By George Joseph
For the last four years, Queens State Senator James Sanders Jr. has pushed his colleagues in the New York legislature to greenlight public banks: local government-run financial institutions intended to extend credit and generate economic activity in low-income neighborhoods.
The public banks would support loans and deposit accounts through nonprofit financial institutions that have a mission of helping people access banking services who might not otherwise have access.
Sanders chairs the senate’s banking committee and has won 30 cosponsors for the bill, nearly half of the chamber. Still, the state senator has failed to try and pass his bill within his own committee, the next step needed to get it closer to a floor vote.
He cites a lack of support from his colleagues, including Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the powerful Senate majority leader whose lead fellow Democrats tend to follow.
“We have yet to win her over on this issue,” Sanders said in a phone call with THE CITY last week.
So far, Sanders said, the majority leader has only agreed to support a less ambitious bill that will study whether public banking is a good idea.
In a statement, Sarah Ludwig, co-director of the New Economy Project, one of several organizations pushing for Sanders’ bill, also blamed Democratic leadership for the lack of progress.
“With 31 members already sponsoring the bill and another handful on record saying they’ll vote for it if it comes to the floor, the Senate majority is showing a real appetite for the kinds of bold solutions we need in these challenging times,” said Ludwig. “We are confident that if Senate leadership gets behind the bill, it will pass by a healthy margin.”
Mike Murphy, a spokesman for Stewart-Cousins, affirmed that the majority leader supports the bill for a study on the “feasibility” of public banking, but disputed that she has already made a decision on the more expansive bill.
“I’d say we’ve no comment on that bill. As we do with everything, we’re still talking through it as a conference,” he said.
Assemblymember Carl Heastie, who leads the Democratic majority in his chamber, did not respond to repeated requests for comment about his stance on the Assembly version of the bill. He is not listed as a co-sponsor.
In April, 82 elected officials across the state, including mayors, City Council members and city finance leaders, signed on to a letter calling on Gov. Kathy Hochul, Stewart-Cousins and Heastie to back the legislation.
Sanders’ bill wouldn’t automatically create public banks. Instead, it would authorize cities to apply for public banking charters with the state’s Department of Financial Services.
Those cities must demonstrate to DFS that they could launch a bank with sufficient reserves and safeguards against political influence. After receiving charter approval, they could then pool together capital funds by issuing bonds, appropriating taxpayer dollars, or using federal stimulus funds to give the bank a financial foundation.
The public bank would then leverage pre-existing municipal revenue streams, like sales taxes and municipal fines, to enlarge the loan capacity of pre-existing credit unions, community banks and community development financial institutions.
As of now, North Dakota is the only state that uses public banks, an initiative won by early 20th century populists who used the bank to give farmers low-interest loans. Today, the institution has expanded its loan portfolio to address modern financial necessities, providing student and business loans to residents who might otherwise not qualify.
Sanders contends that public banking in New York could play a similar role helping Black and Latino residents in communities that have been left behind or harmed by private banks.
The issue is personal for the state senator, whose predominantly Black district in Southeast Queens was devastated by subprime mortgage loans in the run up to the 2008 financial crisis.
“This is a silent killer,” he said, referring to the economic fallout from private banks’ mortgage loan practices, which included ballooning, high-interest loans. “You go to bed with a neighbor, and you wake up with trucks moving that neighbor away. They’re too embarrassed to say their homes were stolen from them.”
Sonya Ferguson, a 62-year-old from Hunts Point in The Bronx, hopes that a public bank in New York City could help finance a credit union that she and fellow activists are trying to help launch in their neighborhood.
Ferguson has been unbanked for almost two decades because she says she can’t afford most banks’ account fees.
“I tried Chase one time,” she said. “Their marketing bill was like $7 a month, even if you didn’t do anything.”
Because of this reality, Ferguson has to turn to the current bank alternatives in her neighborhood.
A few weeks ago, she recalls, she got a $325 check for cleaning and painting an apartment that was being remodeled. Lacking a bank account, she went to a check cashing store next to the Longwood Avenue No. 6 train station. There, she says, they took a 2% cut.
“I’m working and I’m losing,” she said. “I’m getting a check, and I’m losing, you know?”
Previous New York City estimates have found that majority Black and Latino neighborhoods in the South Bronx and eastern Brooklyn have the highest rates of unbanked residents and the least access to brick and mortar bank branches.
Pushback From Banks
John Witkowski, president and CEO of the Independent Bankers Association of New York, told THE CITY in an email that he has met with Sanders a “few times” as he and other private banking advocates have sought to inject the industry’s position into the debate.
This year, Witkowski’s community bank group sent an opposition memo on the public banking legislation to the entire legislature, state lobbying records show.
The memo argues that a public bank reliant on public revenues would be a burden on taxpayers, who would have to fork over even more if too many loans go belly up.
“A critical consideration is not only taxpayer cost but also the inherent risk and liability of banking operations, which would be backstopped by taxpayers,” the memo states. “Unlike private banks which are required to collateralize the deposit of state funds to protect the state in the event of loss or bank failure, the state guarantees all deposits of public funds.”
The industry group also argues that a public bank could hurt local community banks by draining them of talent.
“Community banks would be unable to compete with the salary, healthcare and pension benefits which would be available to employees of a state bank, who are covered by the Civil Service Law as state employees,” the group noted in the memo.
State records also list several big banks, including JP Morgan, Capital One, and HSBC, as having hired firms to do “direct lobbying” on bills in Albany, including the public banking measures, over the last three years.
One 2021 disclosure, for example, refers to a lobbying firm engaging a staff member from Stewart-Cousins’ office on the bill in addition to other aides and lawmakers on behalf of Capital One.
Capital One did not respond to a request for comment, while HSBC declined comment.
In an email, a spokesperson for JP Morgan said the bank had not taken a position on the bill and “was not aware of any active lobbying on this issue either by us or by our contract lobbyists.”
Sanders and activists pushing for public banking assert that bank lobbying has discouraged fellow Democrats from backing the legislation. (Public records show that unions, housing rights groups, and several other pro-public banking groups have also themselves retained lobbying firms and deployed paid staff to push for the bill in Albany.)
“They have managed to control the narrative,” Sanders said of banking industry lobbying. Still, he insists he’s not giving up yet.
“Yogi Berra once said, ‘It ain’t over till it’s over.’ And that’s our position, that we are going to fight into the last possible moment,” he said.
Murphy, Stewart-Cousins’ spokesperson, rebuffed claims from pro-public banking activists that she is refusing to get behind the bill because of industry pressure.
“For the advocates to imply that simply because we want to support a further study of this crucial issue is offensive and nonsensical,” he said.
Albany’s legislative session ends in early June.