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Murphy Takes a First-Year Victory Lap in Speech

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy used his first State of the State address to highlight several first-year accomplishments, like boosting public school funding by $351 million, and restoring more than $7 million in funding to Planned Parenthood; and to reassure his base that he is committed to fulfilling two of his core campaign promises — raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and the legalization of recreational marijuana. But Murphy also appeared to acknowledge that in order to turn those promises into legislation, they'll need to get the green light from State Senate President Steve Sweeney. The two Democrats have had a strained relationship during Murphy's first year in office. Three times in his speech, Murphy said he would work with Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin to build on the previous year's progress. The normally upbeat Murphy set a positive tone in his speech, even as his administration faces a potential crisis. The legislature is investigating how former Murphy aide Al Alvarez landed a job with the administration, even after a campaign volunteer complained to the Governor's inner circle that Alvarez had raped her. Murphy did not mention the scandal during his address. Murphy spent a large portion of the speech tearing into the corporate tax incentives programs run by his predecessor, Republican Governor Chris Christie, citing the State Comptroller's audit of the Economic Development Authority that Murphy ordered upon taking office. The audit, released last week, suggested New Jersey could lose as much as $11 billion as the result of poor program oversight. Murphy said his new economic development master plan offered a more affordable program to lure businesses to the state at a far lower cost. Murphy's next opportunity to lay out his governing agenda will be the annual budget address, scheduled for March 5.

Shutdown Casues Confusion Among Landlords and Tenants Relying on Federal Rental Assistance

The federal shutdown, now in its fourth week, is causing confusion and concern among landlords and tenants who depend on rental assistance. The Department of Housing and Urban Development is still paying for individual housing vouchers used by low-income families. But some contracts that subsidize entire developments for low-income, disabled and elderly people have expired, affecting 2,306 households across the state, according to a list compiled by the National Low Income Housing Coalition. It's unclear whether payments for those units are continuing. "The longer this shutdown goes on, the more dire the situation becomes," said Elizabeth Rohlfing, spokeswoman for the city's Housing and Preservation Development, which administers some of HUD's programs. "We need HUD back up and running. New Yorkers are counting on them." Mitchell Posilkin, general counsel at the Rent Stabilization Association, said property owners are experiencing a lot of uncertainty. "They are unable to contact anyone at HUD to give them guidance as to whether their payments from HUD are going to be continuing or not," he said. HUD didn't respond to a request for comment.

Shutdown Casues Confusion Among Landlords and Tenants Relying on Federal Rental Assistance

A Bag Ban in New Jersey Could Spell Bad News for the Plastics Industry

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy has signaled his approval of a proposed statewide ban on plastic shopping bags, which has businesses gearing up for a fight. About two dozen municipalities in New Jersey, including Hoboken, already have some form of plastic ban. But the bill making its way through the state legislature now would ban single-use plastic grocery bags, plastic straws, and Styrofoam containers, making it the most aggressive anti-plastic legislation in the country. Last summer, Gov. Murphy vetoed a bill that would've imposed a five-cent fee on plastic bags, calling it "incomplete and insufficient" in cutting back plastics use. "New Jersey is being hammered," Scott Fallon, who reports on the environment for NorthJersey.com, told WNYC. "85 percent of the litter that's been picked up on New Jersey's beaches is plastic." The proposal comes as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is throwing his support behind a plastic bag ban. New Jersey's plan goes further by also imposing a ten-cent fee on paper shopping bags, with the goal of getting as many residents as possible to bring their own shopping bags to the grocery store. Fallon said the bag ban would likely be taken up in Trenton later in 2019, after a minimum wage hike and marijuana legalization are settled. Meanwhile, grocery stores, gas stations and other businesses reliant on plastic bags are already recruiting lobbyists to fight the bill. "They fear that if this is passed in New Jersey, other states will be emboldened to pass a similar measure, which would drastically hurt their business," Fallon said. Fallon spoke with WNYC's Richard Hake.

A Bag Ban in New Jersey Could Spell Bad News for the Plastics Industry

The Miracle on the Hudson, Ten Years Later

As U.S. Airways Flight 1549 took off from La Guardia Airport on Jan. 15, 2009, the weather was clear and brisk. Suddenly, at 3:27, as the plane climbed into the sky just north of the George Washington Bridge, there was an explosion. The lead pilot, Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, immediately realized that he must have struck a flock of birds, which had disabled his engines. He had to make a split-second decision either to try to land at nearby Teterboro Airport in New Jersey, or attempt a crash-landing in the Hudson River. He chose the latter, much to the surprise of air traffic control officials on the ground, according to recordings later released. Air Traffic Control: Okay, which runway would you like at Teterboro? Sullenberger: We're gonna be in the Hudson. *Beep*Air Traffic Control: I'm sorry, say again, Captain? As the pilots worked to get the plane down quickly and safely, New Yorkers spotted the plane in the sky and were calling emergency services. One witness who called in to WNYC said she heard a huge explosion, and looked up to see the plane plummeting towards the water. "As it was banking around the the left, flames were coming out of the left wing's jets. Long flames. And it was obvious the plane was going down pretty fast," the caller said. Just four minutes after striking the birds, the plane splashed down in the Hudson near West 50th Street. As the crew guided passengers out of the sinking cabin, a pair of New York Waterway ferries arrived to carry people to shore. "The captain did just a hell of a job making sure everyone survived because without good flying...man, it was scary," said one of the passengers, Jeff Kolodjay, his voice cracking. "I'm just really excited to be alive." Kolodjay and other passengers had to wade through the cabin in chilly waist-deep water to reach the exits, all the while feeling the jet sinking deeper into the river. Yet, while some were injured in the crash, all 155 people aboard the plane that day made it. The survivors have planned a celebration at the Carolinas Aviation Museum in Charlottesville, N.C., where the plane is on display.

Marijuana, Schools, the MTA and More: All Eyes on Cuomo's Budget Address

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo will unveil his proposed budget for the coming year Tuesday, spelling out in detail yet how he wants to pay for an ambitious agenda. In both his inauguration speech and a big policy agenda he laid out in December, Cuomo has alluded to a long wish list now that the State Senate is in Democratic hands for the first time in a decade. Many of the items have little or nothing to do with taxing and spending, but Cuomo nonetheless has pledged to include them in his budget proposal — a practice he came to favor during the Republicans' long reign over the Senate. (The budget, with its March 31 deadline, adds pressure and focus to negotiations between the executive and legislative branches.) Advocates, lawmakers and others will be looking closely at: How Cuomo will pay for MTA repairs, including any implementation of congestion pricing; How much he proposes to spend on education, both in public schools and in the SUNY and CUNY systems; How much marijuana officials expect to be bought and sold when (and if) legalization takes effect, and to what programs he wants to apply tax revenues from legal sales. On the surface, the legislature supports Cuomo's agenda, but many individual lawmakers say they'll stand up to Cuomo if he proposes spending too much — or too little.

Marijuana, Schools, the MTA and More: All Eyes on Cuomo's Budget Address

Voting Reform Comes to New York

The State Senate and Assembly approved legislation Monday that would allow New Yorkers to cast their ballots in elections up to 10 days before Election Day, giving the public a first taste of a juggernaut of government reforms that the Democratic-majority in both chambers is planning to push through this year. Senate Democrats, led by Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins, held a victorious press conference before the vote. It was jam packed with advocates chanting "Let New York vote." The advocates worked for years to have New York join 37 other states and allow early voting. "It's time for New York to catch up so that we can actually lead," Stewart-Cousins said, to cheers. The bills would open up a small number of polling places 10 full days before Election Day — one polling place to be open early for every 50,000 voters — so that voters can cast their ballots at an earlier, more convenient time. If signed by the governor, as expected, the expanded voting will be in effect for the November 2019 elections. Another bill would allow "no excuses" absentee voting, so that anyone is eligible to cast a mail in ballot. But that change requires an amendment to the state's constitution, and the process can't be completed until the 2021 election cycle. Other measures would consolidate New York's separate state and federal primary election days into one voting day in late June. New Yorkers who move within the state would no longer have to re-register to vote. And 16- and 17-year-old residents could sign up early, so that all of the paper work to vote is finished before they turn 18 and can cast a ballot. Lawmakers also moved to close a loophole in the state's campaign finance laws that allows individuals and companies to form limited liability companies, or LLC's, to skirt donation limits. Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins says all of the measures were long stalled by Republicans in the State Senate, who ruled the chamber for most of the past century until they were defeated in the 2018 elections. "We are trying to clear a backlog of things," she said. The longtime director of the government reform group New York State Common Cause, Susan Lerner, was among those cheering. She says she's waited over a decade for what she calls a "fabulous beginning" to election reform in New York — though she promised that more is coming. "We now have a legislature that is interested in listening to the voice of the voters," Lerner said. "And that's what we are seeing today." Senate Republicans said the expanded voting would cost too much money in a state already overburdened by high taxes. Sen. Kathy Young, a Republican from Olean, said she believes it won't lead to higher turnout. "Every day, we hear from our overburdened taxpayers about the cost of living in New York," said Young, who added 200,000 people left the state last year. "This bill, in chief, actually will drive up those costs even more, and we will lose more people." The Democrats are expected to continue with their agenda Tuesday, when the State Senate and Assembly are scheduled to vote on a bill that would, for the first time, grant civil rights to transgender New Yorkers.

Albany Plans to Boost Voter Access. Will Voters Take Advantage?

The first order of business for the now Democratically-controlled legislature in Albany: Getting New York caught up with the 38 other states that allow early voting. "It would mean that rather than having to take time off work or schedule your life around one day of voting, you could do it days beforehand, hopefully sometime in the evening or on weekends," Sean Morales-Doyle, an attorney with the Brennan Center for Justice, told WNYC. On Monday, New York lawmakers are expected to pass a handful of voting reform laws, including measures to hold state and federal primaries on the same day and a constitutional amendment to allow registration on Election Day. In addition, voting reform advocates hope that New York will go beyond getting up to speed with other states, and become a leader in providing access to voting. "We're looking for automatic voter registration, we're looking for New York to restore voting rights to people on parole, and we're looking for a more voter-friendly ballot," said Morales-Doyle. "A lot of us who voted in New York City this last time around saw that things are pretty crazy with a two-page perforated ballot." For voting reforms to translate to higher participation, boosting registration may not be enough. Gothamist reported last November that as voter registration in New York City has risen, turnout has declined. Morales-Doyle spoke with WNYC's Richard Hake.

Review: 'Choir Boy' An Emotional Dive Into the Prep School Struggles of One Gay Boy

Pharus has a problem. He knows he's a gifted singer (he calls his throat "the Lord's passageway") and is unable to be anything but his complete, sashaying, effeminate self. The young men and teachers at his Christian, all-black, prep school for boys appreciate the first quality and have made him leader of the school choir — but most of them are deeply uncomfortable with the second. When he takes action to defend himself, kicking a homophobic rival out of the choir, it's Pharus who gets in trouble. And he doesn't know what to do. Tarell Alvin McCraney (he wrote the film "Moonlight" and the play it was based on) has written a spectacular — and spectacularly complex — character in Pharus. He's proud and self-doubting, narcissistic and kind. Brought to life by an extraordinary, joyful performance from Jeremy Pope, Pharus feels like a real teenager who is struggling to reconcile all the different aspects of his identity, while those around him keep sending subtle (and not so subtle) signals that the very way he moves his body is not OK. Pope plays Pharus with a kind of raw vulnerability that may bring to mind Ben Platt in "Dear Evan Hansen." But his performance is completely his own, a combination of mischievous provocation, childlike insecurity, and a deep honesty and warmth that give us a sense of the adult he might become. He'll likely make you cry, and then cheer. Yet the rest of the show doesn't live up to Pharus' promise. There are too many tropes here: The homophobic, one-noted rival; the white savior teacher; the wise-but-troubled headmaster. The plot, such as it is, doesn't really make sense. And the songs, which are sensational versions of pop tunes and spirituals, seem to be thrown in willy-nilly, instead of propelling the story forward or adding emotional richness. But as a character study, "Choir Boy" is simply unparalleled. "Choir Boy" by Tarrel Alvin McCraney and directed by Trip Cullman, at Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre through Feb. 24.

Review: 'Choir Boy' An Emotional Dive Into the Prep School Struggles of One Gay Boy

Father of Boy Killed By NYPD Remembered As Someone Who Sparked Decades of Activism

In September 1994, Nicholas Heyward's son, Nicholas Jr., was playing cops and robbers with friends where he lived in Gowanus Houses. Nicholas, a seventh-grader at the time, held a toy gun with a bright orange tip. As Heyward told StoryCorps in 2015, an NYPD officer was nearby on routine patrol. "There was a 911 call of shots fired," Heyward said. "Nicholas appeared before him suddenly, and the officer shot him. And Nicholas was gone." In that same StoryCorps segment, Heyward said the loss was still raw 21 years after Nicholas's death. "The pain has actually gotten deeper for me," Heyward said. "I wonder what it'd be like to have a son, 33 years old." The officer responsible for the killing was never charged, and Heyward would spend the rest of his life fighting for justice for his son and for others killed at the hands of police. According to the website Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, which covered Heyward's activism over the years, Heyward died on New Year's Eve of cardiac arrest — he died of a broken heart, as his wife put it. Heyward was memorialized and buried this week. Anthony Beckford, a family friend and fellow activist against police brutality, said in a phone interview that Heyward was seen as a wise elder among activists. He agreed with others who have said that Heyward helped lay the groundwork for the Black Lives Matter movement. "He became that centerpiece, that gravitational pull, in our universe of fighting for our people." Beckford said. "We all gravitated towards him. It was almost like we'd orbit around Nick. He was our sun and we were the planets." In covering Heyward's funeral, the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange noted that it took place at the same church, House of the Lord Pentecostal Church in Brooklyn, as young Nicholas's service in 1994. Heyward's younger son, Quentin, spoke. "My father was not driven by pain. He was not driven by grief — these things come naturally when you lose a child," the article quoted him as saying. "He was driven by justice." Heyward fought to have Nicholas's case reopened, and prosecutors did, in 2016. But the Brooklyn District Attorney's office found, once again, that there was not enough evidence to charge the officer who shot Nicholas.

Father of Boy Killed By NYPD Remembered As Someone Who Sparked Decades of Activism

This Week in Politics: Dark Money and "Accidental Virtue" in Jersey

A story in Politico this week revealed that PSEG, New Jersey's largest energy company, donated $55,000 to General Majority - a super PAC that contributed heavily to State Senate President Steve Sweeney's reelection campaign. Just four months earlier, Sweeney had worked aggressively to secure a controversial annual subsidy to prop up the company's nuclear power plants in the South Jersey Democrat's district. But what was supposed to be an anonymous donation to a "dark money" group called General Growth Fund was mistakenly sent to General Majority. The two groups are closely affiliated, and share staff. But General Growth Fund doesn't disclose its donors, while General Majority is legally required to do so. Now, the donation has detractors alleging "pay to play," and state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal might investigate the matter. Politico's Matt Friedman helped break the news about the donation by PSEG. He joins David Furst for a look at dark money's influence in New Jersey politics. Because the donation was revealed purely by chance, Matt refers to the revelation as "accidental virtue." He says, "If this is one $55,000 donation we're seeing – that we saw by accident – imagine the amount of money that's flowing through these completely unaccountable organizations regularly."

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