We work for open, accountable New York State government and transparent New York City government.
Reinvent Albany testified at today’s hearing on improvements to the NYC Open Data Law. Highlights of our testimony include calling for new language that clarifies that the Open Data Law is permanent and does not expire in 2018. We also called for the creation of a “Status of All Public Data Sets” listing of the status of all public datasets, which include when they will be published and whether they are complying with new requirements for data dictionaries, and standardized addresses.
The seemingly never ending “Summer of Hell” subway meltdown is a reminder to New York City residents that the state, which owns the MTA, does a have a big impact on everyday life. The MTA is the state’s largest public authority and provides more direct service to New Yorkers than any other state agency or authority. While the subway meltdown has led to scorching headlines and editorials, it’s led to zero oversight hearings. Unfortunately, this is typical of Albany. Part of the dysfunction in state government is that the state legislature does very few oversight hearings. This type of hearing is an important tool for holding agencies and authorities accountable. Hearings allow the legislature to put a spotlight on a state agency’s activities, and to illuminate what went wrong when the state government is failing to fix a major problem.
New York has plenty of problems, so you would think the legislature would do plenty of oversight hearings. It doesn’t. The State Assembly, which is controlled by representatives from New York City, has done zero subway oversight hearings in the past two years, and has none planned. Reinvent Albany tallied up oversight hearing held during the 2016 legislative session and found that the NYC Council held 111 compared to the State Assembly’s 29, and the State Senate’s 15. (The state legislature’s total would have been even lower if not for four joint senate-assembly oversight hearings spurred by the water contamination crisis in Hoosick Falls.)
In 2016 the NYC City Council held about four times as many oversight hearings as the State Assembly and seven times as many oversight hearings as the State Senate.
An oversight hearing is any hearing that, either in whole or in part, reviews the administration of laws and agency operations, including the impact and/or implementation of programs and policies. When a hearing solely reviews legislation or an appointment, it is not an oversight hearing. In our tally, we did not define budget hearings as oversight hearings.
Unlike lawmaking which takes place during scheduled legislative sessions, oversight activities are not scheduled and are typically not considered as urgent as other legislative activities, thus largely escaping public scrutiny. However, legislative oversight is a fundamental check and balance on government operations, ensuring that government programs and policies remain responsive to constituent needs, changing economic constraints, and innovation in governance. Hearings are powerful tools that bolster public discussion and ensure public accountability of government programs and activities. Further, public hearings can provide opportunities for legislators and other public officials to learn about best practices and alternative approaches to government operations. Governments should always be innovating and looking for new ways to tackle problems and improve quality of life, and indeed New York State is not afraid of policy innovation and exploration. But, in the absence of proper oversight, there is no way to know if programs and policies are succeeding or operating in the public’s best interest more broadly.
Democracy relies on legislative oversight. Oversight hearings ensure accountability, reveal program and policy shortcomings, and identify potential solutions. By not holding regular oversight hearings, New York State legislators are failing to uphold their constitutional obligations. According to Senate and Assembly rules, chairs of standing committees of the Senate have the authority to call public hearings, while Assembly committee chairs may call an oversight hearing as long as the majority of committee hearings agree to the hearing.
On September 7, 2017, Reinvent Albany asked the Authorities Budget Office to investigate whether the MTA board met its fiduciary duty, and was fully informed, before approving contracts related to the governor’s NY Crossings program on MTA bridges and tunnels. Our formal complaint is centered around whether the MTA board knew what it was doing when it approved a series of contract amendments that had salted within them $42m worth of expenses for decorative towers at the entrance to the Battery and Queens Midtown Tunnels. The context for Reinvent Albany’s complaint about the decorative Towers and MTA board oversight was news in July that Governor Cuomo intended to compel the MTA to spend upwards of $200m on decorative Harbor Lights on MTA bridges. Under the law, the MTA is a public authority governed by a board that has a duty to the organization and public to promote the MTA’s mission, not the governor’s whim.
Today, we are applauding Governor Cuomo’s successful efforts to foster New York State’s thriving wineries using encouragement, smart policy and a very modest $8 million in marketing spending. We hope the governor is inspired by his success with wineries — and this is a real success — to rethink the state’s bloated and wasteful business subsidies, which now exceed over $4.5B a year. With wineries, craft beers, yogurt and possibly hemp, the governor has identified a winning formula for economic development that does not depend on the state giving enormous handouts to giant multi-national corporations in high risk deals that will cost taxpayers huge sums for each job promised. The governor says that the state’s wineries have a $4.8B annual economic impact. Consider the State’s return on investment for the wine industry compared to the $750m to build the Riverbend factory for Tesla/Solar City at a cost of $514,000 in public funds per job or $225m in state funds to Athenex for a pharmaceutical factory that will taxpayers $250,000 per job.
If you like to think big, read Richard Emery’s opinion piece in today’s Daily News. Emery is the lawyer who won the 1989 U.S. Supreme Court case that resulted in the abolition of New York City’s Board of Estimates. He writes:
Ascent to leadership in a reformed unicameral body would require openness and respect for members that simply does not now exist.
It is not as if there is no precedent for creating a one-house legislature here in New York. Though only one state — Nebraska — is unicameral, virtually all localities, counties and cities in New York have unicameral bodies.
In 1989, I won a case in the U.S. Supreme Court that resulted in the abolition of the New York City Board of Estimate. It was clear then that the best reform for the city was to give lawmaking powers to a responsive, unicameral City Council.
Notwithstanding the views of a cadre of nostalgic fixers, there is no question that this has transformed city government from a system of graft among county leaders that controlled the votes of borough presidents into a transparent, responsive, largely progressive, publicly financed, representative democracy.
Emery is right that a unicameral legislature would be a huge and effective reform. Unfortunately, his opinion piece is sure to add to ammunition to the elected officials who oppose a constitutional convention precisely because it might result in giant changes, including changes that cost them their jobs.
The Metropolitan Transportation Agency (MTA) is a state authority that runs subway and bus service in New York City. As a state authority, the MTA is subject to oversight by the state legislature. However, the State Assembly, which is controlled by representatives from New York City, has done zero subway oversight hearings in the last two years, and has none planned, despite the worst meltdown in subway service in decades.
Today, the NYC City Council announced it was holding a hearing on subway service on August 8. Unfortunately, the State Assembly has a culture of conducting very few oversight hearings, and has conducted no oversight hearings on subway service in the last three years, probably longer. Public policy experts view oversight hearings as important tools for holding state authorities accountable to the public.
The Assembly’s failure to hold the MTA to accountable for gigantic subway service problems is baffling given that both Speaker Carl Heastie Authorities Committee Chair Jeffrey Dinowitz are from the Bronx, and their constituents are suffering from the disintegration of subway service.
Reinvent Albany looked at Assembly records dating to 2014 and found zero oversight hearings on the MTA or MTA subway or bus service. In May 11, 2017, the Assembly looked at the impact of Amtrak emergency construction at Penn Station on LIRR commuters.
Under the law, the MTA and the NY Power Authority are governed by independent boards whose directors are obligated to act in the “public interest” and have to approve major agency expenditures, contracts and capital expenses. But a story in today’s Politico, and background research by Reinvent Albany, suggests that without the approval of the MTA Board, the governor has directed the installation of decorative colored lights and art decor towers on MTA Bridges and Tunnels that will cost between $350m and $500m.
According to public documents the MTA board has never seen a full project budget for Harbor Lights and has not voted on the project. According to Politico, the governor’s office says the New York Power Authority (NYPA) will pay for the project — not the MTA. Yet, according to board minutes from March and January of this year, the NYPA board was told that the MTA would repay NYPA for the costs of the project. (See below.) In other words, NYPA’s board assented to paying for Harbor Lights based on the false promise of repayment. (We say “assented” because it is not completely clear that NYPA’s board actually voted for the expenditure, though they were briefed on it.) Additionally, the NYPA board was told Harbor Lights are a “lighting project to relight the bridges that the MTA controls in New York City” and “improvements to bridges and tunnels… ” involving the “addition of energy efficient LED lighting.”
To recap, the MTA board has never voted to approve Harbor Lights or seen a presentation on how much it will cost, yet the lights are slated to be installed on the MTA Bridges and Tunnels they are legally responsible for. The NYPA board “assented” to spending $216m on Harbor Lights based on the false promise of MTA repayment. Something is wrong here.
Anyone concerned about government accountability should be dismayed that the governor can act like a king with the Power Authority as his piggy bank and the MTA as his toy store.
Power Authority January 2017 Board Meeting
MTA bridge lighting project to relight the bridges that the MTA controls in New York City over the five boroughs. In response to a question from Vice Chairman Nicandri, President Quiniones said that this project would save the MTA money compared to using non-LED technology. If the MTA installed standard lighting rather than high-efficiency LED lighting on the bridges, it would be much more expensive than NYPA’s relighting project. In response to a question from Trustee McKibben, Ms. Anderson said the Authority is the overall Project Manager for the lighting project. NYPA will contract vendors to perform the actual installation. In response to a question from Vice Chairman Nicandri, President Quiniones said that the MTA will be paying the Authority for this service through a fifteen-year financial agreement.
Power Authority March 2017
Bridge Lighting It is anticipated that the Authority, through its Customer Energy Solutions program, will be responsible for implementing a plan to make improvements to bridges and tunnels in the New York City metropolitan region including the addition of energy efficient LED lighting in conjunction with the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority (“TBTA”), with costs, which are currently expected to be approximately $216 million, to be paid by or recovered from TBTA.
Reinvent Albany is a leading member of the coalition of watchdog groups pressing for fairer, cleaner and more accountable economic development subsidies. Our focus is on ensuring that existing subsidies are awarded fairly and competitively. But, like many, we are increasingly concerned about the overall effectiveness of handing out taxpayer dollars to select businesses. We are not alone. Today, the USA Today Network’s local NY papers concluded a six month investigation with a major expose on how economic development funds are spent in NY. Here’s what USA Today wrote:
(Business subsidies) are wrought with a lack of oversight, poor performance and questions about whether the state is getting the best bang for big bucks.
We congratulate USA Today’s New York team and highly recommend you read the whole series.
USA Today Network investigation: