Trump’s administration to voice their concerns about the law.

Legislation Introduced To Fix Erie and Nassau AIM Issues

From the Morning Memo:

Republican state Sen. Pat Gallivan has introduced legislation meant to eliminate issues with Aid and Incentive to Municipality related payments for Erie and Nassau counties moving forward.

During last year’s budget, the Legislature agreed to get rid of AIM. It did restore funding levels from a new source – a portion of state sales tax which was expected to increase because of new rules related to internet sales tax.

The new rules worked out fine for the vast majority of the New York’s 62 counties with the money disbursed through the Office of the State Comptroller. However, OSC recently indicated the statute change did not allow it to disburse sales tax funds to towns and villages in the two counties with fiscal control boards; Erie and Nassau.

While not everybody seems to agree with the comptroller’s interpretation of the law and finding a resolution has turned out to be a bit difficult. OSC, the State Budget Office and county leaders have been working together and one proposed plan would front the money owed to towns and villages from a different funding source.

The state could then reconcile the budget next year without ruining municipality budgets for next year. It would not solve the underlying issue with the tax law. Gallivan’s bill would amend the language to solve the conflict in the future and ensure they receive payments at the promised levels.

“Without this statutory change it is unclear whether and when these municipalities will receive these payments thus creating the potential for an unexpected and unplanned for loss of operating revenue,” the bill’s memo reads.

The legislation does not currently have an Assembly sponsor. Buffalo-area Democrat Sean Ryan has said he would support a bill that corrects the issue.

UPDATE: A spokesperson for Assemblyman Edward Ra, R-Franklin Square, said their office has introduced a companion bill which has not been indexed yet.

Moody’s Calls Rainy Day Fund For NYC A Good Step

From the Morning Memo:

The creation of a rainy day reserve fund for New York City, as backed by voters in a charter revision referendum last week, is a “credit positive” move for New York City, Moody’s Investor Services found.

A change is required in state law for the fund to be actually created by the city. But doing so would help bolster the city’s finances in the event of a downturn in the economy.

More so than ever before, New York City is the engine of the state’s economy, home to the wealthy whom the state taxes to finance a significant chunk of its budgetary revenue and to major corporations and financial institutions.

In other words, the fate of New York City’s economy is tied to the broader health of New York.

Moody’s found that having a rainy day fund for New York City “would allow the city to better access its tremendous economic capacity to manage future slowdowns.”

The financial crisis of the 1970s led to the state creating a financial emergency law for the city, leading to budgets that must match revenues with expenditures: No gaps, no surpluses.

“Because New York City cannot hold balances and build reserves like most local governments, it uses other mechanisms to prepare for downturns, which signals strong fiscal governance,” Moody’s wrote in a report released on Monday. “During economic downturns, the city closes budget gaps mainly through cutting spending, to balance both sides of the ledger.”

Judge Partially Rejects Trump’s Tax Return Lawsuit

A federal judge on Monday dismissed part of President Donald Trump’s lawsuit against a New York law that allows congressional committee leaders to access his state tax filings.

The law, known as the TRUST Act, became law in July and was almost immediately challenged by the president.

But U.S. District Court Judge Carl Nichols wrote in a ruling denying jurisdictional discovery that the “plaintiff may not use jurisdictional discovery to ‘conduct a fishing expedition in the hopes of discovering some basis of jurisdiction.’”

The development is a victory for Attorney General Letitia James, who defended the measure in court.

“We have said all along that this lawsuit should be dismissed and we are pleased with the court’s conclusion,” she said.

“The TRUST Act is an important tool that will ensure accountability to millions of Americans who deserve to know the truth. We have never doubted that this law was legal, which is why we vigorously defended it from the start and will continue to do so.”

And the result is a victory for the lawmakers in the Legislature who sponsored it.

“We have said all along that this lawsuit should be dismissed and we are pleased with the court’s conclusion. The TRUST Act is an important tool that will ensure accountability to millions of Americans who deserve to know the truth. We have never doubted that this law was legal, which is why we vigorously defended it from the start and will continue to do so.”

For now, however, lawmakers in Congress have not sought Trump’s tax records from New York officials, arguing more information can be gleaned from his federal filings. A suit against the House Ways and Means Committee filed by Trump continues.

Immigrant Advocacy Groups Cheer Green Light Ruling

From the Morning Memo:

A federal judge last week upheld the state’s Green Light law, which will enable undocumented immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses once it takes effect next month.

For immigrant advocacy groups, it was a major victory for a long-sought measure that had previously been approved in June and is sharply opposed by local government officials, including county clerks who have pledged to not comply with it.

“We are pleased that the court has ruled in favor of upholding the Driver’s License Access and Privacy Act – also known as the Green Light Law,” said Eddie Taveras, the immigration manager of the group

“This decision does not come as a surprise, as it follows the precedent set in other states, where similar measures have also passed legal muster.”

The advocacy groups that have backed the legislation have pointed to other states that provide undocumented immigrants with some form of identification. But the issue has long been controversial over the last decade following a botched and later scuttled proposal by then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer in 2007.

The issue has since been a third rail of New York politics. The measure was approved in June after Democrats gained control of the state Senate for the first time in a decade.

The law was opposed by county clerks who administer local motor vehicle offices. The suit rejected on Friday was filed by Erie County Clerk Mickey Kearns. There are at least two other challenges to the law by county clerks in Niagara and Rensselaer counties.

“How much of Erie County’s hard-earned taxpayer dollars was wasted on Mickey Kearns’ useless political stunt?” said New York Immigration Coalition Executive Director Steven Choi.

“As we’ve said all along, we’re not surprised that a federal judge put Erie County Clerk’s Mickey Kearns’ politically-motivated lawsuit stunt where it belongs—in the trash.”

Kearns told reporters on Friday the judge in the case essentially punted on it, declining to rule on the merits of the law itself.

DOH Outlines Where The Vaping Illnesses Are In New York

There have been 165 patients in New York reporting what are believed to be illnesses linked to vaping usage, the state Department of Health on Friday announced.

An illnesses believed to be linked to vaping has also resulted in at least one death.

The Health Department for the first time released a map showing vaping cases county-by-county, with many of them concentrated in the New York City metropolitan area.

Patients have varied in age, from 14 to 71. But the vast majority, 61 percent, are under the age of 25.

“We are leaving no stone unturned in our investigation into this ongoing outbreak of vaping-associated illnesses, and will continue to test products, conduct case interviews and use every tool at our disposal to learn more about what is causing this public health crisis,” said Health Commissioner Howard Zucker. “In the meantime, we continue to urge New Yorkers to stop using vape products until the investigation is complete.”

A ban on flavored tobacco used in vaping, which state officials blame for helping to lure kids into using the products, has been delayed by a state court amid a legal challenge from an industry trade group.

Also Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found vaping products tested earlier this September a linkage with Vitamin E acetate and how it may play a role in the current oubreak.

“While no definitive cause has been found, as I’ve said from the very beginning: if you don’t know what you are smoking, don’t smoke it,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in a statement.

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