Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/299 Mon, 23 Oct 2017 04:48:38 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Albany on the Penultimate Day of Legislative Session http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7014:albany-on-the-penultimate-day-of-legislative-session http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7014:albany-on-the-penultimate-day-of-legislative-session albany capitol

The Capitol (photo: Ben Max)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***
by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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Albany on the Penultimate Day of Legislative Session Tue, 20 Jun 2017 04:00:00 +0000
More Than Mayoral Control: De Blasio’s End of Session Priorities http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7013:more-than-mayoral-control-de-blasio-s-end-of-session-priorities http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7013:more-than-mayoral-control-de-blasio-s-end-of-session-priorities De Blasio Heastie Albany

De Blasio & Heastie (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


It is easy to mistakenly think there is only one thing Mayor Bill de Blasio wants from state lawmakers before they conclude the dwindling legislative session in Albany. Negotiations over an extension of soon-to-expire mayoral control of New York City schools have sucked most of the oxygen from the proverbial room -- though not the room, of ‘three men’ fame, which sat empty for months, until Monday -- leaving little time and attention for de Blasio’s other top priorities needing state action.

So it was again on Monday, when de Blasio, Comptroller Scott Stringer, City Council members, union representatives, and others rallied at City Hall to, as the mayor put it, call on “the Senate, the Assembly, and the Governor” to “get together and pass mayoral control now!”

Like the past two years, when the mayor was granted consecutive one-year extensions, the de Blasio administration has moved allies to hold press conferences, write op-eds, make phone calls, and rally to push for mayoral control. It amounts to a great deal of effort and energy and political capital expended on one policy matter, albeit an extremely important one affecting over 1 million students, their parents, teachers, and others, while the rest of the de Blasio Albany agenda sits somewhat neglected.

The mayor does have other priorities for the legislative session scheduled to end Wednesday, and while he has found some time to publicly advocate for a couple of them, his representatives are working relationships in Albany to move several key items.

Those priorities include more school-zone speed cameras, a change to regulations allowing the city to expand contracting with minority- and women-owned businesses, the city being given the authority to use the more efficient “design-build” approach for major capital projects, like an overhaul of part of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, and a package of electoral reforms that would make voting easier in New York.

While mayoral control is locked in intense political jockeying and electoral reforms are mostly dead on arrival due to opposition from the Republican-controlled state Senate, the de Blasio administration is somewhat optimistic about getting at least some of what it wants on the other three items: design-build, M/WBE contracting, and speed cameras. In each of the three instances, the administration and its allies in the state Legislature have adjusted bills in order to garner more support and, they hope, reach compromise.

Albany being Albany, it’s never clear what will get done when the buzzer sounds on a budget or legislative session. Governor Andrew Cuomo has largely been absent from the capital and recently said he doesn’t see much of significance, including an extension of mayoral control, happening this week. Cuomo held his first “leaders meeting” of the session on Monday at the Capitol with Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, and Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) Leader Jeff Klein, which could be a sign that Cuomo is engaging and ready to broker some deals among the now ‘four men in the room.’

De Blasio said Monday at City Hall that he “sat down with the Governor last Wednesday at length” and discussed mayoral control, as well as other topics. When Gotham Gazette asked the mayor for more about what he had said to the governor, de Blasio said, “I asked him to lead. I said we need you to step up and be the one that brings everyone together. We understand there’s differences between the Assembly and the Senate. We understand they’re held by different parties. That’s why we have a Governor.”

The next day, the governor said on a press conference call that “Where we’re at right now, mayoral control does not have the support to pass.” The following day, he said on NY1 television that his guess would be the Legislature reconvenes toward the end of the year to pass emergency tax extenders and gets mayoral control reestablished then. It’s not clear if the governor meant these remarks or if he was just looking to make de Blasio sweat. De Blasio indicated Monday he wasn't sure why Cuomo would characterize the mayoral control situation that way, but that they had not agreed on a public script coming out of their meeting.

According to de Blasio administration representatives, a breakthrough on mayoral control, which is being held up by Senate Republicans who want to tie it to an expansion of charter schools, and other big ticket items could pave the way for the annual bevy of deal-making on other things. Cuomo is also supportive of both extending mayoral control and increasing charter schools, whereas the Assembly Democrats are opposed to any expansion of charters.

Cuomo does like to make deals, and his involvement in end-of-session negotiations could signal that the annual “big ugly” of last-minute legislation could be bigger and uglier than some may have expected or the governor himself predicted. One caveat is that Cuomo does not have any signature legislation he is pushing, though there are a handful of issues he has weighed in on, including support for a bill to help victims of childhood sexual assault report their abusers.

The de Blasio administration has not been resigned to defeat on its priorities, instead continuing to work to leverage relationships, tweak bills, and build support. Department of Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg is heading back to Albany Tuesday for further discussions with legislators about both speed cameras and design-build. (Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina is also heading to Albany Tuesday to advance the mayoral control discussion.) Intergovernmental affairs staff members have been working the halls and offices of the Capitol in order to make sure that support remains strong or grows for key pieces of the de Blasio agenda.

When asked if the mayor would be making a journey to Albany this week, a de Blasio spokesperson said the mayor's schedule isn't released in advance. De Blasio is scheduled to hold a town hall meeting Wednesday night in Chinatown at about the same time that final deals might be negotiated in the capital. The mayor said on NY1 Monday night that if Senator Flanagan wanted to talk education policy he would happily take his call or go to Albany to talk with him.

While the de Blasio administration has its top five major priorities, there are other items of interest at play, including what the administration believes will be a victory on expanded property tax exemptions for seniors and people with disabilities who own homes. Notably, de Blasio has not mentioned his "mansion tax" proposal lately, and no one from the administration indicated to Gotham Gazette that it is still a top priority, despite the fact that de Blasio made it a focus as state budget negotiations progressed and promised to push for it after a budget deal was announced that did not include the surcharge on large residential real estate transactions that the mayor would use to subsidize affordable housing for senior citizens.

Instead, the mayor has spent more time on electoral reform, recently holding two tele-town halls on electoral reform, the second featuring 15,000 participants, the mayor said on the call. There is little optimism, however, that any of the signature proposals like early voting or same-day registration will pass. There is some hope for electronic poll books, but even agreement on instituting that fairly minor advancement, which holds the promise of reducing lines at polling places, appears elusive. The Legislature did already pass reforms to conditions for poll-site workers, creating split shifts in an effort to attract more candidates to the temporary jobs and increase productivity.

De Blasio participated in a rally at City Hall calling for more speed cameras in school zones, a piece of his Vision Zero street safety program. The city wants hundreds more cameras after what it says has been a successful prior expansion. The relevant bill has been amended to drastically reduce the number of cameras the city would be able to install, and would allocate 150 new cameras over three years, at 50 per year. The administration and its allies also adjusted other aspects of the bill, like adding signage to alert drivers of the cameras, in order to build support from skeptical legislators.

A main force behind the speed camera legislation is State Senator Jose Peralta, a member of the Independent Democratic Conference from Queens. The key, according to a de Blasio administration official, is getting the blessing of the Senate GOP conference’s three New York City-based members: Andrew Lanza, Marty Golden, and Simcha Felder. When the three agree to legislation that affects the city, Majority Leader Flanagan is often deferential, as he has publicly stated.

Another IDC member, Senator Marisol Alcantara, of upper Manhattan, is leading the Senate push on the M/WBE legislation, which would allow the city to award larger contracts to M/WBEs without a competitive bidding process. The city threshold would be raised closer to the state allowance (from $35,000 to $150,000). It’s a similar ask to that of design-build.

State government has utilized design-build to save time and money on big infrastructure projects and New York City wants similar power to streamline the process by awarding one contract for project design and execution, instead of engaging in separate processes and contracts. While the city would ideally be granted blanket authority, it has narrowed its ask to an initial eight projects, covered in one bill sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Lanza, a Staten Island Republican. Sen. Golden has his own design-build bill that only covers two projects. If the city is granted authority to use design-build, which has a groundswell of support from business and labor leaders, it will probably be for somewhere between the two and eight projects.

“Design Build has the potential to save taxpayers millions of dollars and shave years off projects,” said de Blasio spokesperson Freddi Goldstein, in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “If the State can use it for amusement parks and ski resorts, we should be able to use it to repair emergency rooms and build NYPD training facilities.”

Indeed, Cuomo has repeatedly touted the state’s use of design-build to save time and money, but he has not shepherded through city permission.

In the end, much, if not all, of de Blasio’s priorities rely on Cuomo, his antagonist and rival-in-chief. “[T]he Governor, when he puts his mind to something, he can be very, very effective,” de Blasio said Monday.

***
by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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More Than Mayoral Control: De Blasio’s End of Session Priorities Mon, 19 Jun 2017 04:00:00 +0000
With Session Ending and Trial Looming, No Legislative Response to Bid-rigging Scandal http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7007:with-session-ending-and-trial-looming-no-legislative-response-to-bid-rigging-scandal http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7007:with-session-ending-and-trial-looming-no-legislative-response-to-bid-rigging-scandal Cuomo Flanagan Heastie

Flanagan, Cuomo, Heastie (photo: The Governor's Office)


With just three scheduled days left in the legislative session and the corruption trial of several close associates of Governor Andrew Cuomo for their roles in a bid-rigging scandal scheduled to commence in October, the Legislature has yet to pass any meaningful legislation to prevent such abuses of the procurement process.

State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli has introduced a comprehensive bill to address the issue, which is the basis for a Senate bill sponsored by Senator John DeFrancisco, a Syracuse Republican, and sister legislation by Assemblymember Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo Democrat. The legislation would restore authority of the Comptroller to pre-audit all state contracts over $250,000, particularly for SUNY and CUNY affiliated non-profits, a power that was stripped in 2011.

That year, Cuomo and legislative leaders (who are now headed to jail) said that the scaling back of oversight was necessary in order to expedite approval for the governor’s signature economic development initiatives. The idea that the Comptroller’s contract review slows down projects is misguided, according to budget watchdogs. The Comptroller has up to 30 days to approve a contract, but on average approves contracts within six days, according to April figures provided by DiNapoli’s office.

The absence of an independent oversight body appears to have cleared the way for the massive $800 million bribery scheme that took down close Cuomo associate and friend Joe Percoco, as well as then-SUNY Polytechnic President Alain Kaloyeros, who Cuomo had heaped praise and responsibility on, and several major donors to Cuomo who were awarded large contracts. The alleged scheme was uncovered by the office of then-U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara.

More recently, Bart Schwartz, head of Guidepost Solutions LLC, who was hired by Cuomo to probe the contracting process and what might have gone wrong, found significant flaws. In his review of the $417 million awarded to vendors at Buffalo’s SolarCity project and other upstate initiatives, he found that at least $49 million was awarded using a “sloppy process.” The Buffalo News first reported the details of Schwartz’s report, which the Cuomo administration had failed to make public, but was obtained through the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL). Schwartz was paid as much as $1 million for his investigative work and the Cuomo administration has indicated that it accepted his recommendations for cleaning up contracting processes.

While DeFrancisco’s bill has passed the Senate’s finance committee, and the Assembly on Wednesday tweaked its version of the bill to match the Senate’s, legislative leaders offered reserved endorsements of the legislation, and it has yet to be calendared for a floor vote in either house.

Both Republican Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan and Democratic Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie have said they support the restoration of pre-auditing powers to the comptroller’s office, but that they are working towards a “three-way agreement” with the governor before advancing the legislation, which is backed by good government groups and many rank-and-file lawmakers.

Meanwhile, the governor has been defiant, saying that the powers should not be returned to the Comptroller. Instead, Cuomo in his 2017 policy book proposed expanding the oversight powers of the state inspector general to include procurement at CUNY and SUNY nonprofits, as well as new inspectors general, appointed by and reporting to the executive branch. In the aftermath of the scandal, Cuomo also vowed to create a chief procurement officer in the executive branch.

“The proposed legislation does not address the issue and is both burdensome and duplicative,” said Cuomo’s counsel, Alphonso David, in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “The vast majority of these contracts are subject to OSC [Office of the State Comptroller] post-award oversight and these measures only add significant delays and increase costs for New York taxpayers.”

David’s statement highlights a key difference between the governor’s proposal and the “clean contracting” legislation backed by the comptroller and government reformers, which emphasizes prevention, making SUNY and CUNY projects subject to the same early scrutiny and standards as other state-funded projects, rather than after-the-fact oversight.

“The governor's proposal utterly and totally misses the point because it creates addition inspector generals who are appointed by the governor,” said John Kaehny, executive director of the government reform group ReInvent Albany. “The problem...was bid-rigging; the state contracts were rigged to favor one vendor over the others, and that could have been prevented by independent, pre-contract review.”

Representatives from the Reinvent Albany, New York Public Interest Group, League of Women Voters, and Citizens Budget Commission gathered at the Capitol this past Wednesday, with the blessing of other government reform groups, to call on Albany to pass the legislation -- with or without the governor’s support.

“If lawmakers are at all serious about addressing the problems that happened with last year’s bid-rigging scandal they need to support prevention of these crime -- and that means independent pre-contract review,” said Kaehny.

They noted that the Legislature is granted power to enact legislation without the governor’s support, first by passing it through both houses. If Cuomo does not then sign or veto the bill, it would automatically become law in 10 days. If the governor vetoes it, the Legislature could independently reconvene to override his veto. More than a majority, two-thirds of each house, must vote in favor in order pass legislation rejected by the governor. As a result, veto overrides are rare; the last time the Legislature successfully overrode a gubernatorial veto was in 2006, during a tumultuous budget negotiation that took place during the last year of Governor George Pataki’s final term, when legislative leaders went to bat over a property tax rebate and cuts to state university funding. 

Among those who floated the idea of the Legislature passing the bill without the governor’s support is Senator DeFrancisco, who expressed frustration the procurement reform legislation was not calendared earlier.

“I try to advocate for it all the time. I know the governor is apoplectic against it and he’d rather have an inspector general that he can control,” DeFrancisco told reporters at the Capitol on June 12. “Hopefully reason will prevail.”

When asked to elaborate on the problems with the governor’s proposal, DeFrancisco said, “What he wanted in the budget was to have an independent inspector general, appointed by him to review his contracts. I don’t think you have to be a lawyer, you just have to be somewhat sane to realize that that’s not a check and balance on anybody. He doesn’t want to lose that control and have that oversight. There’s no other logic why he wouldn’t do it.”

Speaker Heastie, in an interview with Gotham Gazette, remained coy about the possibility of passing the legislation and reconvening to override a potential gubernatorial veto.

"Those are always options, that are there but again you are asking me what you are going to do on failure, I don’t like to report on failure,“ he said, adding that there is always “the summer” and “next session” to pass legislation.

“The end of session is a deadline, but it’s not the end of the world if there is ever a need for us to do anything legislatively. We said we’ll come back if the actions in Washington dictate us to come back,” he said. “If we have to come back, the members will come back."

Majority Leader Flanagan expressed only slightly more enthusiasm about the idea of procurement reform. Calling the oversight measure “extraordinarily important,” Flanagan said, “I expect we will have procurement reform before the end of the session, whether it’s [legislation proposed by] Senator DeFrancisco or a variation of that bill, I expect we will move in that direction.”

The bill has widespread support in the Legislature; minority leaders say they also support the comptroller-backed proposal, which also ends contracting for non-academic purposes by state-controlled non-profit organizations, and transfers all economic development awards to the the Empire State Development Corporation.

However, Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) Leader Senator Jeff Klein struck a different tone Thursday, saying he opposed DeFrancisco’s legislation. The IDC and GOP have a power-sharing alliance in the Senate. Klein said he intends to introduce a new bill this week, which instead of restoring the comptroller’s powers would appoint an independent investigator to look at claims of misconduct. When pressed, he did not clarify how this proposal differed from the governor’s proposal.

“Right now the power of the comptroller is post-audit -- so what I would assume is if there is any problem in the procurement process, you’d be able to spot any problem post-audit. Then why would you need to have pre-audit ability?” said Klein. “I think what we need is a downright investigator -- someone who has the power to investigate the contracting process as it moves forward, to make sure there’s no favoritism, to make sure there’s no bribery.”

This past week, the bill’s Assembly sponsor, Peoples-Stokes, also expressed second thoughts about how the legislation could slow the approval for contracts for minority- and women-owned businesses that are awarded grants by the state’s Empire State Development Corporation, or impact healthcare organizations like Roswell Park Cancer Institute, a public not-for-profit that would be subject to increased scrutiny.

“The last thing we want is processes to slow down their ability to grow...At first blush, it seems like great legislation, when you delve in there’s some things that need to be tweaked,” said Peoples-Stokes. “I’m grateful there’s some lawyers and a team around here that can help me straighten something out. I think what happened in 2011, that maybe we should takes some looks at, but all these other things.”

Earlier this year, a month after talks of a long-awaited pay raise for lawmakers turned sour, legislative leaders seemed ready to take a different approach than they are now, vowing to stand up to the executive branch.

In January, during his remarks on opening day of the 2017 session, Flanagan urged his fellow lawmakers to stand up to the governor over the economic development programs, which were marred by the alleged bid-rigging scandal and other accountability problems. Urging his fellow legislators to “ask tough questions” on the progress of economic initiatives like Start-Up NY and Regional Economic Development Councils, Flanagan cited the Legislature’s power as a check on the governor.

“It’s very simple, the legislative power of the state is vested in the Senate and the Assembly,” Flanagan said in January. “Not the attorney general, not the controller, and not the governor.”

In the budget deal passed in April, Cuomo’s signature economic development and infrastructure programs were fully-funded and no new oversight measures were passed.

Another bill, sponsored by Senator Thomas Croci, a Long Island Republican, would create a searchable “database of deals,” cataloguing all businesses that have been awarded state subsidies -- a system in place in six other states -- has made no headway in the Senate or Assembly.

***
by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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With Session Ending and Trial Looming, No Legislative Response to Bid-rigging Scandal Sun, 18 Jun 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Whose Job Is It To Investigate The Legislature’s Lulu System? http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6941:whose-job-is-it-to-investigate-the-legislature-s-lulu-system http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6941:whose-job-is-it-to-investigate-the-legislature-s-lulu-system klein

IDC Leader Jeff Klein (via nysenate.gov)


Reports that state senators have been receiving stipends for committee chair positions that they do not actually hold has drawn scrutiny to the Legislature’s stipend system and raised questions about the legality of the ways in which Senate leadership has arranged such payouts, often called lulus. Those questions have led to others, specifically whose job it is to investigate the potential wrongdoing involved and whether any legal or ethics enforcement entities will take action.

Four Republican senators and three members of the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), an eight-person breakaway group of Democrats that aligns with the Senate GOP -- all seen as loyalists to Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan -- were recipients of bonus checks ranging from $12,500 to $18,000 a year, despite holding roles as vice chairs, a position that does not include a stipend. The New York Times first reported the potentially fraudulent filings last week, and reported Thursday evening that an unnamed law enforcement entity is now investigating the falsified paperwork. The Daily News then reported that Attorney General Eric Schneiderman's office and the office of the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York are investigating.

Flanagan, who signed off on payroll requests sent to the New York State Comptroller’s Office, which appear to misidentify the seven vice chairs as committee chairs, has defended the practice. “I believe everything we’ve done in the past and right now is in full accordance not only with the constitution but the legislative law,” Flanagan, a Republican from Long Island, told reporters Monday afternoon at the state Capitol.

Over the weekend, the conference’s attorney, David Lewis, released a memo arguing that there was no impropriety, and noting that the practice started with IDC Senator David Valesky, of Syracuse, was awarded a lulu for a vice chair by former Majority Leader Dean Skelos several years ago.

Critics of the IDC’s coalition with the GOP say that the stipend practice effectively rewards the rogue Democrats for empowering the majority conference. The Daily News reports that IDC Leader Senator Jeff Klein also received a significant pay hike through an increased stipend this year after Flanagan formally named him the chamber’s vice president pro tempore.

Whether the payments are legal is unclear. The distribution of lulus is codified in state law, but it is not specified that an unclaimed stipend can be diverted from a chair to someone who does not hold the position. Furthermore, deliberately submitting false payroll documents to the Comptroller could warrant criminal charges -- the Senate majority leader’s office listed vice chairs as chairs on payroll documents.

But as a blame game ensues at the Capitol, and GOP senators hide out in their chamber to avoid the press gaggle, questions abound over which entity would be authorized to investigate this practice of falsifying information on payroll forms.

Without specifying who might have jurisdiction, Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Westchester Democrat, has called for “someone in authority” to look into “the obvious violations of state law.

“It seems every day troubling new questions arise and new details are learned about the apparent abuse of the Senate stipend system,” she said. The counsel for the Senate Democratic Conference issued a memo countering the arguments laid out by the Senate GOP’s counsel and pointing to impropriety.

Governor Andrew Cuomo, a second-term Democrat, took reporters’ questions after an unrelated news conference in New York City Thursday, and pointed to the comptroller’s office, saying it must determine whether or not the practice is legal. “If it was not legal, the comptroller should call up and say ‘whoops I made a mistake, I need the money back,’” Cuomo said. “The call is the comptroller’s.”

In response, a spokesperson for DiNapoli’s office said in a statement, “The Comptroller’s office is not a court of law. This issue needs to be decided by the Senate itself or the legal system.”

Previously, DiNapoli’s office had issued a statement saying that the Senate is expected to comply with state law and house practices when filling stipend requests. "When our office receives a payroll request that has been certified by the Senate, or any state entity, we make the payment. At this time, we have no basis to take back this money," said Jennifer Freeman, a spokesperson for the Office of the State Comptroller.

While Cuomo has enjoyed a close working relationship with Flanagan and Klein, he has feuded with DiNapoli, including earlier this week over a new report from the comptroller scrutinizing missed reports from one of the governor’s controversial economic development programs.

Beyond the Comptroller’s Office, other oversight authorities that may have jurisdiction to pursue an investigation include the Attorney General’s Office, the Albany District Attorney‘s Office, and the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York (USASD). All three offices declined to comment on the stipend situation when Gotham Gazette reached out. 

Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office is not authorized to pursue an investigation without a referral from the comptroller, the governor’s office, or a number of other government authorities. The situation also could also fall under the jurisdiction of the USASD, a position previously held by Preet Bharara, who became known for aggressively pursuing cases of public corruption, but was fired suddenly by President Donald Trump in March.

Finally, there is the Joint Committee of Public Ethics (JCOPE). While the independent ethics board cannot pursue criminal charges, it can investigate potential violations of the state's ethics law within the Legislature and issue a report, which is then referred to the Legislative Ethics Commission, a body comprised of four-legislative members and five non-legislative members. If the Legislative Ethics Commission accepts the findings of the report, it is authorized to mete out an appropriate penalty. The Senate and Assembly also have in-house ethics committees, which rarely meet. A spokesperson for JCOPE declined to comment on the stipend matter.

Which law enforcement entity is looking into the issue was not clear in the initial Thursday evening report by the New York Times.

Cuomo also pointed to the structure in which lawmakers are paid, which he says is inherently flawed. The governor has called for a pay increase for legislators and a strict cap on or elimination of what income they can earn in other jobs -- legislators are technically part-time, and they have not received a salary increase since 1999. Cuomo did not address eliminating stipends.

“The fundamental problem is the way we pay legislators and the conflicts of interest that are intrinsic in the system,” he said. “The stipend is pennies compared from the salary structure which is premised on the fact that they are part-time, which is premised on a fallacy -- because they are full-time.”

While lawmakers collect $79,500 annual base pay, legislative stipends for committee leadership roles ranging from $9,000 to $41,500 are fairly common in both houses. An Empire Center report from 2016 notes that all 63 senators are eligible for stipends -- though some decline the cash -- and more that half of Assembly members receive supplementary payments through their secondary roles in the Legislature. Lawmakers are also permitted to hold outside jobs in addition to their legislative roles.

Calling for a formal investigation is the government watchdog group Common Cause/NY. “Today’s New York Times report that the Senate filed fraudulent documents to secure ‘lulus’ for members of the Independent Democratic Conference represents an egregious misuse of public monies, and potentially a more serious legal violation, which must be investigated by law enforcement,” Common Cause/NY said in a statement last week. “This is not a clerical error to be blamed on staff, or punted to the comptroller.”

The organization also defended the comptroller’s office saying, “It is entirely appropriate for the Comptroller to trust and rely on the information as certified to him by the designating authority, in this case the Senate.”

Meanwhile, members of the IDC have continued to dismiss the lulu scandal as business as usual.

“Well, certainly it seems as if everyone is obsessed with the 'Lulu Land' here in Albany. But quite frankly, it is a story about nothing," said Senator Diane Savino, an IDC member from Staten Island and one of the seven getting the extra stipends, on NY1 Monday. "Legislative stipends have been in existence for decades here in Albany. It's certainly not something new."

In addition to Valesky and Savino, IDC Senator Jose Peralta, a Democrat from Queens; and Republican Senators Thomas O’Mara, of the Finger Lakes region; Patrick Gallivan, of Buffalo; and Patty Ritchie, of Elmira, have also received payments for their roles on committees they do not chair.

Senator Pamela Helming, a first-term Republican from Central New York, was also misidentified in the Senate payroll documents as a chair, but her office told reporters she has not cashed the checks and intends to return them.

***
by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been updated to reflect that the New York Times reported Thursday evening that an unnamed law enforcement entity is investigating the Senate stipend matter.

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Whose Job Is It To Investigate The Legislature’s Lulu System? Thu, 18 May 2017 04:00:00 +0000
As Legislative Leaders Warn of Con Con Dangers, Good Government Groups Come Out in Favor http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6935:as-legislative-leaders-warn-of-con-con-dangers-good-government-groups-come-out-in-favor http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6935:as-legislative-leaders-warn-of-con-con-dangers-good-government-groups-come-out-in-favor assembly chamber via wikicommons

The Assembly (photo: wikicommons)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***
by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. ]]>
As Legislative Leaders Warn of Con Con Dangers, Good Government Groups Come Out in Favor Tue, 16 May 2017 04:00:00 +0000
15 Questions for the Final Week of State Budget Negotiations http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6834:15-questions-for-the-final-week-of-state-budget-negotiations http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6834:15-questions-for-the-final-week-of-state-budget-negotiations Cuomo de Blasio press conference 2014

De Blasio & Cuomo in 2014 (photo: The Governor's Office)


The New York State budget, which is expected to be delivered on time, is due April 1, but as state government leaders enter the final week of negotiations there are many questions left open for New York City.

These include the fate of more than $100 millions in state-to-city funding cuts proposed by Governor Andrew Cuomo; whether more than $1 billion in affordable housing funding will be released; final budgetary allocations toward city schools and NYCHA; whether mayoral control of schools will be extended; and where the stand lands on multiple tax policies, including Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposed “mansion tax.” An added transactional surcharge on buyers of New York City property at more than $2 million, de Blasio would use the revenue to subsidize affordable housing for seniors. Cuomo said Monday during a NY1 appearance that the mansion tax has gone nowhere since the mayor proposed it in January.

There are also statewide proposals that are of interest to the city, such as voting reform and Cuomo’s Empire State Trail, among others, that are being debated.

The “three men in a room,” which this year is actually four -- Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, and Senate Independent Conference Leader Jeff Klein -- will meet frequently this week behind closed doors to negotiate the final spending and policy details of the $150-plus billion budget.

Klein, of the Bronx, leads the eight-member breakaway group of Democrats who form a ruling coalition with the Senate GOP, led by Flanagan. Heastie, also of the Bronx, leads the Assembly Democratic majority and is the only ally of Mayor Bill de Blasio of the four men in the negotiating room, though there are issues on which Klein or Cuomo and de Blasio agree.

Cuomo, a second-term Democrat, unveiled his $152 billion executive budget plan in January following a six-stop State of the State tour, during which he promoted his big ticket infrastructure projects, budget items, and policy agenda.

De Blasio, testifying before a joint legislative budget committee in late January, laid out his concerns with certain cost shifts to the city in Cuomo’s budget plan and outlined New York City’s needs from the state in terms of education, healthcare, affordable housing, and more. Heastie, whose majority conference is dominated by New York City-based legislators, is seen as something of a surrogate for de Blasio and the city’s interests during budget negotiations.

Heastie and his conference back passage of the “mansion tax,” though it is seen as a long shot. It has been de Blasio’s main focal point of public advocacy related to the state budget, including his participation in an Albany rally this past week. In conversations with reporters, de Blasio has also referenced several areas of state funding to the city that are priorities as well as policy goals like permission to install more speed cameras and to use design-build contracting.

As the Senate and Assembly presented their one-house budget resolutions earlier this month -- their formal responses to Cuomo’s budget proposal and their declarations of priorities heading into final negotiations -- several sticking points emerged.

For residents of New York City, there is much at stake.

1. Will the final budget include more than $100 million in cuts and cost shifts to New York City, primarily related to placement of foster children and special education services?
Gov. Cuomo has proposed more than $100 million in cuts and cost shifts to New York City, primarily related to placement of foster children and special education services, according to Cuomo’s 2017-2018 financial plan.

"There are several cuts in the State Executive Budget that are going to have an effect on thousands and thousands of New Yorkers,” de Blasio said during his budget testimony in February.

According to the de Blasio administration, funds earmarked for New York City programs that hang in the balance based on Cuomo’s proposed budget include $32.5 million for public health programs; $66 million for the education and care of 8,900 foster care youth; $25.5 million for senior centers; and $30 million “for more than 800 special education students who have highly specialized needs.”

The mayor and the Assembly are also calling for the restoration of $65 million in MTA funding that was slashed in Cuomo's budget proposal.

2. What will the final education aid number for New York City be?
The governor is proposing a statewide school aid increase of nearly $1 billion for the 2017-18 school year. Of the $961 million aid increase Cuomo has outlined, New York City schools would receive an aid increase of $294.9 million, a percentage of new funding that is in line with the city’s proportion of students.

Both legislative houses and the mayor, who has highlighted $1.6 billion still owed to New York City schools as part of the 2006 Campaign for Fiscal Equity decision, are calling for increased education aid in the final budget.

“We want to keep pushing for greater education aid. This is a fight that’s been going on for ten years, as you know, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity decision by our highest court in the state. We’re still not getting our fair share, nor are a lot of upstate cities and rural areas,” said de Blasio on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show on Friday.

The Senate’s one-house calls for Cuomo’s proposed education Foundation Aid to be doubled, while the Assembly is calling for a $1.4 billion increase, or $1.03 billion more than the increase proposed by the executive budget.

Cuomo says school funding is dependent on revenue from the extension of the “millionaires’ tax” -- set to expire this year -- a budget measure Senate Republicans oppose and Assembly Democrats want to increase.

3. Will the “millionaires' tax” be extended?
Cuomo strongly supports extending the millionaires' tax, a Governor David Patterson policy that was implemented in 2008 in response to the economic collapse. Mayor de Blasio and Assembly Democrats have proposed expanding the tax to include new brackets for New Yorkers earning $5 million, $10 million and $100 million a year.

Early projections are that the millionaires’ tax will be extended -- Republicans have, after all, approved it before. However, chances of the additional tax brackets being added to the tax seem slim, as that expansion is opposed by both Cuomo and Senate Republicans.

4. Will de Blasio’s ”mansion tax” pass?
De Blasio has made the mansion tax the main focus of his public advocacy related to the state budget, holding about a half-dozen related events in the past two weeks. De Blasio and Assembly Democrats want the state to allow the city to add a dedicated surcharge to home purchases over $2 million to create hundreds of millions of dollars in new revenue per year to use directly for subsidies to tens of thousands of low-income senior citizens.

The mansion tax faces some opposition from within New York City, as well as questions from budget watchdogs. Senate Republicans are opposed to it, and Gov. Cuomo said Monday on NY1 that the mayor proposed it in January and "It never went anywhere in January and it hasn't gone anywhere since."

5. Will the affordable housing MOU be settled? Will there be more state aid for NYCHA? What about 421-a?
The state is still sitting on about $2 billion in affordable housing and anti-homelessness funds that were allocated last year but can only be released by a memo of understanding among Cuomo, Heastie, and Flanagan that details how the money will be spent.

The cob-webbed funds have become the ire of de Blasio, Assembly Democrats, and affordable and supportive housing providers, anti-homelessness advocates, and others.

Among the sticking points related to the aforementioned funds as well as other past and future money for housing are funding levels for NYCHA and the tax abatement program known as 421-a. Cuomo’s new 421-a proposal does not have the support of de Blasio or Assembly Democrats, and Senate Republicans are unlikely to release the housing money until a new 421-a program is in place.

Meanwhile, de Blasio and others are calling for more state investment in NYCHA as well as the utilization of $100 million set aside in the past that Cuomo had earmarked for NYCHA repairs but has not spent.

6. There are now three alternatives to Cuomo’s Excelsior Scholarship, which aims to extend tuition-free CUNY and SUNY. What version will wind up in the budget? Will whatever version of the college tuition plan that passes include The Dream Act?
Many questions were raised during budget hearings and public discussion about how the scholarship program will be paid for, but also about the program’s rigid course-load requirements and limits on how other financial aid sources, like the state’s Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) and Pell grants, could be spent.

The Assembly Majority has accepted the Excelsior Scholarship, with modifications, including an expansion of TAP benefits that loosened requirements on how aid can be spent. The Senate Majority, IDC and Assembly Minority have indicated they prefer some form of TAP expansion, which would be inclusive to students at the state’s private colleges, who they say are penalized for their schools' tuition increases under Cuomo’s plan.

7. Will the the budget extend mayoral control of city schools?
It is the third straight year that de Blasio is seeking an extension of mayoral control of city schools from the state -- he’s received two straight one-year approvals, in large part due to his icy relationships with Cuomo and Senate Republicans. De Blasio wants mayoral control to be made permanent, but he would gladly settle for the three-year extension Cuomo has included in his budget yet again or, preferably for the mayor, the seven-year extension the Assembly has called for.

Mayoral control is not in essence a budget matter and it has been kicked from budget negotiations each of the past two years, left for the legislative session to follow.

As with other de Blasio priorities, the fate of mayoral control could come down to how much the Assembly prioritizes it in negotiations. It is at least somewhat valuable to Senate Republicans as a bargaining chip.

8. Will the state extend Design-Build authority to New York City?
Design-build is a procurement and contracting strategy that streamlines the process for capital projects, avoiding multiple bidding processes and simply hiring once for the design and the building of a project, like a bridge reconstruction. The state has used design build on several projects to great success in terms of time and money savings. In another example of the home rule dynamics that frustrate city leaders, New York City is seeking needed permission to use design-build.

"If the City also had access to [design-build], similar benefits would be realized. Our capital agencies have identified $7.3 billion in projects, with around $450 million in immediate savings. If the rest of New York State has access to design-build, New York City certainly should as well as a matter of common sense," de Blasio said during his Albany budget testimony in late January.

At a recent press conference focused on their Vision Zero street safety program, de Blasio's transportation commissioner, Polly Trottenberg, said she was on the verge of travelling to Albany to advocate for more speed cameras for the city and for design-build permission. Trottenberg said she wasn't quite sure what was standing in the way of design-build passage given the virtual unanimity behind it, including from labor unions, which can be skeptical.

De Blasio added, "for everyone who wants to see us rightfully achieve more of these good capital projects more quickly that will make people safe, we need your help getting design build done. It’s going to literally free up a lot of money because things will be done a lot more efficiently. It will free up a lot of money. We’ll be able to cover a lot more ground. It just makes sense for everyone."

9. Will the budget account for funding cuts proposed by the Trump administration?
It is unlikely that there will be significant adjustments to the state budget based on funding cuts that could come from Washington, D.C., despite the fact that President Trump has indicated he is seeking major reductions in domestic spending that include key areas of funding that go to New York. Cuomo and legislative leaders have both acknowledged the uncertainty and possibility that a special session may be needed once the federal budget is more clear.

Short of that, Cuomo had inserted language in his budget proposal that would have allowed his administration to make mid-year budget adjustments based on federal dynamics without approval from the Legislature.

Criticized from inside and outside government as a dangerous power-grab, Cuomo’s proposal was denied in both the Senate and Assembly one-house budget resolutions.

“There are lump sums that are at the complete discretion of the governor,” Flanagan said at a press conference. “I don’t think that’s an appropriate way to do things,” he added of the mid-year executive-only adjustments.

Heastie has said that if federal cuts blow a hole in the state government, Cuomo will have to revisit the budget with the Legislature: “the Legislature is an equal branch of government and should be respected,” he said.

10. It appears likely some version of Raise the Age will pass the Legislature this year, but what version will wind up in the budget?
With North Carolina, New York is one of just two states that tries 16- and 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system. Cuomo and Assembly Democrats have for years sought to “raise the age,” but Senate Republicans have opposed the measure. Now, at the behest of the IDC, the Senate GOP appears open to some version of raising the age of criminal responsibility, and negotiations of the details are happening.

The only thing that may hold up a raise the age deal would be if the Assembly and Cuomo are not willing to go along with what the Senate is willing to do. In other words, the devil is in the details, and we will soon see if the sides can come to a compromise. Senate and Assembly Democrats have warned that they are skeptical of a watered-down deal that keeps too many offenses in criminal court as opposed to family court, or that has a too-long timeline for implementation.

11. Governor Cuomo proposed allocating $200 million in this budget for the multi-year construction of the Empire State Trail, but has been met with limited enthusiasm -- can he salvage the project?
The Empire State Trail is to some one of Cuomo’s most exciting 2017 proposals; proponents of the project say it will put New York on the national biking and hiking map and give a boost to state tourism and coffers. The Senate has rejected the Empire State Trail plan to make room for “other funding priorities," and the Assembly allocated only $20 million for the project.

If Cuomo makes the funding enough of a priority in negotiations, his desired allocation is likely to be there when the votes are cast at the end of the week.

12. Will ride-hailing apps be legalized for areas outside New York City?
The push to expand ride-hailing -- apps like Uber and Lyft -- has the support of the governor, Republicans and Democrats in both houses who argue the expansion would be good for local economies while reducing drunken driving and expanding transportation options.

The Senate has approved a bill to expand ride-hailing apps outside New York City, where they are currently legal. The major sticking point in negotiations is the same as last year, when a deal was elusive: the insurance requirements that companies will be forced to meet.

13. Will government ethics, campaign finance and/or voting reforms be included in the budget?
Though Cuomo’s executive budget includes an ambitious ethics and electoral reform agenda, much of which has the support of the Assembly majority, Senate Republicans have indicated that they will block the measures. The governor, who has not publicly pushed for reform in these areas since his State of the State, has indicated that he will negotiate them after the budget is passed.

“We are going to try like heck. It’s not necessarily a budget discussion. The budget is primarily finances. If there’s a policy matter that  related to the finances then I try to include it because it’s good to reconcile as much as you can. Many of the democracy issues that you talk about we are going to take up after the budget,” Cuomo said during a press conference last week.

One thing both houses reject is the establishment of new inspectors general, which are appointed by the executive branch, at the state education department and Port Authority. Both houses also are pushing for increased disclosure and transparency measures for Cuomo’s Regional Economic Development Councils (REDCs), but it is unlikely Cuomo will agree.

14. Senate Republicans seem intent on reforming workers’ compensation, will they get anywhere?
The governor included mention of workers’ compensation reform in his budget proposal, and Senate Republicans, who last year compromised with their Democratic colleagues on minimum wage increases and paid family leave, are emphasizing sweeping changes to workers’ compensation as a top priority this year. The Senate’s one-house budget included a number of workers’ compensation reforms, like updates to duration caps, streamlining measures, and independent medical examinations.

“High workers' compensation costs threaten New York’s future. These high costs are already holding down wages across the state, but further increases in premiums will negatively impact job growth and could ultimately result in hardworking men and women losing their jobs,” said Flanagan at a March 15 general budget conference committee.

The business community says the rising cost of workers’ compensation has become unsustainable, while labor groups argue that arbitrary caps on how long recipients may receive payments put at risk those who are permanently injured on the job.

15. Will the budget include provisions to protect New York’s immigrant and LGBTQ communities in the face of threats from the Trump administration?
With a new federal administration that has wasted no time implementing a crackdown on immigrants and a calling for the removal protections for LGBTQ Americans and women, among other groups, the Assembly passed a series of measures to foster state-level safeguards. The Liberty Act prohibits city and state officials, including law enforcement, from needlessly inquiring about someone’s immigration status and GENDA (the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act) -- which has the support of the IDC -- bars discrimination based on gender identity.

There are also questions around funding for immigrant legal services, but most items in these categories are not priorities for Senate Republicans, who almost exclusively hail from outside New York City.

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by Ben Max and Rachel Silberstein

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

***
by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note: this story has been updated to reflect Cuomo's Monday comments on the mansion tax.

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15 Questions for the Final Week of State Budget Negotiations Sun, 26 Mar 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Tensions High as State Legislature Returns to Session http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6700:tensions-high-as-state-legislature-returns-to-session http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6700:tensions-high-as-state-legislature-returns-to-session cuomo heastie flanagan

Heastie, Cuomo, Flanagan


Several themes loomed as the New York State Legislature held its first day of its new session on Wednesday in Albany. The 2017 legislative calendar, and with it the 2017-2018 Legislature, began oaths of office and speeches by party leaders in both the state Senate and Assembly. The tone was set, priorities were announced or reaffirmed, tensions were evident, and the jog toward the next state budget -- due by April 1 -- began.

The most important remarks were delivered by the two majority leaders: Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, and Senate President John Flanagan, a Long Island Republican, who laid out their respective agendas for the coming year. Importantly, Flanagan in particular made clear that the Legislature has bones to pick with Governor Andrew Cuomo, who was not in Albany Wednesday, but in New York City, where he was making yet another infrastructure announcement, the second plank of his 2017 State of the State Agenda.

The prologue to Wednesday was a set of late 2016 dynamics that set the stage for what could be a volatile 2017: fraught negotiations between state lawmakers and Cuomo over a potential pay increase and special legislative session; the November election of President-elect Donald Trump; and news that the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) -- a breakaway group of Senate Democrats -- would continue to caucus with Republicans, who maintained their own slim majority in the chamber thanks to the elections and Brooklyn Senator Simcha Felder, a nominal Democrat who caucuses with the GOP.

On specific policy matters, higher education affordability became a central issue of the first session day following Cuomo’s surprise Tuesday announcement of a proposal to make public college tuition-free for students from New York families earning less than $125,000 per year. Cuomo launched the Excelsior Scholarship plan -- his first State of the State proposal -- in Queens with former presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders, garnering national headlines, and forcing legislators to respond. Many want to know more about the potential costs and funding plan -- Cuomo’s Executive Budget is due by January 17.

Leaders and Priorities
In his opening remarks on the Assembly floor, Heastie, who was re-elected Speaker with 99 votes, over 41 for Minority Leader Brian Kolb, emphasized the importance of investing in education, such as fulfilling the state’s campaign for fiscal equity obligation, expanding President Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative, and the passage of the DREAM Act, which would provide college tuition assistance to undocumented immigrants. “The sad truth is that public education is under attack across the country like never before,” Heastie said.

Heastie hailed Cuomo’s plan to make city and state colleges tuition-free for middle- and low-income New Yorkers, noting that the Assembly had been pushing a similar education bill.

“For those of you that have been here for some time, you know that the idea of college affordability started right here in this house,” said Heastie of the Assembly. “I am encouraged that the governor is making this a priority, and we look forward to working with him and the Senate to help make this a reality.”

The Assembly speaker also focused on criminal justice reform, climate change, the importance of codifying Roe vs. Wade into New York law under a Trump administration, updating transportation options in Upstate New York, and New York City’s affordable housing crisis.

Meanwhile, is it often is, the mood was more tense on the Senate floor. Flanagan won re-election as Senate president with 32 out of 63 votes, emblematic of the GOP’s slim majority.

Mainline Democrats, still raw from the election results and caucus decisions by Felder and the seven-member IDC, addressed their Democratic colleagues bluntly and pushed back on two measures proposed by the majority, which they said were aimed at curtailing transparency in Senate proceedings. There was even a movement to make Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins temporary Senate president.

Harsh criticism of Felder and the IDC continued from fellow Democrats and progressive groups, who argue that a unified Democratic Party is necessary to form a bulwark against the incoming federal administration.

Senator Michael Gianaris, a Queens Democrat, made the case for electing Stewart-Cousins as temporary president, noting her long record of accomplishments and her distinction as the first female state legislative leader in either chamber. “I ask my colleagues to consider making history today, and she already has done so by being the first female legislative leader in New York State,” Gianaris said. “Today, we have the opportunity to make her the first female majority leader in either chamber.”

Stewart-Cousins called for unity among Democrats in her opening remarks. “I look at a chamber of 32 Democrats and 31 Republicans, yet once again we are denied our rightful place leading the Senate,” she said. “Democrats must be true to their values especially in the atmosphere we are going to be facing. Democrats should be united!”

In other telling signs of Senate dynamics, IDC Deputy Leader David Valesky moved to nominate IDC Leader Jeff Klein as temporary president, and Republican Senator John DeFrancisco, in his endorsement of Flanagan for the role, compared Flanagan to Stewart-Cousins, saying that under the Republican lawmaker’s leadership, more women than ever have been brought into the Senate.

Transparency Attack
Gianaris also took several jabs at the IDC as he peppered Senate Ethics Committee Chair Thomas D. Croci with questions over a proposed amendment that would have an equal number from each of the two major political parties appointed to the committee. Gianaris questioned how the bipartisan committee would be selected when IDC members have aligned themselves with Republicans.

“Will the minority leader get to appoint the same amount as the majority coalition? Or is the language somehow imbalanced?” said Gianaris.

Croci, a Republican from Long Island, responded that the committee would be split equally by party affiliation and that the rule was intended to clarify the role of the committee as it relates to a similar committee in the Assembly chamber.

“There was some confusion last year about the role of our committee and that of the committee in the Assembly. What we are trying to do is create parity with the Assembly chamber,” Croci said, adding that “some things should transcend politics.”

In another testy exchange, Senator Brad Hoylman, a Manhattan Democrat, challenged DeFrancisco on a resolution to ban cell phone usage on the Senate chamber floor (the ban would include prohibition on taking photos or filming without explicit permission, thus limiting members of the media from doing their jobs). DeFrancisco maintained that filming “upset the decorum in the chamber,” while Hoylman repeatedly challenged DeFrancisco to cite an example in which cell phone usage disrupted proceedings and called it infringement on free speech rights.

Senator Felder stood up and started filming the exchange, prompting applause, and several legislators walked out, muttering things like “I can’t listen to this.” Senate Democratic Communications Director Mike Murphy slammed the “Trump-style” resolution, noting its similarities to a bill passed in Washington penalizing lawmakers who film or take photos on the U.S. Senate floor, which moved after a Democratic sit-in over gun regulation.

“Under the Republicans, the State Senate has repeatedly rushed important votes through in the middle of the night, away from public scrutiny,” Murphy said. “This new rule will continue the GOP pattern of avoiding transparency and concealing their actions from New Yorkers. The people have a right to know what is happening in their Senate Chamber.” The resolution was passed by voice vote.

In her remarks, Stewart-Cousins laid out a wide-ranging progressive agenda for the coming year including raising the age of adult criminal responsibility and expanding universal pre-kindergarten. She addressed Klein and Flanagan directly, saying, “Senator Flanagan and Senator Klein, the Democratic Conference stands ready to work with you when we agree and we will not be shy when we disagree.”

Flanagan, in a somewhat more casual speech, emphasized economic development and job creation as way to address some of the social and economic policy issues raised by Stewart-Cousins. He also made a point to praise the Assembly speaker, calling Heastie a “gentleman” and a “class act.”

Flanagan suggested that fed-up lawmakers step up their pressure on Cuomo this year, urging his fellow legislators to “ask tough questions” on the progress of economic initiatives like Start-Up NY and Regional Economic Development Councils. Cuomo’s record on job creation and use of government subsidies has been questioned, including with regard to a major corruption scandal in the governor’s signature economic development program.

“It’s very simple, the legislative power of the state is vested in the Senate and the Assembly,” Flanagan said. “Not the attorney general, not the controller, and not the governor.”

The majority leader vowed to “stand up for the independence of this body,” suggesting that the Senate may act as a greater check on the governor’s power in the coming year. He was met with a standing applause.

Resisting A Trump Administration
The uncertainty surrounding President-elect Donald Trump -- particularly his promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, a move that could jeopardize insurance coverage for 2.8 million New Yorkers -- loomed in both chambers, and both Democratic leaders vowed resistance to the incoming administration.

“Last November’s election taught us many lessons. Among them, that the road to progress is never easy. But I promise New Yorkers that the Assembly Majority will never allow this state to go backward,” said Heastie.

In the Senate, Stewart-Cousins said, “Many in this great progressive state of New York look to Washington and the new Trump administration with grave concern. The national Republican Party has made it clear that they are looking at rolling back so many hard-won victories for the working men and women of New York.”

As he has mostly done over the past two years, Flanagan ignored Trump on Wednesday. Though he did express support for the president-elect around the time of the Republican National Convention, Flanagan has mostly steered away from promoting Trump or his policies.

IDC Priorities for 2017
On the Senate floor Wednesday, Klein revealed the IDC’s priorities for the coming year, including “Raise the Age,” providing incentives aimed at keeping manufacturing in New York, and an education affordability plan. IDC priorities are often key to budget and legislative negotiations as Senate Republicans have to be willing to allow Klein’s crew space given its role in bolstering the GOP majority.

In contrast to the governor’s proposal to provide scholarships to middle- to low-income New Yorkers at public universities, the IDC plan involves the expansion of the state’s tuition assistance program, raising income eligibility limits from $80,000 to $200,000, and making funding available to all, including undocumented immigrant students.

In its agenda for 2017, the group also proposed $11.1 million in funding for immigrant legal services, and the creation of a Home Stability Support program in New York City, which would help keep homeless or near-homeless people in permanent housing.

New Members Sworn In
Several new lawmakers were sworn in this week. The Senate Democrats welcomed Jamaal Bailey from Senate District 36, which includes Mount Vernon and parts of the Bronx, and John Brooks from Senate District 8 on Long Island. On the Republican side, new members include Christopher L. Jacobs of Erie County; Elaine Phillips of Long Island; former Assemblymember James Tedisco, representing Fulton and Hamilton counties and parts of Herkimer, Schenectady and Saratoga; and Ontario County’s Pam Helming.

The 150-seat Assembly welcomed 18 new members in January, including several Democrats from the New York City area. Tremaine Wright now represents the 65th Assembly, representing Crown Heights and Bed-Stuy, and Bobby Carroll, Brooklyn’s 44th District.

From Lower Manhattan, Yuh-Line Niou accepted her 65th Assembly District seat, which had been occupied by former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver from 1977 to 2016. After losing to Silver ally Alice Cancel in a special election last year, Niou unseated the short-term incumbent by a narrow margin in a crowded field, becoming the first Asian-American to represent Chinatown or any part of Manhattan in the state Legislature.

Brian Barnwell accepted the 30th Assembly District seat, Clyde Vanel assumed his seat representing the 33rd District, and Stacey C. Pheffer Amato assumed her 23rd Assembly District seat, all in Queens. Pheffer’s mother, Queens County Clerk Audrey Pheffer, previously held the same Assembly seat, making them the first mother and daughter to hold the same seat in the New York State Legislature.

Representing parts of Upper Manhattan, former City Council Member from Harlem Inez Dickens took Keith Wright’s vacated 70th District seat, and Carmen De La Rosa, former chief of staff to City Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, assumed the 72nd District seat.

The Legislature is gone from Albany until next week, when session will resume Monday and Tuesday, just as Cuomo tours the state Monday through Wednesday to give six State of the State addresses.

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Tensions High as State Legislature Returns to Session Thu, 05 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
IDC Housekeeping Account Raises Questions, May Not Be Challenged http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6538:idc-housekeeping-account-raises-questions-but-may-not-be-challenged http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6538:idc-housekeeping-account-raises-questions-but-may-not-be-challenged Klein at Cuomo event w Biden

IDC leader Sen. Jeff Klein (photo via The Governor's Office on Flickr)


As the Independent Democratic Conference of the State Senate prepares to cut a power-sharing deal, its hand has been bolstered by two new accounts, one of which has already paid dividends. The IDC, led by Senator Jeff Klein of the Bronx, has a new campaign committee that allows spending in races of interest and a party housekeeping account allows the IDC to raise unlimited cash to spend on party building, headquarters, and staffing expenses.

Currently five members including Klein, the conference, which has aligned with Republicans and may do so again after November’s elections, is set to add a sixth member. Thanks in part to the spending of its new campaign committee, the IDC bolstered the candidacy of Marisol Alcantara, who won a crowded September 13 primary to replace Senator Adriano Espaillat, who is headed to Congress. Alcantara has pledged to sit with the IDC when she takes office in January. Recent filings show the IDC spent over $97,000 on ads and other support for Alcantara.

While the New York political world has focused on Alcantara readying to join the IDC’s ranks and the spending of the new campaign committee, it is the party housekeeping account that could allow the IDC to establish itself as a more permanent fixture in state politics.

The rules governing housekeeping accounts have been criticized by a host of reform-minded politicians, good government groups, and even the defunct Moreland Commission on Public Corruption, set up and prematurely disbanded by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Housekeeping accounts tend to take in massive amounts of cash from limited liability corporations, or LLCs, allowing corporations and the wealthy outsize influence on the party apparatus. And, groups like Common Cause/NY have found that housekeeping accounts routinely violate restrictions that forbid them from spending on individual races.

Senator Klein himself has vowed that he wants to enact major reforms - he has called for banning outside income for legislators and instituting campaign finance reform. Klein has repeatedly touted that the IDC is the only conference to have signed on to “The Clean Conscience Pledge” pushed by good government groups that calls for closing the LLC loophole, limiting outside income, and making budget spending more transparent. The IDC has also repeatedly introduced “The Integrity in Elections Act” that establishes public financing of campaigns while limiting certain kinds of transfers between political committees and puts limits on independent expenditure campaigns.

Yet, the IDC has had a power-sharing agreement with Senate Republicans, who are steadfastly against campaign finance reform, closing the LLC loophole, and other reform measures. With the establishment of the campaign committee and housekeeping account, the IDC appears set to advance itself through the existing system.

Questions remain whether the creation of the committee and account are actually legal and those questions won’t likely be answered unless someone challenges them in court. Two parties that could do that - mainline Senate Democrats and Senate Republicans - don’t want to anger the IDC before it chooses who to caucus with and may not even want to anger the IDC afterwards, with future alliances in mind. Balance of power in the 63-seat state Senate is almost evenly split and there are a handful of swing districts around the state being decided upon in November. The IDC could provide a definitive bloc in chamber control.

Both the Senate Independent Campaign Committee and the housekeeping account were created in cooperation with the Independence Party, which has a limited electoral profile but does maintain a ballot line and its endorsement is sought after in many races. As of April 1, there were 475,566 New Yorkers registered to vote with the Independence Party, according to the state Board of Elections, many of whom have likely mistaken it for registering as an “independent,” or party-unaffiliated voter.

Campaign committees can take over $100,000 from single donors and distribute unlimited amounts to their candidates’ campaigns. This has allowed donors to skirt lower limits on direct contributions to candidate campaigns (and has landed Mayor Bill de Blasio and his associates under investigation from their 2014 efforts to swing the state Senate to Democrats).

“I really want to use this campaign committee as a vehicle for change,” Klein told Gotham Gazette during an interview in July, noting that he wanted to “elect new IDC members.” The IDC has positioned itself as a conference with appeal to the middle class and homeowners, backing a number of tax cuts and initiatives while also supporting charter schools. Short of Alcantara, its members are from more suburban communities. The IDC has also championed some progressive causes like paid family leave and tends to seize on headline-grabbing, hot-button issues, recently backing, for example, legislation designed to protect young Pokemon players from sex offenders.

Richard Fife, the campaign manager for Robert Jackson, who came in third place in the race to replace Espaillat, questioned the legality of the IDC’s spending on behalf of Alcantara. “We have these laws that we abide by and they found tricks,” Fife told The Daily News.

While the benefits of the IDC campaign committee is glaringly obvious, it has yet to be revealed what kind of role the housekeeping account will have.

According to state law, a party housekeeping account can be used for party building, paying staff, and promoting the party and its issues. It can’t spend on individual candidates or races.

However, one prominent New York election lawyer and a Democratic Party insider told Gotham Gazette they believe the IDC’s housekeeping account can’t spend to promote itself because the IDC is not actually a registered party -- its members all run on the Democratic ballot line.

The attorney also told Gotham Gazette that he believes the creation of the committee and the account could be easily challenged in court by anyone who takes issue with their creation. “No one has pushed back,” the lawyer said, “it will stand until someone challenges it in court.”

Both the lawyer and the Democrat, who requested anonymity to avoid getting personally involved in the complicated politics at play, framed the creation of the housekeeping account as being “creative” with the law. Klein has promised that he supports reforming the state’s campaign finance laws.

It will remain unclear for months what the housekeeping account is spending on because state law only requires housekeeping accounts to file their spending with the state Board of Elections in January and July. Gotham Gazette asked IDC spokesperson Candice Giove to disclose what the party has spent on and would be spending on, but she declined.

"The SICC housekeeping account will be used for housekeeping expenses in accordance with New York State election law,” said a spokesperson for the Senate Independence Campaign Committee.

Lawrence Mandelker, a lawyer representing the SICC, told Gotham Gazette that he felt legal concern with the creation of the committee is “Totally just noise-making,” and that he didn’t expect the committee and housekeeping account to be challenged in court. “Everything we did was totally researched, and complies with the letter of the law,” Mandelker said.

Pushed further for information on what the housekeeping account could be used for, Mandelker replied, “The Independence Party did this. We didn't create it, the Independence Party did it, you should talk to them.”

The only disclosed contributor to the SICC housekeeping account at this point is the IDC’s political action committee, The IDC Initiative, which gave two donations totaling $699,424 on August 16.

Independence Party Chair Frank MacKay did not respond to requests for comment.

Democratic Board of Elections Co-Chair Douglas Kellner told Gotham Gazette that although the BOE has yet to issue a formal opinion of the IDC’s use of a campaign committee and a housekeeping account, he personally sees nothing wrong with it. “If the Independence Party is saying it is their party, then I’m not aware how it would violate state statute.”

It is unlikely Democrats or Republicans will challenge the creation of the SICC and the SICC housekeeping account until after the IDC concludes its bi-annual negotiations and announces which conference it will empower. Even then, there may be no challenge.

Klein has spent this summer improving his negotiating position by electing Alcantara, spending at least $97,000 through the SICC on ads and polling in the process, according to the SICC’s 11-day pre-primary filing.

In aiding Alcantara, Klein has also cemented his alliance with Espaillat, who is himself building a powerful coalition and could prove a useful ally to the IDC in the future.

The SICC’s spending and addition of Alcantara may also go a ways toward quieting critics who have charged that the currently all-white conference has been effectively nullifying the votes of hundreds of thousands of diverse Democratic voters.

In the end, the housekeeping account may prove just as vital of a role but short of voluntary early disclosure by the IDC, voters won’t know until January.

A Common Cause/NY report from 2013, “Life of The Party,” detailed how housekeeping accounts have historically been used to benefit candidates, in direct conflict with state law. ""Non-campaign" soft money housekeeping expenditures regularly peak in the months prior to an election indicating that much of the spending is campaign related,” the report reads. “The election season spikes in housekeeping expenses are correlated to sharp increases in spending on advertising and mass-mailings, as well as hiring of political consultants.”

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

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IDC Housekeeping Account Raises Questions, May Not Be Challenged Wed, 21 Sep 2016 04:00:00 +0000
In Race to Replace Espaillat, Ramifications for Senate Control, His Power, and More http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6492:in-race-to-replace-espaillat-ramifications-for-senate-control-his-power-and-more http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6492:in-race-to-replace-espaillat-ramifications-for-senate-control-his-power-and-more Espaillat Alcantara

Espaillat, center, & Alcantara, right of center (photo: @Espaillat4NY)


Marisol Alcantara, a labor organizer who ran a successful insurgent campaign for district leader in 2010, is seen by many in her Uptown district as a liberal firebrand. As Alcantara now pursues election to the New York State Senate, she is also fighting a proxy war for Senator Adriano Espaillat, who is about to be elected to Congress and Alcantara hopes to replace. The hotly contested Democratic primary for Espaillat’s Senate seat is becoming a test of his power and that of his top allies.

Alcantara’s candidacy is also backed by the Senate Independent Democratic Conference, or IDC, which she has pledged to join if elected, a scenario that may enable Senate Republicans to keep control of the chamber in a year when mainline Democrats believe they have the best chance to take power and see all major parts of state government run by the party.

In other words, the race to replace Espaillat, along with several Senate races around the state, could have significant implication for billions of dollars in state budget money and major policies of all kinds - these decisions are currently made among Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, the Democratic leader of the state Assembly, and the Republican leader of the state Senate, with some input from the IDC.

On Tuesday, Alcantara was endorsed by Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. who is an ally of IDC head Jeff Klein, senator from the Bronx, and of Cuomo, who has encouraged the IDC’s ruling coalition arrangement with Senate Republicans in the past.

“From organizing voter registration drives, to helping tenants facing eviction navigate city bureaucracy, to standing with workers on the picket line, to passionately advocating for education funding, Marisol Alcantara has spent her career fighting for the issues that New Yorkers care about,” Diaz Jr. said in a press release.

According to five sources involved in the race, Espaillat is flexing his new-found muscle after his Democratic primary win to replace retiring Rep. Charles Rangel in Congress. Espaillat, set to become the first Dominican-American elected to Congress during a formality of a November general election, has called in favors and is lobbying other electeds to back Alcantara. In the state Senate primary set for September 13, she is facing former City Council Member Robert Jackson; Micah Lasher, former chief of staff to Attorney General Eric Schneiderman; and Luis Tejada, a community activist.

The 31st Senate District runs from the Upper Manhattan neighborhoods of Inwood and Washington Heights, down the West Side to Hell’s Kitchen.

“This is a lady who stands on her own two feet,” Espaillat said of Alcantara last week as she received the endorsement of the Transit Workers Union Local 100. “I listen to her and I know that we will not always agree, because she is her own person, as she should be, because leadership is about that.”

Jackson, who has been running since February, is allied with Assembly Member Keith Wright, who Espaillat defeated in the Congressional primary. Jackson challenged Espaillat for his Senate seat two years ago, winning about 43 percent of the vote, when Espaillat was losing to Rangel for the second cycle in a row.

Lasher, who has been running since April, is a first-time candidate but is known as an expert political strategist and has deep political connections to many top city and state politicians, such as Schneiderman and city Comptroller Scott Stringer.

There is concern in Espaillat’s camp that a Jackson or Lasher victory could create a ready-made primary challenger for Espaillat two years from now, when it is assumed he’ll be seeking re-election to Congress. Neither Lasher’s nor Jackson’s campaign returned requests for comment.

In efforts to elect Alcantara, the candidate, Espaillat, and others also hope to tap into enthusiasm in the Dominican and larger Hispanic communities over Espaillat’s congressional victory. Meanwhile, Alcantara has received the financial backing of the IDC which is looking to expand its membership before negotiating a deal to control the Senate with either the Democrats or Republicans.

City Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez switched his endorsement from Lasher to Alcantara when Alcantara declared her candidacy on July 20. It also appears Alcantara has picked up labor endorsements that were expected by Jackson and Lasher, one of which is that of Transit Workers Union Local 100.

Espaillat is featured heavily in Alcantara mailers that are funded by the IDC. Espaillat also recorded a robocall for Alcantara. “As an immigrant to our country just like me, Marisol Alcantara knows the importance of standing up for those without a voice,” Espaillat says on the call before asking voters to “make history” with him again by electing Alcantara. Alcantara immigrated from the Dominican Republic when she was a child.

While in the Senate, Espaillat has been a member of the mainline Democrat conference, not the IDC.

"Marisol is a longtime labor and community activist who's worked closely with elected officials, faith leaders, and non-profits across the district to fight for tenants, seniors, immigrants and working families,” said Jonathan Davis, a spokesperson for Alcantara, in a statement. “Voters know how hard she'll fight to strengthen tenant protection laws, increase education funding, pass the DREAM Act, fix New York's broken campaign finance system, and protect our environment and parks. It's no surprise she's built such a diverse and impressive coalition in a short amount of time, and she's only getting started."

Both Lasher and Jackson have criticized Alcantara for aligning herself with the IDC. Mainline Senate Democrats worry that Alcantara will simply serve to strengthen Klein’s hand when it comes time to negotiate a governing deal. They note that while some major liberal issues have passed the Senate under Republican and IDC control, like a minimum wage increase and paid family leave, other major issues like criminal justice reform, the DREAM Act and ethics reform have foundered.

Klein, in an interview with Gotham Gazette earlier this summer, said, “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, 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.”

Alcantara defended her alliance with the IDC in a statement released last week: “I witnessed an increase in the minimum wage twice, paid family leave, and Universal Pre-K for NYC–all possible because of the IDC’s influence. When I am elected I look forward to going to Albany to continue to push for progressive legislation critical to the people of the 31st district.” She added that she will remain an independent voice for “tenants and families” throughout her district, where rent regulation and affordable housing are top concerns.

Sources within Alcantara’s camp insist she will be a vocal proponent of liberal issues and likely clash with Senate Republicans regardless of which conference she sits with, while noting it is likely that the IDC will caucus with Democrats as Republicans are facing the potential negative impact a Trump candidacy may have on turnout.

Alcantara and her allies dismiss criticism from Lasher and Jackson and point to their histories as evidence that they have worked across party lines. Jackson voted in favor of extending term limits in 2008 when then Mayor Michael Bloomberg wanted to run for a third term. Lasher worked as a top state government lobbyist for Bloomberg and also served as executive director of pro-charter school group StudentsFirstNY, a group that has worked to defeat Democrats.

Jackson’s major endorsements include powerful unions the United Federation of Teachers and DC37, and former Mayor David Dinkins. Lasher is backed by Attorney General Schneiderman, Reps. Hakeem Jeffries and Jerry Nadler, Comptroller Stringer and State Sens. Jose Peralta and Jose Serrano.

A win by Alcantara wouldn’t just give the IDC more leverage during negotiations this fall, it would also add diversity to its ranks as the conference is currently made up of only white members, four men and one woman. They’ve come under heavy criticism for taking a seat at the negotiating table with Gov. Andrew Cuomo while mainline Senate Democrats - who are represented by Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a black woman, and represent the majority of city residents - are excluded.

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

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In Race to Replace Espaillat, Ramifications for Senate Control, His Power, and More Tue, 23 Aug 2016 04:00:00 +0000