Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/623 Sat, 15 Dec 2018 21:50:36 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Commission Recommends Pay Increases and Ethics Reforms for State Legislators http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8125-commission-recommends-pay-increases-and-ethics-reforms-for-state-legislators http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8125-commission-recommends-pay-increases-and-ethics-reforms-for-state-legislators senatechamberalbany2

(Photo via Wiki Commons)


Statewide elected officials, legislators and agency heads are slated to get pay raises next year following recommendations issued Thursday by a four-member panel that was created in this year’s state budget.

The New York State Compensation Committee voted on Thursday to raise the salaries of legislators for the first time in nearly twenty years, as well as for the four statewide offices and for executive agency commissioners. The committee will publicly release a report and deliver it to Governor Andrew Cuomo and the State Legislature on Monday outlining their binding recommendations on phasing in the salary increases over three years, accompanied by certain ethics reform measures. The raises will go into effect by January 1 unless the state legislature meets and rejects them.

The committee -- which included State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, former State Comptroller and SUNY Board Chair Carl McCall, and former New York City Comptroller and CUNY Board Chair Bill Thompson -- was created in the state budget to determine an appropriate raise for legislators, based on cost of living and on salaries for legislators in other states. The current base pay for state legislators stands at $79,500 and has remained unchanged since 1999.

Per the panel’s unanimous recommendations, salaries for legislators will be raised to $130,000 by 2021, with lawmakers set to receive $110,000 in 2019 and $120,000 in 2020. The commission also recommended limiting outside income for legislators to 15 percent of their salary, in line with the rules for members of Congress, and the elimination of committee stipends -- commonly referred to as lulus -- for all but the top leadership in both legislative chambers.

“I think in looking at the fact that they haven’t had a raise in twenty years...when you talk about the issues of fairness, it is not the right thing,” Thompson said, arguing that the idea that legislators only work part-time is a mischaracterization due to their in-district work. The limits on outside income will take effect in 2020, because, according to McCall, legislators would need time to disengage from their outside income-generating activities and could not do so right away.

The panel also endorsed raising the governor’s salary to $250,000 by 2021, up from the current $179,000. The lieutenant governor, attorney general, and state comptroller, each of whom currently make $151,000, will see their pay rise to $210,000 salary by 2021. DiNapoli recused himself from that vote.

The pay raise committee was originally meant to be chaired by Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, but DiFiore announced in May that she would not serve because she believed a judge determining legislative pay was unconstitutional. The broader constitutionality of the committee has also been challenged, as it is still unclear whether a pay raise can be authorized by outside officials or if it must be approved by the legislature. The panel members, however, insisted that their recommendations are enforceable for all their proposals except the raises for the governor and lieutenant governor, which must be approved by a joint resolution of the legislature. They also maintained that tying the raises to an outside income limitation and curbing committee stipends was within their authority, which could potentially invite legal challenges going forward.

When the salary raises are fully implemented by 2021, New York will surpass California and have the highest-paid governor and legislature in the nation. McCall noted that coupling the pay increase with outside income limitations would also quell the discontent New Yorkers feel about giving raises to a legislature that has long been marred by scandal and corruption. “We really have to make sure that we send the signals to the public about how serious they are about doing their job and doing it well,” McCall said.

For executive agency heads, the panel proposed four classes of salary, a decrease from the current six, which will be assigned depending on the agency. By 2021, commissioners in the top class will make $220,000 and commissioners in the bottom class will make $170,000.

Legislative leaders have expressed support for the panel’s recommendations. Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins announced her support for the measure on Thursday, hours before the meeting, while also concurrently declaring support for ethics reform. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie testified to the Commission last week in favor of the raise, noting that legislators have financial strains similar to their constituents. “They too must finance college loans, meet the cost of child care, and provide for the wellbeing of elderly parents and loved ones at home,” Heastie said. He further argued that, because so many legislators live in the expensive New York City metro area, a pay raise was warranted to more adequately reflect the high cost of living here.

The New York Public Interest Research Group, which advocates for government reform, was skeptical of the panel’s recommendations, pushing for a more comprehensive set of “corruption-busting” reforms. “While we agree that the Congressional model is appropriate to regulate legislators’ outside income, advancing a reform in this area alone is inadequate,” said NYPIRG’s Blair Horner, in a statement. “We note that the ethical problems that have plagued the state have not been limited to the legislative branch. Given the stunning pay-to-play scandals that have rocked government, reforms in that area must be addressed. Failure to do so highlights the inadequacy of the reform package.”

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by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

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Commission Recommends Pay Increases and Ethics Reforms for State Legislators Thu, 06 Dec 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Reform Groups Launch 'Restore Public Trust' Campaign http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7405-reform-groups-launch-restore-public-trust-campaign http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7405-reform-groups-launch-restore-public-trust-campaign Cuomo Long Island flag

(photo: The Governor's Office)


New York’s leading government reform groups reacted to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s 2018 State of the State agenda on Thursday in Albany, holding a press conference to urge the governor and legislative leaders to adopt a package of reforms to help restore public confidence in state government.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that Cuomo failed to pass any of the reforms he promised in the wake of the alleged bid-rigging schemes associated with his signature economic development programs, government ethics and contracting reform got barely a mention in Cuomo’s 92-minute Wednesday address. His 2018 policy book includes many of the same reform measures included in his 2017 version, such as closure of the LLC loophole, limits on outside income for state legislators, the creation of a chief procurement officer, and expansion of the oversight of the state inspector general. Critics point out that the latter two measures would not be significant reforms given they would both be under the governor.

Citing the six upcoming corruption trials of former high-ranking public officials that begin this month, representatives from New York Public Interest Group, Citizens Union, Reinvent Albany, Common Cause/NY, and League of Women Voters outlined specific actions they believe must be taken to prevent corruption and clean up state government.

The coalition is urging state leaders to approve a package of reforms, titled “Restore the Public’s Trust,” which includes procurement reform, transparency in lump-sum budget appropriations, an end to “pay-to-play,” closure of the LLC Loophole, strict limits on outside income for legislators, and the empowerment of “independent, effective, well-resourced” watchdog agencies.

The courtroom dramas that are bound to cast a shadow over this legislative session touch on both the executive and legislative branches, as well as state and local government. Two of the trials directly touch Gov. Cuomo’s inner circle of aides, allies, and donors, while the two former legislative leaders, Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos, will be retried after their corruption convictions were overturned due to a new Supreme Court ruling.

The trial of Joseph Percoco, former executive deputy secretary to Gov. Cuomo, is scheduled to begin January 22; former State Senator George Maziarz’s trial will start February 5; former Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano will be tried beginning March 12, and former SUNY Polytechnic Institute President and CEO Alain Kaloyeros’ trial is set to begin May 15.

“Pay-to-play is a major issue in New York State because of lump sum appropriations in the budget and because of a lack of transparency in the procurement process,” said Jennifer Wilson of League of Women Voters at Thursday’s news conference. “In 2016, we learned that a lot of the RFPs in Buffalo Billion were people who gave huge donations to the governor. Other states have pay to play laws; we can’t allow that in New York State.

Especially pointing to the Silver and Skelos sagas, the civic groups are calling on legislative leaders to act.

“LLCs loom large in the Skelos and Silver cases,” said NYPIRG Executive Director Blair Horner. “Glenwood Management pumped in more than $10 million into campaign contributions.”

“The Senate has to be brought along; there’s no way around it,” Horner said, referring to the fact that campaign finance reforms are more popular in the Democrat-led Assembly than the Republican-led Senate.

The cases the groups mentioned are just the latest in a seemingly endless barrage of corruption scandals plaguing state and local government, earning New York its reputation as one of the most corrupt states in the nation. At least 33 legislators have left office since 2000 due to corruption-related issues.

Good government groups have been pushing for some of these measures for years, and to some might sound like a broken record, as state Senate leadership has continued to block campaign finance reform and the governor has opposed the type of procurement reform being called for by the groups, Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, and others. But after last session, good government leaders say there have been some encouraging signs on the transparency front, citing legislation from Republican Senator John DeFrancisco, of Syracuse, that progressed through the finance committee, but ultimately did not make it to the floor of the Senate.

“Last year we saw some movement on the clean contracting bill from the Comptroller, and on the database of deals, and the governor’s put forth his proposal on prohibiting vendors from making campaign contributions during the bidding process,” said Alex Camarda, of ReInvent Albany.

  • As presented by the groups, the Restore Public Trust agenda, which they say will be the basis of a “campaign,” includes:
    Clean Contracting. Basic accountability measures that would result in an open, ethical, and efficient way to award government contracts appropriations, an area which was identified as a key problem in the indictments of the governor’s top aides.
  • Real Budget Transparency. Make lump-sum budget appropriations and the resulting expenditures fully transparent.
  • Ban “Pay to Play.” Strict “pay to play” restrictions on state vendors. The U.S. Attorney’s charges that $800m in state contracts were rigged to benefit campaign contributors to the governor underscores the need to strictly limit contributions from those seeking state contracts.
  • Close the “LLC Loophole.” Current practice allows essentially unlimited campaign contributions via Limited Liability Companies. LLCs have been at the heart of some of Albany’s largest scandals.
  • Strict Limits on Outside Income. Real limits on the outside income for legislators and the executive branch. Moonlighting by top legislative leaders and top members of the executive branch has triggered indictments by the federal prosecutors.
  • Effective Watchdogs. Truly independent, effective, well-resourced, ethics enforcement agencies are needed (e.g. JCOPE, SBOE, ABO).

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. ]]>
Reform Groups Launch 'Restore Public Trust' Campaign Thu, 04 Jan 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Cuomo Criticized for Failing to Call Special Election January 1 http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7399-cuomo-criticized-for-failing-to-call-special-election-january-1 http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7399-cuomo-criticized-for-failing-to-call-special-election-january-1 Cuomo Flanagan Long Island

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Cuomo Criticized for Failing to Call Special Election January 1 Tue, 02 Jan 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Voting Reform Advocates Say Cuomo Can Do More Through Executive Order http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7089-voting-reform-advocates-say-cuomo-can-do-more-through-executive-order http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7089-voting-reform-advocates-say-cuomo-can-do-more-through-executive-order Cuomo podium

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


Governor Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order Monday expanding the list of New York State agencies required to provide voter registration assistance and creating a task force to oversee implementation of the program.

While current state and federal law requires the forms to be available at the Department of Motor Vehicles and certain social service agencies, Cuomo’s new order mandates that all agencies that interact with the public through professional licensing, recreational activities and other avenues carry the forms.

The State Agency Voter Registration Task Force -- comprised of Cuomo’s counsel Alphonso David, Jamie Rubin, his Director of State Operations, as well as a variety of agency commissioners -- will explore ways to implement the reforms laid out in the executive order. The task force will also study the use of electronic signatures and how to set up secure online voting registration systems -- similar to the one currently in place at the Department of Motor Vehicles -- through additional state agencies, according to the governor’s office.

Advocates of voting reform, who were disappointed by the lack of meaningful electoral reform during the 2017 legislative session, were buoyed by the news, praising it as an important first step, but they also noted that a lot more can be done to increase access to registration and voting.

“While we appreciate Governor Cuomo’s intentions, his proposed executive order will do little to address the issues New York State voters face on Election Day. Voter purges, strict registration and party change deadlines, and long lines at the polls cannot be fixed with enhanced voter registration,” said Jennifer Wilson of League of Women Voters in a statement.

In pointing out that voter registration is not the main barrier to voting in New York State, Wilson noted that in 2016 voter registration reached a record high, but many newly enrolled voters faced barriers to casting their ballots.

“While we agree that state agencies should take a more active role in voter registration, we would prefer to see an executive order that enacts early voting, alters registration deadlines, or allows for electronic poll books. The only way to truly empower voters and ensure ballot integrity is to make voting easier and more accessible,” said Wilson.

Reinvent Albany, a government reform group, issued a statement saying the organization is “most excited by the potential to use proven technology to implement fully online voter registration in New York State. State agencies, SUNY and CUNY and Boards of Election should make voting easier by maximizing the use of secure technology.”

“Governor Cuomo’s actions are a helpful step in what we hope is a wider push to update our archaic voting system,” said New York Civil Liberties Union head Donna Lieberman, noting the executive action’s timeliness in the wake of the Trump administration’s request for voter information through its newly created voter fraud commission, which critics say is paving the way to attempt voter suppression, and 44 states, including New York, have refused to comply with.

The voter registration expansion ordered by Cuomo could have a significant impact in places like New York City and Westchester where a considerable number of voters do not frequently interact with the DMV, because they are not car owners or are not licensed to drive.

A recent study by the New York Public Interest Group (NYPIRG), which has been pushing for all agencies to make voter registration forms available, found that fewer than 50 percent of people who are of voting age living in Brooklyn or the Bronx possessed driver’s licenses, while in Queens, 64 percent of those residents were licensed, and in Manhattan, 54 percent of those residents were licensed. Eighty-three percent of voting age Staten Islanders were licensed, and in Westchester, 88 percent of those residents were registered with the DMV.

The analysis also found disparities between men and women who interacted with the DMV in New York State; there were 300,000 fewer female licensed drivers than male drivers, though there are 600,000 more women than men in the state. The NYPIRG estimates are based on 2010 U.S. Census data.

Cuomo has also ordered SUNY and CUNY to conduct a full investigation of their campus voter registration practices in order to ensure that required steps are being taken to increase voter registration rates among young voters on the state's public college campuses. State law requires SUNY and CUNY campuses to provide all students with voter registration forms at the beginning of each school year, as well as in January of each presidential election year.

Finally, Cuomo directed the DMV to send information referencing its online voter registration application in all emails reminding New Yorkers to renew their licenses, identification cards, and vehicle registrations, in order to maximize New Yorkers' awareness of the electronic voter registration application.

Since the launch of online voter registration in 2012, there have been over 921,922 online voter registration applications, including 430,886 who identified themselves as first-time voters, according to Cuomo’s office.

Reinvent Albany called on the new Cuomo task force, CUNY and SUNY to hold public hearings around improving voter registration.

Earlier this year, as part of his State of the State and 2017 policy book, the governor proposed "The Democracy Project," a legislative package to further modernize and reform New York's voting system. The bills were comprehensive, including early voting, same-day voter registration, and automatic voter registration, but the governor was criticized for failing to see any of those measures passed during the budget or subsequent legislative session, which ended in late June.

When asked about the failure to pass these reforms, Cuomo said there was “no appetite” in the Legislature.

"There is more to do; there is no political will to do it. Otherwise we would have done it in the budget," Cuomo said of the reforms when talking with reporters at an annual Easter open house.

Chisun Lee, senior counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, noted that while an executive order has its limitations, the governor could direct his task force to “study the benefits of and best practices for implementing opt-out automatic registration — a reform that would move New York from the back of the pack to the vanguard of pro-voter states.” Under this program, all eligible voters would automatically be registered unless they proactively declined.

“Today’s order is a good step forward, though more can and should be done to replace New York’s archaic, paper-based registration system with a modern, electronic one that increases efficiency and improves accuracy of our registration rolls,” Lee said in a statement.

A spokesperson for Cuomo’s office said the governor will continue to push for the reforms introduced in his 2017 agenda, but did not elaborate about how.

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Voting Reform Advocates Say Cuomo Can Do More Through Executive Order Wed, 26 Jul 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Reviews Are In: What Watchdogs Say About The New State Budget http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7003-reviews-are-in-what-watchdogs-say-about-new-state-budget http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7003-reviews-are-in-what-watchdogs-say-about-new-state-budget Cuomo budget presentation

(photo: The Governor's Office)


A new state budget was passed in April in typical Albany fashion: with almost no time for public scrutiny of the bills or proper review by the legislators who quickly voted them through. Since the $153.1 billion budget was passed, watchdogs both in and out of government have released analyses, helping to better inform citizens and increase accountability.

The budget was adopted a little over a week into the new fiscal year, which begins April 1, after compromises were reached among legislative leaders and Governor Andrew Cuomo on contentious issues such as raising the age of adult criminal responsibility, education aid, a college tuition affordability program, the allocation of large sums of affordable housing monies, and more. The frantic and secretive nature of state budget adoption leaves a lot to digest afterward.

Now, about two months after the budget was passed, those analyses by watchdogs can bring to light a few common themes and several other key points.

Aside from general criticism of the process itself, there are the issues of the large lump sum appropriations, projects funded by mysterious sources, and the governor faulty marketing of his budgetary discipline.

Comptroller Tom DiNapoli
State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli released a report on the state budget that includes critiques of the budgeting process and the end result. The budget continues to rely heavily on appropriations from the federal government, at almost a third of state revenue, despite the unpredictability of state aid from Washington, D.C. under President Donald Trump and the Republican Congress.

“Although the budget came together more than a week into the fiscal year, the Legislature and Executive acted on critical budget issues that will help New York move forward,” DiNapoli said in a statement. “However, billions of dollars in spending lacks key details that would better inform the public about how their tax dollars are being spent.”

The Comptroller’s report included a lengthy chart showing the legislature’s inaction on ethics reform, criticizing the fact that, among other things, the budget “intentionally omits” measures such as requiring advisory opinions on legislators’ outside income, closing the LLC loophole in corporate political contributions, and extending the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) to cover the Legislature. The Comptroller was equally pointed on the state’s procurement practices, which have come under fire due to rampant corruption in the state’s contracting process, stating that the changes were needed to “ensure spending accountability and transparency” in a statement. A measure to authorize the IG to investigate criminal wrongdoing in the state’s procurements was intentionally omitted.

The Comptroller was critical of the quickness of the process, essentially disallowing public review. Also criticized was the prevalence of lump sum appropriations, which can make state money harder to track.

“It should concern all New Yorkers that budget decisions in Washington may force tough fiscal choices for the state and raise new questions for local governments and nonprofits that rely on state funding,” DiNapoli said. “Federal actions that could adversely affect New York, as well as economic uncertainty, are key risks to this budget.”

Citizens Budget Commission
In a statement on the day the budget was adopted, CBC President Carol Kellermann said “achieving a fiscally sound budget is more important than an ‘on time’ budget,” referring to the emergency budget extender passed when negotiating parties couldn’t reach a deal on time. Still, CBC expressed dismay that the state budget was neither on-time nor fiscally sound.

In a later report, CBC also criticized Governor Cuomo for misleadingly saying that the adopted budget continued his “record of holding State Operating Funds spending annual growth to no more than 2 percent.” In reality, CBC explained, spending growth is closer to 3.7%, well above the 2% benchmark that Cuomo prides himself on. The budget is able to exploit this loophole by not “adjusting for payment timing differences and accounting changes,” such as through premature debt service payments or “shifting expenditures out of state operating funds spending.”

CBC has created a “budget navigator” to allow citizens to see how city and state money is being spent.

Empire Center for Public Policy
Empire Center, a conservative think tank based in Albany, has released a slew of criticisms of the budget. Condemnations expressed on the Empire Center blog cover health care spending, certain tax breaks, and the “free” college tuition program. Empire Center is also critical of the added tax deduction for union dues, “effectively a $35 million gratuity for an already privileged caste of (mostly government) workers.”

“The positives in New York’s FY 2018 budget make up a pretty short list—while the negatives are in some respects worse than usual,” wrote E.J. McMahon, Empire Center’s founder and research director, in a budget breakdown post on the Center’s blog.

McMahon argues for more transparency and accountability with the Water Infrastructure Improvement Act, which he says “used to be put before voters in New York.” Now that doing so is no longer a requirement, McMahon writes, “the governor and Legislature obviously figure, why bother?”

Citizens Union
Citizens Union identifies the budget’s large non-specific lump sum funding in its “Spending in the Shadows” report. The watchdog identified nearly $13 billion in the budget in nonspecific funding: around $3 billion “subject to decisions of one or more particular elected officials,” and nearly $10 billion “in approximately 40 different economic development and infrastructure pots listing no official with spending authority.” The group also found that there was “inadequate reporting as to how these funds are eventually spent.”

Citizens Union calls on the governor and Legislature to publicly identify all nonspecific funding and to publicly disclose information, such as purposes and the requester, regarding these funds, especially ahead of spending, not afterward as is often the case. Further, the organization calls for amending state finance law to introduce accountability and conflict-of-interest identification to public contracting, the disclosure of grants and contracts “awarded under nonspecific lump sum appropriations and reappropriations,” and for “aging the budget bills for three days.”

Reinvent Albany
Reinvent Albany has focused largely on procurement reform, which has become a major point of contention, particularly after the Buffalo Billion corruption scandal broke. Along with other watchdog groups, Reinvent Albany issued a release in May calling for “five clean contracting reforms,” all of which failed to make it into the budget:

1. Require competitive and transparent contracting for the award of state funds by all state agencies, authorities, and affiliates. Use existing agency procurement guidelines as a uniform minimum standard.

2. Transfer responsibility for awarding all economic development awards to Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) and end awards by state non-profits and SUNY.

3. Empower the Comptroller to review and approve all state contracts over $250,000.

4. Prohibit state authorities, state corporations, and state non-profits from doing business with their board members.

5. Create a ‘Database of Deals’ that allows the public to see the total value of all forms of subsidies awarded to a business – as six states have done.

The groups have continued to call for such reforms, but legislative leaders have been hesitant to challenge Cuomo, who is opposed.

New York Public Interest Research Group
NYPIRG also criticized the opacity of the state budget process, which notorious for taking place largely behind closed doors, especially in terms of the final, major deals reached, with the infamous “Three Men in a Room” process determining what stays and what goes -- largely without public input. (There’s been a fourth man in the room of late given the addition of IDC Leader Jeff Klein along with the governor, Assembly speaker and Senate majority leader.)

“The process by which these decisions were made was awful and arguably worse than in the recent past,” said the organization in a statement shortly after the budget’s passage. “Virtually all the deliberations in developing the budget were conducted behind closed doors. There were no hearings, no open meetings, and with the three day legislative review period waived by the governor lawmakers were voting on bills that they had little time to comprehensively review.”

***
by Ben Brachfeld & Jynn Schubert
@GothamGazette

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. ]]>
Reviews Are In: What Watchdogs Say About The New State Budget Thu, 15 Jun 2017 04:00:00 +0000
As Session Nears End, Electoral Reforms Mostly Stalled & Cuomo Quiet http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/6972-as-session-nears-end-electoral-reforms-mostly-stalled-cuomo-quiet http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/6972-as-session-nears-end-electoral-reforms-mostly-stalled-cuomo-quiet Cuomo voting 2015

Gov. Cuomo votes (photo: The Governor's Office)


Governor Andrew Cuomo’s prediction that there is insufficient political will at the New York State Legislature to pass any significant voting reform measures this year may be coming to fruition.

During the final weeks before the end of the legislative session, this year June 21 -- when lawmakers leave the Capitol and return to their districts for the remainder of the year -- there is typically a final thrust for policy measures that did not make it into the budget, which this year was passed in early April.

On the electoral front, there has been a growing push from voting reform activists, civil rights organizations, and some Democratic elected officials to modernize New York’s arcane system, but, given the reluctance of Senate Republicans and, at least in part, Cuomo’s lack of prioritization of electoral reform despite saying in January he backs an ambitious agenda, major reforms appear to be elusive.

Citing numerous barriers faced by voters during the 2016 elections, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and New York City Bill de Blasio have joined the call for Albany to pass meaningful electoral reform, a cause that has been championed by other Democrats in the state Assembly majority and Senate minority.

Democrats in both legislative houses have introduced a slew of voting reform bills -- including legislation on early voting, automatic voter registration, electronic poll books, and “no excuse” absentee ballots, among other measures -- as they do each year. While most passed the Democrat-controlled Assembly, as usual, the efforts are stalled in the Senate, where Republicans control the chamber by a slim majority given the help of Senator Simcha Felder, a nominal Democrat who conferences with Republicans, and bolstered by the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) in a coalition agreement.

The Senate has passed a significantly slimmer electoral package, most of which would do little to increase voter access or enhance voter registration.

So far, the only electoral legislation passed in both houses would allow polling place inspectors to work eight-hour half-shifts, when previously they were made to work 16-hour days. It is a move intended to help Boards of Elections recruit staff and improve efficiency on election days.

Another piece of legislation, sponsored by IDC Senator Diane Savino and Assemblymember Amy Paulin in their respective chambers, would require special ballots to be mailed to domestic violence victims and has passed each house’s election committee and is calendared for floor votes.

The Assembly election committee is meeting on Tuesday, June 6, to consider a dozen more electoral law changes.

Other relatively minor pieces of electoral legislation close to being passed in both houses relate to the way candidates are listed on the ballot, the creation of an inventory of official campaign websites, and protecting the ballot information of domestic violence victims.

One sign of the lack of agreement on major electoral reforms, though, relates to consolidating New York’s repetitive primary election days, a cause that has bipartisan support -- in theory. Both the Senate and Assembly have passed bills to consolidate federal and state primary elections -- a move projected to save the state $25 million and help increase voter turnout -- however the houses cannot disagree on which month to hold the joint election.

The congressional primaries were split from state level primaries in 2012, when the federal MOVE Act mandated that federal elections allow sufficient time for absentee ballots from those in the army and overseas to be collected. The Assembly bill requires the joint primary to happen in June, in order to allow more absentee ballots to trickle in, while the Senate suggests an August date, which would still meet federal regulations. Democrats argue that the August date would suppress voter turnout given peoples’ summer vacations.

The only bill designed to expand voter access that has advanced in the Senate is an early voting bill, sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, which would allow eligible New Yorkers an additional seven-day window prior to election day to cast their ballots, but it too appears unlikely to reach the Senate floor.

Stewart-Cousins’ bill, which mirrors legislation by Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh that has passed the Assembly, would open poll sites for seven days ahead of election day, allowing one day in between the early voting period and elections. Each county, depending on its size, would be required to make at least one and up to seven polling sites available during that period.

In March, when Stewart-Cousins forced the Senate election committee to vote on the measure, Democratic members of the committee voted to advance the bill to the Senate floor, only to have it diverted to the local government committee by GOP members. As Politico wrote, the majority conference is able to kill legislation without explicitly voting against it by pawning it off to another committee, which is unlikely to meet more than once or twice before the end of session and does not have to calendar a vote.

A bill for automatic voter registration, sponsored by Senator Michael Gianaris, a Democrat from Queens, was defeated after a vote was compelled in the same manner.

While Cuomo, a second-term Democrat, unveiled a sweeping electoral reform agenda during his 2017 State of the State, by April, following the passage of the budget, he appeared to have lost any can-do, telling reporters, “There is more to do; there is no political will to do it. Otherwise we would have done it in the budget."

This lack of enthusiasm on voting reform is echoed by Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, Republican of Long Island, who, when asked recently by a reporter, noted the fiscal component of early voting. “Early voting is defined so many ways, is it just one day?” he asked rhetorically. “I was just joking around that I’m supportive of early voting, just start 5 o’clock instead of 6. It is a serious subject and something we should be talking about, but how do you do that without costing astronomical amounts of money? Our county boards of election are strapped right now.”

While there is still time left in the legislative session, without Cuomo using his influence, movement on the issue in unlikely, according the Blair Horner, executive director of New York Public Interest Group, one of the advocacy organizations lobbying for electoral reform.

“Lawmakers don't have to face voters until next year so they are more likely to do popular things on even number years than odd number years. The governor has not shown a lot of leadership on this, so they haven't felt a lot of pressure,” Horner said.

De Blasio, no ally of Cuomo, told Gotham Gazette last week that he and unnamed partners intend “to launch a major effort” to see voting and election reforms passed in Albany by the end of the session.

Cuomo’s office told Gotham Gazette that the governor continues to support modernizing the state’s electoral laws and will keep pushing for measures to do so despite their lack of movement through the Legislature. A spokesperson did not answer whether the governor would make any public push to see his desired electoral reforms passed.

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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As Session Nears End, Electoral Reforms Mostly Stalled & Cuomo Quiet Sun, 04 Jun 2017 04:00:00 +0000
As Legislative Leaders Warn of Con Con Dangers, Good Government Groups Come Out in Favor http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/6935-as-legislative-leaders-warn-of-con-con-dangers-good-government-groups-come-out-in-favor http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/6935-as-legislative-leaders-warn-of-con-con-dangers-good-government-groups-come-out-in-favor assembly chamber via wikicommons

The Assembly (photo: wikicommons)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. ]]>
As Legislative Leaders Warn of Con Con Dangers, Good Government Groups Come Out in Favor Tue, 16 May 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Now a Lobbyist, Democratic Power Broker Faces Restrictions in New Job http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/6702-now-a-lobbyist-democratic-power-broker-faces-restrictions-in-new-job http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/6702-now-a-lobbyist-democratic-power-broker-faces-restrictions-in-new-job Keith Wright Governor Cuomo

Keith Wright, left, & Gov. Cuomo photo: (Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)


A Democratic power broker from Harlem has been hired by a prominent lobbying firm to join its efforts to influence city and state government. Formerly state Democratic Party chair and a member of the state Assembly, Keith Wright is joining Davidoff Hutcher & Citron LLP, but under state law he must avoid matters before both chambers of the state Legislature for two years after leaving office.

Wright, who has been involved in New York politics for several decades, is currently chair of the Manhattan Democratic Party. He had been rumored as a City Council or state Senate candidate after he lost in a June Congressional primary and subsequently vacated his Assembly seat after declining to seek reelection. Wright’s move to Davidoff Hutcher & Citron LLP was first reported by Politico New York on Wednesday morning.

The former legislator will “immediately take on a leadership role” in the firm’s lobbying at the state and city levels, according to a press release posted on the DHC website. A partner told Gotham Gazette that Wright's exact role is still being defined.

Under New York State’s Public Officers Law, however, Wright would be barred from lobbying before the state Legislature for two years. Without commenting specifically on Wright’s case, Walter McClure, director of communications for the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics, said in an email that restrictions under Section 8(a)(iii) apply to former legislators. That section of the law prohibits a former member of the Senate or Assembly from receiving compensation for “any services on behalf of any person, firm, corporation or association to promote or oppose, directly or indirectly, the passage of bills or resolutions by either house of the legislature.”

McClure clarified though that a former legislator “could appear before other local, state (such as agencies and/or the Executive Chamber), or federal bodies.”   

Wright has been figuring out his next step since his unsuccessful attempt for retiring Congressional Rep. Charles Rangel’s seat. Wright lost to fellow Democrat Adriano Espaillat in that June primary.

“Keith Wright’s only career has been in government and he’s a valuable commodity because of his public service as an elected official,” said Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, a government reform group. “He needs to do what he knows and he knows how government functions very well so he is doing what I think anyone would do in his position.”

Dadey said Wright is “an honorable guy” and he should be careful not to come in contact with the state Legislature, but, “everything else is fair game” if he follows the law.

Wright’s move comes as budget negotiations will soon begin in Albany. The former Assembly member and Democratic leader has a close relationship with Governor Andrew Cuomo -- as chair of the state party, Wright strongly advocated for the governor’s reelection in 2014. He’s also held crucial positions in the Assembly majority, chairing key committees like housing, and heads the New York County Democratic Party Committee.

“We’ve known Keith for a lot of years,” said Charles Capetanakis, partner at DHC and member of the firm’s management committee. Capetanakis said Wright would be part of the government relations team but could not specify in what capacity. “His role and involvement is yet to be determined,” he said, noting the prohibitions that Wright will face under state law. Wright was not made available for comment.

In the announcement of his hire, Wright said, “While I will always cherish my time as a New York State Assemblyman, I am ready for a new challenge."

DHC's "team of lobbyists" is "led by Sid Davidoff in New York City and Steve Malito in Albany," according to the firm, and "DHC Government Relations clients have included Fortune 500 companies, major cultural institutions, land developers, government contractors, educational institutions, municipalities, public authorities, community interest groups, labor and professional organizations, non-profit corporations, and charities. We have seen success in local, state, and federal advocacy efforts in all of these areas."

Government watchdogs do warn that Wright must tread carefully in his new role on the other side of the fence. “[Wright] has to be very careful in the ethically charged political environment in Albany,” said Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group. “My advice to the assemblyman is to follow the spirit, not just the letter of the law in terms of how he deals with government.”

Although Horner acknowledged that Wright’s new employment opportunity is “perfectly allowed” under state law and is “a well-tried path” for many lawmakers, he said his organization would instead like to see a more comprehensive ban on lobbying across the state Legislature and the Executive.

Citizens Union’s Dadey said, “There is a bright line there that can be followed and [Wright] needs to make sure he follows it, between the Executive and the Legislature. He can influence what the Executive branch presents and decides on the budget but he can’t come anywhere near any legislative activity. There are two halves to this budget process and he needs to make sure he stays in only one half.”

[Read: Special Election for Harlem City Council Seat Kicks Off]

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. ]]>
Now a Lobbyist, Democratic Power Broker Faces Restrictions in New Job Thu, 05 Jan 2017 05:00:00 +0000
City Council Hears Legislative Package on Conflicts of Interest and Campaign Finance http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/6635-city-council-hears-legislative-package-on-conflicts-of-interest-and-campaign-finance http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/6635-city-council-hears-legislative-package-on-conflicts-of-interest-and-campaign-finance berger council

Henry Berger testifying (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


The City Council heard testimony Monday on a broad package of bills that would prevent conflicts of interest between elected officials and political nonprofits, limit the electoral influence of those who do business with the city, and make it easier for first-time candidates to navigate the city’s campaign finance system.

The Council’s Committee on Standards and Ethics heard 14 bills on Monday in what was the current Council’s first hearing of the committee focused on legislation. Of the 14, the headlining bill, Intro. 1345, was the Council’s direct response to Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Campaign for One New York, a nonprofit formed by the mayor’s allies to promote his agenda that has been at the center of controversy, criticism, and law enforcement investigations.

The Campaign for One New York, since disbanded, skirted the city’s campaign finance law, in part by raising major sums from entities with city business. Federal investigators have been looking at whether government action was exchanged for donations. The mayor has maintained that he, his administration, and the organization followed the law and sought guidances from the Conflicts of Interest Board throughout. His activities were probed by the city Campaign Finance Board, which let him off with a slap on the wrist but stressed the need to close the loophole in the law that he took advantage of in fundraising for his group.

The bill at hand is sponsored by City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, a de Blasio ally. It takes aim at that exact loophole and limits donations from those who are lobbyists or have business before the city to nonprofits created or controlled by elected officials or their agents. The limit of $400 currently applies to donations made by such categories of donors directly to candidate committees. Under the bill, if an organization spends more than 10 percent of its annual budget on “public-facing communications that feature the name or picture of the elected official who controls them” contributions to the nonprofit would be limited and it would have to disclose its donors to the Conflicts of Interest Board.

Mark-Viverito did not attend the hearing, which was led by Standards and Ethics Committee Chair Alan Maisel. Mark-Viverito’s spokesperson, Robin Levine, said in an email that Council staff was monitoring the hearing and will brief the speaker as she reviews the testimony.

While there was broad support for Mark-Viverito’s bill, there were questions about its language and the implementation that it requires. As it currently stands, the bill seeks to prevent actual and perceived conflicts of interest by preventing business interests from donating large sums of money to a nonprofit to ingratiate themselves with an elected official. But concerns were raised that the bill paints with a broad brush and would include nonprofits that are affiliated to an extent with public officials but aren’t involved in public fundraising to benefit those officials. The bill also doesn’t include high-ranking public officials in city agencies, only elected officials. Council Members sought feedback on how they could amend and improve the proposal, and agency heads suggested more clear definitions of the organizations that would be covered.

The rest of the bills being heard Monday aim at streamlining campaign finance disclosure requirements and tweak certain aspects of the city’s campaign finance law. These bills would usually be heard by the Committee on Governmental Operations, which has heard another package of campaign finance reform bills that awaits a vote, but were lumped together with the first proposal concerning conflicts of interest, which is under the standards and ethics committee’s jurisdiction.

“All these bills are designed to ensure we streamline the process of running for office without sacrificing the safeguards that ensure integrity of our democratic process,” said Council Member David Greenfield, sponsor of five of the bills, in his opening statement.

The campaign finance bills cover a lot of ground. One bill shortens the deadline for candidates to choose a hearing before the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings for alleged campaign violations and penalties. Currently, most candidates go through a more informal hearing before the Campaign Finance Board. Another bill requires campaign contributions to be deposited within 20 business days, and cash contributions to be deposited within 10 business days.

A bill sponsored by Council Member Brad Lander would allow non-public campaign funds to be used by public officials for their official duties. One of the proposals that the CFB particularly opposed would prohibit CFB staff from being present at an executive session of the board where campaign finance violations are being adjudicated. This bill would prevent the CFB’s own executive director from attending such a session.

The main bill, Intro. 1345, received support, with certain caveats, from the de Blasio administration, the Conflicts of Interest Board, the Campaign Finance Board, and private government reform organizations that favor more transparency in campaign finance.

Henry Berger, special counsel to the mayor, testified in support of all the bills but expressed certain doubts about the scope of Intro. 1345 and about one provision in Intro. 1355, one of Greenfield’s bills.

On Intro. 1345, Berger said the administration was “generally supportive of the intent of this bill,” but said the definition of an organization affiliated with an elected official was “overbroad and may be problematic.” He warned that it could also raise legal concerns over free speech of private entities. “These concerns would need to be addressed in future discussions at a staff level,” he said.

Berger cited the precautions that the mayor’s team took for the Campaign for One New York, including the willing disclosure of donors, which the new bill would require, and he agreed that limits should be placed on nonprofits that create a perception of helping a particular candidate. “[Intro. 1345] provides very strong assurances that would avoid the appearance of conflicts of interest,” he said. “And that’s important. Confidence in our government requires that.”

But he worried that the bill would also apply to nonprofits that don’t raise funds and are already subject to extensive reporting requirements, such as the Economic Development Corporation, or programmatic organizations that don’t benefit an individual but may raise funds such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. “We’re looking for some tightening but....we think this bill comes very close to drawing the line,” he said.

Once a bill is heard in Council committee, behind-the-scenes negotiation usually occurs to tweak bill language, before a bill is voted on in committee and then, if it passes, the the full Council. At times, like the other package of campaign finance reform bills that was heard months ago by the government operations committee, bills do not receive a committee vote soon after a hearing, if at all. Council sources do indicate, though, that they plan to move the bills heard today quickly, while also moving the other campaign finance bills.

Changes to the campaign finance system would already be late in the four-year election cycle as the election year of 2017 is fast-approaching and candidates have already been raising money.

The political nonprofits bill also expands the definition for those who do business before the city to include family members, which, Berger said, would create logistical and technical issues for the Mayor’s Office of Contract Services, which maintains the city’s doing business database. MOCS would need time to adjust to the bill, he later told Council members.

Addressing Intro. 1355, which relaxes certain documentation requirements for campaign contributions, Berger said there was a potential for fraud since the bill removes the obligation for a candidate committee to collect contributor cards if they receive a check or money order with the name and address of a donor on them.

Berger’s biggest complaints, however, were that certain necessary proposals were not included in the package of bills. He said the Council should consider legislation that would overhaul the process for post-election campaign audits, to ensure they are concluded faster; proposed that legal fees for responding to campaign finance issues should not be counted against a campaign’s expenditure limits; and suggested that candidates who must raise money for a general election during primary season be allowed to attribute fundraising expenditures to their general election spending cap instead of the primary one.

Representatives of the Conflicts of Interest Board commended the Council on Intro. 1345, but said they are unsure about being charged with implementing it. Executive Director Carolyn Lisa Miller said the board “remains uncertain whether we are the right agency to administer the legislation,” but expressed willingness to work with the Council and the administration.

Miller listed 20 possible issues arising from the legislation, ranging from the definition of the nonprofits covered to the substantial penalties levied and the timeframe of disclosures required by organizations. She also cited issues with enforcement and investigation. COIB is a small city agency, with 26 full-time employees, and has no investigators of its own, relying instead on the Department of Investigation which is an independent agency. Miller said COIB would likely require additional staff and funding to comply with the legislation.

What might complicate things further is that COIB cannot enforce fines on City Council members, if one should choose not to accept a violation found and penalty assessed by the board. In such a situation, which Miller said has never arisen to date, the board could only make recommendations to the Speaker and the Council which would have to decide to refer the case to the standards and ethics committee.

Council Member Lander, co-sponsor of Intro. 1345 and a prime sponsor on another one of the bills, pushed back against Miller’s uncertainty. “To me the reason to put this legislation and its enforcement with you is it is an issue of conflicts of interest,” he said. “Even though we are concerned about the public-facing communication, what we’re guarding against here is public corruption. That’s the goal, making sure that people who have business interests with the city don’t have an avenue into giving that influences public officials. That’s not primarily campaign finance. That’s primarily conflicts of interest.”

With 13 bills out of the package dealing directly with the Campaign Finance Board, much of the hearing focused on testimony from Amy Loprest, CFB executive director. Loprest, like COIB’s Miller, praised Intro. 1345 but had strong apprehensions nonetheless. “We note the several concerns regarding the bill’s drafting and implementation raised by our colleagues at the Conflicts of Interest Board,” Loprest said in her opening statement. “We urge the Council to take those into account, and we will be available to assist in any way they or the Council deems appropriate.”

She also criticized the legislation’s accompanying “poison pill” measures which would “significantly weaken the CFB’s oversight of the matching funds program.”

“These measures should not be the cost of implementing a commendable and necessary reform,” she said, taking issue with the timing of many of the proposals, saying they would be disruptive to the board’s preparations for the 2017 city elections.

In a cordial back-and-forth with Council Member Greenfield, who argued that the Council’s proposed changes to CFB procedures were warranted, necessary, and justified under its jurisdiction, Loprest attempted to explain her broader concerns.

“It is important for us to review how we do operate, how we do our audits, how we do our procedures,” she conceded. “I do however think that this kind of piecemeal, finger in one part of a complicated process will have unintended and unwelcome consequences and will make things more complicated when our goal is to try and make things less complicated.”

Greenfield pushed back. “I think that’s where we’re going to come to agree to disagree,” he said. “Just like your job is to audit candidates, our job is to audit the CFB, for lack of a better term.”

Good government groups testified in support of the bills, but had reservations about both the timing and the manner in which they were drafted and introduced. Gene Russianoff, senior attorney at the New York Public Interest Research Group, approved of the bills but said it was late in the game to consider changes to the city’s campaign finance system, with the next election so close.

Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, applauded the Council, but insisted that the bills should have included more public discussion when they were being drafted. Intro. 1345, in particular, addresses concerns that Citizens Union raised earlier this year in a proposal to regulate nonprofit organizations affiliated with elected officials. “We believe the proposed bill can effectively bring needed oversight to these organizations,” Dadey said at Monday’s hearing.

The only testimony that rejected most of the proposals outright came from Dominic Mauro, staff attorney for Reinvent Albany, an advocacy organization. Mauro said his organization supported the intent of Intro. 1345 but questioned how it could be implemented. The entire package of bills, Mauro said, “add up to a huge step backwards.” Admitting that the CFB is “imperfect, he said, however, that his organization thinks “Many of these bills seem like petty retaliation and an expression of irritation by Council members who are annoyed with CFB nitpicking.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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City Council Hears Legislative Package on Conflicts of Interest and Campaign Finance Mon, 21 Nov 2016 05:00:00 +0000
Ahead of Election Year, De Blasio Must Name New Campaign Finance Board Chair http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/6591-ahead-of-election-year-de-blasio-must-name-new-campaign-finance-board-chair http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/6591-ahead-of-election-year-de-blasio-must-name-new-campaign-finance-board-chair de blasio podium

Mayor Bill de Blasio (photo: Ed Reed, Mayor's Office)


With the impending departure of the head of the city’s campaign finance regulatory body, good government advocates say Mayor Bill de Blasio must be careful about who he chooses to fill the position as the city heads into an election year.

“The chair of the campaign finance board is probably the single most important player in government ethics,” said Gene Russianoff, senior attorney at the New York Public Interest Research Group, a government reform organization.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that Rose Gill Hearn, chair of the New York City Campaign Finance Board, will be stepping down at the end of the year. Hearn is resigning, she indicated, due to an increasing burden from her position as a principal at Bloomberg Associates, a consulting firm. “My increasingly heavy work schedule no longer permits me to devote the time warranted for the important activities of the board,” Gill Hearn said in a public statement.

Gill Hearn informed the mayor of her resignation in a letter on September 23, to give him “ample time to find a replacement and ensure a smooth transition.” According to the City Charter, the mayor is to appoint the CFB chair with the advice of the City Council Speaker. There are four other members of the board, and about 100 CFB employees who make the agency run. The board makes determinations on public funds payments and campaign violations, considers changes to the campaign finance rules, and otherwise oversees the work of the agency, which includes monitoring and auditing electoral campaigns.

“I believe that the Campaign Finance Board and staff will continue in the long tradition of nonpartisanship and independence that has always been a part of the institution,” Gill Hearn said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. Her resignation comes at a crucial time for both the mayor and for the city at large as every city elected official is on the ballot in municipal elections set for Fall 2017.

For de Blasio, appointing a new chair is delicate and potentially fraught territory as he is embroiled in multiple investigations at the state and federal level into fundraising activities -- though mostly ones that don’t concern the CFB system. Neither de Blasio nor his allies have been charged with any crime, and the mayor insists that they will be vindicated.

While it’s not yet clear if the mayor or his associates broke any laws, de Blasio’s own re-election campaign will continue to be the subject of CFB scrutiny -- in fact, the mayor’s campaign recently had a matter before the CFB related to the funds raised by a political nonprofit, The Campaign for One New York, that is affiliated with de Blasio, formed to promote his agenda, and a key piece of multiple law enforcement investigations.

In July, the board chastised de Blasio for exploiting loopholes in the city’s campaign finance law and undermining a system that is held up as a national model. The mayor and his nonprofit were let off with a slap on the wrist, but the board insisted that they did not consider the matter closed. The next CFB chair will be responsible for overseeing any further investigations should they arise. The Campaign for One New York is in the process of shutting down, something announced in advance of the CFB hearing.

Such a case is one example, albeit an especially high-profile one, of the type of issues brought before the campaign finance board. Meanwhile, employees at the CFB help educate candidates and campaigns about the city’s public matching system, vet campaign donations, and disburse public matching funds.

The CFB is a nonpartisan five-member body, with two members appointed by the speaker of the City Council, two appointed by the mayor, and a chair chosen by the mayor in consultation with the speaker. The two members appointed by each the mayor and speaker cannot be from the same political party. The chair serves a five-year term and Gill Hearn’s replacement will serve through the remainder of hers, which expires November 30, 2018.

“[Mayor de Blasio] has to pick somebody of impeccable ethical credentials,” said Russianoff of NYPIRG about replacing Gill Hearn. “There’s no reason to believe he won’t do it.” Russianoff added that the scandals the mayor is currently facing “are putting extra pressure on the administration to do the right thing.”

Only three people other than Gill Hearn have served as chair since the board was created in 1988. The first chair was Father Joseph O’Hare, a Jesuit priest and former editor in chief of America magazine. O’Hare became president of Fordham University in 1984 and later served on Mayor Ed Koch’s Committee on Appointments and the Charter Revision Commission. O’Hare was reappointed twice and led the CFB until 2003.

O’Hare was followed by Frederick A.O Schwarz, Jr., who was corporation counsel for Mayor Koch between 1982 and 1986. In 1989, he chaired the Charter Revision Commission. He was CFB chair for one term. In 2008, Mayor Michael Bloomberg appointed Joseph Parkes, who was already a member of the CFB, to succeed Schwarz, Jr. as chair. Parkes has been president of Cristo Rey New York High School in East Harlem since 2004 and also previously served as president of Fordham Preparatory School.

The search for the next chair has not yet begun. Mayoral spokesperson Freddi Goldstein said in a statement, “As is standard practice mandated by the Campaign Finance Board, Mayor de Blasio and Speaker Mark-Viverito will work together to review potential candidates and appoint the person best suited for the job.”

Eric Koch, spokesperson for Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, said in an email on Monday that the speaker was awaiting a consultation with the mayor.

After Gill Hearn’s resignation is effective, the mayor will have 90 days to appoint a new chair. (The deadline, usually 180 days, is shorter because of the proximity to the next election.) If he should fail to do so, the remaining members of the board can choose someone to replace Gill Hearn.

“In spite of Chairperson Hearn’s solid leadership over the last three years, this could not come at a worse time,” said Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, a government reform group, “because it is the fourth quarter of the four-year city election cycle, with the major officeholders up for reelection.”

Dadey said the mayor should pick someone who will be “applauded uniformly” for their integrity. “We cannot afford to have someone in this position who is seen as a political or partisan figure because the integrity of the campaign finance program going forward really depends on the kind of people who run this program,” he said.  

Although Dadey said he did not doubt the mayor would choose the right person for the job, he said the appointment would regardless be closely scrutinized because of the investigations the mayor faces. “[The mayor] has a higher bar now to select the kind of person that will be beyond dispute,” he said.

City Council Member Ben Kallos, chair of the council’s Committee on Governmental Operations, which oversees the CFB, said in a statement last week that he hoped to see a “a thorough and open search for a new chair who will be independent, non-partisan, and non-political” in their role.

“It is of supreme importance that the next chair be someone who has the stature and integrity to not only stand up to candidates and any elected officials but guide the board through election years independently,” Kallos said.

Notably, de Blasio was faced with a somewhat similar choice when selecting a chair for a mandated commission to study and reccomend compensation levels for the city's elected officials. De Blasio chose Schwarz, Jr. in what was a universally applauded decision.

Beyond just choosing a new chair, NYPIRG’s Russianoff said this was an apt time for the mayor to commit wholeheartedly to campaign finance reform by pushing for crucial legislation to improve the city’s campaign finance laws. There are six campaign finance reform bills before the City Council, languishing in committee and awaiting a vote.

The bills have been heard once since they were introduced in November 2015 and incorporate many of the recommendations made by the CFB in it’s 2013 post-election report. (Some of those recommendations have already been codified into law.) “De Blasio’s people should do what they can to get those immediate reforms through,” said Russianoff, warning that time is running out before the 2017 elections. “The worst thing that can happen is nothing happens.”

The most significant of the bills would limit the impact that can be made by people who have business before the city and bundle donations for a candidate. Mark-Viverito recently told Gotham Gazette that the bills are going through the normal legislative process but did not explain why they have not moved.

Additionally, the CFB itself is currently mulling over a raft of rules proposals that would tighten and clarify provisions of the campaign finance law to make it easier for candidates to run their campaigns and harder for outside groups to coordinate expenditures with candidates, among other changes.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. ]]>
Ahead of Election Year, De Blasio Must Name New Campaign Finance Board Chair Tue, 25 Oct 2016 04:00:00 +0000