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Painting the Town White

Studies show that white rooftops reduce carbon emissions and air-conditioning costs. But could they work throughout NYC? The roof at MoMA QNS might tell us.
By Sarah Laskow
Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011

The roof at MoMA QNS was painted white as part of PlaNYC.

About a year and a half ago, the city painted the roof of MoMA QNS white as part of PlaNYC, Mayor Bloomberg’s long-term strategy for New York. During the 2009 pilot project, volunteers coated a total of 100,000 square feet of rooftops in Long Island City, and last year the city exceeded its goal of painting another 1 million square feet of roofs, according to a spokesperson at the Department of Buildings.

By reflecting sunlight back into space, white roofs keep buildings cooler than black roofs do, limiting the need for air conditioning and reducing the city’s carbon emissions. But, like everything in the city, the roofs get dirty. “When they’re new, they’re white as snow,” said Stuart Gaffin, a research scientist at Columbia University, who is working to monitor the efficacy of the roofs. Today, the roof of MoMA QNS is closer to the color of dirty dishwater and is dotted with black puddles.

Gaffin had said that that white roofs can be unpleasant places to spend time. In the summer, they’re hot. “You really have to slather yourself with suntan lotion,” he warned. And, at least at first, they’re so bright as to be off-putting. “When you step on these white roofs, you start thinking, “Get me off of this,”” he said. “You’ll see what I mean.”

But on an unseasonably warm February afternoon, this white roof was a perfectly pleasant place to spend an hour. In the year and half since it was first painted, dirt and soot have coated the once-white surface, and the paint, which is smooth when first applied, had sunk into the roof’s bumpy surface, and the asphalt beneath was peaking through.

Scientist Stuart Gaffin measures the amount of sunlight reflected by the white roof at MoMA QNS.

Gaffin’s job is to measure those sort of changes. “This bumpiness, I’ve found, is not good for reflection,” he said. He considered the roof’s overall condition. “This is worse than I thought it would be,” he said.

There’s no question that white roofs do more to combat climate change than traditional black roofs. Black roofs absorb most of the heat and light that hits them, contributing to what’s called the urban heat island effect, the tendency of cities to trap and retain more heat than suburban or rural areas. (It’s why, for instance, in the summer, city streets are still sweltering hours after the sun has gone down.) On a federal level, energy secretary Steven Chu has endorsed white roofs, and President Obama’s recently released budget chalks up millions of dollars in savings to plans to paint roofs of government buildings white. In New York City, as part of PlaNYC, since 2008 the building code has required most new roofs to have most of their area covered with some sort of reflective white coating.

The data Gaffin collects will help the city construct a longer term white roof strategy. Last Friday, he was up on the MoMA QNS roof, installing pyranometers, devices that will measure the sunlight coming from the sky and the light that’s reflected off the roof. The difference will show how much light the roof is absorbing, or conversely, how much light it’s reflecting.

“Essentially, we’re measuring dirt and soot,” Gaffin said. One thing that’s not clear yet is how typical this roof might be. It’s down the block from an overland subway station, and right next to Queens Boulevard, which could make it particularly dirty.

The puddles are another problem; they’re scattered across the rooftop, and they’re black, which lessens the roof’s effectiveness. Gaffin also pointed out that the layer of paint on the roof doesn’t seem as thick as it was supposed to be, a quarter to a half inch thick. When Marty Odlin, a staffer helping with the installation, pulled up a wire that was painted over, exposing the asphalt roof underneath, it was clear that the paint was no more thick than a few sheets of paper.

The paint used for the roofs is a specific type, an elastomeric acrylic that has some elasticity to it, so it can stretch and contract with the roof as the temperature changes. It’s not the only option for coating a roof, but the alternatives are roofing membranes that require professional installation. The city’s white roofs program has recruited and used volunteers to meet its goals so far; painting roofs white could also turn into a low-skill green job.

While white roofs are relatively easy to install, one of the questions Gaffin’s research will help answer is how much maintenance they’ll need to retain their advantage. Will the city need to commit to cleaning them regularly, for instance? Or should the strategy be to invest in the roofing membranes, which, Gaffin says, tend to hold up better over time?

But the choice of rooftop materials isn’t black or white, so to speak. Green roofs — usually roofs paneled with shallow boxes of low-growing plants — cool the city, are more pleasing to the human eye, and help clean the air of pollution. In the past few months, as part of the NYC Green Infrastructure plan, the mayor’s office has also started touting blue roofs, which are designed to capture and store rainfall, reducing the burden on the city’s wastewater system. The city is putting money behind this plan, as well: last year the city’s Department of Environmental Protection awarded $2.6 million for green infrastructure projects, including green roofs, and the beginning of February, the department announced $3 million in grant money available for this year.

White roofs, though, are still the simplest and cheapest option. The instruments that Gaffin began installing last week will monitor the MoMA QNS roofs, recording data every 15 minutes, finding out how dirty the roof really gets over time — how long it takes for a white roofs to become brown.

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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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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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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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This One Doesn’t Go to 11: No Labels’ Quiet Launch

By Sarah Laskow
Tuesday, December 14th, 2010

There’s a sound you hear when political ideas take off. It’s a crescendo of applause that swells and lasts so long that the speaker has to quiet it down. It comes exactly at the lines in a speech that are intended to inspire, and sometimes at lines that weren’t.

That sound was absent yesterday at the launch of No Labels, the organization that advocates something like bipartisanship and that may or may not be building a base for Michael Bloomberg’s 2012 presidential run. The applause, when it came, was perfunctory, and often a beat late.

“I feel I need to do a Howard Dean yell to wake you all up,” Newark Mayor Cory Booker said to the audience, just after 2:30 in the afternoon.

Twenty minutes or so later, Rob McCord, Pennsylvania’s state treasurer, repeated Booker’s request to bring up the lights in the audience. “Maybe it’ll get people’s blood sugar up,” he said.

The idea behind No Labels is that politicians need to put country before party. In practice, that means they want more politicians to solicit cosponsors from opposing parties for legislation, to “use civil and respectful language,” and to vote against their party more often.

The organization claims not to be centrist and offers some information about issues like energy, election reform, and national security on its website. It does have at least one label: It’s organized under the 501(c)(4) section of the tax code, which means it’s an issue advocacy organization. (This is the same type of organization that attracted criticism this past election cycle for pumping money into electoral races without disclosing the source of the funding.) No Labels has been a little vague on what issues it will actually be advocating for, besides bipartisanship.

The problem is, good ideas aren’t necessarily the ones that everyone agrees on. Nor does a bipartisan piece of legislation necessarily contain agreed-upon ideas. Take the tax bill currently on tap in DC. It’s a bipartisan piece of legislation that cobbles together some ideas that Democrats like and some ideas that Republicans like — not a coherent set of policy provisions that everyone agrees are good.

The leaders of No Labels said yesterday they wanted to build a movement 1 million strong in the next year. If the level of enthusiasm at the launch event was any indication, it’ll be a tough slog.

If they do manage that feat, however, there is one politician who will be very interested: Mayor Bloomberg. No Labels’ campaign for members will serve, in a way, as a proof of concept for a Bloomberg for President campaign. I don’t think of Bloomberg supporters as the type of people willing to travel to Iowa, Ohio, and New Hampshire to spend hours door-knocking in the cold. I imagine that, like the No Labels audience, they’ll lose their enthusiasm around lunch time.

But if over time No Labels can gin up real support, so can Bloomberg. If the group actually gains momentum, if the applause at No Labels chapter meetings across the country starts reaching the fever pitch, the mayor could start being a little more forthcoming about his plans for the future.

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Fate of 9/11 First Responders Bill Could Hinge on Schumer

New Yorkers whose health was permanently damaged on 9/11 have to hope he will lobby for the bill's inclusion in the tax package
By Sarah Laskow
Friday, December 10th, 2010

Sen. Chuck Schumer

New York’s representatives in Washington — some of them, at least — have been working for years to win funding for first responders suffering from health issues originating on 9/11. The most recent version of this bill, the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, would allocate more than $7 billion to help treat injuries from toxic exposure and compensate victims for job losses. The House’s version, sponsored by Rep. Carolyn Maloney, has passed, but the Senate — the place where all public policy goes to die these days —voted yesterday to put aside the measure.

New York’s House delegation came up with a last-minute rescue plan: tack the bill onto the tax bill that Congress must somehow pass before the end of this session. Now it’ll be up to Sen. Chuck Schumer to convince Senate leadership to go along with that plan, according to the Times.

On the Senate floor yesterday, Schumer criticized his colleagues’ unwillingness to support those injured in the line of duty on 9/11. But check out this 2007 Village Voice story (written by a former colleague of mine) on Schumer’s record on this issue: in short, it hasn’t always been stellar.

Ultimately, Congress’ reluctance to act on this bill is connected to the ambivalence in Washington about New York’s privileged place in the post-9/11 homeland security world. Since 2001, homeland security has been a top issue for many of New York’s representatives, particularly those from districts in or around Manhattan. Just this week, for instance, Long Island’s Rep. Peter King was named chair of the House Homeland Security Committee: King has spent the past nine years focusing on homeland security and honing his expertise on the range of issues it covers, in part because, as a representative from New York, it makes sense for him. It’s an issue his constituents care about, deeply.

But others in Congress have been less willing to concede that New York should get the lion’s share of attention — and funding — for homeland security. One of the very first homeland security battle in Congress, post-9/11, was over whether every state should get a baseline share of the new homeland security-directed money, or whether that funding should be determined primarily based on risk. The current system for distributing funding more closely resembles the first system than the latter, which means New York loses out.

The 9/11 health bill depended, in a way, on that same logic: that New York and New Yorkers still deserves some extra support from the lingering trauma suffered in 2001. And, not so surprisingly, a majority of our country’s representatives agree! The House passed the bill, and 58 out of 100 Senators support the measure.

But right now, the way Washington works, that’s not enough. Instead, New Yorkers whose health was permanently damaged on 9/11 have to hope that Sen. Schumer feels the measure is important enough to really work at convincing Harry Reid that it’s important enough to include in the tax package. But if Sen. Schumer doesn’t prioritize this work, the bill could very well die, forever.

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After Election Season Tumult, New York Braces for Status Quo

By Sarah Laskow
Tuesday, December 7th, 2010

Rep. Tim Bishop

A month after voting, Election 2010 in New York is almost finished. Over the weekend, the outcomes of the last outstanding races for state Senate seats rolled in, and it became certain that Republicans will control New York’s upper house. Now, the only New York race in which there is no official winner is a federal House race out on Long Island, in which Republican challenger Randy Altschuler has refused to concede to incumbent Tim Bishop. (UPDATE: Altschuler conceded the race Wednesday morning.)

The 2010 election cycle was a remarkable one, with tea parties and budget shortfalls and cantankerous candidates dominating headlines. But in New York, it has resulted, ultimately, in a return to the status quo.

On a state level, Republicans have dominated the Senate for decades. In the Assembly, Shelly Silver will remain a stumbling block for a centrist governor’s agenda. And on a federal level, New York has returned Republican representatives to traditionally Republican districts, and allowed Democrats to hold on, if narrowly, to traditionally Democratic districts.

Those slim margins matter, though. Some politicians are hubristic enough to govern radically even when only barest majority of voters have endorsed their platform. (Former President George W. Bush, circa 2000, is the poster boy for this attitude.) But most take a close win as a sign that they need to work harder to represent that large portion of their constituents who voted for their opponents.

Luckily for the Republican-led state Senate, that shouldn’t be too hard to do. In Albany, the politician with the clearest mandate to push forward his policy priorities is Governor-to-be Andrew Cuomo. Cuomo’s priorities — capping property taxes, cutting spending — line up with those of Senate Republicans. It’ll be easy for Republicans to latch onto his agenda, and claim some portion of the credit when the economy takes a turn for the better and the state budget starts making a little bit of sense, again. If their desires and Cuomo’s were more divergent, they’d have a hard time arguing they’d been sent to Albany to do anything but obstruct (or in political parlance, “balance”) Cuomo.

Out on Long Island, Rep. Tim Bishop is edging ahead in a dragged-out recount fight against businessman Randy Altschuler. It’s the last undecided House race in the entire country, and the result will have no impact on the balance of power in Washington. Either Altschuler will join an emboldened Republican caucus, or Bishop will return with his chastened colleagues in the Democratic Party.

Although Altschuler has refused to concede, he has indicated that if he did some, miraculously, make it to Washington, he’d take the close race to heart and represent a district that’s evenly split between the two parties. As a freshman in Washington, that’s a hard road to travel, though — to party leaders, another Republican vote would mean another Republican vote.

Bishop, however, could serve as a cautionary voice. In the last two years, Democrats tried to enact a slew of new policy ideas on issues like health care and energy. The lesson of Bishop’s narrow race seems to be: don’t push it. New Yorkers just would prefer if everything stayed, more or less, the way it was.

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