Advocate hopefuls clash over use of cash from potential weed tax

These pols are stirring the pot!

Hopefuls battling to become the city’s next Public Advocate recently lit up the race with its first hot-button issue: how to use extra cash generated from taxing marijuana if the now-forbidden drug is legalized in the state.

Bushwick Democratic Councilman Rafael Espinal raised his profile as a contender for the soon-to-be vacant seat by panning another public official’s call to use the windfall from potential pot taxes to fix the city’s ailing subway system, instead urging that any such revenue be directed towards helping those most penalized by the prohibition of the drug, such as low-income residents of the city’s public-housing complexes.

“This is the perfect opportunity to right a historic wrong. Let’s fix Nycha, invest in bail programs to bail out low-level offenders, and fund economic-development programs that will focus on helping minority and women-owned businesses in the marijuana industry scale up,” Espinal said on Dec. 6.

Espinal’s recommendation clashed with that of former Democratic Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who is also running for the Public Advocate post that Letitia “Tish” James will soon vacate to become New York State Attorney General.

The former Manhattan pol earlier that same day announced she would look to shore up the beleaguered subway system with funds from a potential pot tax, after eggheads at New York University released a study that argued any tax revenue from legalized recreational cannabis — which the state’s Department of Health estimated could be as high as $678 million annually — could be used to fund the system.

But Mark-Viverito’s plan is wack, according to Espinal, who, without mentioning her by name, referenced the catchy “Weed for Rails” slogan she gave her proposal when declaring that not using the funds to help communities most affected by current pot laws would be a mistake.

“Not using the funding for these aims would be a huge missed opportunity and is tone deaf to the historic realities, which make legalizing marijuana necessary in the first place,” Espinal said.

Flatbush Democratic Councilman Jumaane Williams, another prominent contender for the citywide office that some of his colleagues are trying to eliminate, joined Espinal in calling for any would-be pot-tax revenue to be invested in communities of color that he said bear the brunt of drug-related law enforcement.

“Above any other considerations, revenue from [the cannabis] industry must be used to revitalize the very communities of more color that have been targeted by these unjust policies for too long,” Williams said. “No proposal can be put ahead of the people who have been victimized for decades by the criminalization of black and brown communities as a result of prohibition.”

Supporters of Mark-Viverito quickly fired back against the councilmen’s criticism of her plan for potential pot taxes, however, with a rep for the former pol accusing both men of not studying her proposal thoroughly enough.

“Maybe wiser to read ‘Weed for Rails’ plan before criticizing … (her) plan includes ‘legalizing marijuana in a manner that provides redress for the many thousands of people who have been arrested.’ Specifically calls for investing in black and brown communities,” Monica Klein tweeted.

Espinal, Williams, and Mark-Viverito are among the Public Advocate hopefuls who will tout their platforms at the race’s next candidates forum, which members of political club the New Kings Democrats will host on Dec. 18 at the First Unitarian Church in Brooklyn Heights.

• • •

Two Southern Brooklyn pols introduced nearly identical bills to expand voting access to non-English speaking constituents — on the same day.

Councilman Mark Treyger (D-Coney Island) on Nov. 28 put forth legislation that would require the Voter Assistance Advisory Committee, which is part of the city’s Campaign Finance Board, to provide interpreters for the 10 most commonly spoken languages citywide at poll sites across the five boroughs.

The city’s Board of Elections already provides Chinese, Spanish, Korean, and Bengali interpreters in election districts where 50 or more people identified one of those languages as their primary language in the 2010 United States Census, as required by federal law.

Earlier this year, Treyger and Mayor DeBlasio’s Office of Immigrant Affairs hired additional interpreters for Russian, Arabic, and Haitian-Creole speakers as part of a pilot program during the midterm elections. But those workers could not come within 100 feet of any poll site entrance, due to restrictions on electioneering.

Should the Coney’s poll bill pass, however, interpreters for Russian, Arabic, Haitian-Creole — as well as Yiddish, Italian, Urdu, Polish, and French — would be installed inside poll sites across the city.

Councilman Justin Brannan (D-Bay Ridge) proposed similar legislation, which would guarantee that polling places specifically provide Arabic-speaking interpreters at poll sites in districts that represent 50 Arabic speakers or more.

Supporters of the bills on Dec. 5 joined both councilmen — who sponsored each other’s legislation — at a rally outside City Hall, where Treyger condemned the current lack of language access, claiming it prevents people from doing their most important civic duty.

“In a city where hundreds of languages are spoken, where 40 percent of the population is made up of immigrants, failing to provide adequate language access at polling places is nothing short of voter suppression,” he said.

And although both bills cover similar ground, Treyger said that working with Brannan will ultimately make both efforts to expand voting access more successful.

“He and I are working together, because the more support, the stronger the bill is,” the pol said.

Reach reporter Kevin Duggan at (718) 260–2511 or by e-mail at kduggan@cnglocal.com. Follow him on Twitter @kduggan16.