Students in Fordham’s Legislative Policy and Advocacy Clinic convened with elected officials and authored an op-ed during the spring semester as part of ongoing efforts to reform the state’s tax debt law so that thousands of New Yorkers facing extreme financial hardship would be exempt from license suspension.
Under the supervision of Clinical Professor Elizabeth Cooper, Emerson Argueta ’18 and Jessie Boas ’18 and rising 3Ls Elaina Aquila and Gabrielle Kornblau twice visited Albany to meet with legislators and their staff about proposed amendments to New York’s Tax Law (Section 171-V), which authorizes suspension of driver’s licenses for individuals who owe $10,000 or more in back taxes. Aquila and Kornblau, with assistance from Argueta and Boas, also published an op-ed in the Albany Times-Union criticizing the law’s harsh effects on low-income earners.
The tax law has produced a windfall for the state in excess of $700 million since its 2013 enactment, but critics argue this bounty has come at a tremendous cost. Many of the 24,000 individuals whose licenses are currently suspended lack the financial means to pay their debts, and their suspended licenses prevent them from working, attending religious services, and carrying out routine activities such as grocery shopping. The state offers purchase of a restricted license for $75, but that alternative only allows for driving to work and the doctor’s office.
The LPA Clinic’s engagement with tax law reform started in the fall 2017 semester—three years after Fordham’s Tax Clinic, guided by Professor Elizabeth Maresca, represented its first client whose license had been suspended under the new law. Maresca and the Tax Clinic are currently bringing litigation in New York County Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of the driver’s license suspension program. The Tax Clinic’s sustained work on the issue impressed upon Cooper the benefits LPA Clinic involvement could provide students and New Yorkers.
“One of the things the Legislative and Policy Advocacy Clinic tries to do is identify social injustices that other large organizations aren’t working on or paying attention to, in order to give students a hands-on experience on how to be legislative and policy advocates,” Cooper said. “This has been a terrific learning experience for the students and a great way to advance the needs of hard-working New Yorkers.”
A “Small” Issue Looms Large
Working on a project associated with tax law did not initially pique Argueta’s or Boas’ interests when Cooper suggested it for the fall 2017 semester. However, the students’ excitement about the project soared as they realized how many people the law affected, and the multidisciplinary strategies needed to achieve their desired results. Still, illuminating legislative oversight on this issue proved difficult for the first six months, until they made the three-hour drive up I-87 during the spring semester. By that time, the clinical duo had grown to a quartet, with the arrival of Aquila and Kornblau.
“Once we met with legislators face-to-face in Albany, it was much easier to explain what we were trying to do, and we got a lot of legislators on board,” Boas said.
“It might seem like a small issue,” Argueta added, “but to the person who lost their license it’s the largest issue, because it affects their livelihood.”
Advocating in Albany not only showed students the need for concise, persuasive pitches; it also taught them the need to strike a balancing act so that proposed protections for low-income residents could potentially pass through the New York State Senate and Assembly. This meant considering not only the interests of constituents and legislators, but also strategic thinking about how proposals would be welcomed by an army of staffers and various committees, the students noted.
“It’s important not to throw people under the bus or point fingers, and to take care to respect the people who drafted the law and gently suggest changes that make protections for lower-income New Yorkers more robust,” Boas explained.
During this legislative session, Assemblywoman Helene Weinstein (D-Brooklyn) introduced a bill that would create a financial hardship exemption. If enacted, Weinstein’s bill would automatically exclude from license suspension those individuals who are on public assistance, receive Supplemental Security Income, or who make 250 percent or less of the federal poverty line.
Weinstein’s bill was included in the Assembly’s budget proposal, but has not yet been introduced in the New York Senate. This legislative process wall did not deter the students. Instead, they focused on making their message heard through another venue: the press.
Pressing the Issue
The clinic’s advocacy component called for students to write an op-ed, which ultimately ran on May 1 in the Albany Times-Union. The collaborative spirit of the four students took the piece to the “next level,” according to Kornblau.
“In Albany, we focused on logistics, economics, numbers, pragmatic solutions,” Kornblau said. “With the op-ed, we sought to pull heartstrings, because this is at its core such a human issue.”
Shortly after the op-ed appeared online, students contacted Politico to request its inclusion in the political site’s popular morning e-newsletter, thus reaching a wider audience. U.S. House of Representatives candidate Dylan Ratigan also tweeted a link to the article to his nearly 80,000 followers.
Kornblau said the myriad lessons she and her classmates learned in the clinic has made it her best experience at Fordham thus far. She cited her development in incorporating peer feedback into her work and writing professional emails among the items she will use when she works at a firm.
“Everything we learned about document drafting, collaborating, and editing all combined to make this a phenomenal experience,” Aquila agreed, noting she planned to pursue tax law as a career.
For Argueta, the clinic’s mixture of government work, media, and the law crystallized the type of legal advocacy and policy work he intends to do in the immigration field.
The students invested a few hours per day, seven days a week, toward reversing the injustice the state’s tax law perpetrates on people of meager means. Without the presence of Cooper and Maresca, as teachers, partners, and collaborators, the experience would not have been as amazing, the students shared.
“It was incredibly rewarding from an academic perspective to watch students, who had no experience in tax law or legislative advocacy, become true experts, and be treated as colleagues by attorneys, legislators, and legislative staff in the field,” Cooper said. She remained hopeful that the legislature would enact the amendment this year and that Gov. Andrew Cuomo would quickly sign it. “If not, we will be back with a new team in the fall semester to pick up the advocacy and run with it,” Cooper assured.
Anticipating the demands of a changing legal profession and deepening our commitment to service are two of the six objectives of the Law School’s strategic plan, Fordham Law Forward.