Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/621 Sun, 22 Oct 2017 04:25:53 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Dan Squadron Fought the LLC Loophole and the Loophole Won http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7122:dan-squadron-fought-the-llc-loophole-and-the-loophole-won http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7122:dan-squadron-fought-the-llc-loophole-and-the-loophole-won 8675391217 6a4e836d65 z

State Senator Daniel Squadron (photo: Daniel Squadron/Flickr)


In early April, during the final throes of state budget negotiations, state Senator Daniel Squadron introduced a hostile amendment on the Senate floor to the Public Protection and General Government state budget bill. The amendment was intended to close the so-called “LLC loophole” in the state’s campaign finance law, which allows limited liability companies, often with hidden owners, to pour virtually unlimited money into political campaigns.

It was hardly the first time Squadron and his fellow minority Democrats tried to force the chamber to consider the bill, which, despite broad support from the public, had never been brought to the Senate floor.

"Year after year, indictment after indictment, conviction after conviction, the Senate Majority has refused to take action to close an indefensible loophole,” said Squadron on the Senate floor, echoing his remarks from previous sessions. It would also be his last effort as a senator to close the notorious loophole, which factored in the corruption convictions of both state legislative leaders Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos in 2015.

On Wednesday, Squadron, who was first elected in 2008, abruptly announced his resignation from the Senate. He signed off with an op-ed in the New York Daily News, describing how he had grown disillusioned by the dysfunction in Albany.

“Over the years,” Squadron wrote, he watched the government’s potential “thwarted by a sliver of heavily invested special interests.”

“In the state Senate, for example, Democrats have repeatedly been denied control of the chamber by cynical political deals, despite winning an electoral majority — including in 2016,” he added, referring to the eight-member Independent Democratic Conference, which has a power sharing agreement with the Senate GOP, and Senator Simcha Felder, a nominal Democrat who conferences with Republicans to control the chamber.

Squadron also decried the “structural barriers” faced by rank-and-file legislators, “including ‘three men in a room’ decisionmaking, loophole-riddled campaign finance rules and a governor-controlled budget process.”

Squadron’s white whale, the LLC loophole, was created by the Board of Elections in 1996 and treats limited liability companies like individuals, allowing them to donate $60,800 in a year to political campaigns at the state level. Corporations, in comparison, are only allowed to contribute a maximum of $5,000. Elected officials, both Democrats and Republicans, have benefited from the loophole.

In 2015, Squadron joined Democrats Senator Liz Krueger and Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh and the Brennan Center for Justice as co-plaintiffs on a lawsuit filed against the state Board of Elections in 2015 to end the loophole. The case, though initially dismissed, was appealed on June 27. 

Over the last two decades, New York’s lax campaign finance laws have resulted in statewide candidate and party coffers being flooded with millions in LLC dollars. LLCs donated $54.2 million to candidates, parties, and traditional PACs between 2011 and 2014, and more than $118.6 million between 1999 and 2014, according to a 2015 Board of Elections analysis by the Hedge Clippers, an activist organization backed by a coalition of unions and progressive groups that highlights the corrosive effect of big money in politics. A 2013 report by the now defunct Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption identified one group that had “utilized 25 separate LLCs and subsidiary entities to make 147 separate political contributions totaling more than $3.1 million since 2008.”

Governor Andrew Cuomo, a second-term Democrat, has been possibly the biggest beneficiary of the LLC loophole while at the same time calling for a cap on LLC donations. In the most recent campaign finance filings, Cuomo raised $5.1 million in contributions between January and June, with more than $500,000 from LLCs.

Squadron, in addition to pushing for closure of the LLC loophole, defined himself as a voice for other good governance measures, championing the enactment of term limits and restrictions on outside income. His persistent but respectful questioning of his Republican colleagues on the lack of movement on the bills marked each session, to no avail. This year’s hostile amendment, like other attempts that had come before it, failed.

“And the status quo has proven extraordinarily durable: It barely shuddered when the leaders of both legislative chambers were convicted of corruption,” Squadron wrote in the Daily News, referring to Silver and Skelos.

Alarmed by the nationwide shift towards “Trumpism,” Squadron said in an interview that he was presented in July with the opportunity he couldn’t refuse: to join entrepreneur Adam Pritzker and Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University on a national campaign effort. He said the timing of his resignation was to ensure that his seat, which is safely Democratic, would be filled on November 7, Election Day. It is a city election cycle; state legislative elections are slated for next year, so the process for replacing Squadron is different from a typical election.

But despite his frustration with the “cynical dealmaking” he witnessed in Albany, when asked about supporting a constitutional convention, which many reformers say is the only way to move these issues, Squadron was lukewarm.

Once every 20 years, New Yorkers have the opportunity through a ballot referendum to vote to call a constitutional convention, including this Election Day. If called, delegates will be chosen from each Senate district, and the following year a convention aimed at modernizing and updating New York’s lengthy and arcane constitution will commence. Any changes produced by the convention will return to voters the following year.

"I think there is a lot of promise in a constitutional convention, if it’s done in the right way,” Squadron said. “[T]he Con Con and gaining a Democratic majority are two ways to push the fundamental reform."

Many have taken note of the abrupt nature of Squadron’s departure, which triggers a special election without a competitive primary -- the Democratic nominee will be chosen by party insiders, not voters.

The rebuke was swift and harsh, including from the paper Squadron chose to place his farewell. “Last month we rapped Councilman David Greenfield for leaving office to take a new job after claiming a spot on the reelection ballot — putting sole power to pick a successor in his own hands,” wrote the New York Daily News editorial board. “State Sen. Daniel Squadron just made a similar move that will arrogantly deprive some 300,000 people in his Brooklyn and Manhattan district of a chance to decide who serves them. And deprive who knows how many would-be public servants of the chance to make their case to the voters.” The move, the board noted, was particularly “rich” considering Squadron had built a reputation as a reformer.

Squadron, in a phone interview with Gotham Gazette, defended the timing of his decision noting that even if the opportunity had presented itself earlier, it would have been unfair to leave his constituents without representation for part of the legislative session. Had he resigned following the extended session that ended in late June, the move would have allowed Senate hopefuls just a week to collect 1,000 petitions required to get on the ballot -- hardly a more democratic option, he said.

Squadron represents the 26th Senate District, which includes neighborhoods along the Brooklyn waterfront, from Greenpoint to Carroll Gardens, and a significant chunk of lower Manhattan, reaching as far as Washington Square Park. According to state election law, when an intercounty special election is called, the party nominee is decided by leaders of both counties, in this case chair of Brooklyn Democrats Frank Seddio and Manhattan Democratic Party boss Keith Wright, according to spokespersons for both organizations. If Democratic leaders decide on a “weighted vote,” then Squadron’s successor will effectively be decided by the Manhattan party, since Brooklyn only accounts for one-third of the district.

A spokesperson for the Manhattan Democrats said that the organization's internal policy is to include its own committee members in choosing nominees, and that a convention will likely be called for early September -- a nominee must be selected by September 21. How the outcome of that vote will be reconciled with the wishes of the Brooklyn’s Democratic leadership remains unclear.

“Frank [Seddio] and Keith [Wright] have spoken and are going to get together to decide on a process for replacing Squadron,” said George Arzt, a spokesperson for the Brooklyn Democrats, noting that Seddio was mourning the recent death of his brother.

Squadron has acknowledged that the intercounty special election process is inherently flawed, allowing the Democratic county chairs to effectively choose his successor (since a Republican nominee has no chance of winning the seat), and has written a letter to both party bosses, requesting that county committee members, representatives selected from each election district, be included in the process.

“To disenfranchise Brooklynites would be unfair and undemocratic. I strongly urge you to make this process as democratic as possible: to allow a full vote of the County Committee across both Manhattan and Brooklyn, and to be bound by its result,” he wrote in the letter, indicating that because more of his district is in Manhattan, that county machine may have been able to dominate the process.

Assembly Member Kavanagh, a fellow reformer whose district overlaps with a small part of Squadron's Senate district, quickly announced his candidacy for the seat. Other names being floated include Assembly Member Yuh-Line Niou, who indicated she is exploring a bid, and Lincoln Restler, an aide to Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has led anti-machine reform efforts in Brooklyn.

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Dan Squadron Fought the LLC Loophole and the Loophole Won Fri, 11 Aug 2017 20:26:10 +0000
One-House Budgets Show Little Indication Ethics, Voting & Campaign Finance Reforms Will Advance in Albany http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6811:one-house-budgets-show-little-indication-ethics-voting-campaign-finance-reforms-will-advance-in-albany http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6811:one-house-budgets-show-little-indication-ethics-voting-campaign-finance-reforms-will-advance-in-albany heastie cuomo flanagan

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


In one-house budgets passed this week, the state Legislature showed little evidence that new government ethics, voting, and campaign finance reform measures will be passed in Albany any time soon. This, despite persistent issues with public corruption, antiquated election laws, and the ongoing ability for wealthy interests to donate virtually unlimited sums to politicians.

Through his January State of the State tour, 2017 policy book, and executive budget, Governor Andrew Cuomo laid out his proposals for such measures -- an ambitious reform agenda, but one that the governor has done little to promote publicly since January.

On Wednesday, the Democrat-led Assembly aligned itself with Cuomo, a second-term Democrat, on measures like voting and campaign finance reform, while separating on other items related to transparency and budget control. The Republican majority in the Senate, on the other hand, rejected virtually all of Cuomo’s “good government and ethics” proposals.

The one-house budgets are statements of priority from the majorities of the two legislative houses, and set the stage for the final weeks of negotiation before a new state budget is agreed upon before the April 1 start to the new fiscal year. Government ethics, voting, and campaign finance reform do not appear to be particularly high on the list of priorities for Cuomo, the Assembly majority, the Senate majority, or the Senate’s Independent Democratic Conference (a group of eight breakaway Democrats that has a coalition agreement with Senate Republicans but nevertheless put forward its own conference budget resolution on Wednesday).

Both the Senate and Assembly majorities pushed back on Cuomo’s move to secure more control of the budget, specifically a provision Cuomo had outlined that would allow the governor to slash funding mid-year in the event of federal cuts without consulting the Legislature. The legislative majorities also both rejected Cuomo’s call for the creation of new inspectors general appointed by the governor’s office to oversee the Port Authority and the State Education Department. They also indicated that they oppose proposals that expand the powers of the state Inspector General and extend the state’s freedom of information law (FOIL) to the Legislature.

However, a major difference between the two chambers is the status of the infamous “LLC loophole,” which permits politicians to benefit from virtually unlimited corporate campaign contributions -- its closure, good government groups say, is essential to stemming pay-to-play politics and corruption.

An Assembly bill to close the loophole, sponsored by Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh, has passed multiple times with bipartisan support, and Cuomo has indicated he would sign the legislation if passed by both houses. Yet, the Senate has not brought such legislation to the floor for a vote, despite a companion bill existing for years.

Both Cuomo’s executive budget proposal and the Assembly’s one-house resolution recommend that LLCs be subject to the same campaign contribution limitations as other corporations and require that the owners of each limited liability company be disclosed, but the Senate GOP’s resolution makes no mention of the legislation. It vaguely indicates that the Senate will “consider modifications” to the governor’s ethics and good governance proposals. “Any ethics reform requires balanced and measured actions to ensure New Yorkers are best served by their public officials,” the Senate document states.

Senator Daniel Squadron, who sponsors the Senate bill to close the LLC Loophole, criticized the Senate Majority's removal of a measure from the budget resolution in a statement referencing the recent firing of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who has famously crusaded against corrupt Albany lawmakers, including the former leaders of both legislative houses. "The vacancy in the Southern District of New York is a reminder that the Senate Majority must no longer be vacant on real ethics reform,” Squadron, a New York City Democrat, said in a statement. "There's a clear step to help get big money out of New York politics: closing the LLC Loophole. Taking that step will begin to reduce corruption and restore faith in government.”

On the Senate floor Wednesday, Squadron asked Senator Catharine Young, a Republican from Chautauqua and Allegany Counties who chairs the Senate finance committee, for confirmation that the Senate Majority will not block closure of the LLC loophole in the final budget.

“Under the Article XII bill that we introduced, we did not make any modification to the governor’s proposal, however in the resolution we say we are open to making modifications to the governor’s proposal,” responded Young.

Cuomo's wide-ranging, 10-point ethics reform agenda advocates for a public campaign financing system, early voting, and several additional measures that reform-minded advocates and legislators have been calling for, as well as others of his own.

One of the governor’s proposals would require lawmakers consult the Joint Legislative Ethics Committee regarding any outside income, but stops short of banning such income. Cuomo also wants to significantly cap the outside income legislators can make. Legislators addressed the proposal in February, when the Senate and Assembly passed a joint resolution requiring any legislator earning more than $5,000 in outside income to seek an advisory opinion from the Legislative Ethics Commission as to whether the employment is consistent with the Public Officers Law.

In their budget resolutions, the Assembly and Senate both call for increased disclosure and transparency requirements for the members of Cuomo’s 10 Regional Economic Development Councils (REDCs), which have been accused by lawmakers of self-dealing. The Legislature want to require council members to file annual financial disclosure statements, adhere to the Code of Ethics and FOIL requirements in the Public Officers Law, and abide by the open meetings law.

Cuomo and his allies have pushed back on the idea of these disclosure requirements, saying that the regulations would make it difficult to recruit new members, who are volunteers and typically successful businesspeople.

“Now several members want to derail the REDCs by requiring their members to disclose personal financial information to a degree that is inappropriate for a private citizen volunteer,’’ Virginia Horvath and Jeff Belt, co-chairs of the governor's Western New York regional economic development council, wrote in a Feb. 27 letter to Western New York legislators, according to the Buffalo News.

Meanwhile, in campaign finance reform, the Assembly is proposing new legislation to “prohibit housekeeping monies from being transferred or contributed out of the account to another segregated housekeeping account” or to be used “for political communications referencing a candidate.” An Assembly spokesperson confirmed to Gotham Gazette that this proposal is in response to tactics used by both Senate Republicans and the Independent Democratic Conference during recent election cycles.

While both Cuomo and Assembly Democrats favor creating a system of public campaign financing, perhaps similar to New York City’s, the Assembly did not specifically include that in its one-house and Senate Republicans in their one-house budget resolution again expressed opposition to taxpayer-funded campaigns. Senate Republicans also stated that they do not believe a full-time professional Legislature best represents the state -- meaning they do not want to see strict limits placed on legislators’ outside income.

The Senate majority also stated its objection to Cuomo’s proposal that the Legislature and the Legislative Ethics Commission become subject to the same freedom of information law provisions to which executive agencies are subject.

“The legislative process is inherently open to the public for input, scrutiny and review. In contrast, the public is made aware of many Executive agency activities only after they occur. As such, for purposes of freedom of information law, these branches are treated differently,” the Senate’s one-house resolution states.

The resolution notes that confidentiality is necessary with respect to the legislative ethics commission in order to encourage individuals to seek ethics guidance.

As for voting reform, the Assembly voted to agree with Cuomo’s calls for automatic registration and early voting, but recommends a period of early voting commencing eight days before an election rather than the 12-day window proposed by the governor. Like the rest of Cuomo’s reform proposals, the Senate did not give indication of support to voting reforms.

As usual, there was little drama in the Assembly, where Democrats hold a wide majority margin. But, in the Senate proceedings grew contentious Wednesday when mainline Democrats were forced, with little notice, to vote on two one-house resolutions, one for the Senate Majority and one for the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC). This, while Senate Democrats were blocked from submitting their own resolution for a vote. In a headed session on the Senate floor, Democratic conference members, led by Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, objected to the unprecedented change in procedure, and expressed dismay that most of their policies were not represented in either the majority or IDC budget proposal.

Senator Michael Gianaris, deputy leader of the mainline Democrats, asked for his conference to have a chance to put forth its own resolution, a request that was denied by a chamber vote.

The IDC’s resolution, written in broader strokes than the Republican majority’s, suggests that its members are on board with all of the governor’s proposed ethics reforms, including closure of the LLC loophole. While the IDC has some influence with Senate Republicans given that the breakaway conference helps bolster the GOP’s razor thin majority, it is unlikely that influence will extend to significant ethics, voting, or campaign finance reform this year.

“The Governor has included comprehensive ethics reform in his Executive Budget proposal just as he has every other year," said Cuomo spokesperson Abbey Fashouer. "We strongly urge the Legislature to join us in this effort and pass these proposals this year.”

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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One-House Budgets Show Little Indication Ethics, Voting & Campaign Finance Reforms Will Advance in Albany Wed, 15 Mar 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Cuomo Appears to Give Up on Legislature Closing LLC Loophole http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6409:cuomo-appears-to-give-up-on-legislature-closing-llc-loophole http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6409:cuomo-appears-to-give-up-on-legislature-closing-llc-loophole cuomo budget mujica

Gov. Cuomo & his budget director, Robert Mujica (photo: The Governor's Office)


Gov. Andrew Cuomo appears to have given up on the state Legislature taking action to close the notorious LLC loophole, which allows wealthy donors to subvert campaign finance laws by creating multiple limited liability corporations that can each give more than $60,000 to a candidate’s campaign.

According to The New York Times, Cuomo said this weekend that it would be up to the public to close the loophole through a constitutional convention.

In January, the governor made closing the LLC loophole a key plank of his government ethics reform package. He and his representatives have said repeatedly that Cuomo wants the loophole closed. In late May, after months without mentioning the loophole unless prompted by reporters, the governor unveiled “a menu” of eight bills that would partially close the loophole for various combinations of campaigns for elected positions -- all of the bills would have impacted gubernatorial candidates, including the incumbent governor, who has been the biggest beneficiary of LLC giving.

“The people of New York are demanding change and it’s time we took action to restore the public trust by closing the LLC loophole and bringing fairness to our campaign finance system,” Cuomo said in the May 24 statement announcing his bill menu aimed at closing the loophole that has allowed tens of millions of dollars into campaign accounts. “For years, I have proposed closing the LLC loophole – one of the most egregious flaws in our campaign finance system – and every year the bill has stalled.”

According to Cuomo, Senate Republicans are unwilling to act on the loophole because they rely on corporate money. The legislative session ended with what many reform advocates see as minimal ethics reforms, highlighted by a move toward stripping pensions from officials convicted of corruption. In his first post-session remarks, the governor told The Times that there is no path to closing the LLC loophole through the Legislature and that it must be done through a constitutional convention.

“There has to be a dose of reality in the assessment,” Cuomo told The Times. “It is tantamount to political suicide for the Republican Party in this state because they believe it ends corporate money, and only union money would come into the system, which would help the Democrats.”

He added: “The people are going to have to do it,” referring, according to The Times, to a constitutional convention.

A number of reform advocates and legislators who support closing the loophole were taken aback by Cuomo’s comments and their meaning in terms of his pursuit of reform. Cuomo made little public effort to move the multi-faceted reform agenda he proposed in January and instead appeared to move the goalposts for reform toward the end of session when he announced he wanted to tackle independent expenditure campaigns, something Senate Republicans found much more appealing than restricting legislators’ outside income or closing the LLC loophole.

“It sounds like the governor is saying he can't get it done,” said Democratic Sen. Liz Krueger of Manhattan, who is party to a lawsuit brought by reform groups and current and former legislators against the State Board of Elections to close the loophole. “It sounds like the governor is saying ‘I'm incapable of reforming Albany and we have to leave it up to a constitutional convention,’ and I don't know that he is wrong.”

Dick Dadey, executive director of government reform group Citizens Union, said he is unwilling to wait for a convention to address the loophole. “His comments personify his frustration not being able close the loophole and point to a goal too far in the future to accept,” said Dadey. “We can’t rely on a convention that we don’t know will be called.”

Voters have the ability to approve a constitutional convention every 20 years. The next vote is scheduled for November 2017. If voters were to approve it, they would vote again the following November to select delegates to represent them at the convention, which would actually get underway in April 2019. Delegates would meet to debate reforms to the constitution that could focus on anything from money in politics to the state’s civil rights mandates. Voters wouldn’t get to vote on proposed changes from the convention until November 2019.

There is no guarantee that closing the LLC loophole would come up during a constitutional convention or make it to a final vote.

“The Board of Elections created this loophole and they can fix it,” said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group, referring to the state BOE’s 1996 ruling that opened the loophole. “These LLCs have been at the center of major corruption scandals so it isn't like this is an academic problem,” said Horner. “It’s a real problem.”

Not only does Cuomo’s suggestion that a constitutional convention is the only way to close the loophole discount the lawsuit Krueger is involved in and mean that change couldn’t possibly occur until November of 2019, but it also appears to fail to factor in the possibility of Democrats winning the Senate majority from Republicans this fall. Democrats in the Senate and Assembly both claim to support closing the LLC loophole. The Assembly, which is controlled by Democrats, has voted a number of times to close the loophole while some Senate Democrats have tried to force a vote on closing the loophole in their chamber to no avail.

“I guess seeing the Senate Democrats take control of the Senate isn't a way he sees to get things done,” said Krueger. Cuomo, a Democrat, has been criticized over several years for not doing enough to help Democrats take the chamber and for being too close to Republicans. Cuomo has touted his ability to productively work across the aisle.

Mike Murphy, spokesperson for Senate Democrats, said closing the LLC loophole is at the top of their agenda. “Senate Democrats have been fighting to close this loophole for years only to be rebuffed by our Republican colleagues. When we take the majority this will be one of the first things we pass. The people of New York deserve a government that they can trust.”

John Kaehny of Reinvent Albany said at the most basic levels he sees Cuomo’s comments as the governor giving up on reform, but he also sees it as Cuomo letting Senate Republicans off the hook on an issue that could be used to help Senate Democrats win control of the chamber.

“It means the governor is not going to use the LLC loophole as a campaign issue against Senate Republicans. He could beat the Republicans over the head with the LLC loophole because the Democratic-controlled Assembly and Senate Democrats support closing the loophole, as do all of the watchdog groups and independent experts and editorial boards,” said Kaehny.

Cuomo’s office did not respond to requests for comment around whether Cuomo did indeed mean that closing the LLC loophole would require a constitutional convention and whether he was discounting the possibility of Democratic control of the Senate.

Many believe Cuomo prefers governing, as his father did, with a Democratic Assembly and Republican Senate, allowing him to pass more conservative fiscal measures when necessary.

Dadey agreed that Cuomo’s comments appear to ignore the possibility of change in the Legislature. “The Governor’s position does not take into account Senate control,” said Dadey. “This lets the Legislature off the hook.”

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

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

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Cuomo Appears to Give Up on Legislature Closing LLC Loophole Tue, 21 Jun 2016 04:00:00 +0000
End of Session Menu Previews Next ‘Big Ugly’ in Albany http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6370:end-of-session-menu-previews-next-big-ugly-in-albany http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6370:end-of-session-menu-previews-next-big-ugly-in-albany heastie cuomo flanagan june 2015

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


Last week, the Senate came to standstill as the star of popular beer commercials came to the Capitol as a guest of Senate Republicans. Legislators of both parties fawned and snapped pictures with Jonathan Goldsmith, of Dos Equis fame. Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan’s office proudly posted a picture of the two men together on Twitter; Democratic legislators quoted catchphrases of “the most interesting man in the world” on the Senate floor. While it's fairly customary for both houses of the Legislature to honor various heroes and celebrities, it was striking to see the house come to standstill with less than two weeks left in the legislative session and a myriad of major policy issues not being given a moment of public debate.

On Wednesday, the Legislature will return to Albany after a long Memorial Day weekend facing just nine remaining scheduled session days. Many legislators and advocates have abandoned hope for any significant, substantive policy victories. After a particularly contentious budget process that yielded major victories for Governor Andrew Cuomo on a path toward a $15 minimum wage and paid family leave, the leadership of both houses appear to be more concerned with the impending election season than hashing out deals on a variety of subjects. The spectre of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara has also chilled legislators’ appetites for deal-making. And yet there remain some policy matters that will likely be smashed together into a casserole of legislation that has come to be be known as “The Big Ugly.”

The convictions of both former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos on multiple federal corruption charges led many legislators and advocates to assume that this year would see significant action on government ethics reform. Gov. Cuomo put forth an ambitious ethics agenda during his January State of the State speech.

New Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan refused to negotiate ethics reforms in the March budget deal and has since stonewalled on any reform issue other than legislation to strip pensions from state employees convicted of felonies. The Assembly has refused to move on the Senate version of that bill because labor unions are concerned their members would lose their pensions after offenses.

Despite a standoff on ethics, legislators don’t appear worried that passing bills to allow fantasy sports gambling, online poker, mixed martial arts fighting, and easier access to liquor will hurt their chances at reelection this fall.

However, a new Siena Poll released Tuesday shows that 96 percent of voters say passing ethics reform legislation should be the top priority for legislators at session’s end - with 81 percent calling it “very important.”

Good government groups see the pension forfeiture measure as a token reform and have pressed for the closing of the “LLC loophole” that allows businesses to create multiple limited liability companies to donate virtually unlimited amounts of campaign cash; public financing of candidate campaigns; the end of lump sum appropriations in the budget; limits on political contributions by companies with business before the state; limits on legislators’ outside income; and a renovation of Albany’s ethics watchdog, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE).

Only one of those proposals, closing the LLC loophole, appears to have any life left this session. Meanwhile, top priorities for lawmakers appear to include legislation around the aforementioned topics like daily fantasy sports, but also regulations of for-hire vehicle services like Uber, combating the heroin epidemic and a couple of more serious issues - the governor has also mentioned an interest in a breast cancer screening program. High-profile legislation like the DREAM Act, which would make undocumented students eligible for state financial aid, and raising the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 17 or 18, appear completely off the table.

There is, though, the issue of mayoral control of New York City schools, which will expire at the end of June unless it is renewed, and whether Cuomo and legislative leaders can reach a memorandum of understanding around how $2 billion in budget money targeted for affordable housing will be spent.

As lawmakers, lobbyists, and advocates hit the home stretch of legislative session, the following issues may be on the verge of some action:

Campaign Finance Loophole
Gov. Cuomo recently proposed eight bills, all of which would restrict each LLC to giving $5,000, for every combination of different elected offices, and make the people behind LLCs more transparent. The legislation would not limit the number of related LLCs that can donate, though, nor would it address the issue of labor unions and their local subsidiaries, which some compare to the issue of LLCs.

One bill would cover only the Governor’s race - Cuomo said that bill was to “show that I’m willing to go first, and I’m willing to go it alone.”

State Senator Liz Krueger, a Democrat from Manhattan, said that she welcomes the effort despite not thinking the legislation goes far enough and not believing Senate Republicans will pass anything. Action on the LLC loophole would likely force Krueger and her allies who are suing the State Board of Elections to end the loophole to have to start the process all over again. “It might interfere with my lawsuit and yet I welcome it,” Krueger told Gotham Gazette. “Yes it will only limit LLCs to $5,000 and most of these real estate guys have tons of LLCs, but it's a start that I would welcome. However I don't have much faith the Senate will allow it.”

Senator Daniel Squadron, also a New York City Democrat, has repeatedly tried to force his bill to close the loophole to a vote in the Senate only to have it bottled up in committee. Squadron issued a statement supporting the governor’s menu of reforms. “However,” wrote Squadron, “it’s critical the Loophole be closed for the Legislature, especially given the central role the Loophole has played in ethics scandals in both houses. Anything else would be a cop-out by the Senate Republican Majority.”

Flanagan quickly shot down Cuomo’s efforts in a statement, rejecting the LLC loophole as a reform issue and insisting reform efforts should focus exclusively on reforms related to activities of Mayor Bill de Blasio, despite the fact that his predecessor, Skelos, was convicted on corruption charges that involved the influence of real estate groups that have flooded legislators’ campaign coffers with donations through the loophole. De Blasio is being investigated for efforts he led to flip the Senate into Democratic hands in 2014 and is the subject of other controversies that Flanagan referenced.

“We need to bolster our money laundering laws, move aggressively against straw donors and unmask the identity of those groups or individuals who want to operate in the shadows. We should take action to stop non-profits who flout transparency and who donate unlimited sums to directly support a politician’s agenda by regulating them through the Board of Elections, JCOPE or another appropriate agency with jurisdiction. We should clarify the laws which could potentially shield the so-called “agents of the City” and subject these secret agents to the same code of ethics and disclosure laws as the government officials they work for. And, we must provide more frequent and more timely disclosure, and insist on strict enforcement of the laws that are already on the books,” reads Flanagan’s statement.

Krueger said she is disappointed by what she sees as an attitude held by many legislators that there is nothing wrong with the status quo. “I can’t believe my colleagues wake up in the morning and think things are really OK here because things really are not OK,” said Krueger.

Heroin Opioids
Senate Republicans have made dealing with opioid and heroin addiction a priority for the year and Cuomo and legislators have held panels across the state in the last few weeks on how to address the problem. There will be another in Brooklyn on Wednesday.

“We will get a comprehensive plan done before session ends,” Cuomo said at a related event on Long Island on Wednesday. “We are not going to leave Albany until this state has the best plan to deal with this. Period.”

Cuomo is calling the crisis a health issue and said he agreed with a panel member who called on insurers to cover rehab for prescription pill addiction and said he would also like them to fund education efforts.

“Pharmaceutical companies have made a fortune selling these drugs,” Cuomo said. “We should now go back to them and say, 'you have to do an education effort and tell people about the dangers of these drugs,' which they have not done. And I would make them pay for it at their cost.”

Senate Republicans issued a report on May 17 proposing a “four pronged” approach to fighting heroin and opioid addiction. The report focuses on increasing awareness of the problem, expanding treatment through insurance coverage, providing better treatment programs, employment and diversion programs for recovering addicts, and giving law enforcement more leeway to fight drug trafficking.

“This report reinforces the notion that the scourge of heroin and opioid addiction does not affect one region of the state, or one race, or one ethnic group,” said Sen. John Bonacic, a Republican from Mount Hope, in a statement accompanying the release of the report. “It’s a global problem that affects everyone, and this report along with its recommendations, is a positive step towards the goal of one day ending this terrible epidemic.”

It is unclear how Cuomo’s task force will interact with the Senate findings, but a package deal on the crisis is expected to be reached before the end of session. Some of the criminal justice aspects could be contentious.

Alcohol Business
Gov. Cuomo is backing an overhaul of the state’s liquor control laws that date back to the days of prohibition as one of his top priorities. Cuomo has sought to make New York’s breweries and wine-making operations a draw for tourists and a boon for local agriculture. His omnibus bill introduced on May 18 would cut back restrictions on when alchohol and liquor can be served, lessen some burdens for the permitting process to serve alcohol, and reduce fees for wholesalers.

However, Democrats in the Assembly and Senate have expressed concerns that the bill goes too far and could create tension in New York City neighborhoods where bars are sited close to churches and residential areas. “I have a real concern that the governor’s alcohol legislation will end up locating bars near churches,” Krueger told Gotham Gazette. “It is an issue of space unique to New York City, and I’m not sure that has been taken into account.”

Assemblymember Robin Schimminger, a Democrat from Buffalo, expressed similar concerns to Politico New York. “It looks as though this bill would allow ex-cons to get licenses to operate taverns adjacent to churches and sell shots and beers as early as 8 a.m. on Sunday mornings,” said Schimminger. "Obviously, there are many issues with this package.”

Schimminger told Politico he doubts the bill will pass this session as it stands.

Daily Fantasy Sports & Other Betting
Attorney General Eric Schneiderman had barely announced his suit against major fantasy sports operators FanDuel and DraftKings for violating the state’s gambling laws before legislators rushed to promise to legalize the practice. The companies reached a settlement with Schneiderman in late March, promising to cease operations in the state to give the Legislature a chance to change the law.

Assemblymember Gary Pretlow, a Democrat from Mount Vernon, and Sen. Bonacic have led the charge to legalize in their respective houses to legalize daily fantasy sports betting. Bonacic’s bill has moved forward in the Senate while Pretlow introduced his on Friday. There are differences in the bills, but both include legalization as well as a licensing fee and a tax. Both bills would tax companies 15 percent.

Bonacic is also sponsoring a bill to legalize online poker.

Some legislators are concerned that the allure of money - both revenue for the state and campaign contributions from major gambling interests - has effectively killed any debate about the impact of gambling on New Yorkers, especially as the state just recently allowed the construction of a number of casinos.

“It is telling that this is a priority at the end of session,” Krueger said. “This is just another example of an industry with loads of money that is going to get what it wants without any real consideration of how what they are asking for will impact the state.”

A number of Democrats say even without the question of morality they wonder when the legalization of so many ways to gamble in the state - from racetrack betting to video slots, casinos, online games, the state lottery, and more - will eventually lead to diminishing returns.

Housing
Senate Republicans and Gov. Cuomo have been pushing for a renewal of the 421-a property tax credit used toward the development of affordable housing that expired at the end of last year. Housing advocates insist that if any discussion of the issue comes up, rent regulation laws must be renegotiated as the two were tied together last year. The tax break expired after real estate and labor failed to come to a deal. The fate of the bill was put in their hands by Cuomo and legislative leaders after the governor insisted any deal had to include wage guarantees for labor - a position the governor still holds despite the fact that no deal has been reached and there are concerns about the development of affordable rental housing in New York City. With few days left in session many doubt anything will come to pass on 421-a or the rent laws.

However, one major housing issue remains that can’t be legislated but should be taken up in a technical process by the governor and legislative leaders. Two billion dollars in funds was included in the state budget to be spent on the creation of affordable housing. While the cash was appropriated Cuomo and legislative leaders neglected to actually spell out how any of the cash would be spent. They are now expected to negotiate an memorandum of understanding to spell it all out. Legislators concerned with how the plan will be decided have said for weeks they expect negotiations with Cuomo’s office to start soon but it is unclear where things currently stand.

A group of housing advocates especially focused on funding supportive housing, which includes social services, has launched a campaign to push Cuomo to finally cut a deal and release the funds. “Promises don't build housing," Mary Brosnahan, president and CEO of the Coalition for the Homeless, told The Daily News. "Tens of thousands of homeless New Yorkers await the governor to take immediate action and make good on his promise to build supportive housing. We need Gov. Cuomo's leadership to secure the required MOU."

Mayoral Control
It is assumed, despite Flanagan’s repeated lashings of de Blasio and the fact that his conference is set on using the mayor as a boogeyman in upcoming Senate races, that there will be some sort of extension of mayoral control of New York City schools in order to keep the system alive. How long the extension will be is unclear - some legislators have begun to assume that Senate Republicans will demand another simple one-year extension as they did last year in order to punish de Blasio. Assembly Democrats recently passed a three-year extension, which is what the governor proposed in his budget.

'Playing Defense'
The budget deal or end-of-session “Big Ugly” are notorious for packaging major bills with a number of narrow, industry-tailored pieces of legislation that are not subject to appropriate scrutiny. Last year, the Legislature barely managed to tackle any substantive issues in the budget, but did approve a tax break for luxury yacht buyers that was supported by yacht retailers. One of the arguments for the bill, made by Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie at the time was that “Right now, no one purchases their yachts in the State of New York because Florida offers a similar program.”

Krueger said that at this point in session she is past thinking about what good might get done and is focused on trying to catch bad legislation that may get forced through in a last-minute deal.

“I’m really playing defense now. I don’t have much hope for this session,” Krueger said. “I’m on the outlook for those really bad bills that tend to sneak out while no one is paying attention.”

***
by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

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End of Session Menu Previews Next ‘Big Ugly’ in Albany Tue, 31 May 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Everyone Agrees Albany Needs Ethics Reform, Except the People Who Matter Most http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6255:everyone-agrees-albany-needs-ethics-reform-except-the-people-who-matter-most http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6255:everyone-agrees-albany-needs-ethics-reform-except-the-people-who-matter-most three men at a table

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***
by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette
     

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

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Everyone Agrees Albany Needs Ethics Reform, Except the People Who Matter Most Thu, 31 Mar 2016 23:07:07 +0000
Democrats and Republicans Run Parallel Races in Special Elections Created by Corruption http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6221:democrats-republicans-run-parallel-races-in-special-elections-created-by-corruption http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6221:democrats-republicans-run-parallel-races-in-special-elections-created-by-corruption mcgrath senate

Chris McGrath, Republican candidate for state Senate (photo: @McGrath4Senate) 


Both groups are accustomed to scrapping for power and attention. With two recent federal corruption convictions, each saw an opportunity to grab more. And now, in downtown Manhattan and Nassau County Long Island, Republicans and Democrats are running parallel campaigns to seize upon a chance to flip one seat in each of the two houses of the New York State Legislature. 

Assembly Republicans and Senate Democrats again find themselves in similar positions - each trying to win a special election to replace a deposed leader by painting the majority candidate as a product of the man they are vying to replace and symbol of Albany dysfunction. The majority candidates, in turn, face questions about how much government reform they actually support.

The races to replace former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Manhattan Democrat, and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, a Long Island Republican, have become testament to the quirkiness of New York politics and the Albany tradition whereby legislative majorities look the other way and promulgate a system long-criticized for a lack of transparency and ethics.

To be sure, the Senate race presents a far more likely opportunity for the minority party to pick up a seat, as well as a more consequential potential shift in the house with a near-equal balance of power. Democrats not only hold a far wider voter registration advantage in Manhattan, but in their control of the Assembly.

Set for April 19, the two elections are unfolding against the backdrop of budget negotiations in Albany, which Silver and Skelos - along with Gov. Andrew Cuomo - dominated for years. It seemed likely earlier this year that budget season would include ethics reform as a major ingredient, however Cuomo, a Democrat, has rarely mentioned ethics since unveiling a significant reform platform during his State of the State address in January.

On Friday, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie outlined his chamber's ethics plan, which aligns fairly closely with Cuomo's. Senate Republicans, on the other hand, have indicated that they see little need for further reforms to prevent and punish government corruption.

Many believe that ethics reforms will be dropped from the budget, where Cuomo has the most leverage to negotiate them if he truly wants them enacted. In the legislative session to follow the budget, there's no urgency like during budget time and this year legislators will be in a hurry to get back to their districts for campaign season. It leaves many Albany observers and actors wondering whether there will be any tangible impact on Albany from the recent corruption convictions besides the two vacancies they created.

In the special election to replace Skelos, Democratic Assembly Member Todd Kaminsky, a former federal prosecutor, and Christopher McGrath, a personal injury attorney, face off in the Nassau County district.

The stakes are particularly high as control of the 63-seat Senate depends on just a few swing districts. Democrats have tried to paint McGrath as part of the Republican county apparatus that supported Skelos. Senate Republicans have mostly pushed back against ethics reforms such as limiting outside income, closing the LLC loophole, and other tougher campaign finance laws, saying that there will always be bad apples and that previous reforms should be enough.

McGrath has said he will not step away from his law practice if elected, something Democrats have seized on as Silver was convicted on charges of using state money in a scheme to receive kickbacks from his law firm. The new Assembly ethics plan unveiled on Friday includes both new limits to what legislators can make in outside income and a mandate that lawyer-legislators must earn their outside income through casework, not simply being "of counsel" at a firm.

Democrats have played up Kaminsky's experience as a federal prosecutor and his condemnation of corruption across party lines. "Todd Kaminsky is exactly who Long Islanders need to clean up Albany," said Senator Chuck Schumer as he endorsed Kaminsky on Friday (pictured). "As a federal corruption prosecutor, Todd took on the tough cases and made sure that if you broke the law, you were held accountable - regardless of whether you are a Democrat or Republican."

kaminsky schumer

Republicans have countered that Kaminsky failed to break from Silver during his time as an Assembly member. They have also made Kaminsky's election about Mayor Bill de Blasio, saying that a Democratic majority would be a mechanism for spreading de Blasio's liberal agenda across the state.

McGrath has supported Republican-backed measures to strip pensions from lawmakers convicted of corruption and to put term limits on legislative leaders.

"How can [Todd Kaminsky] say he supports pension forfeiture, term limits for leaders but he and his NYC allies in Assembly won't pass either?" tweeted Republican spokesperson Scott Reif late last month. Reif and Democratic spokesperson Mike Murphy have been regularly engaging in public arguments about the race on Twitter.

The forfeiture issue became complicated when Senate Republicans passed a measure that would have any state employee forfeit their pension if convicted and unions pressed the Assembly to back a law limited to elected officials.

"Despite all the bluster that ethics reform isn't important I think these convictions have changed their thinking," said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group about Senate Republicans. "It's clearly changed their choice in candidates. They've picked a relative outsider in Chris McGrath." Horner said Senate Republicans also chose a relative unknown in their successful 2015 bid to replace Sen. Tom Libous, who was also convicted on federal charges, with relative unknown Fred Akshar.

Sen. Michael Gianaris of Queens, who heads the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee, painted McGrath as a "Skelos crony" in an interview with Gotham Gazette. Gianaris referenced a Daily News story that reported McGrath represented a Republican political club and campaign manager and long-time friend of Skelos in a suit brought in 1997 by a former employee of the Nassau County Bridge Authority who said he was forced from his position after trying to remove a number of patronage hires.

"What's past is prologue," said Gianaris. "When Nassau County Republicans had ethics trouble years ago they went to Chris McGrath and here they are after Skelos' conviction turning to him again."

Democrats have hit McGrath for the association in attack ads. McGrath's campaign and representative of the Republican Majority have said that McGrath simply represented his friend.

The race to replace Silver has similar theme, albeit with the shoes on the other feet, but is decidedly lower stakes. Assembly Republicans have little chance of taking a majority in their chamber for the foreseeable future, however winning Silver's seat would be a tremendous moral victory for them. Some Democrats have privately acknowledged that they expect Republican candidate Lester Chang to perform better than expected in what is an extremely Democratic district, thanks to a fractious Democratic nomination process.

In that process, local Democrats decided to support a Silver disciple despite condemnation from many Democrats, Republicans, and government watchdogs.

The special election process dictates that instead of a primary the local party apparatus picks a candidate. To name a Democratic nominee, four clubs marshalled their members, with three of them backing Alice Cancel, whose name will be on the party's ballot line. One of those clubs counts Silver's wife and their allies as its members. The result was a number of reform Democrats decrying the process. Yuh-Line Niou dropped out of the selection process in protest and his now running on the Working Families Party Line. She's been endorsed by Comptroller Scott Stringer and several others (Cancel happens to work under Stringer at the comptroller's office.)

District Leader Paul Newell, who previously challenged Silver unsuccessfully, has decided to skip the special election and run in a Democratic primary in the fall when the seat will be up for grabs again. District Leader Jenifer Rajkumar also plans to run at that time.

Cancel has done nothing to distance herself from Silver and has in fact praised him repeatedly. "For us, he was a hero — because of the things he brought to our community, because of the schools that we didn't have that were built because of his negotiations to get it done for the community. The money that he poured in for our seniors, for our daycare, for our Head Start. Why would we be attacking him?" Cancel said in an interview with The Lo-Down about the selection process and her candidacy.

"I think people are aware of both of those things," Newell told Gotham Gazette. "There is no question he did a lot for his district, but they are also aware that reform is necessary."

Manhattan Republican Chair Adele Malpass said that she sees Cancel's candidacy as a clear indication that the Silver indictment had little impact on those in power. "It shows there is no consequence for corruption, there was no message received at all," Malpass told Gotham Gazette. "This was just business as usual. They had eight candidates to choose from and the one they picked was backed by Silver's wife and called him a hero. This is just the party boss system and people are afraid to challenge them."

Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, who has been an outspoken critic of the power enjoyed by both legislative majorities and their reticence toward reform, recently headlined a fundraiser for Chang and did some campaigning with him.

"It is surprising to me to see Silver indicted, tried and convicted so quickly only to turn around and have his wife, and Judy Rapfogel involved in selecting his replacement," Kolb told Gotham Gazette, referring to Silver's former chief of staff. "And then on top of that, [Cancel] comes out and says [Silver's] a hero."

Despite his previous criticism of both majorities Kolb offered a brighter interpretation of how the Senate Majority has handled filling Skelos' seat. "Yes local republicans were involved in the selection process, but Dean Skelos' family was not involved in selecting a candidate," Kolb told Gotham Gazette. "I think Todd Kaminsky is a handsome, experienced prosecutor, but he supported Shelly Silver and he didn't support the [pension] forfeiture amendment."

Kolb said that if Chang is elected he will be able to vote his conscience and will not be ordered how to vote by leadership - something he says occurs in both the Senate and Assembly majorities.

Horner, of NYPIRG, said he suspects that Gov. Cuomo and both majorities have been working to tamp down discussion of reform because it benefits them politically. "It's pretty clear the political establishment in New York does not want to allow any oxygen into the room on ethics," Horner told Gotham Gazette. "That air fuels the fire of voters anger and they want it to burn out, they want to smother. If it's not in the budget then I assume they will do it in June and they are hoping by then people won't be as angry. We need a champion and the governor is the obvious person to be that champion but he is choosing not to do it."

It is unclear how much the Silver and Skelos convictions or the former leaders' ties to candidates seeking to replace them will have on voters. But, about 9 in 10 New Yorkers recently polled called government corruption a "very serious" or "somewhat serious" problem in state government.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who took down both Silver and Skelos, has repeatedly said that corruption in government is cultural, not partisan or regional.

"In recent times, the New York Legislature has been marked by regular bribery, rampant kickbacks and a rancid culture," Bharara said during a talk in Albany last month. "Recent events paint a portrait of the show me the money culture in the worst possible way. It continues, by the way, to be a bipartisan affair, Republican and Democrat, in the Assembly and in the Senate, upstate and downstate."

***
by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

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Democrats and Republicans Run Parallel Races in Special Elections Created by Corruption Sun, 13 Mar 2016 21:06:49 +0000
Bharara Visits Capital He Upended http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6154:bharara-visits-capital-he-upended http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6154:bharara-visits-capital-he-upended bharara mortgage

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara (photo: @SDNYnews)


For the last year a siege mentality has dominated the New York state capitol. And in some respect, Albany, or at least the political denizens who dwell within the capitol, does appear to be very much in the cross hairs of a conquering army headed by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. The main roads into town feature digital billboards flashing entreaties from the FBI urging New Yorkers to "REPORT CORRUPTION," along with a number for the New York State Public Corruption Task Force.

On Monday, Bharara may drive by those very signs as he makes his way to Albany for a series of events, including two speaking engagements. The crusading prosecutor's presence may be enough to make already-nervous Albany lawmakers break into a cold sweat.

The most powerful people in Albany - lobbyists, legislators, and even Gov. Andrew Cuomo - have watched as Bharara has gone from prosecuting rank-and-file legislators to decapitating both houses of the legislature by securing the convictions of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos on multiple counts of corruption. All the while Bharara has maintained investigations into Cuomo's dealings, with the prosecutor's mantra of "Stay tuned" casting a larger-than-life shadow.

Although he promised major reforms during his recent State of the State address, Cuomo has since avoided the press in Albany, continuing his streak of not holding a press conference at the capitol, now at over 200 days. The current majority leaders have also remained largely mum on ethics since the start of the year. Democratic Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie voiced support for various reforms early in January, but has said little since. His working group on Assembly rules and transparency continues to delay the release of proposals to make the body more open and democratic.

Republican Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan has pushed back against the very idea that there is any need for reforms, pointing to changes made over the last several years and asserting the need for individuals to act of high moral character.

Bharara has made it clear that he continues watching.

On Monday, Bharara will take something of an up-close look, as he heads to Albany for several events and speaks publicly twice. The first speaking event will take place a short walk from the capitol building when Bharara addresses the New York State Conference of Mayors; the other hosted by good government groups and WAMC public radio--a veritable public radio empire that reaches across upstate New York and into Vermont and Connecticut. The topic for both events will, of course, be fighting public corruption. Bharara is also set to appear, along with Gov. Cuomo, at the swearing in of new Chief Judge Janet DiFiore.

Bharara will not be addressing the state legislature, even though he recently made the trip to Frankfort, Kentucky to discuss public corruption and the type of culture that allows it to fester in New York. Throughout his examination of New York state government, Bharara has not only found several examples of illegal activity, but he has also decried legally corrupt practices, such as the infamous "three men in a room" method of deciding virtually all important state policy.

Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, a Republican, invited Bharara to address his conference, but Bharara's office prefered to address a bipartisan gathering. Kolb, in turn, wrote to the majority leaders of each conference in both houses, asking them to jointly invite Bharara to address the legislature as a whole. "They haven't even bothered to respond to my letter," Kolb told Gotham Gazette. "What are they so afraid of?"

Kolb, who will be speaking before Bharara on Monday at the mayors conference, said he hopes to hear more from Bharara on how the "three men in a room" power structure in Albany defeats transparency and allows corruption to fester.

"Mr. Bharara has asked 'Since when has it become acceptable for three men to decide everything?,' And I expect he will focus on that again. It's not about getting our way, but about asking questions about how things are structured, about payments, pots of money. Making sure our constituents are represented. I mean there was even that Skelos quote where he said, 'I control everything.' These guys have too much power," Kolb said.

John Kaehny of good government group Reinvent Albany is also interested in hearing Bharara attack the culture in Albany that might not necessarily be prosecutable.

"Hopefully he says: 'The real scandal is what's legal.'" said Kaehny, referring to what many, including Bharara, have said about Albany's usual ways of doing business.

"In Albany," Kaehny said, "the governor can give a bag full of taxpayer money to a big business and that business can give him a bag of money back, or a bag full via unlimited LLC contributions. All legal. Yet in New York City, it is a crime for people doing business with the city to contribute more than $400" to a campaign.

Among Kaehny's concerns are that law firms that represent state agencies and authorities can also lobby on behalf of private clients.

"It goes on and on," said Kaehny. "The conflict of interest is so baked into how Albany works that Silver tried to use it as a defense."

Bharara has addressed how Albany's culture has played into many of the cases he prosecuted.

"If you're one of the three men in a room, and you have all the power and you always have and everyone knows it," Bharara told an audience at New York Law School last January following Silver's arrest. "You don't tolerate dissent because you don't have to. You don't allow debate because you don't have to, and because the status quo always benefits you."

The three men in the room are the governor, Assembly speaker, and Senate president. For several years running, those men were Andrew Cuomo, Sheldon Silver, and Dean Skelos. Thanks to Bharara, both Silver and Skelos are awaiting sentencing on federal charges.

In his New York Law School speech, Bharara mocked "three men in a room," joking about what happens behind closed doors, asking whether women are allowed and wondering if perhaps it gets "a little gamey in that room."

But he quickly returned to the serious, saying that the elected officials end up getting "swept up in the power and the trappings, because you were never challenged, and because you can easily forget who put you there in the first place. And so I ask again, what kind of a system is that?"

Bharara also took the time to recognize the legislators in attendance--he didn't exactly honor them. "I see there are a number of elected officials here. And after yesterday I guess I have two theories as to why that might be. One might be that you knew I was taking attendance. And the other is that there are a lot of folks now looking for immunity," he said, in his typical wry manner.

That fear that Bharara is watching, that he is still working on unearthing new misdeeds, has paralyzed legislative leaders on a number of issues over the last year. Some have confided to aides and others that they aren't sure what Bharara is after, or who he has flipped to his side. Many note that there are clear connections between legislative action and campaign donations that are ripe for investigation. Legislators have also been put on notice regarding their abuse of per diem reimbursements, use of campaign cash for personal expenses, and other misdeeds.

It appears to many that Bharara started this year by giving Cuomo and legislators an opportunity to reflect on the gravity of the Silver and Skelos convictions and actually get to work on real reforms. A number of insiders see Bharara's announcement in January that he did not have enough evidence to indict anyone on the untimely end of The Moreland Commission on Public Corruption as a way to take some pressure off of Cuomo to allow him to take the initiative on ethics in his State of the State address. Those same insiders see Bharara's visit as a nudge to Cuomo and legislative leaders to actually deliver on reforms this year.

In his State of the State platform, Cuomo announced his intentions to see the LLC loophole closed, strict limits set on legislators' outside income, a public campaign finance system established, and other changes made to prevent corruption. Whether Bharara wades into any of those specifics is to be seen.

[Related: Cuomo Announces Ethics Plan to Questions of Follow Through]

***
by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Bharara Visits Capital He Upended Sun, 07 Feb 2016 21:57:03 +0000
Good Government Groups Rate Cuomo's Ethics Package http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6104:good-government-groups-rate-cuomos-ethics-package http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6104:good-government-groups-rate-cuomos-ethics-package cuomo sots scene

Scene at Gov. Cuomo's State of the State (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)


On Tuesday in Albany, the heads of three major good government groups gave their evaluation of the ethics proposals Gov. Andrew Cuomo included in his State of the State address and budget presentation last week. Susan Lerner of Common Cause, Dick Dadey of Citizens Union and Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group expressed general contentment with most of what Cuomo unveiled during a press conference, but gathered to call for follow through and one key addition to the agenda.

The groups are quite pleased with Cuomo's plan to shut the LLC loophole, which allows donors to skirt the state's campaign contribution limits by creating multiple fronts. "We think the language the governor has proposed is strong and clear, and we do not have any suggestions for strengthening it, so please note that sometimes you can make good government groups happy," said Lerner regarding the loophole. Cuomo has been the greatest benefactor of the current system, though in the past he has expressed a belief that it should be closed while not necessarily fighting for that reform.

Lerner said she was also encouraged to see a public campaign finance proposal and election reforms put forward in Cuomo's plan.

Horner said that it was "proper" for Cuomo to put forth a bill limiting lawmakers' outside income to 15 percent of their state salary, which is currently $79,500, but may soon be increased. Still, he expressed disappointment that a measure of the bill that limits legislators from accepting advances from book sales does not apply to the executive branch (Cuomo recently received hundreds of thousands of dollars for penning a memoir). Overall Horner said he thought the proposal would "significantly reduce lawmakers' temptation to use private office for public gain."

"The governor was given a historic opportunity to overhaul the state's campaign finance and election laws and in his State of the State message he largely delivered," said Horner.

Dadey, however, said Cuomo made a grave oversight by not proposing any bill that tackles "slush funds" in the state budget, pots of money that have been abused by legislators, as spotlighted in the cases against former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former state Senator Malcolm Smith.

Dadey said that the pots of money are "rife with potential for corruption," and said that the governor and the legislature should shed more light on how the money is used. "These lump sums must not be allowed to exist in such large categories...but rather lined out in budget," said Dadey. "If there is a reason for them to continue to exist that needs to be publically disclosed."

The groups praised Cuomo's plan to make reforms to the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, or JCOPE, by making the ethics watchdog subject to public meetings laws and requiring lawmakers to disclose their actual income rather than a range. However, they said Cuomo didn't go far enough and that the structure of the board must be revamped to avoid deadlocks, the Comptroller and Attorney General should be allowed to appoint representatives, and the executive director should not be hired directly from the legislative or executive branches.

Dadey dismissed concerns that Cuomo did not make his ethics package part of his budget bills which would give him the upper hand in negotiations with the legislature. "I think they're so important that they have to stand alone. That's what I would like to think," said Dadey.

The groups had previously introduced a "Clean Conscience Pledge" at the start of the year, asking lawmakers and the governor to sign on to working to do everything they can to pass legislation limiting outside income, closing the LLC loophole, and making clear the purpose and recipients of discretionary funds in the budget.

So far 22 legislators have signed the pledge. Four of the signees are from the 103-member Assembly Democratic Majority, no members of the 31-member Republican Senate Majority have signed, nor has Governor Cuomo, a Democrat.

Asked by Gotham Gazette if they had had discussions with members of the majorities about the pledge or received indications why more legislators have not signed, Horner responded: "These are tough proposals. I think the houses want to process how they're going to respond to the governor's package and the pledge. This is really an opportunity for lawmakers who are often cut out of process to express a point of view. I'm urging them to get on the stick on this quickly to let the public know you want Albany cleaned up and this is the easiest way to show it."

[Related: Cuomo Unveils Ethics Plan to Questions of Follow Through]

***
by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing

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Good Government Groups Rate Cuomo's Ethics Package Wed, 20 Jan 2016 22:53:50 +0000
Cuomo Heads Into State of the State After Big Announcements, With More to Say http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6083:cuomo-heads-into-state-of-the-state-after-big-announcements-with-more-to-say http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6083:cuomo-heads-into-state-of-the-state-after-big-announcements-with-more-to-say cuomo church sots

Gov. Cuomo (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin, Governor's Office)


Governor Cuomo is going big. Decrying a state that has lost its ambition for transformative projects like the Erie Canal, the governor has spent the past week traveling the state and announcing major infrastructure, transportation, and economic development plans. Cuomo has also revealed new pieces of his $15 minimum wage campaign and criminal justice reform policies, among others, as he sets his agenda for 2016 and frames budget negotiations in Albany.

So far, Cuomo has outlined 14 planks of his 2016 platform, providing an extensive preview of his State of the State and budget address, which he will give on Wednesday in the capital. Still, there are key pieces of his speech that the governor has kept under wraps, including what he has said are top priorities: government ethics, homelessness, and education.

It is also unclear what priority, if any, Cuomo will give to policies like the DREAM Act, which he has assured proponents will be in his budget again, but has not given indication of its place in his speech. Advocates are also hopeful that the governor includes a significant paid family leave proposal on Wednesday, and many are watching to see if he unveils a plan for a statewide policy on car-hailing apps, like Uber.

While the governor is clearly going big on infrastructure - with plans that could total $100 billion in costs, according to his office - he has promised to lead with ethics as lawmakers continue to fall to corruption convictions, trust in Albany is low, and New Yorkers say Cuomo has not done enough to clean up state government.

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

What exactly this will include is unclear, but good government groups, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, and many others have put forth recommendations. Chief among these are limiting legislators' outside income and closing the infamous LLC loophole, which allows virtually unlimited campaign donations. Whether Cuomo broaches a public campaign finance system will help gauge how bold he's going on reform.

Wherever ethics does fall, that portion of Cuomo's address is likely to be dwarfed by the volume of discussion of the infrastructure plans the governor has outlined and his discussion of economic justice, including his minimum wage crusade.

The infrastructure plans, which include a new track on the Long Island Rail Road, a revamped Penn Station, road and bridge upgrades, and more, will be attached to the governor's previously announced projects led by a new Tappan Zee Bridge and LaGuardia Airport.

During a Jan. 5 appearance on Long Island, Cuomo said of New Yorkers, "we don't think big anymore. And we don't believe we're capable of doing big anymore. And we don't believe government is a vehicle to do big anymore." But, he promised to resurrect New York's "big" thinking as he announced new plans and referenced ongoing building - all under the banner of this year's tagline: New York State, Built to Lead.

"This year in the State of the State we are going to propose the largest construction project program in modern political history in the state of New York," Cuomo promised. "Roads and bridges upstate, airports upstate and downstate, new mass transit, new attractions, new rail transit and new mass transit downstate which is desperately needed. And we are going to do it region by region."

While Cuomo has outlined the meat of his building plans, he has not gone into detail on how it will all be funded, though he has promised to do so on Wednesday in his executive budget.

Cuomo has called the budget "the most complex piece of legislation we pass," which is true in part because it is a way of doing business in Albany that a good deal of policy is unnecessarily included in budget negotiations. For the governor, whomever it may be, forcing additional policy into the budget is a way of using executive leverage that doesn't exist in post-budget legislative session. For the second straight year, Cuomo is combining his State of the State, which is usually a more policy-focused speech, with the announcement of his budget.

A budget deal is due by April 1, whereas the legislative session continues into June.

Budget watchdogs are eagerly awaiting the details of Cuomo's spending plans. Nicole Gelinas, of the Manhattan Institute, recently wrote in City and State that "Cuomo evidently did not make an important resolution: stop announcing huge infrastructure projects without a way to pay for them."

"The risk in starting lots of new projects without having a way to pay for them," Gelinas wrote, "is that the governor will force the MTA and the rest of the state to scrimp on old stuff that people don't see, like replacing subway tracks and signals."

After all the drama that accompanied Cuomo's negotiations with Mayor Bill de Blasio over an MTA capital spending plan, Cuomo may try to steer clear of criticism for his spending plans. As the Citizens Budget Commission points out, Cuomo continues to have billions of dollars to spend from bank settlements with the state. In outlining 12 things to watch for in Cuomo's budget, CBC asks, "How much will the Governor propose to spend for transportation infrastructure? How much will be borrowing versus pay-as-you-go capital, and will a new revenue source be proposed?"

Throughout his time as governor, Cuomo has prided himself on reigning in state operational spending, and even while outlining his new plans so far this month, Cuomo has touted his brand of fiscal responsibility. It is unlikely Cuomo will outline an increase in state spending above the two percent cap he has followed.

Meanwhile, many, especially from New York City, are watching closely to see what the governor outlines around homelessness, the latest issue on which Cuomo has decided to undermine and supercede de Blasio. Cuomo issued an executive order just after the new year and has promised a robust policy plan in his State of the State.

The plan is likely to include more oversight of homeless shelters, which the state is already responsible for, and of operations aimed at reducing homelessness. How much money Cuomo will dedicate to supportive housing, rental subsidies, and other relevant measures is to-be-seen. De Blasio recently announced a major supportive housing plan and, along with advocates and legislators, called on Cuomo to match it (and create a fourth New York/New York supportive housing deal).

The governor has not yet made clear his education platform for this year, though he has indicated he will follow recommendations made by the common core task force that he empaneled in September and received a report from in December.

Becoming "The Education Governor" has been full of fits and starts for Cuomo. While he has protected and promoted the growth of charter schools, other aspects of his education policy have not gone as planned - these include the rollout of the common core learning standards and tougher teacher evaluations by tying them more closely to the results of student standardized test scores.

The task force recommended a revamp of the common core system, more stakeholder input, a reduction in standardized testing, and increased local control over standards and curriculum. The governor's office said that "no new legislation is required to implement the recommendations of the report," so there could be few specific proposals in Cuomo's State of the State.

The governor did recently announce he will be investing in the community school model, something de Blasio has expanded vastly in New York City, especially with regard to so-called "failing schools" as he tries to turn them around under the threat of state takeover. Cuomo may take aim at hastening school improvement.

On NY1, Cuomo said "many of these failing schools have been failing for over 10 years, believe it or not. And the system, the bureaucracy, has been too tolerant, in my opinion. And we are – we're going to be focusing on the closing schools, we're going to be investing in the school system to make sure we're doing everything we can on the state side."

As he has done before, Cuomo also distanced himself from education-related problems: "Education in this state is run by a department called the state education department," Cuomo said. "It is not under the governor. I wish it were, many governors in the past wished it was...It's run by the Board of Regents, which is selected by the legislature, primarily the Assembly."

Discussing the common core he said, "We started a new curriculum as part of a national movement called the common core curriculum. And that was rolled out over the past few years; that brought with it a testing regimen on the new curriculum. It was not implemented well. It was rushed. It was confused."

Adding that "It created a backlash among parents that frankly shocked everyone," Cuomo mentioned "the opt-out movement, where the parents didn't have the kids take the tests because they didn't like the way it was addressed, they didn't like that the kids were getting lower grades, whatever region."

Cuomo said the state education department has to make significant changes "and bring the parents along. Because if the parents don't have trust in the education system, then you have nothing and that's where we are now," Cuomo concluded, setting the stage for next steps by his administration and the state education department, which is doing its own common core review (new SED Commissioner MaryEllen Elia was named to Cuomo's task force, so there appears to be some, if not significant, overlap).

While there will almost certainly be sections of Cuomo's speech on education, homelessness, and ethics, the bulk will likely be on infrastructure, economic development and opportunity. He'll showcase these efforts through his push for an eventual $15 per hour minimum wage, a downtown revitalization initiative, tax breaks for small businesses, and the major projects he's outlined.

On NY1, Cuomo explained how he sees economic development, saying that "in Upstate New York [it] means basically restoring the economy, and in downstate New York it means growing the future economy – the high tech economy, having the transportation infrastructure to do that – and making sure the economy is working for everyone."

He promised to address "very high unemployment among young minority males, black and brown," which he called "just unacceptable," adding, "We have to make special economic initiatives there."

To follow that up, Cuomo announced new regulations related to spending on minority- and women-owned businesses. Prior to that, Cuomo also announced "the Empire State Poverty Reduction Initiative," a $25 million program to "bring together state and local government, non-profit and business groups to design and implement coordinated solutions to increase social mobility in ten cities with the highest poverty rates in the state."

The governor has promised to continue to fight to raise the age of criminal responsibility in New York from 16 to 18 - New York is one of just two states that automatically treat 16-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system. Like on several other issues, Cuomo has taken executive action on the issue in the absence of legislation, with a plan to move 16- and 17-year-olds into a separate prison facility from older inmates.

Where other social justice issues that, similarly, the governor has backed before but not been able to pass, like the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA) and the DREAM Act, are featured in Cuomo's remarks is also being watched closely by supporters of those policies.

The governor published an op-ed this week detailing the measures he's taken to protect transgender New Yorkers in the absence of GENDA passing the legislature, where it has been blocked by the Republican-controlled Senate. Cuomo did not indicate that he would be pushing GENDA forward in his State of the State.

There are also questions around whether Cuomo will include a proposal and dedicated funding for paid family leave, something that de Blasio recently moved on for some city employees and called on the state to pass for all workers.

One other policy area the governor has been quiet on leading up to his address, but he could make waves with an announcement on is app-based car services. When de Blasio was battling with Uber last year, Cuomo jumped into the fray to defend the company, where one of his former top aides now works, and say that a statewide policy is needed. Since then, Uber has waged a campaign across the state, getting many public officials on board. Cuomo may surprise people by outlining state policy around Uber and other e-hailing services like Lyft.

Tune in at 12:30 p.m. Wednesday for Cuomo's speech - stream online at the governor's website - and see below for the full outline of proposals Cuomo has outlined thus far in 2016.

***
by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
@tweetBenMax

For an outline of all 14 proposals Cuomo has announced thus far, the following was released by Cuomo's office on Tuesday:

The signature proposals announced so far include:

PROPOSAL 1: Restore economic justice by making New York the first state in the nation to enact a $15 minimum wage for all workers. While highlighting this proposal, the Governor announced that the State University of New York will raise the minimum wage for more than 28,000 employees.

More information available here; video and other media available here.

PROPOSAL 2: Launch a comprehensive plan to transform and expand vital infrastructure downstate and make critical investments in the region. Most notably, the proposal includes a major expansion and improvement project for the Long Island Rail Road between Floral Park and Hicksville.

The project will allow the LIRR to increase service, reduce congestion and train delays caused whenever there is an incident along this busy stretch of tracks and will enable the LIRR to run "reverse-peak" trains to allow people to take the LIRR to jobs on Long Island during traditional business hours. By allowing the LIRR to increase service between Floral Park and Hicksville, it will provide a more attractive alternative to driving and thereby reduce traffic on Long Island's major east-west highways, like the L.I.E., Northern State and Southern State, and more trains will make it easier for Long Islanders to reach LaGuardia and Kennedy airports by train.

More information available here; video and other media available here.

PROPOSAL 3: Bolster New York's legacy of environmental protection. The Governor has proposed allocating $300 million for the State’s Environmental Protection Fund – the highest amount ever for the fund and more than double the fund’s level when the Governor first took office. The Governor also announced two major investments in water infrastructure in Suffolk and Nassau Counties.

More information available here.

PROPOSAL 4: Make a series of investments and new initiatives to continue growing the economy and building stronger, more vibrant communities across New York State. These proposals include significant tax relief for small businesses, increased funding to support municipal water infrastructure improvement projects, a new effort to revitalize and transform downtown areas in each region of the state, and a sixth round of the successful Regional Economic Development Council initiative.

More information available here; video and other media available here.

PROPOSAL 5: Invest in Upstate transportation infrastructure. This includes a plan to offer a tax credit that cuts tolls in half for the New York residents and businesses who utilize the Thruway most often – benefitting nearly one million passenger, business and farm vehicles using E-Z Passes; eliminating tolls for agricultural vehicles; and keeping tolls flat until at least 2020 for all other drivers.

More information available here; video available here.

PROPOSAL 6: Transform Penn Station and the historic James A. Farley Post Office into a world-class transportation hub. The project, known as the Empire Station Complex, will feature significant passenger improvements, including first-class amenities, natural light, increased train capacity and decreased congestion, and improved signage to dramatically enhance the travel experience. The project – which is anticipated to cost $3 billion – will be expedited by a public-private partnership in order to break ground this year and complete substantial construction within the next three years.

More information available here; video and other media available here; conceptual renderings are available here.

PROPOSAL 7: Dramatically expand and improve the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center to stimulate the regional economy. The proposal will expand the Javits Center by 1.2 million square feet, resulting in a fivefold increase in meeting and ballroom space, including the largest ballroom in the Northeast. A four-level, 480,000 square foot truck garage capable of housing hundreds of tractor-trailers at one time will also be constructed to improve pedestrian safety and local traffic flow.

More information available here; video and other media available here.

PROPOSAL 8: Modernize and fundamentally transform the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, dramatically improving the travel experience for millions of New Yorkers and visitors to the metropolitan region. This proposal includes a new approach to rapidly redesign and renew 30 existing subway stations across the system. It also includes a number of technology initiatives to bring the system into the 21st century, including expanding Wi-Fi hotspots, accelerating mobile payments and ticketing to replace the MetroCard, and providing USB ports on subway trains, buses and in stations to allow customers to charge their mobile devices.

More information available here; video and other media available here.

PROPOSAL 9: Launch a Municipal Consolidation and Efficiency Competition designed to reward local governments that take real steps to make living and working in New York State more affordable. The competition will challenge counties, cities, towns and villages to develop innovative consolidation action plans yielding significant and permanent property tax reductions. The consolidation partnership that proposes and can implement the greatest permanent reduction in property taxes will receive a $20 million award.

More information available here.

PROPOSAL 10: Dramatically expand and improve access to high-speed Internet in communities statewide. Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul detailed this proposal shortly after the New York State Public Service Commission voted to approve the merger of Time Warner Cable and Charter Communications, which will dramatically improve broadband availability for millions of New Yorkers and lead to more than $1 billion in direct investments and consumer benefits.

Additionally, the state issued a $500 million solicitation for private sector partners to join the New NY Broadband Program, which will greatly expand Internet access in all regions of the state, with a focus on unserved and underserved areas.

More information available here; video available here.

PROPOSAL 11: Launch a $200 million competition to revitalize Upstate airports. The proposal is designed to enhance airports throughout Upstate New York, and promote new opportunities for regional economic development and partnership between the public and private sectors.

The Governor made this announcement as he also kicked off the start of renovations that will transform the New York State Fairgrounds site into a premier, multi-use facility. The Governor marked the official start of the historic renovation project with the implosion of the grandstand today.

More information available here.

PROPOSAL 12: Combat poverty and reduce rampant inequality through the Empire State Poverty Reduction Initiative. The $25 million program will bring together state and local government, non-profit and business groups to design and implement coordinated solutions to increase social mobility in ten cities with the highest poverty rates in the state.

More information available here.

PROPOSAL 13: Launch a "Right Priorities" initiative to further New York’s status as a national leader in criminal justice and re-entry reforms. The Governor's proposal will help at-risk youth find positive opportunities in their communities, while also providing citizens who enter the criminal justice system the opportunity to rehabilitate, return home, and contribute to their communities.

More information available here; video and other media available here.

PROPOSAL 14: Increase opportunity for minority- and women-owned business enterprises across New York State.

In 2014, Governor Cuomo established a goal of 30 percent for New York’s MWBE state contract utilization – the highest goal of any state in the nation. However, under state law, that goal only applies to contracts issued by state agencies and authorities; it does not apply to state funding given to localities such as cities, counties, towns, villages and school districts, which amounts to approximately $65 billion annually. This year, the Governor will advance legislation addressing this disconnect by expanding the MWBE goal setting to localities and entities that subcontract with those localities. Doing so will leverage the largest pool of state funding in history to combat systemic discrimination and create new opportunities for MWBE participation.

More information available here.

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Cuomo Heads Into State of the State After Big Announcements, With More to Say Wed, 13 Jan 2016 02:08:46 +0000
Corruption, Elections Loom Over Lengthy 2016 Legislative Agenda http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6067:corruption-elections-loom-over-2016-legislative-agenda http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6067:corruption-elections-loom-over-2016-legislative-agenda Cuomo announcement infrastructure

Cuomo (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of the Governor)


Lawmakers returning to Albany this week to kick off the 2016 legislative session are faced with a litany of unresolved issues from last year and the spectre of the recent convictions of two former legislative leaders.

Add to that impending elections for all 213 legislative seats, some of which will be critical for the future of state Senate control and the prospect of future indictments hinted at by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara and you have a recipe for potential paralysis.

Familiar issues like raising the minimum wage, paid family leave, juvenile justice and criminal justice reforms are all on the table. Newer issues like regulating fantasy sports gambling and tweaks to the state's health insurance marketplace will also be up for discussion.

Complicating some issues will be Gov. Andrew Cuomo's repeated 2015 use of executive action, which irked some legislators and, according to some advocates, let the air out of pushes for major legislation. But the elephant in the room remains how to deal with the plague of corruption that has dogged the capitol for years.

There is a little extra motivation for the legislature to move on more comprehensive ethics fixes - when session ended in June, former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Majority Leader Dean Skelos had merely been indicted on federal corruption charges, six months later both men have been convicted and will soon face sentencing. Further, their trials exposed how major donors are able to exploit the state's campaign finance system and how both Silver and Skelos were able to use their influence to pressure entities with business before the state to provide them and their associates with financial benefit.

Cuomo has promised that ethics reform will be at the top of his 2016 agenda.

Aside from the unprecedented legislative scandal, both houses of the legislature will also be preparing for an election season that many see as do or die for control of the state Senate, currently led by Republicans. Upcoming electoral contests could motivate leaders from both houses to compromise, or it could create more strife, legislative paralysis, and a blame game that will play out in the elections.

Still, there are a variety of major policy issues at play as 2016 session begins, including:

Full-Time Legislature
A number of good government groups, as well as Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and even U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, have posited that a better paid, full-time legislature might reduce certain kinds of corruption. Better pay might reduce the temptation to take bribes and with outside income banned it would be much harder for legislators to hide any ill-gotten gains.

A number of Assembly Democrats say their conference has seriously discussed the possibility of advocating for a full-time legislative body. In a Dec. 7 interview with Gary Axelbank of BronxTalk, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said he wanted to see how stricter income disclosure rules passed last year work before he advocates a total ban on outside income.

Heastie told Axelbank a full-time legislature would have to be paid considerably more. "Is the public ready to pay legislators $150,000-$160,000 a year?" Heastie asked. "If you're going to have people go full time, there's going to have to be a hefty pay raise from $79,500." Legislators haven't had a raise in 15 years, though a new commission is examining the rates and will issue recommendations.

Majority Leader John Flanagan has repeatedly said he is steadfastly opposed to a full-time legislature. He said it on Wednesday's first session day, and last month he told reporters, "We are ostensibly supposed to have, or legally supposed to have, a citizen Legislature or a part-time Legislature. I want the people with a depth of background. I think it's useful to have people from varying walks of life."

Still, upon replacing Skelos, Flanagan gave up his second job, a move he explained Wednesday as important because of his time commitment as Senate leader, which comes with a stipend.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has noted that the constitution calls for a part-time legislature and Republican opposition to going full-time, but called the idea "something worth talking about." It's more likely that legislators compromise on a significant cap on outside income and additional rules.

LLC Loophole
The now-infamous LLC loophole was featured during the Silver and Skelos corruption trials, but has been a cause of consternation among reformers for quite some time. In practice, the loophole allows anyone to game the campaign finance system by setting up multiple LLCs, or limited liability corporations, from which to donate to candidates for office.

Cries to close the loophole reached fever pitch last session, but in the wake of the Silver and Skelos trials have become even louder. Glenwood Management, a Manhattan real estate firm at the center of the Silver and Skelos cases, used the loophole to subvert the state's campaign donation limits by creating a number of front companies. The firm has been the largest contributor in the state for years. The Assembly moved to close the loophole last year but the Senate refused to vote on the issue. The Assembly is poised to move again on the issue but it appears that they might face opposition not only from Senate Republicans but from Cuomo as well.

Speaking with reporters in Manhattan on Dec. 13, Cuomo said that closing the LLC Loophole was "a priority." However, on Dec. 21, Cuomo said in a WNYC radio interview that closing the loophole would be ineffective because of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which allows for independent expenditures on behalf of candidates.

"You need people in office who are going to use their best judgment in office," Cuomo said on WNYC, "because you're not going to change the campaign finance system because of Citizens United."

Cuomo also refused to return over a million dollars in donations from Glenwood Management. "If I believed that I could be influenced by a million dollars, or a thousand dollars, or fifty dollars, then I'm in the wrong place and I should resign immediately," he explained.

Minimum Wage Hike
Cuomo kicked off the rollout of his 2016 agenda with another rally for an eventual $15 hourly statewide minimum wage and by extending a path toward $15 per hour to 28,000 SUNY employees. Cuomo has promised to push the legislature to adopt his plan to get all workers across the state to at least $15 per hour over the next several years.

Cuomo rapidly evolved his position on the minimum wage last year after opposing a hike to $13 per hour proposed by Democratic legislators. But, he utilized the state's wage board provision to boost the minimum wage plan for fast food workers to an eventual $15 per hour and has rallied across the state to push the legislature to support the same figure.

The Assembly pushed for an eventual $15 minimum wage for New York City in its single-house budget last year and is expected to support Cuomo's push. There are some Democratic members from Upstate and Western New York who are concerned about backlash from business groups. Republican Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan has not written off the possibility of a path toward a $15 minimum wage and there are some who think he will look to compromise with Cuomo on the timeline for full implementation of the raise as a way to take the debate off the table before election season.

Cuomo has already begun outlining tax reform, especially to reduce the burden on small businesses, which many see as part of the plan to get the minimum wage hike passed. A heightened minimum wage is popular around the state and has endeared the governor with many of his erstwhile liberal friends.

Tax on the Rich
With one sentence of his remarks on the opening day of session, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie changed the expected dynamics of negotiations to come. "We will fight for a tax structure that promotes fairness, equity, common sense," Heastie said, adding that he wanted tax cuts for the working class and to ask "wealthy New Yorkers" to pay their "fair share."

Cuomo has repeatedly rejected calls for a tax on the highest earners over the last few years - especially when the calls came from Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2014. It isn't clear how hard Heastie will push on the issue but if it takes off it could eventually be used as leverage toward enacting a full minimum wage increase.

Criminal Justice Reform
Last month the Cuomo administration made good on a promised executive action when it unveiled a plan to move 16- and 17-year-old inmates with medium and minimum security classifications to a juvenile facility in Hudson. The move is expected to impact up to 100 inmates. However, advocates are not satisfied. New York is still one of two states to treat 16- and 17-year-olds as adults upon arrest.

Criminal justice experts want the entire process changed in state law, something Cuomo has backed and tried to enact last year to no avail.

While advocates plan to continue to push, and held a press conference on the first day of session to resume doing so, Cuomo's executive action may have reduced the legislature's appetite to act. A number of Senate Republicans were concerned about housing teens in adult prisons but are not convinced the entire criminal justice process should be altered. Meanwhile, Cuomo and Democrats from the Senate and Assembly have disagreed on exactly how the 16- and 17-year-olds should be processed by the courts.

Meanwhile, having failed to build a consensus with the legislature on how to revamp the criminal justice system to address concerns about how police shootings of citizens are investigated, Cuomo issued an executive order last summer allowing the Attorney General to name a special prosecutor in such cases.

The move angered some district attorneys and members of law enforcement but gave the governor a boost with progressive activists. However, Cuomo promised to evaluate how the order worked and return to the legislature with a plan to change the law.

Members of the Assembly Majority are anxious to tackle the issue but Senate Republicans are unlikely to want to touch it - especially in an election year. A good gauge of where the issue stands in the pecking order will be to see what kind of mention it gets, if any, in Cuomo's State of the State address. A number of legislators say they expect Cuomo to declare victory on both of these criminal justice issues by pointing to his executive actions and thereby avoid any major legislative battles.

Car Service Apps
In 2015, Mayor Bill de Blasio decided he wanted to limit the expansion of Uber, the most popular car-service app, citing concerns about congestion. It was as if the mayor stepped on a landmine. Uber quickly mobilized its drivers and users and rolled out an effective public relations campaign, even enlisting Cuomo - who may not have needed much prodding to contradict de Blasio.

The mayor walked away limping but with plans to return to the issue. Now the state has to decide how to handle Uber and Lyft's push to be allowed in New York, including in upstate cities. In late October, Cuomo indicated that he thinks the state should issue regulations as a whole. "You can't do Uber city by city," Cuomo said. Cuomo's former top advisor Matt Wing is now in charge of communications for Uber in the Northeast.

Localities would need to give up oversight of transportation insurance and allow Uber to pool insurance for its drivers. The taxi industry, which is steadfastly opposed to Uber, is currently regulated city by city.

Fantasy Sports Gambling
A number of Assembly Democrats are chomping at the bit to address the issue of fantasy sports betting sites like Draftkings and FanDuel, which were recently sued by AG Schneiderman for being illegal gambling in violation of New York law. Schneiderman then amended the suit to ask the companies to return all money it made from New Yorkers. Democratic Assemblymember Gary Pretlow told Gotham Gazette that he plans to come up with regulations, oversight, and consumer protections that could keep the sites alive should they be found illegal in the court battle.

Meanwhile, a number of Senate Republicans are interested in ending any ambiguity about the legality of the sites by passing a bill stating that it is a game of skill and not of chance. Sen. Michael Ranzenhofer introduced such a bill in December. He told The Buffalo News in November that he hadn't spoken to representatives of the sites but was motivated by what he saw as Schneiderman's "overreach."

"It's just once again. New York shouldn't have Uber, shouldn't have mixed martial arts, or sports betting. When all this commerce and activities is allowed in many other states, it just seems like one issue after another in New York," Ranzenhofer told the Buffalo News.

A Variety of Others
Expect a major push from both houses of the legislature to restore education funding cuts.

The Ultimate Fighting Championship is advancing a court case to force New York to allow them to hold events in the state and has even booked a spring date at Madison Square Garden to hold its mixed martial arts bouts (MMA). The legislature could intercede before the case is settled.

Cuomo has already revealed a number of infrastructure related plans. Senate Republicans are looking to increase investment in the state's roads and bridges upstate while a number of city-based Democrats want to see the governor better invest in the MTA and do more to relieve congestion.

A number of Assembly Democrats are looking for partners in the Senate Majority for bills that would encourage guns are stored safely. There are several other bills that address implementing employee training and stricter checks and balances for gun stores as well as ones that would allow police to take away guns belonging to perpetrators of domestic violence.

Cuomo has been focused on national solutions to gun violence as of late but some Assembly Democrats think there is room to pass smaller pieces of legislation this year.

The Gender Expression Non Discrimination Act, or GENDA, appears to have lost a great deal of momentum after Cuomo enacted a number of its tenets through executive order earlier this fall. The Empire State Pride Agenda, which had been backing the bill, announced it is closing its policy operations because it feels it has completed much of its work, but some advocates point out that Cuomo's GENDA order could quickly be undone by the next governor.

The DREAM Act is another long-standing Democratic priority that many are unsure of its place in this year's agenda, which may be determined by whether Cuomo features it in his State of the State and budget.

The Assembly and Senate majorities and the Independent Democratic Conference will have to settle their differences over how to implement paid family leave before they look to negotiate a final bill with the governor. "I'm always optimistic," IDC head Sen. Jeff Klein said of a resolution on paid family leave in November. "It is an extremely important issue resonates with residents across the state." Klein brought the policy up again in his opening remarks on the Senate floor, and Flanagan said a conversation would happen, but that the details must be determined. Heastie said the Assembly would again bass a paid family leave bill this year, as it has several years in a row.

Generally speaking, Flanagan succinctly summed up his conference's priorities with his opening remarks on Wednesday, saying its focus will be "jobs, jobs, and jobs."

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing

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Corruption, Elections Loom Over Lengthy 2016 Legislative Agenda Wed, 06 Jan 2016 22:17:26 +0000