Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/321 Tue, 12 Dec 2017 02:49:14 +0000 en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) De Blasio Made a Charter School Deal, But Isn’t Interested in Talking About It http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7054:de-blasio-made-a-charter-school-deal-but-isn-t-interested-in-talking-about-it http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7054:de-blasio-made-a-charter-school-deal-but-isn-t-interested-in-talking-about-it de blasio mayoral control event

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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De Blasio Made a Charter School Deal, But Isn’t Interested in Talking About It Sun, 09 Jul 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Mayoral Control Extended in Special Session with Usual Albany Process http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7042:mayoral-control-extended-in-special-session-with-usual-albany-process http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7042:mayoral-control-extended-in-special-session-with-usual-albany-process Cuomo special session

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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with reporting by Ben Max

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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

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

The Capitol (photo: Ben Max)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***
by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IDC Leader Jeff Klein (via nysenate.gov)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read more by this writer.

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

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

The Assembly (photo: wikicommons)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. ]]>
As Legislative Leaders Warn of Con Con Dangers, Good Government Groups Come Out in Favor Tue, 16 May 2017 04:00:00 +0000
The 'Three Men in a Room' and Millions Outside http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6842:the-three-men-in-a-room-and-millions-outside http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6842:the-three-men-in-a-room-and-millions-outside Cuomo Heastie Flanagan 2015

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. ]]>
The 'Three Men in a Room' and Millions Outside Thu, 30 Mar 2017 04:00:00 +0000
15 Questions for the Final Week of State Budget Negotiations http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6834:15-questions-for-the-final-week-of-state-budget-negotiations http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6834:15-questions-for-the-final-week-of-state-budget-negotiations Cuomo de Blasio press conference 2014

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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by Ben Max and Rachel Silberstein

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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

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15 Questions for the Final Week of State Budget Negotiations Sun, 26 Mar 2017 04:00:00 +0000