Collins Joins MTA As Chief Comms Officer

From the Morning Memo:

Abbey Collins, a veteran press official in New York, is joining the Metropolitan Transportation Authority as is chief communications officer.

She starts Oct. 1.

“Abbey Collins is a world-class communications strategist and we are thrilled she is joining our team,” said MTA Chairman and CEO Patrick J. Foye. “Abbey’s experience, both in the public and private sector, is second to none and she will be a tremendous asset to the organization as we continue the MTA’s historic transformation.”

It’s a return to government for Collins, who has worked as a director at the public affairs communications firm Kivvit. She previously worked as a spokeswoman in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration as well as his 2018 re-election campaign and for the state Legislature.

“I’m excited to join the talented, passionate team at the MTA as the agency undergoes a total transformation,” Collins said.

“The MTA is working every day to improve service and reliability for New Yorkers and telling that story at this critical moment couldn’t be more important. I look forward to getting to work.”

Challenge To Ending Religious Exemption For Vaccines Setback Again

From the Morning Memo:

A case challenging New York’s law ending the religious exemption for vaccinating school children faced another setback in court on Thursday as an appeals court denied a request for a repeal of the measure.

Attorney Michael Sussman, a longtime legal activist who is representing anti-vaccination parents in the court challenge alongside Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., wrote in a Facebook post on Thursday the next step was to bring their argument to the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court.

The decision from the state Appellate Court’s third department came without explanation, Sussman said.

Several rulings so far have upheld the law ending the religious exemption for vaccinations, which was approved by lawmakers in June amid a measles outbreak in Brooklyn and Rockland County.

More than 1,000 measles cases have been reported in the last year.

“While the courts in our state have been unsympathetic to date to our effort to repeal the repeal, many educators from around the state recognize the absence of any good rationale for the legislature’s action and the tremendous disservice the repeal is doing to the state and many families,” Sussman wrote in the post.

Public health officials and experts roundly agree healthy people should be vaccinated for preventable diseases in order to create herd immunity.

A majority of New Yorkers supported ending the religious exemption for vaccinations, polls have shown.

Coalition To Make Public Financing Push

From the Morning Memo:

A coalition of more than 200 organizations has formed to push a panel charged with overhauling the state’s campaign finance laws to focus on the details of any public campaign financing system.

The coalition, known as Fair Elections Now, formed as the commission created earlier this year by state lawmakers and Gov. Andrew Cuomo is meeting to develop recommendations to the state’s campaign finance laws.

The commission was formed as a compromise amid a debate over public financing of elections and its recommendations will have the force of law unless lawmakers return to Albany by the end of the year and alter the changes.

The commission’s primary focus has been to set the framework and details of a public financing system for New York elections, taking on a system of high-dollar campaign donating and spending.

The coalition’s effort is organized around pressuring individual members of the commission, appointed by the governor and the legislative leaders, to adopt its preferred version of public financing.

Specifically, the coalition wants a public financing system that includes a 6-to-1 public match on small donations in primary and general elections, an independent enforcement unit and lower contribution limits.

The coalition also wants the commission to avoid the “distraction” of altering fusion voting, which allows candidates to run on multiple ballot lines. Ending or altering fusion vote presents a threat to smaller parties on either end of the political spectrum, like the Conservative and Working Families Party.

The coalition is planning a digital advocacy effort and organize supporters to attend commission meetings being held around the state before the end of the year.

“For too long the voices of marginalized New Yorkers have been muted by the influence of corporate dollars. How can we combat years of racist laws and policies when we have a donor class that is 90 percent wealthy, white, and male?” said Jawanza James Williams, the director of organizing at VOCAL-NY, one of the groups in the coalition.

“We are launching this new campaign to mobilize New Yorkers from all walks of life and all parts of the state so the Public Finance Commission feels our presence and hears our call for a strong people-powered small donor public financing program. With a Legislature no longer beholden to corporations and special interests, there will be less room in the budget for tax loopholes and more room for critical local needs like schools, housing, jobs, senior, and youth programs.”

Rape Survivor Plans JCOPE Protests

jcopebillboardsA rape survivor being pressured by the state’s lobbying and ethics regulatory body to register as a lobbyist will hold a protest outside the commission’s meeting on Tuesday in Albany.

A second protest will be held in New York City.

The Joint Commission on Public Ethics has for the last year called on Kat Sullivan, an advocate for a measure meant to make it easier for the survivors and victims of childhood sexual abuse to file lawsuits, to register as a lobbyist.

Sullivan is a rape survivor from her time as a student at the Emma Willard School in Troy.

Sullivan had paid for billboards and a plane to fly a banner pushing for the passage of the Child Victims Act, which was approved earlier this year. Commission officials in letters to Sullivan believe she spent more than the $5,000 threshold to trigger the state’s lobbying law.

Failing to register to lobby could result in a minimum fine of $25,000.

Sullivan, meanwhile, has erected new billboards calling attention to her case with JCOPE, and has called on Chairman Michael Rozen to recuse himself, pointing to his work on behalf of Penn State to administer a victims compensation fund for victims of Jerry Sandusky.

JCOPE has declined to comment on the Sullivan case, but has said there is a rigorous process for recusals when necessary.

Several state lawmakers have been supportive of Sullivan, including Assemblyman Charles Lavine, who in a letter criticized JCOPE’s pursuit of the case.

Local Governments Get Early Voting Funds

County governments are breathing a sigh of relief after the state Division of Budget this week approved $10 million to support the implementation of early voting this year.

This is the first year early voting will be held in the state after lawmakers in January approved the legislation.

The measure requires 10 days of early voting the concludes two days before the election and includes two full weekends.

But the money for the changes was not initially released to the county governments that administer local elections.

That changed Thursday after the Division of Budget approved the spending.

“There was never any question that the full $10 million to support early voting would be made available, and the full amount has been approved today,” said New York State Budget Director Robert F. Mujica, Jr. “We look forward to the expanded access to the polls that early voting will provide voters this fall.”

Funding is split over two pots of money: $14.7 million is being used for capital equipment, with the $10 million use to reimburse local elections boards for implementation costs.

“Voting is one of the most important rights and responsibilities of Americans, enabling citizens to have a voice in their government and engage in the democratic process of electing leaders,” said Stephen J. Acquario, the executive director of the New York State Association of Counties.

“The election reforms passed by state lawmakers this year, including early voting, will provide greater access for New Yorkers as they head to the polls. As counties gear up to open early voting sites in just under 60 days, we are grateful to New York State and Budget Director Mujica for committing vital funding for early voting implementation costs. These state resources are necessary to ensure smooth and accessible elections in communities across the state.”

Monroe County Sues Over Green Light Law

Monroe County this week became the latest local government to file a legal challenge to the state’s law that will allow undocumented immigrants to apply for and receive driver’s licenses.

The measure was previously challenged by local officials in Erie County and Rensselaer County.

County officials have contested the measure is unconstitutional and violates the 14th amendment by placing citizens and non-citizens on unequal footing.

Supporters of the legislation contend the measure will be upheld in the courts.

“Another day, another desperate, discriminatory and racist lawsuit filed by public officials who should be looking to lift up all New Yorkers, not force tens of thousands to remain in the shadows. It would be boring already if it wasn’t so offensive,” said New York Immigration Coalition Executive Director Steven Choi.

“We have full confidence the courts will see this and the other lawsuits previously filed for what they are—ugly, anti-immigrant political statements disguised as bogus legal challenges. Twelve states already allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. And despite this lawsuit, New York will become the 13th in December.”

Why Is This A Thing: License Plate Replacement

Two weeks ago, the Department of Motor Vehicles announced a competition to pick the next license plate design.

Drivers who have the old blue and white license plates the state stopped issuing in 2010 will have to be turned in starting in April 2020. Those drivers will have to pay a mandatory $25 fee for replacement plates.

The move caused an uproar among Democratic and Republican lawmakers. Here’s an explainer of the license plate controversy.

1. Why is this happening?

The state Department of Motor Vehicles in its announcement earlier this month said the license plates that are a decade old or older are in need of replacement. There are about 3 million of the old blue and white plates that are still on the roads. Many of them are peeling or damaged.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said the replacement plates are needed in order for the numbers and letters be recognized by the cameras used for cashless tolling, which will soon be at all toll locations on the state Thruway system.

A senior advisor to the governor on Twitter noted other states have license plate replacement programs that require plates to be changed more frequently than 10 years.

2. Why the $25 fee?

This has been a bone of contention for the governor, so let’s be clear: The $25 fee was first set under Gov. David Paterson a decade ago. That year, the Legislature approved a bill that allowed the Department of Motor Vehicles to raise the fee “not to exceed” $25. The way the legislation is written strongly suggests the DMV can control the fee, and the $25 is a cap.

Retaining your current plate number requires an additional $20 payment.

It’s unlikely it costs $25 to manufacture the plates, which are made by prison inmates at Auburn Correctional Facility. The controversy has shined a light on the low wages earned by inmates, many of whom earn less than $1 an hour.

Some lawmakers want to increase the minimum wage for inmates in state prisons, a move the governor said he supported this week.

3. Have plates been changed before?

New York has changed its license plates several times in the recent past.

Remember the old red, white and blue “liberty” plates? Those were introduced in 1986. In 2001, the state ended the “liberty” plates and introduced the blue and white plates that feature the New York City skyline, Niagara Falls and Adirondacks.

A plate fee was first introduced in 1991 and increased in 2003.

4. Why the uproar?

State lawmakers have been critical of the plan because it will require drivers starting next April to turn in the old plates and pay a $25 fee for a replacement set. They’ve called it a “cash grab” and another sign the state is nickel-and-diming residents.

Several lawmakers have also called for hearings on the issue, and have introduced legislation to repeal the fee.

In 2009, Paterson proposed a similar plan that would have required all drivers to buy the blue-and-gold license plates. At the time, the state was facing a much sharper budget shortfall and Paterson flatly said the revenue was needed. The plan was ultimately scuttled amid opposition from lawmakers.

The new replacement program, if it remains as originally proposed, could generate a net $75 million in revenue for the state in the coming years.

5. What has been Cuomo’s response to the controversy?

He’s lashed out at the media and lawmakers. He has also challenged lawmakers to return to Albany and hold a special session to reduce the fee through legislation.

Cuomo has also knocked the Legislature for not taking action on the license plate fee until now.

On Thursday, his office floated a potential compromise. In a statement released under DMV Commissioner Mark Schroeder’s name, the Cuomo administration suggested plates that are not damaged or peeling could remain on the road after next April pending an inspection plan devised with the Legislature.

It’s something of an olive branch and exit ramp from the controversy. Still, lawmakers are yet to embrace or fully digest the idea as outlined in the statement.

Contribution Rates For Public Employee Retirement Hold Steady

From the Morning Memo:

Pension contribution rates for local governments will remain the same as the previous year, Comptroller Tom DiNapoli’s office on Thursday announced, as the assumed long-term rate of rate of return is being decreased.

The estimated average employer contribution rate to the Employees’ Retirement System will remain at 14.6 percent of payroll.

The average rate to the police and fire retirement system, meanwhile, will increase slightly by 0.9 percent of payroll, a growth from 23.5 percent to 24.4 percent.

As the investment environment has become more of a challenge, the assumed rate of return is being lowered from 7 percent to 6.8 percent.

“Each year, for the past seven years, we’ve been able to lower pension contribution rates or essentially keep them flat,” DiNapoli said.

“Through solid investment returns, prudent management and a diverse portfolio we have kept the state pension fund strong and one of the best funded in the nation. The long-term outlook for investors is changing and requires a more conservative approach. As in years past, we’re taking the responsible action of lowering our assumed rate of return now so we can better weather market volatility.”

This is only the third term DiNapoli, in office since 2007, has lowered the assumed rate of return. He dropped it in 2010 from 8 percent to 7.5 percent, and again in 2015 to 7 percent.

State Judge Tosses Ban On Outside Income

A state judge on Thursday tossed a cap on outside income for the state Legislature imposed by a pay commission in a report late last year, but leaves in place a pay raise for members of the Senate and Assembly.

The decision is a victory for the Republican state lawmakers who have challenged the limit on how much members of the Legislature can earn in the private sector, which caps outside income at 15 percent of their public-sector pay.

The ruling is likely to be appealed. The cap was due to take effect at the end of the year and could trigger a wave of retirements for lawmakers who hold jobs outside of the Legislature.

“There is nothing that authorized it to recommend restrictions on outside income and employment that have the force of law,” Judge Richard Platkin wrote. “These policy matters remain reserved for the Legislature and governor.”

A pay commission formed in 2018 by law recommended pay increases for statewide elected officials and the Legislature. Legislative pay increased for the first time since 1999 under the panel’s recommendation, growing from $79,500 to $110,000 by the start of the year. Once full phased in, lawmakers will earn $130,000.

The New York State Committee on Legislative and Executive Compensation was created in 2018 to study whether to raise the pay of state legislators, the governor and other state officials since their salaries had been locked in since 1999.

It ultimately recommended raising legislators’ base pay from $79,500 annually to $130,000, phased in over three years. The first step took effect in January, boosting lawmakers’ pay to $110,000.

Good-Government Groups Want Focus On Public Financing, Not Fusion Voting

A coalition of good-government groups on Wednesday released a letter to the campaign finance commission tasked with recommending changes to the state’s election laws, urging the panel to focus on devising a public financing system, and not be “distracted” by issues like overhauling or ending fusion voting.

The letter, released by Citizens Union, the League of Women Voters, the New York Public Interest Research Group and Reinvent Albany, questions the scope of the commission’s authority for completely ending fusion voting, which allows candidates for office run on multiple ballot lines.

“We write to express our growing concern, based on media reports, that the future of ‘fusion’ voting is now an additional goal of the Commission; a goal that we believe is outside the scope of implementing a voluntary system of public financing for elections in New York State,” the groups wrote in the letter.

The law creating the commission, however, appears to be broad in its purview. The measure allows the commission “review and recommend changes to certain aspects of the state election law as detailed herein” including “multiple party candidate nominations and/or designations.”

Fusion voting is potentially key for the future of small parties like the Conservative Party and the Working Families Party.

The good-government organizations say the commission does have a mandate to set parameters for multi-party nominations when it comes to matching funds.

“However, that is the limit of the Commission’s authority and it is not empowered to abolish fusion voting because that change in the election law is not reasonably related to the administration of a public campaign finance system. Furthermore, we strongly agree that debating fusion voting is a serious distraction from the actual work you were entrusted to do.”

Groups Letter to the Commission by Nick Reisman on Scribd