Simotas Wants MTA Announcements In Multiple Languages

From the Morning Memo:

Time to translate “stand clear of the closing door” for polyglot New York.

Announcements on mass transit systems in New York City should be made in multiple languages in order to reach the more than 4 million residents who speak a language other than English, Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas on Thursday told the MTA in a letter.

Simotas pointed to other cities like Paris, Belgium and Luxembourg with transit systems that have announcements in multiple languages.

“Currently, the MTA only provides automated voice announcements in English even though it is home to 1.9 million Spanish speakers, 419,000 Cantonese and Mandarin speakers, 186,000 Russian speakers, 106,000 French Creole speakers, 81,000 French speakers, and 200,000 New Yorkers who converse in an Indic language, like Hindi, Urdu or Gujarati,” Simotas wrote in the letter to MTA President Andy Byford.

“Providing announcements in multiple languages would eliminate confusion amongst the many riders who benefit from our transit system and would allow our system to run more effectively.”

In the letter, Simotas called on the MTA to devise and implement a plan for integrating more languages into the announcements.

“New York City is a melting pot oozing with culture and spirit and it is time that our transit system reflects that,” she said. “Now with new sources of revenue for the MTA capital plan lockbox and billions in additional financing support for MTA projects, it is the perfect time to finally create a multi-lingual transit system that better serves the riders.”

An economic report released this week by Comptroller Tom DiNapoli found 42 percent of the workforce in New York City is composed of immigrants, who tend to have a lower overall unemployment rate than the rest of the city.

Assembly Members Promote Petition For ‘Gold Star’ Expansion Bill

From the Morning Memo:

A number of upstate Republican lawmakers are asking constituents to sign an online petition demanding the Assembly move bill A.2991 to the floor for a full vote.

That legislation, sponsored by Assemblyman Steve Hawley, a Batavia Republican, would expand full SUNY and/or CUNY scholarships to spouses, children and dependents of veterans killed or permanently disabled while serving in any official military capacity – not just in combat.

Last week, the Assembly Higher Education Committee did not allow the bill to move forward, with Chair Deborah Glick, a Manhattan Democrat citing budget concerns. The inaction has received significant traditional and social media attention across the state and the country.

“Gold Star families have heard the herald of bipartisan support from state lawmakers in both parties, along with Gov. Cuomo and even President Trump, following the defeat of my bill in committee last week,” Hawley said.

“I will continue leading the effort to see that our military receive the benefits they deserve as they carry the tremendous sacrifice of losing a loved one in the line of duty. I am confident we can get this legislation passed this year and hopeful that this is the beginning of an era where veterans’ issues transcend political divides and we all can play a part in honoring our brave service members and veterans.”

Others promoting the petition include lawmakers from the Finger Lakes region, like Assemblywoman Marjorie Byrnes, Assemblyman Peter Lawrence and Minority Leader Brian Kolb.

“A handful of liberals in Albany are standing in the way of a well-intentioned, common-sense bill that helps the children of disabled and fallen heroes,” Kolb said.

“We’ve seen an outpouring of support from people in every corner of the state. We know there is bipartisan support for this bill in Albany. This petition will demonstrate that this conversation is not over; that the bill is important to New Yorkers and Americans; and that the public has a place to voice their opinion.”

The Democrat-controlled state Senate, however, appears to be taking a different approach.

Sen. Rob Ortt, the original bill’s GOP sponsor, has agreed to co-sponsor a new bill carried by Veterans Committee Chair John Brooks, a Democrat.

Ortt said substantively the legislation remains the same as the original proposal, but there are minor legal changes and a stipulation that would keep the bill from going into effect until 2020, squelching any concerns about current budget impact.

It is unclear if the Assembly would introduce a same-as bill or try to reconcile the differences between Brooks’s and Hawley’s proposals.

What The MERIT Scholarship Does

Last week, Democratic lawmakers in the state Assembly voted to block a Republican effort to expand tuition assistance for family members and dependents of those who died while serving in the military.

The incident led to firestorm of criticism, including a tweet from President Donald Trump and, in recent days, Democratic support for the measure.

As lawmakers pointed out, New York already provides tuition aid to Gold Star families through the The Military Enhanced Recognition Incentive and Tribute Scholarship program.

Here’s a quick rundown of the program, the bill and the controversy:

1. What does MERIT currently do?

The scholarship in the current 2018-19 school year provides up to $24,250 for students living on campus. Students who commute can receive up to 15,750. The scholarship provides assistance for in-state tuition costs, room and board and allowances for books, supplies and transportation up to the average cost at SUNY Colleges.

Students who qualify for the program must be studying at an approved college in New York, have graduated from high school in the United States, be enrolled as a full-time student, and not be in default of any state or federal student loans.

2. Who qualifies?

The scholarship currently applies to family members or dependents of those who have died or became severely and permanently disabled as a result of their military service while in a combat zone or died as a result of preparing to enter a combat zone, or those who are classified as missing in action.

3. What does the bill do?

There are multiple versions of the bill, but in essence all would expand the existing scholarship to Gold Star families who have had a military member of the family “die in the performance of his or her official duties.”

4. Why the controversy?

Republicans in the state Assembly are in a virtually powerless minority in the Democratic-dominated Assembly. This makes it difficult for any of their bills to get to the floor for a full vote in the chamber without Democratic help. Republicans at a meeting of the Assembly Higher Education Committee last week sought a vote on their bill to expand the MERIT scholarship program. The bill was defeated, with Committee Chairwoman Deborah Glick noting the measure was being considered after the state budget and has a fiduciary impact. Lawmakers have in the past approved bills with a financial impact on the budget, opening them to gubernatorial vetoes.

Pushing controversial bills is a common tactic for the minority conferences, especially in the state Senate, where so-called “hostile” amendments can force majority party lawmakers to take tough or embarrassing votes.

In the aftermath, Republicans blasted Democrats for blocking the legislation, pointing to the recently approved state budget that provides access to tuition assistance programs to undocumented immigrants. President Trump on Twitter also took up the cause after the news made national headlines, in many instances not noting the existing MERIT program.

5. What’s going to happen next?

Democratic Sen. John Brooks has introduced legislation in the state Senate that would virtually do what Republicans sought in the Assembly: Expand the MERIT program. The biggest difference for Brooks’s bill is that it would take effect on April 1 of next year, presumably when the next state budget is in place, satisfying concerns the measure would not be paid for after passing. Gov. Andrew Cuomo last week signaled his support for the proposal.

WNY Assemblyman Won’t Move Forward Organ Donation Registry ‘Opt-Out’ Legislation

When freshman Assemblyman Pat Burke, D-Buffalo, announced legislation this weekend to make New York’s organ donor registry an “opt-out” program rather than an “opt-in” one, he expected it to be controversial.

However, Burke said over the past several days he’s received even more backlash than expected on social media and via calls to his office. Monday, he said he did not plan to index the legislation in the Assembly and would not move forward with it, for now.

“The public reaction, it certainly wasn’t scientific, but I think the overwhelming response to people to my office was that they weren’t comfortable with it,” Burke said.

The assemblyman believed many people misunderstood the finer points of the proposal. He said perhaps it was his fault for being too vague on the original press release.

The legislation would not have immediately put all New Yorkers who have not opted out, on the organ donor registry. Rather, anybody 18 or older, applying for a drivers license or license renewal would then have to say they did not want to be on the list.

Burke also acknowledged, under current state law, it’s mandatory to answer the registry question but he said his legislation would change the wording to “encourage” more donors. If he were to do to it again, he said he would include a copy of the current form and a specific example of the question he wants instead.

“I am not going to push a legislative proposal that my constituents are not comfortable with,” Burke said. “What I’m going to do is continue to work with them and engage with them because it’s about saving people’s lives.”

April is Donate Life month, and Burke said he wanted to start a conversation about a serious problem in the state. There are currently 9,500 people on New York’s wait list.

“Currently there are people on a wait list who will die because there are not enough donors,” he said. “We need to fix that. If people aren’t comfortable with that (opt-out) program, then I need to hear their ideas on how to fix that.”

Burke did not rule out introducing the same legislation or a revised version later this year, but said he needs to do more community outreach first.

Bill Would Boost State Response To Federal Shutdowns

A bill meant to better prepare New York for a shutdown of the federal government has been introduced by Assemblyman David Buchwald, he announced on Monday.

The bill is the product of a review conducted by the Legislative Commission on Government Administration during and after the 35-day partial shutdown of the federal government in December and January.

States with shutdown plans in place were able to aid residents who are federal employees and furloughed or worked without pay, such as working with financial institutions to provide no-cost loans and mechanisms to delay debts on credit cards and loans without penalty.

New York was able to offer deferrals of state taxes as well as public college tuition payments for affected workers.

“Instead of the the State’s current ‘hit-or-miss’ approach, we should have a systematic planning effort to address any extended federal shutdown,” Buchwald said. “These federal government shutdowns are becoming increasingly common, so we need to be better prepared as a state to react swiftly and effectively to future occurrences.”

Black Clergy Goes To Bat For Heastie

From the Morning Memo:

Black ministers in an open letter released late last week voiced their support for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie as he comes under criticism from progressive grassroots groups.

The Coalition of Black Ministers Advocating on Friday released an open letter to the New York First Progressive Caucus to tout the speaker’s bonafides on key issues facing the black community in New York.

“While some of those legislators rarely, if ever, have been known to champion causes in communities of color, Speaker Heastie has championed those causes his entire life, even when others stood mute,” the ministers wrote. “To us, that is progressive.”

The letter was released a day after a Heastie fundraiser in New York City was protested by progressive groups frustrated with the state budget.

Progressives, including some state lawmakers, were dissatisfied with a budget that created a commission to review the feasibility of publicly financed campaigns in the state — a provision that came after Assembly Democrats have been discomfited by a more sweeping agreement on the issue.

At the same time, the budget did not create a surcharge on second homes worth more than $5 million, which lawmakers said ran into logistical concerns over collecting the revenue to bolster capital spending at the MTA. Instead, lawmakers and Gov. Andrew Cuomo agreed to a real-estate transfer tax surcharge.

“We hope that going forward, these so-called progressive legislators will not attack leaders in the African-American community. Instead we they will work with us to bring about the changes we want in our communities,” the clergy wrote in the letter.

“Finally, we note, these so-called progressive legislators voted for the same budget they claim is anti-progressive. They cannot have it both ways; they cannot disparage Speaker Heastie for doing something they also supported. There was nobody forcing them to vote yes on a budget they supposedly found so repugnant to their principles. They voted for it of their own free will.”

Publicly, Heastie has shrugged off the possibility of primary challenges.

Focus is now turning to the renewal of rent control regulations for New York City that are due to expire in June; Heastie and Assembly Democrats are pushing an agenda aimed at tenant affordability and ending vacancy decontrol.

Heastie is the first black speaker of the Assembly after he was elected to the posted in 2015.

The confluence of progressive politics and grassroots advocates inflamed by President Donald Trump’s election has already seen some victories at the local level in New York, as Democrats in the now-defunct Independent Democratic Conference lost primaries last year to challengers who pointed to their alliance with Republicans in the state Senate.

Republicans lost majority control of the Senate last year, leading to a series of long-sought policy victories for Democrats on gun control, abortion and LGBT rights.

But the budget included more complicated policy matters for lawmakers, such as criminal justice law changes like ending cash bail. Ultimately, cash bail will end for non-violent felonies and misdemeanors.

And the next several weeks could find more tripwires for lawmakers and Cuomo, such as extending access to driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants and seeking sanctuary state status for New York.

Another Lawmaker Endorses Constitutional Change To Budget Process

Assemblyman Harvey Epstein an email to constituents on Friday decried the state’s budget-making process as “undemocratic” and called for it to be changed through a constitutional amendment.

Epstein, a Democrat from Manhattan, joins several lawmakers who have been publicly frustrated with the outcome of the state budget this year, worried that it vests too much power in the governor.

“This power was reinforced by a court decision Silver v Pataki which confirmed that the governor had even more power,” Epstein wrote in the email.

“So this year, we were told we could not raise income taxes, stock transfer or pier-a-tier taxes. That put us in a terrible position funding public education at public schools or colleges at SUNY and CUNY. When it came time to vote, we were faced with a choice to accept the budget bill called the ‘big ugly’ because it is exactly that. It is big, it is ugly, and it is, quite frankly, undemocratic.”

Some of the legislative discontent may be fueled by lawmakers worried their constituents, expecting more progressive victories following the Democratic takeover of the state Senate, are displeased with the deals in the budget.

But others have pursued the idea of a constitutional amendment. A similar effort was attempted in 2005 to wrestle some control away from the governor; the amendment failed when put to voters.

“We must reform the budget process,” Epstein wrote in the email. “The only way to do that is through a constitutional amendment. Otherwise, the budget process will never change.”

Assembly Moves To Decriminalize Gravity Knives

From the Morning Memo:

The state Assembly on Wednesday moved to decriminalize gravity knives after Gov. Andrew Cuomo vetoed a similar measure in 2017.

The measure passed unanimously.

The bill, backed by Dan Quart, removes gravity knives from criminal statutes that regulate guns and other weapons. Supporters argue the measure is meant to prevent tradesmen who use gravity knives as tools, primarily in New York City, from being arrested and charged with carrying an illegal weapon.

“Across the city, and especially in Manhattan, thousands of hardworking New Yorkers – who have no business being swept up into the criminal justice system – have been picked up for the possession of a simple pocket knife they legally purchased for work,” Quart said in a statement.

Cuomo’s veto of a previous version of the bill was done over concerns it would essentially legalize all folding knives.

But supporters of the legislation say things have changed.

“With a federal judge recently ruling New York’s gravity knife law unconstitutionally vague and prone to discriminatory enforcement, it’s clear the law’s ambiguity has left it susceptible to abuse,” Quart said. “I urge the state Senate and the Governor to take the side of working class New Yorkers and finally end these unnecessary prosecutions.”

Heastie On Primaries: ‘If They Happen, They Happen’

From the Morning Memo:

As newly elected progressive lawmakers hint at supporting primary challengers to incumbents in Albany, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie told reporters on Tuesday anyone has the right to run.

But at the same time, Heastie noted he did what his predecessors in the speaker’s seat have declined to do: Help flip the state Senate.

“I think this is America, it’s a democracy, people have the right to run,” he said. “I think the vast majority of Assembly members do their jobs. People can run, but I don’t think that has motivated anybody in the Assembly to do anything.”

Sen. Alessandra Biaggi in an email to supporters last week expressed frustration with the budget process in Albany, but added she had identified lawmakers seen as holding up progress at the Capitol.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo in a radio interview said those considering support for primary challenges should be careful because, in part, they could face challenges themselves.

Heastie, however, pointed to his backing of Democrats in key state Senate races last year as the party flipped the chamber for the first time in a decade.

“I believe a Democratic Assembly and a Democratic Senate should be looking to work together, particularly since this Democratic Assembly helped put that Democratic majority in the Senate,” he said. “I crossed the line in going where other speakers had never gone in helping Senate Democrats raise money.”

He added, “Primaries are part of our electoral democracy. If they happen, they happen.”

Assembly Dems Outline Rent Control Push, With An Eye Toward Expansion

Democrats in the state Assembly outlined a platform on Tuesday ahead of the coming negotiations over extending rent control regulations for New York City that seeks to bolster tenant rights.

At the same time, the lawmakers want to expand rent control regulations statewide and outside of the metropolitan region.

“In the state budget, we made the property tax cap permanent to provide stability to homeowners,” said Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie. “Now we need to provide that same level of stability for tenants by reforming our rent and tenant protection laws. We have seen far too many families forced out of the neighborhoods they shaped because of the cost of rising rents and property speculators chasing profits over people.”

The statewide rent control provision would require a local government to opt in for new regulations and protections, such as limiting increases in certain dwellings.

Lawmakers and advocates rallied at the Capitol on Tuesday as part of the push.

“From Brooklyn to Buffalo we will be standing together,” said Sen. Zellnor Myrie. “I don’t care if you’re downstate, upstate, eastern state, central state, we are standing together with our tenants.”

In New York City itself, lawmakers want to eliminate the major capital improvement rent increase program and reduce rents back to the pre-hike level. Lawmakers also want to create a program that would require landlords to maintain a certain level of repair.

Assembly Democrats are also backing an end to vacancy decontrol, a provision Gov. Andrew Cuomo in December said he would support.