Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/299 Sun, 21 Jan 2018 20:02:08 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Troubles Ahead as 2018 Legislative Session Kicks Off in Albany http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7415:troubles-ahead-as-2018-legislative-session-kicks-off-in-albany http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7415:troubles-ahead-as-2018-legislative-session-kicks-off-in-albany Cuomo legislative leaders Albany

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Cuomo Criticized for Failing to Call Special Election January 1 Tue, 02 Jan 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Previewing Cuomo’s 2018 State of the State http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7391:previewing-cuomo-s-2018-state-of-the-state http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7391:previewing-cuomo-s-2018-state-of-the-state Cuomo State of the State Long Island

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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By Rachel Silberstein and Ben Max

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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

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Previewing Cuomo’s 2018 State of the State Thu, 28 Dec 2017 05:00:00 +0000
Renewed Push to Pass State Homelessness Subsidy in 2018 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7377:renewed-push-to-pass-state-homelessness-subsidy-in-2018 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7377:renewed-push-to-pass-state-homelessness-subsidy-in-2018 hevesi albany photo mkink

Assemblymember Hevesi and activists (photo: @mkink)


Legislation to create a statewide rental supplement to curtail the growth of homelessness in New York, while generating savings for local social service agencies, is the focus of a renewed campaign ahead of the 2018 budget and legislative session.

Despite support from the Democratic Assembly majority, as well minority state Senate Democrats, and the Independent Democratic Conference, which forms a ruling coalition with Senate Republicans, Assemblymember Andrew Hevesi’s Home Stability Support plan fell off the negotiating table during 2017 budget talks.

The bill, which would close the rental gap for low-income families and individuals who already receive housing subsidies, gained strong momentum from lawmakers and advocates at the start of the year, but disagreement over how much the program would cost ultimately derailed its inclusion in the budget that passed in early April, according to those familiar with negotiations.

Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) leader Senator Jeff Klein, of the Bronx, wrote at least two op-eds and issued a report promoting the legislation, but he and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie failed to persuade their colleagues in the negotiating room -- Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan and Governor Andrew Cuomo -- of the program’s efficacy.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio endorsed the idea in public comments to state lawmakers, provided it would not be accompanied by unfunded local mandates; and the city’s four Democratic borough presidents participated in a last-minute push for its inclusion in the budget. In recent years, homelessness in the city has reached record numbers. There are about 63,000 homeless people in New York City, and thousands more around the state.

New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, who has also endorsed the bill, produced a report evaluating the costs and benefits of the program. Noting that projecting the growth of homelessness and future eligibility for and utilization of the program is not an exact science, Stringer estimated that over a decade Hevesi’s proposed investment of $450 million a year from the state could reduce the city’s shelter population by 80 percent among families with children and 40 percent among single adults, and save the city millions of dollars.

“Assemblymember Hevesi has put forward a bold new plan that deserves your serious consideration,” Stringer testified at a joint legislative budget hearing in January. “Home Stability Support is a potential long-term solution to this crisis that could offer a real path out of the shelter system for thousands of New Yorkers and save the city millions in shelter costs.”

The subsidy would be made available to households or individuals “eligible for public assistance benefits and who are facing eviction, homelessness, or loss of housing due to domestic violence or hazardous living conditions.” Hevesi estimates that approximately 80,000 households are at-risk of homelessness, and that each year 19,000 more individuals become homeless than move to permanent housing from shelter. The program would replace all existing optional rent supplements and cover up to 85 percent of the fair market rent determined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Localities would have the option to further raise the supplement up to 100 percent of the fair market rent at local expense.

During budget talks, the state’s budget division produced its own estimate of what a fully utilized statewide homelessness prevention program, such as the one proposed by Hevesi, would cost and pegged it as $1 billion annually -- a figure it said the state could not afford. Citing the analysis by Stringer’s office, which, based on data from the Department of Homeless Services, predicted that only 30 percent of city residents who qualify for HSS would utilize the program, proponents of the plan soon returned to the table with a new number. By the time the proposal made it into the Assembly’s one-house budget, it had been whittled down to a $200 million investment that would be phased in over five years, or $40 million a year, essentially piloting the program.

Ultimately, state budget officials, assuming full utilization of the program, determined that the program would be too costly and rejected the proposal, according to a spokesperson for the IDC.

"Once we couldn't get it in the budget, it didn't even make sense to try," Hevesi said of the legislation, which he allowed to sit in the ways and means committee.

Klein never introduced a “same as” bill in the Senate because the financial component made it impossible to introduce outside of budget negotiations, his spokesperson said.

Housing advocates, including those who were involved in the negotiations, also expressed disappointment that the Assembly proposal didn’t make it into the state budget, which covers the current fiscal year that ends March 31, 2018.

“Every year goes by we hit new records, and sheltering homeless people costs even more,” said Shelly Nortz, deputy executive director of policy for Coalition for the Homeless, part of a coalition of social service advocates who helped devise the legislation.

Nortz said Hevesi’s bill represents a critical shift in homelessness policy towards prevention, while also resolving homelessness rapidly with adequate rent subsidies. “This will lower the demand for shelter dramatically and ultimately generate savings to offset the much lower cost of keeping people in their own homes,” said Nortz.

This winter, Hevesi says he is visiting Republican and Democratic lawmakers in their districts hoping to drum up support for the bill the old fashioned way, by highlighting how the bill could directly impact their constituents. He says the list of supporters has grown, including every member of the IDC and Senate Democratic conference and at least three Republican senators.

“This is the way they used to do it 30 years ago,” said Hevesi. “I believe that by the time the budget comes along, we will have a huge number of senators that will sign on to the legislation.” The bill is virtually guaranteed to pass through the Assembly, which is dominated by New York City Democrats, including Heastie, of the Bronx, and Hevesi, of Queens.

Cuomo, who is believed to strongly oppose Hevesi’s housing subsidy, has been criticized for failing to adequately address the city’s homelessness crisis. His 2011 decision to end the state’s $85 million share for the Advantage subsidy program led to the program’s closure and has been widely criticized as contributing to the city’s record homelessness numbers. The conditional subsidy program, which started in 2007 and was a joint city-state effort, helped people in shelters pay for permanent housing for up to two years, as long as they worked or participated in job training.

While Cuomo has historically resisted calls for a new state-funded subsidy to fight homelessness, advocates were buoyed by the governor’s 2016-17 Homelessness Action Plan, in which he committed to building 20,000 supportive housing units over 15 years. A new statewide coalition of community and advocacy organizations that formed this fall, called the Upstate Downstate Housing Alliance, is pushing for Cuomo to make housing a priority in 2018, speeding up these investments and taking other steps to address homelessness, including supporting Hevesi’s legislation.

Meanwhile, the IDC says it continues to support Home Stability Support and is looking into how to address funding concerns for the coming session.

Spokespersons for Cuomo and Flanagan, the Senate majority leader, did not respond to requests for comment about whether they would support a state homelessness-fighting subsidy program in 2018.

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Renewed Push to Pass State Homelessness Subsidy in 2018 Tue, 19 Dec 2017 05:00:00 +0000
What's the State Role in NYCHA Oversight? http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7332:what-s-the-state-role-in-nycha-oversight http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7332:what-s-the-state-role-in-nycha-oversight torres nycha monitor idc presser

CM Torres and the call for a state NYCHA monitor (photo: @RitchieTorres)


As Mayor Bill de Blasio and leaders of the embattled New York City Housing Authority continue to respond to fallout from revelations that NYCHA had failed for years to comply with federal and local laws around lead paint inspections, some elected officials are renewing calls for the state take a more active role in the city’s massive public housing system.

NYCHA, which has for decades has been plagued by lapses in safety protocols, sometimes with tragic results, includes 175,000 housing units home to well over the official tally of 400,000 New Yorkers. A report by the city’s Department of Investigation (DOI), released earlier this month, indicates that NYCHA Chair and CEO Shola Olatoye knew of deficiencies in lead inspections in early 2016 but signed off on paperwork submitted to the federal government certifying that all the regulations had been met. Olatoye explained that soon after she had become aware of the gap, which began under the prior administration, she alerted NYCHA’s federal regulators and jumpstarted the lead inspections.

DOI called for the appointment of a “third-party monitor” to ensure compliance with lead and safety rules as well as to perform regular safety checks on NYCHA units.

De Blasio and Olatoye have resisted both the calls for more state oversight and the recommendation for the outside monitor, instead implementing their own set of reforms, including new protocols and a new internal compliance unit, while multiple top NYCHA officials were either forced out or demoted. Though he also sat on the revelations for over a year, de Blasio argued that NYCHA was already addressing the lead inspection shortfalls and admitted that he should have made the issue public sooner. He has strongly pushed back against calls for Olatoye’s removal.

As a public authority, the 84-year-old agency -- the oldest and largest such low- and middle-income housing provider in the country -- is technically under the purview of the state, though state law grants the mayor control over appointment of board members and leadership.

But in the wake of the lead-inspection revelations, several lawmakers want an increased state role in NYCHA oversight. Members of the state Senate Independent Democratic Conference, led by Senator Jeff Klein of the Bronx, held a November 20 press conference to push for a state monitor, as outlined in legislation introduced by Klein earlier this year, which would create an Office of the Independent Monitor within the Department of Homes and Community Renewal, to be appointed by the governor with the advice and consent of the Senate. Klein and other members of the IDC were also joined by City Council Member Ritchie Torres, chair of the Council’s public housing committee, and other elected officials.

The state played a larger role in financing and governing the agency in the years immediately after World War II, when there was a large state-wide public housing program, but that contribution shrunk over time to near non-existence, and NYCHA relies almost entirely on the federal housing agency, HUD (the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development), for subsidizing its operating and capital needs.

While NYCHA has accumulated the $17 billion in capital needs to get into a state of good repair, the authority has also struggled to remain in the black in its yearly operating budget, which has actually been stabilized under de Blasio and Olatoye, even without state money.

State-provided operating subsidies to NYCHA were ended by Governor George Pataki in 1998, leaving the housing agency with a $60 million annual operating shortfall, according to NYCHA records. To address its growing annual operating deficit, which was as high as $235 million in 2006, NYCHA transferred many federal subsidies meant for capital improvements into operations, which ensured the system would fall into further disrepair. Since 2006, NYCHA’s personnel has been reduced from 15,000 to 11,000, with many of the jobs lost white collar positions that played a role in compliance. New York City followed the State’s example and by 2004 it had essentially stopped subsidizing NYCHA operations, further crippling the agency, according to according to urban historian and professor Dr. Nicholas Dagen Bloom, co-editor of the anthology Affordable Housing in New York.

“In the past 20 years, there’s a been a federal reduction, but compared to the state and city, HUD is really the only game in town,” said Bloom. “The city and state are almost entirely dependent on HUD for the real or long term oversight. So, there’s kind of a bureaucratic insanity where there is less money, but [NYCHA] is supposed to maintain the same standards.”

NYCHA has been stabilized somewhat under de Blasio, with the 2015 release of NextGeneration NYCHA, an ambitious, 10-year strategic plan to get the authority back on track. Thanks to an increase in city investment, the operating budget is no longer running a deficit and plans are moving ahead to bring in more revenue, but NYCHA has not made much headway in addressing the billions of dollars worth of unmet capital needs. As part of the plan, the de Blasio administration relieved NYCHA of more than $100 million in annual bills toward police services and property taxes. In 2015 and 2016, for the first time in years, the authority achieved an operating surplus, one just under HUD’s recommended three-month cushion. However, the most recent $35 million federal cut, announced in March, is expected to plummet NYCHA’s operating budget back into the red.

Over the past few years, NYCHA has benefited from some capital investment from the city address some infrastructural deficiencies. Since 2015 the city has infused the authority with $1.3 billion to fix 952 roofs, benefiting 175,478 NYCHA residents, as well as $555 million to repair 409 facades, according to a spokesperson for the de Blasio administration. Although the State has historically provided capital funds for NYCHA developments, in 2001, state contributions were reduced from $15 million to $6.4 million a year and dwindled completely by 2007, with the exception of a few one-time investments like $100 million for NYCHA (managed by Dorm Authority for the State of New York) for playgrounds and security cameras in 2015, and $200 million for boilers and elevators in 2017, according to city records.

However, infrastructure problems and public health crises persist throughout NYCHA, and since 2015, the IDC and Council Member Torres have been calling for the state to take more fiscal and regulatory responsibility for the city’s public housing system, a recommendation Governor Andrew Cuomo has in the past shrugged off, incorrectly characterizing the housing authority a “federal agency” and wrongly declaring state contributions as “unprecedented.”

Senator Klein’s state monitor bill unanimously passed the Senate on the final day of the 2017 legislative session, but has not been considered by the Assembly. Spokespersons for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and the Assembly’s housing committee chair, Assemblymember Steven Cymbrowitz, did not respond to requests for comment on the bill.

Joining the calls for a state monitor amid the lead inspection fallout is not only Torres, but also Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., who in a letter to Governor Cuomo, Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, and Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said the federal government has demonstrated itself to be an unreliable partner to the city.

“Only the state has the ability to appoint a credible monitor to examine NYCHA at this time,” Diaz Jr. said in a statement. “More than 400,000 New Yorkers call our city’s public housing developments their home. The families who call our city’s public housing developments home deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. It is now plainly clear that a state-appointed monitor is the only way to make that happen.”

In response to the latest calls for significantly more state involvement in NYCHA, Cuomo spokesperson Abbey Fashouer said in a statement, “We have continuously expressed concerns with NYCHA’s operational failures and these latest allegations -- and potential legal violations -- that the agency knowingly committed by exposing New Yorkers to lead paint are particularly disturbing. We have received the letter, and we are reviewing it with our fellow state partners, the Attorney General and the State Comptroller.”

De Blasio, at a press conference last week, appeared resistant to the idea of increased state involvement, emphasizing that the pertinent authority over the city’s public housing system is HUD and stressing that a federal investigation by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York already identified NYCHA’s lead screening lapses in 2016 and that the city was taking steps to remedy it.

“The pertinent authority here is the federal government,” said de Blasio at a press conference on November 20. “I think it’s important that agencies respect their fellow agencies. So, this is the top level of government that is the funder of a lot of NYCHA’s operations and has legal oversight responsibility. And for two years, they’ve been involved in this issue. I think that should be respected.”

While de Blasio acknowledged that the federal investigation into NYCHA is ongoing and that the city is continuing to cooperate, he said it could lead to a federal monitor of the housing authority, similar to those in place at the NYPD and Department of Correction. Instead of a state or independent monitor at this time, NYCHA is creating an Executive Compliance Department, with Chief Compliance Officer Edna Wells Handy at its head. Handy has been counsel to the NYPD commissioner. The mayor has also rebuffed calls from Public Advocate Tish James to fire Olatoye, defending his public housing chief, saying that she has been instrumental in turning the authority around.

“I’m convinced that the leadership we have now is part of the solution to the problems that plague NYCHA,” de Blasio said at the November 20 press conference. De Blasio also referenced the personnel changes beneath Olatoye, though those were only made once the lead inspection scandal had become public through the Department of Investigation, not soon after Olatoye and de Blasio first learned of the inspection lapses.

Critics say steps taken by the de Blasio administration are insufficient. "Calling these changes ‘sweeping’ hardly makes them so. ‎An internal compliance department is no substitute for an independent monitor. NYCHA's failure to recognize the need for third-party accountability will only deepen the damage to its credibility," said Council Member Torres.

A spokesperson for the DOI, reiterated its call for the external NYCHA monitor to be housed at the independent city agency, in a statement to Gotham Gazette. The spokesperson noted that DOI already has a “robust integrity monitor program” with 18 active monitorships “overseeing an array of integrity issues that include construction, city-funded not for profits, and information technology.”

Professor Bloom said he is not surprised there is little enthusiasm from Cuomo’s office for the state to get involved.

“The underlying problem is NYCHA residents don’t vote at very high levels -- New York City residents don’t vote -- and upstate, public housing is not a priority. It’s a very small program upstate. [It’s a question of whether] there is the political will,” said Bloom.

According to Bloom, the calls for external monitors may be beside the point. While the creation of additional compliance entities may produce more reports (and bureaucracy), without a significant investment of funds to address the lead problem at its root cause, these steps are unlikely to improve quality of life for NYCHA residents. Currently federal regulations require that NYCHA inspect all 55,000 apartments with presumed lead paint, and NYCHA must prioritize apartments with children under six-years-old listed as residents. The city insists that the number of affected apartments is low; that between 2010 and 2016 there were only 17 documented cases requiring lead abatement at 18 NYCHA apartments where children with elevated blood lead levels live. Four of these cases occurring after 2014, according to de Blasio’s office, but a WNYC report suggests that these numbers may be skewed, since the city defines "elevated lead levels" at 10 micrograms per deciliter -- double the U.S Center for Disease Control standard since 2012.

“If you really want to make NYCHA lead-free -- and the case could be made that there should be no lead in any of these apartments -- well, that will require a much more extensive cleaning that will cost a lot of money,” Bloom said. A state-run and financed “lead abatement program” for NYCHA, for example, would likely be welcomed by the housing authority, Bloom added.

Meanwhile, Mayor de Blasio said that two rounds of inspections and amelioration were already underway has vowed that NYCHA would soon been in compliance. On Monday, The Daily News reported that NYCHA residents had been notified that inspectors would force entry into units, removing and replacing door locks if tenants were not home during a designated time window.

“We will be in compliance with Local Law One next month and then we intend to stay in compliance with Local Law One every year thereafter,” de Blasio said at the November 20 press conference. “And that is important because what that means essentially is as soon as inspections and amelioration ends for one year, you start essentially immediately thereafter for the next year. So there will be a continuous inspection cycle from this point on. Any resources that NYCHA needs for that effort will be provided.”

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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What's the State Role in NYCHA Oversight? Mon, 27 Nov 2017 05:00:00 +0000
Albany on the Penultimate Day of Legislative Session http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7014:albany-on-the-penultimate-day-of-legislative-session http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7014:albany-on-the-penultimate-day-of-legislative-session albany capitol

The Capitol (photo: Ben Max)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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

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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.

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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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.

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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.

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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