RFK Jr. And Sussman File Lawsuit Challenging End To Religious Exemption For Vaccinations

A lawsuit challenging the state’s end to the religious exemption for vaccinations was announced on Wednesday by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., along with longtime legal activist Michael Sussman.

Kennedy and Sussman said the suit was filed on behalf off parents who opposed the measure, approved last month in the state Legislature amid a measles outbreak in Brooklyn and Rockland County with more than 1,000 reported cases.

“To deprive families of the rights to freedom of religious expression, parental rights, and the right to either a public or private education, the state must demonstrate a ‘compelling state interest’ that the state has failed to prove here,” Sussman said in a statement.

The law was approved after an extraordinarily close vote in the Democratic-led Assembly, which was followed by an angry, profanity-laced protest from opponents of the legislation.

Kennedy, a former brother-in-law of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, has been a prominent figure in the anti-vaccine movement, which has questioned the health effects of vaccinations. Public health officials broadly agree that healthy people should be vaccinated in order to create herd immunity against illnesses like the measles.

Kennedy shaped his argument, however, against the bill around religious expression.

“Religious rights are fundamental,” Kennedy said. “It is unconstitutional for the state to deprive people of such important rights when religious animus has played a key role. To enact such harsh legislation without any legislative fact-finding, and with the legislators’ open display of prejudice towards religious beliefs different than their own, is simply un-American; it is essential that we fight this.”

Reclaim New York Reduces Staff, Scales Back

From the Morning Memo:

Reclaim New York, an advocacy group backed by conservative investor Robert Mercer, is reducing its footprint and staff, the group announced on Tuesday in a statement.

The group in its statement said it was going through a “period of re-evaluation” of its activities.

“Given the scale of the challenges, and our own commitment to fiscal responsibility, we are reevaluating Reclaim’s role in the engagement of citizens and our staff in holding government accountable,” Reclaim New York said in a statement.

“To that end, we have determined to pause daily programming and to reduce our workforce. We intend to migrate to more of a web-based operation rather than a fully staffed field operation.”

Reclaim New York had been linked to Mercer, a computer scientist and hedge investor who has been linked to a variety of conservative causes along with his daughter, Rebecca Mercer. The group also had ties to Steve Bannon, the former advisor to President Donald Trump.

The group had sought to forge a niche for itself as something of a center-right good-government organization, pushing for local and state government transparency and criticized what it saw as wasteful spending.

But in the process it raised the ire of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office, which was quick to seize on its connection to Mercer.

A Democratic insider reacted to the news by saying, “Trump acolytes Steve Bannon and the Mercers went to war with Gov Cuomo and the Democratic Party for years — and lost. God only knows how much money they spent on this pathetic AstroTurf group, and they didn’t know New Yorkers are too smart to buy what they were selling.”

Cuomo, Legislative Leaders Name Public Campaign Finance Commission

The future of the state’s campaign finance laws will be in the hands of nine people, including the state Democratic Committee chairman, a top former attorney for Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Bronx civil court judge and a longtime election law lawyer.

Cuomo, along with the top lawmakers in the Assembly and Senate named the bipartisan commission that will determine how to implement a system of publicly financed campaigns, with a report due by Dec. 1. The report has the force of law unless lawmakers return to Albany within 20 days of the report being issued to alter it.

In addition to considering the contours of a public financing system, the panel can also shape election law, such as whether to continue fusion voting — a key concern for the Working Families Party.

The commission includes state Democratic Committee Chairman Jay Jacobs as well as Mylan Denerstein, an attorney in private practice who served as counsel to Cuomo during his first time and worked in the attorney genera’s office during his time there. Both are appointees of the governor.

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins appointed DeNora Getachew, the executive director of the group Generation Citizen and a former legislative counsel and campaign manager for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. She also appointed John Nonna, a longtime Westchester County attorney and former county lawmaker and mayor.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie’s appointees include Bronx County Civil Court Judge Rosanna Vargas and Buffalo State College official Crystal Rodriguez.

Henry Berger, an election law attorney who worked for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio as special counsel was selected as a joint at-large appointment by Cuomo, Heastie and Stewart-Cousins.

Republican Senate leader John Flanagan appointed David Previte, a former chief counsel for their conference and an attorney with Hinman Straub. Kimberly Galvin, the co-director of the state Board of Elections Campaign Finance Compliance Unit is the appointee of Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb.

The commission was formed as part of an an agreement in the state budget amid a push for the creation of a system of publicly financed campaigns. Assembly Democrats had raised concerns with aspects of public financing and the effect super PACs contiue to play in elections, and the compromise to create the commission was forged out of that.

Still, the commission’s formation is the latest example of lawmakers ceding authority to an appointed panel on thorny issues, including how congestion pricing in New York City would work as well as a pay raise for the Legislature.

Siena Poll Finds Most New Yorkers Patriotic, But Also Back Dissent

More than two-thirds of New Yorkers say they are patriotic and 80 percent are proud to be Americans, a Siena College poll released on Wednesday found.

The poll released a day before the nation celebrates Independence Day found New Yorkers across the state are generally proud of the country, with 75 percent saying the national anthem makes them feel proud. Just over half, or 55 percent, say they wear red, white and blue on July 4.

Forty-five percent believe America is the best country in the world, according to the survey.

And yet, New Yorkers are also on board with dissent, the poll found.

But New Yorkers by a majority, 67 percent, do not believe it is un-American to protest the actions of the government. A combined 53 percent said it was inaccurate to say someone who believes is socialism is not a good American.

And 88 percent believe freedom of speech applies to all, including those who criticize the country.

Still, burning the flag is too far for 68 percent of New Yorkers, the poll found.

Only just over half, or 52 percent, say they vote in every election.

“New Yorkers of every political party, age and region strongly support complete freedom of speech even for those that criticize the country, but a small majority, 52 percent say it is either somewhat or completely descriptive of them that it makes them angry to see anyone that does not stand for the pledge of allegiance or the national anthem,” Levy said.

“Still, only 26 percent think it is un-American to protest against the actions of our government while 67 percent think it is not.”

The poll of 804 state residents was conducted from June 11 to June 18 and has a margin of error of 3.8 percentage points.

ICS0619 7419 Crosstabs by Nick Reisman on Scribd

McCall Plans Memoir With Rockefeller Institute

Carl McCall, the former state comptroller and SUNY Board of Trustees chairman, will write his memoir as an author in residence, the Rockefeller Institute of Government announced on Thursday.

McCall this month is stepping down from the chairman post, which he’s held for the last eight years. He will be writing the memoir with Paul Grondahl, the director of the New York State Writers Institute and a journalist for the Times Union.

“Chairman McCall’s 50 years of public service have been outstanding and laden with many accomplishments, and what inspires me the most is hearing him share his own personal narrative about what access to high-quality education has meant to him and his career,” said SUNY Chancellor Kristina M. Johnson. “Through this memoir project, the masses will be able to learn more about one of New York’s finest advocates, leaders, and mentors, inspiring future generations for years to come.”

McCall’s memoir is expected to focus on politics, social justice and education issues. McCall, the first black statewide elected official in New York, ran for governor in 2002, facing Andrew Cuomo in a bruising Democratic primary. He lost the general election to Gov. George Pataki.

“Chairman McCall has had an extraordinary career and his memoir will serve as required reading for those looking to enter public service,” said Jim Malatras, president of the Rockefeller Institute. “The Rockefeller Institute of Government is thrilled to welcome the chairman while he works with the talented Paul Grondahl and the NYS Writers Institute to share his story with others.”

McCall officially retires from the SUNY Board of Trustees on Sunday.

Limo Crash Victim Families Upset With Lack Of Action

Family members of those who have been killed in limousine crashes in New York are upset the state legislative session concluded without a larger package of safety measures for stretch limos.

“The reality is that NYS Government failed us,” the families said in a statement on Tuesday. “They failed the Cutchogue families in Long Island. They’ve failed the next limousine victims that will perish needlessly because the State failed to act.”

Lawmakers conclude the session last week. The state Senate approved a series of 10 limousine safety measures, but the Assembly only approved two that have “same-as” or matching versions in the state Senate.

The bills that could become law, pending Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s signature, would require seat belts in limos built after Jan. 1, 2020. Another bill strengthens insurance requirements for stretch limos.

The measures were proposed after a crash last October killed 20 people in Schoharie, including 18 people in an altered stretch limousine. It is the deadliest transportation crash in a decade. Lawmakers and Cuomo in the state budget approved additional insurance and inspection requirements.

“The NYS Legislative session has now ended with little substantive legislative action that would address limousine safety,” the families said. “Limousine safety measures that could very well have saved the lives of the 20 members of our collective families. To say we are disappointed is an understatement. Our disappointment now turns to anger as legislators’ finger point and play the blame game – The Senate blaming the Assembly and the Assembly blaming the Senate.”

Cuomo had said in a radio interview earlier this month the state was potentially limited in what it could do for limo safety given the federal government’s regulatory role.

“The limitation is what we can do is that vehicles that are certified by the federal government we are pre-empted from regulating,” he said. “That’s the limitation.”

State Open Government Expert Fired Following Sexual Misconduct Investigation

Robert Freeman, a leading expert on the state’s open government and freed of information laws, was fired Monday from his post at the Committee on Open Government following a sexual misconduct complaint.

His firing was first reported by the Albany Bureau of the USA Today Network.

The complaint, made by a Journal News reporter, alleged Freeman “sexually assaulted her while meeting with her in his official capacity,” according to a letter by state the inspector general’s office to the New York secretary of state, Rosanna Rosado.

The letter from Inspector General Letizia Tagliafierro determined an investigation “found compelling evidence that Freeman acted in a sexually inappropriate manner with the complainant while engaged in a meeting in his official capacity.”

The investigation also found Freeman kept sexually suggestive material on his office computer as well as another exchange with a young woman.

Freeman founded the Committee on Open Government in 1974, turning the office into a major resource for New York journalists navigating open records and meetings laws in the state. He also traveled the state to speak with college students and with reporters about open government laws and how to file Freedom of Information Law requests.

New York lawmakers this month agreed to changes to the state’s sexual harassment laws, broadening the definition from the “severe or pervasive” standard advocates believed is too narrow to fit a wider range of behavior.

What’s Next For Albany?

From the Morning Memo:

The legislative session this year generated a lot of headlines when it came to strengthening abortion rights, LGBTQ rights, banning plastic bags, new gun control laws and efforts to stem climate change by cutting emissions.

And, after a swing to the left with large Democratic majorities in both chambers, lawmakers could go even further next year. A caveat: it’s an election year. And an added wrinkle: Many lawmakers will be juggling both session and a potential primary challenge looming for them when they return home in June 2020.

So, let’s look into the crystal ball and take a look at some issues that may dominate the 2020 session:

Decriminalizing sex work: Despite a well-publicized effort and rallies in Albany and in New York City, a proposal that was meant to decriminalize sex work stalled at the state Capitol. Gov. Andrew Cuomo this month questioned whether there was time to tackle an issue that is sure to draw both headlines and controversy. Lawmakers and advocates may try again in the 2020 session, armed with written legislation and a sharpened argument. Opponents will likely point to quality-of-life issues.

Single-payer health care: Democrats in the Legislature who support the plan are almost certain to try again next year. Bill sponsors are holding a series of public hearings on the issue and tout the bill, which has been changed and rewritten after a report estimated a previous version would double the size of the state budget, but also bring down health care costs for New Yorkers. A single-payer bill is perhaps the biggest concept plan state lawmakers can think of and one that Cuomo is very leery of given the cost and scope of the legislation.

Legalizing marijuana: Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes was clearly unhappy with the outcome of the marijuana debate in Albany, which ultimately led to a smaller, decriminalization measure that also expunged the records of those who have been arrested and convicted of non-violent marijuana-related offenses. She blamed Long Island Democrats, specifically, for the broader legalization bill’s failure. Will the incentives change for Long Island lawmakers in an election year? Maybe not. But the push will intensify to do something again on the issue.

Money for education: C’mon, it’s an election year! No matter who is in charge of the Legislature, it becomes an imperative for lawmakers in an election year to boost school spending, a key bread-and-butter issue for many voters.

The top of the ticket: The Democratic agenda could also be dictated by who is at the top of the presidential ticket for the Democrats. It’s not hard to see presidential nominee Bernie Sanders, for instance, intensifying the debate over single-payer health care in New York, or one of Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s many policy proposals being adopted and modified for the state level.

State lawmakers last year open the floodgate for a range of long-sought Democratic measures. The tougher stuff will really come next year, especially if the economy softens and calls grow for more revenue — in the form of a tax increase.

Bill Requiring Hate Crimes Training For Law Enforcement Approved

From the Morning Memo:

State lawmakers in the final days of the legislative session approved a measure that would require hate crimes training for state and local law enforcement officials.

The bill now awaits Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s signature after passing both the Senate and Assembly.

“An attack on one community is an attack on all of us so we are standing together to delineate that these hate crimes have no place in New York and no community should be subjected to hateful rhetoric and acts of violence,” said bill sponsor Assemblywoman Nily Rozic, a Queens Democrat.

“This legislation will ensure that law enforcement officers on the ground have the proper tools to recognize and respond to hate-based incidents in our efforts to root out hate and discrimination in New York.”

The bill, backed by a coalition of groups that include the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and the Muslim Jewish Advisory Council, comes amid rising concern over the elevated number of hate crimes reported in the state and around the country.

The bill would implement training for all law enforcement agencies so officers and first responders can identify and handle hate-based incidents.

“We must do all we can to confront the scourge of anti-Semitism that has reared its ugly head across our state and nation,” said the bill’s Senate Senate sponsor, Todd Kaminsky, a Long Island Democratic lawmaker. “To ensure our police officers are adept at recognizing and investigating hate crimes, I introduced legislation to mandate training in that regard. I will continue to do all I can to fight anti-Semitism head on — our communities and society-at-large deserve no less.”

4 Takeaways From The Legislative Session

From the Morning Memo:

The session is over, and it was perhaps one of the most consequential six months for New York in a very long time. 

Bills were moved that touch on nearly every facet of life in New York — from the means in which we get our food, to how it’s bagged in supermarkets and how, one day, the car we use to get to the store will be powered. 

Here are four takeaways from the legislative session. 

1. Progressive flex

Elections do indeed have consequences. Voters swept Democrats into power last year in the state Legislature, giving the party a comfortable majority in the state Senate and sustaining the seemingly endless advantage in the state Assembly.

This time around, Democrats signaled little desire to squander one party rule in Albany, pushing through bill after bill the base of the party had long sought to strengthen abortion rights and labor rights for farm workers, gun control, fight climate change, enhance LGBTQ rights and expand and bolster rent control laws.

New York is now firmly in the column of a vanguard of progressive states controlled by Democrats like California that are enacting liberal policies in the era of President Donald Trump. Indeed, it’s easy to see much of what happened in Albany over the last six months as a direct reaction to Trump’s election nearly three years ago.

2. Activists hold sway

In a related development, activism in state government has never been more intense — or effective. Lawmakers listen to the activists who show up — be it on issues like criminal justice reform, affordable housing or marijuana legalization — there is a palpable sense at the Capitol that elected officials don’t want to anger the people who are showing up to demonstrate and command what is likely outsize influence over the legislative process. They are the ones engaged in the process, being able to spread their message on social media like never before.

At the same time, the activism is also driving primary threats next year for Democratic incumbents, especially in the state Assembly.

As one lawmaker put, lawmakers once reacted to the editorial boards; now they’re reacting to the activism.

3. Heastie’s leadership

The Democratic majority in the state Senate is new. Heastie’s speakership is not. And this year Heastie demonstrated a degree of command over the budget process and legislative negotiations like never before. The job of Assembly speaker — riding herd over more than 100 members from vastly different regions of the state — is perhaps the hardest job in Albany. But this year, Heastie demonstrated an ability to both count votes on nail-biting outcomes like a measure to end the religious exemption for vaccinations, while also allowing Democratic no votes on measures like extending driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants.

Heastie also set his sights early on a major rent control deal, striking one with Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, seemingly to the surprise of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, successfully negotiating one of the most consequential housing policy developments in recent history.

On top of that, he remains one of the more accessible legislative leaders in Albany.

4. Cuomo’s influence

Much has already been said about whether Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s influence is waning in Albany after a legislative session that saw lawmakers seemingly acted independently of the governor on major issues. And this session could very well mark a major shift in the relationship between a newly emboldened Legislature and a governor in his third term.

Still, Cuomo’s legislative prowess should not be napped on: He muscled through an appointment of his budget director to the board of the MTA, he held sway over the Capitol Projects budget bill until the very end, and, as he was happy to point, lawmakers could not get a deal done on full marijuana legalization outside of the state budget.

The job of governor remains a powerful one in state government. The Legislature is only now really waking up to the power it holds against him, but Cuomo’s experience in the process remains an advantage.