Gotham Gazette Thu, 22 Mar 2018 13:36:22 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Troubles Ahead as 2018 Legislative Session Kicks Off in Albany Cuomo legislative leaders Albany

Gov. Cuomo and legislative leaders (photo: Darren McGee/Governor's Office)

Since the 2018 session began last week, Governor Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders have outlined their agendas for the year, and addressed or hinted at some of the significant challenges facing state lawmakers.

In particular, threats from the federal government were acknowledged by Cuomo during his state of the State address and in remarks from legislative leaders in the Assembly and Senate, from the potentially harmful environmental policy of President Donald Trump’s administration to the new federal tax code -- passed by the Republican Congress and signed by the Republican president in December -- which is expected to disportionately burden New York taxpayers. Cuomo has said New York will sue, while his team is also exploring an overhaul of the state tax code to blunt the impact of the federal reforms.

The governor and the Legislature must also sort out the state’s larger-than-usual budget deficit, with a new spending plan due by the April 1 start to the new fiscal year, and while tackling the expiration of federal funding to various programs in healthcare and beyond.

Conflicts, some of them repetitious from past years, are clearly brewing over taxes, MTA funding and an expected congestion pricing proposal by Cuomo, reforming child abuse laws, voting reform, women’s reproductive rights, and more.

Also looming are the trials of several close former aides and donors to Cuomo and the retrials of two former legislative leaders, Dean Skelos and Sheldon Silver, both of whom were removed from the Legislature in 2015 following their initial convictions, which were later overturned due to a new Supreme Court ruling. Nevertheless, government ethics and campaign finance reform got barely a mention in the governor’s address and in opening day remarks by legislative leaders.

At the Assembly’s opening day on Monday, before outlining his legislative agenda, Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, offered an overview of the conference’s past legislative accomplishments, such as passing paid family leave and raising the age of criminal responsibility, and then dove into his concerns over “radical policies” coming from Washington.

“We must push back wherever necessary to protect the interests of our citizens,” said Heastie. “Among other things, Congress just enacted a law to scale back the deductibility of state and local taxes—a provision of law that predates the federal income tax itself. This shift will increase New Yorkers’ already sizeable contributions to the federal treasury while increasing our cost of living and disrupting our housing market—all to finance huge giveaways to the rich and to large corporations.”

Heastie cited affordable healthcare and childcare, domestic violence and sexual harassment, environmental protections, and gun control, including the banning of bump stocks, as issues on the top of his majority conference’s legislative agenda.

Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, a Republican representing Canandaigua and Geneva Counties in the Finger Lakes region who has announced he is running for governor this year, spent his initial floor time calling on his colleagues to put politics aside and face the crises in front of them. Essentially outlining his platform for the gubernatorial race, Kolb painted a bleak picture of New York State, which he noted could not be blamed on the federal government, highlighting New York City’s crumbling subways, Upstate New York’s chronic outmigration and poor job growth, as well as lack of movement on ethics reform in Albany as evidence that government was failing the voters of the state.

A poignant moment unfolded when Kolb expressed condolences to Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Morelle, whose daughter Lauren died last year following a battle with breast cancer, and praised his commitment to the job in the face of those challenges.

Meanwhile, looming over the State Senate’s opening day, which took place on Wednesday, January 3, was the news that there may be a Democratic reunification deal in place, provided that two vacated Senate seats remain Democratic through upcoming but not-yet-called special elections, granting the party the requisite 32 votes to pass legislation.

Currently, eight Democratic senators known as the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) form a ruling coalition with the Republican conference and nominal Democrat Simcha Felder, of Brooklyn, a Democrat who conferences with the GOP to form a majority even without the IDC.

During his opening comments on the Senate floor, Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, a Republican from Long Island, expressed pride in his conference and his colleagues across the aisle, noting that collectively they had served in the Senate for 593 years.

“I am not going to apologize. I am going to speak proudly of this institution and the fact that we all are engaged in public service, because last time I checked, I don’t have to canvas all 62 members to know that we’re not doing this for the money,” he said, seemingly referring to Cuomo’s call in his annual address for a ban on outside income.

Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Westchester Democrat, urged the governor to call a special election to fill the two vacant Senate seats “as soon as possible.” Cuomo had the discretion to call for special elections to fill a total of 11 vacant legislative seats, with nine in the Assembly, as early as January 1, but he has declined, indicating he does not want the Senate seats filled before a budget deal is reached. An election would take place 70 days after Cuomo makes the call.

IDC Leader Jeffrey Klein of the Bronx also rattled off his conference’s legislative priorities, including voting reform measures, universal pre-kindergarten expansion, a student loan forgiveness proposal, improvements to the subway system and a method to pay for them, and a completely state-funded Child Health Plus program.

On Monday, Stewart-Cousins spoke from the Senate floor wearing black in solidarity with all women, echoing the statement made by Oprah Winfrey and others at the Golden Globes a day prior, and vowed that her conference is committed to battling workplace sexual harassment, which she said “every woman in the Senate has experienced.”

Outlining her conference’s priorities, she highlighted legislation to tip workers’ rights, voting reforms, women’s health policies, healthcare, tightened gun laws, MTA investments, and more.

On Tuesday, Senate Republicans elaborated on their “affordability agenda,” making clear that their vision does not include higher taxes of any sort, including the additional payroll tax floated by Cuomo as a possible way to compensate for the reduction of the state and local tax deduction from federal taxes that is part of the new tax code. Rather, the Republican conference is pushing their usual message of controlled spending, including a cap on annual state spending growth, plus a slew of bills to slash income, property, energy, and retirement taxes.

Presiding over a press conference to outline the agenda, Flanagan did not provide information about how the state, which is facing immense budgetary challenges, would pay for the additional tax breaks and cut the press conference short as reporters asked repeated questions about curbing discretionary spending in members’ districts. Flanagan defended the practice, which he was being asked about because of the news Tuesday morning that Democratic Assemblymember Pamela Harris had been indicted on public corruption charges.

Another point of conflict was apparent at the Senate’s opening last week, when Timothy Cardinal Dolan, New York’s archdiocese, offered a prayer to launch the session. Advocates for the passage of the Child Victims Act, hopeful for movement on the bill that makes it easier for victims of childhood sex abuse to file charges, criticized Flanagan and IDC Leader Jeffrey Klein for inviting Dolan to give the benediction.

Critics said Dolan, who leads the Catholic Conference, which has spent millions on lobbying to prevent the passage of the Child Victims Act, should not have been invited when the bill is such a hot item of debate.

"Majority Leader Flanagan has refused to meet with victims and buried the Child Victims Act in the rules committee for years," stated Gary A. Greenberg, founder of Fighting for Children PAC. "The is a new low to rub salt in our wounds and invite the person who has stopped victims of child sexual abuse from receiving justice in New York. Flanagan has refused to meet with victims and I have turned down another meeting with his staff."

New Members and Vacant Seats
If Cuomo does not call a special election soon, nearly 1.8 million New Yorkers will be without representation during budget negotiations, according to calculations from the New York Public Interest Group.

The Assembly has welcomed two new members from the city, Daniel Rosenthal, of the 27th Assembly District in Queens, and Al Taylor, who replaced former Assembly Ways and Means chair Denny Farrell in Upper Manhattan’s 71st District, both of whom were selected by local Democratic party leadership. Rosenthal, a former aide to City Council Member Rory Lancman, is the youngest sitting member of the state Assembly at age 26. Taylor is a pastor and community organizer who served as chief of staff to his predecessor, Farrell, who retired last year.

In the Senate, former Assembly member turned Senator Brian Kavanagh, of lower Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn, took Daniel Squadron’s former seat in the Democratic conference. Kavanagh was the party-leader-picked successor to Squadron, who resigned abruptly last fall, citing disillusionment with his ability to affect change in the Senate and a new opportunity to go national. Kavanagh led a press conference on Tuesday calling on the governor to include funding for early voting in his executive budget proposal, due out next week.

Klein, in his remarks, also briefly addressed Assemblymember Luis Sepulveda of the Bronx as a “senator in waiting.” Sepulveda has announced his candidacy for the vacated seat of now-City Council Member Ruben Diaz, Sr.

Heastie also announced a shuffle of leadership positions. Replacing Farrell at the helm of the Ways and Means committee is Brooklyn Assemblymember Helene Weinstein, marking a first for the Assembly, as no woman has previously held the post that runs budget proceedings.

Corruption Trials Loom
Hanging over this session will be the upcoming trials of former State Senator George Maziarz, which begins in February, as well as those of the former Cuomo aides and associates -- including his former top aide Joe Percoco and former SUNY Polytechnic Institute President and CEO Alain Kaloyeros -- and those of Skelos and Silver. Good government groups gathered at the capital this week to highlight this climate, attempting to put pressure on legislative leaders and Cuomo to move forward legislation on clean contracting, LLC loophole closure, outside income limits, and other reforms.

On Tuesday morning the news of Assemblymember Harris’ multi-count indictment broke, putting added focus on government ethics and other reforms. Harris, who represents Bay Ridge and Coney Island, was indicted on fraud charges for allegedly diverting City Council funds designated for the non-profit she ran before taking office and for fraudulently obtaining Hurricane Sandy relief funds for her home, as well as witness tampering. Legislative leaders reacted to the news with surprise and disappointment but downplayed the need for reforms.

Flanagan expressed surprise as he learned of the news from reporters, during the press conference on the Senate Republicans’ agenda. “I’m actually very disheartened to hear that. But it is an indication that our laws are actually working. We have more disclosure, more transparency, more limitations of what people can do in the Legislature,” said Flanagan, adding that her indictment is “bad for everyone, because it paints the Legislature with a broad brush.”

Heastie, when cornered by reporters outside his chamber, also shrugged off the need for additional ethics guidelines. “I don’t want to get so much into it, because I haven’t read the indictment, but there are certain things you can and cannot do in this life. I’m not sure how another ethics reform makes this better or worse.”

In contrast, Democratic Senator Todd Kaminsky, a former federal prosecutor, released a statement calling for “crucial ethics reform in Albany” after learning of Harris’ indictment.

“Today’s indictment is the latest chapter in a sordid book about the need for crucial ethics reform in Albany,” said Kaminsky. “In particular, the legislature needs to immediately focus on the outside income of legislators, as demonstrated by this latest case. We can’t let Albany shrug this one off — we must prioritize those reforms and others to restore voters' trust and confidence in the government.”

by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Troubles Ahead as 2018 Legislative Session Kicks Off in Albany Tue, 09 Jan 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Previewing Cuomo’s 2018 State of the State Cuomo State of the State Long Island

Gov. Cuomo (photo via The Governor's Office)

Governor Andrew Cuomo is set to deliver his 2018 State of the State address on Wednesday in Albany, at which he will outline his policy agenda for the year, his eighth as governor. A Democrat who plans to seek a third term later in the year, Cuomo has been rolling out planks of his State of the State agenda in the weeks leading up to the speech.

As of Wednesday morning, Cuomo had officially announced 22 pieces of the agenda, each in a separate press release from his office, some in conjunction with public events. They range from statewide proposals like environmental protections to more local topics, like fighting the MS-13 gang on Long Island, and also include promises to take away gun rights from domestic abusers, criminalize “revenge porn” and “sextortion,” invest further in his program to revitalize local downtown areas, and reevaluate the lower minimum wage allowed for workers who regularly receive tips. Most of the 22 planks have several parts that at times cover a lot of ground.

These announcements have come as Cuomo has been working to preempt, then react to recently-passed federal tax reform legislation that is opposed by New Yorkers across the political spectrum. While he’s put forth his initial 2018 agenda items, Cuomo has also been working to mitigate the effects of the tax reforms, which will likely force many New Yorkers to pay higher overall taxes, with measures such as allowing property tax prepayments.

Along with what he’s announced so far, there are a number of topics the governor is expected to address either through his State of the State speech or the policy book that typically accompanies it. That policy agenda, in combination with his executive budget proposal, also due in January, forms the initial blueprint for bargaining with the Legislature.

Cuomo's 18th plank came on Tuesday morning and deals with combating sexual harassment in workplaces, including throughout state government. Cuomo had indicated the would unveil comprehensive sexual misconduct legislation that strengthens harassment and discrimination laws in all industries, a response to the ongoing national reckoning, which has touched high-profile Cuomo donors Harvey Weinstein and Mario Batali as well as a now-former member of Cuomo’s administration, Sam Hoyt.

The governor recently made waves when he defensively responded to a reporter who asked him what he was going to do to root out sexual misconduct in state government. Speaking with a group of journalists, Cuomo told the female reporter who asked the question that singling out state government did a “disservice to women” because there are problems across industries and sectors. Cuomo vowed to deal with the issue holistically and said to look for plans during the State of the State. The governor’s response drew widespread criticism and he made efforts to clarify his intent while he also called to apologize to the reporter, Karen DeWitt of upstate public radio.

According to SUNY New Paltz political scientist Gerald Benjamin, Cuomo must further address the new tax code, signed into law by Republican President Donald Trump just before Christmas, while he also seeks attention for his other plans.

“The run-up to the State of the State is being overpowered by the debate over the federal tax changes. So, it’s taking the headlines and the governor is directly involved, when he’s using terms like ‘traitor’ to describe people,” said Benjamin. “The purpose of the early release of these items, one proposal at a time, is to control and direct the news flow. It’s a classic practice that has gone on over decades in New York.”

Cuomo recently told CNN hosts that even as he considers a legal challenge to the federal tax overhaul, “We're going to propose a restructuring of our tax code.”

“I'm not even sure what they did is legal or constitutional and that's something we're looking at now,” Cuomo added, referring to federal lawmakers. He said that the ways in which the reforms targeted heavily Democratic states like New York and California that have higher state and local taxes could be grounds for legal action.

Another piece of his agenda that Cuomo has already announced is his “Democracy Project,” which includes several measures to make online political advertisements more transparent; secure elections from cyberattacks, and improve New Yorkers’ access to the ballot box through measures like early voting.

The governor has not yet released any proposals around government ethics or campaign finance reform, which are annual topics of controversy in Albany. When Cuomo announced the Democracy Project, Gotham Gazette inquired whether New Yorkers should expect campaign finance and government ethics reform proposals from the governor. A spokesperson did not give an indication either way, but said the governor is committed to seeing his election reforms pass.

Cuomo has proposed such measures every year he has been governor, with some measures and half-measures passing on several occasions. But they have not stemmed the tide of corruption in state government. The spotlight will again be on Cuomo to make headway this year as several of his close associates are facing trial in early 2018 for their roles in an alleged bid-rigging scheme tied to Cuomo’s signature economic development programs.

“There may be a degree of uncertainty in this session because of the monumental scope and character of recent events, but the ethics question is going to be very important,” said Benjamin.

Voting, government ethics, and campaign finance reforms are among many of Cuomo’s 2017 policy proposals that did not materialize last year, either due to resistance from the Legislature, a lack of more aggressive lobbying by the governor, or other challenges.

While it was not part of his agenda last year, Cuomo has indicated that a congestion pricing plan for the New York City region will be part of his 2018 agenda, and he empaneled a commission to make recommendations that are due soon. The governor may release the details of his proposal as part of his State of the State, with the goals of reducing congestion on city streets, especially in Manhattan, and funding MTA repairs, but he may also wait for later in the year. There are host of other issues Cuomo may look to address, including major areas like affordable housing, education, and health care.

Ahead of Cuomo’s 2018 address, Gotham Gazette asked legislative leaders for what they would like to see on the governor’s agenda. Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins -- who is in talks with Cuomo and members of the Independent Democratic Conference about a potential reunification deal if Democrats can secure a numerical majority in 2018 -- noted that New York faces a difficult economic reality due to actions taken by Trump and Republican lawmakers in Washington, D.C.

“We must find more ways to protect taxpayers and create good jobs, ensure access to quality, affordable healthcare for all New Yorkers, protect women's rights, ensure our education system receives the resources it deserves, repair and fully fund our decaying infrastructure and MTA, and stand up for vulnerable communities under attack by the Trump Administration,” she said. “We have a lot of work ahead of us, and Senate Democrats will push for action to be taken immediately.”

Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, who was the first Republican to announce that he is running for governor in 2018, took aim at Cuomo.

“The priority in 2018 must be on setting an agenda that helps New Yorkers, rather than setting an agenda that helps presidential ambitions,” said Kolb, referring to Cuomo’s apparent interest in a 2020 presidential campaign. “We have an affordability problem that’s driving residents and businesses to other states. The growing infrastructure crisis is making everyday life more difficult for millions of New Yorkers. Endless unfunded mandates from Albany continue to drive up local property tax burdens. Billions in taxpayer dollars are spent on job-creation programs, with little return on investment. Government accountability and transparency have been ignored for too long. These are the priorities of the Assembly Minority Conference and I hope the governor and our legislative colleagues agree that they demand our immediate attention.”

Spokespeople for Republican Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan and Democratic Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie did not return requests for comment. While an IDC spokesperson did not return a request for comment, the IDC did unveil on Thursday its 2018 state budget agenda -- a spending plan for next fiscal year is due by its April 1 start.

Among other things, the breakaway group of eight Democratic senators led by Sen. Jeff Klein of the Bronx is calling for early voting, no-excuse absentee voting, dedicating a portion of New York City sales taxes toward MTA repairs, tax relief for many New Yorkers, and protecting health insurance for children from poor families.

In a statement accompanying release of the agenda, Klein said that the “budget addresses issues...we can advance to improve participation in our elections, enhance our children’s education, protect our workers, upgrade our infrastructure, and help our immigrant communities. As one state we must unite around passing a budget that achieves these goals that transcend party lines.”

As for Gov. Cuomo, he is returning this year to the typical State of the State address in Albany after he gave six smaller addresses around the state last year, finishing in Albany, which had been a break from tradition.

A running list of Cuomo’s 2018 proposals unveiled so far:

1. Removing firearms from domestic abusers - the legislation would build on existing restriction on gun ownership which currently only bars gun ownership from individuals convicted of a felony domestic abuse, not those convicted of a misdemeanor.
2. Protect the environment, protect the Hudson River - Governor Cuomo and Attorney General Eric Schneiderman will take immediate action to sue the federal government if the Environmental Protection Agency deems the Hudson River PCB dredging complete.
3. Round three of the Downtown Revitalization Initiative - Invest $100 Million in 10 Economic Development Regions and build upon first two rounds of downtown revitalization awards.
4. Cutting off the recruitment pipeline to eradicate MS-13 - A five-point plan to improve access to social programs, like after-school education and job training for at-risk youth. Additional support for unaccompanied minors and bolstered law enforcement in gang hotspots.
5. Examine eliminating the minimum wage tip credit to strengthen economic justice in New York State - Cuomo will direct the Commissioner of Labor to hold hearings to evaluate eliminating tip credit.
6. Continue to reduce the local property tax burden by making the state’s county shared services panels permanent - state funding for local government performance aid will now be conditioned on shared services panels.
7. Major investment to accelerate improvement at Niagara Falls Wastewater Treatment Plant - Invest $20 million to launch phase one of treatment plant overhaul to protect water quality. Commit $500,000 to accelerate studies of outfall, facility upgrades required by consent order issued by DEC.
8. New York will take legal action to halt a rail operator's plan to store thousands of railcars indefinitely in the Adirondack Park.
9. Fossil fuel divestment - Calling on New York State Common Retirement Fund to cease all new investment in entities with significant fossil fuel-related activities and develop a decarbonization plan for divesting from fossil fuels.
10. Bringing the New York Islanders home with a world-class sports and entertainment destination at Belmont Park - Internationally recognized destination will feature 18,000-seat arena, 435,000-square-foot retail and dining village, and new hotel.
11, Ending sextortion - sextortion and non-consensual pornography will be criminalized under state law and require registration as a sex offender and be punishable by jail time
12. Protecting New York’s Lakes from harmful algal blooms - a $65M investment to combat algal blooms that threaten recreational use of lakes and drinking water
13. Democracy Agenda - Protect integrity of New York Elections, require transparency for digital ads, and enact voting reforms.
14. Fast track state-of-the-art containment and treatment of U.S. Navy/Northrop Grumman contamination plume - Cites new analysis indicating it will be possible to fully contain and treat four-mile-long, two-mile-wide plume in Oyster Bay, Long Island.
15. Ensure students don’t go hungry - a five-point plan to combat hunger for students in kindergarten through college including requiring breakfast after the bell in schools, creating more pathways to healthy eating in schools, and ending practices that shame students who cannot afford school lunch.
16. Take further action to fight the burden of student loan debt. Planks include appointing a Student Loan Ombudsman; requiring colleges to provide simple 'truth in lending' facts for students; and increasing consumer protection standards throughout the student loan industry.
17. Invest $34 million to modernize and expand Stewart International Airport in Orange County. Cuomo proposes the Port Authority approve the investment, which would increase access to the Mid-Hudson Valley via construction of a permanent U.S. Customs and Border Protection federal inspection station, which would allow for both domestic and international flights. Cuomo is also proposing modernization efforts for the airport.
18. Combat sexual harassment in the workplace. "Cuomo will propose legislation to prevent public dollars from being used to settle sexual harassment claims against individuals, void forced arbitration policies in employee contracts, and mandate that any companies that do business with the state disclose the number of sexual harassment adjudications and nondisclosure agreements they have executed."
19. Strengthen workforce development. The governor is proposing "a comprehensive workforce development program to ensure all New Yorkers have access to training to meet growing workforce needs and continue to move New York's economy forward. The new Office of Workforce Development will implement a multi-pronged plan to strategically target local workforce needs in emerging industries across the state and help workers and businesses succeed in the 21st century economy."
20. "Combat climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and growing the clean energy economy. By further strengthening the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and welcoming new state members, New York will continue its progress in slashing emissions from existing fossil fuel power plants. In addition, unprecedented commitments announced today to advance clean energy technologies, including offshore wind, solar, energy storage and energy efficiency, will spur market development and create jobs across the state."
21. Taking steps to revitalize Red Hook. "[C]alling on the Port Authority and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to study potential options for relocating and improving maritime activities and enhancing transportation access to Brooklyn's Red Hook neighborhood."
22. Overhaul the state's criminal justice system. "This comprehensive package - the most progressive set of reforms in the nation -- will guarantee fairness for the accused by reshaping New York's antiquated bail system, ensuring access to a speedy trial, improving the disclosure of evidence in the discovery process, transforming asset forfeiture procedures and implementing new initiatives to help individuals transition from incarceration to their communities."

By Rachel Silberstein and Ben Max

by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article will be updated as the governor's office releases more proposals ahead of his speech.

Previewing Cuomo’s 2018 State of the State Thu, 28 Dec 2017 05:00:00 +0000
Possible GOP Gubernatorial Candidates Weigh Chances to Unseat Cuomo gop governor candidates

L-R: Harry Wilson, John DeFrancisco, Marc Molinaro, Brian Kolb

The Republican pool of candidates exploring an attempt to unseat Governor Andrew Cuomo in the 2018 gubernatorial race appears to be shrinking. Now just four Republicans say they are exploring a run -- down from at least seven prior to this past Election Day -- with the potential candidates vowing to announce their decisions by Christmas.

Targeting the well-funded Democratic governor seeking his third term would typically be a bold but calculated bet. On one hand, Cuomo has significant vulnerabilities going into 2018, but the outcome of Election Day 2017, which many are interpreting as a “blue wave” of Democratic wins in reaction to the presidency of Donald Trump, may give some Republicans more pause.

A GOP gubernatorial win in New York, which has not happened since George Pataki won a third term in 2002, would require sizeable success in the New York City suburbs, but after voters handed GOP county executive seats in Westchester and Nassau to Democrats earlier this month, potential 2018 candidates must consider how the anti-Trump sentiment will play out next year.

"What looked to be a very deep pool suddenly got ankle-deep shallow, with the water still going down. That's what a mini-tsunami election will do to anyone rationally thinking of running against a political tide,” said William O’Reilly, a Republican strategist who runs the November Team. That wave seems to have both unseated and knocked from 2018 contention Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, an O’Reilly client who lost to Cuomo in the 2014 gubernatorial race.

Harry Wilson, a hedge fund manager from Westchester, is seen as a clear front-runner to become the GOP nominee next year, as he may be capable of coming closest to Cuomo’s immense fundraising capabilities and he performed well in his 2010 bid for state comptroller. The other three most-discussed potential GOP gubernatorial candidates are all current officeholders -- Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro, Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, and state Senator John DeFrancisco -- who would begin a race with a solid local base of support and some name recognition.

“I would hope that Senator DeFrancisco or County Executive Molinaro will make the leap,” said O’Reilly, “but in the end the 2018 Republican candidate for governor may have to come down to a recruitment effort.”

For his part, Cuomo is heading toward his reelection year facing criticism from the right and the left for New York City’s subway crisis. Among other issues, he is also maligned for high property taxes around the state, not to mention corruption trials about to begin involving his economic development initiatives, which involve some of his closest associates. Cuomo is not especially popular outside of New York City, where his favorability remains fairly high, and the second-term Democrat may very well face a tough primary of his own, as he did in 2014, given that many in the left flank of his party see him as too centrist.

The New York State Republican Party has calculated that ideally it should avoid a primary to have a shot at victory -- assuming Cuomo is in the running -- so the four potential candidates are now courting GOP leadership for the nod. All four men say they are on good terms with each other and each is taking his own path to testing the waters. Molinaro and Kolb have discussed running on a ticket together for governor and lieutenant governor, but both say that no such decision has been made (and it is not clear which would run for what).

Publically, the party leadership is shrugging off the losses from Election Day, pointing to other victories like that of Republican Steve McLaughlin, an Assembly member elected county executive of Rensselaer. State Republican Party Chair Ed Cox, on Fred Dicker’s Focus on Albany radio show, chalked up Astorino’s loss to “third term-itis,” the same challenge now facing Cuomo, whereby it is notoriously difficult to win third terms in politics.

Regarding the election of Democrat Laura Curran to the historically-Republican Nassau county executive seat, Cox pointed to a Democratic voter base energized by opposition to the constitutional convention ballot question. Former County Executive Ed Mangano’s indictment last year on federal corruption charges also tainted the Republican Party and turned many independents, who make up a large segment of Nassau’s electorate, against GOP contender Jack Martins, he said.

Wilson, who did well in his 2010 run for state comptroller, losing to Democrat Tom DiNapoli 49.7 percent to 47.2 percent and has had private sector success, may be willing to put in $10 million or more of his own money. Molinaro, Kolb, and DeFrancisco would each be able to kick off fundraising from their local supporters.

With a governor that has $25 million and counting in the bank, and was recently in California courting major donors, Republican candidates might want to get an early start in fundraising, but that would require more commitment to exploring or declaring a run (on the Democratic side, for example, former state Senator Terry Gibson, considering a primary challenge to Cuomo, recently opened a campaign account so he could start raising money).

Prior to his run for comptroller, Wilson flexed his business acumen and negotiating chops when he helped President Barack Obama execute the auto industry bailout early in Obama’s first term. One “prominent Republican county chairman” told The Daily News that “If Harry Wilson says he wants to be the nominee, he’ll be the nominee.” Wilson’s bipartisanship could prove helpful in a general election against Cuomo, as could his New York City-focused criticisms of the governor.

On Dicker’s show, on November 15, Wilson suggested that his current priority is raising his four daughters, two of whom are teenagers, and said he would decide over the holidays whether the timing was right for his family.

“In four years from now two of our girls will be out of the house. In eight years from now, all our girls will be out of the house and I’ll still be a young man,” said Wilson, referring to the possibility of holding off this year and running in the future. “It’s a question of that tradeoff of where I can be most useful, most effective, and balancing my commitment to my family and helping others.”

Meanwhile, Molinaro, a suburban county executive who felt the Nassau and Westchester losses close to home, said in an interview with Gotham Gazette that those outcomes would likely factor into his own decision-making.

“What occurred certainly in the suburbs of New York City in 2017 should weigh on us,” said Molinaro. “I think what happened [on Election Day] is the result of an energized [Democratic] base, which is upset with the national politics -- no question -- and organized opposition to the constitutional convention question; those two things combined, with a few other local variables.”

Molinaro, who has been a vocal critic of Cuomo on social media and elsewhere, is especially critical of the administration’s failure to accompany the state’s property tax cap with adequate mandate relief, the heroin crisis, and failing schools, and has a good reputation as a county manager. Like Wilson, he has emphasized city metro area interests like fixing the subway system. He has also cited his young family, including a 6-month-old son, as one reservation about running.

On the more conservative end of the spectrum are the two upstate legislators, DeFrancisco and Kolb, both of whom have extensive legislative experience and have not been shy about criticizing the governor and his policies.

DeFrancisco, who has been representing the Syracuse area since 1992, says he recognizes Cuomo’s fundraising advantage and name recognition, but also sees many similarities between today and 1994, the year Pataki beat Cuomo’s father, former Governor Mario Cuomo, who was then seeking a third term amid buzz about presidential aspirations, like those that surround Andrew Cuomo now.

“Back then people were leaving the state, exactly like it it is now. There was a deficit back then -- I remember it vividly -- of $5 billion. The Democratic comptroller is estimating that the budget deficit going into January is going to be $4 to $6 billion. Almost an identical situation,” said DeFrancisco. “And there was a feeling out there -- the same thing I’m hearing now -- that it’s ‘anybody but Cuomo.’ An individual by the name of George Pataki that nobody knew, the former mayor of Peekskill, a first-term senator, ends up being the nominee and beats him.”

DeFrancisco regularly attacks Cuomo, and he hasn’t hid his frustration with the fact that much of his legislation, including a bill to restore procurement oversight powers to the state comptroller, has not reached the Senate floor, even as the chamber is controlled by Republicans. “I believe the best way to make change and the fastest way to make substantial change is by having a Republican governor,” he said.

Kolb, as leader of the minority conference in the Assembly, has had the liberty of taking principled stands, such as pushing for significant ethics reform and advocating for a “yes” vote on the constitutional convention. The Republican from Canandaigua has consistently voted against legislation that is controversial in upstate’s more conservative, rural areas, like Cuomo’s signature 2013 gun-control legislation, the SAFE Act.

Kolb, who prior to taking office in 2000 was an entrepreneur and ran two manufacturing companies, Refractron Technologies and North American Filter Corporation, said he believes he has “the best blend of private sector and public sector experience.”

“I’ve created jobs. I know the obstacles and how to fix them. I’m problem solver and I’ve done it in the public sector and the public sector and I’ve also shown I could work across the aisle,” he said.

The Republican contenders all say they would work to capture the disillusionment in Cuomo’s policies felt on both sides of the aisle. In 2014, Cuomo endured a bruising primary amid criticisms from progressives that he empowers the Senate GOP alliance with rouge Democrats, impeding the state from moving in a more progressive direction, a rallying cry that has since picked up steam. Zephyr Teachout, a professor at Fordham’s law school, won a surprising 34 percent of the Democratic vote in that primary after running a truncated campaign that began with no name recognition or money. Another tough primary in 2018, which Cuomo has done some work to avoid by passing more progressive legislation, could hurt the governor in a general election, largely depending on the opponent.

The potential GOP candidates said they plan to hold Cuomo accountable on issues like the subways, upstate’s crumbling infrastructure and outmigration, rising property taxes, his failure to tackle corruption in state government, and what they see as his failing economic development initiatives.

A key initial step for those exploring the race and possibly seeking the GOP nomination is to appeal to Republican county chairs, who make up the party committee and meetings have been taking place, with candidates touring the state. A deal may be cut in advance in order to avoid a primary, but there have been years when the committee votes are split between two or three candidates and an open contest for the GOP nomination is held. Candidates unhappy with or outside the party establishment process can always petition themselves onto the ballot whether an intra-party deal is struck or not.

Some watchers of state politics say that regardless of the GOP nominee, the math just doesn’t work for the Republican Party. “When you break it down arithmetically, they have to crack 35 percent in New York City to have a chance to win, and carry 57 percent of the vote of the Suburban downstate counties -- Suffolk, Nassau, Westchester and Rockland -- and then pass 60 percent upstate,” said Bruce Gyory, a former advisor to three Democratic governors and now a professor at Albany University. “That was the Pataki model for his three terms and particularly his third term, and boy-oh-boy the Republicans are nowhere close to meeting that challenge in any region.”

In 2014, the Republican Party made strides from 2010 with Astorino as their candidate, grabbing 41 percent of the vote compared to Cuomo’s 57 percent. Astorino took 42 of 50 upstate counties, compared to just 13 upstate counties won by 2010 GOP candidate Carl Paladino. In the suburbs, Astorino also gained ground, but ultimately did not crack 50 percent in the crucial Westchester, Nassau, and Rockland counties. He drew approximately 15 percent of the vote in the five boroughs.

Cuomo’s approval rating took a hit earlier this year, apparently due to New York City’s ongoing subway woes, but his popularity has appeared to be on the rebound, with a Quinnipiac University poll from October showing that 70 percent of city voters approved of the Democratic governor, including more than 50 percent of Republicans.

Another threat to party-affiliated GOP candidates may be coming from Paladino, the Buffalo-area businessman and Donald Trump supporter. Paladino was reported to be mulling another run, but went silent after his removal from the Buffalo school board for allegedly leaking confidential information from executive board meetings. He also drew negative attention last year for racist comments sent to a Buffalo publication about former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. A Paladino entrance into the race could drag a prefered Republican establishment candidate to the right or cause other problems for the GOP, including additional focus on Trump or requiring Paladino's opposition to raise and spend significant money to win the primary. Paladino did not return a request for comment about whether he will run.

“I could see him coming to the conclusion that the only way to regain public prestige is to run again for governor and he could complicate the primary field a great deal because he could change the regional balance of power if he continues to have that hold on western New York,” said Gyory. “He's a man who, if you study him, his public person, he has a thin skin and great pride.”

Correction: A previous version of this article mistated the totals for the 2010 New York Comptroller's race.

by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Possible GOP Gubernatorial Candidates Weigh Chances to Unseat Cuomo Sun, 19 Nov 2017 05:00:00 +0000
As Legislative Leaders Warn of Con Con Dangers, Good Government Groups Come Out in Favor assembly chamber via wikicommons

The Assembly (photo: wikicommons)

While legislative leaders are declaring opposition to a New York State constitutional convention, government reform organizations are trending in the other direction, with some who were wary of the idea in previous years coming out in support or considering doing so.

Leading up to the November 7 vote on whether to hold a convention, the debate is shaping up around fear of what could be taken away versus hope that the public can take a shot at democratic reform.

Republican Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan and Democratic Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, in a joint appearance in Albany on May 9, both warned of dangers posed by deep-pocketed interests from outside the state, who could potentially derail a “people’s convention.”

“I understand people’s desire to put it in the hands of the people to decide. But people are also subjected to campaigns,” Heastie said at the event at the Albany Times Union’s Hearst Media Center. “I think we should be very, very careful in exposing the constitution to the whims of someone from outside of the state who can decide to spend millions of dollars to put forward their position.”

Heastie and Flanagan, of the Bronx and Long Island, respectively, suggested that the state instead continue using piecemeal constitutional amendments to update the lengthy, outdated document. Such amendments must be passed by two consecutive legislative classes, then the public via singular ballot amendment.

Similar sentiments have been expressed by Senator Jeff Klein, leader of the Independent Democratic Conference, a breakaway group of Senate Democrats that forms a ruling coalition with the GOP, and, most recently, by Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins in an interview with The Daily News. On the other hand, Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, an upstate Republican, has for years been an outspoken proponent of holding a convention and is the only legislative conference leader in support of a “yes” vote on this year’s November ballot question as to whether New York should hold a convention to edit or rewrite its constitution.

The authors of the New York State Constitution included a provision that once every 20 years, the public would have the opportunity to completely overhaul and modernize the document. So, this Election Day, voters will vote on whether to hold a constitutional convention -- or a “con con,” as it is sometimes called -- and if the referendum passes, the people will then elect delegates, who would convene to potentially rewrite, or significantly propose modifications to the state constitution. Those proposals would then go before voters as a slate of changes to be voted up or down.

While legislative leaders are expressing their fear of a con con, a growing number of government reform advocates say it’s an opportunity to enact long-sought reforms that have been stagnant in the Legislature.

In March, for the first time in half a century, the League of Women Voters’ New York chapter endorsed a “yes” vote for the once-in-a-generation referendum, citing electoral reforms, campaign finance reform, fair legislative redistricting, and the modernization of New York’s court system as motivating factors. The League had been instrumental in the last convention, which took place in 1967, but did not produce the sweeping reforms many had hoped for, and ultimately all the proposed amendments, which were controversially presented to voters as a package deal, were voted down.

In the 1990s, the group’s board had a policy that the League would not endorse another constitutional convention unless the essential changes were made to the delegate selection and convention process. Five years ago, LWV board members agreed to modify that policy; rather than automatically opposing a convention that did not meet those requirements, the board would reconvene and consider whether to support a convention while thoroughly weighing delegate election and transparency concerns.

In 1997, the last time a con con was on the ballot, most good government groups chose to remain neutral on the ballot question, focussing instead on launching educational campaigns about the pros and cons of holding a convention, and potential issues to be addressed. Only Citizens Union, one of New York’s leading government reform organizations (and sister organization to Gotham Gazette’s publisher, Citizens Union Foundation), has consistently backed a constitutional convention, despite what was to many a disappointing outcome from the 1967 convention.

Twenty years ago, as was the case during previous con con votes, there was some momentum to back a convention prior to the vote, and public opinion polls showed significant interest. But a last-minute ad campaign by labor unions and other interest groups ultimately dissuaded voters for voting “yes” on the ballot question.

“The campaign to defeat the convention referendum has created some of the oddest political bedfellows in recent memory. The A.F.L.-C.I.O., the Conservative Party, the Sierra Club, the National Abortion Rights Action League, legislators of both parties and Change New York, the anti-tax group, were united against the measure,” wrote Richard Perez-Pena, for the New York Times, on November 5, 1997, just before the con con vote that year.

This year -- which follows a two-decade stretch that has seen dozens of elected officials leave office due to ethical or legal scandal -- there appears to be a marked shift and legislative leaders are finding themselves at odds with government reform organizations who view the convention more favorably, even those who sat out the vote in 1997.

Citizens Union is again in suppor and the League of Women Voters is not the only government reform organization reevaluating its stance. The New York State Bar Association (NYSBA), which as part of its mission seeks to raise judicial standards and reform the legal system, will discuss the issue at its upcoming House of Delegates meeting on June 17, and consider voting on whether to take a position on the ballot measure, a spokesperson has confirmed.

In February, NYSBA issued a report highlighting how a constitutional convention could streamline all aspects of New York’s bafflingly complex legal system, from traffic ticket processing to child support orders.

The League of Women Voters does still hold concerns about how a convention would be implemented, but decided the potential benefits outweigh the risks.

“We’re not saying this is the end-all and be-all, but we are going to try get all we want out of it. And there are risks, but it’s a balancing act. We asked the question: Is it worth it that we could gain more than people think might be lost? And the state League has decided yes, that it’s worth opening it up and trying to get the changes that we can’t get through the Legislature now,” said Laura Ladd Bierman, executive director of League of Women Voters New York.

Ladd Bierman noted that some state lawmakers recently told members of the League they would be more amenable to pushing for voting reform if the public voted in favor of a convention.

SUNY New Paltz professor Gerald Benjamin, who has been on the front lines pushing for constitutional reform for decades, said he is not surprised government reform organizations are coming around on the issue.

“Twenty years ago they made a set of decisions, so they have 20 years of experience in observing whether they have been able to achieve the reforms necessary -- they have not -- so they rightfully understand that this is the only way they are going to make progress,” said Benjamin. “Twenty years have reinforced the observation that the Legislature will not make fundamental structural changes, and the reputation in New York governance has steadily declined.”

Representatives from other government watchdog organizations -- including New York Public Interest Group (NYPIRG), Reinvent Albany, Common Cause, and Citizens Budget Commission -- told Gotham Gazette that they have not taken a position on the ballot question, but that the issue is being debated vigorously internally.

“I'm not sure what we will do. Twenty years ago we thought we could play the most useful role by staying neutral and offering a balanced look at the pros and cons of a convention,” said NYPIRG’s executive director Blair Horner. “It's possible we'll be in the same place this year.”

Bill Samuels, a businessman, con con advocate, and chair of the board of EffectiveNY, a think tank, believes the chaos surrounding President Donald Trump’s administration will also help fuel a “yes” vote in November.

“The same activists who were around in 1967 during the civil rights-anti war movement are still around today,” he said. “When you combine that with what’s happening in Washington -- if I had to sum it up: we still have a system in Albany that’s still not reaching its goal. New York and California have emerged as the great stand-up states to Trump. We want to be excited, we want to have the best Legislature in the country, and we think we can! The best way to fight Trump is to move New York forward.”

In the past, Governor Andrew Cuomo, a second-term Democrat, has repeatedly expressed support for a convention, suggesting a con con may be the only way to enact comprehensive campaign finance reform while Republicans who oppose a public matching system and donation limits continue to control the state Senate. While Cuomo came out in vocal support last year and attempted to insert money into the state budget for a preparatory committee, the issue was not included in his 2017 State of the State policy book nor his executive budget proposal. Cuomo’s office told Gotham Gazette the governor still favors a con con, but Cuomo has not been vocal about the issue. This governor has not set aside funds to plot out a potential convention like his father, former Governor Mario Cuomo, did ahead of the 1997 vote.

During a recent meeting with The Daily News editorial board, Cuomo said he supports the idea of a convention, but “you have to find a way where the delegates do not wind up being the same legislators who you are trying to change the rules on. I have not heard a plan that does that." In this point, Cuomo echoed what a variety of other elected officials, including Mayor Bill de Blasio, have said about concerns regarding the delegate process.

Meanwhile, a 40-member coalition of con con supporters called the Committee for a Constitutional Convention has launched. The group includes many prominent public figures including former chief judge Jonathan Lippman, former lieutenant governor Stan Lundine, and former state senator Seymour Lachman. They are joined by constitutional experts like Professor Benjamin and Touro Law Center dean Patty Salkin and slew of well-known attorneys like the Brennan Center’s Fritz Schwarz. Bill Samuels is a member as well.

For Citizens Union, support for a convention has only been reinforced over the last two decades. “Twenty years ago, we felt like money in politics was a problem, that effective strong oversight of public ethics was a problem, that our court system was a problem, and the balance of power between the governor and the Legislature were a problem,” said Citizen Union executive director Dick Dadey. “Those problems have not gone away. In fact, they’ve gotten worse. Our state government is broken. Budget bills are passed in the dark of night with little time to scrutinize them, pay to play culture is thriving, and voter apathy is rising.”

Opponents of a convention fear opening up the constitution could put at risk hard-won labor and environmental protections, among others. Those concerned about outside interests swaying the outcome of a convention also note that delegates are frequently people who are well-known in public life, often those who hold or previously held a public office, and point to a skewed delegate election process, which they say undermines the point of a “people’s convention.”

The current system allows major political parties to influence the delegate election, by grouping together a “slate” of candidates on the ballot. Further, of 204 elected delegates, 189 would be chosen from New York’s 63 state Senate districts, three from each, which Democrats note are heavily gerrymandered in favor of Republican interests.

While opposition forces, led by labor unions, have already begun to spend sizeable sums of money to encourage a “no” vote, it is unclear how rising populist sentiments indicated in last year’s presidential election -- especially through the campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump -- may factor in.

If the ballot measure does pass, Ladd Bierman of LWV noted, there are many questions that must be addressed in the following legislative session. Will voters be presented with a preselected slate of delegates? Will the convention be made subject to Freedom of Information Law? Where will the convention take place? The constitution says it must take place at the Capitol on April 2, but if the convention overlaps with the legislative session, there may not be sufficient office space to host the event.

Regardless of where they stand on the ballot measure, she said, if it passes good government groups will be on the front lines pushing for a process that is as fair, transparent, and as democratic as possible.

by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. ]]>
As Legislative Leaders Warn of Con Con Dangers, Good Government Groups Come Out in Favor Tue, 16 May 2017 04:00:00 +0000
The 'Three Men in a Room' and Millions Outside Cuomo Heastie Flanagan 2015

Heastie, Cuomo, Flanagan in 2015 (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)

It’s the last week of March, which means the final stretch of New York State budget negotiations, and all are watching the “three men in a room,” an adage that has come to symbolize Albany’s opaque government processes and concentration of power.

Each March, for as long as anyone can remember, the governor, the speaker of the Assembly and the majority leader of the Senate hold frequent, clandestine meetings to hammer out important policy decisions and decide the fate of billions of dollars in state funding. A state budget is due by the April 1 start of the new state fiscal year. For many years, the Assembly has been controlled by Democrats, largely from New York City, while the Senate has been dominated by Republicans, mostly from upstate and Long Island, though the margin in the Senate has been quite slim for several years and Democrats held control briefly.

In 2015, Governor Andrew Cuomo, a second-term Democrat, changed the paradigm slightly to allow a fourth man in the room: Senator Jeff Klein, the leader of the eight-member breakaway group known as the Independent Democratic Conference, which has a ruling coalition with the Senate GOP. The move was decried as unfair by both minority leaders, those of the Senate’s mainline Democrats and the Assembly Republicans.

Whether three or four, the depiction of an exclusive club of legislative leaders and the governor alone in “the room,” mapping out the state’s interests behind closed doors, is not entirely accurate. Often in the room are senior staffers -- including budget directors and chiefs of staff -- who are intensely involved in negotiation and planning, while outside voices -- interest groups, lobbyists, rank-and-file legislators, think tanks, and others -- also wield some, usually small degree of influence over the participants and their decisions. It is typically true that the legislative leaders in “the room” are there with some instruction from their conferences about top priorities, items they are willing to trade for others, non-starters, and degrees to which they are will to accept partial victories.

Legislative leaders will often run from the negotiating room back to their conferences to discuss some details and get a sense of whether their minions are willing to go along with the latest deals on the table.

But for the vast majority of the 150 members of the Assembly and 63 members of the Senate, who serve on largely powerless committees, subcommittees, legislative commissions, and task forces, the doors to the room are closed, and the opportunity to influence final details of what is in and what is out of the state’s most important annual document is minimal.

Also out of the loop is the public. During the final week of budget negotiations at the Capitol, the statehouse press corps can be spotted diligently waiting outside of closed-door meetings, hoping to garner nuggets of information about the status of major issues like “Raise the Age,” an upstate expansion of ride-hailing apps, water infrastructure funding, education aid, and other contours of the $150 billion spending plan. When legislative leaders -- Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, IDC Leader Klein -- do emerge from the governor’s office or various conference rooms, their comments are usually sparse and cryptic.

“I would say progress has been made on a lot of these issues,” Heastie told reporters on Tuesday. “But when all these things are interconnected for an issue that’s largely important to either us, the Senate, or the governor, that’s not been dealt with, there’s no deal.”

Following the convictions of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos in 2015, Cuomo and the new legislative leaders have even become more evasive of the press, holding negotiation sessions and leadership meetings at the Governor's Mansion.

On Monday, Cuomo noted that, unlike his predecessors, he has made point to involve Senate and Assembly committee members on high stakes policy issues like “Raise the Age,” which would increase the age that a person may be charged like an adult in criminal court, and has emerged as a major sticking point in this year’s negotiations.

"What I do -- which is a little different than past governors -- is on a truly complex issue like Raise the Age, like marriage equality, like gun safety, I actually bring in the senators and assemblymen who are the heads of those committees and work through the language myself,” Cuomo said Monday during an interview on NY1.

While this may be true for some high-profile issues, negotiations are almost exclusively among Cuomo and the legislative leaders when it comes to the rest of the policy and funding that is decided.

The system has shifted in other ways under Cuomo, who came to office in 2011 promising to restore function to state government and has delivered six consecutive on-time budgets, a point of pride for the governor that he regularly boasts about and has been given credit for. However, this usually means that the budget is passed late on March 31, sometimes spilling into April 1, with deals coming together in the final hours and almost no time for public review. Rank-and-file lawmakers usually only have a few hours to review complex budget documents before voting them through.

The deadline and Cuomo’s fixation on meeting it, along with the nature of negotiations among governing factions, have led the governor to issue a “message of necessity,” a motion to waive the aging period for bills required by the state constitution.

While the law calls for a three-day waiting period between printing of a bill and the day it is voted on, so that the public may review it, Cuomo, like previous governors, typically issues a "message of necessity" to bypass the requirement and speed the process along. It is a practice that has been criticized by good government groups and some legislators, who say timeliness should not be prioritized over transparency. Rather, these exceptions should be used sparingly, and for real emergencies like natural disasters.

“The ‘message of necessity’ in the passing of the state budget has become as predictable as snow is in January,” said Dick Dadey, executive director of government reform organization Citizens Union. “And it’s unfortunate, because that power should only be used in extreme circumstances. It has deprived the public the time to review and scrutinize the state budget before it has passed.”

Heastie and Flanagan, both relatively new to their leadership positions, appear more willing to involve rank-and-file lawmakers in budget talks than their predecessors. For example, Heastie sends frequent updates to his conference members on his interactions with Cuomo and Flanagan, sometimes hourly, according to Assemblymember Nily Rozic of Queens.

Calling the situation a “vast improvement” from the way the budget worked when she was first elected to the seat in 2012 and Silver was speaker, Rozic said that as a rank-and-file member of the Assembly now, “You certainly have opportunities to make your opinion known and to pick a few issues that you care about and to advocate for them in the budget process.”

On the Senate side, a spokesperson for Flanagan said the majority leader frequently seeks the input of his conference and brings issues back to its members for debate. "We are a member driven conference," said Scott Reif, in a statement to Gotham Gazette. "The legislative leaders and the Governor don't decide a budget on their own. Our entire Senate Republican Conference is working together every minute of every day to put together the best possible budget we can for hardworking. middle-class taxpayers and their families."

While legislators may feel more involved in final negotiations than in the past, messages to the public as the state budget deadline nears are often inconsistent or muddled by contradictory reports. On Monday, Flanagan, Heastie, and Klein expressed confidence that the budget would be delivered on-time, while Cuomo floated the idea of an “extender budget,” which would temporarily continue last year’s budget in order to account for uncertainties on the federal level.

On Tuesday afternoon, Assembly Democrats were told in a closed-door meeting that there would be no temporary budget extender, though Heastie, in an earlier interview said he was open to the budget being adopted in phases, The Buffalo News reported.

Members of the minority conferences, for their part, say they are privy to fewer details of budget talks and that they often learn the details of the budget bills when it is time to vote on them. According to Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, an upstate Republican, letters addressed to Cuomo and Heastie go unanswered so he must “get creative” in order to represent the interests of his conference on the budget.

“The avenues we employ is social media, interviews like I’m doing with you, certainly we put out any number of press statements and policy statements,” said Kolb, whose conference is about half the size of the majority. “I think it should be that way, but we are dealing with facts and reality, so we have to be creative at figuring out ways to articulate our views.”

For Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Westchester Democrat whose chamber is controlled by Republicans by a razor thin margin and whose conference has long championed issues like Raise the Age, the stakes are higher. Stewart-Cousins has raised concerns that education aid and Raise The Age are being "watered-down," while ethics reforms and the DREAM Act are “being forgotten.”

“We obviously send written communication to our colleagues, I am in constant contact with Speak Heastie, I talk with the governor. People understand that we are invested in making sure that the right policy is in the budget,” said Stewart-Cousins in an interview with Gotham Gazette.

The leaders of both minority conferences say they believe they should be in the negotiating room, helping to formulate the budget and major policy deals. Spokespeople for Heastie and Cuomo did not return requests for comment on the transparency of the budget negotiation process.

"We should be in the room and it's because of the public, not because of Brian Kolb,” said the Assembly minority leader. “It's because of the millions of people that our conference represents and the millions of people that Andrea Stewart-Cousins represents," Kolb said, adding that none of the leaders in the room are from Upstate.

Last year, a campaign to let Stewart-Cousins participate in budget negotiations -- which would earn her the distinction of being the first woman “in the room” -- went nowhere. “Changing these types of institutions is very, very difficult,” she said Tuesday, about three-and-a-half days before the budget was due.

Note: The article has been updated to include comment from a Senate GOP spokesperson.

by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. ]]>
The 'Three Men in a Room' and Millions Outside Thu, 30 Mar 2017 04:00:00 +0000
As Con Con Debate Heats Up, Heastie Declares Opposition Heastie Cuomo

Speaker Heastie, right, & Gov. Cuomo (photo: The Governor's Office)

While it will be several months before the airwaves are flooded with special interest-backed ad campaigns warning of the potential “dangers” of a constitutional convention, in Albany, legislative leaders are beginning to speak out on the issue.

On Saturday, February 18, at Black and Latino Caucus weekend, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, had one message for labor union leaders: make sure your members vote “no” on the upcoming ballot question. This November, New Yorkers will vote on a referendum whether to call a constitutional convention -- an opportunity for the public to “take back state government” and update the antiquated state constitution that occurs once every 20 years.

While a Con Con, as it is often called, would provide a chance for enacting reforms on things like government ethics, term limits for elected officials, modernized voting and voter registration rules, and more, it would open up the entire state constitution to change. To some, including government reform groups and Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, this promises an incredible opportunity. To others, like Heastie, it appears too risky.

Like many state and city elected officials who spoke at Saturday’s labor luncheon, Heastie cited threats to progressive institutions posed by President Donald Trump’s administration as he urged union leaders to oppose the convention.

“We are going to need you to remind people that dangerous things can happen,” said Heastie in his remarks. “There are some very wealthy people who want to open up the constitution and really undo some of the protections for labor. We need your help and cooperation to make sure that doesn't happen.”

If voters approve the convention this November, each of the New York’s 63 state Senate districts will elect three delegates in 2018, triggering a convention for the following year. Any constitutional amendments proposed by a convention would need to be approved by voters before they would take effect.

Heastie’s fear that the convention would be coopted by certain interests has been raised by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. But while Democrats say a convention could lead to the dismantling of labor and environmental protections by conservative interests, Republicans say they are concerned that New York City’s progressive interest groups would dominate the convention.

Scott Reif, a spokesperson for Republican Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, said, “The convention could be dominated by New York City special interests, which would be disastrous for Upstate, the Hudson Valley and Long Island.”

Like other lawmakers, Flanagan, of Long Island, has also argued that a constitutional convention would cost millions of dollars at a time when New York has other, more pressing needs, and it is unlikely to produce much change.

Flanagan’s position stands in sharp contrast to that of Assembly Minority Leader Kolb, an Upstate Republican who has been on the front lines advocating for a Con Con, and the reforms it might bring, since 2011. In a column earlier this month, Kolb once again laid out the case for a convention, and urged voters to consider a “yes” vote.

“Voter empowerment is part of the very fabric of who we are as a nation,” he wrote. “There is no more effective way to engage the public than a Constitutional Convention, and there is no place that needs it more than Albany.”

The Assembly member -- who said he is interested in seeing the elimination of backdoor borrowing and term limits enacted in both houses, among other changes --- has spent the last five years campaigning with Con Con advocates like SUNY New Paltz professor Gerald Benjamin and government reform activist Bill Samuels, participating in countless town halls and panel discussions to help get the word out.

“Those who like the way things are, whether it’s the legislature or special interest groups, they’re going to be adamantly opposed to this and that’s just the nature of the beast,” said Kolb. “But people work on fear and people say ‘the sky is falling!’ But it’s all predicated on establishing doubt that it could be worse than what they already have.”

Former State Assembly Ways & Means Chair Arthur “Jerry” Kremer, in a new book analyzing the potential costs and benefits of a convention, writes that in 100 years, only six amendments have been made through the convention and 200 have resulted from individual constitutional amendments. A constitutional amendment requires passage by two consecutive classes of the state Legislature, followed by voter ballot approval the following Election Day.

The last time a constitutional convention was called, in 1967, few changes were made and all those that were introduced were ultimately rejected by the voters. This occurred, at least in part, because many of the Con Con delegates were also elected officials, Kolb says.

While it is against the constitution to prohibit anyone from running as a delegate, Kolb has introduced a bill that would require any elected convention delegate holding political office or certified as a lobbyist to step down from the other positions to serve in that role. “I think that really strengthens a grassroots approach with the delegate selection process,” said Kolb.

Kolb’s concern about the makeup of the delegates is shared by many, including some prominent Democrats, like Governor Andrew Cuomo, as well as government reform groups.

Since his 2010 gubernatorial campaign, Gov. Cuomo has continued to express support for a convention, but, unlike last year, the issue was notably absent from his 2017 State of the State policy book and his executive budget. However, the governor did propose several reforms, including the codification of Roe v. Wade, same-day voter registration, and limitations on legislators’ outside income, which he says could be done through constitutional amendment. Cuomo has also indicated that a Con Con may be the only way to enact comprehensive campaign finance reform while Republicans continue to control the state Senate.

During a recent meeting with The Daily News editorial board, the governor waffled slightly on his previous position, saying that he conceptually supports the idea of a constitutional convention, but “you have to find a way where the delegates do not wind up being the same legislators who you are trying to change the rules on. I have not heard a plan that does that."

Even Democratic legislators that are focused on government reform, such as Assemblymember Robert Carroll, newly elected from Brooklyn, and Manhattan Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh, have said they are concerned with the delegate selection process, which allows the representatives to be determined based on heavily gerrymandered Senate districts. As a result, reformers fear that that some Republicans might dominate the convention and do away with labor and environmental protections.

Not all Democrats are opposed to the constitutional convention. Senator Michael Gianaris, a Queens Democrat and longtime advocate for government ethics reform, pushed for a “yes” vote in a June 2016 interview with Effective New York, the think tank founded by Samuels.

“We are in such need of dramatic change in the state that a convention would be a great way to kind of turn the whole thing over and start fresh,” said Gianaris, who also leads the Senate Democrats’ campaign efforts. “It would involve real redistricting reform as opposed to the thing we enacted that won’t achieve the goals we all wanted of a truly independent process. Ethics reforms, including a full-time legislature, pension forfeiture for those convicted of crimes. The list is not short of the things we can do.

Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins has hesitated to take a formal position on the issue, and did not respond to a request for comment.

The Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) -- a breakaway group of Senate Democrats that has formed a ruling coalition with Senate Republicans -- came out against the convention earlier this month, citing concerns for labor protections.

Kolb says he’s not worried about how a convention might play out. Regardless of which amendments the delegates propose, the decision would ultimately return to the voters.

“In the end, when I talk to people about it I say, ‘Is New York State working for you?’ And if your hand is up, then you probably won’t vote for the convention,” said Kolb. “But if you think New York State could be better, run more efficiently, run more cost effectively, answer to the people it represents, then here’s an opportunity to see it change.”

by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette

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As Con Con Debate Heats Up, Heastie Declares Opposition Tue, 21 Feb 2017 05:00:00 +0000
A Post-Budget Test of the Governor’s Commitment to a Constitutional Convention cuomo desk legislation signing

Cuomo signs legislation (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of the Governor)

In terms of the state’s nearly $150 billion budget, $1 million isn’t a lot of money. But for reform advocates the $1 million Gov. Andrew Cuomo had committed in his executive budget plan for a commission to prepare for a constitutional convention was both functionally and symbolically crucial to their belief that the governor and the Legislature would actually commit to reforming state government - or at least giving “the people” an opportunity to do so.

The funding was dedicated by the governor for supporting and reforming the process of running a constitutional convention, which voters will have the opportunity to approve on their November 2017 ballots. A convention, government reformers say, would allow voters to consider major changes to the state constitution including things like public financing of election campaigns, term limits for legislators, and redistricting of legislative domains. It was a sign to many eager to see a more ethical, democratic government that Cuomo, a Democrat who many advocates see as having abandoned a number of previous reform efforts, was on board for real change.

However, the funding was nowhere to be found when a budget deal was reached.

Advocates for both a constitutional convention and good planning for the possibility of one now say it is up to the governor to act to prepare for the convention without the help of the Legislature. As a sign of how complicated the constitutional convention politics are, two prominent convention supporters are split on who is to blame for the funds being taken from the budget.

“The fact that he can't find $1 million in a $150 billion budget is shocking,” said Bill Samuels, a con-con supporter and head of reform group Effective New York. “Here we go again where [Gov. Cuomo] says one thing and does another just as he bowed out of [the] Moreland [Commission to Fight Public Corruption] and countless other examples, like redistricting reform, where he did one thing and said another.”

Gerald Benjamin, a dean and political scientist at SUNY New Paltz who is involved in a public education campaign surrounding the 2017 constitutional convention vote, disagreed. “The Legislature isn’t off the hook,” Benjamin said in an interview. “This was a hostile act designed to thwart reform. This isn’t about pressuring anyone to act, this is about the public taking an opportunity for the public good.” State of Politics first reported that the $1 million was not included in the state budget after Benjamin notified the outlet.

The Cuomo administration says it is fully committed to supporting a constitutional convention and says the legislative leaders simply weren’t interested.

“We continue to support a constitutional convention and are examining all options and resources available to form and fund a commission,” Cuomo spokesperson Rich Azzopardi told Gotham Gazette.

Scott Reif, spokesperson for the Republican Senate Majority, said that his conference wasn’t satisfied with Cuomo’s proposal. “There were no specifics provided by the Executive about the proposed appropriation,” Reif explained.

Reif’s counterpart for the Democratic Assembly Majority said similarly. “There was no structure around the proposal as to how the money would be used, so as defined in our one-house budget and approved in the final budget we thought a better use of the funding would be for the Women's Suffrage Commemoration Commission,” said Assembly spokesperson Michael Whyland.

The Legislature is capable of calling a constitutional convention at any time, but the Constitution mandates voters get to decide whether to call one every 20 years. The next referendum is scheduled for Nov. 7, 2017. If approved by a majority of voters a convention would be held in April 2019, but first voters would have to select delegates in November 2018.

A major concern for supporters and detractors of a convention is the current selection process for convention delegates, the people who would actually negotiate constitutional changes. In the past, many delegates have been elected officials or people with close connections to them, which raises fears that the process will be stacked in the favor of the establishment instead of voters. A number of fixes to the problem have been floated inside and outside the Legislature, but so far no action has been taken.

Cuomo’s 2016 policy book that accompanied his budget provided the following explanation: “From ethics enforcement to the basic rules governing day-to-day business in Albany, the process of government in New York State is broken. Governor Cuomo believes a constitutional convention offers voters the opportunity to achieve lasting reform in Albany. The Governor will invest $1 million to create an expert, non-partisan commission to develop a blueprint for a convention. The commission will also be authorized to recommend fixes to the current convention delegate selection process, which experts agree is flawed.”

Samuels dismissed the notion that the Legislature was responsible for removing the proposal from the budget. “You can't put [Carl] Heastie and [John] Flanagan on the hook,” said Samuels of the current Assembly Speaker and Majority Leader, respectively. “They have no interest in the whole thing. They think [U.S. Attorney] Preet [Bharara] is done going after the Legislature.”

Benjamin rejected Reif’s assertion that there wasn’t enough “detail” in the governor’s proposal, noting that the state has routinely prepared for constitutional conventions over the past century. “A good reason to do this is because the Legislature is against it,” Benjamin said with a laugh.

Republican Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, a longtime supporter of a constitutional convention, told Gotham Gazette that he feels the onus is on Cuomo to move the process forward. “My guess is the majorities aren’t too wild about a constitutional convention,” said Kolb. “Like a host of other things, if the governor really wants it he can obnoxious until he gets what he wants.” However, Kolb said he could understand the hesitation of the legislature to approve $1 million for a convention voters might reject.

Some groups are loathe to open up the process because they worry it is corrupted - convention delegates tend to be politically connected, including some state legislators themselves - and some groups worry the convention process could lead to a rolling back of good government reforms or environmental or labor protections.

Advocates for the process have been trying to change how delegates are selected to reduce political cronyism. They saw Cuomo’s preparatory commission as assurance that the lead up to a referendum and convention would be open and orderly.

Legislative leaders, on the other hand, have very little interest in a process that would allow the public to vote on reforms that could reduce their grasp on the majority, or otherwise weaken their power.

Samuels said securing the $1 million was on Cuomo and his failure to do so reflects his lack of commitment to truly reforming Albany. “Believe me, this is all on Cuomo,” said Samuels, “This is just another bait and switch. Andrew’s father [former Gov. Mario Cuomo] used an executive order to start a preparatory commission, and I don’t see Andrew doing that. Andrew isn’t following in his father’s footsteps.”

Cuomo administration officials said that in fact they are considering using an executive order as Mario Cuomo did in 1993. The Goldmark Commission received some funding from Rockefeller College and helped plan how a convention would be held and what issues should be put before voters.

Kolb said he supports executive action by the administration to jumpstart the convention process. “He’s formed all kind of commissions through executive order, he just formed one today, so why not for this?” Kolb said, referring to a new panel the governor announced Thursday that will study the state’s business climate. “I didn’t think he should end the Moreland Commission.”

Still, Samuels is distrustful of the administration’s intentions. He said that in 2010, Cuomo aides promised him that if elected governor he would move up a constitutional convention to 2011. “Joe Percoco gave me a memo with all the things Cuomo would do to reform Albany and at the heart of it was a constitutional convention and all sorts of reforms that would be passed,” Samuels said. “He didn’t do any of it and yet he still has the nerve to say he supports it.”

Cuomo administration officials note Cuomo’s 2010 campaign policy book contained a commitment to having a constitutional convention. The issue took up four pages of the 252-page book, which is no longer available on Cuomo’s campaign website.

“In order to achieve lasting reform in many areas, we need to amend our State’s Constitution,” it reads. “Specifically, a Cuomo Administration would work to enact into law important reforms at a constitutional convention including an overhaul of our redistricting process, ethics enforcement, and succession rules, among others.”

Benjamin says now is the time for the governor to seize the chance to advocate and prepare for a convention: “This is a an opportunity for the governor. In a time dominated by such rage at the political status quo, this is an opportunity to look at the system and give the public a chance to participate.”

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

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A Post-Budget Test of the Governor’s Commitment to a Constitutional Convention Sun, 17 Apr 2016 22:12:47 +0000
For State Budget, Leaders Choose 'On Time' Over Open cuomo flanagan heastie june 2015

Heastie, Cuomo, Flanagan (l-r), June 2015 (photo via The Governor's Office)

As negotiations over the state's $150 billion budget sputtered on Thursday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo ramped up pressure on legislators to accept a deal. Speaking with reporters, Cuomo implied legislators could jeopardize a potential pay raise if they can't deliver an on-time budget.

"So they're gonna need to be able to make that case not just to the pay commission but to the people of the State of New York in November when they go to seek re-election," Cuomo said. "So performance matters - if they don't pass a budget on time obviously that is a failure of performance."

Cuomo has made better state government function, including on-time budgets, a signature of his time as governor. Legislators and good government groups dismiss the governor's insistence that an on-time budget is paramount, especially when negotiations come so close to the April 1 start of the new fiscal year.

In Albany it has practically become tradition for rank-and-file lawmakers to be asked to vote on a budget with only a few hours time to review its contents. The state constitution requires bills to age three days before they are voted on in order to facilitate public review, but Cuomo, like many governors before him, has taken to issuing "messages of necessity" to bypass the otherwise-mandated waiting period. Final budget votes - with debate that is often only for show or to get comment on the record - have stretched late into the night with rank-and-file members discussing measures they discover in the budget almost in real time.

With no budget deal reached as of Wednesday evening, it is all but certain that this year will see the governor again issue messages of necessity and a very short window between budget bills printed and voted on.

Meanwhile, a seven-member commission has begun meeting to determine pay raises for legislators and other state officials. Three of the members of the commission were appointed by the governor, two by the chief judge of the Court of Appeals, and one each by the legislative majority leaders. Legislators haven't had a pay raise since 1999, currently earning a base salary of $79,500.

Contrary to Cuomo's statement Wednesday, the language creating the pay commission does not explicitly mention "performance" as something to be factored into deliberations. The commission is scheduled to make its recommendations in November, right around Election Day when every state Senate and Assembly seat is on the ballot. The recommendations would then automatically take effect in 2017, unless the Legislature votes to oppose them.

A number of legislators told Gotham Gazette pay raises wouldn't factor into the time it takes them to consider the budget.

"Our conference is going to go over and deliberate what's in there, we are going to know what we're voting on," said Senate Deputy Minority Leader Michael Gianaris, a Democrat from Queens. "That review is going to be done at the pace that it takes. We are not going to go out there ignorant to what's in the budget. If those negotiating the budget wanted to ensure timeliness they should have concluded negotiations earlier."

Gianaris' sentiments were echoed by a number of Assembly Republicans and Senate Democrats. The groups represent their chamber's minority, though, and not driving negotiations, which are largely taking place among Gov. Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan.

"Cuomo should look in the mirror if budget is late," tweeted Republican Assembly Member Steve McLaughlin. "Absurd argument to pin it on the legislators who haven't seen it."

John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, pointed out that budgets have passed with fairly controversial measures tucked in at the last minute by lobbyists and their government allies thanks to the lack of thorough review.

"Does anyone really want their state legislator voting on a $150 billion, 10,000 page budget they haven't had time to look at?" Kaehny asked rhetorically. "Does anyone other than the governor really think it is more important to pass a budget on time and unscrutinized, than a few days late and fully examined? Do people want their state representative voting for a budget that could be stuffed full of things like tax breaks for yachts and private jets - like last year?"

Dick Dadey, executive director for Citizens Union, said that a budget that is "a few days late but ages for the requisite three days for public review is far preferable to an on-time budget when the public has no time to review the $150 billion that taxpayers are funding."

In stark contrast to his predecessors Cuomo has successfully delivered on-time budgets each year he has held office. It was typical for budgets to go weeks and even months over deadline before Cuomo became governor. Cuomo has actually used messages of necessity considerably less than his predecessors, but he has used them to pass the budget three times since taking office in 2011.

"As a practical financial matter it won't amount to much if they are a few days late," said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group. "It will shake what little confidence the public has left in state government. The last reasonable claim the governor can make that he brought order to chaos in Albany is in on-time state budgets," said Horner.

This year's final budget negotiations appear to be difficult for both legislative majorities for different reasons. The Assembly majority is fighting a Cuomo proposal to force New York City to take on $250 million in Medicaid funding. The Senate majority is grappling with Cuomo's push to raise the minimum wage to $15 across the state. Some see the wage increase as a winner with voters and admit Cuomo was very successful in pushing the issue, but others are adamant an increase will hurt the economy and hurt them at the polls in November.

Sen. Joseph Addabbo of Queens, who is in favor of the concept of both the minimum wage increase and the paid family leave proposal that appears to be close to finalized, said it is critically important to him to see exactly how those measures are actually implemented. "It's not about beating the clock. I'm not voting on a $150 billion budget without getting every detail," Addabbo, a Democrat, told Gotham Gazette.

Many good government advocates see this year's budget negotiation as one of the least transparent in modern history. Coming on the heels of the convictions of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, Cuomo and legislators have held clandestine meetings at the Governor's Mansion and routinely dodged the press. They have been more open about the process in the last few days, but after dealing with two press scrums on Thursday Flanagan dodged the press by exiting a back door of Cuomo's office.

Legislative leaders have rejected discussion of ethics reform and adding transparency to stashes of cash the governor and the Legislature insert into the budget without any particular use given.

Both Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb and Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins have decried being left out of negotiations and assailed this budget season as the least transparent in memory. Representatives for Cuomo, Heastie, and Flanagan did not return requests for comment on the use of messages of necessity and concerns over budget transparency.

Gianaris said that while he agrees that rank-and-file legislators need time to examine the budget, "The real issue is that had this process been open and transparent along the way we wouldn't be sitting here at the eleventh hour with nothing. If all conferences had been included we could have wrapped this up a long time ago." 

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

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Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union.

For State Budget, Leaders Choose 'On Time' Over Open Wed, 30 Mar 2016 22:42:54 +0000
Assembly Reform Group Nears Release of 49-Recommendation Report Heastie laughing

Assembly Speaker Heastie photo: (Office of the Governor - Kevin P. Coughlin)

The long wait for recommendations from a group of Democrats charged with finding ways to improve the transparency and democratization of the state Assembly may soon be over. According to Assembly Member Gary Pretlow, co-chair of The Assembly Working Group on Operations, Participation and Transparency, the release of a 49-point report is imminent.

Pretlow told Gotham Gazette that the the committee's report will be made available after a press release is written and legislators return from their week-long mid-February break. According to Pretlow and several other sources, the rest of the majority conference was briefed on the dozens of recommendations contained in the report, some of which wouldn't be acted on until the start of next session, in 2017. Others that could be implemented as "tweaks" to operating procedure or legislation could be voted on this session, they say, while some would have to be agreed to by both the Senate and Assembly.

"We're just waiting for the press release to be done," Pretlow told Gotham Gazette. "We did a presentation of all 49 recommendations to the speaker [Carl Heastie] and all the members but we didn't give them copies because you'd already know what was in it if we did that. So, hopefully the report will be out after the break."

Both houses of the Legislature are due back in session on Feb. 24.

Assembly Member Brian Kavanagh, the group's other co-chair, said that the committee was "reaching a consensus" but refused to give a timeframe for the report's release, saying that Gotham Gazette's previous report that the group had missed its own deadline was unfair. Since January, Kavanagh has told other outlets that the timeline for the report's release was "soon," but with "no timeframe."

Neither Kavanagh or Pretlow would divulge any of the 49 proposals.

A number of legislators briefed characterized many of the changes as "common sense" and "overdue" with fewer "large," "big deal" changes. A few members indicated that they believed some larger issues have yet to be resolved. A number of members said they expect a public review process.

The group has been presented with a wide array of proposals from legislators and good government groups--things as simple as creating electronic alerts to notify legislators of committee hearing times and locations, using the internet to enhance public comment and participation, and revamping the Assembly's legislative search tool. More complex and politically difficult issues include creating a way for bills with wide support to be considered in committee and advanced to the floor for a vote.

Assembly Republicans and reform groups have derided the Assembly panel's deliberations for a lack of public hearings and for excluding legislators from the Republican minority. Kavanagh and Pretlow polled Democratic members and held meetings with good government groups for input on what changes might lead to more open debate, allow rank-and-file members to advance legislation, and perhaps even provide members from both parties with equal resources for staffing and offices.

Heastie announced the appointment of the working group on April 16 of last year after he won a leadership battle sparked by the indictment of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. At the time, Kavanagh was a member of an upstart reform caucus that asked candidates for Silver's position to consider whether changes should be made to increase transparency and make it easier for bills to make it to the floor for debate without the speaker's direct blessing. The group has been largely inconspicuous since Heastie announced it.

Earlier this year Assembly Republicans proposed a number of rules changes of their own that Democrats quickly rejected. Republican Assembly Member Jim Tedisco, who is backing a bill that would allow members to bring a bill to the floor for a vote if they have the support of 76 members (a majority in the 150-seat chamber), has pressured the group to release its recommendations. "They said they needed ways to make the Assembly more transparent, well we gave it to them and they rejected it," Tedisco told Gotham Gazette of the Republicans' attempt at rules reform, which included term limits for leadership positions.

Tedisco announced earlier this week that he was writing Kavanagh a letter asking for the transparency group's report. "These guys are just playing stall ball," said Tedisco. "It's nearly been over a year and now they aren't going to release it over vacation. It's the longest lived and least productive working group I've seen in my life."

Tedisco said Kavanagh arrived at his desk shortly after he announced he was writing him, looking to collect the letter. "So I handed it to him, with the signatures of 25 other guys who signed the letter." He added that he didn't admire Kavanagh's position. "I've never seen Superman and Clark Kent in the same room and I've never seen a powerful leader voluntarily give up power," said Tedisco, referring to the hold of the speaker and majority on the Assembly. There are many questions about how much reform Heastie is willing to support.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara - who took down Silver and his Senate counterpart, former Republican Senate President Dean Skelos - has focused on what he said was the corrupting nature of the "three men in a room" structure that concentrates power in legislative leaders and the governor. He called on rank-and-file members to stand up and challenge leaders when they use their power to block votes or interfere in committees.

"You have to make sure everyone in the institution has an independent operating mind and brain and gut," Bharara told interviewer Alan Chartock of WAMC radio during his visit to Albany on Monday. "So at least somebody in the face of overreaching, or face of despotism, or face of corruption, will rally people to go to the other side and say 'This is enough, we can't go along with this.'"

Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, said Bharara's comments spotlighted the need for more for rules reform and increased transparency. "I think the U.S. Attorney's remarks were on target. They showed the necessity of the working group and the need for it to get its job done," said Dadey.

Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb said that Assembly Democrats should defy their leadership and issue a set of recommendations that takes some of the power back from the speaker--especially given how Silver was removed from office.

"The U.S. Attorney is dead right in asking, 'since when has it become acceptable for three men to decide everything,'" said Kolb, who lamented the rejection of his caucus' proposed rules changes. "These were good ideas, but from the minority point of view it was arrogance - they said, 'We're in charge and you're not.' The Kavanagh group did a lot of hooting and hollering for almost a year. It is nonsensical to continue to stall."

Democratic members point out that getting over 100 politicians, many of whom have long enjoyed the perks of being in the majority, all on the same page about revamping the rules of the chamber isn't exactly an easy task. While good government groups have been critical of the time it's taken many of them indicate they are withholding judgement until they see the final product.

DeNora Getachew, campaign manager and legislative counsel for the Brennan Center, said that she has had no indication of what the working group has focused on or that they've considered the Brennan Center's many reports on legislative rules that focus on empowering members to bring bills to the floor without the speaker's blessing. "That's the heart of how to empower and operate a more democratic process," said Getachew.

"The report should have been out before the start of 2016 so the rules could have been enacted this year," said Dadey of Citizens Union. "I would have prefered the group acted quickly and had an open public discussion but I am hopeful that the report is one that we can embrace."

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

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Note: Gotham Gazette is published by Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union.

Assembly Reform Group Nears Release of 49-Recommendation Report Fri, 12 Feb 2016 04:27:47 +0000
In Albany, Bharara Challenges Lawmakers to Act, Not Enable bharara

Preet Bharara (photo: Buck Ennis)

Asked how he can spur legislators to enact major ethics reforms during his visit to Albany on Monday, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said he has a "particularly blunt incentive...the avoidance of prison." The reminder from Bharara comes as legislative leaders and Gov. Andrew Cuomo are quietly discussing possible ethics reforms behind closed doors--reforms none of them have appeared interested in discussing publicly since Cuomo outlined his platform in his State of the State address last month.

Speaking before a captive audience, Bharara focused on the lack of a public conversation on ethics by lawmakers and the strict control legislative leaders have over rank-and-file members, and called on legislators to speak up against the norm and blow the whistle on corruption. The crusading U.S. attorney delivered prepared remarks and sat for an interview at an event on public corruption hosted by WAMC public radio and good government groups.

Bharara didn't need an indictment to send lawmakers scurrying for the exits during his visit. Earlier Monday at the Albany Hilton where they both addressed the New York Conference of Mayors, Republican Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan bolted up a flight of stairs before Bharara, the man who successfully prosecuted Flanagan's predecessor, Dean Skelos, took the stage.

Flanagan unsuccessfully tried to avoid reporters who inquired why he wasn't staying for Bharara's remarks. He said that he had "appointments" in his office. Flanagan refused to answer questions about what ethics reforms he might support this session, continuing what has been a deafening silence from legislative leaders on ethics reform for the last month.

Flanagan also avoided mentioning ethics in his speech to the mayors conference--Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb both discussed the need for reform. Democratic Assembly Majority Leader Carl Heastie did not attend the event, his surrogate, Assembly Majority Leader Joe Morelle, spoke instead and also avoided discussing reform.

"They're afraid they're going to get asked questions by the press about ethics reform," said Barbara Bartoletti of The League of Women Voters. "I would doubt we will hear anything from them on it soon. We have said 'please open up these leaders' meetings and tell us what issues you're looking at in the budget' but this governor has not done that."

Silence from both majority leaders and Gov. Cuomo has become the norm since earlier this year when Cuomo proposed a series of significant reforms that include restricting legislators' outside income, closing the LLC loophole, and public financing of elections. Flanagan has openly questioned the need for more reforms, while Heastie has said that his conference is open to discussing a number of proposals.

Cuomo has avoided holding a press conference with the Albany press corp for nearly 230 days, though he has taken a series of questions after events on a number of occasions. The lack of public leadership on ethics gave Bharara, who already attracts massive attention for his high-profile prosecutions, even more of a spotlight on the issue.

Bharara has been cursed and bemoaned by legislators for painting them all as corrupt. On Monday, he seemed at points to be trying a softer approach. While he did speak in stark terms at times, Bharara kept a fairly subdued tone and was quick to crack a joke as he spoke of the nobility in public service, the existence of "good" legislators who speak out against corruption and the "three men in a room" system that dominates decision-making in Albany.

As he said the key to undoing a culture of corruption in any institution is the good actors taking action rather than enabling the bad actors, the U.S. attorney said he expects more legislators will soon buck the closed leadership system. He also cited a recent Siena Poll that showed 92 percent of those surveyed think public corruption is a major problem.

"I heard a very strong exhortation to empower the good people in the legislature to stand up and that's basically what needs to happen," said Susan Lerner of Common Cause NY. "I think it was absolutely the right message and it's not scolding. I think it is important to empower change."

Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, introduced Bharara on Monday afternoon, noting the many lawmakers who have been removed from office in recent years due to corruption. Dadey agreed that Bharara went out of his way to acknowledge legislators who want reform. "He was acknowledging that there are lot of good people serving in the legislature who are tarred by the brush of corruption, by the actions of those who have been convicted," Dadey told Gotham Gazette. "That being said, they have a responsibility to address this issue of corruption and for them to swing too low and not truly address the core issues contributing to all of this is an abdication of their responsibility as state legislators."

Bharara wasn't all sunshine and roses by any means. He lashed out at legislators for "whining" and failing to blow the whistle on corruption. "People knew, people knew before the prosecutors showed up, before the FBI showed up," he said. "People always know. You think no one knew Sheldon Silver was corrupt before he was put in handcuffs? Not a chance."

He also shamed those in the Assembly who tried to keep Silver as leader even after he was indicted. Bharara said that police or teachers who had been arrested and faced a 35-page indictment would find themselves on "desk duty" or in a "rubber room."

Bharara called for there to be more respect for public service by public servants and continued to challenge them to live up to the jobs they hold. He mocked Silver's defense strategy that his behavior was just "politics as usual" asserting that that defense unfairly tarred his fellow lawmakers.

"Looking the other way is not leadership," he said, "blaming the prosecutors is not leadership, kicking the can is not leadership, accepting lies and half-truths is not leadership, making excuses is not leadership, whining is not leadership."

What Bharara did not offer was specifics, though he did give a half-blessing to a few reforms, like pension forfeiture for those lawmakers convicted of wrongdoing. Bharara declined to weigh in definitively on proposed reforms such as increasing legislators' pay and banning outside income, though he did say that there is a good argument to be made for limiting such income.

The U.S. attorney would not comment on his investigation into Cuomo's' Buffalo Billion economic development plan. "We aren't closing up shop anytime soon," Bharara said smiling.

Lerner said she thinks Bharara's visit comes at an important time when the legislature is negotiating reforms behind closed doors and cautioned patience as the process plays out. "The most important thing right now is not what they say publicly but are there internal discussions going on and I believe there are. Like the U.S. Attorney said, we need reform-minded people pushing the leaders for change. I'm very happy not to go to one more press conference that results in nothing. We want them to talk amongst themselves and come to a conclusion that they need to adopt reforms, and that could be a quiet time where they aren't saying much to me and you."

Concern is growing amongst reform advocates that Assembly Democrats have fallen back to their default position under Silver of waiting to voice their individual opinions until they are told what the leader has decided. Meanwhile, Senate Republicans appear desperate not to pass any of Cuomo's substantive reforms. Bartoletti said she expects the issue of reform could slip away given that this is an election year, unless Bharara bags another big indictment.

Bharara made it clear on Monday that he is ready to serve as a constant reminder that reform is needed. "This moment in history calls for something more than just talk," Bharara said. "There's been a lot of talk."

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

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In Albany, Bharara Challenges Lawmakers to Act, Not Enable Tue, 09 Feb 2016 01:31:58 +0000