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Empire Justice Press Release: New York State Delivers a Tight Budget with Several Notable Wins for Low Income New Yorkers

For Immediate Release

April 10, 2017

Contact: Kristin Brown,  (518) 462-6831

Upon the finalization of the 2017-2018 state budget, Empire Justice Center was excited to announce that several of its legislative priorities were included, including a new $1 million investment that will allow the organization to dramatically increase the amount of assistance it can provide to immigrants in need of legal representation, as well as two notable policy changes. At the same time, other important programs and proposals sustained losses that will be acutely felt by hard working New Yorkers in the coming year, causing much concern.
“This year’s budget was a tough one, but we eked out a number of hard fought victories that will make a real difference in the lives of struggling New Yorkers,” said Kristin Brown, Vice President for Policy and Government Relations at Empire Justice Center. “Empire Justice Center applauds Senate and Assembly Leaders, and Governor Cuomo, for important investments in programs and policies that will help address the continuing foreclosure crisis, assist disabled New Yorkers in accessing disability benefits, provide immigrant New Yorkers with critical legal representation, and provide limited English language speakers who are survivors of domestic violence with information about their legal protections in their own languages,” she said. “While we celebrate those victories, we are cognizant that proposals that would have brought relief to New Yorkers facing homelessness, wage theft, and expanded access to quality child care were not included in the final budget agreement. We look forward to continuing to work with both houses of the legislature and the Governor to advance these issues post-budget.”
When domestic violence impacts families, civil and criminal orders of protection are one of the most valuable and effective tools to help keep victims and children safe. Empire Justice was pleased that the final enacted budget included a provision to ensure that translated orders of protection are available in the top ten most common languages by region. “With more than 150 different languages and dialects spoken across New York State, limited English language speakers must be able to understand an order’s detailed terms and conditions for them to be effective. Indeed, an order of protection issued in a language one cannot speak or read well undermines its very purpose,” said Amy Schwartz-Wallace, Senior Attorney in the Rochester office of Empire Justice Center. “Empire Justice Center applauds Senator Alcantara, the Independent Democratic Conference and other Senate members, Assembly Member Weinstein and the Assembly Majority, and Governor Cuomo for working together to build upon the Unified Court System’s bilingual order of protection pilot projects to take a big step toward ensuring that limited English proficiency is not a barrier to the effectiveness of orders of protection issued by New York’s courts”.

Empire Justice applauded the Legislature and the Governor for acting on another Empire Justice priority by providing an additional $10 million to the Office for New Americans. One million dollars of that will be dedicated to Empire Justice Center to provide immigrants with legal representation, helping to preserve the valuable contributions immigrants make to communities across New York. This new funding will allow many more immigrants to have proper legal representation when they need it most. "Access to legal assistance can be a game changer for immigrant families facing our country's changing and challenging immigration and legal systems,” said Linda Bennett-Rodriguez, Senior Immigration Attorney working in the Westchester offices of Empire Justice Center. “We are particularly grateful to the Senate Independent Democratic Conference and Senator Jeff Klein for leveraging this support for our organization which will allow Empire Justice and the other funded organizations to assist many more New Yorkers who are facing the growing threat of deportation at the very same time that their rights and protections are being eroded.”

In a victory for New York homeowners and communities, a deal was struck between Attorney General Eric  Schneiderman and the New York State Legislature to appropriate $10 million of unspent settlement dollars for statewide foreclosure prevention services. The funding will ensure the Attorney General's existing Homeowner Protection Program (HOPP), set to expire on September 30, 2017, will continue to the end of the state fiscal year. "We are grateful to Attorney General Eric Schneiderman for providing an additional six months of funding to continue housing counseling and legal services to homeowners in every county of the State. HOPP has been a tremendous program helping tens of thousands of homeowners to save their homes,” said Kevin Purcell, Staff Attorney at Empire Justice Center’s Rochester office. “We sincerely appreciate all the support in the Legislature for this program as well – all three Senate Conferences and the Assembly Majority made ensuring the continuation of foreclosure prevention services a priority.  We look forward to working with Governor Cuomo and the Legislature to plan for continuation of these services into the following year and beyond.”
The budget also addressed the growing problem of reverse mortgage foreclosures by changing the law to include them in the mandatory settlement conference process established in 2010 for residential mortgage foreclosure cases. "Settlement conferences are critical in bringing parties together to see whether a foreclosure can be avoided.  The conferences are also critical in linking homeowners to the free services provided under the Attorney General's Homeowner Protection Program (HOPP)," said Kirsten Keefe, Senior Attorney and Director of Empire Justice Center's HOPP Anchor Partner program.  "By definition, reverse mortgages impact a particularly vulnerable population of homeowners, and foreclosures often occur due to scams or confusion.  The conference process will be a strong stopgap to ensure seniors with reverse mortgages are not losing their homes unnecessarily. We appreciate the efforts of Governor Cuomo, the Assembly Majority and Senate IDC in making this happen."
The Executive Budget proposed no new funding for child care, and proposed to pay for subsidies by taking $27 million from Title XX, directing counties to use money for child care that was already committed to seniors, youth, and other vulnerable communities.  Although the final enacted budget eliminated the diversion of those Title XX funds, it only restored $20 of the $27 million to child care, resulting in a cut of $7 million for child care subsidies  for low income families  in the final enacted budget. In addition, although the final budget continues funding for facilitated enrollment, a program that helps working families access child care assistance, the overall amount dedicated to these programs was cut by over $500,000.  “This is a deeply disappointing outcome that will mean over 900 children will lose their child care subsidies,” said Susan Antos, Senior Attorney.  “We will be monitoring the impact of these funding reductions and keeping the Governor and the Legislature apprised.”
                                                                                                                                                                                    A proposal in the Executive Budget relied on directing counties to use $27 million of Federal Title XX money on child care. Many of these dollars were already being used by counties to pay for services for seniors, youth, and other vulnerable communities, as well as to pay for additional child care slots on top of those funded by state dollars, in order to try and address the unmet need. The final enacted budget has restored $20 million of state funds to cover child care subsidies, giving counties back flexibility in the use of those Title XX funds. Unfortunately, this means that funding for child care subsidies overall has effectively been cut by $7 million in the final enacted budget. “This is a deeply disappointing outcome that will mean over 900 children will lose their child care slots,” said Susan Antos, Senior Attorney.
Another small victory for New Yorkers was a $250,000 increase in funding from the Assembly for Community Health Advocates (CHA), for a total of $3.5 million for the program. CHA is a statewide program that helps both insured and uninsured individuals access necessary health care. “CHA helps New Yorkers resolve billing issues and coverage denials, maximize their coverage, access specialists and out-of-network services, and access hospital financial assistance programs. CHA even helps small business owners figure out how to offer health insurance for their employees and get health insurance tax credits, helping those businesses grow,” said Amy Lowenstein, a Senior Health Attorney with Empire Justice Center. “Although this increase still leaves the program $500,000 short of its funding level before a cut last year, it will help CHA reach more people in need of these critical services and be there to help New Yorkers cope with the uncertainty that federal threats to Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act have created. Many thanks to the Assembly Majority and Assembly Members Gottfried and Cahill for providing this critical funding increase over Governor Cuomo’s initial investment.”

Empire Justice was also pleased that funding for the Managed Care Consumer Assistance Program (MCCAP) was fully funded at $1,767,000.  “Funding for MCCAP will allow continuation of the critical work done on behalf of seniors and people with disabilities and their families to help them access needed health services and reduce their Medicare costs,” Lowenstein said. “We appreciate Governor Cuomo’s continued support for this program.”

Empire Justice was disappointed that the final budget failed to adequately address the widespread home care workforce shortage, driven by inadequate wages, that has left people with disabilities and seniors stuck in nursing homes, unnecessarily hospitalized, or putting their health and safety at risk at home without sufficient aide services.  The final budget does partially address home care worker wage issues in New York City, Long Island and Westchester by extending wage parity to all home care aides.  But, despite proposals from the Assembly and Senate that represented steps towards addressing the aide shortage, the final budget does nothing to address the crisis in the rest of the state.  “By allowing the home care worker shortage to continue unchecked, New York is shirking its legal obligations under Olmstead, and its moral obligations to New Yorkers,” says Elizabeth Siegel, Staff Attorney in Empire Justice’s Health Law Unit.
Empire Justice was disappointed that language addressing the issue of wage theft was not included in the final enacted budget. “Existing laws offer protections when wage theft occurs, but lack effective enforcement mechanisms to ensure that stolen wages will actually be paid to the worker once it’s determined that they should have been paid in the first place,” said Elizabeth Koo, Hanna S. Cohn Equal Justice Fellow.  “More than $125 million in court judgments and Department of Labor decisions have not been collected in New York.  This is only a fraction of the $1 billion in wage theft that occurs across the state each year. Without strong enforcement mechanisms to pursue stolen wages, workers are deprived of their hard-earned pay, good faith businesses are left unprotected from unfair competition, and the state is cheated of revenue and payroll taxes. We look forward to working with bill sponsors Assembly Member Linda Rosenthal and Senator Jose Peralta, the Legislature and Governor Cuomo to make sure wage theft legislation that includes enforcement mechanisms is passed before the end of the legislative session.”

In a victory for low income New Yorkers with disabilities, funding for the statewide Disability Advocacy Program (DAP) has been held steady at $8.26 million – preserving last year’s funding increase of $1 million. “Low income persons with disabilities often face homelessness if they cannot successfully access federal disability benefits,” says Louise Tarantino, Senior Attorney and a Statewide Coordinator of the program. “DAP helps stabilize the lives of disabled New Yorkers by helping them navigate the complex process required to qualify for Social Security disability benefits. This past year, DAP providers were able to increase staffing and develop initiatives to reach more disabled people from vulnerable communities, including veterans, LGBTQ people, homebound individuals, and the homeless. Keeping existing funding will allow DAP providers to continue this important work while saving money for the state and the local counties – a win-win-win scenario,” she said.
Empire Justice was disappointed that Home Stability Support, a proposal from Assembly Member Andrew Hevesi which would have created a new statewide rent supplement for families and individuals who are eligible for public assistance and facing eviction, homelessness, or loss of housing due to domestic violence or hazardous living conditions, was not included in the final enacted budget. “Home Stability Support has garnered wide support across the state from advocates and legislators of both parties,” says Ray Burke, Staff Attorney. “New York State is struggling with a statewide epidemic of homelessness. There are currently 150,000 homeless children throughout the state, and the problem is only getting worse. Nationwide, homelessness decreased by 11% between 2007 and 2015 while New York saw its homeless population increase by an alarming 41%. Home Stability Support sought to reverse this trend. Frankly, we spend far more on emergency housing services and other costs associated with homelessness than we would by simply keeping people in their homes. Empire Justice looks forward to continuing to build support for this important proposal,” he concluded.

Empire Justice applauds the Office of Court Administration and Chief Judge Janet DiFiore for maintaining funding for civil legal services for low income New Yorkers, including full funding the Judiciary Civil Legal Services at $85 million, and an allocation of $15 million to the Interest on Lawyer Account (IOLA) Fund. “We deeply appreciate Chief Judge DiFiore’s continued commitment to maintaining funding for civil legal aid for low income New Yorkers in her first full budget year,” said Anne Erickson, President and CEO of Empire Justice Center. "We also thank the Assembly and Senate for maintaining their funding levels for civil legal aid and domestic violence work including full funding for the Legal Services Assistance Fund. Without this funding, families confronting complex legal issues end up facing banks, landlords, and lawyers without any legal assistance on their side. New Yorkers who are elderly and those living with disabilities face the loss of life saving health care and are left to confront managed care providers, the government and the medical system on their own; workers face unscrupulous employers without benefit of legal assistance and families struggle to secure appropriate education for their children without understanding or being able to assert their rights. Funding civil legal aid means veterans, immigrants, children with special needs and victims of domestic violence can get the help they need, instead of becoming mired in complex legal systems without the benefit of counsel.”

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Empire Justice Center is a statewide, multi-issue, multi-strategy, public interest law firm focused on changing the systems in which poor and low income families live. Empire Justice protects and strengthens the legal rights of people in New York State who are poor, disabled or disenfranchised through systems change advocacy, training and support to other advocates and organizations, and high quality direct civil legal representation. Empire Justice has offices in Albany, Rochester, Yonkers, White Plains and Central Islip on Long Island.