Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/84 Mon, 19 Feb 2018 04:15:12 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Troubles Ahead as 2018 Legislative Session Kicks Off in Albany http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7415:troubles-ahead-as-2018-legislative-session-kicks-off-in-albany http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7415: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.”

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Troubles Ahead as 2018 Legislative Session Kicks Off in Albany Tue, 09 Jan 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Cuomo Criticized for Failing to Call Special Election January 1 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7399:cuomo-criticized-for-failing-to-call-special-election-january-1 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7399:cuomo-criticized-for-failing-to-call-special-election-january-1 Cuomo Flanagan Long Island

Gov. Cuomo and John Flanagan, right (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)


As the legislative session kicks off this week, there are a slew of open state Senate and Assembly seats, and Governor Andrew Cuomo has not indicated when or whether he will call a special election to fill the vacancies.

January 1 was the earliest the second-term governor could have called the election day to fill all 11 vacancies, and a growing number of critics are pressuring Cuomo to make the pronouncement as soon as possible. The election would occur 70 days after declared by Cuomo, who has not made clear if he intends to do so in time for the seats to be filled before the state budget is due, by April 1.

On the first of this month, George Latimer officially vacated his Westchester County Senate seat to take on his new role as Westchester County Executive, which he won in the fall, and Senator Ruben Diaz Sr., of the Bronx, left his Senate seat to assume his newly won City Council position. Nine Assembly seats remain empty for a variety of reasons, including officials who have won other elected posts, like Brian Kavanagh, who moved from the Assembly to the Senate.

If the governor calls a special election this week, 70 days would mean votes cast in the middle of March. However, Cuomo, a Democrat, has indicated that he may call the elections for a date after the budget process is concluded. Cuomo’s delay is being criticized by progressive activists and good government leaders, either because of how the Senate elections factor into majority control of the chamber, which is currently held by a narrow margin by a coalition of Republicans and breakaway Democrats, or because of the basic lack of representation hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers are experiencing with the seats unfilled.

The state’s $160-plus billion budget will be negotiated over the coming months by a heavily Democratic Assembly and the Senate, which has multiple party fractures and a Democratic unity deal on the table that could throw the process into disarray if the two vacant seats are filled by Democrats before April 1.

“The governor has a responsibility to his constituents to call a special election immediately,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of good government group Common Cause NY in a statement on Tuesday. “There’s no excuse to delay.” Lerner stressed that all New Yorkers deserve their due representation in government.

The stakes are highest for the 63-seat Senate, where Democrats are now two seats short of the 32 votes needed to pass legislation. A Democratic majority can only occur if mainline conference members are joined by the nine Democrats who caucus with Republicans, along with Democratic victories for the Latimer and Diaz, Sr. seats. Complicating the situation is a potential deal between Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Independent Democratic Conference Leader Jeff Klein, brokered by Cuomo and his allies, which would reunify the Democratic conference at the end of the 2018 legislative session, provided multiple developments and guarantees.

The vacancies have less of an impact on the 150-seat Assembly, which Democrats control handily under Speaker Carl Heastie of the Bronx. But leaving nine vacancies would undermine the state’s democratic budget process and leave millions of New Yorkers without representation, notes Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Group.

According to NYPIRG’s calculation, 625,484 Senate constituents and more than 1.1 million Assembly constituents are unrepresented as the legislative session starts on Wednesday, January 3 in Albany.

Joining the calls for a special election sooner rather than later is Kat Brezler, a public school teacher and former Bernie Sanders organizer who is seeking Latimer’s seat in the event that a special election is called.

“If you, the Governor, do not call a special election before the budget vote, you will effectively disenfranchise more than 700,000 residents in these Districts,” Brezler said in a statement. “Representation matters. The residents of District 37 deserve to have a seat at the table” during budget negotiations. “It is for this reason that a special election cannot wait,” Brezler said.

A spokesperson for Cuomo’s office, when asked whether governor planned to call the election during the legislative session, pointed to the governor’s comments during recent press appearances, when he said he would make a decision in January.

“There are some that want it sooner, some that want it later, there’s some who don’t,” Cuomo told reporters in December. “Some would argue politicizing the budget isn’t the best idea. It’s a decision that we have to make next year in January.”

Bronx Assemblymember Luis Sepulveda, who announced that he plans to run for Diaz, Sr.’s Senate seat, said in an interview with Gotham Gazette that he is confident both Senate seats will be filled by Democrats and hopes that a special election will happen in March.

“I think one of the most pressing things in the state Legislature is to continue to push for progressive policies and progressive legislation,” said Sepulveda. “I encourage the governor to call the special election as soon as possible.”

While the Bronx seat is virtually guaranteed to stay Democratic, the Westchester seat is less of a sure thing, though Democrats will have multiple advantages there.

Policy changes coming out of Washington are expected to have serious implications for New York, which is facing a larger than usual budget deficit, and progressives are mounting pressure on the governor, who, like all of the Legislature, is up for reelection this year, to call the special election before budget negotiations really heat up.

The balance of power in the state Senate will have significant influence over the final state spending plan that emerges. A number of Democratic activists insist Cuomo prefers Republican control of the Senate for as long as possible, especially during budget season, so that he can best limit state spending.

Heastie, whose Assembly majority conference is down several members, said in December that he hopes for a Democratic majority in the Senate, but in an interview with WCNY’s Susan Arbetter said that he would defer to the governor’s decision about the election.

“I’ve always said, as a Democrat, I look forward to the day of a Democratic Senate. I hope they get it together as soon as possible — particularly in light of what’s happening in Washington,” Heastie told reporters during a gaggle at the Capitol in December.

In the meantime, Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, a Long Island Republican, wields enormous influence over how state funds are distributed. Flanagan, outlining his priorities for the coming session, struck a conciliatory note, but made clear that raising property taxes was a non-starter for addressing New York’s growing budget shortfall.

“In Washington, Democrats and Republicans battle each other with predictable ferocity -- sometimes producing gridlock and dysfunction, and sometimes producing policies that are counterproductive for many New Yorkers. Here in New York, we’ve taken a vastly different approach,” he said in a Tuesday statement. “We’re working across the aisle to find common ground, partnering with Upstate and suburban Democrats to move our state forward.”

Spokespersons for Heastie and Flanagan did not return requests for comment on when Cuomo should call the special election. The governor will deliver his 2018 State of the State speech on Wednesday in Albany.

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Cuomo Criticized for Failing to Call Special Election January 1 Tue, 02 Jan 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Departure of Assembly Ethics Official Prompts Calls for Broader Reforms http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7294:departure-of-assembly-ethics-official-prompts-calls-for-broader-reforms http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7294:departure-of-assembly-ethics-official-prompts-calls-for-broader-reforms Carl Heastie Assembly

Carl Heastie (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)


When ethics expert Jane Feldman’s departure from the New York State Assembly, and her appraisal of the experience as “as waste of money,” was first reported by the Times Union last week, many saw it as another blow to reform efforts in Albany.

Feldman told the outlet she she “didn’t do anything” and called her hiring as executive director of the Office of Ethics and Compliance in September 2015 a “P.R. move.” The office itself, according to Feldman, was a windowless space on the ninth floor of the Legislative Office Building with airflow problems that had been carved out of a larger conference room.

Two years ago, the office was created by Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie as part of the newly-selected speaker’s larger commitment to introduce more ethics and transparency measures to the 150-seat chamber. Promises were made, in part, to appease critics frustrated by the backroom speakership appointment process, and to signal a new era after that of infamous former Speaker Sheldon Silver.

Heastie, a representative of the Bronx, created a working group on rules reform, led by Assemblymembers Brian Kavanagh, of Manhattan, and Gary Pretlow, of Mount Vernon, and vowed to choose an “independent” advisor who could offer guidance to members and offer suggestions for improving Assembly processes. Feldman, who previously headed the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission for six years, was chosen by a six-person team following a nationwide search, and was seen as a fresh and independent perspective, someone from outside Albany’s long-standing and secretive power structures.

But during her two years in Albany, Feldman says she rarely spoke to Heastie and found even members who were interested in reforming the Albany process rebuffed her suggestions.

"There are so many things that are so entrenched,” said Feldman, in an interview with Gotham Gazette. “There are a lot of good members who I think want to see ethics reforms, but when I would tell them how other states do things, the attitude was, 'well, that would never work here.'"

Heastie’s office chalked up her experience to a misunderstanding about the job description, saying in a statement, “there was a disconnect between our expectations for the office and this individual’s view of her responsibilities.”

But good government watchdogs say the larger problem is that no in-house advisor could make much of a dent in Albany’s ways, including how the legislative houses operate, the loophole-riddled campaign finance system, an opaque budget negotiation process, and flawed oversight structures.

“Internal oversight is sort of an oxymoron,” said New York Public Interest Group’s Blair Horner. “The fundamental problem is you can’t really self-regulate when it comes to ethics. It’s like self-policing. An honor system only works for the honorable.”

While it might have been helpful to have a person for members to go to for advice, Feldman’s described duties essentially duplicated the role of the Legislative Ethic Commission (LEC), a bi-partisan entity comprised of senators, Assembly members, and outside experts that provides advice to lawmakers on outside income, fundraising, and other conflict of interest queries. In at least one instance, this created a conflict, when the LEC offered one lawmaker different advice than Feldman did about whether the lawmaker could accept a speaking engagement, Feldman told the Times Union.

It would be difficult to reconcile the two interpretations of the law given that opinions produced by the LEC are not made available to the public, and even Feldman said she could not access them. Legislative ethics advisory bodies in other states all make their opinions available to the public, and some of them even tweet out their opinions, she noted.

Even the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE), which acts in an advisory role for the executive branch, and its predecessor agencies have made opinions public and publishes a bulk of information online.

By many accounts, the Assembly has become more democratic under Heastie. The majority Democratic conference is consulted more frequently during budget negotiations, leadership opportunities are created for new members, and more hearings for legislation are held. Silver’s extremely intense grip on power has been loosened by his successor. But these strides are “infinitesimally small compared to the needs of the state, which is for radical overhaul of ethics oversight in New York,” according to Horner. “To have an office in the Assembly -- even if it doesn’t have any windows -- to sort of generate recommendations and answers to people’s questions is sort of in the chicken soup category. It doesn’t deal with the cancer of corruption that has plagued the Capitol.”

John Kaehny, executive director of ReInvent Albany, said that the biggest problem plaguing state government is its rampant pay-to-play culture. But while the overwhelmingly Democratic Assembly has repeatedly passed legislation that would curb the notorious LLC loophole, which allows wealthy interests to attempt to influence lawmakers with virtually unlimited campaign donations, the bill has been blocked from consideration in the Republican-controlled Senate. Other efforts at campaign finance reform, including instituting lower caps on individual donations and a public-matching system, have also stalled.

“If it were up to the Assembly, they would probably pass a New York City-style small donor matching campaign finance system, but that’s not the law, and they have to exist within a system that is really corrupt and just a complete swamp of money,” said Kaehny. “So the question of what exactly Jane Feldman was supposed to do is a little elusive.”

When Heastie announced a 2016 ethics reform package -- which included a bill limiting outside income for lawmakers and closure of the LLC loophole -- Feldman said she learned about it viewing the roll-out on T.V., and it became obvious that the job was not as she felt it had been described to her during interviews with the search committee and with the Speaker.

In a statement, Heastie spokesperson Mike Whyland said, “the office was created as a training and expertise resource for members and staff and independent of the Speaker’s office. It was never meant as a position that would craft policy and take part in negotiations, something that would obviously compromise the independent nature of the office. This is an independent, bipartisan office that serves both the majority and the minority and thus has no responsibilities to negotiate laws.”

According to Heastie's own press release, the Feldman was supposed to be involved in "reviewing best practices in legislative ethics to make recommendations for improvements." 

But Feldman said the Assembly was resistant to changes as small as publicizing on its website the times that it would go into legislative session. She said she was told that the parties go into conference so it was impossible to predict. “To me this is kind of archaic, but the way members learned what time session would be, is they would get a phone call that said ‘session is going to be at 11.’”

“I was told many times by people that I saw my job as much more important than it was intended to be,” said Feldman.

In 2015, good government groups sent a series of proposals to Kavanaugh and Pretlow for how the Assembly rules could be improved. The letter, signed by Common Cause, Citizens Union, NYPIRG, ReInvent Albany, and the Brennan Center for Justice, recommended that rank-and-file members be able to independently bring legislation with majority support to the floor -- even over objection of leadership -- that allocation of resources be more equitably distributed among members, as well as other transparency and efficiency measures.

“There was resistance to our recommendations, because they didn’t like anything that encroaches on the power of the speaker,” said Horner. “They did make some changes, but I still think there’s a long way to go.”

The working group was criticized for not holding any public hearings and for failing to include input from members of the minority conference, but it did produce a lengthy list of recommendations. The fixes were technological and procedural, with an eye on more transparency and communication, such as ensuring wi-fi service throughout the Assembly chamber, increased use of text alerts for staff and members, improvements to the Assembly legislation database, and livestreaming more committee meetings. There were a handful of notable changes to the committee process, such as one that would allow all members five opportunities to force a bill to be voted on in committee.

“I think there were 90 suggestions that we made, some of them take a longer time than others to be addressed, and most of them were accepted by the speaker,” said Pretlow.

But helping to craft the Assembly’s internal rules reform also, apparently, did not fall under Feldman’s purview. Pretlow said Feldman was not at all involved, adding that he did not interact with her during her time in Albany. Feldman, in an email, clarified that the working group met and had decided on recommendations shortly before she arrived in Albany.

Whyland did not respond to a request for comment on whether any candidates have emerged to replace Feldman or whether the role would be redefined, but he told the Times Union that the Assembly is looking to fill her former post with "someone who understands New York law, truly grasps the serious responsibilities of the office and its independent and bipartisan nature, and is willing to carry out its mission in full."

Clarification: The article has been updated to indicate that decisions about rules reform in the Assembly were made prior to Feldman's arrival.

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Departure of Assembly Ethics Official Prompts Calls for Broader Reforms Thu, 02 Nov 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Top City Electeds Skip Letter Wooing Amazon http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7266:top-city-electeds-skip-letter-wooing-amazon http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7266:top-city-electeds-skip-letter-wooing-amazon wtc orange amazon via edc

One World Trade Center lit up orange for Amazon (photo via NYC EDC)


New York is laying out the red carpet to entice online retail giant Amazon to locate its new corporate headquarters in the state. Governor Andrew Cuomo promised a slew of incentives to support four official proposals from different regions that were submitted to the company on Wednesday, and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio lit up the city in orange at night as a fawning branding appeal.

New York City’s own bid -- which included four possible business districts -- was backed by about 70 elected officials that represent the city, including members of Congress, state Senators and Assembly members, City Council members, borough presidents, and Public Advocate Letitia James. But at least four notable elected officials were conspicuously absent from the letter of support sent by the mayor’s office to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, of the Bronx, City Comptroller Scott Stringer, and City Council Members Corey Johnson and Donovan Richards, both contenders to become the next Speaker of the City Council, did not sign on to the letter.

“No city embodies the American traditions of innovation and creativity quite like New York City,” the letter reads. “It has transformed from a Dutch settlement, to the nation’s first capital, to a booming industrial center. It became a port of hope for millions of immigrants looking for a better life, and a model for urban revitalization. From Broadway, the Bronx Zoo and the Brooklyn Bridge, to Citi Field and the shores of Staten Island, New York City is a place where history is made every day. Our tradition of reinvention matches yours, and we invite you to join us in writing our next chapters together.”

A spokesperson for Stringer declined to comment. Multiple messages and emails sent to spokespeople for Heastie were not returned.

“We’re excited about the prospect of new businesses coming to New York City,” said Jordan Gibbons, a spokesperson for Council Member Richards, “but before we support the plan, we need more information about job standards and impact on local businesses.”

Council Member Johnson wrote in a text that he “didn’t sign on to [the] letter because I have concerns about Amazon’s labor record but also recognize 50K jobs would be good for the city.”  

As Johnson noted, Amazon’s second headquarters is expected to create 50,000 jobs and bring in roughly $5 billion in investment. One of the proposed areas for Amazon’s headquarters, Midtown West, falls in Johnson’s Manhattan district. City Council members representing other proposed sites for the headquarters signed on to the letter.

Amazon’s announcement and request for proposals triggered a mad dash by dozens of cities across the country to lure the multi-billion-dollar company. To bolster their bids, some cities and states have promised enormous tax breaks while others have pledged infrastructure investments around a potential Amazon campus. Most have hedged their bets on being able to provide the optimum balance of tech talent, affordable and ample real estate, and an appealing quality of life. One municipality in Georgia even went so far as to propose creating an entirely new city named for the online retailer.

Short of naming a new business district after Amazon, New York City’s pitch includes all those aspects. Culled from more than two dozen proposals from across the five boroughs, the New York City Economic Development Corporation, in collaboration with the Empire State Development Corporation, decided on four city areas that met Amazon’s criteria -- Midtown West, Long Island City, Lower Manhattan, and the Brooklyn Tech Triangle. The city is banking on many factors, including its pool of 2.3 million residents who hold a bachelor’s degree and above -- a number higher than the combined comparable workforce of Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Washington D.C.

The city has 296,000 workers in the tech industry and is growing rapidly in sectors of the economy where Amazon is diversifying, including media, advertising, fashion, and manufacturing.

And the city is already an attractive destination for Amazon, which has a distribution and fulfillment center, corporate offices and retail space in the city with plans to expand in Manhattan. Amazon’s website says it has 1,000 employees in New York, plus seasonal additions around the winter holidays.

An EDC spokesperson said the city cast a wide net seeking support for the proposal. “Considering how hard it is to get New Yorkers to agree on anything, the fact that we got so many signatures in such a short time was pretty impressive and overwhelming,” the spokesperson said, expressing optimism that New York would outmatch other cities with its bid.

Asked at an unrelated Thursday news conference about his pursuit of Amazon when he has been opposed to Walmart opening in the city, de Blasio called it “apples and oranges.” “Amazon, there are some issues that need to be addressed with labor, there’s no two ways about it. But, at the same time, this is a company talking about potentially fundamentally changing the economy in New York City. Adding 50,000 jobs is a game-changer. And it’s something we need and we need more high-quality jobs for the people of New York City. So we can work on those labor issues and I’m happy to work on those labor issues, but no, I’m convinced that Amazon will be a net gain for New York City, unquestionably.”

Responding to Johnson’s concerns, the EDC spokesperson said that Amazon’s presence in New York would afford the city an opportunity to engage directly with the firm and “work with them to advance our shared values.” Pointing out that it was premature to evaluate a deal that hasn’t yet been approved, the spokesperson said the city would be able to negotiate down the line to add guarantees to ensure the number of jobs created, salary levels and that jobs go to New Yorkers. “It’s pretty clear to us that they want to build the headquarters with the community, not in the community,” the spokesperson said.

“It’s puzzling, I don’t know why you’d want to turn down a shot at 50,000 good-paying jobs,” said Jonathan Bowles, executive director of the Center for an Urban Future, when asked why leaders like Stringer, Heastie, and Johnson would not sign on. He conceded that concerns about corporate subsidies are valid, but that the Amazon opportunity is too good to pass up. “It’s a big win for New York City if we can get it.”

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Top City Electeds Skip Letter Wooing Amazon Thu, 19 Oct 2017 04:00:00 +0000
New York's Top Democrats Rally Against Obamacare Repeal Bill http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7069:cuomo-and-schneiderman-pledge-lawsuit-against-obamacare-repeal-bill http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7069:cuomo-and-schneiderman-pledge-lawsuit-against-obamacare-repeal-bill 35598816530 8312988792 z

Governor Cuomo at Monday's healthcare rally (photo: Governor's Office)


At a packed auditorium at Mount Sinai Hospital Monday afternoon, four of the state’s top elected Democrats united in a show of force to rally against a common enemy: the Republican-led U.S. Senate’s bill to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, more commonly known as Obamacare.

Governor Andrew Cuomo, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio banded together on Monday, pledging to take legal action should the Senate pass the Better Care Reconciliation Act, the bill that would replace former President Barack Obama’s signature healthcare legislation. The Senate proposal would slash federal Medicaid funding, curtail the program’s expansion, and eliminate tax credits for individuals to purchase insurance on the open market, among other things.

(Although a procedural vote on the bill was meant to be delayed until after the return of Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who is recovering from surgery to remove a blood clot above his left eye, the bill seemed dead on arrival when two more Republican Senators said Monday night that they would oppose it.)

“We're going to pay three times more to take care of the people in the emergency rooms than we would have paid if we'd actually given them healthcare,” said Cuomo of the Senate proposal, kicking off the rally.

Schneiderman, following Cuomo’s lead, promised that if the BCRA passed, “I will go to court to challenge it. I will sue the Trump administration.”

[Related: Focused on Fighting Trump, is Schneiderman Looking Away from Albany Reform?]

Cuomo blamed a rising “ultraconservative ideology” in Washington D.C. for ensuring that Senate Republicans were “not talking about changing health care for all americans, they're talking about changing healthcare for poor americans.” He reserved particular derision for the Faso-Collins amendment, an addition to the Senate bill from upstate GOP Reps. John Faso and Chris Collins that would move Medicaid costs from the counties to the state, calling it an “old-fashioned con game.”

The amendment, which Faso and Collins hope will reduce local property taxes, would explicitly only apply in the state of New York and has not been a focus of the national conversation around the Congress’ attempts to overturn Obamacare. But it has become a central flashpoint in New York as state officials balk at a provision that would cut $2.3 billion in federal funding if the state fails to pick up the Medicaid tab. Schneiderman, who called the whole bill “unconstitutional,” went so far as to single out that provision and referred to Collins and Faso as “two people who supposedly represent New York.”

Mayor de Blasio made no mention of the amendment, but instead focused on the unity displayed by elected officials, labor, and business. The mayor himself has repeatedly butted heads with the governor in the past and has seldom been seen at public events with him. The mayor said that the majority of Americans rejected the healthcare bill, and “what's happening in the USA today is spitting in the face of that majority.” On Monday, the mayor urged New Yorkers to spread the message across the country, telling their friends to call their senators. “We all know where those swing votes are,” he said.

The four Democrats also warned of threats to state hospitals should the Republican bill pass, with Heastie asserting that New York has the “greatest healthcare delivery system in the nation, and to punish us because we deliver the best healthcare is unconscionable.”

He echoed the governor, who had raised the spectre of “bankrupt hospitals” and 1.2 million healthcare jobs being jeopardized in the state. “It means 20 percent of the state economy that is healthcare would be devastated if these cuts went through,” Cuomo said.

Monday’s rally was purportedly the launch of a renewed push to defeat the unpopular Senate bill, which already seems to be on its last legs. Schneiderman called the effort a coalition that would be led by the governor over the coming weeks with the intent of “sending this disgusting, anti-health bill on a one-way trip to the trash heap of history.”

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by Felipe De La Hoz, Gotham Gazette
     

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Note: this article has been updated. 

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New York's Top Democrats Rally Against Obamacare Repeal Bill Tue, 18 Jul 2017 01:15:06 +0000
De Blasio Made a Charter School Deal, But Isn’t Interested in Talking About It http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7054:de-blasio-made-a-charter-school-deal-but-isn-t-interested-in-talking-about-it http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7054:de-blasio-made-a-charter-school-deal-but-isn-t-interested-in-talking-about-it de blasio mayoral control event

Mayor de Blasio at City Hall, June 29 (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


Mayor Bill de Blasio negotiated a deal to extend mayoral control of city schools in exchange for a set of administrative actions benefitting charter schools. When the mayor celebrated the extension of mayoral control -- which was due to expire at the end of June, but was extended June 29 -- he did not release the details of the charter-friendly promises he was making to Republican state Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo, and their charter sector allies.

The Democratic mayor said at press conferences on both June 29 and June 30 that the details, all non-legislative, were still being finalized and that when they were ready they would be shared. When Gotham Gazette asked the mayor if he wasn’t participating in the type of secretive backroom dealing he’s criticized Albany lawmakers for, he said it was different because the details still weren’t final.

The Wall Street Journal reported one key detail late Wednesday night and the mayor’s press office only released the six-point agenda upon subequent requests from news outlets, many of which, including Gotham Gazette, made that inquiry on Thursday. In other words, there was no formal announcement, no press release emailed widely to reporters and editors and posted to the city’s website.

De Blasio also said at the end of June that once the details were public he’d take questions about them, but he left town for Germany Thursday night without doing so. When the mayor called in for his weekly Friday appearance on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show, the segment was dominated by the surprise Germany trip, which the mayor took in order to speak at a rally outside the G20 summit of world leaders, the recent killing of an NYPD officer, and homelessness.

In one sense, de Blasio successfully avoided talking about a charter school-friendly agreement that, while expedient to win two more years of mayoral control, he is not excited about. De Blasio is a long-time charter school foe, though tensions have cooled over the past two years, and is closely aligned with teachers unions, which see the largely non-unionized charter sector as an existential threat. The mayor’s antipathy toward charter schools has been at the forefront of his challenges to win a long-term extension of mayoral control given the strong support for charters from Cuomo and the Republican-controlled state Senate. The third major entity involved in the Albany decision-making, Assembly Democrats, are even more anti-charter than de Blasio.

The charter school package de Blasio agreed to includes changes around rent reimbursements from the city to charter schools and school space utilization for charters, as well as MetroCard subsidies to some charter students and, most notably, an agreement that about 22 charter schools no longer operating can be replaced without an increase in the current cap on charters in the city. That cap was the key point of contention in negotiations among stakeholders in Albany, with Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie refusing to accept any increase in the cap. Instead, de Blasio agreed to a de facto increase.

According to City Hall, the changes will cost about $10 million per year, including about $7 million to increase charter school space reimbursement from 20% to 30%, which is already included in the budget, and $3 million for MetroCards for charter students who need transportation before busing begins each school year. It’s too early to tell if there will be any additional costs to the city related to the 20-plus “zombie” charters that are non-operational and now available to replacement through the charter authorization process, a City Hall spokesperson said.

It’s no surprise that City Hall did not send out a press release announcing the details of the deal or that the mayor didn’t make himself available to discuss them. At the same time, given de Blasio’s challenges in Albany, especially with regard to Senate Republicans and Cuomo, who both receive significant funding from wealthy charter school supporters, the mayor has sought to avoid charter-related conflict over the last two years. In 2014, de Blasio received a major setback through state legislation guaranteeing charter schools either space in public school buildings or rent reimbursements, some of which the city would have to pay.

In a statement, de Blasio spokesperson Freddi Goldstein said, “The charter sector is an important partner in our mission to deliver an excellent education to every child in New York City. Through the debate over mayoral control, we identified a few common-sense areas where we could better work together to ensure all 1.1 million school children have a chance to succeed.”

There are currently 216 charter schools operating in New York City, with 23 slots left under the existing cap, according to the New York City Charter School Center, and 22 defunct charters would be open to replacement under the new agreement. Meaning, without a change to the law in Albany, there is room for 45 new charter schools in New York City.

When a deal extending mayoral control of city schools was voted through a special session of the state Legislature on June 29, de Blasio called a City Hall press conference to celebrate. “Well, we have very good news for the children of New York City and for the parents of New York City,” de Blasio said. “Mayoral control of education has been extended for the next two years. This is a hugely important moment.”

In the question-and-answer session that followed the mayor’s brief remarks, Gotham Gazette asked how raising the charter school cap had been dropped from the negotiations. Senate Republicans had tied extending mayoral control to an increase in the cap. De Blasio credited Heastie, who had been steadfast about not agreeing to raise the cap, and said “eventually I think that logic pervaded in many ways.” He did not mention his side deal.

Asked then by Gotham Gazette if it was simply that Senate Republicans backed down, de Blasio said, “I won't speak for any of the parties.” He said that he had had a lot of productive conversation with Sen. Flanagan and, among other points, added, “I think we found some real common ground in terms of the ability to work together on specific ideas.”

When a reporter from The New York Times later followed up, asking if there were any side agreements related to charter schools, de Blasio finally admitted there was. “There were a lot of conversations about a set of issues related to charters, that we believe could be handled administratively,” he said. “Those ideas are being crystallized into a final form. There's still some finishing touches to put on. There will be an upcoming announcement on that.”

Asked to elaborate, de Blasio said he wasn’t ready “to go into the specifics, because I want to respect that all the parties have to finish the final touches, as I said, but again, very productive conversations about things where we could work together.”

He added: “I thought a number of the issues that were raised were perfectly fair, you know, were respectful of what the city was trying to do overall, in terms of education, were not onerous. There were ways we could work together, and that was part of what I think energized this process, was the more we talked about actual substance. When I said, ‘Well, wait a minute. We could work together on that. Let's see if we can solve that.’ The speaker was very clear about not wanting to address those issues legislatively, which I, again, think was a fair approach, given the sanctity of mayoral control of education. That didn't mean we couldn't look at other ways to address the issue, so again, I believe you'll see, very soon, some final outcomes on that.”

The next day, during another press conference exchange, de Blasio told Gotham Gazette, “Of course I’ll explain them when everything is finished, which I think will be quite soon. Again, there’s a lot of parties to this process, and I’m being very transparent about the fact that we talked about some real important issues related to charters. We came to some specific understandings, details still being worked out. Of course it’ll be published. And then, you’ll have at it. You’ll have every opportunity to make questions. But I have to emphasize, and this was important to what Speaker Heastie said in the beginning: It is not a legislative action, it was not something that had to be approved by the Senate and the Assembly formally. This is me deciding, as Mayor of New York City, with my administrative capacity, that there were some things we could do that would address some outstanding concerns of charters and I thought they were fair. But as soon as it’s cooked, as soon as it’s finalized, yes, everything will be public and then we’ll happily take questions on it.”

It is apparent that Heastie’s ability to say he did not give in legislatively on any benefits for charter schools is important to the speaker and many of his members, who are closely aligned with and funded by the teachers unions.

In statements following the release of the charter-related promises from the city, Flanagan celebrated and Heastie distanced.

According to Flanagan, whose office emailed his statement to its entire press list, the “announcement by Mayor de Blasio is an important step forward for charter school students and for their families, as well as for the 50,000 children now on waiting lists for a seat inside a charter school. They are clamoring for a chance at success, and together we have provided them with a better opportunity to achieve their goals, to succeed and to get ahead. I thank the Mayor for his openness in addressing this important issue and for demonstrating his support for both children who are currently in a charter school and those who would like to be.”

The statement from Heastie’s office, on the other hand, emphasized that the Assembly had not given an inch on charter schools. “As for charter schools, the Speaker was not an active participant in any discussions or negotiations,” said a Heastie spokesperson. “He said from the beginning the Assembly Majority would not trade anything regarding charter schools for mayoral control. Mayor de Blasio and the city's Department of Education have the right to make decisions of their choosing in regards to the administration of charter schools that do not require any legislative action.”

When Gotham Gazette asked de Blasio’s office when the mayor had meant when on June 29 he said "as soon as it’s finalized, yes, everything will be public and then we’ll happily take questions on it," his spokesperson emailed back to say, “At his next public event, same as always.”

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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De Blasio Made a Charter School Deal, But Isn’t Interested in Talking About It Sun, 09 Jul 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Powerful Assembly Post May Be Vacant Sooner Than Expected http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7046:powerful-assembly-chair-position-may-be-vacant-sooner-than-expected http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7046:powerful-assembly-chair-position-may-be-vacant-sooner-than-expected farrell assembly floor

Assemblymember Herman Farrell (photo: The Assembly)


When Assemblymember Herman “Denny” Farrell, who heads the chamber’s Ways and Means Committee, announced he would not seek reelection next year, it set off a murmur about who might succeed him in the powerful -- and lucrative -- committee post.

Farrell, a Democrat elected to the Assembly in 1974 and the third longest serving member of the body, is known for his diplomacy and good natured bantering with Republicans and Democrats alike during budget hearings and on the Assembly floor.

Well-liked among his peers and beloved in his community, Farrell -- who represents Harlem, Washington Heights and Inwood -- was recognized by the Legislature last week, when it voted to rename Upper Manhattan’s Riverbank State Park after him as part of a special legislative session dealing with mayoral control over schools.

Governor Andrew Cuomo also honored the Assembly member at a breakfast at the Executive Mansion on June 20, speaking in eulogistic terms of Farrell’s time in the Assembly and as former chair to both the Manhattan and State Democratic Parties.

“Denny also taught me politics was the means to the end, and that was getting into government to achieve power…not power you would use personally, not power to take care of some donors, to take care of some unions, to take care of the political complex — power to do good things for your people and for your community,” Cuomo said, according to a recording of his remarks obtained by Politico New York. “Government is about accomplishing things for people and making their life better. Everything else is bull----.”

While Farrell’s current two-year term is set to officially end at the end of 2018, the grand farewell he received in Albany and other indicators have signalled to many in Harlem that he plans to resign before January, when the Legislature is next due back in the capital. The move would virtually ensure the party nomination of his chief of staff, Rev. Al Taylor, in a special election, according one Harlem insider who spoke to Gotham Gazette on the condition of anonymity. For special elections to the state Legislature, the borough party committees name the party representative on the ballot.

“His departure is something that a lot of people Uptown are talking about. Farrell is putting a lot of his energy and political assets into his chief of staff, Al Taylor. Wherever Denny is, Al is nearby,” the insider said, noting that the Assembly office’s most recent quarterly newsletter featured Taylor more than Farrell. “All the signs point to Farrell's resignation being imminent.”

In addition to Taylor, Juan Rosa, a former City Council staffer and community activist, is considering a run for the seat, according to multiple people familiar with the district.

Farrell, who did not return a request for comment, has not confirmed any plan to vacate his Assembly seat before January 2019, when his term would officially end.

If Farrell does indeed leave before the end of the year, not only would Taylor have the inside track to the Assembly, but Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie would name a new Ways and Means chair, the top Assembly budget post below the Speaker, before the next budget season in Albany -- a move that would likely prompt a series of new committee chair appointments throughout the Assembly for the 2018 session.

“When you make one change, you make 30 changes. That is always the part that outsiders don’t understand,” said former Assemblymember Richard Brodsky. “Part of the calculus that any Speaker makes is not just how to fill that position, but how it will affect the entire food chain.”

As capital watchers have noted Farrell’s imminent departure, it has also become apparent that several female legislators are in line for the committee leadership job -- a post no woman has ever held before.

While new leadership appointments are made every year by the Speaker, the Ways and Means chairship is arguably the most powerful and well-paid committee position in the Assembly. It is also arguably the most challenging, as the committee is tasked with budget hearing leadership and examining any legislation considered by the body that has a fiscal component.

The position comes with a significant stipend. On top of the standard $79,500 legislative salary, the Ways and Means chair earns $34,000, on par only with the $34,500 stipend received by the Assembly Majority Leader, currently Joseph Morelle, of Monroe County. Other committees, such as Codes and Education, may deliberate over a comparably high volume of bills, but come with a stipend of $18,000 each. The Ways and Means chair also has access to a significantly larger staff than any other chair in the Assembly.

Geography and seniority have long played a role in who is selected for both leading Ways and Means and other top committees. For Ways and Means, other factors typically considered include knowledge of the budget process, diplomacy, ability to get along with Republicans in both legislative houses, and the stamina to sit through many hours of annual budget hearings.

The longest serving member of the Assembly is Richard Gottfried, of Manhattan, who is followed by Assemblymember Joseph Lentol, of Brooklyn. Gottfried, who has headed the Assembly Health Committee for more than 30 years, told Gotham Gazette he has expressed to Heastie and previous speakers that he is not interested in leading Ways and Means.

“I almost can't imagine how lucky I am to have had this job; it is just about a dream position for me,” Gottfried said of leading the Health Committee. “I love being able to focus on health policy and consider myself enormously happy to have this job.”

He noted that the Speaker must ultimately assess the person’s ability to speak on behalf of the Assembly majority's view of the budget and be someone who can represent the diverse views of the Democratic Conference.

“The speaker has to be concerned with, among other things, maintaining the solidarity and cohesion of the Democratic Majority because there are always a lot of forces eager to pick us apart,” said Gottfried, who is currently focussed on trying to see single-payer health care passed in New York.

An obvious choice for Heastie might be Lentol, the second most senior member of the Assembly, who has held his seat since 1972 and has served as chair of the critical Committee on Codes since 1992. Lentol competed against Heastie in the race to replace former Speaker Sheldon Silver in 2015, as did Assemblymember Catherine Nolan, of Queens, the sixth longest serving Assembly member. Lentol did not return a request for comment on whether he was interested in the Ways and Means position.

Assemblymember Robin Schimminger, who represents a swing district encompassing Niagara and Erie Counties, follows Lentol and Farrell in seniority, but his district geography and more moderate place on the political spectrum could rule him out for such an influential position in the New York City-focussed conference.

While women have historically been underrepresented in the Legislature, including in leadership positions, for the first time in history, several are in the mix for the Ways and Means post, including Nolan, who was first elected in 1984, Assemblymember Helene Weinstein, of Brooklyn, who is the fifth longest serving member of the Assembly, having been elected in 1980, and others.

Weinstein chairs the highly technical Judiciary Committee and Nolan heads the Education Committee.

Between Weinstein and Nolan on the seniority list are Brooklyn Assemblymember Dov Hikind and Assemblymember David Gantt, of Rochester.

Female Assemblymembers Vivian Cook, of Queens; Earlene Hooper, of Nassau County; and Deborah Glick, of Manhattan, also rank among the 15 longest serving lawmakers in the 150-seat chamber. Glick has the distinction of being New York's first openly gay person elected to the state Legislature. She has been outspoken on a range of progressive issues and chairs the important Higher Education Committee.

Seniority withstanding, Heastie has made an effort to provide leadership opportunities to newer members in a way his predecessors did not, according to members of the Assembly who spoke to Gotham Gazette.

“I think we have noticed that under this leadership [Speaker Heastie] has managed to bring a few new members, who have only been here a few months, to be chairmen of committees and subcommittees. It has never happened before. You know, it took me 20 years to get a chairmanship myself,” said Brooklyn Assemblymember Félix W. Ortiz, who chairs the Cities Committee and serves as Assistant Speaker.

He may also consider factors like gender, race, political beliefs, and other elements of diversity in making his decision.

“Geography used to matter, but once you open up that door of identity, lots of people walk in. The Assembly is blessed with about 15 people whose seniority and talent and experience is considerable, it’s going to be hard for [Speaker Heastie] to make a bad choice,” said former Assemblymember Brodsky, who chaired both the Committee on Environmental Conservation and the Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions during his nearly three decades in Albany.

A spokesperson for Heastie did not return a request for comment, nor did the offices of Assembly Members Nolan, Weinstein, Lentol, and Schimminger.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the location of Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Morelle's district.

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Powerful Assembly Post May Be Vacant Sooner Than Expected Tue, 04 Jul 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Mayoral Control Extended in Special Session with Usual Albany Process http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7042:mayoral-control-extended-in-special-session-with-usual-albany-process http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7042:mayoral-control-extended-in-special-session-with-usual-albany-process Cuomo special session

Gov. Cuomo on Thursday (photo: Philip Kamrass/Governor’s Office)


To prevent the impending lapse of mayoral control over New York City schools, the state Legislature and Governor Andrew Cuomo passed a two-year extension Thursday as part of a larger omnibus bill, which included a pension enhancement for certain uniformed workers, special recognition for former Governor Mario Cuomo, and several benefits for upstate areas.

A special session was called Wednesday by Gov. Cuomo specifically to address mayoral leadership over city schools, which was set to expire June 30, and a small number of other matters, but the ensuing discussion produced a more sprawling legislation package, according to Cuomo. The final deal included a three-year extension of local taxes, $55 million in Lake Ontario flood relief funding, and the renaming of the new Tappan Zee Bridge after the governor’s late father.

According to Cuomo, who held a press conference Thursday afternoon at the Capitol to celebrate what was accomplished, he and legislative leaders arrived at a compromise centered on extending mayoral control ahead of his calling the special session. Once legislators returned to the capital, the negotiations were opened up more broadly, and a larger tentative deal was reached at around 8:30 p.m Wednesday night. That agreement followed a day of meetings behind closed doors, during which rank-and-file lawmakers, journalists, and the larger public were largely left on the sidelines. The Assembly voted to pass the omnibus bill at around 1 a.m. on Thursday, while the Senate passed the bill after some internal rankling at around 2 .p.m.

The opaque nature of the discussions, as well as the expense of keeping lawmakers in Albany at a cost of more than $30,000 -- though not all lawmakers take per diems and estimates vary -- drew criticism from lawmakers across party lines, including Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart Cousins, who along with her fellow Senate Democrats urged their colleagues on the GOP side to move the bill along Thursday.

“Another day and another example of dysfunction in the Senate,” Stewart Cousins said at a press conference outside the Senate GOP conference room. “The GOP/IDC inability to finish this session is an embarrassment. We need to stop wasting taxpayers’ money and do our jobs. The Senate Democrats are ready to vote for this package of legislation immediately. Let's go to the floor.”

Democratic Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, who was adamant during the legislative session that the lifting of the charter school cap in New York City not be included in the final bill, commended the governor and his colleagues in the Legislature for passing a comprehensive bill that would prevent disruption in the management of city schools.

“I am proud of the efforts of Assembly members on both sides of the aisle who worked extremely hard to craft a consensus on the many pressing issues our state faces,” said Heastie, who got his way on the charter school cap, in a statement. “Working with Governor Cuomo, our successes include a two-year extension of mayoral control of New York City schools, giving our educational system stability and allowing our school children to thrive.

During his press conference in the Capitol’s Red Room, Cuomo ceremoniously signed the mayoral control portion of the legislative package and said he had anticipated the special session would only address mayoral control and legislation enhancing pension benefits for certain city police officers and firefighters, known as the “three-quarters bill.” However, several Senate Republicans from Upstate saw the bill as too New York City-centric.

“The agreement was to come back and do mayoral control and the three-quarters bill. When we came back, the Assembly was fine with it,” Cuomo told reporters. “My understanding is, in the conference, the Senate said ‘We also want to do the sales tax extenders. And by the way, it’s not just the sales tax extenders,’ they said, ‘We also want do something on Vernon Downs’...That is what we were trying to avoid. Once you start to expand the wish list, it gets much, much harder to get to an agreement.”

Offering a reason for the delay in legislative voting, Cuomo also celebrated how much got done in the end.

The final bill offers a tax bailout to Vernon Downs, an Upstate racetrack, in order to prevent its closure and retain 300 well-paying jobs in the region; provides for critical transportation needs in Westchester County; and includes passage of a proposed constitutional amendment to aid communities in the Adirondack Mountains with infrastructure projects. In addition to the renaming of the Tappan Zee, the Legislature voted to rename Riverbank State Park in Manhattan in honor of retiring Assemblymember Denny Farrell, who was first elected to the Assembly in 1974.

Flanagan also touted the package, saying in a Thursday statement saying that the omnibus bill "resolves a number of outstanding state issues" after "Senate Republicans were able to put together a more comprehensive package that meets the needs of taxpayers, students, and families throughout our entire state." Flanagan also indicated that there were provisions related to protecting charter schools, something Mayor de Blasio stated would be announced in the coming days as administrative, not legislative, matters.

There was no legislative action regarding the MTA, which Cuomo had declared was in a state of emergency on Thursday morning at an event in New York City. At that event Cuomo did pledge an additional $1 billion to the MTA in next year’s budget.

As had become evident when the budget was passed in April and through the end of the legislative session last week, no government ethics or election reforms made it through Albany this year. Two other top priorities of Mayor de Blasio’s -- design-build authority and additional speed cameras for school zones -- were also left on the chopping block.

Still, at his own news conference on Thursday afternoon, de Blasio said he was very pleased with the outcome, especially on mayoral control. The mayor expressed relief that with the first two-year extension of his term, he would not need an Albany vote next year to keep control of the school system. What the mayor does need, however, is the approval of voters this fall when he seeks reelection.

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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with reporting by Ben Max

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Mayoral Control Extended in Special Session with Usual Albany Process Thu, 29 Jun 2017 04:00:00 +0000
How The Mayoral Control ‘Special Session’ Works http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7037:how-the-mayoral-control-special-session-works http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7037:how-the-mayoral-control-special-session-works de Blasio desk Albany

(photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayor's Office)


To prevent the lapse of mayoral control over New York City schools, Governor Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday called an “extraordinary session” of the state Legislature to convene on Wednesday at 1p.m. in Albany. Often referred to as a “special session,” details of how the day will unfold -- especially what legislation will pass -- are still unclear.

Currently, the session has been called for just one day, with the only named purpose the extension of authority granted to the New York City Mayor, currently Bill de Blasio, to run the city schools. But, as of Tuesday evening, there is no specific bill on the table and Cuomo’s proclamation leaves the discussion open to “such other subjects” he “may recommend.”

"The Governor is calling an extraordinary legislative session for Wednesday, June 28 to take up the issue of Mayoral Control. The Governor has discussed the extraordinary session with the legislative leaders,” said Melissa DeRosa, secretary to the governor, in a statement.

The failure to reach a deal by the end of the week would lurch the educational system for 1.1 million city schoolchildren into uncertainty, and the process would commence to revert school governance back to the Board of Education and local school boards -- which, while in power, were frequently charged with inefficiency and corruption.

Like most educational experts, Governor Cuomo, Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie have all expressed support for mayoral control and believe that the old school board system was worse. But, the GOP-controlled Senate want to tie an extension to an increase in the cap on charter schools in New York City. The Assembly wants a clean extender of mayoral control, but did tie it to other local extenders in the form of expiring tax rates that also have widespread support.

On Wednesday, the three men will meet again try to break the impasse over the issue, and perhaps negotiate other policies, while reporters try to glean some insight into the negotiations. After breaking last Wednesday night at the end of the scheduled legislative year without deals on mayoral control, local tax extenders, or several other high-profile items, legislators, some of them on vacation, are being called back to the capital to handle unfinished business.

A majority is needed in both houses for the session to commence, and it is the responsibility of the legislative leaders to compel their members to return to the Capitol, according to Cuomo’s office.

According to Albany lore, the executive can call in state troopers to force lawmakers back to the Capitol for a special session. This myth, cited by several legislative staffers, does not appear in the state constitution. Senate rules do require a quorum, or 60 percent of members to be present for any motions or resolutions, and empower those present to send the Sergeant at Arms to bring absent senators back from their districts if necessary. In post-session remarks this past Thursday, Cuomo did jokingly reference constituents using force to send their local legislators back to Albany to finish their business.

While special sessions are sometimes intended to tackle a single topic, The New York Times reported that the governor may be offering the Senate GOP approval of a bill to increase accidental disability pensions for firefighters, police officers, and other city employees in exchange for a sign-off on one year of mayoral control without charter school provisions attached. This has opened the door to lawmakers and interest groups who want to see other bills considered in renewed negotiations.

Also caught in the crossfire, is a standard two-year extension dozens of local and county taxes. If it lapses, counties could face a $1.8 billion collective hole in their budgets, according to the New York State Association of Counties. Like with mayoral control, virtually all the major stakeholders believe in an extension, but disagree on the details of a deal.

Now NYSAC is calling for the Legislature to tackle legislation that would permanently allow county governments to extend their sales tax rates every two years.

Senator Michael Gianaris, a Queens Democrat, wants the special session to include action on New York City’s rapidly deteriorating subway system, following a particularly dramatic derailment incident Tuesday morning, which left dozens of straphangers injured. Just before the end of the scheduled session Gianaris had put forth a new proposal for a temporary dedicated revenue stream to infuse cash into the MTA.

“With the state legislature likely to return to Albany soon to address outstanding issues, fixing the MTA should be a top priority. When they return, the Governor and members of the legislature should not leave the Capitol until a solution to the MTA crisis is enacted,” wrote Gianaris in a petition for lawmakers to consider his bill to establish a dedicated funding stream for emergency maintenance and repairs.

While only the governor sets the agenda for a special session, his power is limited.
Technically, the Legislature never gavels out of session. According to the state constitution, if the Assembly goes dark for four days consecutively, lawmakers cannot reconvene until the following calendar year.

So, for more than two decades, every third day, an Assembly member has entered the chamber, and triple-banged the gavel on the podium -- a ritual that keeps the Legislature endlessly in session. This practice is intended to prevent recess appointments by the Governor and also allows any new legislation to age the requisite three days before becoming law.

Since the legislative session never really ends, when a special session is called, the Legislature must return to Albany, but can immediately gavel out and go home. Its members can also stay and reconvene to consider legislation of their choosing.

The Legislature first turned over control of city schools to the Mayor in 2002.
Previously, they were governed a seven-member Board of Education and 32 elected community school boards. The Board of Education, which had two mayoral appointees and one each from the borough presidents, selected the chancellor. The mayor could also influence the school system through the city budget.

Authority to appoint superintendents in elementary and middle schools was stripped from the Board in 1996 due to evidence of corruption and patronage in some school districts. Since this shift test performance and graduation rates dramatically improved at city schools, reports The New York Times.

Without clear direction, the session can get expensive.
Compensation, per diem allowances and travel expenses for members can add up, not to mention the cost of additional legislative staff. There are 150 seats in the Assembly and 63 in the Senate. It’s not clear how many legislators will be back to Albany for Wednesday’s session.

Legislators are paid a per diem rate of $175, which is to cover hotel and food, plus they are compensated for travel expenses at 55 cents per mile, not including tolls. For a lawmaker from Buffalo, which is approximately 300 miles from Albany, the travel bill tallies up to around $150 each way, for example. There is also a partial per diem rate of $59 when lawmakers do not spend the night.

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Note: This article has been updated to clarify how lawmakers are gathered back to the Capitol during a special session.

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How The Mayoral Control ‘Special Session’ Works Tue, 27 Jun 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Albany on the Penultimate Day of Legislative Session http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7014:albany-on-the-penultimate-day-of-legislative-session http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7014:albany-on-the-penultimate-day-of-legislative-session albany capitol

The Capitol (photo: Ben Max)


The lobby was packed with lobbyists. The Dunkin Donuts was humming. Food trucks lined the sunny street and appeared to be doing better than average business. Reporters were hungry for any tidbit of news.

Assembly members and Senators bounced in and out of their respective chambers, where dozens of bills were voted through with astonishing speed. Negotiations on major pieces of more contentious legislation were held behind closed doors by the four most powerful people in state government, all men.

The state Capitol building on the penultimate day of the 2017 legislative session was full of energy and exasperation.

“My bill just passed!” one Assembly member exclaimed when she recognized a friendly face. “I have to get back in to vote, my bill is coming up soon,” said a senator optimistic that her legislation was about to move through the chamber. It did.

“I haven’t seen the bill,” legislator after legislator told waiting lobbyists looking to bend their ears and garner additional support in last-ditch efforts to see their clients’ legislation pass.

“Speed cameras just passed through committee,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio’s transportation commissioner, in the capital to help shepherd through two administration priorities.

“I’m just ready to be done,” said another Assembly member. And another. And another.

“Yes,” said the Senate majority leader when asked if session would end Wednesday night as scheduled.

But, even with somewhere around 36 hours left on the clock, there was a great deal of unresolved business. When Republican Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan told reporters that he was set on session ending Wednesday, he had just emerged from a meeting with other legislative leaders -- Democratic Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Independent Democratic Conference Leader Jeff Klein -- and Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, at which some of the outstanding, big ticket items were discussed.

After that meeting, Klein said he was hopeful the sides would all agree on a two-year extension of mayoral control of New York City schools. When Flanagan came out he declined to put a duration on any extension, saying that negotiations are ongoing. (Mayoral control is set to expire at the end of the month. De Blasio has activated the usual suspects for a push similar to each of the last two years, when he was granted just a one-year extension. City schools Chancellor Carmen Farina was in the Capitol to help the effort, ready to talk to any legislator who wanted to chat, she told reporters.)

Flanagan put another major issue off the table completely, though, when he said that the Senate would not be voting on the Child Victims Act, which would allow sexual abuse victims more leeway to bring suits against their abusers and is supported by the Assembly majority and Cuomo.

Speaking of the governor, he held a closed-door bill-signing to celebrate passage of legislation raising the age at which one can consent to marriage in New York, in an effort to modernize those regulations and outlaw “child marriage.” Opting to sign the bill without members of the media, Cuomo took no questions on Tuesday.

He did, however, announce through press release a new bill to grant the Governor more control over the MTA, an end-of-session move aimed at showing he is thinking about the subway crisis that has earned Cuomo increasing scorn. The governor currently appoints six of the 14 MTA board members and the Chair, giving him de facto control. His proposal would have the Governor nominate eight of 16 board members plus the chair, who would be given a vote, giving the governor a majority of the votes, with nine.

The governor’s proposal, which may very well pass with almost no public review, came the day after state Senator Michael Gianaris announced his own MTA rescue plan, a bill that would, in part, institute a three-year “millionaire’s tax” on “those in the MTA region” to fund emergency repairs -- “a temporary surge of dedicated revenue” -- and create an emergency manager position at the MTA.

“Somebody had to do something,” Gianaris told Gotham Gazette on Tuesday at the Capitol. “Someone had to get a real conversation going.”

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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Albany on the Penultimate Day of Legislative Session Tue, 20 Jun 2017 04:00:00 +0000