Connecting state and local government leaders
STATE AND LOCAL ROUNDUP | New York City Council discusses plans to close Rikers Island jail … Boston mayor investigates bribery at zoning board … Utah governor calls special session for marijuana.
More than a month after a political spat in Wisconsin about mental health services for farmers, the state legislature released $100,000 for counseling and other services for farmers who are struggling with low prices, droughts and floods, bankruptcies, and side effects of President Trump’s international tariff war. The budget committee voted unanimously in favor of the funding. In July, the state agriculture secretary, Brad Pfaff, lambasted Republican legislators for blocking Democratic lawmakers’ requests to vote on releasing the funding that had already been allocated in the state budget. “Republicans have chosen to leave farmers behind. As of today, (the Agriculture Department) has funding to provide just five more counseling vouchers to farmers in need of mental health care. If the Joint Finance Committee doesn’t want to move this funding forward immediately, then they have a choice to make: Which five farmers will it be?" he said at the time. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, a Republican, called Pfaff’s comments "offensive and unproductive." Democratic Rep. Chris Taylor said that this should have been an issue that was resolved without a fight. "They’re playing politics and think they want to fight over $200,000 (over two years) going to farmers in desperate crisis. Part of why they’re in desperate crisis is because of (Republican) policies,” Taylor said. Republican Rep. Amy Loudenbeck also said she was disappointed to see the disagreement over the funding. "This is not Wisconsin—we don’t play politics with the salt of the earth people who are struggling," she said. Farmers have struggled in Wisconsin in recent years; in 2018, nearly 700 dairy farms closed. Farmers have also been shown to have higher rates of stress and anxiety than the general population. “Data suggests that farmers responsible for management of farming operations are disproportionately affected by suicide...Considering mental health issues that some farmers are experiencing [and] the higher risk of suicide for persons with occupations related to farming and for those in rural areas...the Committee could consider approving the request for $100,000 each year,” reads the policy note from the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau. [Wisconsin Public Radio; Milwaukee Journal Sentinel]
RIKERS ISLAND | The New York City Council last week considered a proposal to close down the infamous Rikers Island Jail and replace it with four smaller jails spread throughout neighborhoods in the city. Rikers Island has been the subject of numerous investigations in recent years due to its crumbling infrastructure, widespread mistreatment of people housed there, and an overflowing population. The proposal for new jails, which has been embraced by Mayor Bill de Blasio, has been rejected by organizations advocating for less incarceration like No New Jails NYC. “Why are we going to allow mass incarceration that we know is connected to slavery and racism and white supremacy to thrive in New York City by building new jails? The city has failed for decades to hold themselves accountable for how people are being treated once they are incarcerated,” said Brittany Williams, a community organizer with the group. The plan, though it has the support of several key councilmembers whose districts would house the new smaller jails, was criticized by several others on the council for being too vague. “I think it’s a little unfair for us not to have information about what phasing will be like and what the plan will look like,” said Councilmember Keith Powers. The City Council speaker, Corey Johnson, whose could be a key figure in the debate, has not publicly discussed his view of the plan. “There is a broad consensus in New York City that we need to close Rikers,” said Jennifer Fermino, a spokeswoman for Mr. Johnson. “But we also need to make sure that the proposals for borough-based jails serve our communities.” [New York Times; Queens Daily Eagle; Curbed NY]
ZONING BRIBERY | Boston Mayor Marty Walsh has opened an investigation into the city’s Zoning Board of Appeal process following allegations of bribery. John M. Lynch, the former assistant director of real estate at a division of the Boston Planning and Development Agency, pled guilty last week to federal charges of bribery for taking money from a real estate developer. “The developer agreed to pay $50,000 in cash bribes and a check to Lynch, in return for Lynch using his influence at the BPDA to secure a vote from a ZBA member,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office wrote in a statement. Walsh said that a thorough review of the process will institute stronger operational control and accountability for members of the Zoning Board. "The pace of our growth is unparalleled to any other time in our city's history, which is a tremendous economic boon for our city, but also brings its own set of challenges. Through this review, I want to make sure that our agencies and staff are best equipped with the knowledge, tools and training they need to do their jobs effectively and to the standard of which they are held,” Walsh said. [Boston Globe; MassLive.com; WCVB]
UTAH SPECIAL SESSION | Gov. Gary Herbert called a special session of the Utah state legislature in order to discuss regulations around medical marijuana. Herbert hopes to repeal requirements in the state’s medical cannabis law that require a central state pharmacy to fill all prescriptions for the drug. “My administration is dedicated to ensuring that quality, medical-grade cannabis products are accessible to patients by March of 2020. Removing the requirement for a state central fill pharmacy will provide efficient and timely distribution of this substance for those who need it,” he said. Last November, Utah voters approved a ballot initiative that legalized medical marijuana for certain conditions. Shortly after, state legislators replaced the initiative with a law that imposed stricter controls on the production and distribution of marijuana. If they approve Herbert’s proposed amendments, the central pharmacy will be eliminated, more private pharmacies will be approved to sell the drug, and home delivery will be allowed. House Speaker Brad Wilson, a Republican, said that he appreciated the chance to resolve this matter collaboratively. “Utah is one of the best managed states in the country. Our success isn’t an accident. It’s a collaborative process. Special sessions provide part-time lawmakers an opportunity to make needed changes to complex legislation in a way that best serves our community,” he said. [Gephardt Daily; KSL.com]
CAPPING MONETARY DAMAGES | The Tennessee Supreme Court is hearing arguments over the constitutionality of a law that caps the monetary damages that can be awarded to plaintiffs in lawsuits against businesses. The law was part of a package of legislation passed by the state legislature in 2011 to create a business-friendly climate in the state. The Tennessee Attorney General’s office is defending the law, arguing that it prevents “runaway juries” from imposing larger penalties against businesses than necessary. But attorney John Vail, arguing against the law, said it invalidates a jury’s right to set appropriate punishment in these cases. “The people reserved for themselves the right to be jurors. They did not delegate that function to their elected representatives. Whatever the damages are, it’s up to a jury to decide,” he said. Thirty-one states have passed damage cap legislation in recent years, with 20 being upheld as constitutional when faced with legal challenges. [Knoxville News Sentinel]
Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.