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State Legislature Battles Over Minimum Wage Increase


livingwage
Photo provided by Office of Gov. Andrew Cuomo

The debate over minimum wages continues to divide the NY State legislature, with the Democrat-controlled assembly led by Speaker Sheldon Silver calling for the state rate to go up to $8.50, from the current $7.25. Republicans in the Senate and some business groups oppose the measure, saying it will hurt jobs and the broader economy.

The assembly held a series of hearings across the state in April, with more to come in May. Pro-labor groups such as the Business and Labor Coalition of New York testified on behalf of the legislation, saying that raising the minimum wage is essential to make sure workers can survive at the present costs of living. Many New Yorkers who make minimum wages came out as well.

"These hearings are an important next step in the process to raise the minimum wage," said Silver in a statement. "It is important for our communities to speak up. Raising the minimum wage fairly rewards low-wage workers, helping those who are striving to help themselves and in the process, giving a boost to local economies."

Similar debates are ongoing in many states around the country, driven by a slow economic recovery. California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri and New Jersey are all considering increases.

New York's minimum wage peaked in 1970, when it was $1.85 per hour, a purchasing power equal to about $10.70 today. The state's minimum wage is 19th from the top in the country. Vermont's minimum wage is $8.46 per hour and in Massachusetts, it's $8 per hour.

For the Raise

Analysts at the Fiscal Policy Institute, a liberal-leaning think tank, said that the increase would benefit 880,000 New Yorkers who earn below $8.50 per hour as of 2011, about 10 percent of the state's workforce, according to FPI research. The institute goes on to say that at $8.50, a person employed full time would earn slightly less than the federal poverty rate for a three-person household.

'Women, blacks and Latinos would be among the main beneficiaries of a higher New York minimum wage since they are disproportionately represented in low-wage jobs,' said James Parrott, deputy director of FPI.

FPI adds that the increase would drive greater consumer purchasing power, increasing demand for goods and services and stimulating the economy. The institute's testimony cites a study from the MIT journal Review of Economics and Statistics, which found that high minimum wages did not reduce employment across the country.

Assemblyman Keith Wright, chair of the labor committee, co-sponsored the bill and held many of the hearings. The bill has the support of politicians like assemblyman Sam Roberts and Dan Cantor, executive director of the Working Families Party. Mayor Michael Bloomberg also supports the increase.

Governor Andrew Cuomo said that he supports an increase in principle but he has yet to see how it will affect New York State's economy, which will dictate his decision.

Against the Raise

Many Republican senators and assembly members criticized the bill, skeptical of its merits or fearing job loss. Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos called it a 'job killer' and it 'increases all the costs of the job creators.' Other legislators who oppose the bill include State Sens. John DeFrancisco, Tom Libous and Patty Ritchie, as well as Assemblymen Will Barclay and Gary Finch.

Russell Sykes, a senior fellow at Manhattan Institute, a right-leaning think tank, said that raising minimum wage will not help many low-income New Yorkers because many people who earn minimum wage live in households which have other, higher income.

'Higher minimum wage would reduce job opportunities for the very people it's supposed to help, even as the benefits flow mainly to households that aren't poor,' Sykes wrote in an op ed.

Sykes, who worked as deputy commissioner at New York's Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance", said that there are better ways to help New Yorkers, such as Earned Income Tax Credit, a federal and state tax break for poorer families with children. He said that these programs are much more targeted towards actual poor households who need the help.

Parrott responded that EITC and raising the minimum wage are good complementary measures and one should not replace the other.

Still, there are some organizations that think that the $8.50 per hour goal is a step in the right direction but not enough, such as the nonprofit group National Employment Law Project, which testified at similar hearings in New Jersey, in March. According to the group, a minimum wage consistent with 1970 standards would come out to $10.39.

As Advocates Push for Redistricting Reform, GOP Offers A Slower Way


new york redistricting
Republicans have reason to fear they will lose seats in the State Senate if an independent redistricting commission draws the new lines.

Independent redistricting isn't the sexiest issue in Albany. The creation of district lines every 10 years just doesn't grab as much attention as cuts to services that more obviously affect peoples' daily lives.

And yet redistricting is one of the major hot button topics facing legislators this year. Good government advocates and legislators in the minority party -- notably Senate Democrats -- have been pressing hard to take the drawing of district lines away from a group handpicked by legislators and give the task to a non-partisan group. The idea is that a non-partisan group would draw lines based not on how to get incumbent members reelected but on how best to represent communities.

The pressure has been mounting, owing to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has proposed legislation, and former Mayor Ed Koch, who gathered pledgesfrom legislators during the campaign season to support independent redistricting. Cuomo's bill would create independent redistricting -- and give a fair amount of power to the governor. Neither house has moved on it.

Yesterday, though, as good government groups stepped up their efforts to change redistricting, the State Senate approved a bill that would do just that -- but not for another decade.

Choosing Sides

An overwhelming majority of legislators have indicated their support for independent redistricting, according to a study released yesterday by Reshape New York, a campaign to fight for redistricting reform. Sixty of 62 current senators have signed a pledge, voted for a bill in committee or voiced their support for taking redistricting out of the hands of the legislature. One hundred and twenty-one members of the 150-member Assembly have spoken in support of reforming the process. Cuomo's legislation would basically achieve what good government groups and legislators have been pushing for.

Yet change is not guaranteed. There are only a few months left before it will simply be too late, and the old redistricting practice will be used for 2012 and the rest of the decade. Then it will be 2021 before there is another chance to see reform initiated and put into action. Assembly Democrats and Senate Republicans both issued their one-house budgets over the weekend, and both budgets contained funding for the Legislative Task Force on Demographic Research and Reapportionment -- the group that has traditionally redrawn district lines. In other words, neither majority is planning for an overhaul to the system.

What is the holdup?

It comes down to how one defines reform who might benefit from what changes.

Winner and Losers

For one, when Republicans in the Senate signed Koch's pledge during the campaign last year they were in the minority. Most members of the minority (whichever party that happens to be at the time) support redistricting reform because they know the majority party will use the current system to keep itself in power.

So now that the Republicans hold a narrow majority, they have been stonewalling on the issue. They still profess to support reform but say a constitutional amendment is necessary to change the current system. Such an amendment would need to be approved by two successive legislatures and face a public referendum. In other words, change could not happen in time to alter the process this time around.

Whatever one thinks of its merits, the Republicans' position, many observers say, is a matter of survival. By most counts, if district lines were drawn fairly, the overwhelmingly greater number of registered Democrats in the state would probably mean that Republicans would lose the majority for the foreseeable future.

Senate Republicans would rather let Koch and other painted as enemies of reform -- as the former mayor has said he will do if they stand in the way of ,independent redistricting -- so they introduced a bill of their own. Sponsored by Republican Sen. John Bonacic , it calls for a constitutional amendment to create a new body to draw district lines. On Monday, it made its way through the committee process.

Koch and his allies wrote letters and distributed memoranda decrying the Senate Republican bill as a stall tactic. Koch wrote that the legislation "would not apply for the current redistricting cycle to be completed next year and therefore would not meet the requirements of the New York Uprising pledge, which specifies that the reforms apply to the redistricting pursuant to the 2010 Census." (New York Uprising is Koch’s advocacy organization.)

Sen. Mike Gianaris put it more bluntly: "A proposal that doesn't take effect for 11 years is a dodge."

Citizens Union executive director Dick Dadey said the amendment was "unacceptable." He noted that besides not addressing redistricting this year the amendment would would undo a bill Democrats passed last year that counted inmates for redistricting purposes not where they were incarcerated but where they lived before they were jailed. That measure would put more voters in the Democratic city and fewer in the upstate rural districts, where most state prisons are, further reducing the number of GOP seats. Along with that, Dadey said, the amendment permit a district to be 5 percent larger or smalller than the average size, "allowing for political manipulation."

The bill passed by a vote of 35-24. The aye votes came from Republicans and four members of the Senate Independent Democratic Conference. One observer noted that the bill made it through the entire legislative process in the Senate -- committees, debate and a vote, while Cuomo's measure is still waiting for any sort of hearing.

Members of the Independent Democratic Caucus said they supported the amendment because, while it is not perfect, it achieves a goal Democrats had when they were in the majority and did not act on. Senate Democrats had all the opportunity in the world to pass legislation or an amendment while they were in power but did not. Sen. Liz Krueger reportedly accused on member of the independent Democrats of colluding with Republicans to kill other reform measures and get the amendment passed.

A GOP Split

While many Senate Republicans insist that the only legal way to change the redistricting process is through a constitutional amendment, some Assembly Republicans, including Minority Leader Brian Kolb, said they support legislation that would address the issue for this year. Redistricting reform would not likely give Assembly Republicans a gigantic boost, but it would likely allow for more competitive districts upstate. Kolb said he would support Cuomo’s bill with some tweaks.

"I know that they say they would prefer to do it from a constitutional perspective, and I don’t disagree with that, it’s the preferred way to go," Kolb told the Times Union. "I think for this particular cycle only, we should try to get a non-partisan redistricting bill that I think will pass muster. Do I think it's possible? Yes, but that's only if everybody’s interested in making it happen."

High Stakes for the GOP

But will Senate Republicans sign what some see as their own death warrant?

Blair Horner of the Public Interest Research Group says that the notion that Republicans would be wiped out by independent redistricting is simply false. "Right now Democrats enjoy an enrollment advantage in a lot of Republican districts and yet the Republicans still control the Senate. The partisan argument doesn't hold water." Horner said Republicans, in some districts, would just have to run harder and raise more money than they do now.

As for how he is lobbying Republicans to support independent redistricting, Horner says it is fairly straightforward. "The argument is just a logical one," he said. "Cuomo promised to veto the lines if they don't pass independent redistricting. They can wait until next year to see if he vetoes the lines, and if there is no override, the courts would redraw the line. I argue it is more logical to start now than to have the court take this over and do it in a month’s time."

Cuomo's threat to veto any bill that does not create an independent redistricting commission is the key to this puzzle. With a veto, the courts are left to redraw district lines, leaving legislators at their mercy. But there is concern among some Senate Democrats that Cuomo may not follow through on his promise -- that perhaps the governor would deal with Republicans to come to some sort of a compromise rather than actually vetoing redistricting done under the old system.

"In the end, come it comes down to the governor," said Horner. "If redistricting reform happens it will be because of the governor; if it doesn’t it will come down to the governor. There will be a vote on redistricting reform and in this case we will know which elected officials broke their promise."

2010 in Review: Scandals, Budget Cuts and Top-Level Changes


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Cuomo
Photo by Saebaryo
Andrew Cuomo campaigning.

(For other year end coverage, see Gotham Gazette's review of the big things that did not happen in New York in 2010, and our roundup of prominent prognosticators' predictions for 2011.

Regardless of what may confront him in 2011, Andrew Cuomo had a pretty good year in 2011. That makes him one of the few New York luminaries who did.

For most of the city and state's political players, the year now ending was marked by budget cuts, scandal and overall bad news. And with the City Time controversy breaking into the headlines and more deficits on the horizon, the coming year could bring more of the same.

Until then, though, here are Gotham Gazette's picks for the Top 10 New York stories of 2011.

Coming Up Cuomo

Eight years after his political career appeared to have ended -- and 16 years after his father lost his bid for a fourth term as governor -- Andrew Cuomo resoundingly defeated Republican Carl Paladino to win election as the state's 56th governor.

In many respects, the victory night celebration in Manhattan marked a kind of anticlimax to two and a half years of bizarre twists in the state's politics.

Cuomo's path to victory began in March 2008 when Eliot Spitzer resigned as governor in the wake of reports he frequented high-priced prostitutes. It picked up steam as Gov. David Paterson's brief honeymoon skidded to a halt when he locked horns with the legislature over efforts to cut state spending. Cuomo then got a huge boost when Paterson, weakened and enmeshed in various allegations of wrongdoing (see below), decided not to seek election.

Already blessed with high name recognition, general approval from the public for his performance as state attorney general and a formidable war chest, Cuomo's good fortune continued as the state Republican Party appeared in disarray. In September, Carl Paladino, a multimillionaire real estate developer and Tea Party sympathizer from Buffalo, thrashed the establishment GOP candidate, Rick Lazio, in the primary.

Paladino's upset win -- along with his plain speaking on the mess in Albany -- brought him a quick spike in the polls. His campaign, though, quickly foundered amid accounts of pornographic and racists emails and other bizarre behavior --including rantings about gays, a physical confrontation with a Post reporter and wandering off in search of the bathroom in the middle of the only gubernatorial debate.

For his part, Cuomo ran a tightly controlled race, offering few specifics about how he would cut the state spending by billions or other policy areas. The move paid off on Election Day, as he came away with more than 61 percent of the vote.

From Hearst to Tweed

Cathleen Black
Photo by Kaplan101
New schools chancellor Cathleen Black

On Nov. 9, after eight years as schools chancellor, Joel Klein announced his resignation. Talk of Klein's leaving had been wafting around for months, if not years, so the real surprise in the City Hall press conference was not that -- but rather Mayor Michael Bloomberg's choice to succeed him: Cathleen Black, the chair of Hearst magazines.

The choice startled just about everyone, and in the days and weeks to come began to appear ever more confounding. While Bloomberg praised Black -- who travels in many of the same moneyed circles as the mayor -- as a world class manager, it rapidly emerged she had no experience in public education and as far as anyone could tell, little interest in it.

With critics describing the appointment as "a slap in the face' to the city's public school parents and teachers, and an example of cronyism, efforts mounted to block Black. State education commission David Steiner -- the one person with the legal authority to stop the appointment -- appointed a panel to advise him on whether to grant Black the waiver she would need to become chancellor, given her lack of education experience. That group voted against the waiver.

Steiner -- apparently nervous at the prospect of saying no to Bloomberg -- then engineered a compromise that would require Black to name an education deputy in return for his OK. She or someone (Bloomberg? Klein? Patricia Harris?) selected educator Shael Polakow-Suransky.

Window-dressing or not, it closed the deal for Steiner who promptly gave his blessing to Black. It did little or nothing to mollify some politicians and parents. Legal efforts to block Black will be heard in an Albany court on Thursday.

No End in Sight

In June Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the City Council http://www.gothamgazette.com/article/searchlight/20100625/203/3299">agreed to a budget that cut $1 billion in spending. Although less draconian than the mayor had originally threatened -- it did not, for example shut down any city libraries or lay off teachers -- the approved budget still pared city services. Some senior centers and day care site closed, for example, and libraries cut hours. The city also raised some fees- -- though not taxes.

And the cuts apparently did not go deep enough. Last month, Bloomberg unveiled a new round of $1.6 billion in reductions -- many of which could take effect without the council's approval. They represented the ninth round of slashes in the last three years. This time the cuts are slated to fall on libraries (as usual), the Administration for Children's Services, the fire department -- which plans to some companies shut during evening hours -- and Homeless Services. The plan also calls for teacher layoffs over the next 18 months, something averted in the spring when Bloomberg froze teacher salaries.

As the year ended, council members held hearings and denounced the cuts. Whether they could avert any remains to be seen.

But whatever happens with that, the worst could still come. In announcing the cuts last month, Deputy Mayor Stephen Goldsmith said even with the latest cuts, the city still faces a $2.4 billion shortfall for fiscal year 2012. Discussions on that begin early next year.

And the state could be in even worse shape. After a year in which the legislature and governor proved unable or unwilling to tackle the state's fiscal woes, the government faces a deficit estimated at $9 billion to $14 billion for the next fiscal year.

A Widening Net

Investigators began probing possible scandal at the New York state pension funds in 2006. But this year more people and firms fell, as Attorney General Andrew Cuomo seemed intent on wrapping up as many strands in the probe as possible before moving on to his new job.

In the "pay to play scandal," then State Comptroller Alan Hevesi and some of his associates used the state's $122 billion pension fund to reward financiers and firms that supported their campaigns, gave them money or did other favors. (Hevesi resigned in 2006 in the wake of allegations that now seem almost quaint.) In October, Hevesi pleaded guilty to having take $1 million in money and favors.

Last month, one of Hevesi's closest associates, former political consultant Hank Morris, reached a plea bargain on what has been described as a "minor charge." Morris reportedly took $19 million in fees for himself.

Altogether as of early November, six people in addition to Hevesi and Morris have pleaded guilty in connection with the probe, 16 firms have settled, and more than $139 million has been paid to the fund and the state, according to Cuomo.

Cuomo, though, has not been able to wrap up the case of Steven Rattner, the former Obama administration car czar and investment advisor to Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Rattner has agreed to pay $6.2 million to the Securities and Exchange Commission for his involvement in the kickback scheme. Cuomo has filed two lawsuits against Ratter seeking at least $26 million. The fight between the two men has turned nasty, with Cuomo describing Rattner's behavior as "the most egregious" of all the skulduggery into the pension fund case -- and calling Rattner a liar to boot.

The Really High Cost of Yankee Tickets

David Paterson
Photo by Azi Paybarah
David Paterson, last February, shortly before announcing he would not seek election to a full term as governor

Gov. David Paterson's really, really bad year started with a storm of rumors in February that the New York Times was at work on a story about him that would prove so damaging he would have to resign. Sex? Drugs?

Whatever the paper may -- or may not -- have unearthed about Paterson's personal proclivities, on Feb. 16, what many believed to be the story came out -- and it concerned not Paterson but a close confidant: David Johnson. Johnson had been arrested on drug charges as a teenager, the article said, and for assault in the 1990s. He also had, it continued, "on three occasions been involved in altercations with women, two of which led to calls to the police." That piece, New York magazine commented, met with "widespread media disappointment."

But eight days later, the paper published the bombshell. It reported that Paterson and members of the state police persuaded Johnson's former girlfriend to abandon her efforts to seek an order of protection against Johnson, who she charged, assaulted her in her apartment on Halloween night.

Two days later, with Attorney General (and potential political rival) Andrew Cuomo looking into the case -- at Paterson's request -- Paterson announced he would not seek re-election in November.

Months later, former Chief Judith Kaye, assigned by Cuomo to conduct the probe, determined Paterson made errors of judgment in the matter but did not break the law.

The governor did not fare as well in another case that came under Kaye's scrutiny: his alleged acceptance of free World Series tickets. Kaye found Paterson might have committed perjury when he told state investigators he had always planned to pay for the tickets to the opening game of the 2009 series. Earlier this week, the state ethics commission fined Paterson $62,125 for soliciting and taking the tickets -- a hefty premium for tickets that, had he gotten them the normal way, would have set him back $2,125. Meanwhile Albany District Attorney David Soares reportedly is continuing to investigate the possible perjury charges.

As for Johnson, he was arraigned on misdemeanor assault charges in August. Last month, Paterson officially fired Johnson, who had been suspended without pay since February.

Grade Deflation

New York City's vaunted leap in student achievement under Mayor Michael Bloomberg took a major hit this summer as the state Department of Education changed its scale for grading the tests. Responding to widespread criticism that scores had risen because tests had gotten dumber -- not that students had gotten smarter -- in the last several years, the state raised the score a student must reach to be considered "proficient" in English language arts and math.

The new scoring had only 54 percent of students in grades three through eight last school year meeting the standard for math -- down from 82 percent the previous year -- and 42.4 percent in language arts down from 69 percent the previous year.

The new system also found that, instead of narrowing as Bloomberg and his school chancellor Joel Klein had long proclaimed, the achievement gap between races had widened. Many blacks and Latinos had, apparently, scored at the lower end of the proficient category and so were knocked out of the category when the state raised its bar.

Despite the new scores, Bloomberg stood by his program. "There is a lot of evidence we are making great progress," he said. "Everybody basically knows this is working."

Power Loss

On Dec. 2 the House of Representative voted to censure Rep. Charles Rangel, for years the most powerful member of New York's House delegation. Although Rangel faces no criminal charges, the 333 to 79 vote delivered a harsh and very rare rebuke to the Harlem congressman, who had briefly served as chair of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee.

Rangel stood accused of failing to pay taxes on a vacation home in the Dominican Republic, of filing misleading financial disclosure forms and of improperly soliciting donations from corporations with business before his committee for a center named in his honor at City University of New York.

Following the censure, Rangel saidhe made mistakes but "there was no deception involved."

Although Rangel was already facing ethics charges during last fall's campaign, he handily turned back challengers in both the primary and the general election. He has saidhe plans to serve out his current term but many suspect it will be his last.

If You See Something...

Riverbank State Park
Photo by T.L. Miles
Police evacuated Times Square as they investigated and disarmed what turned out to be a car bomb.

Acting on a tip from a street vendor, police on May 1 disarmed a crude -- and smoking car bomb -- in the heart of Times Square on a Saturday night. Although the device, made of propane, gasoline and fireworks packed in a Nissan Pathfinder -- appeared crude, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said it still could have killed people and created havoc. "We were very lucky," he said.

The threat prompted the evacuation of thousands of tourists and other in the busy area, left people shut out of their hotels and forced cancellation of some Broadway shows.

Two days later, police arrested Faisal Shahzad, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Pakistan, for placing the bomb. In June, he pleaded guilty, telling the court that the U.S. should withdraw its troops from Afghanistan and Iraq and end its drone raids there or face further attacks. In October, a judge sentenced him to life in prison.

While many aspects of Shahzad's plan appeared amateurish, evidence emerged in subsequent days that the Pakistani Taliban may have played a role in the aborted attack and that Shazad had had bomb training in Pakistan.

Crime Capital

Pedro Espada
Photo by Azi Paybarah
Pedro Espada

Continuing in the footsteps of former Majority Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno and former State Assemblymember Brian McLaughlin, members of the state legislature continued their record of wrongdoing in 2010.

Leading the rogues gallery was Pedro Espada, until very recently State Senate majority leader and New York's highest ranking Latino politician. Last week, Espada and his son were indicted for allegedly siphoning more than half a million dollars from a group of health clinics they run -- and using it to pay for home improvements, a serious sushi habit and other expenses. Espada, who denies any wrongdoing, also faces a civil lawsuit charging he stole many millions more from those clinics, which are supposed to care for poor people in the Bronx.

Espada lost his re-election bid in September's primary.

In February, the Senate removed one of the miscreants in its midst -- Hiram Monserrate -- following his 2009 conviction on misdemeanor charges arising from a dispute with his girlfriend. (Monserrate won acquittal on far more serious charges involving slashing the woman with a broken glass.) In expelling Monserrate -- the first senator to suffer that fate in almost century -- the senators said they were taking a strong stand against domestic violence. His supporters, though, said he was being singled out for bucking the party leadership, and some charged he was the victim of anti-Latino prejudice.

Out of politics, Monserrate, though, is not out of trouble. In October, he was indicted on charges of fraud and conspiracy dating back to his days as a member of City Council. The charges allege that Monserrate steered some of his member items money to a nonprofit he controlled and used the funds to help finance a run for the State Senate. (The indictment is part of the ongoing federal investigation in abuses involving member items

Other legislators in trouble in 2010:

--Former Queens State Assemblymember Anthony Seminerio was sentenced to six years in prison in February after pleading guilty to charges that he improperly solicited money from people and organizations who had business with the state.

--Earlier this month, State Sen. Kevin Parker of Brooklyn was convicted of misdemeanor charges arising from his attack on a New York Post photographer. Parker, who has been in trouble for fighting with people before, won acquittal on felony charges in the assault, but could still face expulsion from the Senate.

--And just in case you thought only legislators from New York City got in hot water, earlier this month, former State Sen. Vincent Leibell pleaded guilty to federal obstruction of justice and tax evasion charges. He had been slated to become Putnam County executive next month -- but now could end up going to jail instead.

Flip Flop

After just two years in Democratic hands, the State Senate will return to Republican control when the new legislature takes office next month. Although a number of seats shifted, the decisive move for the GOP came in a ruling by a state Supreme Court judge that declared Jack Martins the winner over incumbent State Sen. Craig Johnson ion a Long Island district. The state's highest court upheld the decision this week.

Democrats had had a razor thin 32-30 vote edge, and the Republican margin will be just as small. Whether that will mean another two years of turmoil and gridlock in the upper chamber remains to be seen. Of course, the new majority leader, Dean Skelos, tried to turn back such fears. "We're prepared to work with the governor-elect and all of the members of the State Legislature to do the people's business, and look forward to a productive 2011 legislative session," he said.



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