The Blue Wall Versus The Red Tide

Over the last month, the large Democratic majorities in the state Senate and Assembly in New York have been able to notch a variety of long-sought goals for progressives.

Like a knot being forced out of a garden hose, the gusher of legislation — abortion rights, gun control, voting reform to name just a few — have been approved after stalling during Republican control of the state Senate.

Now some Democrats are looking even further: They want to raise the minimum wage that prison inmates earn from less than $1 in some cases to $3, Attorney General Letitia James wants to bolster protections for immigrants by penalizing employers who threaten to reveal their legal status.

The Reproductive Health Act sparked a national backlash over abortion, finding its way into President Donald Trump’s State of the Union and being used as a galvanizing event for abortion opponents ahead of the 2020 election.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo in a New York Times op/ed has pledged, once again, New York will be a bulwark against efforts to change abortion laws nationally.

In the wider scope, it’s another example of how the nation has re-organized itself into a collection of virtually all-blue and all-red states with single party control of its governorship and Legislature — leading to vast dichotomies and differences in how they seek to govern themselves.

Abortion policy is just one example: Red states and blue states are taking vastly different approaches on climate change and the environment, gun control and health care. Polarization at the state level is nothing new, but it’s emanating from state capitals — the laboratories of democracy — portending greater clashes in the future.

New York is not unique in this category. As Governing Magazine noticed last month, every state’s Legislature, save for Minnesota and the non-partisan house in Nebraska, is now under single party rule.

New York may soon begin to look more like California or Massachusetts as these bills and law cross pollinate. The same goes for Republican-dominated states.

But within New York, of course, the political differences remain, even as Republican enrollment declines and the party fights over its leadership. At the Metropolitan Republican Club, once a venerable hangout for Rockefeller Republicans and the epicenter of a fight between counterprotesters and the white supremacist group Proud Boys last year, the organization is now led by a president who has advised a far-right group in Germany.

A look at the map of New York in the last two elections shows how the state is aligned with the national political scene: Republican Marc Molinaro won upstate, largely rural counties; Cuomo won urban and suburban strongholds.

President Donald Trump is deeply unpopular in his home state, but his showing in 2016 found him winning upstate counties as well (along with Suffolk and Staten Island).

“I love those people,” Trump said Wednesday speaking of upstaters. “Those people are my voters. They’ve been treated very badly.”

“If New York isn’t gonna treat them better, I would recommend they go to another state where they can get a great job.”

That may resonate with some conservatives who wonder why the Republican Party hasn’t fully embraced their president, is out of power in Albany and hasn’t won an election since 2002. They bristle at the latest package of gun control measures, the high taxes, a state government dominated by elected officials who either represent New York City or a nearby community.

Cuomo on Thursday brushed off Trump’s comment.

“Trump talking about Upstate New York is like me talking about Antarctica: I have never been there and I know nothing about it,” he said at a speech in New York City.

Trump did, however, campaign across upstate New York ahead of the 2016 election and easily won the state’s Republican primary.

For Cuomo, the third term has been a question of where the center is and whether it will hold. He won a primary, handily, from his left flank in the form of Cynthia Nixon last year.

Now he’s facing a push from Democrats in the Legislature opposed to a deal to bring up to 40,000 Amazon jobs to Long Island City in exchange for $3 billion in tax breaks. The fight with Democratic lawmakers could snowball next month as the budget is negotiated and tax revenue becomes more slack.

New York is set apart nationally, but it’s on the same playing field as other large blue states. The country has re-organized itself over the last generation. We’re living the result of it right now.

Law Enforcement, Lawmakers And Criminal Justice Groups Seek Parole Reform

An effort to change how parole is overseen and enforced is winning the support of a coalition of sheriffs, district attorneys, state lawmakers and advocates for criminal justice reform.

The parole changes are meant to limit and eventually end the return of people to prison for committing technical violations of their release.

Among the provisions: Capping jail time for technical parole violations at 30 days, providing earned time credits for a reduction in community supervision and a strengthening of due process procedures. At the same time, supporters want access to hearings on a faster basis.

“On any given day, the number of New Yorkers in state jails because of technical violations of their parole is over 6,000, more than 12 percent of the total prison population,” said Sen. Brian Benjamin, a Democrat from Manhattan.

“On Rikers Island, the only group that is increasing is New Yorkers jailed for a technical violation of their parole, with more than 700 people jailed there today. If we are serious about ending mass incarceration, we shouldn’t be locking people up for a speeding ticket or being late for curfew. It speaks volumes that a coalition of people who make laws, enforce laws, and have been affected by these laws all support this legislation.”

The changes have the backing of New York City district attorneys as well as Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple.

“I believe we need to take a common sense approach to this issue. When you are dealing with human beings with different backgrounds and a variety of other contributing factors, I think it is wrong to apply a uniform harsh standard,” he said.

“In Albany County, we have recognized the positive impact that incentives and diversionary services can have on changing lives. The Less Is More Act addresses these areas and in the case of a violation, protects the rights of due process and speedy hearings, and I am in support of the Less Is More Act to help reform the New York State Parole system.”

And the measure has the backing of the Katal Center for Health, Equity, and Justice.

“New York State is known to be a progressive leader in criminal justice reform, a leading voice in the fight for basic human dignity, and a strong supporter of ‘second chances.’ Yet our parole system is sending so many people back to jail and prison for simple technical violations,” said Donna Hylton, the director of the Women And Girls project for the group. “It now has the terrible distinction of being a national leader in re-incarcerating people who are on parole. Sending people back to jail and prison for simple technical parole violations is deeply flawed and undermines the reentry process.”

Citizens Union Says Voting Reforms Will Cost Nearly $50M Over A Decade

The various voting reforms approved last month will ultimately cost $49.5 million over the next decade, but lower costs for each election in most counties, according to a report released Thursday by the good-government group Citizens Union.

The report reviewed the implementation of early voting, electronic pollbooks and the consolidation of the state and congressional primaries to a single day in June.

“The voting reform bills recently signed into law by Governor Cuomo will protect and expand the right to vote in New York State,” said Betsy Gotbaum,Executive Director of Citizens Union. “These reforms are an important first step, but we need to ensure that they are properly implemented, which requires significant funding in the state budget. Reforms without the funds to implement them is not enough.”

The primary consolidation will save New York counties $36.2 million over 10 years.

But early voting comes with a price tag, the group found: approximately $12.5 million statewide and an additional $3.4 million for each election. This is based on the calculated cost of 12 days of early voting; the new law will have nine days of early voting.

Still, good-government organizations and county governments have called on the state to funding early voting in the budget.

Electronic pollbooks will cost $14.9 million in the first year, but saves money over time.

The analysis was based on information from nine states and interviews with Republican and Democratic elections officials in New York.

“Our study found that while the cost of implementing early voting, e-pollbooks and a combined primary would cost the state $22.1 M immediately, the cost would be less than $5M a year over ten years, and would result in lower costs per election in most counties,” said Rachel Bloom, Director of Public Policy and Programs for Citizens Union. “It is imperative that the budget fund these reforms that will strengthen democracy here in New York State.”

32BJ Backs Resolution For Green New Deal Legislation

The labor union 32BJ SEIU on Thursday announced it is formally backing the Green New Deal push by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and U.S. Sen. Ed Markey.

“For labor unions like ours, climate change is an environmental issue, an economic opportunity and a political challenge that we know can destabilize our communities,” said Hector Figueroa, the labor group’s president.

“This is an opportunity to tackle economic inequality and re-industrialize America with a green economy through jobs that, with the right training, can provide career ladders for many low-wage workers who struggle to afford the high cost of living. At 32BJ, we have pioneered Green Buildings Programs that serve as large scale examples that investing in long-term training and education for current workers can help them become leaders in this kind of bold vision to reduce greenhouse gasses, switch to renewable energies, and create good jobs.”

The framework of the Green New Deal measures as announced Thursday by Ocasio-Cortez and Markey are aimed at cutting carbon emissions and at the same time create new jobs in the renewable energy field.

Local Governments Concerned Over Legalized Marijuana

From the Morning Memo:

A new report from the New York State Association of Counties lays out concerns local governments have with legalizing adult use marijuana too hastily.

Although the Cannabis Regulation and Taxation Act includes an opt out clause for localities unwilling to participate in the sale of marijuana (they can pass local laws or a resolution negating it) NYSAC says their scope of unease extends further.

“There are many facets of the Governor’s plan, and county officials are exploring the entire proposal. There is industrial hemp, CBD oils for therapeutic applications, and the adult use of marijuana,” said NYSAC Executive Director Stephen Acquario. “Our current public health efforts combating tobacco use will double when we are talking about cannabis, including educational campaigns and cessation programs.”

The group says potential impact on public health and safety, economic development and criminal justice must be recognized, and the public educated on these changes.

They cite the Department of Health’s 2018 report commissioned by Gov. Andrew Cuomo recommending legalization that also acknowledged an inevitable increase in responsibility for law enforcement and municipalities.

Other organizations like the Mental Health Association in New York Inc. have argued more scientific research is needed before a green light is given, as mental health impacts are no light matter, especially as the brain is continually developing until one’s mid-twenties.

NYSAC held a panel last week which also went over future farming and development plans for cannabis, such as hemp or medical cannabis production.

There’s been mixed reviews whether or not the legislation will be dealt within the budget process, as Cuomo himself has mentioned, April 1 is a long way away yet.

Rozic, Hoylman Seek Updated Hate Crimes Stats

Two Democratic state lawmakers are calling on the Division of Criminal Justice Services to publish updated hate crimes statistics amid concerns over a rise in violence against vulnerable groups.

The most recent hate crimes statistics posted to the agency’s website are from 2016.

Assemblywoman Nily Rozic and Sen. Brad Holyman in a letter sent this week to the division’s executive deputy commissioner, Michael Green, pointed to the uptick in reports of hate crimes around New York.

The lawmakers want both the 2017 report published as well as a timeline for when the 2018 report will be available for review.

“With recent dramatic increases in hate crimes and hate-based incidents in New York State, the annual report would contain crucial data for legislators and policymakers as we develop proposals to address these troubling trends,” the lawmakers wrote.

The compiling of the data can be a time-consuming task for the agency, which receives the raw data from 500 police departments around the state.

In a statement, DCJS spokeswoman Janine Kava said the report will be published soon.

“The report is in the final stages of review and will available in the very near future,” she said. “We will make sure the legislature gets a copy as soon as possible. Police agencies are required to report hate crime incidents to DCJS, but the timeliness of this reporting can vary by agency. We want to ensure that the report, when published, includes the most comprehensive, accurate data available.”

Campaign Contribution Ceiling Goes Up

The limit a donor can give to candidates for office in New York has increased yet again, with the state Board of Elections allowing donors to give up to nearly $70,000 to a candidate for governor over a four-year election cycle.

The changes come as Gov. Andrew Cuomo has proposed lowered contribution limits for candidates for public office as well as a ban on corporate contributions. He also wants a system of publicly financed political campaigns with a donor matching program.

The state Legislature last month approved a bill that is meant to close a loophole in election law that allows unlimited donations through a web of LLCs.

“Without a fair elections system that encourages small donations from regular donors, New York’s system will just get more tilted toward the very wealthy people and powerful organizations that can afford to make $70,000 donations,” said Blair Horner of NYPIRG. “That’s why hundreds of New Yorkers will come to Albany next Tuesday to call for a campaign finance system that includes matching funds for donations from average New Yorkers.”

Under Cuomo’s proposal, statewide candidates would have donations to their campaigns capped at $10,000 for a primary and $15,000 for the generally election, a decline from the $44,000 limit in a general election contest.

Candidates for the state Senate would have their contributions capped at $5,000 each for the primary and general election, down from the $11,000 general election limit and $7,000 ceiling in a primary.

In the Assembly, candidates there would be limited to $3,000 in both the general and primary election.

Cuomo himself is considered an especially aggressive fundraiser. He spent $35.5 million on his re-election campaign. The entire four-year cycle, Cuomo spent $43.1 million. He has $5 million left in his campaign account.

County Governments Urge: No More Shutdowns

The New York Association of Counties in a statement on Tuesday cautioned against another federal government shutdown.

The most recent shutdown stretched from late December through January, the longest on record.

But the agreement to re-open the government is temporary as Congress and President Donald Trump argue over a border wall with Mexico.

The association at its meeting in Albany last week approved a resolution opposing another shutdown, pointing to the affect on SNAP beneficiaries, federal contractors and those who receive student loans.

“Our county leaders weighed in on the shut down because we are concerned that back-to-back shutdowns will do great harm to New Yorkers that work for the federal government, it would threaten many of the federal programs we administer at the county level, and it would take a toll on public servants at all levels of government,” said NYSAC President Charles H. Nesbitt, Jr. the chief administrative officer of Orleans County.

Trump is scheduled to deliver his State of the Union address this evening.

Suburban County Execs Push For Internet Sales Tax Plan

A coalition of county executives representing suburban communities are launching a push for the collection of sales taxes on out-of-state internet retailers.

The provision, included in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s $175 billion budget proposal, is expected to generate an additional $110 million for local governments.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, along with Nassau County Executive Laura Curran and Westchester County Executive George Latimer are pushing for the measure, along with a coalition of businesses, labor groups and progressive organizations on Long Island and in the Hudson Valley.

The tax provision is being pushed after a U.S. Supreme Court decision found states could subject out-of-state retailers to the same tax collections that exist for sellers located in the state.

Constitutional Amendment Would Guarantee Clean Environment Advances

A constitutional amendment that would guarantee the right to a clean environment is advancing after it was first approved in the previous legislative session by the Democratic-led Assembly.

The amendment would require that “each person shall have the right to clean air and water, and a healthful environment.”

If it gains first passage in the Democratic-controlled chambers, lawmakers must approve the bill again in the legislative session elected after 2020. It then goes to voters in a referendum.

The amendment was inspired in part by the contamination of drinking water in communities in upstate New York like Hoosick Falls and Newburgh as well as on Long Island.

Several states, including Pennsylvania, Hawaii, Massachusetts and Montana, have existing amendments guaranteeing clean air and water.

“This proposed constitutional amendment would follow those models and ensure that clean air and water are treated as fundamental rights for New Yorkers,” the bill’s memo states.

The amendment is also advancing as lawmakers may consider a package of environmental conservation bills next week.