Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/1179 Thu, 14 Dec 2017 02:54:37 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) The Week Ahead in New York Politics, April 4 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6260:the-week-ahead-in-new-york-politics-april-4 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6260:the-week-ahead-in-new-york-politics-april-4 New York City Hall

New York City Hall


What to watch for this week in New York politics:

We're about two weeks from New York's April 19 presidential primary vote. The three remaining Republican candidates and two remaining Democrats have been campaigning in New York, which is more in play than it has been in several cycles. Hillary Clinton is set to hold events in New York City and Albany Monday, including a rally with Gov. Cuomo and a meeting with state Assembly Democrats, and while the candidates are also paying attention to Wisconsin as the week begins, New York already has a great deal of their and the nation's focus. It should be an exciting and dramatic two weeks. As this week begins, the Clinton and Sanders campaigns continue to spar over whether there will be a Democratic debate in New York before the state votes.

All three Republican candidates - Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and John Kasich - are set to attend the New York GOP's annual gala, set for April 14. The candidates are expected to campaign in New York over the next two weeks.

The day of the New York presidential primaries, April 19, is also the date of special elections in the state Legislature, including the races to replace both former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. Both those races appear competitive two weeks out. The Senate race is especially important given that Democrats are eyeing this year's elections as a chance to take control of the chamber - they already have a wide majority in the Assembly.

Monday will see return to a focus on the recently-passed state budget. Hillary Clinton will rally in New York City Monday with Gov. Cuomo and others to celebrate that the budget includes a path to a $15 per hour minimum wage and a paid family leave policy.

There is sure to be more analysis of the $147-plus billion budget this week, it was passed Friday after much last-minute negotiating (a deal was announced just a few hours before the midnight Thursday deadline, with voting by the Legislature taking place through Thursday evening and into Friday - the state's fiscal year begins April 1). The new budget was met with some criticism, largely over the process by which it was agreed upon and passed with little time for review by lawmakers and the public, and much celebration, especially over the minimum wage and paid family leave provisions, as well as increased funding for education, transportation infrastructure, and more. There is a lot of budget language to digest as the details have been made public.

The Legislature is due in Albany for three days of post-budget legislative session this week. Including this week, there are 27 days of session scheduled between now and its scheduled end on June 16. Issues to address include mayoral control of New York City schools, which expires at the end of June (the Senate will hold two May hearings, it recently announced, at which Mayor de Blasio is expected to testify), a property tax abatement program to spur affordable housing development (renewing or replacing the expired 421-a program), raising the age of adult criminal responsibility from 16, the Dream Act, and much more - including government ethics reform, which the governor says will be his top priority after none was included in the budget deal.

On Monday we expect the City Council's official response to Mayor Bill de Blasio's $82 billion preliminary budget plan. The Council has held a month of budget hearings and now has the state budget to consider, so it is able to give its response to the mayor, who will take it and the state budget into account as he prepares his executive budget. When de Blasio releases his updated spending plan in a few weeks, it will kick off another round of Council budget hearings as the two sides head toward a deal by the end of June and the July 1 start of the city's new fiscal year. Since major cuts in funding to the city from the state that Gov. Cuomo had in his budget plan were taken out of the final deal, there will be little drama to the city budget process the rest of the way. The biggest bone of contention appears to be whether the mayor is insisting on enough agency savings. There will also be small battles over things like levels of library funding.

Many eyes are also on East New York as the week begins. A large area of the Brooklyn community is set to be rezoned, the first of 15 neighborhoods where the de Blasio administration plans to significantly change land use rules to facilitate more housing and community improvements, but the clock is ticking as the administration and local stakeholders, led by City Council Member Rafael Espinal, negotiate the final details of the plan. There is no zoning subcommittee or land use committee vote scheduled as of Sunday evening, but one could be scheduled if a deal is reached. The parties have until the end of the month to reach and pass a deal.

As always, there's a great deal happening all over the city, with many events to be aware of - read our day-by-day rundown below.

***Do you have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics?
E-mail Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max: bmax@gothamgazette.com***

The run of the week in detail:

Monday
Both houses of the New York State Legislature are in session on Monday in Albany.

The City Council’s preliminary budget response to Mayor de Blasio is expected on Monday.

At 11 a.m. Monday at the Javits Center in Manhattan, The Mario Cuomo Campaign for Economic Justice will hold a "victory rally for $15 minimum wage and paid family leave" - participants will include "Governor Andrew M. Cuomo; Hillary Clinton; George Gresham, President of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East and Chair of the Mario Cuomo Campaign for Economic Justice; labor leaders; advocates and minimum wage workers." City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito is expected to attend the rally, according to her schedule.

On Monday at 1 p.m. at 1 Police Plaza, "Mayor de Blasio and Police Commissioner William Bratton will host a press conference to discuss monthly crime stats," according to the mayor's public schedule.

At the City Council on Monday:

  • 10 a.m., the Committee on Transportation will meet to discuss several items, such as the provision of certain parking privileges for press vehicles, the requirement of curb extensions at certain dangerous intersections, and the establishment of Earth Day 2016 as a car-free day for private and all non-essential city vehicles.
  • 10:30 a.m., the Committee on Rules, Privileges and Elections will meet to discuss various candidates for appointment to the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the Board of Corrections, and the City Planning Commission.
  • 1 p.m., the Subcommittee on Planning, Dispositions and Concessions will meet to address several land use applications.
  • 1 p.m., the Committee on Contracts will hold an oversight meeting on the challenges facing nonprofits in city contracting.

At 11:30 a.m. Monday, schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña will visit "a Model Dual Language Program to make an announcement," at High School for Dual Language and Asian Studies in Manhattan.

On Monday at noon, "At a press conference Monday, the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance will release a new report on Mayor de Blasio's OneNYC Plan, his administration's blueprint for increasing the city's environmental sustainability and resiliency. The report shows that six low-income communities of color on the waterfront designated by the city as Significant Maritime and Industrial Areas (SMIAs)—the South Bronx, Sunset Park, Red Hook, Newtown Creek, Brooklyn Navy Yard, and the North Shore of Staten Island—are still the most vulnerable to the threats of climate change and not sufficiently protected by the OneNYC Plan. A number of constructive recommendations for strengthening the plan are offered in the detailed report."

At 5 p.m. Monday, Comptroller Scott Stringer will deliver remarks "at 32BJ Security Contract Rally" at the Wall Street Bull. At 9 p.m., Stringer will appear on BronxTalk with Gary Axelbank (BronxNet TV or Bronxnet.org).

At 7:30 p.m. Monday in Albany, the burgeoning Museum of Political Corruption will host a roundtable discussion and public forum on political corruption following a reception and fundraiser. Speakers include Frank Anechiarico, professor of government and law at Hamilton College; Blair Horner, Executive Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group; Zephyr Teachout, Fordham Law School professor and Congressional candidate; Jimmy Vielkind, Politico NY Albany bureau chief; and Thomas Bass, SUNY Albany professor, who will moderate.

Tuesday
Both houses of the New York State Legislature are in session on Tuesday in Albany.

At 8 a.m., Bill Mulrow, secretary to Gov. Andrew Cuomo will discuss the administration’s budget goals and legislative priorities, including a $15 minimum wage, paid family leave, and infrastructure projects, at a Crain’s New York Business event. Moderating the conversation will be Crain’s New York editor Erik Engquist and Ken Lovett of the Daily News.

At 10 a.m. Tuesday on the Upper East Side, the launch of LinkNYC Kiosks with free Wi-Fi and more, featuring City Council Member Ben Kallos, Assistant Commissioner Telecommunications Planning at NYC Department of Information and Technology Stanley Shor and LinkNYC General Manager Jen Hensley (86th Street and 3rd Avenue, South East Corner).

At the City Council on Tuesday: at 10 a.m., the Committee on Immigration will address a resolution calling on the U.S. Supreme Court to issue a decision in U.S. v. Texas, which overturns the Fifth Circuit’s ruling and upholds the implementation of President Obama’s expanded Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (DAPA) programs.

At 2 p.m., a town hall meeting to discuss the 2017 referendum to hold a New York constitutional convention will be held at the University at Buffalo. The event will feature a number of experts, such as Gerald Benjamin of SUNY New Paltz and Henrik Dullea, who served as director of state operations and policy management for Governor Mario Cuomo from 1983-91, who will discuss what a constitutional convention would look like and the issues at stake in constitutional reform.

At 6 p.m., The Coalition to End Broken Windows will launch a two-day conference, Breaking Broken Windows, at the CUNY Graduate Center. Participants will evaluate, debate, and debunk Broken Windows policing theory, which “contends that policing disorder leads to reductions in serious crime.” They will also analyze the era of mass criminalization and imprisonment while working towards alternative solutions for a better future for New York City. Speakers include a variety of academics, advocates, and journalists, including Noha Arafa, of New Yorkers Against Bratton, Janine Jackson of Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, and Professor Alex Vitale of Brooklyn College.

Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. in Queens, "City Council "Majority Leader Jimmy Van Bramer and Access Queens will host a Town Hall on the 7 train with New York City Transit President Veronique "Ronnie" Hakim. At this event, 7 train riders, angry and frustrated by seemingly endless delays, overcrowding, and weekend and evening closures, will have the opportunity to ask questions and share concerns directly with the president of New York City Transit."

Wednesday
Both houses of the New York State Legislature are in session on Wednesday in Albany.

The Manhattan Institute and the Fordham Institute will host a conference beginning at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday to address “The Future of Charter Schools—And School Choice—In NYC,” following a recent study ranking U.S. cities on various school-choice metrics (by the Fordham Institute) finding that local political support for charters in NYC has fallen from 8th to 26th place, and the city’s overall ranking from 3rd to 12th. Speakers include Priscilla Wohlstetter, professor at Teachers College, Columbia University; James Merriman, president of the New York City Charter School Center; Michael Petrilli, president of the Fordham Institute; and Charles Sahm, Director of Education Policy at the Manhattan Institute.

At the City Council on Wednesday:

  • 10 a.m., the Committee on Public Safety will meet to address several resolutions on Nicholas’ Law, the Public Safety and Second Amendment Rights Protection Act, Congressional funding for gun violence research, safeguards against wrongful convictions, and opposing the Constitutional Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act.
  • 11 a.m., the Committee on Economic Development will hear a bill requiring a survey and study of racial, ethnic, and gender diversity among the leadership of city contractors.
  • 11 a.m., the Committee on Land Use will meet to address several issues deferred from the meeting of the Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises and the Subcommittee on Landmarks, Public Siting, and Maritime Uses.
  • 1 p.m., the Committee on Governmental Operations will meet to evaluate the structure and content of the preliminary Mayor’s Management Report.

On Wednesday at 11 a.m. in Albany, "State Senator Liz Krueger will hold a forum on modernizing sales tax collection in New York State. New York State's current system of sales tax collection has not kept up with changes in retail payment methods and technological innovation. This forum will evaluate proposals for modernizing the collection of sales tax to improve its efficiency for retailers and to reduce the potential for fraud through sales tax suppression. One tax researcher has estimated that sales tax suppression costs New York State $1.7 billion in revenue annually. A number of other states and countries have adopted or are exploring the adoption of new technologies to address these issues."

At 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, the Brooklyn Historical Society will host a panel to discuss “Moving Beyond the Rhetoric: Creating a Diverse Workplace in the 21st Century.” Panelists include professionals leading Bloomberg LP’s Diversity and Inclusion group; Kristen Titus, Founding Director of NYC Tech Talent Pipeline; Anthony Crowell, President of New York Law School; Eulas Boyd, Dean of Admissions at Brooklyn Law School; and Tom Finkelpearl, Commissioner, NYC Department of Cultural Affairs” and will discuss their experiences in building and instituting workplace diversity policies.

Thursday
At 9:30 a.m. Thursday, Columbia’s schools of International and Public Affairs and Law will host a public policy forum about policing, criminal justice reform, and public integrity. Loretta Lynch, the 83rd Attorney General of the U.S., will deliver the keynote address. Former Mayor David Dinkins, who the event is named for and is a professor at Columbia, will deliver remarks. Professor Ester Fuchs will moderate a panel on on "Criminal Justice Reform and Public Integrity" featuring Mark Peters, Commissioner, NYC Department of Investigation; Daniel C. Richman, Paul J. Keller Professor of Law, Columbia Law School; Ken Thompson, Brooklyn District Attorney; Nicholas Turner, President and Director, Vera Institute of Justice. (This event is by invitation only.)

At the City Council on Thursday:

  • 10 a.m., the Committee on Finance will meet to address a land use application and introduce a bill establishing a temporary program to resolve outstanding penalties imposed by the environmental control board.
  • 1:30 p.m., the City Council will hold a full-body stated meeting, which will be prefaced as usual by a pre-stated press conference hosted by Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito.

State Legislature hearings Thursday:

  • 10 a.m. in Albany, the Assembly Standing Committee on Insurance and the Assembly Standing Committee on Health will be hosting a public hearing to evaluate the process of modifying or enhancing health insurance coverage requirements under the Affordable Care Act.
  • Noon in Oakdale, the Senate Joint Task Force on Heroin and Opioid Addiction will host a public meeting to examine the issues facing communities in the wake of increased heroin abuse.

At 5 p.m. Thursday, the MTA will hold a public hearing about a proposal to restore service to the N and Q lines in connection with the opening of Phase I of the Second Avenue Subway, expected to be completed late this year.

Friday and the weekend
U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara is scheduled to deliver the keynote speech at the New York Press Association Spring Convention, which will begin at 9 a.m. Friday.

At 9:30 a.m. on Saturday, Staten Island Borough President James S. Oddo will join the ROLE Call in hosting the NYC Fatherhood and Family Enrichment Conference at Port Richmond High School. This event aims to enhance Fatherhood Engagement by offering seminars and workshops in family and fatherhood services.

***
Have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics? E-mail Gotham Gazette executive editor Ben Max any time: bmax@gothamgazette.com (please use "For Week Ahead" as email subject).

***
by Kelly Fan and Ben Max
@GothamGazette

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The Week Ahead in New York Politics, April 4 Sun, 03 Apr 2016 05:00:00 +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.

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by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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

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Everyone Agrees Albany Needs Ethics Reform, Except the People Who Matter Most Thu, 31 Mar 2016 23:07:07 +0000
Cuomo's Public Schedules Offer Little Information http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6234:cuomos-public-schedules-offer-little-information http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6234:cuomos-public-schedules-offer-little-information cuomo reporters

Cuomo gives a press briefing in Tarrytown (Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)


Earlier this month, Gov. Andrew Cuomo was facing pressure from the press, local officials, and the public to make his first appearance in Hoosick Falls, a small town near the Vermont border. Residents of the town were told in December that their drinking water was unsafe for consumption due to contamination from a toxic chemical that may lead to cancer. Cuomo, whose administration has been accused of mishandling reports about water contamination in the town since 2014, had been conspicuously absent.

On Sunday, March 13 at about 7:30 a.m. reporters received an updated public schedule for Cuomo announcing that at 10:15 a.m the governor would give a press briefing in Hoosick Falls. Assembly Member Steve McLaughlin, a Republican who represents the area and has been a consistent critic of the Democratic governor, said he learned of the visit from members of the press who contacted him to see if he planned to attend. McLaughlin was not contacted by the Cuomo administration, he said, nor were a host of other elected officials from the area. Some local reporters had been told specifically the governor would not be visiting the town that weekend.

"I had been there a day before for the St. Patrick's Day Parade and I said then, 'Leaders lead, they show up when people are hurting, they don't show up for a photo op,'" McLaughlin told Gotham Gazette. "I will contend the reason [Cuomo] didn't show up for 109 days is because this situation is politically damaging to him - it isn't a situation where he's hooking up and towing someone and taking a picture; people are hurting here."

The situation was typical of how the administration often handles Cuomo's public schedules - most days, no matter what the governor might actually be doing, his public schedules, emailed to the press the night before, put him in Albany, New York City, or the New York City area, with no additional information.

Occasionally the administration will issue an update about an appearance or an event with varying amounts of lead time. Sometimes a few hours, often less. Events the governor attends are regularly ones that appear unlikely to be last-minute decision. One such update was issued on January 21 at 5:29 p.m. to announce Cuomo was attending a 6 p.m. gala held by the Real Estate Board of New York, whose members include large Cuomo donors.

Other events Cuomo attends, such as fundraisers or gatherings with legislators at the Executive Mansion, are left off his schedule. Some of these events, for candidate campaigns, should be left off of the governor's official government schedule. Yet, strangely, on March 9, Cuomo held a ceremony to honor former New York Mets catcher Mike Piazza and no notice was given, though the administration later gave members of the press an account of the proceedings.

Administration officials paint last-minute updates and omissions as the result of minding the schedule of a very busy governor, but the pattern has rankled the press, annoyed legislators who feel the governor should notify them when he visits their districts, and stymied issue advocates and protesters. It has a growing number of critics saying that the administration shares little with the press and the public as a political strategy to protect Cuomo from unwanted coverage.

Cuomo's schedules also come in stark contrast of those of other major New York elected officials - senators, members of Congress, Mayor Bill de Blasio, and others mostly issue detailed daily schedules full of events, whether the press is invited or not. They also often send their schedules earlier than the governor's office does. Case in point: on Monday evening, de Blasio's Tuesday schedule, with two public events, was sent to members of the media at about 5:30 p.m.; Gov. Cuomo's, also with two public events, was emailed at a little after 10 p.m.

"It is highly unusual for officials to play this kind of game," said Douglas Muzzio professor of political science at Baruch. "The governor is truly unique in this regard compared to other electeds. It throws everyone off, prevents people from covering things, seeing him, meeting him. It keeps everybody on edge."

The Cuomo administration flatly denied that the governor's schedules are designed to reduce interaction with the press or voters. "People have all kinds of opinions, it's just not true," Cuomo spokesperson Rich Azzopardi told Gotham Gazette.

"There is a clear difference in style and substance between this governor and people who are willing to go into the lion's den and deal with it and take not only the accolades, but the criticism head on," said Assembly Member McLaughlin. Cuomo has made a habit of "ducking, covering, and avoiding and misdirecting," McLaughlin added, saying that Cuomo has had "the hypocrisy" of saying he would run the most transparent administration in history. "People are waking up to it," he said, "The answer to it is to stop doing what you're doing, but his answer will be to double down and do more of what got him in trouble to begin with."

The situation is particularly pointed this year as budget negotiations again play out almost entirely behind closed doors. Unlike his two immediate predecessors, Cuomo has not held public leaders meetings to discuss budget priorities.

Meanwhile, Cuomo hasn't held a traditional media availability on the second floor of the Capitol since June of last year. While the governor has taken press questions after events at a variety of locations around the state, he has eschewed a traditional Albany press conference for well over 200 days.

A recent Freedom of Information Law request for any email communications sent by Cuomo, filed by Gannett's John Campbell, resulted in no information. An administration official told Campbell that Cuomo has no state-issued email account or Blackberry device.

"Do you get the impression this governor doesn't want coverage, doesn't want to answer any questions?" asked Barbara Bartoletti of The League of Women Voters. "Wasn't this the governor who said he would have the most transparent administration in history? Well it hasn't turned out that way. He doesn't seem to let people know he is going to be somewhere unless he is handing out money or responding to a disaster."

John Kaehny, of Reinvent Albany, said that from his perspective the governor's office has been ahead of the game on releasing the governor's schedules when compared to other elected officials, albeit months after the fact. Kaehny points to the administration's information portal that is updated every few months with the governor's past schedules, including the names of groups and people he meets with. "We're happy to have more complete schedules later, rather than faster, less specific schedules right now," said Kaehny, who acknowledged it might be different for the press.

"The state website allows searches by name so you can see what meetings they've had with the governor," explained Kaehny. "That isn't comparable to anything [Mayor de Blasio] has at the moment. It's extremely useful."

Azzopardi touted Cuomo's transparency website in a statement to Gotham Gazette: "This administration has proactively made more documents and data publicly available than any other in recent memory. The governor's final schedules are publicly posted on CitizenConnects and have been since the beginning of this administration."

Cuomo's schedules have been shown to have at least a hole or two. In 2012 The Wall Street Journal reported that Cuomo's schedules did not show an October fundraiser where the Governor was pitched on a massive casino project by Genting, a group that had given millions to a lobbying group created at the governor's behest. Administration officials said the omission was a mistake.

Blair Horner, of the New York Public Interest Research Group, noted that compared to Albany standards where the leaders rarely announce their plans to the public, Cuomo's scheduling isn't particularly concerning.

For others however, it is concerning that the governor who pledged utmost transparency appears to only be interested in interacting with the public of his choosing and has limited his press interaction.

"Is he afraid of the press or does he think New Yorkers aren't interested in what their governor is doing?" asked Bartoletti. "I don't know why he wouldn't want to be more visible."

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

Read more by this writer.

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Cuomo's Public Schedules Offer Little Information Tue, 22 Mar 2016 03:06:14 +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
Once Rife with Problems, City Budget Process Now a Model for State System in Need of Reform http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6097:once-rife-with-problems-city-budget-process-now-a-model-for-state-system-in-need-of-reform http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6097:once-rife-with-problems-city-budget-process-now-a-model-for-state-system-in-need-of-reform cuomo exec budget pres 2014

Governor Cuomo presents his 2014-2015 Executive Budget


In 1975 New York City was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, having balanced its budget for years with massive borrowing and shady accounting tricks. Banks were at the point where they would lend no more. Mayor Abe Beame had written the announcement of the city's default. City lawyers were in State Supreme Court filing a petition for bankruptcy and police were prepared to serve the banks.

At the last minute bankruptcy was averted as the federal government provided the city with loans. Those loans combined with the state-created Financial Control Board, which required the city to use generally accepted accounting practices and provide four-year financial plans, are credited with turning things around.

Gone were the days when operating expenses were reclassified as capital investments, when labor costs were paid for with new loans, when raids on existing funds were acceptable ways to pay for new expenses. The city underwent such a turnaround in the following decades that its budget process is now thought to be a shining beacon across the country. The Financial Control Board that used to strike fear into the hearts of mayors is now a sleepy, almost forgotten entity.

The state government, however, is facing a crisis of its own--not a fiscal one, but a crisis of trust, brought on by a series of convictions of sitting legislators that was capped late last year by the convictions of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. For years, the Silver and Skelos served as two of the 'three men in a room' deciding the budget with the Governor. It's a process that has been decried by good government advocates, reform-minded legislators, and the U.S Attorney, Preet Bharara, who brought Silver and Skelos to justice for abusing their positions.

"I think people should start to talk about budget transparency as a matter of ethics," said Sen. Liz Krueger, the Democrats' ranking member on the state Senate finance committee. "People really should care about the lack of transparency in the state budget process for a whole lot of reasons. One of them is that if you don't know what's going on, pay-to-play wins the day. If someone wants something in the budget they get it there with a whole lot of lobbying money that no one knows about. That's the harm, that's the danger and I'll tell you that happens constantly."

A number of major corruption cases, including Silver's, have centered on the opaqueness of the budget process that allows legislators and the governor to put aside secret slush funds. For example, Silver was able to direct discretionary funding to a cancer doctor who in turn sent Silver and his law firm lucrative clients suffering from a rare form of cancer.

Former Sen. Malcolm Smith was convicted in a scheme whereby he would provide a developer a $500,000 lump sum from the budget. A report from good government group Citizens Union found that the 2014 and 2015 fiscal year budgets had over $3 billion in lump funds, while Cuomo's proposed 2016 budget had around $2.6 billion. Citizens Union, Common Cause NY, and NYPIRG have this year called on legislators to support reforms making budget spending more transparent.

"Preet Bharara, the federal prosecutor who convicted both Silver and Skelos, basically said the strongest tool these guys had to game the system was unbridled power and an unbelievable lack of transparency in policing 'three men in a room,'" said Assemblymember Jim Tedisco, a Republican from the Capital Region who has proposed a bill that would force any pot of cash negotiated in the budget to be line-itemed and mandate that it is publicly documented how the cash is eventually spent.

"The other thing Bharara told us is 'if you see something, say something,'" Tedisco said. "I didn't know about these pots of money and I'm sure my Democratic colleagues in the chamber didn't know either. So if you don't know who got the money, you can't stop what's going on. We just don't have that transparency holistically."

Slush funds aren't the only part of the state budget that thwart transparency. Today the bad practices New York City was forced to abandon are commonplace in the state budget process. The state budgets without generally accepted accounting practices, routinely raids other programs, has lump-sum appropriations where spending is at times decided by memorandum of understanding between the governor and legislators, and routinely pushes expenses down the road.

This year Gov. Andrew Cuomo has proposed a slew of major infrastructure projects including the revamp of Penn Station and a third track for the Long Island Rail Road, but his budget proposal does not lay out how to fund them. Meanwhile, his budget continues funneling cash to economic development projects that are managed by entities with little transparency. Cuomo's Buffalo Billion project is currently under investigation by Bharara's office.

Frank Mauro, executive director emeritus of the Fiscal Policy Institute, who also served as the director of research for the city's last major charter revision and as secretary of the Assembly's ways and means committee, said that the differences between the city and state budget processes are striking. "I don't think many people know just how different the city process is from the state's," said Mauro.

The city budget process begins when the Mayor submits his Preliminary Budget to the City Council before January 21 each year (this was just moved from Jan. 16). Then the City Council holds public hearings over a period of several weeks, bringing in agency commissioners and budget directors to examine spending, considers budget priorities from community boards and borough presidents, and takes testimony from groups and citizens.

The Council must issue its findings and recommendations by March 25. The Mayor then has until April 26 to propose an Executive Budget, with explanations of programs as well as a fiscal outlook for the city. The Council then holds another series of public hearings which are followed by negotiations between the mayor's budget office and the Council finance division. These negotiations must result in a balanced budget by the end of June, with the new fiscal year beginning July 1.

The Council is allowed to increase, decrease, add or omit any appropriation for personal services, or omit or change conditions related to any appropriation. The Council then votes on the budget. The mayor can veto any additions or increases the Council adds but may not interfere with any decreases.

The city process also includes a significant role for the Comptroller, who oversees city contracts and audits city agencies. The Comptroller is the city's chief financial watchdog and analyzes the Mayor's budget proposals, performing independent forecasting, raising red flags, and making recommendations.

"In the state budget you have to investigate where the money has gone, where certain programs are accounted for, and even then, good luck," said Sen. Krueger. "Even the [state] comptroller's office does not know until years later what was actually spent."

The state process begins when the Governor devises an Executive Budget based on the needs of agencies and any programs he or she supports and delivers the budget to the Legislature. Both houses of the the Legislature put out their own budgets, mainly to signal their major priorities for the year. The Governor delivers his executive budget along with appropriation, revenue and budget bills by February 1. The Legislature typically holds a series of budget hearings on particular topics, like transportation and local governments.

Under reform legislation passed in 2007, the Legislature is supposed to convene conference committees between both houses to reach agreements on aspects of the budget and set priorities. These committees have been ignored in the past despite the reform legislation.

The Governor and Legislature are also required agree on a revenue forecast on or before March 1. They are generally very good at doing this, failure to do so results in the state Comptroller setting the forecast. The Legislature can only reduce or entirely remove spending proposed by the Governor and it has no control over the Governor's proposals for spending. The Legislature can add spending, but the Governor has the ability to line-item veto. The Legislature must vote on a budget by April 1, which is the start of the state's fiscal year.

It isn't until the budget is voted on that a new financial plan is created showing how all the changes impact spending. So while a budget may start as balanced under the Governor's proposed plan, it rarely ends that way.

The state budget is usually full of non-budget policies because the budget process gives the Governor the upper hand - the Legislature can either negotiate the Governor's priorities, stall, or fail to vote on a budget on time, in which case the Governor can simply issue emergency extenders that put his budget into place.

Budgets are normally negotiated exclusively between the two majority leaders of the Legislature and the Governor, and time and again budget bills are not given the three-day waiting period for review mandated by law. Instead, the Governor issues messages of necessity that allow the budget bills to be voted on immediately. The result is legislators voting on voluminous budget bills late at night, having little or no time to actually read them. "To say there is any level of public review is just insulting," Krueger said.

"I think the biggest difference between the state and city budget processes is that the state budget is a political negotiation and you don't see a financial plan until a month later," said Tammy Gamerman, a senior research associate with the Citizens Budget Commission (CBC). "With the city they tell you how they are going to balance the budget."

Adding further mystery to the state budget, Governor Cuomo has taken to combining his State of the State address and Executive Budget presentation, doing so this year and last. This leads to less public explanation of the budget and more focus on big policy initiatives the governor is backing. In his speech last week, the governor laid out a number of government ethics proposals, including public financing of campaigns. He did not discuss changing the budget process.

The city budget process is not perfect, of course. The City Council continues to push the Mayor to more specifically account for agency spending, providing more units of appropriation instead of lump sums. There is also a good deal of discretionary spending available to the City Council Speaker that watchdogs want more accounting for.

Sen. Krueger, who is one of the most outspoken legislators during late night state budget votes, picking at and tracking spending threads while most legislators are waiting to simply cast a "yes" vote and get back to their districts, said that 'three men in a room' has led to an absolute lack of budget transparency and alienated the public.

Krueger says she has seen a decrease in attendance at budget hearings, even from groups that have a lot at stake in the budget. "At the end of the budget process each year, after I'm done beating my head against the wall over one thing that made it through the budget process or the other, I come to find out there are 16 other things I missed," Krueger told Gotham Gazette. "I don't catch a huge number of things and I do care about this. So imagine what it is like for someone who isn't a legislator, who doesn't have experience with this. I want people to know they should be involved in the process. They should come to hearings just to point out 'Hey, you know New York has state parks that need to be funded and that isn't in here.'"

Most rank-and-file legislators and advocates acknowledge that budget reform is not a hot topic at the moment. The last time there was major attention on the subject was in 2009 when Senate Democrats briefly controlled the chamber. They issued a report that recommended conference committees be given control over larger sums of budget funds, that the state adopt generally accepted accounting principles, a two-year budget cycle, and the creation of a legislative budget office.

Krueger has since introduced bills that would create a state agency in the model of the city's Independent Budget Office - a nonpartisan, publically funded agency that provides information to elected officials and the public about the budget, reviews budget proposals, and provides policy analysis. The bill has gone nowhere in the Senate.

Krueger and other reformers also want to see the state require bills to have truthful financial impact statements. Currently, bills introduced from rank-and-file legislators, committee chairs, legislative leaders, or the Governor are supposed to have impact statements, but some simply lack them while others are presented in a dishonest way. Rather than presenting a program's cost for a year, some bills only represent a month's cost, or less.

Gamerman said she feels that some progress has been made toward budget transparency over the last few years.

"Accountability issues born of the financial crisis of the '70s forced the city to use generally accepted accounting principles," said Gamerman. "There isn't any similar oversight of the state. The state has increased transparency through the Open Budget website. There is more info on agency spending. One of the big differences between the city and state is the city does a much better job tracking performance with the Mayor's Management Report. The state has been talking about doing something similar."

Mauro said that he finds it unlikely there will be a major push for reform unless the Legislature feels the Governor is abusing his current powers because the status quo still works for the leadership. "It's an unlikely scenario where the Governor isn't running roughshod over the Legislature with budget powers that we'll see a push for change," said Mauro.

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

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

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Once Rife with Problems, City Budget Process Now a Model for State System in Need of Reform Mon, 18 Jan 2016 05:28:20 +0000
New York One Signature Away from Calling for Overturn of Citizens United http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6080:new-york-one-signature-away-from-calling-for-overturn-of-citizens-united http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6080:new-york-one-signature-away-from-calling-for-overturn-of-citizens-united nys

(photo: nysenate.gov)


In a landmark year for corruption in the state legislature, 2015 saw the arrest and conviction of two of the most powerful political leaders in New York. A crescendo of voices across the state -- from good government watchdogs to lawmakers -- expressed outrage and demanded stronger ethics laws and campaign finance reforms. In one sense, Albany now has the opportunity to put its money where its mouth is -- and all it needs is one signature.  

New York is one signatory away from becoming the 17th state in the country to call for a constitutional amendment to negate the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in the Citizens United case, which gave entities such as corporations and unions the same rights as individuals in contributing to electoral campaigns.

A successful bipartisan appeal for a federal constitutional amendment in the State Assembly has yet to be replicated by the State Senate, where 31 senators -- one short of a majority -- support overturning Citizens United to minimize the role of money in politics. While agreement by a majority of each house from New York would only be advisory, like the other states that have reached consensus, a groundswell for negating Citizens United could influence Congress.

"As we've seen again and again, Citizens United has opened the floodgate to unchecked and often opaque corporate political contributions, muscling real people out of the political process,” said State Senator Daniel Squadron, a Brooklyn Democrat, in a statement to Gotham Gazette. Squadron is leading the effort among the Senate Democratic Conference and has 23 co-signers on a letter addressed to the United States Congress which calls for the constitutional amendment.

(Squadron also said that the state legislature should support his Corporate Political Activity Accountability to Shareholders Act, which would increase transparency and accountability.)

Senators Ruben Diaz Sr. and Simcha Felder are the only Democrats who have not joined their colleagues on the letter. The five members of the Independent Democratic Conference together signed an identical version of Squadron’s letter while Senate Democratic leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins independently wrote to members of Congress. (Felder is elected as a Democrat but caucuses with Republicans in the Senate, and Diaz Sr. is often difficult to pin down ideologically.)

Sen. Stewart-Cousins, in her missive, said that the independent contributions made possible by Citizens United “represent a deliberate effort to unfairly influence the electorate and empower a small group of individuals and corporations. Elected officials are becoming more beholden to the interests facilitating these outside funds while the public’s trust in our democracy erodes.”

Stewart-Cousins is adamant about reforming the state’s campaign finance system and believes that Senate Democrats have led the fight on many fronts. She lays blame with the members on the other side of the aisle. “We need to restore the public’s trust in state government and that will only happen when the Senate Republicans agree to listen to the voters and take meaningful steps to clean up Albany,” she said in a statement to Gotham Gazette.

While the Democrats who support overturning Citizens United total 29 votes, only 2 Republican state senators have supported the effort -- Senators Phil Boyle and Kemp Hannon, albeit in language different from the Democrats’ letters (it, for example, decries the massive potential outside spending to support Hillary Clinton's presidential bid). Sen. Boyle, who circulated his letter among his colleagues, refused to comment for this article.

Reluctance of New York Republicans to join the effort comes as a growing number of voters, including Republicans, oppose Citizens United. In a Bloomberg poll from September, 78 percent of respondents said they wanted the decision overturned.

“We’re at a crossroads in the movement where Democrats who hadn’t signed on are signing on, and where Republican voters are strongly in favor of a constitutional amendment, but we’re working to make that transition with Republican legislators,” said Jonah Minkoff-Zern, co-director of the Democracy Is For People campaign at Public Citizen, a nonprofit advocacy group that has been garnering a coalition to lobby state legislators for their support in the matter.

Senior attorney Gene Russianoff, from the New York Public Interest Research Group, is not surprised by the Republican legislators’ lack of support. Some of these state senators, he said, “feel teflon-proofed” and he applauded those who signed the petition. “Citizens United is the right target to fight the influence of money and political interests,” he said.

For good government groups like NYPIRG and Citizens Union of the City of New York, the Supreme Court’s decision to treat corporations as individuals in campaign finance has wreaked untold havoc on elections.

“New York State is severely hampered by federal court decisions in terms of how it can address the corrosive role of money in politics,” said Rachael Fauss, director of public policy, Citizens Union. “Action by the New York State Legislature would help drive attention to this national problem, and put New York on the record as being against campaign money being considered free speech.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whom many reformers look to be more of a leader on campaign finance reform in New York, recently made clear he thinks that as long Citizens United is around, his hands are largely tied. In an interview with WNYC’s Brian Lehrer on Dec. 21, the governor promised that he will advocate for campaign finance reform in 2016, but conceded that he could only do so much.

“If you say, 'Well, money influences,' then forget it, because [with] Citizens United you're not going to get the money out of the system until the federal government changes the court or the law or both,” he said. He was also dismissive of New York City’s public campaign financing system, calling it a “mockery” that independent committees can donate large sums of money to candidates as a result of Citizens United.

Advocates and reform-minded legislators continue to push Cuomo to call for a statewide public campaign finance system, which he has given lukewarm support for in the past.

Just a few hours after Cuomo’s Dec. 21 WNYC remarks, Mayor Bill de Blasio held a roundtable with members  of the news media at which he also said passing a constitutional amendment was an “imperative” without which “we’re in an environment where a lot of very wealthy, powerful people will use their money to reinforce the status quo.”

In an editorial on Dec. 22, a day after Cuomo’s remarks on WNYC, the Albany Times Union called on the remaining state senators to take the bold step and join the growing call for an amendment.   

On the surface, New York calling for a constitutional amendment may be symbolic in the absence of Congressional action. But, according to Common Cause NY executive director Susan Lerner, “In this instance, symbolism is especially potent.” She believes that owing to New York’s large congressional delegation, even symbolic measures carry significant weight.

“Remember, New York is a donor state,” she said, referring to New York’s influence on elections all over the country. “Everybody running for office comes to New York for campaign contributions. When New York elected officials say the system has gotten out of control, it’s particularly applicable.”

***
by Samar Khurshid, Gotham Gazette
@samarkhurshid    @GothamGazette

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

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New York One Signature Away from Calling for Overturn of Citizens United Mon, 11 Jan 2016 18:11:32 +0000
Good Government Groups Want Legislators to Pledge to Fight for Reform http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6069:good-government-groups-want-legislators-to-pledge-to-fight-for-reform http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6069:good-government-groups-want-legislators-to-pledge-to-fight-for-reform pledge

The pledge (photo via @CitizensUnionNY)


Lawmakers returned to Albany for the first day of the 2016 legislative session in the wake of two seismic corruption convictions of their former house leaders. Waiting for them were representatives of three leading good government groups, asking New York state legislators to sign a pledge to fight for good government reform.

On the first day of session since both former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos were convicted on multiple federal corruption charges, good government groups unveiled a pledge asking legislators to "support, vote for, and work zealously to sign into law legislation that:" closes the LLC loophole, bans or reduces outside legislators' income, and requires transparency for all discretionary funds in the state budget.

Citizens Union, Common Cause, and the New York Public Interest Research Group revealed the "Clean Conscious Pledge" just as lawmakers were scurrying to chambers for roll call and to hear their leaders set the year's agenda. The groups hope the pledge will demonstrate that rank-and-file members support major ethics overhaul in the wake of the Silver and Skelos convictions.

So far the website hosting the pledge lists three initial signers among the 200-plus members of the Senate and Assembly: Sen. Michael Gianaris and Assemblymembers Felix Ortiz and David Buchwald.

"New Yorkers send elected officials to Albany to solve problems, not create them," said Blair Horner of NYPIRG in a statement. "This pledge is the first step in showing New Yorkers that the state's elected leadership is serious about ending Albany's ethics crisis. It's time for the governor and legislators to solve this problem."

Reform was clearly on the mind of many legislators returning to the capital, but the heads of both legislative bodies approached the issue in strikingly different ways Wednesday. Both Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Democrat, and Senate Majority Leader Flanagan, a Republican, did begin by addressing the issue of ethics reform, touting reforms made to outside income disclosure laws last year. Then they both were quick to blame the other house for inaction. Heastie noted that the Assembly "took action on a series of proposals that were unfortunately not adopted by the state Senate."

One of those actions was passing a bill to close the LLC loophole that allows businesses to create multiple fronts to get around campaign donation limits.

Meanwhile, Flanagan pointed out that the Senate passed a pension forfeiture bill it had reached a deal on with the Assembly only to have the Assembly back out at the last minute because of concerns about how it would affect union members. The bill is aimed at ensuring that legislators convicted of public corruption are not able to collect a government pension - something both Silver and Skelos are in line to do.

Heastie mentioned in his remarks that he would like to try to reach a new agreement on the issue. Both Skelos and Silver are set to take home sizeable pensions despite their convictions.

But that is where the similarities between their comments ended. "Make no mistake – over the coming weeks, discussions around proposals on ethics will be a priority of this house. The Assembly is serious about ethics reform and we know that words are not enough," Heastie told the chamber.

Flanagan, on the other hand, downplayed future action on ethics and told the chamber that if legislators did their jobs and served their constituents, "things will take care of themselves." Flanagan then went on to list a number of notable attractions in districts across the state, like zoos and parks, and said that legislators must be proud of their districts.

The comments left many legislators scratching their heads.

"Senator Flanagan didn't have much to say about the needed changes Senate Democrats have been talking about to restore the public's faith in us and address these massive scandals," said state Sen. Liz Krueger. "He basically said we already did what needed to be done and said how great it was and then listed places in people's districts. I don't think I heard anything on how he wants to address ethics."

In her remarks on the Senate floor Wednesday, Democratic Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins called for ethics reform and restoring trust in elected officials - as did Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, a Republican.

Assemblymember David Buchwald, a Democrat, became the first legislator to sign the good government groups' pledge. Buchwald issued a statement touting his commitment. "I am proud to be the first state legislator to take this meaningful pledge to restore integrity and the public's trust in state government," said Buchwald. "It is incumbent upon legislators to work to significantly reduce corruption, and we can do so by passing these common sense measures. I think the vast majority of New Yorkers would want to see their representatives sign this pledge."

A number of other legislators said they had yet to see the pledge with the chaos of the first day of session but said they planned to consider it.

Krueger, who said she supports the efforts of the good government groups, said that she had yet to see the pledge and was cautious to lend her support without seeing all of the details. When read the gist of the pledge Krueger was favorable. "It's important to me how the pledge is written," said Krueger, "I'm hesitant to sign a pledge committing to do something I can't control."

Legislative leaders are waiting to see exactly how far Cuomo will push on ethics - he has said he'll be outlining a major reform plan at the top of this State of the State and budget address on Jan.13.

Krueger said it is now incumbent on Cuomo and the public to make it clear to legislative leaders that massive reform is needed. "This is about how hard the governor pushes and how loud the public screams," she said.

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

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

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Good Government Groups Want Legislators to Pledge to Fight for Reform Wed, 06 Jan 2016 23:47:40 +0000
Good Government Groups Point to New Evidence of Need for Major Ethics Reform http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5983:good-government-groups-point-to-new-evidence-of-need-for-major-ethics-reform http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5983:good-government-groups-point-to-new-evidence-of-need-for-major-ethics-reform cuomo silver skelos 2011

L-R: Silver, Cuomo & Skelos in 2011 (photo via the governor's office) 


New York's leading good government groups gathered at Manhattan's Foley Square Wednesday to call on the New York State legislature and the governor to take immediate action to reform public ethics laws. The press conference, held in the shadows of a federal courthouse where one of New York’s most powerful politicians is being tried on corruption charges, came as other recent developments also shine a bright light on the state's insufficient handling of ethics and corruption.

Not only has the trial of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver begun, but the trial of former Majority Leader Dean Skelos is set to begin next week; and, there was the recent release of a report by a state ethics review commission calling for changes as well as a national study assessing state government accountability and transparency giving New York a "D-" grade.

So on Wednesday, Citizens Union, Reinvent Albany, Common Cause NY, the League of Women Voters of New York State, and the New York Public Interest Research Group sent a letter to Governor Cuomo and the two new legislative leaders, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, urging them to come together to enact comprehensive and significant reforms in five ethics categories. To bring further attention to their calls for reform, the groups held a press conference.

“This news conference is the first of many actions our groups are going to be taking in the months to come to really push this front and center, because we can no longer tolerate the current state of affairs,” said Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union. “We want to urge immediate action and if possible even a special session.”

“New Yorkers are so disgusted, they’ve just come to accept that this is part and parcel of how state government operates, and it should not be,” Dadey said. “With the convergence of all these events, there is no better time than now to enact these reforms.”

The reforms the groups are calling to be enacted either in a special end-of-year session or in early 2016 include:

  • Change legislative compensation through upcoming recommendations by a recently appointed pay commission, considering increased salaries and greater limits on outside income.
  • "Limit the influence of dark money campaign contributions and end government spending that takes place in the shadows' through measures such as closing the infamous LLC loophole.
  • "Reform ethics oversight and enforcement" by making changes to JCOPE’s structure, scope, and voting procedures to increase transparency and independence.
  • "Strengthen financial reporting disclosure requirements for public officers to allow the public to more easily spot conflicts of interest."
  • "Streamline and standardize disclosure of lobbying activity for better analysis and easier evaluation by the public."

While the Silver and Skelos trials come just two months after the Senate's second-highest-ranking Republican, Tom Libous, was convicted of lying under oath to FBI agents during an investigation into his son's hiring at a politically connected law firm. New York City just elected two new state legislators to fill vacant seats vacated due to corruption charges.

Silver, charged with five federal counts of theft of honest services, mail fraud, wire fraud, and extortion for improperly using his public position to obtain nearly $4 million in illicit payments, and Skelos, charged with six federal counts of conspiracy, extortion, wire fraud, and soliciting bribes in connection with exploiting his public position in order to secure a lucrative no-show job for his son, have both declared their innocence, with Silver’s legal team attempting to paint its client’s dealing as par for the course in Albany.

It is the pervasive culture of corruption - both legal and illegal - in state government that has undermined public trust and yet failed to spur truly meaningful reform, good government advocates and many legislators and other stakeholders say.

“For far too long, state legislators in particular have used their public posts for private gain, and have lined their pockets,” Dadey said Wednesday. “Much of what is happening here in the Silver trial and in the Skelos trial shows how one hand washes another, and we want to see that practice end.”

Decrying a system that is akin to “a perfect storm that would encourage corruption by state lawmakers,” Dadey said “Citizens Union believes we should raise the pay significantly, limit outside income, eliminate stipends, and overhaul the way in which [legislators’] daily expense reimbursements are handled.”

In the past decade, 27 legislators have left office due to criminal or ethical issues. “So far, there is no sign that the arrests of the legislative leaders has changed how Albany does business,” John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, said in a statement. At the press conference, Kaehny added, “One big step toward changing that is to see where the money is going. No more secret spending. No more spending in the shadows. Let’s see transparency for state spending, and let’s end the pay-to-play and legal bribery that are on trial here.”

On the same day that Silver's trial began, the New York Ethics Review Commission released an evaluation the current ethics oversight system and recommended reforms to improve the functioning of the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) and the Legislative Ethics Commission (LEC).

The recommendations include eliminating the veto power JCOPE commissioners have over investigations, among several others.

Citizens Union has advocated for all of the aforementioned reforms, and while the changes recommended by the Ethics Review Commission are certainly seen as a welcome first step by good government groups, the recommendations failed to include other reforms advocates have called for, such as making commissioners more independent.

“We want to ramp up the capability and the independence of ethics oversight,” Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause NY said at Wednesday’s press conference. “Reform JCOPE, give it more independence, give it more teeth, give it the ability to investigate, and reform the actual number of commissioners so that they don’t deadlock and are not beholden to the people who appoint them.”

Saying that he believes JCOPE can be essential in improving public ethics and integrity, Dadey added, “Let’s not lose sight of the fact that Dean Skelos and Sheldon Silver were two of the three architects that created JCOPE. And they created some of the protections that JCOPE is hindered by right now in terms of the voting procedures. With the two of them on trial, and both of them having been authors of this Public Integrity Reform Act that created JCOPE, we have an opportunity to strengthen JCOPE in the coming months.”

dick dadey good govt groups nov 11 presser(Dick Dadey, center; photo by Zack Fink of NY1)

On Monday, the Center for Public Integrity and open-governance group Global Integrity released the 2015 State Integrity Investigation, a comprehensive, data-driven assessment of the systems in place to deter corruption in state government, and gave New York a D- grade, a drop from the previous 2012 State Integrity Investigation, when New York received a D.

Ranking 30th among 49 states, New York failed miserably in several categories, receiving an F on public access to information, electoral oversight, judicial accountability, state budget processes, procurement, and ethics enforcement agencies.

The reforms proposed by good government groups would go a long way in preventing a repeat of New York’s dismal performance on those measures.

“We need absolutely clarity in terms of who [legislators] are getting paid by and what they are getting paid for,” Lerner said Wednesday. “So that someone can’t say ‘I’m a lawyer, I represent ordinary people,’ and then it turns out that his law partners say he doesn’t do any legal work and is solely gaining money from referrals” (as was the case with Silver and is the case with other lawyer-legislators who are “of counsel” at law firms).

“There is something wrong with our disclosure system if that kind of misstatement can exist for years and years and years and it takes a criminal trial to really show what the true situation is,” Lerner added.

New York’s failing grade on state budget processes - for which New York ranked dead last in the nation - comes as no surprise, given New York’s reputation for“three men in a room” (the governor, Assembly Speaker, and Senate Majority Leader) deciding on the details of the state’s $142 billion budget behind closed doors.

“The governor can’t reform the legislature by himself,” Kaehny said, “but the governor can lead by example. And right now, we have billions of dollars in spending that are secret, that the public cannot see.”

“Is it corrupt?” Kaehny asked. “We don’t know. But we should know. So can the governor do something about that by taking a lead? Absolutely, yes. The governor could have complete transparency on budget matters - he proposes the budget, he can reveal the budget, that’s up to him.”

The recent release of these two reports and the ongoing corruption trials of two legislative leaders have put the spotlight on New York's dire need for state action on ethics reform, yet as Bob Hardt wrote in a recent NY1 column on the issue, “Never aggressively pushing campaign finance reform or transparency, Governor Cuomo seems content to play the master of Albany's current political game rather than rewriting its rules. A government of one is naturally threatened by an open door.”

When pressed as to whether Cuomo has done enough to fix Albany’s corruption problems, Dadey said, “The governor has been a leader on many of these ethics reforms,” but added, “I wish that he was a more vocal leader on some of these issues that are still left on the table, like legislative compensation, like restructuring JCOPE so that it has a greater authority and stronger voting structures to pursue corruption.”

In 2013, Governor Cuomo established the Moreland Commission on Public Corruption to combat the systemic corruption in Albany. Yet less than a year later, in a deal involving Silver and Skelos, Cuomo disbanded the commission - reportedly just as the commission was preparing to issue subpoenas to several state Senate campaign committees.

Governor Cuomo could, as good government groups have suggested, compel the legislature to return for a special session to overhaul ethics laws, though the governor has made it clear in the past that he has no intention of doing so. “A special session to do what? I mean, we've proposed every ethics law imaginable," Cuomo said in an interview on The Capitol Pressroom in July.

Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, meanwhile, has previously advocated for a convening a special session on ethics reform, in addition to pushing his “End New York Corruption Now Act,” a sweeping ethics reform package which seeks to drastically reform how business is done in Albany.

“One of the requests that Citizens Union has made for a long time is to give the Attorney General the power to pursue corruption,” Dadey said of one of the elements in Schneiderman’s plan. “He can only pursue corruption right now if the governor consents to granting him that authority.”

“It’s a strange thing that when the current governor was Attorney General, he asked for that same authority when Governor Spitzer was in office, and when he became governor, he was not willing to give that authority to Attorney General Schneiderman,” Dadey pointed out.

A July 15 poll by the Siena Research Institute found 90 percent of New York voters felt state government corruption is a serious problem. An October 26 Siena poll found 74 percent of those surveyed believed Governor Cuomo was doing a poor to fair job reducing corruption in state government.

“New Yorkers have lost faith in state government to make decisions without using the interest and influence of those who do business with the state,” the good government groups said in a statement. “In light of this storm of two trials and two reports, the groups call for immediate action on these widely-supported reforms, and in a special session if possible.”

***
by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette
@MegOConnor13
@GothamGazette

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

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Good Government Groups Point to New Evidence of Need for Major Ethics Reform Thu, 12 Nov 2015 04:12:57 +0000
Rumored Scheme Brings Scrutiny to Bronx Political Machine http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5891:rumored-scheme-brings-scrutiny-to-bronx-political-machine http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5891:rumored-scheme-brings-scrutiny-to-bronx-political-machine diaz jr heastie crespo

Diaz Jr., Heastie, Crespo (l-r) (photo: @rubendiazjr)


By all reasonable indicators, Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson should cruise to reelection this November despite his low conviction rate, notoriously slow pace in filing charges, and apparent lack of serious fundraising. But many are watching closely to see if Johnson drops off the ballot this month and makes himself eligible to be appointed to a judgeship--thereby allowing the Bronx County Democrats to name his replacement.

As rumors and suspicions swirl, the notion of Johnson and other longtime Bronx party leaders manipulating the electoral system to their advantage comes as little surprise to those who've seen the Bronx machine at work. But, with powerful Bronx elected officials newly more prominent, the risks of such machinations are greater than in the past.

District Attorney Johnson has been in a unique situation for decades. Thanks to the support of the Bronx County Democratic Party, he has faced few serious political challenges since taking office in 1989 and is running this year on the Democratic, Conservative, and Republican ballot lines.

Bronx insiders are convinced that Bronx County Democratic Chair Marcos Crespo and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (Crespo's predecessor as county chair) have decided to appoint Johnson to a judgeship and then replace him on the ticket with one of their allies, thereby subverting the democratic process.

The technique that could be used to replace Johnson isn't unique; it has been used time and time again across the city to, basically, gift seats to party-friendly candidates. The Bronx has long been a haven for the workings of the County Democratic machine, but with Heastie's ascent to one of the post powerful positions in the state and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr.'s rising profile, it appears it will be much more difficult to pull off such maneuvers without paying a price.

Actions in the Bronx are now linked to the larger political aspirations of these rising stars and they've earned the attention of good government groups and media outside the borough.

What is particularly concerning to reformers inside and outside of government is that Crespo, Heastie, and Diaz would essentially be appointing the person who is, in part, supposed to police their actions. Johnson's record on corruption busting is suspicious to many. He has pursued cases against former Assemblymember Nelson Castro and former Senator Pedro Espada, but at the time both men were out of the county party's good graces. In fact, they were known for causing Bronx Democrats nasty headaches.

With Heastie, who this year replaced the indicted Sheldon Silver as speaker, pledging transparency and reform in the Assembly, some observers wonder if he isn't trying to avoid future embarrassment by being directly responsible for appointing the new district attorney.

"The bottom line is that it is always nice to have your derriere covered by a prosecutor that owes you their job," said Douglas Muzzio, professor of political science at Baruch College.

Johnson's office has refused to comment for this story. Heastie has told other reporters that he gave up decision-making abilities as the chair of the Bronx County Democrats when he became Assembly speaker. And Assemblymember Crespo has avoided responding to queries from numerous outlets, including Gotham Gazette.

It stands to reason that Bronx Borough president Ruben Diaz, Jr., who would also have a say in the matter given his relationship with Heastie and his quest to run, eventually, for mayor. Diaz Jr.'s office also ignored requests for comment.

The scenario has been further complicated by Assemblymember Luis Sepulveda, who has made it no secret that he is interested the district attorney position. Sepulveda is said to have informed Johnson he would be challenging him down the road, even while helping him collect petitions for his reelection this summer.

Bob Kappstatter, a prolific Bronx journalist who currently works as a political consultant and counts Sepulveda as a client, took to Facebook to decry the behind-the-scenes machinations that may be afoot.

"We can count on one hand how many Bronx politicians Rob Johnson has gone after, with most of those being County's enemies. Meanwhile the feds have vacuumed the borough ALMOST clean," Kappstatter wrote on Facebook. "Carl [Heastie], whom we hear didn't expect all this heat from the media and good government groups, has dumped the deal in the lap of new County Leader Marcos Crespo, an honest, decent guy who will have to take the heat if it goes through. Marcos is already looking like Heastie's puppet, diminishing his power among the city's four other Dem county leaders while Carl still pulls County's strings."

Sepulveda's interest in the DA position has angered the Bronx County Democrats. Earlier this month the Daily News ran a story detailing how Sepulveda's estranged wife sought an order of protection from him earlier this summer. Both Luis and his wife told the Daily News that she withdrew the request. Insiders see it as retaliation from County for his interest in Johnson's job.

Exposing any deal among Johnson and other officials could benefit Sepulveda, because outside pressure might lead to Johnson stepping down after the election rather than before.

The process Bronx County Democrats could use to replace Johnson is particularly effective because Democratic enrollment in the borough greatly eclipses that of all other parties.

Democratic voters decide the election during the September primary, with the November election essentially being a formality - not that Johnson was challenged in the primary. If Johnson steps down before Election Day, his county-picked replacement would move into office with all the benefits of incumbency and the backing of the establishment. Any future primary challenger would face a well-known, well-financed incumbent who hadn't actually been elected by a significant number of voters.

"This is a fairly common practice in New York politics," said Gerald Benjamin, professor of political science at SUNY New Paltz. "It is anti-competitive and it allows the newly appointed incumbent to use that incumbency to defeat their next challenger."

"As a general principle of government, it stinks," said Gene Russianoff of The New York Public Interest Research Group. "The primary election process might not be perfect but at least it offers hope. Forgoing it is a thumb in the eye to voters."

Johnson would have to submit a letter to the Board of Elections asking to be removed from the ballot by Monday, September 21.

If Johnson resigns after he is elected in November, Gov. Andrew Cuomo could name an interim district attorney and would eventually set a date for a special election. This would likely allow Sepulveda and other hopefuls a chance to actually vie for the seat.

Professor Benjamin said that voters should be especially concerned about the machinations involved in Johnson's possible replacement and appointment to a judgeship given what The New York Times described as "an unusual string of legal lapses" that allowed Heastie to keep a home his mother purchased with embezzled funds.

Heastie agreed to sell the house as part of a deal that allowed Heastie's mother to avoid jail time. His mother died three weeks after being sentenced and Heastie stopped trying to sell the home. He sold it six years later at a profit of $200,000.

"Carelessness of those involved in the case could be to blame, or something more questionable could have occurred, given the Bronx Democratic Party's influence on the court system and its long history of back-room deal-making," wrote the Times.

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

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Rumored Scheme Brings Scrutiny to Bronx Political Machine Thu, 17 Sep 2015 23:24:55 +0000
Republicans Face Moment of Truth After Conviction of Senate Deputy Leader http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5836:republicans-face-moment-of-truth-after-conviction-of-senate-deputy-leader http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5836:republicans-face-moment-of-truth-after-conviction-of-senate-deputy-leader Flanagan Libous

Sen. Flanagan, standing, & former Sen. Libous (photo: Lori Van Buren)


When Senator Tom Libous, deputy majority leader for the state Senate Republicans, was convicted last week it sent a shockwave through the capital. Sure, indictments and convictions of powerful sitting legislators are a dime a dozen these days thanks to the efforts of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, but many in Albany felt Libous' case was different.

Well-liked on both sides of the aisle, many legislators felt the case against Libous was weak, that the charge of lying to the FBI about using his power to help his son secure a job was the prosecution grasping at straws. Libous' colleagues were so confident he'd avoid conviction that new Majority Leader John Flannagan kept him on as deputy majority leader after Flanagan's ascension in the wake of the indictment of his own predecessor, Sen. Dean Skelos.

Not only was the 62-year-old Binghamton-area legislator thought to be honest by many, but Libous is also battling terminal cancer and was too ill to make most session days this spring. Many expected the jury to acquit Libous and that he would retire with his honor intact, with time for the GOP to prepare a strong replacement candidate. But, it took the jury just six hours to find Libous guilty. He now faces up to five years in prison.

"The amount of time it took for the jury to reach a decision sends a real message," said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group. The indictment of Sen. Skelos certainly set Senate Republicans into a spiral, but in some ways Libous' conviction was more impactful.

"This really sets a new bar," said one lawyer-legislator on the condition of anonymity. "It was a shock to most of us because it means anyone can be found guilty on whatever charge is made."

It is well-documented that anxiety, even paranoia, was already running high among Albany lawmakers as indictment after indictment comes down.

The message for a number of Republicans is that their former leader, Skelos, is not likely to get off scot-free and that prosecutors are likely to keep digging. Libous' conviction is different than that of Democrat John Sampson's, also reached last week, in that Senate Democrats had turned again Sampson long ago, ousting him from the conference, and actively tried to defeat him in the last election. Democrats have been on a rebuilding and rebranding spree for the last four years, though their mission took a hit with the charges against Silver. Meanwhile, Senate Republicans have been delivering the same message: 'stay the course,' despite the fact that they hold a tenuous grasp on the majority.

It is a razor-thin majority that is at risk not only in the race to replace Libous, the election for which will occur this fall, but in the 2016 elections for every seat of the Legislature set to occur during a presidential year when Democrats typically perform better.

"The message the U.S. Attorney has sent with his indictments of Skelos, Sampson, Libous, and Silver was already very clear," said Karen Scharff of Citizen Action NY, a left-leaning reform group. "[Bharara] is very serious about looking into their behavior," she said of Albany legislators. "This conviction isn't anything new and is why it's so frustrating that Senate Republicans aren't willing to talk about real reform."

Senate Republicans are desperate to weather what is expected to be a 2016 Democratic storm thanks to the presidential race. Senate Democrats have won a numerical majority coinciding with the last two presidential elections and Democratic turnout is expected to be relatively immense in 2016, especially given what is likely to be a Hillary Clinton candidacy.

Democrats are sure push ethics and campaign finance reform, such as closing the infamous LLC loophole, throughout the rest of 2015 and 2016.

Libous' conviction spotlights another one of the conference's major liabilities - a shallow bench. While Democrats have a number of young sitting senators and have been recruiting and building up candidates in districts where they expect close contests, Republicans are dealing with a number of aging members who appear close to retirement, though committed to staying on to preserve the majority but not to do much else.

Libous was long talked about as a future majority leader and his name would periodically come up as a potential replacement for Skelos whenever there was dissension in the ranks. He was known for working across the aisle and continuing dialogue with Senate Democrats during even the most acrimonious episodes. "They are dealing with an aging conference and while we've seen Democrats recruit new faces each election, Republicans appear to be struggling to attract young, noteworthy leaders," said Scharff.

Sen. John DeFrancisco was recently named to replace Libous as deputy majority leader and while many Senate Republicans see it as a great, almost inevitable choice, it also exposes how thin their ranks are. DeFrancisco has long served as the chair of the finance committee and is integral in producing favorable budgets. Not many other members have the knowledge, commitment, or interest to replace DeFrancisco in that role, which he all but certainly vacates to become minority leader. "I'm afraid that he is going to try to do both," said one member on the condition of anonymity. "I really don't see that as being possible. It's too much for one man to do."

With Libous' seat now up for grabs the math for retaining an already thin majority becomes more difficult even though the seat is in a heavily Republican district. "We will absolutely hit the ground running," Flanagan said in Cooperstown last Wednesday. "I expect to spend a lot of time in Binghamton. It's a very important race. It's critical not only to our conference, but to the people of the State of New York."

Now, Republicans are coalescing around Broome County Undersheriff Fred Akshar. Denver Jones, who has campaigned as a Republican in the past, also appears to be seeking the seat, which could cause some trouble for Akshar and the party.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has already endorsed the Democratic candidate, Barbara Fiala, even before she was officially a candidate. "Barbara Fiala is a quality person," Cuomo told reporters last week. "I've known her for a number of years, she was a member of my administration, she was a commissioner for the Department of Motor Vehicles."

Cuomo's endorsement surprised Republicans, as Cuomo has previously worked closely with them in preserving their majority and has praised a number of sitting Republican legislators. However, Libous still maintains a great deal of power and popularity in the district and could turn the tide if he is able to campaign.

Legislative corruption is almost certain to come up during a campaign for a seat rendered empty by the conviction of a sitting legislator. Democrats are likely to try to paint Republicans as roadblocks to sweeping ethics and campaign finance reforms, though it will be a tricky message to craft given the party's own corruption issues.

The vote to replace Libous will take place in November unless Cuomo calls a special election, something he has been loathe to do in the past. Whoever wins this year will have to turn around and defend the seat in 2016. Meanwhile, Skelos' case remains in the news as Bharara has introduced new charges and it heads toward trial. Both Skelos and former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver are scheduled to be on trial in early November, in the days surrounding the general election.

A recent Siena College poll found that public corruption is very much on voters' minds and likely to impact their votes come November. Ninety percent of voters surveyed for the poll released July 15 said public corruption is a major problem and 49 percent said recent scandal would make them less likely to reelect their incumbent legislator come 2016.

Horner said he believes Republicans hope the Libous case blows away as so many other scandals have so that they can attack Democrats on corruption in their ranks. Running races with corruption as an issue isn't exactly easy for Republicans as they have opposed every major reform measure good government advocates support.

"They really have no world view on reform other than term limits," said Horner of Senate Republicans. "And they back term limits in the same way Democrats back campaign finance reform - because they know the other side won't let it pass."

Meanwhile, reform groups and some legislators continue calls for a special session to address public corruption which in turn has forced Cuomo to point the finger at Senate Republicans for their recalcitrance. "I haven't heard a legislator say, 'OK, my mind is changed.' I haven't heard anything from the Senate or the Assembly saying, 'Our minds are changed, we now want to pass a bill that we didn't want to pass," Cuomo said in defending his dismissal of those calls for special session.

Cuomo, who was close to Libous and has spoken kindly of him even of late, is seen by many as a roadblock to true large-scale reform. Cuomo said Libous "never stopped serving the people of his district," despite having terminal cancer and added: "It's a sad, sad personal tragedy. This is a man who was a quality public servant for a lot of years."

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

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Republicans Face Moment of Truth After Conviction of Senate Deputy Leader Mon, 03 Aug 2015 21:33:02 +0000