It’s a scene that’s played out again and again.
A New York City mayor wants to take action. But first, they have to look north.
The latest iteration will come Tuesday, when Mayor Eric Adams is expected to travel to Albany to make a last-minute pitch for his agenda, by which point there will be just eight days left in the state legislative session.
Adams is pushing for an extension – or expansion – of three major programs in the city, all three of which are set to expire in the coming weeks or months:
- Speed cameras in school zones
- Mayoral control of the school system
- A tax break for housing developments that include affordable units, known as 421-a
All three will require the Democrat-led state Legislature to pass a bill, and for Gov. Kathy Hochul to sign them into law.
But why does Albany have to be involved? Why can’t a major metropolis that’s home to more than 8 million people decide all of that on its own? The answer lies in the state constitution and extensive court precedent that has bedeviled New York City mayors for nearly a century.
Why does NYC need state lawmakers’ permission to act?
Article IX of the New York State Constitution lays out, in great detail, the purpose of local governments and what powers they possess. In short, it allows the city to enact laws related to its “property, affairs or government” unless they conflict with the Constitution or with a general state law.
But numerous court cases dating back to 1929 have given great deference to state lawmakers, as the New York State Bar Association wrote in 2016. In short, they can pass state laws that “preempt” a local law (or entire class of local laws), and they can act when a local matter is of “substantial state interest” – which can be interpreted to mean pretty much anything.
And while the Constitution also theoretically limits the state Legislature’s ability to enact laws that only affect New York City or any other particular municipality, lawmakers can (and often do) get around that by passing a general law that applies to “any city with a population of at least 1 million people.” (There’s only one city in the state that meets that criteria, and that’s New York City.)
That gives the state enormous sway over what does – and doesn’t – happen on the local level, even in a major city like New York City. And it applies in all three of the major programs Adams is looking to extend, which are set to expire as part of previously approved state laws.
How has Albany’s sway over New York City affected previous mayors?
Adams is far from the first mayor to have to deal with Albany’s enormous power. Take his two most recent predecessors.
Michael Bloomberg had to lobby Albany to grant him mayoral control over the city’s schools in the first place in 2002, successfully convincing state lawmakers to abandon the prior system of community school boards and allow him to select a schools chancellor. Bill de Blasio had to lobby for an extension of that policy, as well as for funding for universal pre-kindergarten, one of his signature campaign promises.
Legal scholars have written extensively on the concept of “home rule” and how it has frustrated New York City mayors. They include Michael Cardozo, who served as the city’s corporation counsel under Bloomberg.
Add it all up, and Cordozo believes home rule – the idea that municipalities can govern themselves – is “at best tenuous and, at worst, inconsequential” in New York.
“Home Rule is a vital concept and one in dire need of remediation,” he wrote in a 2017 article in the Pace Law Review.
I think that the state has way too much power over some of these decisions.
Will NYC ever get more power to govern itself?
The city’s best chance to gain more self-governing power may have come in 2017, when voters had the once-every-20-years chance to approve a convention where the constitution would be open to substantial revision. But voters roundly rejected the measure, thanks in part to a major push against it by labor unions.
Now, if the city is to get broader constitutional powers, it would have to come via constitutional amendment – a cumbersome, lengthy process that requires passage by consecutively elected sessions of the state Legislature and a voter referendum.
That’s not terribly likely to happen. Government officials, including state lawmakers, are loath to give up power voluntarily.
“Public officials and legislative bodies that have power and authority are never happy about giving it up,” said Assemblymember Richard Gottfried, the retiring Manhattan Democrat whose five-decade tenure makes him the Legislature’s most senior member. “And that's true, whether you're talking about the New York Legislature or the Roman Senate 2,000 years ago.”
Still, Gottfried counts himself among those lawmakers who do want to see New York City have more autonomy, particularly when it comes to traffic enforcement. He said he’s a proponent of giving the city full home rule when it comes to speed cameras and setting its own speed limits.
The idea of giving New York City more power over its own affairs did pick up a major ally last August, when Hochul ascended to the governor’s office.
Hochul, a former Erie County clerk, said she’s a major proponent of granting more home rule to New York City.
“I think that the state has way too much power over some of these decisions,” Hochul said earlier this month. “I personally don't want to be deciding where red-light cameras go in school zones. I think cities should worry about that stuff. We have enough to worry about.”