2019 New York State Budget Recap

By Elizabeth Kocienda, Director of Advocacy

This year brought new dynamics to the budget process in Albany. Not only was the Legislature more unified due to a solid Democratic majority in the Senate, but gone were the “three men in the room”; this time a woman was directly involved in leadership negotiations as Andrea Stewart-Cousins became the first female Senate Majority Leader. With this new political reality serving as a backdrop, the City Bar commented on a wide range of budget proposals (see our 2019 New York State Legislative Agenda), many of which are now law.

Criminal Justice

After extensive negotiations, the final budget included bail reform which eliminates cash bail for most misdemeanors and non-violent felonies, preserving it only for violent felony offenses, Class A felonies (other than drugs) and certain other serious offenses. Under the new law, approximately 90% of people charged with a crime will be released on their own recognizance or under non-monetary conditions. Additional reforms include mandating the issuance of appearance tickets, rather than custodial arrests, for most low-level offenses; limiting the use of electronic monitoring and imposing strict due process protections with respect to its use and duration; and, if money bail is set, requiring the court to set three forms, including either unsecured or partially secured bond, and to consider the individual’s financial circumstances, ability to post bail without undue hardship, and ability to obtain a secured, unsecured, or partially secured bond, and to justify its findings on the record.

The City Bar supported bail reform as part of the budget, arguing it should adhere to three basic tenets: (1) shrink the jail population and protect the presumption of innocence; (2) eliminate race- and wealth-based discrimination in pretrial decision making; and (3) ensure due process. Using these principals the City Bar provided a series of recommendations on key bail reform proposals. Although our recommendations called for a complete elimination of cash bail, we supported a number of the provisions included in the final budget. The final version was a compromise, but the reforms represent a significant positive change in New York’s criminal justice system.

The budget also included a sentencing reform proposal, the One Day to Protect New Yorkers Act, which reduces the maximum potential sentence for class A misdemeanors by one day (i.e. 364 days). This one-day reduction will reduce the profound immigration consequences faced by New Yorkers who otherwise may face deportation under federal laws that provide for deportation of individuals convicted of crimes which may yield a sentence of one year or longer — even if the person was sentenced to probation or incarceration for a period of less than one year. The City Bar supported the Act’s inclusion in the budget but took no position on an amendment concerning motions to vacate judgments.

Both of these items were part of the City Bar’s criminal justice reform platform in its State Legislative Agenda.

Election Reforms

The final budget built upon reforms enacted earlier this year by providing funding for early voting and the use of electronic poll books, which will help implement early voting by saving voters time at poll sites, increasing the accuracy of voter rolls, and saving election administrators money over the years. The budget also allows for uniform polling hours during primary elections and online voter registration starting in 2021. While the Governor and the Legislature were not able to reach agreement on implementing a public campaign finance system, the budget does provide for a commission, which will have binding authority to issue recommendations on such a system. The City Bar’s State Legislative Agenda called for reforms to modernize New York’s voting and election law.

Legal Services Funding

The City Bar applauds the adoption of the Judiciary’s 2019-20 Budget Request (including $100 million for civil legal services), which we supported (through the Council on Judiciary Administration) as an incremental and pragmatic approach to help keep the court system on track to achieve the Excellence Initiative while hewing to the Governor’s 2% cap. The final budget also continued funding for the Communities First Program (supported by the Pro Bono and Legal Services Committee). The program focuses on providing services that help “homeowners avoid foreclosure and build strong neighborhood preservation efforts” and is the product of a statewide effort to mobilize legal resources to mitigate chronic housing-market issues that fuel foreclosure, e.g. zombie properties, distressed mortgages, and municipal tax debt.

Opposed Provisions Ultimately Excluded From Budget

The City Bar opposed the inclusion of a number of proposals in the budget, none of which were ultimately adopted.

The Legal Problems of the Aging Committee issued reports in opposition to two provisions in the Governor’s Health and Mental Hygiene Budget proposal. The first, addressing spousal refusal,” would have provided that, for Medicaid eligibility, the income and resources of a legally responsible relative (including a spouse) would only be deemed as unavailable if the relative was both absent from the home and refused to provide care and assistance. This change would have forced couples to consider separation and divorce in order to avoid the loss of their home and impoverishment of the well spouse (as well as removing an important caregiver from the home), or compel the ill spouse to forego in-home care and enter nursing-home care prematurely. The second proposal would have reduced financial assistance for services provided to low-income Medicare beneficiaries, threatening access to care by reducing the amount of cost-sharing assistance provided by the Qualified Medicare Beneficiary Program (QMB) and Medicaid.

The Non-Profit Organizations, Family Court and Family Law, and Government Affairs and State Ethics Committees opposed lowering the monetary threshold for JCOPE disclosure to $500 from $5,000. Registered lobbyists are subject to extensive reporting requirements. For small, grassroots organizations, compliance would be onerous and potentially cost-prohibitive, effectively silencing their voices. While filings would have undoubtedly increased under the proposal, it would have likely resulted in many highly active local organizations being dissuaded from engaging with their government.

The Children and the Law, Corrections and Community Reentry, Family Court and Family Law, and Juvenile Justice Committees raised concerns about (1) the disparate support New York State provides for the children and families of New York City compared to the rest of the state when it comes to juvenile delinquents in placement (the “Close to Home” program) and Raise the Age implementation, and (2) the state’s proposed Persons In Need of Supervision (PINS) reform that could have negatively impacted the safety and stability of youth and families in NYC and statewide. While the final budget did not provide state funding for Close to Home placement in New York City, it did ultimately preserve foster care placement options and access to uncapped child welfare preventive services for PINS diversion, which the Committees supported.

Legislation Passed Outside of the Budget

Some of the substantive policy proposals that were initially included in the budget were passed by the Legislature as standalone bills through the normal legislative process. This was the case for two bills supported by the City Bar and included in our State Legislative Agenda. The Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act (supported by the Domestic Violence, Criminal Justice Operations, and Pro Bono and Legal Services Committees) will allow judges greater discretion when sentencing defendants who are survivors of domestic violence, an important step forward in achieving justice for victims of domestic violence by recognizing the role that abuse can play in the commission of crimes. The Bioethical Issues, Health Law, Science and Law, and Sex and Law Committees supported the establishment of a Maternal Mortality Review Board (MMRB). The MMRB will “review maternal mortality and morbidity, analyze their causes and disseminate strategies for reducing the risks of maternal mortality and morbidity.” The United States experiences a disproportionately high rate of maternal mortality; moreover, poor women and women of color are victims of maternal mortality at far higher rates than are their affluent and white counterparts. The MMRB will serve both as a means to improve health outcomes for New York’s female population and to rectify the economic and racial disparities in those outcomes.

Both of these bills have passed both houses of the Legislature and await action by the Governor.

What Didn’t Get Done

While the final budget was an ambitious one that included many of the City Bar’s priorities, two measures that we support were ultimately left out – the legalization of marijuana and the Child Parent Security Act, which would lift restrictions on compensated gestational surrogacy within the state and clearly recognize the parentage of children born via surrogacy arrangements and donor conception. These provisions have the support of the Governor and many legislators, but were ultimately dropped due to, among other things, the complexity of the issues. The City Bar will continue to support these measures and we are hopeful that they will remain priorities for policymakers.

With the Legislative session scheduled to end on June 19th, plenty of time remains to work on these and other issues of interest to our committees. It has been a successful year so far and we look forward to continuing to advocate for all of the City Bar’s positions in the coming months, including passage of the Uniform Voidable Transactions Act and modernization of New York’s class action procedures. Keep up with our work by following us on Twitter at @NYCBarPolicy and reading the weekly 44th Street eNews.