Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/191 Thu, 14 Dec 2017 22:38:50 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) On Your November Ballot: Stripping Pensions from Corrupt Politicians http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6740:on-your-november-ballot-stripping-pensions-from-corrupt-politicians http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6740:on-your-november-ballot-stripping-pensions-from-corrupt-politicians silver skelos cuomo sampson

Sheldon Silver & others in 2011 (photo: The Governor's Office)


This November, New York voters will get to decide whether state officials who are convicted of public corruption can be stripped of their pensions.

A government ethics reform bill, jointly passed by the state Legislature Monday for a second time, amends the state constitution and allows the state to reduce or revoke the pension of a public officer that has been convicted of a crime related to his or her official duties.

Under the measure, a public officer convicted of a crime would be subject to a court hearing, which would determine the fate of of the officer’s pension. Current law only allows pensions to be stripped from lawmakers convicted of a crime who joined the retirement system after August 15, 2011, but this constitutional amendment would make the forfeiture apply retroactively to all currently in government.

Because it is a constitutional change, it must pass two consecutive classes of the state Legislature, which this legislation has now done, and then be approved by the voters via ballot referendum.

A public push for the legislation came after it was revealed that disgraced ex-Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and ex-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, as well as other corrupt public officials, were granted pensions despite convictions on public corruption charges. As they face prison sentences, Skelos is to receive $95,832 annually and Silver, $79,224 a year, according to The Daily News.

While many state legislators’ initially appeared content to keep the pension (forfeiture) system as is, a public outcry following news reports on the Skelos and Silver pension packages appears to have changed their minds. A 2015 Quinnipiac University poll found that voters supported pension forfeiture for corrupt officials 76 percent to 18 percent.

The new pension forfeiture measure will appear on the ballot November 7 of this year, as voters go to the polls for the general elections in a variety of local offices. In New York City, elections will include those for mayor, public advocate, comptroller, borough presidents, all of the City Council, and others.

On the flip side of the ballot from candidate choices, alongside the pension forfeiture “yes” or “no” question, will be another somewhat related referendum: whether New York State should call a constitutional convention. That question is required to appear on the ballot every 20 years, but New Yorkers have not called for a Con Con, as it is often referred, in several decades.

A chance to rewrite the state constitution, a constitutional convention could result in the enactment of numerous government ethics reforms, from different pension forfeiture rules to the closure of the infamous “LLC loophole,” term limits for elected officials, and more.

The last time a constitutional convention was on the ballot, in 1997, it did not pass, in part due opposition from labor groups and other special interests, which factor into this year’s vote as well. However, not only is there currently a “take back the government” political moment occurring, but the fact that the constitutional convention question will be accompanied by the popular pension forfeiture referendum could potentially have a “coattail effect,” according to Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG).

“From an advocate’s perspective, I think this makes it easier to get it passed,” Horner said of Con Con. “Any sort of political campaign is difficult to run, when you are telling people vote “yes” on one and “no” on the other, because people forget which is which.”

According to the new measure, a court’s decision to reduce or revoke pension benefits would consider factors such as the severity of the crime and whether a reduction might be proportionate to the offense. Public officers include elected officials, direct gubernatorial appointees, municipal managers, department heads, chief fiscal officers, and policy-makers.

“There must be zero tolerance for public corruption, and these ethics reforms are crucial to holding officials accountable and making sure they don’t profit from abusing their positions,” said Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan in a statement. “Now the measure will go to the voters so that they can have the opportunity to join with us in taking a strong stand against corruption.” Flanagan, a Long Island Republican like his predecessor, replaced Skelos as majority leader when Skelos stepped down amid federal charges.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a New York City Democrat who replaced Silver when Silver stepped down from his long-time speaker post, said similarly. “The Assembly Majority believes that public officials who violate the public’s trust and engage in corruption should face the consequences of their actions including the forfeiture of taxpayer funded pensions,” said Heastie in a statement.

The proposal, sponsored by Assemblymember David Buchwald, a Westchester Democrat, and Senator Thomas Croci, a Republican from Long Island, would also allow the court to order pension benefits to be paid to an innocent spouse, minor dependents, or other dependent family members after consideration of their financial needs and resources.

Good government groups were quick to commend the Legislature’s reform efforts as a step in the right direction. Still, the potential loss or reduction of pension benefits -- a punitive measure -- is less likely to deter corruption than more preventative measures that reformers have called for, like a public campaign finance system and stricter limits on campaign donations. Jail time and other penalties faced by corrupt politicians have appeared to show little effect as state lawmaker after state lawmaker is put behind bars.

“Public officials who break the law shouldnʼt get a taxpayer pension, period. Thanks to Assemblymember Buchwaldʼs and Senator Crociʼs persistent efforts to pass this needed response to our state’s on-going ethics crisis, New York is one step closer to restoring the public’s trust in government,ˮ said Susan Lerner, Executive Director of Common Cause New York, in a statement.

The Legislature also passed a joint resolution Monday that requires any member of the Legislature earning at least $5,000 in income through outside employment to get advisory permission from the Legislative Ethics Commission, to ensure the employment is consistent with the New York State Public Officers Law.

Governor Andrew Cuomo outlined a ten-point government ethics plan earlier this year as part of his State of the State tour and policy plan. Cuomo said he will be pushing reform measures, including campaign finance reform, in budget negotiations with the Legislature. The governor is supportive of the pension forfeiture amendment and has said he is supportive of a constitutional convention, but he did not include it in his 149-plank 2017 policy agenda.

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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On Your November Ballot: Stripping Pensions from Corrupt Politicians Tue, 31 Jan 2017 05:00:00 +0000
How Jeff Klein Became New York’s New Power Broker http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6552:how-jeff-klein-became-new-york-s-new-power-broker http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6552:how-jeff-klein-became-new-york-s-new-power-broker Klein and co

State Sen. Jeff Klein, center-right & other Bronx electeds (@RepEliotEngle)


In January 2011, State Senator Jeff Klein declared himself leader of a group of four breakaway Democrats who were united in their dissatisfaction with the recent dysfunction of their conference’s leadership. They created the Independent Democratic Conference, or IDC, despite the fact that Klein had been deputy leader of the Senate Democrats and was in control of the New York State Democratic Senate Campaign Committee during the 2010 elections, all through the now legendary strife and controversy that was part of Democrats’ brief control of the Senate.

Since then, Klein has allied IDC with Senate Republicans, thereby winning himself a seat at the budget negotiating table, larger offices and increased staff funding for his members, and a political forcefield that protects him and his allies from criticism hurled by Republicans or Democrats, lest he side decide to ally with the other side.

This year, Klein has increased the IDC’s power with new fundraising and campaign spending tools and an incoming member, Marisol Alcantara, who won a crowded Uptown primary in some part thanks to the financial support of the IDC. When the dust settles after November’s elections, Klein is likely to be in prime bargaining position as mainline Democrats and Senate Republicans seek a ruling coalition deal with the IDC.

Lost in the shuffle of these power dynamics, which can have immense consequence for the people of New York, is the story of how Klein managed to turn a disastrous run at the top of the Senate Democrats’ power structure into a position that has allowed him to play kingmaker every two years and become, after overcoming a serious primary challenger in 2014, virtually untouchable politically.

“Breaking away from this dysfunctional conference gave him a voice,” said Douglas Muzzio, professor of political science at Baruch College, who added that the move appears to have indefinitely altered power dynamics in state government. “He can use corruption and dysfunction as much as he likes but it doesn’t mask the fact that it was a bald face power move. He can couch it in principle, but it was still about power,” said Muzzio.

In 2009, after winning a majority for the first time in decades, a number of Democrats including Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr. and then Sens. Carl Kruger and Pedro Espada agreed only to vote for then Sen. Malcolm Smith as leader in exchange for certain perks and leadership positions. Only a few months after the year’s legislative session started, the fragile agreement was destroyed as Espada and then Sen. Hiram Monserrate bolted to join Senate Republicans, launching a hostile coup on the Senate floor.

The Senate was paralyzed for months until Espada and Monserrate were lured back to the Democratic fold. After the incident, then Sen. John Sampson took over as Senate leader. (Most of the players involved - Krueger, Espada, Smith, Monserrate, and Sampson - are no longer in the Senate, having been removed from office on corruption charges unrelated to the Senate coup.)

Republicans won back the majority through the 2010 elections. In 2012 their fortunes took a turn with Democrats picking up seats, but Klein struck a deal alternating the title of temporary President of the Senate with Skelos. In 2014, Senate Republicans won a number of seats and Klein again pledged to work with them. He did so after undercutting his Democratic primary opponent by pledging to work with Democrats if they picked up enough seats to form a governing coalition.

To many, Klein looked like a voice of reason when he created and fortified the IDC. “Who would want to go back to chaotic Democratic control?” asked his supporters. This is a line of reasoning Klein and his allies have used repeatedly as they have continued to ally themselves with Republicans. This year Klein is set to determine who controls the Senate again.

“Jeff was so above it all,” laughed one Democratic Senator. “No, Jeff was one of the guys calling the shots at the time. In fact he was the guy in charge of calling all the shots for the DSCC.”

Candice GIove, spokesperson for Klein and the IDC, declined to make Klein available for an interview. She also refused to take questions from Gotham Gazette about the history of the IDC.

Klein, from the Bronx, was first elected to the Senate in 2005 after serving nearly nine years in the Assembly. He maintains the IDC’s power thanks to years of legislative redistricting that has helped Senate Republicans draw lines that favor their incumbents. The 2010 redistricting process saw the creation of a 63rd Senate seat that benefited Republicans and further concentrated Democratic voters in urban districts.

The Senate is now nearly split down the middle in terms of party control. Republicans currently hold 31 seats - one shy of an outright majority - and Sen. Simcha Felder, a Democrat from Brooklyn, conferences with them. Republicans also have a deal with the IDC, which currently holds five seats. Alcantara is expected to join them in the fall, making six in the IDC and taking one seat away from mainline Democrats, who currently have 26 members (there is one vacant seat, likely to be filled by a Democrat). Democrats are expected to pick up seats this year, as they have in every modern presidential election year - though the questions are if they do and how many.

The Assembly is made up of a Democratic super-majority. The Governorship has been controlled by Democrats since former Gov. Eliot Spitzer won in a landslide in 2006, replacing Republican Gov. George Pataki, who had served three terms. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has sought to strike a balance between progressive social policy and conservative fiscal ideas. Many believe Cuomo has blessed the IDC’s alliance with Senate Republicans.

After the 2008 elections Klein became a major figure in the Senate Democratic Conference, serving as deputy majority leader and head of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee. Klein not only had say in policy-making, but was responsible for deciding which candidates and races to back with Democratic cash.

Klein certainly wasn’t above jockeying for power and influence during the 2009 coup. He met with various Democrats and Republicans in an attempt to create an alternate governing structure in the Senate; one that would do away with the need for Espada and put Klein at the helm. Those negotiations failed. Klein floated the idea of a new bipartisan governing coalition in a press release at the time and has previously discussed those attempts with members of the media.

In 2010 Klein faced an uphill battle in maintaining his power and influence with the Democratic Conference - his ties with many members were frayed. Things were so bad during the coup that at more than one point conference meetings nearly broke into physical altercations. On top of the distrust and dislike Klein faced from fellow Democrats, as head of the DSCC, he was also entrusted with building the Democratic majority.

Many Democrats and political observers believe Klein used his position as head of the DSCC to try to marshal enough supporters to make himself Democratic Leader. The DSCC spent heavily on a number of races in 2010, far more than many Democrats thought was reasonable. Money poured into districts held by entrenched Republican incumbents many believed unwinnable for Democrats. In perhaps the most extreme example, the DSCC spent over $500,000 supporting Sue Savage’s unsuccessful attempt to unseat Sen. Hugh Farley.

Spending was also increased in districts where the DSCC was playing defense, futilely trying to protect vulnerable suburban Democrats from Republican challengers. They lost seats on Long Island held by more moderate Klein-minded Democrats and one belonging to former Sen. Darrel Aubertine in the North Country. The DSCC spent over $1 million on the Aubertine race.

Democrats lost control of the Senate and the DSCC was left nearly $3 million in debt. It took them until 2014 to pay it off.

“Jeff left us at the bottom of a pit of debt,” another Democratic Senator told Gotham Gazette, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “He was spending like crazy on races we had no chance of winning. All those expenditures were approved by Jeff.”

After Klein left the conference, Democrats put the erratic spending on his shoulders. However, it appears to many that Sampson was also able to authorize expenditures. Klein told The TImes Union in January 2011 that the Democratic caucus was distracting from the issues by focusing on who was to blame for the DSCC spending. “This is exactly why I formed an independent caucus," he said. "They continue to talk trash about me as an attempt to distract from the real issues."

Eventually, more than a dozen Democrats signed promissory notes, personally agreeing to make good on portions of the debt wracked up by the DSCC, in order to secure $2 million in loans to restore the organization’s solvency. Klein wasn’t one of them.

While 2010 was a generally terrible year for Klein and Senate Democrats, it had some silver linings. Espada was defeated in a primary by Sen. Gustavo Rivera, who ran on a reform platform (and did not have the support of the DSCC). Sen. Eric Schneiderman, now attorney general, successfully led a movement to oust Monserrate from the chamber after Monserrate was convicted of a misdemeanor for dragging his girlfriend down a hallway. Her face had been slashed in an earlier altercation.

Democrats had slowly begun to deal with their corruption and dysfunction problems, even as Sampson, who would later be be convicted on corruption charges, led the conference.

On December 20, 2010, Sampson appointed newly-elected Queens Sen. Mike Gianaris as head of the DSCC. Klein had lost his source of power in the conference to a younger rival.

Less than a month later Klein announced the creation of the IDC.

It began as Klein, Sens. Diane Savino, David Carlucci, and David Valesky.

In December 2012, the group celebrated the addition of a new member. In some ways Klein was putting the band back together when he invited Malcolm Smith to join the IDC. Smith was the first member of color for the conference. Then Queens Assemblymember Tony Avella told The Queens Chronicle at the time that the move was a “power grab” and “unfortunate because it defeats the will of the people who voted in favor of having the Democrats control the Senate.”

Avella joined the IDC in February 2014 - but not before Smith was charged with bribery and corruption for using state funds to buy his way onto the Republican ballot line in an attempt to run for Mayor of New York City. The IDC booted Smith after the charges became public in April 2013.

In the Summer of 2014 Klein and Avella faced tough primaries backed by left-leaning and abor advocates and, at least initially, by Senate Democrats. Behind the scenes Mayor Bill de Blasio negotiated with Klein on conditions of a deal where Klein would co-lead the Democrats, assuming the party won enough seats to make the deal plausible. Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Klein announced that the IDC would create such a governing coalition.

“We are not rejoining the Democratic Conference because clearly the IDC will live on and the IDC will remain intact, but what we are saying is the IDC is going into the next legislative session six months from now ready to fight for the core Democratic policies that are left undone,” Klein told the Daily News on June 24, 2014.

Democrats and advocates pulled back their support for the challengers to Klein and Avella - former City Council Member Oliver Koppell and former City Comptroller John Liu, respectively. The coast was clear for the IDC.

In November, Republicans gained the backing of newly elected Sen. Felder, a nominal Democrat, while picking up Republican seats, and the IDC-Democratic alliance became a moot point.

There were major issues at play. For example, over the past few years Democrats unsuccessfully tried to pass through the Senate the entire 10-point Women’s Equality Agenda and a version of the DREAM Act. They blamed Klein for empowering Republicans who oppose codifying abortion rights and who have campaigned for years against the DREAM Act. Klein and his allies repeatedly pointed to members of the Democratic Conference who are not pro-choice and who don’t support the DREAM Act.

It is during issue fights like these when advocates have complained that the IDC is subverting the will of hundreds of thousands of Democratic voters from across New York City by empowering Republicans and stifling the influence of nearly 30 elected Democrats for the empowerment of five members, all of whom are white. Short of the impending addition of Alcantara, who is Hispanic and will represent Washington Heights and other Uptown neighborhoods, all IDC members have been from more suburban areas of the city or its outskirts.

“The IDC going with the Republicans counters the demography of the state, it nullifies the power of the Democrats in the Assembly, but Albany remains dysfunctional,” said Muzzio, summarizing results of the IDC and its power-sharing agreements.

In May 2015, then Republican Majority Leader Dean Skelos, the man Klein repeatedly cut deals with to form a governing coalition, was indicted on multiple corruption counts. The trial that followed contained a series of wiretapped phone conversations between Skelos and his son, the contents of which were enough to make even the hardened denizens of the Capitol blush.

“I heard you left a handprint on somebody’s ass,” Adam Skelos said to his father over the phone on December 22, 2014, the same day the elder Skelos informed Klein that he wanted to continue their working relationship. Dean Skelos paused, seeming to process the comment. After realizing his son was talking about Klein and that Republicans had more leverage over him, the elder Skelos told his son that Klein would retain the title of co-leader despite Republican victories in 2014 that made the alliance technically unnecessary, and pointed to how useful the IDC could prove to be in 2016. The younger Skelos scoffed at the idea, but Dean assured him: “I’m going to control everything,” he said. “He’s going to get very little. Believe me. Very little. Everybody’s going to know.”

The elder Skelos then went on to explain how he would use Klein to “Keep them separate and fighting and hating each other. That’s what’s worked for the last six years.”

Despite the turmoil in both houses following the 2016 convictions of Skelos and former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, on multiple corruption charges, it would prove to be the most important year in the IDC’s brief history.

The IDC continued to push Cuomo and Senate Republicans on paid family leave through 2015 and into 2016. This year, Cuomo picked up the issue despite having previously dismissed it while also suddenly championing a $15 minimum wage. By the end of session the IDC was able to claim they were instrumental in passing major progressive legislation. This summer, Klein paired with the Independence Party to create a campaign committee that allowed the IDC to pour nearly $100,000 into the Democratic primary to replace Sen. Adriano Espaillat.

That investment paid off as the IDC’s candidate, Alcantara, won a narrow victory over former City Council Member Robert Jackson and Micah Lasher, former chief of staff to Attorney General Schneiderman.

Alcantara told Politico New York that her main focus will be passing the DREAM Act. She’s also indicated that she didn’t review the politics involved in the creation of the IDC before she said she would join it. The IDC has faced significant blame for effectively blocking the DREAM Act by allying with Republicans. The bill was brought to a vote in the Senate in 2014 -- it failed by two votes. At the time, Klein had say over which bills came to the floor and many saw the move as a way to neutralize the issue for the year.

Meanwhile, many Senate Republicans have used the DREAM Act as a lightning rod against Democrats in their districts. It is unlikely the DREAM Act has a real chance of becoming law if Klein chooses to empower the Republican Conference next session. Alcantara, a former union organizer, has promised that she will continue to be progressive as a legislator.

Many insiders wonder how Klein can possibly work with Senate Democrats come 2017. Over the last six years, by most accounts, Senate Democrats have cleaned up their act. Members like Kruger, Sampson, Espada, Monserrate, and Smith have all left the chamber one way or another. Sen. Gianaris, who still runs the SDCC, has been talking a lot lately about negotiating with Klein in anticipation of Democratic successes in November. The mainline Democrats also posed no primary challenger to Klein or any IDC member.

Klein has toned down talk about Democrats being dysfunctional this past year, but he’s given no strong indication he favors a reunion with them.

In a July interview with Gotham Gazette, Klein gave an indication of his allegiances, speaking highly of Republican Senate President John Flanagan. “I worked extremely well this year with Senator John Flanagan and yes, this session we were able to work well with [Democratic Minority Leader] Andrea Stewart-Cousins - it is a much better relationship,” Klein said, “but I think the Republican Conference has been even better and a lot of credit has to go to the relationship with Senator Flanagan, again.”

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

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How Jeff Klein Became New York’s New Power Broker Tue, 27 Sep 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Senate Republicans Face Departures with Battle for Control Looming http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6447:senate-republicans-face-departures-with-battle-for-control-looming http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6447:senate-republicans-face-departures-with-battle-for-control-looming flanagan

Senate Majority Leader Flanagan, second from right (photo via Facebook)


New York State Senate Republicans are headed into a fight for their survival, dealing with the departure of veteran lawmakers, top staff, and one rising star.

The impending fall elections for all 63 Senate seats will test control of the chamber by Senate Republicans, the party’s only check on Democratic strongholds in the state Assembly and four statewide offices, including Governor. There are currently 32 Democrats and 31 Republicans in the chamber but Republicans maintain control with the help of Brooklyn Democrat Simcha Felder, who caucuses with Senate Republicans, and the five-member Independent Democratic Conference.

Senate Democrats have picked up seats in every presidential election year since 2000.

Sen. Hugh Farley, an 83-year-old Republican representing the 49th Senate District, announced earlier this year that he won’t seek another term. He’s served in the Senate since 1977.

Sen. Mike Nozzolio, a 65-year-old Republican representing the 54th Senate District, decided not to seek reelection this year citing a heart condition. He’s served in the Senate since 1992.

Sen. Jack Martins, a younger member of the Republican conference at 49, was only elected in 2010 and was seen as a future leader in the conference, but he has forgone reelection for a congressional bid. Senate Republicans reportedly pushed Martins to stay in the Senate to help them hold a majority.

And top Republican staffers Robert Mujica (budget) and Kelly Cummings (communications) departed for the Cuomo administration this year, resulting in something of a brain-drain. The conference faced a challenging year as divisions between upstate and downstate members appeared to boil over during budget negotiations, a rarity for the generally lockstep conference. Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan of Long Island, who defeated Sen. John DeFrancisco of Syracuse to replace former Majority Leader Dean Skelos, has kept up the friendly, mutually beneficial relationship with Cuomo that Skelos started, which has irked a number of upstate legislators.

To hear Democrats tell it, Senate Republicans are realizing that they won’t be able to keep the chamber during a presidential election year. “We’ve picked up multiple seats during each presidential election year in this millennium,” said Queens Sen. Mike Gianaris, who chairs the state Senate Democratic Campaign Committee. “I can't blame them,” Gianaris said, referring to senior Senate Republicans deciding not to seek reelection. “They see the writing on the wall.”

“When talented people see that their future isn't with the Senate Republicans it is telling,” he said of the departures of Cummings, who left recently, and Mujica, who became Cuomo’s budget director at the start of the year.

Senate Republican spokesperson Scott Reif said that recent departures are not a reaction to changing political tides. "Whether it's a long-serving Senator who chooses to retire or a staffer who decides to pursue another opportunity, these are personal decisions that were made at an appropriate time,” Reif said. “While the Senate Democrats want to make this out to be far more than it really is, the truth is that these changes will have no impact whatsoever on the state of the Senate Republican Conference or our prospects for the fall. We have strong incumbents who are running on a record of accomplishment, first-class challengers who are going to help us pick up seats, and an experienced and professional staff that is second to none. We are confident we're going to grow our majority in November."

Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group said that the departure of Mujica and Cummings to Cuomo’s office may not be indicative of anything more than the governor’s need for staff with high-level experience in state government and their desire to advance their careers. “They have the experience in the higher levels of government, so it makes their hiring unsurprising,” said Horner, who once left NYPIRG to work for the governor during Cuomo’s time as attorney general. “New York has tough revolving-door rules so in some cases it's hard for folks to leave government, so they are constantly looking for ways to move up to gain new experience.”

Senate Republicans lost control of the State Senate for the first time in decades in 2008, when Democrats rode the Barack Obama wave. In 2009 Senate Republican leadership and rogue Democrats launched a coup that paralyzed state government for weeks. Republicans won back control through the 2010 elections (seats in the state Legislature are voted on every two years), but after Democrats picked up seats in 2012, Republicans cut a deal with the Independent Democratic Conference and Democratic Sen. Simcha Felder that allowed them to keep control.

Republicans again won outright control of the chamber in 2014 and the IDC took on a lesser role while continuing a governing coalition. However, Republicans were unable to win the special election to replace Skelos, the former majority leader removed from office after a corruption conviction. That election sets the stage for this fall.

Sources from both the mainline Democratic conference and IDC say relationships between the two have improved and that there is room for discussion about a partnership after the November elections.

Republicans face the departure of three incumbents and increasing Democratic voter registration in key districts, but their campaign committee does have a fundraising advantage over the Democrats.

While Democrats see the decision of some Senior Republicans not to seek reelection as a sign of their impending victory, in most cases, the departing Republicans are not at all likely to be replaced by Democrats. Instead, Democrats expect to make big gains on Long Island while the open seats will prove a distraction where Republicans will have to invest some resources to establish their new candidates.

Sen. Farley anointed Assemblymember Jim Tedisco, a former Assembly minority leader, to replace him. Tedisco has served in the Assembly since 1983 and his Assembly district shares much of Farley’s Senate district in Schenectady and Saratoga counties. He is the favorite in the upcoming Republican primary in September. Democrat Chad Putman announced his campaign earlier this year before Farley had decided to retire. He said he is happy residents of his district will have new representation for the first time in 40 years, but he recognizes that Tedisco is equally well known as Farley and while he isn’t the incumbent, Tedisco enjoys many of the benefits of incumbency.

“I’m 41 years old and when I jumped into the race in January I was facing someone who has served for 40 years,” said Putman, referring to Farley. “So it is exciting that everyone in the district will have a new representative, but it speaks to the need for various reform measures so that more folks are able to get involved in the process. Farley’s departure means that I’m now facing an assemblyman who has served for 30 years and was able to roll over $100,000 from one campaign account to another. He already has the groundwork in place.”

Putman said he is trying to lead by example - refusing to take large donations from political action committees (PACs), corporations, and LLCs. “I’m implementing the changes I’d like to make to the system in my own campaign,” said Putman.

Tedisco’s campaign did not return requests for comment.

Democrats also have their eyes on the seat of 88-year-old Sen. Bill Larkin, who began his political career in the Assembly, where he served from 1979 to 1990 before being elected to the Senate. Many political operatives thought Senate Republicans might replace Larkin on the ballot as he’s recently come under attack for taking two state pensions; writing a letter of support for Skelos during his trial; and controversy over a criminal investigation into the treasurer of his campaign committee. But Larkin remains in the contest. The district has seen Democratic registration rise drastically and Larkin is now set to face former challenger Chris Eachus, a county legislator who came within two percent of defeating him in 2010.

The race to replace Nozzolio in the district that includes the area around Lake Ontario and the Finger Lakes, is expected to be settled in the Republican primary although a Democrat is running in the general.

Sen. Gianaris, of the Democratic conference, said that there is still a silver lining for Democrats in the races to replace Farley and Nozzolio despite the fact that Republicans are favored to win. “It’s not only the debate, but the ideas put forward by [a Democrat] who wins or comes close. It shows that those issues are something people care about and in a year where people are screaming for change, Democrats are the only ones who can give it to them because the Senate Republicans have been champions of the status quo.”

The seat held by Martin, the Republican Senator running for Congress on Long Island, will come down to a contest between Republican Elaine Phillips, mayor of Flower Hill, a small town in Nassau, and Adam Haber, a Democratic businessman who lost a challenge to Martins 56-43 percent during the last election. Democrats are bullish on Haber’s candidacy.

As bright as Senate Democrats think their future may be there always appears to be storm clouds on the horizon for them. Democrats have hoped to capture multiple seats on Long Island before only to see their candidates fall apart.

There is still the question of whether Gov. Andrew Cuomo will take any measurable action to boost Democratic Senate candidates - especially since Senate Republicans helped Cuomo deliver a $15 minimum wage and paid family leave this year, along with Cuomo’s general predilection to boost, or at least not target, Senate Republicans.

The Times Union recently reported that the powerful health care union 1199-SEIU plans to back Senate Republicans, although Gianaris said he had not heard that from the union. Politico NY reports that 1199 has actually donated more money to Senate Democrats than Republicans thus far in this cycle.

As they do every four years, Democrats are planning on a stronger turnout due to the race for President, and some think that having Donald Trump at the top of the ticket will hurt down-ballot Republicans. Both Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton have strong New York ties, though.

“Every bit matters,” admitted Gianaris, “but none of it compares to the tidal wave that accompanies the presidential elections. It is more pronounced every year.”

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

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Senate Republicans Face Departures with Battle for Control Looming Wed, 20 Jul 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Should Everything Silver and Skelos Touched Be Reviewed? http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6339:should-everything-silver-and-skelos-touched-be-reviewed http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6339:should-everything-silver-and-skelos-touched-be-reviewed skelos cuomo silver

Skelos, Cuomo, Silver (l-r) (photo via The Governor's Office, Jan. 2015)


Former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos were each told by their judge during recent prison sentencing that their corrupt actions have increased public cynicism around state government. Their corrupt actions, they were told, make people question what might have been different in the budgets and policy deals they negotiated, government decision-making that impacted millions. Judge Kimba Wood told Skelos we “can’t know” how his budget advocacy would have differed had he not been corrupt.

In fact, everything that has come through the state Legislature during Silver’s or Skelos’ tenure is open to questioning based on the facts that we now know they were illegally using their public positions for private gain and that nothing goes through either chamber without its majority leader signing off. In the wake of their convictions, every decision either was involved in could be worth reviewing, not that such an investigation is necessarily warranted or welcome.

For years, SIlver and Skelos were two of the “three men in a room” negotiating budget and other deals, approving what legislation came to a vote in their houses and directing policy initiatives. The third man in that equation, Governor Andrew Cuomo, currently faces a vast probe into his administration’s signature economic development program.

As Albany grapples with a wave of corruption convictions highlighted by those of Silver and Skelos, it does so with ethics laws negotiated by two men who have now been sentenced in major federal corruption cases and under the watch of an ethics body they not only helped create but appointed members to. The latest convictions also follow the shutdown of The Moreland Commission on Public Corruption, which was ended prematurely in a deal among Cuomo, Skelos, and Silver.

A Siena poll released on the day of Silver’s early May sentencing found 93 percent of New Yorkers think corruption is a major problem for the state and 97 percent want new laws to combat corruption.

With 16 lawmakers forced from office due to misconduct in the last six years, the nearly simultaneous downfall of the two legislative leaders, and U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s continued insistence that everyone “stay tuned,” the questions arise: How tainted were the budget- and law-making processes? Should decisions engineered and shepherded by corrupt officials stand?

Those are questions, according to former Assemblymember Richard Brodsky, currently a Demos scholar, that are in the hands of Governor Cuomo and the Legislature.

“If the governor or Legislature has concerns about the integrity of a law, it can be repealed, re-enacted, etcetera,” said Brodsky. He added, though, “Remember, the motive of a bill's author is what it is. It takes 76 Assembly votes to pass a bill no matter who the sponsor is.”

It is nearly impossible to imagine the governor or lawmakers wanted to revisit decisions made during the tenure of Silver or Skelos to investigate whether certain decisions were made in relation to their scandals.

Gerald Benjamin, professor of political science at SUNY New Paltz, concurred that no matter how powerful Skelos or Silver was, laws passed by the Legislature are the action of “an institution,” not “one legislator.”

Benjamin said he knows of no case where a law was later “examined due to a general charge of corruption.”

Jennifer Rodgers, a former U.S assistant attorney and current head of Columbia Law School’s Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity, said that the Silver and Skelos convictions don’t prove that either of them manipulated legislation. “And the opacity of the proceedings leaves us in the dark as to what they actually did,” she said, referring to Albany’s “three men in a room” decision-making culture. Because of that, Rodgers said repealing a law due to corruption does not seem to be “a realistic avenue to pursue -- you couldn't prove that the bribe caused the legislation to pass or fail.”

Silver, the long-time Democratic Assembly Speaker known for getting his way in budget deals by holding out longer than anyone else, was convicted of sending government money to a doctor who researched cures for mesothelioma in return for the researcher referring patients to a law firm that in turn paid fees to Silver. Able to tap into opaque pots of discretionary money called State and Municipal Facilities Program funding, Silver quietly funded the doctor’s work.

Silver had a similar deal with two real estate firms that moved their business to a law firm that paid Silver in exchange for supporting rent legislation that they backed.

At the time of his misdeeds, Silver was considered by some to be tenants’ best hope in negotiations over rent laws as Senate Republicans favored real estate. Tenant advocates now see many of the actions taken by Silver, including renewing controversial tax breaks for developers and his back-room dealings on the extension of rent regulations, as tainted.

Skelos, meanwhile was accused of extorting three firms with business before the state to employ his son Adam, who rarely showed up to work and often made problems when he did. Those businesses were real estate firm Glenwood Management; an environmental technologies firm, AbTech Industry, which wanted to earn lucrative state contracts having to do with Hurricane Sandy and hydraulic fracturing; and Physicians Reciprocal Insurers, which gave Adam Skelos a $78,000-a-year job. PRI was hoping for favorable action from Dean Skelos on legislation having to do with medical malpractice.

Skelos also benefited from State and Municipal Facilities Program, or SAM, funds. He was able to secure hundreds of millions of dollars in discretionary funding for projects at universities and colleges all over Long Island.

In Albany it is rare for major legislation to move independently. Legislative leaders and the Governor generally have two major sets of negotiations a year: early in the year around the budget, especially in the days leading up to the April 1 deadline, and during the post-budget legislative session, especially the days nearing its June end.

Budget negotiations are notorious for being sorted out in intense, closed-door meetings by the three leaders while rank-and-file legislators remain mostly in the dark. Items included in negotiations rarely adhere to generally accepted budget issues and allow the governor to trade spending increases or threaten cuts for other policies.

In post-budget session, lawmakers usually jam through a “big ugly” deal at the end, again with much secrecy and little time for many legislators or the public to review.

With so much opportunity for behind-the-scenes horse-trading it is impossible to know what exactly was influenced by Silver or Skelos, but it is also impossible to rule out that the corrupt practices they were convicted of didn’t color the major deals they oversaw.

Laws have been challenged in court due to what plaintiffs charge were improper procedures. The gun control package Cuomo pushed in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting faced a lawsuit over the use of a message of necessity. State law requires bills to age three days before coming to a vote. Cuomo issued a message of necessity, saying that introducing the bills and allowing them to age would lead to a rush on gun stores. Courts withheld Cuomo’s use of the message and have generally deferred to the governors on such matters. The governor has repeatedly used messages of necessity to move budget deals through, giving legislators minimal time to review thousands of pages of bill language before having to vote.

“Concerns of disruption and consequences of undoing laws weigh heavily on all of this,” said Professor Benjamin, indicating how unwieldy a review process could be.

Rodgers said that “unwinding legislation is not one of the remedies available in a criminal case.”

Even if it were, she said she sees “A huge problem to this notion of trying to undo legislation (even if it is procedurally possible, which I don't know enough to offer an opinion on), which is proving causation."

Rodgers said “given the lack of transparency of how things are actually passed in Albany,” even if there was a lawsuit brought seeking an injunction on behalf of an impacted company that wanted to undo legislation, “It seems to me that even in a civil court it would be impossible to prove that a bribe, even if the bribe itself was proved beyond a reasonable doubt in criminal court, was the proximate cause of the plaintiff's harm, assuming a plaintiff could even prove harm.”

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

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Should Everything Silver and Skelos Touched Be Reviewed? Mon, 16 May 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Special Election Results Buoy Hopes for Reform http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6291:special-election-results-buoy-hopes-for-reform http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6291:special-election-results-buoy-hopes-for-reform kaminsky voting april 2016

Todd Kaminsky votes for himself Tuesday (photo via @toddkaminsky)


The polls may be closed but the heated race to replace convicted former Republican Senator Dean Skelos is far from over. Late Tuesday night Assemblymember Todd Kaminsky, a Democrat, declared victory while Republican candidate Chris McGrath refused to concede, saying the race would be decided by absentee ballots. Only 780 votes separate Kaminsky from McGrath and there are over 2,000 outstanding ballots to be counted. Regardless of the results the pair may face off again in November when the seat will be up for grabs again.

Despite the unresolved nature of the affair, good government groups and legislators who back major ethics reforms, have been buoyed by Kaminsky’s performance. A former federal prosecutor, Kaminsky ran with cleaning up government corruption at the top of his agenda.

"Whatever the outcome, the race shows the power of the ethics reform message,” said Blair Horner, executive director of the non-partisan New York State Public Interest Research Group. “Continuing to ignore the public's demand for Albany to clean up its act will only lead to incumbents putting themselves in political peril."

Doug Muzzio, professor of political science at Baruch, said he believes a Kaminsky win could in fact spark major reform. “If Kaminsky wins it’s a real signal voters were upset about indictments. Republicans held that seat forever,” said Muzzio. “A Kaminsky win could signal a larger rebellion against the establishment and endanger the Republican [Senate] majority. Of course he could win now and lose in November.”

Kaminsky campaigned in part by condemning the culture that led to the convictions of Skelos and his counterpart, former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Manhattan Democrat whose seat was also being filled Tuesday night. The Kaminsky campaign sought to tie his opponent to the disgraced Skelos.

McGrath, on the other hand, remained silent on major reform initiatives and Skelos’ conviction. His campaign focused on tying Kaminsky to Mayor Bill de Blasio and a progressive agenda favoring New York City over Long Island. Nassau County, a former Republican stronghold, has seen a surge in Democratic voter registration over the past few years.

“Reform won tonight and corruption lost,” said Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, as Kaminsky declared victory. “Kaminsky championed reform and won, McGrath was silent on reform and lost.”

That take on the race was echoed by a spokesperson for Senate Democrats: “Kaminsky ran on a platform of cleaning up Albany and won their former leader’s seat. Senate Republicans should get the message, stop stalling, and work with the Senate Democrats to enact ethics reforms to better the public trust.”

As ethics reform efforts have stalled in Albany even in the wake of the Skelos and Silver convictions, many have pointed to Senate Republicans’ limited support for enacting new laws to prevent and punish corruption. Some, however, say that even though Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his fellow Democrats who control the Assembly have put forth more robust ethics reform platforms, lawmakers of both parties are largely disinterested in actually enacting them.

Democratic control of the Senate would change the conversation.

A long recount and/or lawsuit could prevent either Kaminsky or McGrath from being seated before November, but if Kaminsky does come out as a clear winner, Democrats will technically have the majority. In the 63-seat Senate, Republicans currently hold a majority through 31 elected Republicans and Democrat Simcha Felder, who caucuses with them. They have also partnered with the five-member Independent Democratic Conference to keep the majority in the past.

Now, Democrats are confident the numbers add up in their favor and that a recount will be brief and any legal action would simply be forestalling the inevitable. Senate Republicans did launch a lawsuit that drew out the seating of former Sen. Cecelia Tkaczyk in 2012 when she narrowly defeated now-incumbent Republican Senator George Amedore. (Amedore took the seat in 2014.)

Kaminsky has sought to make his election about both Long Island issues and reform, while pushing back against attacks tying him to de Blasio and even in some cases his role as someone who would shift control of the Senate.

During an April 13 interview with Brian Lehrer of WNYC, Kaminsky stressed his work as a federal prosecutor under now U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, where he said he took a bipartisan approach to prosecuting corruption and noted he spent two years on the prosecution of former Democratic Sen. Pedro Espada. “People are fed up. They’re absolutely sick of their government. They blame both parties. They know something stinks,” Kaminsky told Lehrer.

When Lehrer asked Kaminsky if he was running for Democratic control of the Senate Kaminsky demurred. “I try not to look at it that way. I don't think anybody knows what happens. There certainly are a group of Democrats who caucus with Republicans. I try not to look at the chessboard,” Kaminsky said.

Dadey said he sees Kaminsky as standing out from the party fray.

“This victory is Kaminsky’s, not the Democrats’,” said Dadey. “Kaminsky is seen as a serious person with purpose, that's what voters supported.”

Leaders of both the mainline Democrats and the IDC issued statements congratulating Kaminsky on his victory.

The race may rank as one of the costliest senate contests in state history with the United Federation of Teachers spending heavily on independent expenditures for Kaminsky while McGrath was supported by a pro-charter school PAC that spent nearly $1 million.

Government reform groups have struggled to get any traction this legislative session. Cuomo’s ethics package, outlined during his January State of the State address, was quickly removed from budget negotiations and since then the Legislature and governor have been preoccupied by the presidential primary and the special elections.

Many assume the Legislature is looking to run out the clock on the post-budget session and return to their districts to prep for the upcoming elections where all legislative seats will be up for grabs.

Reformers hope that the special election results will force legislative leaders to take some action on ethics to prevent public backlash in November.

The Manhattan special election to replace Silver would on its face seem not to hold any encouraging news for those looking for a repudiation of politics of usual. Silver’s chosen successor, Alice Cancel, won the race with just over 40 percent of the vote - her closest challenger, Working Families Party-backed Yuh-Line Niou won about 35 percent.

However, reformers do see some bright spots in the results. “Sixty percent of those who voted, voted against the handpicked candidate of Sheldon Silver,” said Dadey. A Republican candidate, Lester Chang, got about 25 percent of the vote.

Muzzio noted that Cancel’s victory was sealed when Silver’s allies helped her win the Democratic line. “People just aren't used to voting Working Families or Republican,” said Muzzio of the lower Manhattan district.

Cancel will head into the fall election as the incumbent, but she is likely to face a number of challengers in the Democratic primary. Niou indicated in a post-election announcement that she plans to stay involved in the district and perhaps run again, and district leader Paul Newell announced Tuesday night that he plans to run in the primary. A number of other Democrats have expressed interest in the seat.

Niou enjoyed the backing of a number of elected Democratic officials, some of whom expressed great distaste for how Silver supporters orchestrated Cancel’s candidacy. It isn’t clear if those same electeds will look to oust Cancel in the fall.

But the fairly narrow margin of her victory combined with Kaminsky’s apparent victory have energized reformers and could lead to a larger push for ethics-minded candidates in the fall.

“I think this sends a big message that the status quo is not to be tolerated,” said Dadey. “This is a repudiation of Dean Skelos and Sheldon Silver...voters supported change.”

[Related: Legislative Days Quickly Dwindle, Intensifying Worry Over Ethics]

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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

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Special Election Results Buoy Hopes for Reform Wed, 20 Apr 2016 19:17:15 +0000
Legislative Days Quickly Dwindle, Intensifying Worry Over Ethics http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6276:legislative-days-quickly-dwindle-intensifying-worry-over-ethics http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6276:legislative-days-quickly-dwindle-intensifying-worry-over-ethics albany

Rally in the capital


For the past two weeks state legislators have been preoccupied by the New York presidential primary. They’ve been charmed by candidates like Hillary Clinton and John Kasich who’ve come to the capital to pitch their campaigns and ask for support; and by Donald Trump and Ted Cruz who’ve invited them to attend large rallies.

Legislators have been so distracted that the first two weeks of post-budget session have slipped by without much real legislative action, despite the fact that there is a long list of high-profile issues unsettled in the budget. The point was driven home on Tuesday when both the Senate and Assembly agreed to cancel session scheduled for Wednesday, leaving only 21 meeting days until the session’s calendared end in June.

Not only is New York at the center of contested presidential primaries on both sides of the aisle, but there are impending special elections resulting from the convictions of two legislative leaders - and one of those races could help decide which party controls the Senate next year. Legislative staffers are expected to swarm Long Island ahead of the April 19 special election between Republican Christopher McGrath and Democrat Todd Kaminsky, a sitting Assembly member, to fill the seat vacated by former Republican Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos’ conviction. That race has so far been dominated by a debate over ethics.

As session days quickly dwindle, advocates on various issues are concerned that the Legislature has no intention of taking up more controversial topics or cutting any deals, especially on ethics reforms. On Tuesday, the Senate dealt with no legislation during its session. The Assembly passed some resolutions, honored a few guests and voted on a number of bills in honor of “National Crime Victim’s Rights Week.” Several have no companion bill in the Senate, or do not enjoy any Republican backing.

Last Wednesday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo told reporters in Binghamton: “We have a relatively light agenda because we did so much work in the budget.” With major wins on the minimum wage and paid family leave, Cuomo is in a celebratory mood, it seems, and appears little concerned with getting more done at this time.

When asked for his priorities for the remainder of the session during a lunch event hosted by the Association for a Better New York on Tuesday in Manhattan, Cuomo responded jokingly, “No, I’m done...I think I’m good.” He went on to list ethics reform, heroin abuse, cancer screening, and the 421-a property tax break program meant to spur affordable housing as his major priorities.

While the magnitude of the recently passed budget and the presidential primary may seem like valid excuses for a light session, the truth is that the state Legislature has a history of taking little action in the post-budget session until the last few weeks in June. Last year the Legislature cancelled session days following the arrests of both former Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Skelos. This year the lack of session days is particularly concerning to reform advocates worried that ethics is being ignored.

"It’s disappointing. There is so much we could be doing like passing real ethics reforms. But unfortunately the Senate GOP have decided to take an extended vacation,” said Mike Murphy, spokesperson for Senate Democrats, of the decision to cancel session on Wednesday. Neither the Assembly Majority Democrats nor the Senate Majority Republicans responded when asked for a reason for the cancellation.

Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Group said he is concerned that while Gov. Cuomo continues to list “ethics” as a top priority he hears the governor speaking more about two particular ethics reforms - pension forfeiture for convicted public servants and the closure of the LLC loophole - rather than the entire legislative package contained in his executive budget proposal. “That’s moving the goal post closer to the kicker and not addressing what got Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos in trouble,” said Horner.

Cuomo’s ethics package includes limiting legislators’ outside income to 15 percent of their salary; the creation of a voluntary public campaign finance system; the closure of the LLC loophole; stricter fundraising disclosure; requiring bundlers to disclose their identities; putting a $25,000 limit on donations to party housekeeping accounts; strengthening the Joint Commission on Public Ethics; pension forfeiture; and increasing the scope of the state’s freedom of information laws.

Meanwhile, as session days slip by the convictions of Skelos and Silver drift further from public memory. Government ethics reform polls well with voters, but it isn’t clear how long that will remain true. Advocates worry that legislators are simply trying to run out the clock to make it back to their districts for reelection this fall, betting that their incumbency will protect them from public dissatisfaction. Polls do show that while about 9 in 10 New Yorkers believe state government corruption is a serious problem, many do hold favorable views of their local representatives sent to Albany.

“So they're losing April,” said Horner of lawmakers and session, “but what worries me is, what is the governor going to do with the time he has left on ethics? We know when he goes from rhetorical support to real support he can move mountains. What is he defining as success? It doesn’t sound like it is the same as what was in the budget. How does he visualize victory?”

A Cuomo administration official said the governor is interested in passing the ethics measures contained in his budget proposal. Many are waiting for Cuomo to give ethics reform a full-throttled effort, as he did with the minimum wage leading up to a budget agreement. Neither Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan nor Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie appears to have a sense of urgency around ethics reform - Flanagan has said he doesn't see the need for much, if any, such legislation.

“There’s no question we’ve made significant progress on reform over the past ten years,” said Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, a government reform group. “But the time has past for incremental reforms. We need a comprehensive solution to deal with legislators who enrich themselves at the cost of the public good and that solution must include [increasing] legislative compensation and [limiting] outside income.”

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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

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Legislative Days Quickly Dwindle, Intensifying Worry Over Ethics Wed, 13 Apr 2016 04:51:05 +0000
Major City Issues at Play in Politically Charged, Post-Budget Legislative Session http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6267:major-city-issues-at-play-in-politically-charged-post-budget-legislative-session http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6267:major-city-issues-at-play-in-politically-charged-post-budget-legislative-session cuomo budget paid leave pic

Gov. Cuomo announces the budget deal (photo via The Governor's Office)


Governor Andrew Cuomo dismissed the idea of extending state government's legislative session this year to tackle ethics reform during an appearance in Binghamton on Wednesday. "We have a relatively light agenda because we did so much work in the budget," the governor said. "We passed the minimum wage increase, we passed paid family leave, we passed a great package for the middle class, we passed a great package for upstate New York, more education funding than ever before."

It's a concerning statement for some advocates and elected officials who see the session full of unresolved issues - including, but beyond ethics - especially ones that impact New York City, issues that the governor himself tackled during his January State of the State speech or has since brought to the table. Some advocates take the governor's statement as an acknowledgement that he traded away issues Senate Republicans oppose to get a minimum wage increase, and not only in the budget, but for the rest of the legislative session that has just begun and is scheduled to end in June.

All-important control of the State Senate will be up for grabs again in November, but a key battle in the overall war will be decided on April 19 in the contest to fill the seat vacated by former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, recently convicted on federal corruption charges. The April special and impending November elections mean legislators are anxious to get back to their districts while avoiding political landmines.

Ethics reforms are one of the many issues jettisoned from budget talks that lawmakers say were dominated by minimum wage negotiations. Major issues of particular importance to New York City yet to be addressed this year include mayoral control of schools; a multitude of criminal justice reforms, some of which were introduced by Cuomo; housing programs, including a replacement for the 421-a property tax credit aimed at spurring affordable housing development; and two education matters that have been linked in the past: The DREAM Act and the education investment tax credit.

Mayoral Control
Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan and his conference have used Mayor Bill de Blasio as a progressive boogieman since the mayor tried to help Democrats win control of the chamber in 2014. Last year Flanagan successfully beat back the mayor's push for a seven-year extension of mayoral control, getting his negotiating partners to settle on one year. He again maneuvered discussion of renewal out of this year's budget discussions and before a spending deal was even announced, he scheduled hearings on mayoral control for May 4 in Albany and May 19 in New York City. Mayoral control is due to sunset on June 30.

Many Democrats expect Senate Republicans to delay actually acting on mayoral control until as late as possible in order to keep de Blasio "in check." With no other sensible alternative, de Blasio has been gracious about the situation so far, saying he plans to attend the hearings "personally" and welcomes the chance for "dialogue" on the issue.

Criminal Justice Reforms
Gov. Cuomo has supported three major criminal justice reforms over the last two years: Raise the Age, an effort to end New York's practice of treating 16- and 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system; an effort to create independent review of police killings of civilians; and a program to increase data reporting of the race and ethnicity of individuals involved in police interactions. Unable to deliver on the first two last year, Cuomo took executive action. He moved 16- and 17-year-olds out of adult prisons and gave Attorney General Eric Schneiderman's office the discretion to look into police killings of civilians. Advocates were pleased, but acknowledged both issues still needed to be addressed in law.

This year Cuomo has proposed a bill that would give his office the ability to convene an investigation into police killings of civilians but only if certain criteria is met. He has continued to push for Raise the Age but not with the urgency supporters would like. They point out that even being held in separate facilities from older inmates, 16- and 17-year-olds are still treated as adults when arrested and tried, which make negative outcomes and criminal records more likely.

On Tuesday, supporters of a bill that would mandate the state collect data on police interactions with the public gathered in Albany to push Senate Republicans and Cuomo to act on an issue they call "common sense."

The bill, sponsored by Assembly Member Joseph Lentol and state Senator Daniel Squadron, both Brooklyn Democrats, would require the state to collect and report data on the number of tickets and misdemeanor arrests across the state; the number of civilian deaths in police custody or during an arrest; the race, ethnicity, and sex of those charged with misdemeanors and violations; and the geographic location of enforcement-related activity and arrest-related deaths. Lentol said the bill is not "anti-police" but a "transparency" and "open government" tool to improve relations between police and communities across the state. Lentol prodded Gov. Cuomo to act, noting that Cuomo has a similar bill that has failed to garner support.

"Yet again, communities of color were left behind in New York State budget negotiations, with no meaningful advancement of any criminal justice reforms," said Alyssa Aguilera, co-executive director of VOCAL-NY. "Passing the STAT Act this legislative session provides an opportunity for Governor Cuomo and the New York State Legislature to show they value the safety and dignity of all New Yorkers."

Squadron told Gotham Gazette that the bill is one that Senate Republicans "put in a black box, a dark room," never to be seen again. "This isn't something we have debated. We haven't heard their argument against it, it just disappears." Lentol, however, said that he believes police unions are using their influence to block the bill.

Assembly Member Jeffrion Aubry, Democrat of Queens, supports Lentol's bill and said that he feels his constituents and advocates are growing frustrated that the Senate fails to vote on criminal justice reforms year after year. "I think the governor is really going to have to move on some of these bills and not just wave his hands in the air and say 'It's the Republicans'" Aubry said. "We know he can get what he wants. He has an election coming up and he's got to deliver for these communities."

A spokesperson for the governor, Dani Lever, said in a statement that "The governor has and continues to push for comprehensive criminal justice reform to address the treatment of juveniles in the system and the prosecution of fatality cases involving law enforcement. Despite the legislature's failure to agree on these reforms, the governor has taken bold action and issued executive orders appointing a special prosecutor in police cases (the first of its kind in the country) and removing juveniles from adult state prisons. Until the legislature passes real reforms, the governor's executive orders will remain in effect."

Housing
Last year in an unprecedented move, Cuomo put the fate of the 421-a tax abatement program in the hands of the two stakeholder industries - real estate developers and construction unions. Whatever deal they reached on wages in new housing developments utilizing 421-a was to be enacted into law with other reforms to the program, but if they failed, 421-a would sunset. Negotiations floundered and 421-a is dead.

The program is thought to be essential to affordable housing production in New York City, making it profitable for developers to build new rental housing with some affordable units included. When Cuomo rejected compromise legislation crafted by de Blasio last June, it was one of the final straws to break de Blasio's back (along with the mayoral control compromise and more), leading to his now-infamous tirade against the governor on June 30. De Blasio's affordable housing goals rely on 421-a-related production.

On Monday, Cuomo told NY1's Errol Louis that he is looking for a replacement. "You can have a fair program that pays a fair rate to the unions and also a fair rate of profit to the developers," Cuomo said. "I believe there is that balance to be struck. But they have to strike that balance. We're still trying, but the Legislature is not going to approve a plan that kicks the labor unions out of the affordable housing business."

Bill Murrow, the governor's top aide, followed up those comments on Tuesday during a Crain's New York Business breakfast event, indicating that labor and real estate are indeed negotiating again. "The developers, REBNY, and the construction trades...they'll find some common ground. I am hopeful that sometime between now and June that something will actually happen," Mulrow said.

On Tuesday, tenant advocates gathered in Albany to demand that negotiations on 421-a or something like must also include strengthening rent regulations. Delsenia Glover, campaign manager for the Alliance for Tenant Power opened the press conference by condemning the deal that renewed the rent laws last year. "We pretty much got nothing," she said. "At the time Governor Cuomo said they were the 'strongest rent laws in history.' It's not true, we got nothing." Members of the crowd shouted "He lied!"

Glover said she has been disturbed to hear "lamentations" that 421-a is dead, saying she was glad a "giveaway to luxury developers" and "$1.1 billion tax suck" was dead and that assertions that developers won't be able to build affordable housing without it is patently false.

"Our demand," said Glover, "is this: If 421-a or anything that looks like 421-a is revived or created then the rent laws must be reopened, we get rid of vacancy bonus, fix preferential rents, and then maybe we can have a conversation."

A number of legislators who spoke after Glover pushed against the idea of any 421-a renewal. Assembly Member Walter Mosley of Brooklyn said he doesn't use the term '421-a' because "We don't want nothin' like 421-a to resurface, but ultimately we understand if anything like 421-a comes to the floor then we reopen the rent laws. Without that we have no discussion."

Assembly Housing Chair Keith Wright, who introduced a plan of something of a 421-a alternative earlier this year to a tepid response, brought up his proposal in front of the audience that was openly hostile to any replacement. Wright's plan would utilize the state's abandoned property fund to give a subsidy of $100,000 per affordable unit at a cost of about $200 million per year, compared to 421-a's 25-year property tax break and $1 billion annual tax revenue price tag.

"The plan was not...people were intrigued by the idea," Wright told the crowd, seeming to catch himself in an effort to promote the measure, "but listen anything in Albany takes a minute to work up to, but we are still pushing that plan, but we are still under siege."

Wright is a close ally of Cuomo and many expect that his plan was the first shot fired in an effort to restore a 421-a plan. The fact that Cuomo and Wright are openly pushing a replacement and that Senate Republicans are likely to want to deliver for real estate developers makes many advocates think it is a question of "when" not "if" a 421-a replacement comes to the floor of both houses. They hope to keep up public pressure to win some sort of concessions when it takes place.

Other Education Issues
Last year Cuomo tried to connect the DREAM Act that would allow the undocumented access to college tuition assistance and the education tax credit that would give benefits to those who donate to private schools. The DREAM Act has massive support in the Assembly, which has passed the measure repeatedly over the last few years and the education tax credit is a favorite of Senate Republicans. Cuomo's bid at linkage failed last year (he did not attempt to link them again this year, but did include both in his executive budget), but both issues remain on the table and the fact that they were left out of the budget has rankled a number of lawmakers.

Sen. Simcha Felder, a Democrat from Brooklyn who caucuses with Republicans, was said to be so upset that Republicans didn't demand the education tax credit be part of the budget that he didn't conference with them during budget negotiations (he was then the lone Senate "no" vote on the minimum wage and education budget bill). Meanwhile, DREAM supporters like Sen. Jose Peralta, a Democrat from Queens, railed against its exclusion during the late-night budget debate.

For supporters of each measure the problem seems to be that opposition to the other measure has become a litmus test for some in their party's base. Senate Republicans have included language touting the disinclusion of the DREAM Act in the budget on the Senate website, listing it as an accomplishment:

"Rejecting the Use of Taxpayer Dollars to Fund College Tuition for Illegal Immigrants:

"The final budget rejects an Executive Budget proposal that would have cost state taxpayers $27 million and reward people who are here illegally by giving them free college tuition. The measure would have extended all other criteria, exemptions or opportunities found within the education law - including all scholarship and tuition assistance programs funded with state tax dollars - to illegal immigrants while hardworking middle-class families are already being forced to take out massive college loans to pay for higher education."

Meanwhile, public school advocates are entrenched against the education tax credit, saying that it is a taxpayer giveaway to millionaires who will flood their favored schools with donations using up the credit before average families can utilize it. The Alliance for Quality Education, a teachers union-aligned group, has held press conferences and briefings against the policy this year.

Albany Tradition
If the past is indeed prologue than it is a safe bet that many of these issues will not come to a vote in both houses this year. With an important special election, a presidential race, and the entire Legislature up for (re)election, leaders will likely be looking to rest on the work they did in the budget and get back to their districts. While there will be a lot of noise made by the media and good government groups around ethics reform, no one who knows Albany is holding their breath.

Mayoral control of city schools is the only key policy related to New York City facing an expiration date and all-but-sure to see action. The questions are what Senate Republicans demand in exchange for extension, how long it is extended for, and how much they make de Blasio sweat in the process.

Including Wednesday, April 6, there are currently 25 session days remaining until its scheduled end on June 16.

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

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Major City Issues at Play in Politically Charged, Post-Budget Legislative Session Wed, 06 Apr 2016 22:49:29 +0000
Everyone Agrees Albany Needs Ethics Reform, Except the People Who Matter Most http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6255:everyone-agrees-albany-needs-ethics-reform-except-the-people-who-matter-most http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6255:everyone-agrees-albany-needs-ethics-reform-except-the-people-who-matter-most three men at a table

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


"Top of my agenda is going to be ethics reform," said Governor Andrew Cuomo, speaking on NY1 on Jan. 3. "We have done a lot in Albany, but we haven't done enough. And I'm going to push the legislature very hard to adopt more aggressive ethics legislation, more disclosure, more enforcement, etcetera."

While the governor did unveil an aggressive ethics agenda during his State of the State speech a week later, Cuomo’s words ring hollow now, as a state budget containing no government ethics reform passes and any hope for such reform happening this year is pushed to the legislative session, where it is unlikely to occur.

Cuomo has done nothing public on ethics reform despite the promises he made during his Jan. 13 State of the State address. “We have to remember the people we serve, and it’s our responsibility to give them the government that they deserve,” Cuomo said at the time. “And remember the stronger the citizen trust, the stronger the government’s ability.”

Just about a month after two of New York’s most powerful legislators were convicted of several federal corruption charges in separate trials, Cuomo laid out a plan to close the LLC loophole, which allows limited liability companies to circumvent New York’s campaign donation limits and give large sums of money to candidates through various LLCs, limit the amount of outside income legislators may earn, and adopt a publicly funded campaign finance system, among other reforms.

Yet, as negotiations for the state budget come to a close, the “three men in a room” deciding the state’s roughly $150 billion budget have not moved ethics reforms that could help give the people they serve “the government that they deserve.” In a Siena College poll released Feb. 1, 89 percent of New Yorkers said corruption in state government is a serious problem, with 60 percent calling for outside income to be banned.

Although Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Democrat and one of the “three men in a room” along with Gov. Cuomo and Republican Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, has pledged to “increase transparency and accountability” and “restore the public’s trust in government,” the lack of any ethics reform in the state budget calls Heastie’s follow through on that commitment into question.

“The Assembly has pledged to enact comprehensive ethics reforms, and we take that commitment very seriously,” said Heastie in a press release detailing the ethics reform component of the Assembly’s budget plan, which was released Friday evening March 11. Like Cuomo, Heastie outlined an ethics reform agenda, but did little else to publicly promote it.

On that Friday morning three weeks ago, Heastie outlined the Assembly Democrats’ ethics package at an event held by Crain’s New York Business. The plan also includes a proposal to close the LLC loophole, as well as proposals to limit the amount of outside income legislators may earn (though not as strictly as Cuomo’s plan), and to make it so that legislators who also work as attorneys can only earn money for the casework they perform, rather than for simply serving as "of counsel," lending their name to a law firm - a practice at root of the scandal that brought down Heastie's predecessor, Sheldon Silver.

Both Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos were brought down last year by corruption convictions related to their use of their public offices for private gain.

The new head of the Republican-controlled Senate, meanwhile, has repeatedly questioned the need for further ethics reform, and he and many other Senate Republicans are opposed to making the Legislature full-time or placing any limits on lawmakers’ outside income.

Sen. Flanagan has previously pointed out that the Senate passed a pension forfeiture bill, aimed at ensuring that legislators convicted of public corruption cannot collect a government pension, in a deal with the Assembly, only to have the Assembly back out at the last minute. Pension forfeiture is notably absent from the Assembly's reform plan.

As the New York Times Editorial Board writes, “In Albany, this is how the stage gets set for each legislative house to praise itself and to blame the other for the failure, yet again, of meaningful reform, and for Mr. Cuomo to blame them both.

New Yorkers, legislators, and government reform groups alike say that ethics reform is essential, “especially considering the context of the past year,” as Cuomo himself said during his State of the State. Yet at a time when Cuomo has the most leverage, he has failed to achieve reform. Heastie has decided not to aggressively pursue the Assembly's plan, and Flanagan has appeared totally disinterested in the issue. The minorities in each house - one Democratic, one Republican - have actually been more vocal than the majorities.

“We are blowing our Watergate moment,” Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins told the Wall Street Journal. “This year’s budget process has been nothing but a series of covert meetings and phone calls shielded from the press and public.”

Senate Republicans’ resistance to outside income limits and closing the LLC loophole have left room for Cuomo and Heastie to play a blame game. In part because neither did anything beyond one speech to promote ethics reform leading up to the budget, there is room to question their seriousness. But, Senate Republicans have, it seems, let the two Democrats and Assembly Democrats in general off the hook.

“It is incumbent upon legislators to work to significantly reduce corruption, and we can do so by passing these common sense measures,” Assemblymember David Buchwald said upon signing a pledge to fight for good government reform, including closing the LLC loophole. “I think the vast majority of New Yorkers would want to see their representatives sign this pledge.

"In recent times, the New York Legislature has been marked by regular bribery, rampant kickbacks and a rancid culture," U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who prosecuted both Silver and Skelos, said during a talk in Albany in February.

A coalition of government reform groups, including Citizens Union, Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, the New York Public Interest Research Group, and Reinvent Albany, released a statement denouncing the governor and legislative leaders for failing to pass any ethics reform in the three-and-a-half months since former legislative leaders Skelos and Silver were convicted of corruption, despite strong public demand for action to be taken.

“With a recent poll showing that nearly 90% of New Yorkers believe that unethical behavior is a serious problem in state government a month before former legislative leaders Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos are sentenced for public corruption,” the statement reads, “the governor and legislative leaders have an obligation to New Yorkers to reach a significant agreement on ethics reform.”

“The collapse of ethics reform during the budget is failure by the governor to mobilize overwhelming public support for change," said Blair Horner, executive director of NYPIRG. “New York State’s political leaders have chosen to ‘kick the can’ instead of tackling the needed reforms to respond to Albany’s ‘Watergate moment.’”

When Cuomo was asked in February whether ethics reform were likely to remain in the budget, the governor replied, “As we get closer and actually have budget conversations, it’s going to be at the top of the list.” Not long after, Cuomo conceded that ethics reform would not be included in the budget.

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by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette
     

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

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Everyone Agrees Albany Needs Ethics Reform, Except the People Who Matter Most Thu, 31 Mar 2016 23:07:07 +0000
Oft-Criticized Ethics Watchdog Names Cuomo Aide as Executive Director http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6238:oft-criticized-ethics-watchdog-names-cuomo-aide-as-executive-director http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6238:oft-criticized-ethics-watchdog-names-cuomo-aide-as-executive-director cuomo nyu ethics speech

Gov. Cuomo gives an ethics reform speech in 2015 (Governor's Office via flickr)


The state's independent ethics commission took the first official ethics-related action in Albany since the convictions of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos on Tuesday when it appointed a man with ties to both Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders as its new executive director.

Seth Agata, who JCOPE - the Joint Commission on Public Ethics - says it hired after a nine-month, nationwide search, currently serves as the head of the state's Public Employment Relations Board. He is seen by many as an ultimate Albany insider, and to some that bolsters his prospects for the job, while to others it should have been a disqualifying trait. Agata becomes the third former Cuomo aide of three people to hold the position over a five-year period.

The 14-member board includes appointees by the Governor (six), the two legislative leaders (three each), and the minority leaders of each house (one each). The JCOPE chairperson is selected by the Governor, the Executive Director is chosen by board members themselves.

"A better choice [for executive director] is someone who is clearly independent from both the Governor and the Legislature," John Kaehny, of Reinvent Albany, told Gotham Gazette. "In the entire United States there must be at least one, well-qualified person, who didn't used to work for the governor."

Agata has also worked in Cuomo's counsel's office, as a counsel for program and policy for the Assembly Majority, and as counsel in the investigations office of the State Comptroller.

The body, which has been maligned as rudderless and ruled by infighting, is charged with ethics monitoring, "ensuring transparency," and "providing accountability through enforcement actions to address ethical misconduct." Critics also say JCOPE, which was created through a 2011 law, is designed so that slight dissension can block investigations into public officials and candidates.

Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, praised Agata, calling him a good choice, but also expressed reservations about his connections to Cuomo and the Legislature. "Seth Agata has the kind of trained eye we need to suss out what is really going on in Albany," said Dadey. "I wouldn't say it about anyone else [with such ties to the governor], but Seth has the kind of character we need to lead JCOPE in an independent fashion toward the reforms it so badly needs."

However, Dadey added: "It is a sad commentary on the state of affairs in Albany when the only action the Legislature and governor take on ethics following the conviction of both legislative leaders is the appointment of a JCOPE chair who has ties to both the governor and Legislature."

Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group was also torn about the appointment. He called on JCOPE to make the details of its search for a new director public. Horner described Agata as "thoughtful" and "straightforward," but said the big question comes down to "the hiring process."

"The public deserves to hear from JCOPE about the process that led them to pick Agata," said Horner. "Independence is clearly a major factor in running an ethics commission, we need to hear from JCOPE why they thought he was the right choice."

The press release announcing Agata's hiring said it followed a search that included advertisements in "top legal publications and newspapers" and resulted in 200 resume submissions.

"Seth Agata is a tremendous choice for Executive Director of the Commission," Commission Chair Daniel Horwitz said in a statement announcing Agata's hiring. "He brings a wealth of knowledge, experience, and integrity to the position."

Previous JCOPE heads include Letizia Tagliafierro, who worked for Cuomo during his time as attorney general and later as his director of governmental operations. She left JCOPE and took a position as deputy commissioner of the state's Department of Taxation and Finance in 2015. Her appointment in 2013 drew the ire of legislative members of JCOPE, including one who quit in protest.

Tagliafierro replaced Ellen Biben, who worked as the governor's inspector general and in the attorney general's office when Cuomo held that position. Biben now is now a Court of Claims Judge - she was nominated for the position by Cuomo.

Agata's appointment comes as Cuomo has admitted that talk of ethics reforms have been jettisoned from budget discussions and legislative leaders, especially Republican Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, appear loathe to take any major action. Good government groups have pushed Cuomo to lead on reform in the wake of the Silver and Skelos convictions but the Governor has remained quiet on the issue since January.

Horner and other members of the good government community say JCOPE is designed in such a way that does not foster transparency or faith that its process is not political. JCOPE has 45 days from receiving a complaint to decide whether to investigate an ethics violation but it has no obligation to reveal its investigations.

An investigation can be stopped by three votes out of the 14 commissioners and most of their business is conducted behind closed doors. If a violation is found against a sitting member of the Legislature, JCOPE then has to refer the case to the Legislative Ethics Committee, which is controlled by the legislative leaders. JCOPE can disperse punishment to regular government employees.

The body is charged with maintaining income disclosures from the legislature, lobbyist registrations, and fielding complaints about ethics violations across state government. Legislators' outside income has been the source of much discussion as Cuomo and others have proposed strict limits, while Republicans (and some Democrats) in both legislative houses have balked. Silver's non-government income was at the source of his federal corruption conviction.

JCOPE's most recent actions mostly focus on enforcing compliance with financial disclosure statements, lobbyist registration, and smaller violations of the public officers law by state employees. The commission has only revealed investigations of two lawmakers over the last few years, both sexual harassment cases. They involved former Assembly Members Vito Lopez and Dennis Gabryszak.

The commission announced the launch of two new investigations from its meeting on Tuesday. It is suspected that at least one of those investigations relates to Sen. Marc Panepinto, who announced last week he will not seek reelection. Rumors have swirled about misbehavior in his office.

"I am very disappointed when a person who runs for office and holds themselves out to be trusted by their community winds up involved in a sordid affair," Cuomo told reporters this week when asked about Panepinto. "So, I don't know the details. I don't want to know the details. But let somebody else run who will respect the position."

When asked about the phrasing "sordid affair" by The Buffalo News, a Cuomo spokesperson said the governor was referring to things he had read in the press.

JCOPE members appointed by legislative leaders have openly complained of interference from the executive branch and pushed for JCOPE to look for an executive director without ties to the administration.

Critics say JCOPE has picked around the edges while federal investigators have tackled serious investigations that get to the root of corruption in state government. U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, good government leaders, and others have called on Albany to strengthen both preventative measures and enforcement mechanisms.

Kaehny of Reinvent Albany said that he feels Agata's resume should have immediately disqualified him from the job. "Even if Seth Agata is as wise as Solomon and pure as the driven snow, he used to be one of Governor Cuomo's top people, and there are inherent questions about whether he can be impartial and completely non-political, rather than a potential political weapon for the governor."

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

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Oft-Criticized Ethics Watchdog Names Cuomo Aide as Executive Director Wed, 23 Mar 2016 17:40:27 +0000
Assembly Announces Internal Reform Plan to Mixed Reviews http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6229:assembly-announces-internal-reform-plan-to-mixed-reviews http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6229:assembly-announces-internal-reform-plan-to-mixed-reviews heastie cuomo reporters

Assembly Speaker Heastie (photo via The Governor's Office)


On Thursday afternoon - after session, at the end of Sunshine Week - the Assembly's year-long path to greater transparency and participation took a major step as Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie announced recommendations made by his reform committee and pledged to enact them.

The proposals - some actual rules changes, others pledges - are designed to empower members through the committee process and give members and the public a clearer view into the legislative process. This transparency will in part come through utilizing technology and best practices in the chamber that has been especially criticized for resisting new digital tools and openness for decades. Heastie, a Democrat from the Bronx, replaced longtime Speaker Sheldon Silver last year when Silver was arrested with corruption charges that he was later convicted on. Silver was well-known for limiting the power of members and eschewing technology.

Changes announced by Heastie, who had appointed a special working group to make recommendations, include moving to a two-year session so that bills that have moved through committee but have yet to receive a vote in year one aren't forced through the same process in year two; a revamp of the Assembly website; a commitment to broadcast all committee hearings (something the Senate already does); and giving all members the right to have a certain number of bills considered by committee.

Good government groups say that they are pleased with many of the proposals, but that the agenda doesn't rise to meet the needs of the times given the recent convictions of Silver and former Republican Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. They also warn that a sharp eye must be kept on implementation of a number of the report's recommendations that won't actually be voted on as rules changes.

Some of the recommendations will be implemented by chamber rules reforms with bill language expected on Friday and a vote to follow early next week. While other parts will be implemented over time, with no particular deadline given as of yet.

"A lot of times committees put out these grand proposals that go nowhere," said Assembly Member Brian Kavanagh, co-chair of The Assembly Working Group on Operations, Participation and Transparency, "but the Speaker has already accepted the recommendations and committed to implementing them. We've put them out there and now we can be held accountable."

Heastie thanked Kavanagh and fellow co-chair Gary Pretlow in the press release announcing the reform package adding: "They worked diligently with the other members of the workgroup and the conference to sort through the numerous recommendations from members, advocates and constituents. We will continue to work together as a conference to identify ways to increase our members' ability to effectively meet the needs of their constituencies." The release included supportive statements from the other 12 members of the working group.

The process that led to the recommendations was sparked by the election of Heastie to Assembly Speaker after Silver's indictment on multiple federal corruption charges. Heastie named the working group in the spring of last year citing the need for more openness and democratization of the chamber. The group has been criticized for not holding any public hearings and for leaving out members of the Republican minority conference.

"The reforms offered by the Assembly Majority might help build a better website, but don't do enough to rebuild the public's trust," said Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, whose conference offered a slew of internal reforms that were quickly rejected by the majority earlier this year.

"If this was a normal year where the Speaker and [Senate] Majority Leader hadn't just been indicted there would be a lot to get excited about," said John Kaehny of Reinvent Albany. "Of course, this doesn't address secret budget negotiations, requiring a rigorous public debate of the budget, or preventing the Speaker being able to stop any bill from coming to a vote, but it has a lot of smaller things people have wanted for a long time."

Silver had long been accused of bottling up bills he opposed regardless of how much support they enjoyed from Democrats or Republicans.

"Under Sheldon Silver's tenure the Speaker became more powerful and individuals less so and that contributed to an the environment that led to corruption and the disempowerment of members to where they felt they were potted plants," said Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union. "This is a welcome recalibration of that relationship. This is a modest but important first step."

Kaehny said that while the report does not reshape the power structure of the Assembly it does contain quite a few items from good government groups' "wish list" when it comes to transparency and technology.

Republican Assembly Member James Tedisco, who has proposed a number of reform bills, criticized the working group for not making recommendations that would lessen the power of leadership, provide insight into how secret pots of money are spent, or provide equal funding to the offices of members of both parties.

"The one consistency about Albany is nothing changes when it comes to leaders voluntarily giving up any of their unbridled power to rule like kings," Tedisco said in a statement. "The rank and file members of the so-called Majority 'Reform Caucus' had an opportunity to rise up and disperse power back for their own constituents. They chose to keep it the same as it ever was and remain serfs in the Kingdom of Albany."

Kavanagh believes his group's reforms will help lawmakers move their bills independently. "The approach we've taken here is to make the committee process central to the legislative process," Kavanagh told Gotham Gazette. "Members can get their bills in the committee process early enough and get enough of their colleagues to vote for it so it gets to the floor. If committee members are voting down a bill in committee that is not dysfunction, that is democracy."

Changes meant to tweak the committee process include the move to a two-year session so that bills introduced in the first year of session would not be sent back to square one if they didn't make it to a floor vote. Bills that don't come to a vote during session currently must be reintroduced the next year. The Assembly will adopt this new approach independently and is asking the Senate to consider a similar system so that either house could vote on a bill passed in the first year of session in the second year.

Another change would give lawmakers of any party "the right" to have five bills voted on in committee in the first year of session, and an unlimited number in the second year. The push for committee consideration is allowed at the end of session, the new rules would extend this period in the second year two weeks earlier than is currently allowed.

While these changes are covered by actual rules reform, a measure that seems common sense to most good government groups - making sure committee hearings happen at regularly scheduled times and not during actual session while votes are occurring - is not being moved as a rules change, but instead a pledge.

"We're not saying it would never happen," said Kavanagh, who pointed to the high-paced nature of the end of session where bills are quickly passed by one house and hand delivered to the other for approval. But Kaehny said that forcing committee meetings to be scheduled ahead of time could actually correct a problem not addressed in the changes: making sure high-priority bills like the budget aren't jammed through without time for public review.

The fact that the scheduling of committee hearings is moving ahead informally, as a pledge, gets to the heart of another concern for Kaehny - a number of major recommendations aren't set to be codified in the rules.

Proposals that are exciting to Kaehny such as linking recordings of committee hearings to a bill's web-page, providing wireless access in public spaces, bringing more bills up at the start of session, and creating a floor debate list to keep members and the public apprised of the Assembly's schedule, are all simply pledges and not to be codified in the rules.

Kavanagh said that a number of tech-centric projects will need to be gauged and will take considerable time and investment. One pledge commits to the creation of a "C-Span"-like legislative channel.

With over 40 recommendations of a wide scope and spectrum, Kaehny said that "Follow up on all of this is critical." He urged legislators to keep track of implementation of all of the working group's recommendations while admitting, "This isn't all simple stuff, this could take some real time to do."

[Related: In Albany, Sunshine Week Begins with Darkness]

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

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

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Assembly Announces Internal Reform Plan to Mixed Reviews Fri, 18 Mar 2016 01:18:36 +0000