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Quinn’s State of the City Speech Highlights Differences with Bloomberg

By Sarah Laskow
Tuesday, February 15th, 2011

Speaker Christine Quinn

In her state of the city address Tuesday, Speaker Christine Quinn focused on the everyday problems that plague normal people: avoiding parking tickets, finding affordable housing, navigating city bureaucracy.

“There’s an important lesson here — government only succeeds when we serve as a microphone for the voice of the people,” she said. “And when we look outside the confines of City Hall — to the places where New Yorkers live and work — and bring City Hall to them. When we pay attention to what New Yorkers need, and work with them to solve their problems.”

Quinn had to wait her turn to give her take on the current state of New York City and how she was planning to improve it. Only after the president, governor, and mayor parsed the state of the country, state, and city did Quinn get a chance to weigh in. If all goes well for her, though, in just a few years, she won’t be last in line, but will have jumped one step up, to the mayoralty.

But to get there, Quinn has to navigate between her liberal base and the more conservative electorate that vaulted Bloomberg into office three times. Sometimes she leans towards the mayor’s positions on key issues, as she did when she put aside a paid sick leave bill in 2010. In this speech, however, she staked out her own ground, gesturing towards pension reform — a priority for Bloomberg, but a sticky point for labor groups — and offering a different plan for reigning in the city’s capital budget, which funds infrastructure projects.

In her speech, Quinn came off as a different type of New Yorker than the mayor, a local booster whose heart is in the city and in the success of its people.  Both Bloomberg and Quinn highlighted the tech boomlet in New York, but where Bloomberg used it as a spring board to national issues — leaping from Foursquare to immigration — Quinn focused inward, moving from Foursquare to meet-ups and networking sessions for college students.

And while Bloomberg mentioned in passing that New York had overtaken Boston as an incubator for tech companies and was now second only to Silicon Valley on that measure, Quinn announced the same fact, with glee, by pointing out that New York’s new rank meant that “Boston has been knocked down to number three.”

Quinn also spoke at length about affordable housing, which Bloomberg mentioned only once in his speech. In Bloomberg’s vision of the city, affordable housing has a place in new developments: He mentioned it in connection with a project at Willets Point “that will give rise to whole new neighborhoods.” The mayor also mentioned a new development at Hunters Point South, this one intended for the middle class.

Quinn, however, promised to work on maintaining the supply of affordable housing already in place.

“We can’t keep New York City a place that is growing and diverse if people of every income can’t find an affordable place to live,” she said. That’s a very different picture of New York than the current mayor projects.

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Cuomo’s Medicaid Redesign Team Convenes

PowerPoint presentations and staff updates about the “Key/Complex Issues” dominate second task force meeting.
By Sarah Laskow
Thursday, February 10th, 2011

Gov. Andrew Cuomo

Wherever he goes to talk up his plan to tame the state’s budget, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been telling New Yorkers how essential the work of his Medicaid Redesign Team is.

That’s what the governor’s budget director, Robert Megna, assured the task force’s members, anyway, two and a half hours into their second meeting, which was held Wednesday in New York City.

“I was just with the governor this morning on Long Island,” said Megna, “and I can tell you, traveling around the state with him, in every presentation he does, he talks about how important the work of the task force is and how vital it’s going to be in getting the budget done this year.”

The work of the task force is not glamorous, even for government work. Although the meeting was scheduled to last for four hours, ending at 2:30 p.m., there would be no lunch, as co-chair Dennis Rivera announced at the start of the meeting. The room was small, hot, and paneled in a neutral taupe. There was so little space between the horseshoe of tables at which the task force members sat and the wall that when State Sen. Tom Duane arrived late, he chose to drag his assigned table into the middle of the room and then drag it back into place, rather than squish behind his colleagues in order to take his seat.

The task force has 27 members, drawn from state and local agencies, the state Senate and Assembly, and organizations representing patients, nurses, doctors, hospitals, and unionized health care workers. Megna is an ex-officio member, as well. The task force has an executive director, Jason Helgerson, who is also the state’s Medicaid Director, and a staff, some members of which were on hand to run through detailed slide shows for the panel. Others, according to Helgerson, were back in Albany, frantically crunching numbers to come up with cost-saving figures for the hundreds of proposals the task force has already gathered.

These are the people onto whom Gov. Cuomo has shifted responsibility for coming up with the $2.85 billion cuts to Medicaid that he says are necessary to make the state’s budget make sense going forward. They are mostly men, and almost all white. They do not have very much time to finish the task they have been assigned.

The team first met about a month ago, and since then has been holding public hearings (five in total) across the state to solicit ideas for curbing Medicaid costs. It has also set up a Web site, another forum in which constituents can submit suggestions for change. Helgerson and the staff have also been meeting in 30-minute increments with interested stakeholder groups. (There are many interested stakeholder groups.) Less than three weeks from now, the team is scheduled to take its final vote on its recommendations to the governor about this year’s budget.

So far, the task force has collected more than 600 ideas from hearings and an additional 2,000 through the Web site, according to Helgerson. Many people have the same ideas, of course; when winnowed down to unique ideas, the suggestions numbered 274, as of the meeting. Helgerson suggested that they stop accepting ideas by this coming Friday, February 11th. He said he had been encouraging stakeholder groups who had not gotten a meeting yet to submit their ideas via the Web. He also encouraged the team members to submit any ideas they themselves had to the committee by Friday, a deadline they were not entirely pleased with.

As far as actual cuts, approximately two out of every five ideas submitted focused on “recalibrating” benefits and reimbursement rates, Helgerson reported. “Recalibrate” really means cut: the task force was given a list of the ideas, as collated by the staff, and the descriptions of the proposals in this category were studded with words like “reduce,” “limit,” and “eliminate.” Other types of proposals dealt with regulatory and malpractice reform, empowering patients, enrolling more Medicaid members in managed care, and cracking down on fraud and abuse.

Next week, the team will have an opportunity to evaluate in more detail a select group of the proposals: Helgerson initially suggested the number would be about 30, but task force members — in particular, Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, who chairs the Assembly Committee on Health — were concerned that they were only being asked to weigh in on a limited number of proposals, likely the ones that would save the most money the most quickly.

Ed Matthews, who heads the New York City chapter of United Cerebral Palsy, echoed Gottfried’s concerns and said he had hoped that the task force would be working from a “basic agreement about what’s important…that we could agree on some way to look at these things so some team members are not saying this is number one because it saves the most money.”

That, in the end, is the crux of the problem that the Medicaid Redesign Team faces. The governor asked them, in two short months, to come up not just with places to cut Medicaid, but places to cut Medicaid based on inefficiencies in the system. He asked them to make suggestions that would simultaneously save money and improve Medicaid. But, of course, the inefficiencies that drive the state’s Medicaid costs up are not confined to this one program. As Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, who co-chairs the JFK Jr. Institute for Work Education, said after just a few minutes of discussion, “We’re not talking about Medicaid; we’re talking about the health care system.”

But, at least in public, the redesign team is not doing all that much talking at all. Most of Wednesday’s meeting was taken up by updates from Helgerson and power point presentations by the team’s staff about the “Key/Complex Issues” they faced: problems like managing long-term care, limiting physicians’ ability to prescribe name-brand drugs, and incorporating “pay for performance” measures into the system. The task force discussed these complex issues for about an hour in total, and one member commented that the discussion felt “disjointed.” Members echoed and supported each others’ statements, but they rarely spoke to one another or debated any of the issues raised.

One assumes that won’t be true in two weeks, when, on Feb. 24, the redesign team is will meet in Albany to consider for the first time the staff list of recommendations, in preparation for their final vote, on March 1, on the report they will present to the governor. The Feb. 24 meeting is scheduled to last all day, and Helgerson assured the task force that they would have the use of that meeting room all of the 25th, as well, if they needed to extend their time together. Since the team is, after all, doing vital and important work at the behest of the governor, it seems that during this next round of meetings they might at least be given time to break for lunch.

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Governor’s Budget Still a Work in Progress

By Sarah Laskow
Monday, February 7th, 2011

Gov. Andrew Cuomo

When he presented his budget last week, the governor promised that it would “enflame the Albany establishment,” that the capital’s lobbying corps would running around “like their hair is on fire.”

Certainly, anyone with any interest in the budget will have plenty to do for the next couple of months. The first of 13 legislative hearings on Andrew Cuomo’s budget began this morning in Albany. These hearings stretch on for the next four weeks: this first one is on local government; there are two on education (higher education and elementary and secondary education each get their own); the last one is on “Health/Medicaid.”

And some advocates are busy. For an organization like NYSUT, the state teacher’s union, the deep cuts mean that their team of lobbyists is working not only on explaining to legislators how the new budget will affect their district but on ginning up public support for their cause. Last week, for instance, Melinda Person, an in-house lobbyist for the union, was working at a sprint, explaining the implications of the governor’s proposed tax cap to legislators in the Capitol, meeting about coalition strategies, scripting public information campaigns, and helping plan rallies across the state.

Besides education, the governor’s other budget bete noir is health care, which really means Medicaid. Changing health care spending in the state is integral to Cuomo’s budget strategy. Federal stimulus dollars have been hiding the hole in the state’s Medicaid budget; this year, covering those costs falls to the state.

Although health care cuts are the key stone of the budget plan, it’s still not clear what exactly will be cut. The governor’s strategy — form a task force, let them make the hard decisions — has the added bonus of limiting the amount of time opponents have to push as hard as they can against his plan.

For instance, George Gresham, president of SEIU 1199, which represents the state’s health care workers and fought hard against former Governor Paterson’s proposed budget cuts, is on the governor’s Medicaid Redesign Team. The union released a statement that was critical of the level of cuts the governor proposed, but an 1199 spokesperson told me that it would be “premature” to talk about any other work the organization was doing on the budget right now. They’re working with the task force on costs.

So far there hasn’t been much information from the team about what recommendations they’re considering. The group is holding public hearings across the state and will hold a meeting this Wednesday in New York City.

But those are just the biggest chunks. There are plenty of tiny nips and tucks across the budget that will have their opponents. The state is scaling back its contribution to New York City’s shelters for the homeless. It’s cutting the bump that foster care programs would get to account for cost of living increases. It’s changing the way it reimburses local governments for juvenile detention costs. There’s plenty of places for push-back. And even if the budget passes on schedule, there’s plenty of time for it to grow.

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New York City Transportation: Heaven or Hell?

By Sarah Laskow
Monday, January 31st, 2011

Photo by Steven Vance

Is New York City a transport heaven, or a transport hell?

When executing a perfect transfer, when that next subway train pulls up right as you’re ready to step on, when in half-an-hour you’ve crossed half the city, the subway system can seem like a marvel of the modern world.

But when you can’t catch a cab or find a parking space, when you just miss that late-night train and the station is cold and damp, when you calculate just how early you should get to the airport, it seems like it might be better to live anywhere else.

New Yorkers have some of the longest commutes in the country. The region’s three airports have the worst delays. The city’s buses “are not very reliable,” according to the New York state auditor. And the Metropolitan Transit Authority has a looming debt burden that could herald fare increases four times larger than the most recent bump.

Then again, how many other cities, in America, or anywhere, have a subway system that’s open all night? How many other mayors are as committed as Mayor Bloomberg to adding bike lanes and greenways? How many other places are the most logical starting point for high-speed rail investment?

The transportation in and around New York City is at a turning point.  There are two problems to solve — how to get around and how to get away. And the decisions that policymakers are pursuing right now will determine how easy it will be to do both in the years the come.

Getting away has always been a particular problem in a city built on an island. Whatever Robert Moses’ flaws, one of his initial triumphs was smoothing the way for New Yorkers desperate to get themselves out of sweltering city streets and onto Long Island beaches. But the solutions that worked for Moses — bridges and highways — are no longer an option.  As Mayor Bloomberg reported last week at a congressional hearing on high-speed rail, held in Grand Central Station, “The Northeast is approaching a transportation crisis.”

“Our airports are among the most clogged, our highways are among the most congested, and our train corridor is the most heavily used in the country,” he said. “All of that is only going to get worse with the region’s population expected to grow by 40 percent by 2050.”

High-speed rail, he argued, would relieve some of this pressure. Imagine making it from New York to Boston in under two hours, speeding through Connecticut at 220 miles per hour. If that were an option, it’d be so clearly superior to the four-hour car ride or to the hassle of getting to and from the airport, both airports and highways might catch a break. And anyone who wanted to get on a slower, regional train at, say, Providence, would have half a chance of getting a seat for the ride up to Beantown. (Of course, the relative appeal of this trip depends on the price of the ticket — see: Amtrak’s steeply priced Acela trains — a detail that’s not forthcoming at this heady stage of policymaking.)

Another fix, suggested this week by the Regional Plan Association, is expanding the amount of runway space at JFK and Newark airports, which, of all possible solutions to airport congestion, offer “the greatest potential for increasing capacity and reducing delays.”

Getting around New York is another question. The Bloomberg administration has supported bike lanes, but also cracked down on bikers for tiny infractions, like turning into a park on a red light. And while hailing a cab in the outer boroughs — a change the mayor touted in his State of the City — might be a welcome luxury, it’s still not clear how the Metropolitan Transit Authority will keep costs for transit riders down over the next decades, although rumblings of a renewed push in Albany for congestion pricing show one path forward.

In the end, the city needs to work to improve both regional and local transit. It’s all very well to arrive in Manhattan on a heaven-sent high-speed train, but using the subway system shouldn’t mean descending into the bowels of transport hell.

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Bloomberg Promises to Keep Young Offenders Closer to their Families

For NYC's young offenders, detention often means living nine or ten hours from their families. But what should be done with them?
By Sarah Laskow
Monday, January 24th, 2011

Mayor Bloomberg

As of this month, there are 648 young people in state-run detention facilities, and 349 of them — more than half — are from New York City. There are still more young people in detention across New York State, mostly in private facilities, and again, the majority of them are from New York City.

For these New York City kids, detention often means living nine, ten hours away from their families. In December 2009, a task force convened by Governor Patterson reported that while “nearly three-quarters of the youth who reside in institutional placement facilities are from the New York City metropolitan area…many of the facilities in which they are placed are located upstate — sometimes hundreds of miles away.”

It is difficult to close these upstate facilities, even as the number of young people being put into detention dwindles and they stand unused. They do provide jobs for upstate communities in need of them, and in 2006, the state passed a law mandating a one-year lead time for any facility’s closure. But in the past month, both Governor Cuomo and Mayor Bloomberg have spoken out about changing of this situation. In his State of the State address, Gov. Cuomo said that this state of affairs “has to end this session.”

“For those of us who are old enough to remember Willowbrook,” the Staten Island school for mentally disabled children, exposed in the 1960s as an overcrowded, filthy facilities, “it brings back very bad memories. When we think about our current juvenile justice facilities, I believe there are echoes of what we dealt with in Willowbrook,” the governor said. And in his State of the City address last week, Mayor Bloomberg promised to work with Albany to “keep more young offenders in supervised, secure programs close to their homes and families instead of hundreds of miles away upstate.”

“We know we can do a better job of helping young offenders turn away from a life of crime, and if Albany will allow us, we will,” the Mayor said.

Neither leader has laid out a specific plan for moving forward, however, and underlying this positive rhetoric, however, is the question of whether the state or the city will have control over the incarceration of New York City’s young people. In December, Mayor Bloomberg held a press conference in which he spoke about his proposal; his office has yet to release a written report on its details. The mayor’s overarching agenda, however, is to move New York City juvenile offenders into correctional programs run by the city.  Albany is, by all accounts, consumed with budget preparations, and the governor’s office did not respond to an inquiry on what specific steps Gov. Cuomo was considering to move forward on this issue.

For both Cuomo and Bloomberg, however, there are reasons beyond the well-being of the state’s young offenders to move forward on juvenile justice reform. Facilities run by the state Office of Children and Family Services are currently under close monitoring: in August 2009, the Department of Justice released a report on use of excessive force and denial of legal services, in four state-run detention facilities. In a settlement, reached last July, the state promised to modify its use of restraints, provide better mental health care, and improve incident reporting.

The system is also incredibly expensive to run: costs add up to more than $200,000 for each child in detention. Built into that price, however, is the cost of keeping open empty or half-full facilities, as well.

The state passes on a portion of those costs to the localities whose youth end up in the system. But the New York City’s law department is pushing back against the current cost-sharing plan. In November, the law department filed a suit against the state, in an attempt to force the state to recalculate its rates.

“The City should not have to pay millions because of wasteful spending by the State’s juvenile justice system,” Michael A. Cardozo, who heads the law department, said in a press release. “We should not pay for empty beds and idle workers.”

The suit is only in the beginning stages, and the state has yet to respond to the city’s initial filings. But if the city were to win, the state’s system could lose a major portion of its funding, giving the governor an additional incentive to shut down idle facilities.

There is widespread agreement, among policymakers and advocates, that young people in the juvenile justice system should be placed closer to home than they generally are now, and that the system cost too much. But juvenile justice advocates are waiting to see more detailed proposals from the Mayor’s office, before they endorse the city’s proposal. And the City Council’s Juvenile Justice Committee, chaired by Sara Gonzalez, who has been a vocal advocate on this issue, is holding a hearing this coming week on the proposal.

Meredith Wiley, New York state director for Fight Crime Invest in Kids, an organization whose members are drawn from law enforcement, prosecutors, and violence survivors, says that there are more important points at stake than whether the city or the state is responsible for the kids. “The bigger question is: What are you going to do with them?” she said.

Right now, even though the costs of running the system are currently high, detention facilities are not providing enough of the services that could benefit the young people in the detention facilities, like substance abuse and mental health counseling, advocates say. And budget cuts have only accentuated this problem.

“We need to redirect dollars from what we have been doing to what we should be doing. Instead, it’s being drained out of the system,” said Wiley.

In the last session of the state legislature, a bill was included in the Senate budget that would have created a funding stream for alternatives to detention by assuring localities that the state would shoulder some of the costs of community-based programs. It did not make it through the assembly, however, but has been reintroduced in the Senate.

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Siena Poll: 70% of New Yorkers Approve of Andrew Cuomo

By Sarah Laskow
Tuesday, January 18th, 2011

Eliot Spitzer and Gov. Andrew Cuomo

For a group of people generally considered realistic and hard-headed, New Yorkers remain surprisingly optimistic about the state’s politicians, or, at the very least, the state’s top politician, Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The governor weighed in yesterday at 70% in favorability in the latest Siena Institute polls; a plurality of people thought he was doing a “good” or “excellent” job.

“After nearly one month in office, voters’ honeymoon with the new Democratic governor remains strong,” pollster Steve Greenberg said.

Er, scratch that. That’s what Greenberg had to say four years ago, about another Democratic governor who’d stoked the state’s hopes for a new kind of Albany.

And while “Cuomo’s honeymoon is in full swing,” according to Greenberg, the newest white knight of New York politics still can’t quite reach the heights of hope that Eliot Spitzer inspired. In the first January of his term, back in 2007, New Yorkers were even more bullish on their new governor: 75% had a favorable opinion of him.

Where did Spitzer get that extra edge? So far, it turns out, Cuomo’s carefully calibrated centrism has not proven more appealing to Republicans or independently-minded voters than Spitzer’s clean-up campaign did. In 2007, 59% of Republicans had a favorable view of Spitzer; 60% of Republicans feel similarly about Cuomo. Spitzer actually did better with independents, 71% of whom feel in the favorable column; Cuomo has only convinced 65% so far.

Spitzer’s real advantage, however, was with his own party. A whopping 87% of Democrats had a favorable opinion of him in January 2007; Cuomo only commands the same warm feelings from 78% of Dems.

Of course, New Yorkers soured on Spitzer soon enough. His numbers took a hit during the 2007 budget battle, but had begun climbing again, when Troopergate emerged as an issue. Spitzer ended 2007 with only 36% of New Yorkers thinking favorably of him.

Cuomo is unlikely to fall that hard, and as long as he keeps his nose squeaky clean, he can hope against hope that it’ll soon be less fun to compare him to Spitzer. Once his governorship survives more than 14 months, he can finally escape from the steamroller’s shadow.

Instead, Cuomo can start casting his own shadow over Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who, given that he now has the job of the state’s last two elected governors, is a new target for speculation. Schneiderman says he’s not interesting in running for governor, of course, but in the Wall Street Journal’s recent story on Schneiderman, the kicker was Alec Baldwin’s comment that “when Mr. Schneiderman visited the governor’s mansion he told a state employee to keep those towels with “E.S. on them,” a nod to the fact that Mr. Spitzer and Mr. Schneiderman share the same initials.”

If Schneiderman does harbor that genre of ambition, though, he’ll have to start making more splashy headlines somewhere along the way. Even though he’s now been elected AG, New Yorkers still don’t know much about him: in the most recent Siena poll, 60% of New Yorkers said they had no opinion of him, favorable or unfavorable.

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Bloomberg Team on Blizzard Response: We’re Sorry! (But It’s Not Our Fault.)

By Sarah Laskow
Tuesday, January 11th, 2011

Photo by reagan9000 via Flickr

Yesterday, in the first of many planned hearings on the post-Christmas blizzard that shut down the city, representatives of the Bloomberg administration tried to fend off City Council members with data: the backlog of 311 calls (at times, over 1,000), the number of plows and salt spreaders initially deployed (more than 1750 and 365, respectively), the average response time to emergency calls (10 minutes and 26 seconds).

One set of numbers they did not have at the ready, however, was distribution of resources among the five boroughs.

“I don’t believe the outer boroughs were left out as a result of resources being in Manhattan,” Commissioner John Doherty, of the sanitation department, assured the skeptical legislators, after he had been asked about the issue more than once. He had told the council earlier that plows and other equipment were “equally distributed depending on what the needs of that borough were.”

The Bloomberg team, led by Deputy Mayor Stephen Goldsmith, was, officially, apologetic. Goldsmith and his colleagues lamented the drawn-out clean-up, the travails of the average citizens whose streets stayed unplowed for days, and the tragedies of people who needed and did not get medical attention, as ambulances lodged in snow drifts. They said they were sorry.

But beyond the official contrition, Bloomberg’s team was defensive: The officials talked often of the fast rate at which the snow fell (2 inches per hour, or more) and its place among the city’s most dramatic snowstorms (6th largest in history). Doherty spoke of working as a sanitation worker in the 1969 blizzard, then called this more recent one “the most powerful storm I can recall in my career.” And all of the witnesses grew testy, as City Councilors referenced memos, timelines, press releases, and eyewitness reports intended, it seemed, to corner the Bloomberg officials:  to force them to admit that something had gone fundamentally wrong.

They weren’t quite ready to concede that point, although they did have a plan, studded with Roman numerals and action items, to help them improve. Next time, they promised, they would deploy more resources from more departments more quickly. And they would use new technologies to amass even more data. The plan mentions GPS devices, live monitors, a new Web site; Goldsmith mentioned crowd-sourcing and social media.

 
Twitter was just a convenient medium for Booker to convey two things to his constituents: that he was listening, and that he cared enough to do his best to fix what problems he could.
 

If that’s the direction the administration is going, the logical place to look is just south of the city, towards Newark, where Twittering mayor Cory Booker fought the snowstorm with a shovel in one hand and a smartphone in the other. Booker has been using social media to target street-level problems since well before the storm — constituents might reach out on Twitter to report a pothole or ask where to donate unwanted clothes. During the blizzard, Booker used Twitter to identify and respond to complaints of unplowed streets. Unlike Mayor Bloomberg, Booker has been praised for his storm response.

Some of the most powerful criticism that City Council members were able to levy against the Bloomberg officials derived from the same sort of eyewitness reports that Booker responded to directly. They spoke about ambulances stuck for 20 hours, individuals who needed medical attention and did not get it, snow plows that sat idle because there weren’t enough sanitation workers to staff them, a hospital where the road in front was clear but the road that led to the emergency room entrance was not.

The Bloomberg officials did recognize that these sorts of issues were not addressed quickly enough. (Recall the 311 backlog.) “We have to capture that information in better ways,” Deputy Mayor Goldsmith said. He suggested, for instance, that bringing more 311 capabilities to the web and to text-messaging would allow more tech-savvy users to file reports and find answers to question, freeing up the 311 lines and limiting backlog.

And indeed, the administration did try to reach out, belatedly, to snow-bound New Yorkers via social media last week. Goldsmith’s two most recently Tweets, both from December 31, tell New Yorkers, “Let us know if you block needs more work,” and “we want your feedback on City’s snow response. Tweet to me w/thoughts on what went wrong & how we can do better next time.”

What Mayor Bloomberg and his colleagues don’t appear to realize, however, is that promising more technology — more numbers — won’t necessarily solve the problems they faced at the end of December. Despite the council’s best efforts to identify systematic issues today, they came up with few. It was a big storm. Snow was falling fast, and the plows had a hard time keeping up with it. There was not a good system in place for tracking problems, like cars stuck in snow drifts, that interfered with plowing. The decision-makers, Goldsmith and Doherty and Joseph Bruno, the emergency management commissioner, may not have reacted fast enough to conditions on the ground.

Aside from tracking plowing routes, it’s unclear how technology could have dramatically improved the situation. And in reality, technology played only a peripheral role in Booker’s success, too. Twitter was just a convenient medium for Booker to convey two things to his constituents: that he was listening, and that he cared enough to do his best to fix what problems he could.

To a certain extent, the Bloomberg administration appears to have learned that lesson. Goldsmith promised that next time around the administration would listen more closely to on-the-ground reports, as conveyed by the City Council. “One of things you all do is say this is a really serious matter, it’s not just a dot on the map, pay attention to it,” he said. On the other hand, don’t expect Mayor Bloomberg to wander the streets of New York with a shovel any time soon. And no matter what Goldsmith promised, listening is not the mayor’s strong suit. The council will have a chance to test out the administration’s new openness to their reports, though: It’s supposed to snow tonight, heavily.

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State of Undress: Governor Cuomo and New York’s Budget Crisis

By Sarah Laskow
Thursday, January 6th, 2011

Gov. Andrew Cuomo

Gov. Andrew Cuomo delivered his first State of the State address Wednesday, and although, as he insisted, it was not a budget proposal and although it included few dollar figures, it was a speech about money, or, more specifically, about the lack thereof.

“The state of New York spends too much money,” Cuomo said. “It is that blunt, and it is that simple.”

In the past three years, New York’s budget problems often have been lumped in with the general fiscal distress brought on by the recession across the country. But the state’s budget crisis, the first challenge that Cuomo must take on, cannot only be blamed on the recession. It is also a product of New York’s spending habits and the quick-fix ideas used to mask them.

In its most barebones formulation, New York’s budget crisis is simple. Averaged out over the past two and half decades, the state’s spending has grown faster than its inhabitants’ incomes. The end result is that the state’s revenues, which primarily come from taxing personal and corporate income, come in below its expenditures.

“The recession just made an underlying structural problem even more obvious and accelerated the trend,” said Carol Kellermann, president of the fiscal watchdog group Citizens Budget Commission. “This kind of the gradual multi-decade long build up of expenses exceeding revenues, I think, is unusual. And there’s a relatively widespread acknowledgement that we can’t tax our way our way out of it, which is what we’ve done in the past.”

The projected budget gap for next year is more than $9 billion, perhaps even $10 billion. That’s a lot of money, but for the past decade, New York has dealt with this same problem every single year. The issue now is, in part, that lawmakers have run out of options for closing the gap. In 2001, for instance, they tapped into the small surplus the state had accumulated during the cush years of the 1990s, spending nearly $3.7 billion of a $4.2 billion reserve. In 2003, they instituted a temporary, three-year tax that tapped the highest earners in the state. They began shuffling money around among the government’s myriad accounts, sweeping money raised through a specific fee for a specific program — cigarette taxes meant to fund health programs, for instance — into the general fund. They also relied, increasingly, on one-time fixes that patched up one year’s budget without addressing the underlying disparity.

This past year, for instance, federal stimulus dollars helped shore up the state’s Medicaid budget. But next year, those funds will have disappeared, and New York’s overall fiscal situation will not differ too much from its situation in 2008.

“We never actually cut spending in the past three years, unlike some states,” said the Manhattan Institute’s E.J. McMahon.

Even before other states starting cutting programs to make ends meets, New York had one of the highest per capita spending rates in the entire country: In fiscal year 2007, for instance, it ranked 5th in the nation, at $7,846 per head, according to an analysis by the Tax Foundation.

This year, the state’s spending will total more than $137 billion. That total can be roughly divided into three categories. State and federal capital funds — funds intended primary for infrastructure projects — accounted for about 6% of the budget. About a third of the state’s operating funds ($47.6 billion) came from the federal government, in one form or another. The remainder of the budget is made up of state operating funds.

In the State of the State, Cuomo avoided saying explicitly that this year’s budget would require cutting programs; he focused instead on the more vague and purportedly inspiring idea that the solution to the state’s money trouble could be tackled by rethinking government programs more holistically.

But in order for the state’s revenue and expenditures to come in line with each other — without raising taxes — the governor will have to make cuts. And he will have to make cuts to the biggest and most fiscally irrational government programs: school aid, Medicaid, and the state workforce. These programs eat up the biggest chunks of the budget, and over the past ten years, they have also been the fastest growing. The Citizens Budget Commission calls them the “Big 3,” and this year, lawmakers will have to wrangle with them, according to Kellermann.

“There’s no way around that any more. You can’t get your arms around a $10 billion deficit by cutting discretionary programs that don’t have that much money in them,” she said.

For Medicaid, at least, Cuomo has a plan: His Medicaid redesign team will gather stakeholders together and identify Medicaid reforms that make sense for the program but also save money, he said Wednesday.

It’s still not clear, however, how Cuomo will close the deficit this year. “He has said repeatedly that he’s absolutely positively going to close a budget gap without tax increases and borrowing,” McMahon said Wednesday. “I don’t know any more about how he’s going to do that today than I did yesterday.”

The budget process will begin in earnest once Cuomo presents his plan to the legislature. The legislature will then have the opportunity to reduce funding for or eliminate each line of Cuomo’s proposed budget. The legislature can also add spending items. Cuomo has the power to veto any line of the legislature’s version of the budget; a two-thirds majority can override his veto.

New York’s fiscal year begins unusually early, on April 1. The state has a terrible track record for passing budgets on time, however. When in 2005 the budget bill made it across the governor’s desk before the new fiscal year began, it was the first time in 21 years the budget had been finished on schedule.

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Can Andrew Cuomo Clean Up Albany?

By Sarah Laskow
Tuesday, December 21st, 2010

Andrew Cuomo

Like so many reform-minded governors before him, Andrew Cuomo has pledged to eradicate the tangle of ethical problems eating his state’s government from the inside out. And although it’s quite possible that he will “clean up Albany,” as he promised, it will require more than just passing ethics reform laws.

It’s become a trope for governors to sweep into office and push forward ethics reform, either on their own or in partnership with a legislature. Charlie Crist’s first act as governor in 2007 was to create an Office of Open Government, and, in Louisiana, in 2008, Bobby Jindal made it a priority to call a special session in which legislators agreed to begin disclosing more information about their income, outside employment and clients. And here in New York, just four years ago, Eliot Spitzer promised a squeaky clean slate.

Since then, Albany has so often been rocked by scandal that misdeeds signaling dramatic wrongdoing elsewhere feel like barely a tremor. Good government advocates, voters, and even elected officials of questionable moral character agree that something has to change. (Pedro Espada, now former-Senate Majority Leader, disgraced, indicted, touted in a report released last week his championship of ethics reform in Albany.)

Can the new governor really hope to reorient the government on a path towards good?

As a candidate, Cuomo proposed a slate of improvements to Albany’s ethics infrastructure that are more or less standard practice around the country: an independent ethics oversight body, lower limits on political contributions and increased transparency for both lawmakers and lobbyists.

“The chronic dysfunction of Albany metastasized into the corruption of Albany. And it was a bipartisan affliction,” he said on the day he announced his candidacy for governor. “Job 1 is going to be clean up Albany….We need strict ethics laws, we need full disclosure of all income….We need independent monitors, because self-policing is an oxy-moron.”

Independent monitors — in Cuomo’s more detailed policy proposals, he argues for independent ethics commission — might be the most important of those reforms. “At the heart of what has gone wrong in Albany is the failure of the ethics watchdogs to be aggressive,” said Blair Horner, the legislative director of NYPIRG, the government watchdog group. Currently, New York has two main ethics oversight bodies: the Commission on Public Integrity, which oversees lobbying and executive ethics, and the Legislative Ethics Commission, which has power over the state senate and assembly.

Neither has a strong record of providing independent oversight. In the case of the legislative commission, four of the nine commission members are themselves legislators, and the commission was untouched during the most recent round of ethics reforms, during the first year of Spitzer’s tenure. But the Commission on Public Integrity was one of the products of that reform package, which merged the state’s executive ethics and lobbying commissions.

Over the past three years, the public integrity commission has shown that not all ethics reform is guaranteed to improve Albany’s ethical climate. One (likely intentional) result of the merger was that it put the head of the lobbying commission, David Grandeau, who was widely regarded as one of the more effective watchdogs in Albany, out of the job. The first executive director of the new commission, Herbert Teitelbaum, resigned from his position last year after a state inspector general’s office reported that he had leaked information about an investigation into the Spitzer administration to a Spitzer aide. When the chairman of the public integrity commission, Michael Cherkasky, left his position this month, he said in a statement that the commission was too large, was selected in too partisan a process, and had too few resources to do its work.

Cuomo’s plan would create just one ethics oversight body, and, ideally, give it the resources it needs to perform the enforcement he’s promised. But, as NYPIRG’s Horner admits, “I don’t think an independent ethics body is going to mean things will be all sweetness and light here.”

It’s not clear, ultimately, that changing the structure of ethics oversight and improving transparency will stymie the flood of scandals that has poured out of Albany in recent years. Ethics laws and ethics enforcement can promote transparency and encourage officials to avoid conflicts of interest, but are not strong enough to keep determined scoundrels out of trouble.

Of all the reform-hungry leaders that have taken over statehouses in the past few years, Gov. Jindal was probably the most honest about what he hoped to accomplish. His administration’s purpose was not to clean up Louisiana’s government so much as to improve the national perception of the state as an ethical backwater. “If we want to change our reputation, we have to make aggressive reforms to truly clean up our state government,” Jindal wrote. The ultimate goal, a Jindal advisor told me at the time, was to convince the business community that Louisiana was not the corrupt place outsiders imagined.

Albany, on the other hand, more or less is. In 2006, before Eliot Spitzer took office, New York had 24 registered lobbyists for every legislator, the highest ratio in the entire country, according to an analysis by the Center for Public Integrity. (Full disclosure: I am a former employee of the Center.) The nationwide average was 5. Legislative sessions are shot through with fundraisers, where lobbyists hand over checks. And in the past four years, two governors and two now-former State Senate Majority Leaders were investigated for ethical issues, along with a slew of other policymakers.

The attitude of New York’s elected officials seems to be, at this point, to grab as much as they can for themselves and get out. To a certain extent, the ethics proposals that Cuomo has floated could change that mode of thinking. Requiring lawmakers to disclose more about details about their personal finances and forbidding campaign funds from being applied personal expenses sends a signal that politics must be separated from personal gain. Limiting Albany fundraisers during legislative sessions staunches the flow of money and puts a damper on the free-for-all atmosphere. And an ethics commission with real teeth signals that someone is watching.

But there’s a limit to how much laws can restrict people intent on breaking them. (Even with laws requiring greater disclosure of outside income, it’s unlikely that Pedro Espada would have listed the funds he’s accused of embezzling, for instance.) In Florida, since Crist’s initial push on ethics, lawmakers have been chipping away at open government provisions: In March, the St. Petersburg Times reported that Crist stepped aside as the legislature passed bills closing off public access to 911 calls, for instance. And as Louisiana’s example shows, even ethics reform that seems strong on the surface can betray weakness when put to the test. One Louisiana legislator, who helped write the ethics laws, was later able to navigate the system well enough to have seven ethics charges dismissed on procedural grounds. The president of the state’s Public Affairs Research Council has said that the 2008 reforms were “a step backwards” and that they decreased the state’s ability to enforce ethics provisions. Or, as the Times-Picayune’s James Gill wrote in 2009, “The only question left hanging is whether our new ethics laws are useless by accident or design.”

Ultimately, what matters is the decisions of individual officials, and no amount of ethics reform or moralizing about ethics reform can change that.  New York voters sent 35 new legislators to Albany this year, the largest freshman class in years. If they chose wisely — if they chose politicians committed to public good over personal gain — the news out of Albany might be less salacious in the coming session. But if not, Cuomo’s ethics proposals will only be a partial solution.

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New York’s Shifting Demographics: What Does It Mean for City Politics?

By Sarah Laskow
Friday, December 17th, 2010

For many, many years, New York City politics have centered on ethnic identity. In 1963, Nathan Glazer and Daniel P. Moynihan published one of the most popular books of sociology, even, on ethnic groups in New York, Beyond the Melting Pot, and in it, they argued, “The ethnic groups in New York are also interest groups. This is perhaps the most important fact about ethnic groups in New York City.” In their introduction to the 1970 edition of the book, they reiterated: “Ethnic considerations have always been primary in New York City politics.”

The question then, which is also a question now, is how long this will hold true, and if it will hold true in the same ways it has in the past.

Data released this week by the Census Bureau, gathered from the American Community Survey since 2005, showed that in the New York metropolitan area, increasing numbers of immigrants are living outside of the city itself—in northern Jersey, Long Island, and Connecticut.

In a way, these places are still part of New York City. In the past few decades, cities around the world have metastasized, and it’s only arbitrary political boundaries that exclude a place like, say, Hoboken, NJ, which has a relationship to Manhattan not unlike some place in Brooklyn, from being part of the city proper. These places are connected to New York City through public transportation, and their residents work in New York City, shop in New York City, eat in New York City.

But they don’t vote in New York City, and it’s unclear how New York politics will change if the city continues on its current path of increasing wealth and education. (Another tidbit from the Census data, as reported in The New York Times: more than half of Manhattanites over 25 have, at least, bachelor’s degree. It’s only one of 17 counties in America where that’s true.)

In the 1960s, when Glazer and Moynihan wrote their treatise, they could identify the five most important ethnic groups in the city: African-Americans, Puerto Ricans, Jews, Italians, and Irish. Even that’s not so straightforward these days. Before this last round of elections, The New School’s Center for New York City Affairs convened a panel discussion on the state of immigrant electoral power, and John Rudolph, the director of Feet in Two Worlds, noted there that immigrant communities in New York now include Dominicans, Ecuadorians, Mexicans, Indians, Pakistanis, Africans, Brazilians, Russian, Poles, Chinese, and more.

This proliferation of interest groups means, for starters, that politicians can no longer always depend on a base in one ethnic community to vault them into office.

“In New York City, ethnic politics is already giving way to a new generation of young “politerati,” who are not running away from their ethnicity, but not necessarily running on it,” says Sayu Bhojwani, who heads The New American Leaders Project, which helps immigrants and their children run for office. “The new political way in New York City will have to emphasize coalition building with other ethnic groups and the ability to transcend ethnic politics to reflect a vision for New York’s neighborhoods and communities.”

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