Gotham Gazette Gotham Gazette is an online publication covering New York policy and politics as well as news on public safety, transportation, education, finance and more. http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/reinvent-albany 2017-12-13T12:58:23+00:00 Webmaster webmaster@gothamgazette.com With Phase One Going on Trial, Cuomo’s Buffalo Investment Moves Ahead with Broken Reform Promises 2017-12-07T05:00:00+00:00 2017-12-07T05:00:00+00:00 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7353:with-phase-one-going-on-trial-cuomo-s-buffalo-investment-moves-ahead-with-changes-and-broken-reform-promises Ben Max <p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/2017/reset_1/24961518185_c3f1f27f83_z_1.jpg" alt="Cuomo jobs western new york" width="600" height="399" /></p> <p>Gov. Cuomo (photo: Governor's Office)</p> <hr /> <p>As federal corruption trials loom for several associates of Governor Andrew Cuomo, the administration is forging ahead with Buffalo Billion II, the second phase in an ambitious plan to revitalize Buffalo’s beleaguered economy and help transform Upstate New York into a hub of technology innovation and jobs. The first phase saw the massive alleged bid-rigging and kickback scandal that rocked state politics when outlined in September 2016 by the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s Office and will loom over Cuomo’s 2018 reelection campaign.</p> <p>In April, the state Legislature approved $500 million in budgetary funds for the Buffalo Billion II, which marks a shift in the investment in Western New York. The initial Buffalo Billion program, touted by Cuomo as a major success in revitalizing that city despite the scandal, poured the bulk of the $1 billion in funds into a controversial solar panel factory, while Buffalo Billion II investments are diverse and largely infrastructural, including the development of waterfront and rail access, tourism, and job training initiatives.</p> <p>Critics -- including lawmakers, financial analysts and good government groups -- acknowledge steps the Cuomo administration has since taken to improve the contracting process, but say they remain skeptical of the Buffalo Billion extension and how it is administered. Calling its approval “a blank check” to the governor with little oversight, they question why these small projects are not being funded through traditional means -- like via local governments -- and whether these investments are tax dollars well-spent. Meanwhile, other promises the governor made in the wake of the scandal were abandoned by Cuomo, who had promised unilateral action that did not materialize.</p> <p>“There’s two problems here. One is the corruption problem, which is obviously paramount in the upcoming trials,” said David Friedfel, director of state affairs for Citizens Budget Commission, a nonpartisan watchdog. “But a second problem that we’ve voiced concern about, which is sort of getting lost in the conversation, is that a lot of these are a bad investment of state taxpayer dollars.”</p> <p>The Buffalo solar panel factory, which received about $750 million in state subsidies, as well as a state-funded nanotechnology hub in Syracuse, are at the center of last year’s sweeping probe by then-U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s office, <a href="https://www.justice.gov/usao-sdny/pr/nine-defendants-including-joseph-percoco-former-executive-deputy-secretary-governor-and" target="_blank" rel="noopener">which ensnared nine men</a> -- including two who had been powerful state officials -- whose trials may overshadow the 2018 legislative session in Albany, set to begin in January.</p> <p>On January 8, jury selection is scheduled to start in the trial of Cuomo’s former close confidant and aide Joe Percoco, along with three&nbsp;construction and energy executives who had business before the state and are accused of arranging bribes for Percoco and his wife in exchange for Percoco’s government influence.</p> <p>On May 15, jury selection for the trial of former SUNY Polytechnic Institute President and CEO Alain Kaloyeros, whom Cuomo empowered and praised over several years as a key architect of his upstate economic development efforts, and executives from LP Ciminelli, a construction company tied to the factory and Cuomo’ campaign coffers, will commence.</p> <p>Two Syracuse developers, Steven Aiello and Joseph Gerardi, who run COR Development, will be defendants in both trials. Eight defendants in total have pleaded not guilty, while a ninth, lobbyist and former Cuomo ally Todd Howe, pleaded guilty to numerous felony charges and is cooperating with prosecutors. While Cuomo was not directly implicated in <a href="https://www.justice.gov/usao-sdny/pr/nine-defendants-including-joseph-percoco-former-executive-deputy-secretary-governor-and" target="_blank" rel="noopener">the federal complaint</a>, prosecutors note that he received large campaign donations from the business people involved in the scheme, often at Howe’s behest. The governor also oversaw the economic development programs that were allegedly taken advantage of and dismissed calls for greater independent contracting oversight, both before and after the scandal broke, though he did make some relatively minor adjustments.</p> <p>In November 2016, two months after the charges were outlined, Cuomo <a href="https://www.governor.ny.gov/news/statement-governor-andrew-m-cuomo-proposed-ethics-reforms" target="_blank" rel="noopener">expressed dismay</a> over the scandals that were threatening to undercut his signature economic development programs and vowed to quickly strengthen oversight and ethics, though all under his purview. Notably, Empire State Development, the state’s economic development authority, would immediately begin to oversee projects run by entities associated with SUNY Polytechnic, Fort Schuyler Management Corp. and Fuller Road Management Corp., state-affiliated nonprofits created to more quickly disburse economic development funding that Kaloyeros is accused of using to illegally direct contracts.</p> <p>“I believe this public trust and integrity issue must be addressed – directly and forthrightly. I don’t believe in denial as a life strategy. I believe you must face your problems, no matter how unpleasant, and do your best to resolve them,” Cuomo said in <a href="https://www.governor.ny.gov/news/statement-governor-andrew-m-cuomo-proposed-ethics-reforms" target="_blank" rel="noopener">a long statement</a> outlining his response to the scandal and news of problems at CUNY. “It is time for action, not words.”</p> <p>Cuomo promised a series of actions and proposals, some that would need legislative approval and others he categorized as “steps we can take immediately.” Most of those promised reforms did not materialize.</p> <p>In the November 2016 statement, Cuomo vowed, “I will order my campaign and my party not to accept campaign contributions from companies once a Request for Proposals has been announced, and for six months following the conclusion for the winner,” adding, “I believe the other state offices and the legislature should do the same and will propose such a law.” According to Cuomo’s office, his pledge was not followed through on.</p> <p>While his campaign did not follow through, in January of this year, Cuomo outlined <a href="https://www.governor.ny.gov/news/governor-cuomo-announces-35th-proposal-2017-state-state-restoring-integrity-and-accountability" target="_blank" rel="noopener">his ethics platform</a> and proposed creating such bans for all government leaders overseeing contracting processes. It did not pass.</p> <p>In November 2016, under other ‘immediate’ actions he would be taking, Cuomo acknowledged that “[t]he contracting systems at CUNY and SUNY have become the focus of US Attorney and IG inquiries in the past several months. To insure more permanent supervision, I will create and appoint separate Inspector Generals for both SUNY and CUNY.” These IGs were not created.</p> <p>Cuomo also said in November 2016, “I will also appoint a Chief Procurement Officer for the Executive branch. That person will be charged with reviewing all state contracts, with an eye towards eliminating any wrongdoing, conflicts of interest or collusion. And just so there is no confusion, I do mean all contracts.” The governor did not appoint such an officer.</p> <p>Instead of immediate action on these promises, they were turned into proposals in Cuomo’s 2017 agenda that did not pass in the April budget or June legislative agreements that followed. Asked about the lack of follow-through on the promises from November 2016, Cuomo’s office pointed to the Legislature. In the November 2016 statement Cuomo had classified the proposals among “actions I can take under my own authority."</p> <p>Enacted or not, critics say that these appointments would make no substitute for outside oversight.</p> <p>Two months later, during <a href="https://www.politico.com/states/f/?id=00000159-85af-d15a-afdf-dfbf04fe0000" target="_blank" rel="noopener">the Buffalo leg</a> of his six-stop 2017 State of the State tour, Cuomo made no mention of the scandals or his ethics platform, painting a rosy picture of his administration’s efforts to revitalize the city, and vowing to “double down” on the projects.</p> <p>“Buffalo Billion squared because it takes Buffalo Billion I and it takes Buffalo Billion II, and there’s a synergy between the two of them that will be exponential,” Cuomo said. “The principles of it are going to be to build on Western New York’s renaissance, which you’ve all accomplished already, help more small businesses in downtown areas and strategically invest in regional industries.”</p> <p>As the next phase of those efforts unfold with the backdrop of the corruption trials, the new Buffalo Billion does appear less vulnerable to bid-rigging, in part due to a series of voluntary fixes adopted by Cuomo’s administration, and also because of increased scrutiny from the press and government watchdogs.</p> <p>The shift of economic development projects from under SUNY-affiliated nonprofits to Empire State Development, which can be audited by the comptroller’s office, is a key step, and ESD, a public authority, has modified its own contracting protocols based on recommendations by state-contracted consultants from Guidepost Solutions. (Cuomo announced he was hiring Guidepost to do a review soon after the scandal broke.)</p> <p>Asked for comment about the steps the administration has taken to address the corruption scandal in the Buffalo Billion and which Cuomo promises has followed through on as Buffalo Billion II moves ahead, a spokesperson for Cuomo provided some background information but pointed Gotham Gazette to prior public statements by state officials.</p> <p>“We share your goal of preventing fraud, waste and abuse. ESD has taken substantive&nbsp;steps to strengthen applicable processes to address the concerns you have raised and to&nbsp;implement your recommendations, including our support of strengthened governance provided to non-profits associated with SUNY,” Zemsky of ESD wrote in a letter sent to Guidepost Solutions’ head Bart Schwartz in April.</p> <p>According to the governor's office, those Guidepost-suggested changes include reforms related to procurement, construction, property and equipment acquisition, and grant compliance. More specifically, there are new controls and procedures to improve payment processing and project management‎, with a focus on project timelines, billing, budgeting, documentation verification, payroll, and how RFPs and bids are evaluated.</p> <p>There has been little contract or spending activity related to Buffalo Billion II in 2017, according to records provided by the governor’s office, but a handful of relatively smaller projects <a href="http://www.buffalo.edu/news/ub-in-the-news/2017/11/002.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener">have made it</a> past the planning stage. A new building for University at Buffalo Jacobs School of Medicine, is expected to be completed in December and will house an incoming class of students for the semester commencing January 2018. A welcome center on Grand Island, which is expected to become a vital component of New York's tourism industry, drawing in $100 billion and “supporting more than 900,000 jobs,” is expected to be fully constructed and in use by August 2018, <a href="https://www.governor.ny.gov/news/governor-cuomo-announces-western-new-york-highlights-fy-2018-state-budget" target="_blank" rel="noopener">according to Cuomo’s office</a>.</p> <p>Government watchdogs and reformers commend the government’s efforts to create more accountability for these projects but say they are no replacement for long-term, independent oversight.</p> <p>The watchdogs call for a “database of deals,” which would digitally compile every entity receiving funds from the state along with where each dollar is going; dramatic overhaul of the campaign finance system to eliminate the appearance or reality of pay-to-play; and a bill to restore the powers of the state comptroller to review procurement contracts for SUNY, CUNY, and Office of General Services before they are approved. That power was stripped by Cuomo and the Legislature in 2011, in part to expedite the flow of economic development funds aimed at upstate revitalization, a move that was criticized intensely when the corruption revelations came to light.</p> <p>"As with all of the economic development programs subject to our review, we are closely looking at payment requests,” said Jennifer Freeman, a spokesperson for DiNapoli's office in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “The problem is not all contracts and payments are subject to our review, which is why State Comptroller DiNapoli is pushing for major procurement reforms to improve oversight."</p> <p>These long-sought reforms appeared to have some momentum in the 2017 legislative session, <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/6875-ramped-up-economic-development-funding-less-transparency-in-new-state-budget" target="_blank" rel="noopener">but wound up going nowhere</a> due to pushback from Cuomo, even as more economic development money was approved.</p> <p>There is less pushback against Buffalo Billion II, in part because the state projects involved are less controversial and more diverse than those announced in 2012. At that time, many questioned the state’s decision to spend $750 million on the SolarCity manufacturing plant that made a splash when it was <a href="https://www.wsj.com/articles/tesla-and-solarcity-agree-to-2-6-billion-merger-deal-1470050724" target="_blank" rel="noopener">purchased</a> by Tesla’s Elon Musk, but has failed to the deliver the promised jobs. However, those watching Albany, and Buffalo, say questions remain about why the state is overseeing projects typically done by a local development authority or industrial development authority.</p> <p>“In Buffalo, you have the state economic development corporation calling the shots on dinky expenditures on small real estate and street improvement projects,” said John Kaehny, executive director of ReInvent Albany, a watchdog group that has focused on economic development spending, especially upstate. “Is Buffalo Billion II a good investment compared to traditional government spending on clean water, road repair and public transit?”</p> <p>Kaehny added that it is still preferable that the government make many small bets on small businesses, which is the emphasis of Buffalo Billion II, rather than “rolling the dice on giant, high risk, corporate handouts like Buffalo Billion I did with Tesla, Riverbend.”<br /><br />Cuomo, a Democrat who has said he’s seeking a third term in 2018 and appears to be considering a run for president in 2020, may see Buffalo as an opportunity to shape his national image as a leader who successfully resuscitated one of America’s largest, long-suffering post-industrial cities -- succeeding where many others have failed. Though that narrative is likely to be complicated by the corruption scandal, with more to be determined by the trials set to begin in 2018.</p> <p>The governor has called his work in Buffalo successful, pointing to a declining unemployment rate in the formerly industrial city, <a href="https://www.bizjournals.com/buffalo/news/2016/07/26/buffalo-unemployment-rate-drops-to-15-year-low.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener">a rate</a> that dropped from 7.9 percent in October 2010 to a 15-year-low of 4.9 by October 2016, and there is a chorus of voices backing him up. But Western New York’s job growth continues to lag behind the national average.</p> <p>Part of the boom is related to an increase in construction jobs. For the five-year period ending in 2015, the number of construction jobs in the Buffalo-Niagara Falls Metro Area rose by 10.1 percent, an all-time record, according to Cuomo’s office, and by 9.3 percent in Erie County. The state investment has generated buzz and created an air of optimism and excitement for both Buffalonians and outsiders, including companies that have eyed the state’s second largest city. The city has recently seen investments from General Motors, Geico, Goldman Sachs, General Mills, Sumitomo Rubber, and Moog and Entrepreneur Magazine recently ranked Buffalo second in the nation for start-up communities, according to the governor’s office.</p> <p>The governor and his aides also say young people are flocking back to Buffalo: the number of young adults ages 20 to 34 in the Buffalo-Niagara region <a href="https://www.bizjournals.com/buffalo/news/2015/12/17/yes-buffalos-population-of-young-adults-is-on-the.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener">has increased</a> by 8.3 percent since 2010.</p> <p>Still, lawmakers whose districts should benefit from the funds have critiques of both phases of the program. Assembly Member Raymond Walter, a Republican from Amherst, has been a vocal critic of the Legislature’s approval of the Buffalo Billion II and has joined calls for reforms in the wake of the the 2016 scandal. While acknowledging that Western New York has been infused with optimism and entrepreneurship, Walter says he attributes some of the economic prosperity to initiatives that predate Cuomo.</p> <p>“My biggest concerns are, from what I've seen, is an inability to actually provide any data that shows that the programs are working,” he said of the initial Buffalo Billion program, noting that SolarCity was initially intended to house many types of industries before it became a solar panel factory. add</p> <p>“The idea all along was we don't want a silver bullet, there's not a silver bullet solution to the economic woes of Western New York. We can't just have one big project, but that's exactly what this is turned into,” said Walter, who got in a heated back and forth with ESD head Howard Zemsky <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7321-assembly-takes-stock-of-state-economic-development-programs-ahead-of-next-negotiations" target="_blank" rel="noopener">last month at an Assembly hearing</a> on the progress of Buffalo Billion and other economic development programs.</p> <p>The governor’s office <a href="https://buffalobillion.ny.gov/about-buffalo-billion" target="_blank" rel="noopener">says</a> it is creating a “comprehensive and diverse portfolio of investments that collectively is driving the future of Buffalo’s continuing economic recovery.”</p> <p>But while Buffalo Billion II may provide more tangible investments into the area, Walter questioned why the funds were not lined out by project in the 2017 budget, and criticized the opaque process through which it was passed.</p> <p>“We're giving a blank check to the governor, to the Empire State Development, to whoever is going to be administering these funds,” he said. “So yeah, I still have great concern because we've given up all legislative authority over how this money is going to be spent.”</p> <p>Others, like Democratic Assemblymember Crystal Peoples-Stokes, of Buffalo, says she and her constituents welcome the investment from the state. While she recognizes concerns, Peoples-Stokes said she has witnessed a dramatic change in the long-struggling city in terms of opportunity, entrepreneurship, and investment from major companies, as well as college students choosing to remain in Buffalo’s downtown after graduation.</p> <p>“For me, at the end of the day, to see economic development dollars have a meaningful impact in the core of our city, I’m satisfied with that,” she said. “Because for years, literally years -- this is not my first go around, I’ve been here for 15 years -- I’ve never seen the type of resources put into Buffalo as we’ve seen under Governor Cuomo.”</p> <p>

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

Read more by this writer.

</p> <p>Correction: An earlier version of this story mistated the trial date of the LP Ciminelli executives.</p> <p>Note: this story has been updated with more information on the reforms adopted from the Guidepost recommendations.</p>
<p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/2017/reset_1/24961518185_c3f1f27f83_z_1.jpg" alt="Cuomo jobs western new york" width="600" height="399" /></p> <p>Gov. Cuomo (photo: Governor's Office)</p> <hr /> <p>As federal corruption trials loom for several associates of Governor Andrew Cuomo, the administration is forging ahead with Buffalo Billion II, the second phase in an ambitious plan to revitalize Buffalo’s beleaguered economy and help transform Upstate New York into a hub of technology innovation and jobs. The first phase saw the massive alleged bid-rigging and kickback scandal that rocked state politics when outlined in September 2016 by the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s Office and will loom over Cuomo’s 2018 reelection campaign.</p> <p>In April, the state Legislature approved $500 million in budgetary funds for the Buffalo Billion II, which marks a shift in the investment in Western New York. The initial Buffalo Billion program, touted by Cuomo as a major success in revitalizing that city despite the scandal, poured the bulk of the $1 billion in funds into a controversial solar panel factory, while Buffalo Billion II investments are diverse and largely infrastructural, including the development of waterfront and rail access, tourism, and job training initiatives.</p> <p>Critics -- including lawmakers, financial analysts and good government groups -- acknowledge steps the Cuomo administration has since taken to improve the contracting process, but say they remain skeptical of the Buffalo Billion extension and how it is administered. Calling its approval “a blank check” to the governor with little oversight, they question why these small projects are not being funded through traditional means -- like via local governments -- and whether these investments are tax dollars well-spent. Meanwhile, other promises the governor made in the wake of the scandal were abandoned by Cuomo, who had promised unilateral action that did not materialize.</p> <p>“There’s two problems here. One is the corruption problem, which is obviously paramount in the upcoming trials,” said David Friedfel, director of state affairs for Citizens Budget Commission, a nonpartisan watchdog. “But a second problem that we’ve voiced concern about, which is sort of getting lost in the conversation, is that a lot of these are a bad investment of state taxpayer dollars.”</p> <p>The Buffalo solar panel factory, which received about $750 million in state subsidies, as well as a state-funded nanotechnology hub in Syracuse, are at the center of last year’s sweeping probe by then-U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s office, <a href="https://www.justice.gov/usao-sdny/pr/nine-defendants-including-joseph-percoco-former-executive-deputy-secretary-governor-and" target="_blank" rel="noopener">which ensnared nine men</a> -- including two who had been powerful state officials -- whose trials may overshadow the 2018 legislative session in Albany, set to begin in January.</p> <p>On January 8, jury selection is scheduled to start in the trial of Cuomo’s former close confidant and aide Joe Percoco, along with three&nbsp;construction and energy executives who had business before the state and are accused of arranging bribes for Percoco and his wife in exchange for Percoco’s government influence.</p> <p>On May 15, jury selection for the trial of former SUNY Polytechnic Institute President and CEO Alain Kaloyeros, whom Cuomo empowered and praised over several years as a key architect of his upstate economic development efforts, and executives from LP Ciminelli, a construction company tied to the factory and Cuomo’ campaign coffers, will commence.</p> <p>Two Syracuse developers, Steven Aiello and Joseph Gerardi, who run COR Development, will be defendants in both trials. Eight defendants in total have pleaded not guilty, while a ninth, lobbyist and former Cuomo ally Todd Howe, pleaded guilty to numerous felony charges and is cooperating with prosecutors. While Cuomo was not directly implicated in <a href="https://www.justice.gov/usao-sdny/pr/nine-defendants-including-joseph-percoco-former-executive-deputy-secretary-governor-and" target="_blank" rel="noopener">the federal complaint</a>, prosecutors note that he received large campaign donations from the business people involved in the scheme, often at Howe’s behest. The governor also oversaw the economic development programs that were allegedly taken advantage of and dismissed calls for greater independent contracting oversight, both before and after the scandal broke, though he did make some relatively minor adjustments.</p> <p>In November 2016, two months after the charges were outlined, Cuomo <a href="https://www.governor.ny.gov/news/statement-governor-andrew-m-cuomo-proposed-ethics-reforms" target="_blank" rel="noopener">expressed dismay</a> over the scandals that were threatening to undercut his signature economic development programs and vowed to quickly strengthen oversight and ethics, though all under his purview. Notably, Empire State Development, the state’s economic development authority, would immediately begin to oversee projects run by entities associated with SUNY Polytechnic, Fort Schuyler Management Corp. and Fuller Road Management Corp., state-affiliated nonprofits created to more quickly disburse economic development funding that Kaloyeros is accused of using to illegally direct contracts.</p> <p>“I believe this public trust and integrity issue must be addressed – directly and forthrightly. I don’t believe in denial as a life strategy. I believe you must face your problems, no matter how unpleasant, and do your best to resolve them,” Cuomo said in <a href="https://www.governor.ny.gov/news/statement-governor-andrew-m-cuomo-proposed-ethics-reforms" target="_blank" rel="noopener">a long statement</a> outlining his response to the scandal and news of problems at CUNY. “It is time for action, not words.”</p> <p>Cuomo promised a series of actions and proposals, some that would need legislative approval and others he categorized as “steps we can take immediately.” Most of those promised reforms did not materialize.</p> <p>In the November 2016 statement, Cuomo vowed, “I will order my campaign and my party not to accept campaign contributions from companies once a Request for Proposals has been announced, and for six months following the conclusion for the winner,” adding, “I believe the other state offices and the legislature should do the same and will propose such a law.” According to Cuomo’s office, his pledge was not followed through on.</p> <p>While his campaign did not follow through, in January of this year, Cuomo outlined <a href="https://www.governor.ny.gov/news/governor-cuomo-announces-35th-proposal-2017-state-state-restoring-integrity-and-accountability" target="_blank" rel="noopener">his ethics platform</a> and proposed creating such bans for all government leaders overseeing contracting processes. It did not pass.</p> <p>In November 2016, under other ‘immediate’ actions he would be taking, Cuomo acknowledged that “[t]he contracting systems at CUNY and SUNY have become the focus of US Attorney and IG inquiries in the past several months. To insure more permanent supervision, I will create and appoint separate Inspector Generals for both SUNY and CUNY.” These IGs were not created.</p> <p>Cuomo also said in November 2016, “I will also appoint a Chief Procurement Officer for the Executive branch. That person will be charged with reviewing all state contracts, with an eye towards eliminating any wrongdoing, conflicts of interest or collusion. And just so there is no confusion, I do mean all contracts.” The governor did not appoint such an officer.</p> <p>Instead of immediate action on these promises, they were turned into proposals in Cuomo’s 2017 agenda that did not pass in the April budget or June legislative agreements that followed. Asked about the lack of follow-through on the promises from November 2016, Cuomo’s office pointed to the Legislature. In the November 2016 statement Cuomo had classified the proposals among “actions I can take under my own authority."</p> <p>Enacted or not, critics say that these appointments would make no substitute for outside oversight.</p> <p>Two months later, during <a href="https://www.politico.com/states/f/?id=00000159-85af-d15a-afdf-dfbf04fe0000" target="_blank" rel="noopener">the Buffalo leg</a> of his six-stop 2017 State of the State tour, Cuomo made no mention of the scandals or his ethics platform, painting a rosy picture of his administration’s efforts to revitalize the city, and vowing to “double down” on the projects.</p> <p>“Buffalo Billion squared because it takes Buffalo Billion I and it takes Buffalo Billion II, and there’s a synergy between the two of them that will be exponential,” Cuomo said. “The principles of it are going to be to build on Western New York’s renaissance, which you’ve all accomplished already, help more small businesses in downtown areas and strategically invest in regional industries.”</p> <p>As the next phase of those efforts unfold with the backdrop of the corruption trials, the new Buffalo Billion does appear less vulnerable to bid-rigging, in part due to a series of voluntary fixes adopted by Cuomo’s administration, and also because of increased scrutiny from the press and government watchdogs.</p> <p>The shift of economic development projects from under SUNY-affiliated nonprofits to Empire State Development, which can be audited by the comptroller’s office, is a key step, and ESD, a public authority, has modified its own contracting protocols based on recommendations by state-contracted consultants from Guidepost Solutions. (Cuomo announced he was hiring Guidepost to do a review soon after the scandal broke.)</p> <p>Asked for comment about the steps the administration has taken to address the corruption scandal in the Buffalo Billion and which Cuomo promises has followed through on as Buffalo Billion II moves ahead, a spokesperson for Cuomo provided some background information but pointed Gotham Gazette to prior public statements by state officials.</p> <p>“We share your goal of preventing fraud, waste and abuse. ESD has taken substantive&nbsp;steps to strengthen applicable processes to address the concerns you have raised and to&nbsp;implement your recommendations, including our support of strengthened governance provided to non-profits associated with SUNY,” Zemsky of ESD wrote in a letter sent to Guidepost Solutions’ head Bart Schwartz in April.</p> <p>According to the governor's office, those Guidepost-suggested changes include reforms related to procurement, construction, property and equipment acquisition, and grant compliance. More specifically, there are new controls and procedures to improve payment processing and project management‎, with a focus on project timelines, billing, budgeting, documentation verification, payroll, and how RFPs and bids are evaluated.</p> <p>There has been little contract or spending activity related to Buffalo Billion II in 2017, according to records provided by the governor’s office, but a handful of relatively smaller projects <a href="http://www.buffalo.edu/news/ub-in-the-news/2017/11/002.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener">have made it</a> past the planning stage. A new building for University at Buffalo Jacobs School of Medicine, is expected to be completed in December and will house an incoming class of students for the semester commencing January 2018. A welcome center on Grand Island, which is expected to become a vital component of New York's tourism industry, drawing in $100 billion and “supporting more than 900,000 jobs,” is expected to be fully constructed and in use by August 2018, <a href="https://www.governor.ny.gov/news/governor-cuomo-announces-western-new-york-highlights-fy-2018-state-budget" target="_blank" rel="noopener">according to Cuomo’s office</a>.</p> <p>Government watchdogs and reformers commend the government’s efforts to create more accountability for these projects but say they are no replacement for long-term, independent oversight.</p> <p>The watchdogs call for a “database of deals,” which would digitally compile every entity receiving funds from the state along with where each dollar is going; dramatic overhaul of the campaign finance system to eliminate the appearance or reality of pay-to-play; and a bill to restore the powers of the state comptroller to review procurement contracts for SUNY, CUNY, and Office of General Services before they are approved. That power was stripped by Cuomo and the Legislature in 2011, in part to expedite the flow of economic development funds aimed at upstate revitalization, a move that was criticized intensely when the corruption revelations came to light.</p> <p>"As with all of the economic development programs subject to our review, we are closely looking at payment requests,” said Jennifer Freeman, a spokesperson for DiNapoli's office in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “The problem is not all contracts and payments are subject to our review, which is why State Comptroller DiNapoli is pushing for major procurement reforms to improve oversight."</p> <p>These long-sought reforms appeared to have some momentum in the 2017 legislative session, <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/6875-ramped-up-economic-development-funding-less-transparency-in-new-state-budget" target="_blank" rel="noopener">but wound up going nowhere</a> due to pushback from Cuomo, even as more economic development money was approved.</p> <p>There is less pushback against Buffalo Billion II, in part because the state projects involved are less controversial and more diverse than those announced in 2012. At that time, many questioned the state’s decision to spend $750 million on the SolarCity manufacturing plant that made a splash when it was <a href="https://www.wsj.com/articles/tesla-and-solarcity-agree-to-2-6-billion-merger-deal-1470050724" target="_blank" rel="noopener">purchased</a> by Tesla’s Elon Musk, but has failed to the deliver the promised jobs. However, those watching Albany, and Buffalo, say questions remain about why the state is overseeing projects typically done by a local development authority or industrial development authority.</p> <p>“In Buffalo, you have the state economic development corporation calling the shots on dinky expenditures on small real estate and street improvement projects,” said John Kaehny, executive director of ReInvent Albany, a watchdog group that has focused on economic development spending, especially upstate. “Is Buffalo Billion II a good investment compared to traditional government spending on clean water, road repair and public transit?”</p> <p>Kaehny added that it is still preferable that the government make many small bets on small businesses, which is the emphasis of Buffalo Billion II, rather than “rolling the dice on giant, high risk, corporate handouts like Buffalo Billion I did with Tesla, Riverbend.”<br /><br />Cuomo, a Democrat who has said he’s seeking a third term in 2018 and appears to be considering a run for president in 2020, may see Buffalo as an opportunity to shape his national image as a leader who successfully resuscitated one of America’s largest, long-suffering post-industrial cities -- succeeding where many others have failed. Though that narrative is likely to be complicated by the corruption scandal, with more to be determined by the trials set to begin in 2018.</p> <p>The governor has called his work in Buffalo successful, pointing to a declining unemployment rate in the formerly industrial city, <a href="https://www.bizjournals.com/buffalo/news/2016/07/26/buffalo-unemployment-rate-drops-to-15-year-low.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener">a rate</a> that dropped from 7.9 percent in October 2010 to a 15-year-low of 4.9 by October 2016, and there is a chorus of voices backing him up. But Western New York’s job growth continues to lag behind the national average.</p> <p>Part of the boom is related to an increase in construction jobs. For the five-year period ending in 2015, the number of construction jobs in the Buffalo-Niagara Falls Metro Area rose by 10.1 percent, an all-time record, according to Cuomo’s office, and by 9.3 percent in Erie County. The state investment has generated buzz and created an air of optimism and excitement for both Buffalonians and outsiders, including companies that have eyed the state’s second largest city. The city has recently seen investments from General Motors, Geico, Goldman Sachs, General Mills, Sumitomo Rubber, and Moog and Entrepreneur Magazine recently ranked Buffalo second in the nation for start-up communities, according to the governor’s office.</p> <p>The governor and his aides also say young people are flocking back to Buffalo: the number of young adults ages 20 to 34 in the Buffalo-Niagara region <a href="https://www.bizjournals.com/buffalo/news/2015/12/17/yes-buffalos-population-of-young-adults-is-on-the.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener">has increased</a> by 8.3 percent since 2010.</p> <p>Still, lawmakers whose districts should benefit from the funds have critiques of both phases of the program. Assembly Member Raymond Walter, a Republican from Amherst, has been a vocal critic of the Legislature’s approval of the Buffalo Billion II and has joined calls for reforms in the wake of the the 2016 scandal. While acknowledging that Western New York has been infused with optimism and entrepreneurship, Walter says he attributes some of the economic prosperity to initiatives that predate Cuomo.</p> <p>“My biggest concerns are, from what I've seen, is an inability to actually provide any data that shows that the programs are working,” he said of the initial Buffalo Billion program, noting that SolarCity was initially intended to house many types of industries before it became a solar panel factory. add</p> <p>“The idea all along was we don't want a silver bullet, there's not a silver bullet solution to the economic woes of Western New York. We can't just have one big project, but that's exactly what this is turned into,” said Walter, who got in a heated back and forth with ESD head Howard Zemsky <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7321-assembly-takes-stock-of-state-economic-development-programs-ahead-of-next-negotiations" target="_blank" rel="noopener">last month at an Assembly hearing</a> on the progress of Buffalo Billion and other economic development programs.</p> <p>The governor’s office <a href="https://buffalobillion.ny.gov/about-buffalo-billion" target="_blank" rel="noopener">says</a> it is creating a “comprehensive and diverse portfolio of investments that collectively is driving the future of Buffalo’s continuing economic recovery.”</p> <p>But while Buffalo Billion II may provide more tangible investments into the area, Walter questioned why the funds were not lined out by project in the 2017 budget, and criticized the opaque process through which it was passed.</p> <p>“We're giving a blank check to the governor, to the Empire State Development, to whoever is going to be administering these funds,” he said. “So yeah, I still have great concern because we've given up all legislative authority over how this money is going to be spent.”</p> <p>Others, like Democratic Assemblymember Crystal Peoples-Stokes, of Buffalo, says she and her constituents welcome the investment from the state. While she recognizes concerns, Peoples-Stokes said she has witnessed a dramatic change in the long-struggling city in terms of opportunity, entrepreneurship, and investment from major companies, as well as college students choosing to remain in Buffalo’s downtown after graduation.</p> <p>“For me, at the end of the day, to see economic development dollars have a meaningful impact in the core of our city, I’m satisfied with that,” she said. “Because for years, literally years -- this is not my first go around, I’ve been here for 15 years -- I’ve never seen the type of resources put into Buffalo as we’ve seen under Governor Cuomo.”</p> <p>

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

Read more by this writer.

</p> <p>Correction: An earlier version of this story mistated the trial date of the LP Ciminelli executives.</p> <p>Note: this story has been updated with more information on the reforms adopted from the Guidepost recommendations.</p>
'Open Budget,' Economic Development Transparency Bills Become Law 2017-12-01T05:00:00+00:00 2017-12-01T05:00:00+00:00 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7346:open-budget-economic-development-transparency-bills-become-law Ben Max <p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/2017/reset_1/34230498096_8f776460b1_z.jpg" alt="de Blasio public hearing City Council bills" width="600" height="399" /></p> <p>De Blasio at a public hearing (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)</p> <hr /> <p>Four government transparency bills that were passed by the City Council on October 31 aged into law on Friday, having gone 30 days without any action in favor or against them by Mayor Bill de Blasio. The bills all relate to increased disclosure by the administration of billions in city government spending and have been praised by good government advocates.</p> <p>Among the bills was one that <a href="http://legistar.council.nyc.gov/LegislationDetail.aspx?ID=2709949&amp;GUID=A23CF8CE-1F3D-45FA-8C20-7A787B22EEE8&amp;Options=&amp;Search=">requires</a> the administration to publish annual budget documents in a user-friendly, machine-readable format to the city’s online Open Data Portal, allowing the public easier access to information that is currently listed in thousands of line items in the $86 billion city budget. The bill’s lead sponsor was Council Member Ben Kallos.</p> <p><a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7284-city-council-to-pass-bills-expanding-oversight-of-economic-development-spending" target="_blank" rel="noopener">The three other bills</a> -- with lead sponsors Council Members Helen Rosenthal, Dan Garodnick, and Corey Johnson -- formed a package aimed at improving transparency at the Economic Development Corporation, a city-run entity that manages and promotes the administration’s job-creation and business-development initiatives. The bills allow the City Council added oversight of EDC, which provides many millions of dollars in financial benefits to projects and businesses each year and also handles the sale and lease of city-owned land. They mandate that EDC provide fiscal impact statements and job creation estimates for projects receiving financial assistance; require EDC to detail their efforts to clawback funds from those agreements that fail to meet their goals; and allow the City Council time to review and comment on proposed economic development agreements.</p> <p>“These new City laws will make it much easier to understand both the big picture of how the City is spending money and the specifics of hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidy deals the City makes with businesses,” said John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, a good government group, in a statement Friday. “It will be much easier to see if the taxpayer is getting a good deal. These new laws are a blueprint for what the state should do.”</p> <p>The City Charter provides that if the mayor takes no action on a bill after it is approved by the City Council, within 30 days, it automatically becomes law. In fact, it’s “pretty common” for bills to age into law without the mayor’s signature, said mayoral spokesperson Freddi Goldstein, in an email on Friday. She added that if the mayor signed every bill, “we’d be doing bill signings like every day.”&nbsp;&nbsp;</p> <p>Goldstein noted that out of the 25 bills passed by the Council on October 31, all but one aged into law. The only one the mayor signed was Council Member Rafael Espinal’s bill to repeal the city’s antiquated Cabaret Law, which used to require establishments to obtain licences from the city to allow dancing. De Blasio signed the bill on November 27 at Elsewhere, a popular nightclub in Brooklyn.</p> <p>Often, the mayor holds bill-signing ceremonies at City Hall, affixing his signature to numerous bills at a time. At one such ceremony on October 16, for instance, de Blasio signed a dozen bills into law. “It’s really just a timing thing,” Goldstein said in a later email, estimating that perhaps close to 100 bills have similarly lapsed into law in de Blasio’s first term.</p> <p>City Council spokesperson Robin Levine declined to comment for this article.</p> <p>

***
by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

</p>
<p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/2017/reset_1/34230498096_8f776460b1_z.jpg" alt="de Blasio public hearing City Council bills" width="600" height="399" /></p> <p>De Blasio at a public hearing (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)</p> <hr /> <p>Four government transparency bills that were passed by the City Council on October 31 aged into law on Friday, having gone 30 days without any action in favor or against them by Mayor Bill de Blasio. The bills all relate to increased disclosure by the administration of billions in city government spending and have been praised by good government advocates.</p> <p>Among the bills was one that <a href="http://legistar.council.nyc.gov/LegislationDetail.aspx?ID=2709949&amp;GUID=A23CF8CE-1F3D-45FA-8C20-7A787B22EEE8&amp;Options=&amp;Search=">requires</a> the administration to publish annual budget documents in a user-friendly, machine-readable format to the city’s online Open Data Portal, allowing the public easier access to information that is currently listed in thousands of line items in the $86 billion city budget. The bill’s lead sponsor was Council Member Ben Kallos.</p> <p><a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7284-city-council-to-pass-bills-expanding-oversight-of-economic-development-spending" target="_blank" rel="noopener">The three other bills</a> -- with lead sponsors Council Members Helen Rosenthal, Dan Garodnick, and Corey Johnson -- formed a package aimed at improving transparency at the Economic Development Corporation, a city-run entity that manages and promotes the administration’s job-creation and business-development initiatives. The bills allow the City Council added oversight of EDC, which provides many millions of dollars in financial benefits to projects and businesses each year and also handles the sale and lease of city-owned land. They mandate that EDC provide fiscal impact statements and job creation estimates for projects receiving financial assistance; require EDC to detail their efforts to clawback funds from those agreements that fail to meet their goals; and allow the City Council time to review and comment on proposed economic development agreements.</p> <p>“These new City laws will make it much easier to understand both the big picture of how the City is spending money and the specifics of hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidy deals the City makes with businesses,” said John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, a good government group, in a statement Friday. “It will be much easier to see if the taxpayer is getting a good deal. These new laws are a blueprint for what the state should do.”</p> <p>The City Charter provides that if the mayor takes no action on a bill after it is approved by the City Council, within 30 days, it automatically becomes law. In fact, it’s “pretty common” for bills to age into law without the mayor’s signature, said mayoral spokesperson Freddi Goldstein, in an email on Friday. She added that if the mayor signed every bill, “we’d be doing bill signings like every day.”&nbsp;&nbsp;</p> <p>Goldstein noted that out of the 25 bills passed by the Council on October 31, all but one aged into law. The only one the mayor signed was Council Member Rafael Espinal’s bill to repeal the city’s antiquated Cabaret Law, which used to require establishments to obtain licences from the city to allow dancing. De Blasio signed the bill on November 27 at Elsewhere, a popular nightclub in Brooklyn.</p> <p>Often, the mayor holds bill-signing ceremonies at City Hall, affixing his signature to numerous bills at a time. At one such ceremony on October 16, for instance, de Blasio signed a dozen bills into law. “It’s really just a timing thing,” Goldstein said in a later email, estimating that perhaps close to 100 bills have similarly lapsed into law in de Blasio’s first term.</p> <p>City Council spokesperson Robin Levine declined to comment for this article.</p> <p>

***
by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

</p>
Cuomo Urged to Sign Bill Strengthening Freedom of Information Law 2017-11-28T05:00:00+00:00 2017-11-28T05:00:00+00:00 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7338:cuomo-urged-to-sign-bill-strengthening-freedom-of-information-law Ben Max <p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/2017/reset_1/37312919111_d5ea89ebb2_z.jpg" alt="Cuomo announcement open for business" width="600" height="400" /></p> <p>Governor Cuomo (via the Governor's Office)</p> <hr /> <p>With just a few weeks before the 2018 legislative session, Governor Andrew Cuomo must soon sign or veto the outstanding legislation that passed both houses earlier this year.</p> <p>Among over 100 pieces of legislation headed for the governor’s desk over the next month is a bill that aims to strengthen the Freedom of Information Law, drafted with the input of many good government and media interests, <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/6982-for-second-time-legislature-sends-foil-penalty-bill-to-cuomo" target="_blank" rel="noopener">with changes from a previous version vetoed by Cuomo to address his concerns</a>.</p> <p>A growing coalition of these groups, which wield national, state and local influence, is keeping the issue in the public eye by calling on Cuomo to sign the bill, which is aimed at improving government responsiveness to information requests by non-governmental entities. The bill would make it easier for members of the public and organizations to win attorneys’ fees when they have won a court order instructing agencies to release public records, which can happen after a government entity refuses to honor an information request and an appeal is filed.</p> <p>The legislation, introduced by Assemblymember Amy Paulin and Senator Patrick Gallivan, overwhelmingly passed both houses of the Legislature earlier this year, but has not yet been delivered to the governor’s desk for consideration.</p> <p>While a similar attorneys’ fees bill was vetoed by Cuomo in 2015, the current legislation addresses Cuomo’s concerns by creating a two-tier system for potential financial penalties. Cuomo, a second-term Democrat who says he is running for reelection in 2018, will have 10 days to sign the bill into law once he receives it.</p> <p>On the heels of a series of newspaper <a href="https://nypost.com/2017/11/26/a-must-sign-bill-for-gov-cuomo/" target="_blank" rel="noopener">editorials</a> backing the bill’s passage, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a coalition of 33 state media organizations from across the nation, <a href="https://www.rcfp.org/sites/default/files/2017-10-09-letter-to-governor-cuomo-re-fo.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener">wrote a letter</a> to the governor Monday urging him to sign the legislation into law.</p> <p>“Public information belongs to the public, and it shouldn’t cost thousands of dollars in legal fees to access it,” said Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, in a statement. “If the government is required to pay the legal costs when a court finds they had no reasonable basis to deny a public information request, it provides an incentive for them to comply with legitimate requests in the first place. More information in the hands of the public only strengthens government transparency and accountability.”</p> <p>At the same time, a group of transparency and media groups, including national organizations like Sunlight Foundation and National Freedom of Information Coalition, echoed that sentiment in a statement of support this week calling New York’s Freedom of Information Law “the single most important transparency tool the public has.”</p> <p>The bill amends the state law, often referred to as FOIL, to require the mandatory awarding of attorneys' fees to plaintiffs when the plaintiff substantially prevails on the record request and a court finds that an agency had no reasonable basis for denying access to public records. Under current law, plaintiffs who pursue records in court can seek attorneys’ fees, but the reimbursements are awarded at the judge’s discretion after a plaintiff prevails substantially and proves the government had no reasonable basis for denying access.</p> <p>Based on feedback from Cuomo’s office and <a href="https://www.dos.ny.gov/coog/pdfs/2016%20Annual%20Report.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener">recommendations</a> from the Committee on Open Government, the 2017 bill creates a two-tier system, still allowing judges to use their discretion in awarding attorneys’ fees in cases where agencies failed to meet deadlines for complying with FOIL.</p> <p>“We think [the two-tier system] addresses the veto messages that we had prior and conversations we’ve had with the governor’s office,” said Assembly Member Paulin, a Democrat from Scarsdale.</p> <p>Action on the bill will be part of what is expected to be the usual end-of-year flurry of activity by the governor, dealing with legislation before another budget season begins in Albany. A spokesperson for Cuomo said the FOIL bill is under review.<br /> <br />Among those calling for Cuomo to sign the bill into law are open government organizations like BetaNYC and Civic Hall, as well as typical state government watchdog groups like the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law, Citizens Union, Common Cause NY, and League of Women Voters, which say they are encouraged by the newfound national attention and support that the bill has drawn.</p> <p>John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, which helped design the current version of the bill, said he believes that the legislation is a “compromise” that is “designed to pass.”</p> <p>“The hope is to ensure that the governor sees the full range of support for the bill,” said Kaehny. “One of the reasons this bill has drawn national attention is because New York’s a big state, but also because freedom of information law and transparency have been under attack for the last year or so.”</p> <p>

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

Read more by this writer.

</p>
<p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/2017/reset_1/37312919111_d5ea89ebb2_z.jpg" alt="Cuomo announcement open for business" width="600" height="400" /></p> <p>Governor Cuomo (via the Governor's Office)</p> <hr /> <p>With just a few weeks before the 2018 legislative session, Governor Andrew Cuomo must soon sign or veto the outstanding legislation that passed both houses earlier this year.</p> <p>Among over 100 pieces of legislation headed for the governor’s desk over the next month is a bill that aims to strengthen the Freedom of Information Law, drafted with the input of many good government and media interests, <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/6982-for-second-time-legislature-sends-foil-penalty-bill-to-cuomo" target="_blank" rel="noopener">with changes from a previous version vetoed by Cuomo to address his concerns</a>.</p> <p>A growing coalition of these groups, which wield national, state and local influence, is keeping the issue in the public eye by calling on Cuomo to sign the bill, which is aimed at improving government responsiveness to information requests by non-governmental entities. The bill would make it easier for members of the public and organizations to win attorneys’ fees when they have won a court order instructing agencies to release public records, which can happen after a government entity refuses to honor an information request and an appeal is filed.</p> <p>The legislation, introduced by Assemblymember Amy Paulin and Senator Patrick Gallivan, overwhelmingly passed both houses of the Legislature earlier this year, but has not yet been delivered to the governor’s desk for consideration.</p> <p>While a similar attorneys’ fees bill was vetoed by Cuomo in 2015, the current legislation addresses Cuomo’s concerns by creating a two-tier system for potential financial penalties. Cuomo, a second-term Democrat who says he is running for reelection in 2018, will have 10 days to sign the bill into law once he receives it.</p> <p>On the heels of a series of newspaper <a href="https://nypost.com/2017/11/26/a-must-sign-bill-for-gov-cuomo/" target="_blank" rel="noopener">editorials</a> backing the bill’s passage, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a coalition of 33 state media organizations from across the nation, <a href="https://www.rcfp.org/sites/default/files/2017-10-09-letter-to-governor-cuomo-re-fo.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener">wrote a letter</a> to the governor Monday urging him to sign the legislation into law.</p> <p>“Public information belongs to the public, and it shouldn’t cost thousands of dollars in legal fees to access it,” said Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, in a statement. “If the government is required to pay the legal costs when a court finds they had no reasonable basis to deny a public information request, it provides an incentive for them to comply with legitimate requests in the first place. More information in the hands of the public only strengthens government transparency and accountability.”</p> <p>At the same time, a group of transparency and media groups, including national organizations like Sunlight Foundation and National Freedom of Information Coalition, echoed that sentiment in a statement of support this week calling New York’s Freedom of Information Law “the single most important transparency tool the public has.”</p> <p>The bill amends the state law, often referred to as FOIL, to require the mandatory awarding of attorneys' fees to plaintiffs when the plaintiff substantially prevails on the record request and a court finds that an agency had no reasonable basis for denying access to public records. Under current law, plaintiffs who pursue records in court can seek attorneys’ fees, but the reimbursements are awarded at the judge’s discretion after a plaintiff prevails substantially and proves the government had no reasonable basis for denying access.</p> <p>Based on feedback from Cuomo’s office and <a href="https://www.dos.ny.gov/coog/pdfs/2016%20Annual%20Report.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener">recommendations</a> from the Committee on Open Government, the 2017 bill creates a two-tier system, still allowing judges to use their discretion in awarding attorneys’ fees in cases where agencies failed to meet deadlines for complying with FOIL.</p> <p>“We think [the two-tier system] addresses the veto messages that we had prior and conversations we’ve had with the governor’s office,” said Assembly Member Paulin, a Democrat from Scarsdale.</p> <p>Action on the bill will be part of what is expected to be the usual end-of-year flurry of activity by the governor, dealing with legislation before another budget season begins in Albany. A spokesperson for Cuomo said the FOIL bill is under review.<br /> <br />Among those calling for Cuomo to sign the bill into law are open government organizations like BetaNYC and Civic Hall, as well as typical state government watchdog groups like the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law, Citizens Union, Common Cause NY, and League of Women Voters, which say they are encouraged by the newfound national attention and support that the bill has drawn.</p> <p>John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, which helped design the current version of the bill, said he believes that the legislation is a “compromise” that is “designed to pass.”</p> <p>“The hope is to ensure that the governor sees the full range of support for the bill,” said Kaehny. “One of the reasons this bill has drawn national attention is because New York’s a big state, but also because freedom of information law and transparency have been under attack for the last year or so.”</p> <p>

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

Read more by this writer.

</p>
Assembly Takes Stock of State Economic Development Programs Ahead of Next Negotiations 2017-11-14T05:00:00+00:00 2017-11-14T05:00:00+00:00 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7321:assembly-takes-stock-of-state-economic-development-programs-ahead-of-next-negotiations Ben Max <p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/2017/34868772685_4a41dee04d_z.jpg" alt="34868772685 4a41dee04d z" width="640" height="427" /></p> <p>Howard Zemsky in Buffalo (via Governor's Office)</p> <hr /> <p>Ahead of the 2018 legislative session, the New York State Assembly’s Economic Development Committee held a hearing Monday in Albany to evaluate the progress of the state’s multitude of economic development programs and hear testimony from companies and organizations that have benefited from state grants.</p> <p>Taking center stage was Howard Zemsky, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s economic development czar as president and CEO of Empire State Development, who defended the state’s jobs programs and was grilled for nearly an hour by members of the committee. Committee members, led by chair Robin Schimminger, a Democrat from Erie County, raised concerns about the effectiveness of Buffalo’s annual 43North competition and Regional Economic Development Council grants; lower-than-expected job production; and increased regulatory burdens on small businesses.</p> <p>Cuomo has staked much of his legacy and devoted billions of state dollars to revitalizing the upstate economy. The state has infused $8 billion a year into economic projects since he took office in 2011, according to <a href="http://www.democratandchronicle.com/story/news/politics/albany/2017/06/07/new-york-job-programs-investigation/102323140/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">a Gannett Albany review</a>. But as Cuomo’s economic development programs have multiplied each year, the Legislature has failed to pass any meaningful oversight measures to ensure transparency, that beneficiaries are meeting job creation goals, or that grants and incentives are going to well-vetted recipients. While some efforts, such as those aimed at farms and breweries, have been successful, others, like Cuomo’s Start-Up New York program, have fallen short of job creation goals.</p> <p>At Monday’s hearing, Zemsky noted that upstate cities have seen a boom in tech sector jobs, which on average pay more than non-tech sector jobs, and touted a dramatic increase in venture capital investment throughout the state. The Empire State Development head said that ESD takes a “holistic” approach, pointing to the success of its downtown and waterfront revitalization efforts, which aim to attract a younger, more vibrant talent base, and investing in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education.</p> <p>He briefly defended the Regional Economic Development Councils, which have been accused of favoritism and conflicts of interests, and touted Buffalo as a success story -- a city that has been a major focus for Gov. Cuomo and transformed from a financially depressed post-industrial town to a vibrant hub of entrepreneurship.</p> <p>“A lot of what we have done in Buffalo we have used as a template in many other parts of the state and I’m proud that we took some risks and took some chance,” said Zemsky. “Every year we improve and make adjustments.”</p> <p>Schimminger cited an article noting that three-quarters of companies that are attracted to Buffalo by the 43North program have since left the city and inquired about whether the residency requirements, currently a year, could be extended.</p> <p>“We’re only a few years into the program, but after every year the 43North board reassesses and reevaluates what went right, what didn’t go right, just like we do in government. Is it possible that we might change the regulations, that we might change the time frame? That’s under active discussion,” said Zemsky, noting that many companies retain active connections to Buffalo even after they leave.</p> <p>Zemsky’s presentation rang hollow for at least one committee member, Assemblymember Raymond Walter, a Republican from Amherst, who told Zemsky to provide hard data about the returns delivered by the state’s Buffalo investments rather than “offering platitudes.”</p> <p>“Our job here is to draw a direct connection between what we are doing with taxpayer dollars to that renaissance and I’m not convinced you can do that,” said Walter. “If we could focus on that, rather than the platitudes, that would be great.”</p> <p>Zemsky pointed Walter to ESD’s progress report, insisting the number of new firms has grown and jobs have dramatically accelerated in Buffalo, by “almost any metric,” particularly when compared to other struggling cities.</p> <p>The conversation quickly turned personal, with Zemsky, who is a Buffalo businessman, accusing the Assembly member of opposing the state’s efforts to spur Buffalo’s economy, and demanding, “Do you go to any of the REDC meetings, do you know anything that is actually going on?”</p> <p>At one point during the heated exchange about interpreting Buffalo’s jobs data, which Walter said mostly highlights low-skill jobs growth, Zemsky snapped, “You don’t know anything about the innovation economy.”</p> <p>The biggest indicator of Buffalo’s growth, Zemsky pointed to <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/20/upshot/where-young-college-graduates-are-choosing-to-live.html?mtrref=gothamist.com&amp;gwh=8F08A0901526DF9D7B923B841CCE335E&amp;gwt=pay" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the rise</a> of the area’s millennial population over the last decade. “Turning the corner on that is the most important thing we can do,” he said.</p> <p>After Zemsky, the Assembly panel was addressed by various industry leaders and experts, who described how programs like the Start-Up New York jobs program and the Southern Tier Startup Alliance (NYSTAR) have created or retained thousands of jobs and spurred both investment and innovation.</p> <p>A representative of watchdog group ReInvent Albany then presented the positions of good government organizations, calling for the passage of a number of bills introduced in the Legislature last year, which would increase oversight of and transparency in the state’s economic development programs.</p> <p>Among the legislative fixes proposed by Reinvent Albany and others is the creation of a “database of deals,” which would digitally list every entity receiving funds from the state along with where each dollar is going; a bill to restore the powers of the state Comptroller to review procurement contracts for SUNY, CUNY, and Office of General Services; and campaign finance restrictions to curb the appearance or reality of pay-to-play politics.</p> <p>At least two bills, including the database of deals and one requiring nonprofit organizations affiliated with government entities to be subject to the freedom of information law and the open meetings law, are sponsored by Schimminger, but did not make it to the Assembly floor. Legislation related to procurement reform appeared to gain steam early this year in light of a major bid-rigging scandal that will see close associates of and donors to Cuomo on trial for corruption in 2018, but <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/6875-ramped-up-economic-development-funding-less-transparency-in-new-state-budget" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">nothing was passed</a> as the Legislature acquiesced to the governor’s objections.</p> <p>“The only thing the Legislature did do is write a check for $1.8 billion in the extender budget passed in April, a blank check granted by the Legislature to Governor Cuomo for economic development projects with no additional oversight,” said Alex Camarda, senior policy advisor for Reinvent Albany.</p> <p>Schimminger welcomed Camarda’s comments, saying that &nbsp;good government groups are “preaching to the choir” when they call for increased accountability and oversight.</p> <p>“Not a single one of those bills that you mentioned have been blocked by the committee, in fact, many of them -- the database of deals, the Start-Up fix -- have come out of the committee but are delayed elsewhere,” said the Assembly member, referring to the fact that the legislation had been held up in other legislative committees.</p> <p>The wisdom behind Start-Up New York, which creates tax-free zones for new businesses, local development corporations and other economic development programs is the finding that startups create significantly more jobs than companies that have matured 10 to 30 years and drive economic development. But critics say these programs <a href="http://www.democratandchronicle.com/story/news/politics/albany/2017/06/07/new-york-job-programs-investigation/102323140/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">continue to fall short</a> of the job creation goals and many beneficiaries of these state incentives have failed to report on sufficient or any progress made through their grants.</p> <p>Despite the fact that several members of Cuomo’s circle are set to appear in court next year for their roles in the bid-rigging scandal involving the state’s Buffalo Billion program, a second round of cash investment to the project was approved in this year’s budget, with no new accountability measures.</p> <p>While Schimminger acknowledged these problems in his opening remarks, the hearing was primarily an information-gathering session, and those outstanding issues will be addressed during the next legislative session, he told Camarda. The governor will unveil his next executive budget in January, leading to months of negotiations and hearings.</p> <p>

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

Read more by this writer.

</p>
<p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/2017/34868772685_4a41dee04d_z.jpg" alt="34868772685 4a41dee04d z" width="640" height="427" /></p> <p>Howard Zemsky in Buffalo (via Governor's Office)</p> <hr /> <p>Ahead of the 2018 legislative session, the New York State Assembly’s Economic Development Committee held a hearing Monday in Albany to evaluate the progress of the state’s multitude of economic development programs and hear testimony from companies and organizations that have benefited from state grants.</p> <p>Taking center stage was Howard Zemsky, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s economic development czar as president and CEO of Empire State Development, who defended the state’s jobs programs and was grilled for nearly an hour by members of the committee. Committee members, led by chair Robin Schimminger, a Democrat from Erie County, raised concerns about the effectiveness of Buffalo’s annual 43North competition and Regional Economic Development Council grants; lower-than-expected job production; and increased regulatory burdens on small businesses.</p> <p>Cuomo has staked much of his legacy and devoted billions of state dollars to revitalizing the upstate economy. The state has infused $8 billion a year into economic projects since he took office in 2011, according to <a href="http://www.democratandchronicle.com/story/news/politics/albany/2017/06/07/new-york-job-programs-investigation/102323140/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">a Gannett Albany review</a>. But as Cuomo’s economic development programs have multiplied each year, the Legislature has failed to pass any meaningful oversight measures to ensure transparency, that beneficiaries are meeting job creation goals, or that grants and incentives are going to well-vetted recipients. While some efforts, such as those aimed at farms and breweries, have been successful, others, like Cuomo’s Start-Up New York program, have fallen short of job creation goals.</p> <p>At Monday’s hearing, Zemsky noted that upstate cities have seen a boom in tech sector jobs, which on average pay more than non-tech sector jobs, and touted a dramatic increase in venture capital investment throughout the state. The Empire State Development head said that ESD takes a “holistic” approach, pointing to the success of its downtown and waterfront revitalization efforts, which aim to attract a younger, more vibrant talent base, and investing in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education.</p> <p>He briefly defended the Regional Economic Development Councils, which have been accused of favoritism and conflicts of interests, and touted Buffalo as a success story -- a city that has been a major focus for Gov. Cuomo and transformed from a financially depressed post-industrial town to a vibrant hub of entrepreneurship.</p> <p>“A lot of what we have done in Buffalo we have used as a template in many other parts of the state and I’m proud that we took some risks and took some chance,” said Zemsky. “Every year we improve and make adjustments.”</p> <p>Schimminger cited an article noting that three-quarters of companies that are attracted to Buffalo by the 43North program have since left the city and inquired about whether the residency requirements, currently a year, could be extended.</p> <p>“We’re only a few years into the program, but after every year the 43North board reassesses and reevaluates what went right, what didn’t go right, just like we do in government. Is it possible that we might change the regulations, that we might change the time frame? That’s under active discussion,” said Zemsky, noting that many companies retain active connections to Buffalo even after they leave.</p> <p>Zemsky’s presentation rang hollow for at least one committee member, Assemblymember Raymond Walter, a Republican from Amherst, who told Zemsky to provide hard data about the returns delivered by the state’s Buffalo investments rather than “offering platitudes.”</p> <p>“Our job here is to draw a direct connection between what we are doing with taxpayer dollars to that renaissance and I’m not convinced you can do that,” said Walter. “If we could focus on that, rather than the platitudes, that would be great.”</p> <p>Zemsky pointed Walter to ESD’s progress report, insisting the number of new firms has grown and jobs have dramatically accelerated in Buffalo, by “almost any metric,” particularly when compared to other struggling cities.</p> <p>The conversation quickly turned personal, with Zemsky, who is a Buffalo businessman, accusing the Assembly member of opposing the state’s efforts to spur Buffalo’s economy, and demanding, “Do you go to any of the REDC meetings, do you know anything that is actually going on?”</p> <p>At one point during the heated exchange about interpreting Buffalo’s jobs data, which Walter said mostly highlights low-skill jobs growth, Zemsky snapped, “You don’t know anything about the innovation economy.”</p> <p>The biggest indicator of Buffalo’s growth, Zemsky pointed to <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/20/upshot/where-young-college-graduates-are-choosing-to-live.html?mtrref=gothamist.com&amp;gwh=8F08A0901526DF9D7B923B841CCE335E&amp;gwt=pay" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the rise</a> of the area’s millennial population over the last decade. “Turning the corner on that is the most important thing we can do,” he said.</p> <p>After Zemsky, the Assembly panel was addressed by various industry leaders and experts, who described how programs like the Start-Up New York jobs program and the Southern Tier Startup Alliance (NYSTAR) have created or retained thousands of jobs and spurred both investment and innovation.</p> <p>A representative of watchdog group ReInvent Albany then presented the positions of good government organizations, calling for the passage of a number of bills introduced in the Legislature last year, which would increase oversight of and transparency in the state’s economic development programs.</p> <p>Among the legislative fixes proposed by Reinvent Albany and others is the creation of a “database of deals,” which would digitally list every entity receiving funds from the state along with where each dollar is going; a bill to restore the powers of the state Comptroller to review procurement contracts for SUNY, CUNY, and Office of General Services; and campaign finance restrictions to curb the appearance or reality of pay-to-play politics.</p> <p>At least two bills, including the database of deals and one requiring nonprofit organizations affiliated with government entities to be subject to the freedom of information law and the open meetings law, are sponsored by Schimminger, but did not make it to the Assembly floor. Legislation related to procurement reform appeared to gain steam early this year in light of a major bid-rigging scandal that will see close associates of and donors to Cuomo on trial for corruption in 2018, but <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/6875-ramped-up-economic-development-funding-less-transparency-in-new-state-budget" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">nothing was passed</a> as the Legislature acquiesced to the governor’s objections.</p> <p>“The only thing the Legislature did do is write a check for $1.8 billion in the extender budget passed in April, a blank check granted by the Legislature to Governor Cuomo for economic development projects with no additional oversight,” said Alex Camarda, senior policy advisor for Reinvent Albany.</p> <p>Schimminger welcomed Camarda’s comments, saying that &nbsp;good government groups are “preaching to the choir” when they call for increased accountability and oversight.</p> <p>“Not a single one of those bills that you mentioned have been blocked by the committee, in fact, many of them -- the database of deals, the Start-Up fix -- have come out of the committee but are delayed elsewhere,” said the Assembly member, referring to the fact that the legislation had been held up in other legislative committees.</p> <p>The wisdom behind Start-Up New York, which creates tax-free zones for new businesses, local development corporations and other economic development programs is the finding that startups create significantly more jobs than companies that have matured 10 to 30 years and drive economic development. But critics say these programs <a href="http://www.democratandchronicle.com/story/news/politics/albany/2017/06/07/new-york-job-programs-investigation/102323140/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">continue to fall short</a> of the job creation goals and many beneficiaries of these state incentives have failed to report on sufficient or any progress made through their grants.</p> <p>Despite the fact that several members of Cuomo’s circle are set to appear in court next year for their roles in the bid-rigging scandal involving the state’s Buffalo Billion program, a second round of cash investment to the project was approved in this year’s budget, with no new accountability measures.</p> <p>While Schimminger acknowledged these problems in his opening remarks, the hearing was primarily an information-gathering session, and those outstanding issues will be addressed during the next legislative session, he told Camarda. The governor will unveil his next executive budget in January, leading to months of negotiations and hearings.</p> <p>

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

Read more by this writer.

</p>
Thanks to a Push, Democratic County Organizations Slowly Grow Digital Footprint 2017-08-27T04:00:00+00:00 2017-08-27T04:00:00+00:00 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7138:thanks-to-a-push-democratic-county-organizations-slowly-grow-digital-footprint Ben Max <p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/2017/new-queens-democrats.jpg" alt="new queens democrats" width="600" height="338" /></p> <p>The New Queens Democrats recently formed (photo via NQD on Facebook)</p> <hr /> <p>When Sahand Shahrabani moved to Forest Hills, Queens in 2013, the recent college graduate had one goal: to get involved in local politics.&nbsp;But a Google search turned up eerily sparse results for Democratic clubs in the borough and no trace of the Queens County Democratic Party.</p> <p>“They don't have Facebook and there’s no website. I was definitely surprised and disappointed by the lack of web presence,” said Shahrabani, now 29.</p> <p>During the 2016 presidential race, Shahrabani joined Queens’ People for Bernie group and met two other progressive Queens dwellers, Jesse Rose and Sam Schachter, with whom he would soon create the New Queens Democrats, the first progressive reform political club in the borough.</p> <p>As part of their platform, the <a href="https://www.newqueensdems.org" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">New Queens Democrats</a> called on the Queens Democratic organization to embrace email communication and post useful information, such as events and resolutions, on an official webpage.&nbsp;“Our party is a modern one and our methods of communication should reflect that,” wrote the club’s founders.</p> <p>Their rallying cry may have reached the ears of Queens’ Democratic Party establishment, led by Congressional Rep. Joseph Crowley, because a representative for Queens Democrats told Gotham Gazette that the organization is in the midst of building a website, set to launch “very soon.”</p> <p>“Expanding how the Queens County Democratic Organization communicates with its membership and the public is a large priority for Congressman [Joe] Crowley,” said Mike Reich, executive secretary for the Queens Democratic Party. ”Currently our robust outreach is done via email and the organization will continue to build on ways to engage members of the community in the digital space.”</p> <p>Technologically, the Queens Democratic organization follows only shortly behind the city’s four other Democratic county committees, including the Kings County (Brooklyn) Democratic Party, which launched <a href="http://www.brooklyndems.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">a website</a> in 2015, and the New York County (Manhattan) Democratic Party which <a href="http://manhattandemocrats.org" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">went online</a> in 2013.</p> <p>Bronx and Richmond County (Staten Island) Democratic parties also have inviting websites that have been in operation “for years,” according to representatives from both organizations.</p> <p>There is no uniformity across the county committee sites, and many are missing essential information, like committee event calendars, a directory of district leaders and county committee members, district leader part maps, party rules, minutes from meetings, and party calls. They also use old fashioned postage to announce rare and under-attended committee-wide meetings and do little to promote the events on social media.</p> <p>While for over a century the tight-knit, transactional style of party leadership has helped county dynasties retain power, if in the current digital age party organizations fail to modernize and engage the next generation of voters and activists, self-taught crops of Democratic organizers threaten to upend the old order. Without better digital presences, there may soon be too few people active in the party to keep a hold on power.</p> <p>New Queens Democrats, which in several months has modestly grown to nearly two dozen members, is now focused on supporting other progressives who want to run for county committee, a massive body of representatives from each election district that meets biennially, but has few concrete powers aside from helping to select candidates for special elections and nominating judicial candidates. In New York City, where most elected seats are guaranteed to be Democratic, the county committee vote <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/opinion/7128-squadron-departure-spotlights-importance-of-county-committee" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">effectively decides the winner</a> of most special elections, and is part of the pipeline of party operatives and officials.</p> <p>The new Queens club is modeled after two other political clubs, the Manhattan Young Democrats and the insurgent New Kings Democrats in Brooklyn, which have successfully infused the Democratic apparatuses in their boroughs with progressive committee candidates and nudged the organizations in a more transparent, tech-friendly, outreach-focused direction.</p> <p>The county committee system was originally designed to give ordinary New Yorkers a voice in their party organization, but with little understanding or available information of how the arcane system works, few take advantage of it in a meaningful way, and in each borough, thousands of seats are vacants at any given time. In 2009, the Manhattan Young Democrats launched the city’s first “<a href="https://gomyd.com/open-seat-project-the-faq/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">open seat project</a>” to get more people to run for county committee and fill these vacant posts.</p> <p>Unlike government agencies, Democratic county organizations are privately run, often dynastic entities, operating autonomously from the state Democratic Party, according to John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany.</p> <p>“The parties can select and recruit and organize themselves any way they want,” said Kaehny. “If they want to be backwards and insular and uninviting, protect the status quo and refuse to be dynamic and invite new blood, they can.”</p> <p>When county organizations are reluctant to embrace technology or lack a web presence, it suggests that they are more focussed on maintaining old power structures that have existed for decades than engaging with the public, according to Kaehny.</p> <p>How the organizations choose to engage with the public is &nbsp;“a reflection of what the leadership is and the priorities of the leadership,” he said.</p> <p>Manhattan’s Democratic party is fractured, but it is also likely the most transparent and inclusive of New York’s Democratic organizations. In part, this shift is attributed to the efforts of the Manhattan Young Democrats -- which published one of the first county committee <a href="https://gomyd.com/open-seat-project/county-committee-faq/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">explainers</a> on the internet -- and Ben Yee, an open government advocate who has won awards for his transparency work at the New York State Senate.</p> <p>Yee, who got his start working on former President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, joined the Manhattan Young Democrats in 2009, where he was instrumental in creating the open seat project. That year, MYD recruited and elected 70 young people to Manhattan's county committee, and that number has multiplied each year since.</p> <p>“We were running people for this thing and we weren’t really sure what the body did -- we just knew it was a governing body -- because all this stuff was very difficult to find out. You couldn’t Google this at all. It was just ridiculous,” said Yee.</p> <p>While at first, Democratic party leaders may have seen the rapid influx of committee members as a nuisance, some soon learned to embrace the enthusiasm and volunteer work coming from the Manhattan Young Democrats.</p> <p>“We kept running people, we kept being super active, we kept posting things that they weren’t really able to control,” said Yee. The first two years, they were like ‘this is annoying,’ the next two years, they were like ‘this is still annoying,’” but by year six, Yee says he asked to be third vice chair for the county Democratic party and they said “sure.”</p> <p>Yee, who has since been promoted secretary of the Manhattan Democratic Party and is currently running for state committee, and a friend, Chris Bailey, put together a robust website for the Manhattan Democratic Party in 2013, and Yee has taken it upon himself to make sure it is updated regularly. “There’s definitely been an opening up” in the party, said Yee.</p> <p>While occasionally he faces pushback from the county leadership, led by Chair Keith Wright, over what information can be posted -- the minutes from meetings may need to be reviewed by a lawyer before posting, for example -- Yee says for the most part, the party leadership is appreciative of his efforts.</p> <p>“Over the years, they’ve realized that this is really beneficial for us. It’s just about finding the line and the rationale for not publishing things, and sometimes the reason is valid, and we work around it,” said Yee.</p> <p>Resistance, Yee says, stems from fear of culpability for misstatements and to some extent maintaining power, but party leaders have largely seen transparency as a net gain for the party, especially with regard to the influx of younger people and talent.</p> <p>Since the Democratic Party is so powerful in New York, county organizations don’t feel compelled to act as organizers. In swing areas with more balanced party enrollment, <a href="http://www.westchesterdems.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">like Westchester County</a>, Democratic organizations tend to be more dynamic and ambitious in their outreach efforts, said Yee.</p> <p>Naturally, New York City’s Republican committees, which hold a miniscule degree of influence in most parts of the city, appear to be more focussed on outreach to the general public. While Manhattan’s Democratic district leaders struggled to maneuver the petition printing backlog during the most recent petitioning process, the Staten Island GOP <a href="http://sigop.com/slider/june-2016-update-help-qualify-our-republican-candidates-get-your-petition-packet-today-2/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">is willing</a> send a free packet of petitions to anyone interested in volunteering for one of its endorsed candidates.</p> <p>In stark contrast to the Queens Democratic organization, Queens’ GOP committee has eight full-time staffers and five to six volunteers on its digital outreach team. The aggressive engagement strategy includes Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, complete with hashtags for every day of the week, and responsiveness is a top priority, according to staff members.</p> <p>While Democratic party leaders were difficult to reach by phone, Michael Conigliaro, executive director of the Queens County GOP, eagerly organized a conference call with the office’s boisterous digital outreach crew, requesting that Gotham Gazette list all of their names (Fred Darowitsch, Ryan Kelly, Michael Janis, Angela Ferri, Gabriel Miller). &nbsp;</p> <p>Noting the strides made by the Manhattan county Democratic organization, Yee believes the Democratic Party as a whole needs to “get its act together” in terms of engaging voters and transparency if it wants to be successful as an electoral force.</p> <p>“The Democratic Party is actually, in my opinion...drifting farther and farther away from its base because it’s literally getting more and more out of touch -- fewer and fewer people understand how the Democratic Party works,” said Yee. “The Democratic Party needs to refocus on the fact that it serves people and unless it does that and opens up the process so that regular people can have an input into the governance of the party, it’s not going to be very successful in the future.”</p> <p>The other Democratic county party websites are not without merits. The Bronx Democrats, chaired by Assemblymember Marcos Crespo, is effective at digital engagement, utilizing Twitter and Facebook and sending out weekly e-newsletters to constituents about events held by elected officials.</p> <p>"It's very important to the chairman to ensure that our constituents are engaged. We are proud to have a party that came out strongly, we are proud to have the highest Democratic turnouts in America and the chairman is proud to engage with the constituency and be as transparent as possible," Yves Filius, political coordinator at the Bronx Democratic Party.</p> <p>However, the site, which was launched by former county boss turned Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie “more than five years ago,” according to Filius, is not particularly designed to court new talent or explain the county committee system. It includes an elaborate photo spread of Bronx elected officials but no committee meetings on its calendar.</p> <p>Like other county machines, the Bronx party continues to be known for <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/government/5891-rumored-scheme-brings-scrutiny-to-bronx-political-machine" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">backroom deals</a> when it comes to elected seat swapping or maneuvering so that county-aligned candidates get the posts the establishment wants. In Queens, there has been extensive recent <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/6944-crowley-appointee-to-board-of-elections-sees-spike-in-queens-court-profits" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reporting</a> in the news media about patronage.</p> <p>The Staten Island Democrats, which operates in an area represented by several Republican elected officials, including Borough President James Oddo, appears more outreach-oriented, with a website inviting Staten Islanders to run for office, and promoting a leadership initiative, but offers little information about the county committee process.</p> <p>Nationally, cities are turning to technology to make government services and information more accessible. In New York City, agencies are bound by <a href="https://cityofnewyork.github.io/opendatatsm/LocalLaw11of2012.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Local Law 11 -- signed in 2012</a> by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg -- which mandates that most digital data managed by the city be made available to the public through a single web portal. A manual published by the City’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) outlines technical standards and guidelines for city agencies.</p> <p>While Democratic organizations are not bound by these regulations, they can take a cue from these guidelines and strides made by city governments to become more user friendly, according to David Moore, a civic technologist who launched New York City’s <a href="https://nyc.councilmatic.org/about/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Councilmatic</a>, an interactive online tool for understanding the activity and legislation that moves through the City Council.</p> <p>“We’ve seen city websites become better designed and more easy to navigate. This should be a goal for the county,” said Moore, pointing to “<a href="https://council.nyc.gov/news/2015/04/15/introducing-council-2-0/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Council 2.0</a>” and a 2015 redesign of the New York City Council’s website, spearheaded by Council Speaker Melissa Mark Viverito in 2015 and designed to make more data publically accessible and the city’s main governing body more responsive.</p> <p>While setting up a Democratic county party website is a good first step, “it is crucial to demystify the process more; they could use some testing to see how they are able to explain how this very old school county committee process works,” said Moore.</p> <p>If the state Democratic party is interested in better engaging the grassroots, they should designate funds towards creating baseline standards for digital outreach on the county level, according to Moore.</p> <p>The 2016 presidential election energized voters all over the city, including many younger ones, and there is an abundance of grassroots organizations and engaged New Yorkers.</p> <p>“There is so much interest in local engagement now after the 2016 local elections, that volunteer for social media, web development, should be easy to find, in counties as huge as Brooklyn and Queens, for example,” said Moore. “The county committees should be on the record soliciting and supporting outreach to get more people aware of their work and their responsibilities.”</p> <p>One such organization is Gowanus Gathering for Action, a group of progressive organizers in Central Brooklyn, which has taken interest in the county committee system and was surprised at how little information was available.</p> <p>Web designer Jonathan Crocket is working with the group to create the County Committee Sunlight Project, <a href="https://ccsunlight.org/about" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">which allows</a> people to search for their election district, and find out where committee vacancies are located through a color-coded, interactive map.</p> <p>"We are living in a different time now, and people need to interact with their party. The Trump administration has not materialized overnight. People don't have a say, and when they don't have a say, they resort to more radical dispositions," said Crocket, who hopes to eventually advance the project to include state-wide committees.</p> <p>Brooklyn Democratic Party website came to be in a similar way, with some prodding from progressive reform-minded district leaders Josh Skaller, who is party of the Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats, and Nick Rizzo of the New Kings Democrats.</p> <p>“When I came in, it was a campaign pledge of mine, and I found out that they were already working on it,” said Rizzo of a website for the county party. “So in 2014, they knew they were already behind and this was something they had to do.”</p> <p>When then-Assemblymember Vito Lopez stepped down from his party boss post <a href="http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/vito-lopez-powerful-brooklyn-assemblyman-stripped-leadership-post-committee-finds-sexually-harassed-2-employees-article-1.1143794" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">amid a sexual harassment scandal</a>, and was replaced by current Chair Frank Seddio in 2012, it created an opportunity for culture shift throughout the organization and <a href="http://www.brooklyndems.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the website</a> was part of that, according to Rizzo.</p> <p>The Brooklyn Democrats site includes directories of district leaders and county committee members -- though the lists are not always up-to-date -- and two full-time staffers who are responsible for maintaining the site and updating it with event listings.</p> <p>“I think it was pretty painless, and that’s a credit to Frank Seddio,” said Rizzo. “I understand that it doesn’t seem like a priority for a lot of old school politicians, but it it sends a message that we are listening and we care.”</p> <p>One thing that has not been modernized at the old office is the move from snail mail to email -- 41 out of 42 district leaders do now posses an email address -- but like everything, “it’s a process,” said Rizzo.</p> <p>

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

Read more by this writer.

</p>
<p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/2017/new-queens-democrats.jpg" alt="new queens democrats" width="600" height="338" /></p> <p>The New Queens Democrats recently formed (photo via NQD on Facebook)</p> <hr /> <p>When Sahand Shahrabani moved to Forest Hills, Queens in 2013, the recent college graduate had one goal: to get involved in local politics.&nbsp;But a Google search turned up eerily sparse results for Democratic clubs in the borough and no trace of the Queens County Democratic Party.</p> <p>“They don't have Facebook and there’s no website. I was definitely surprised and disappointed by the lack of web presence,” said Shahrabani, now 29.</p> <p>During the 2016 presidential race, Shahrabani joined Queens’ People for Bernie group and met two other progressive Queens dwellers, Jesse Rose and Sam Schachter, with whom he would soon create the New Queens Democrats, the first progressive reform political club in the borough.</p> <p>As part of their platform, the <a href="https://www.newqueensdems.org" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">New Queens Democrats</a> called on the Queens Democratic organization to embrace email communication and post useful information, such as events and resolutions, on an official webpage.&nbsp;“Our party is a modern one and our methods of communication should reflect that,” wrote the club’s founders.</p> <p>Their rallying cry may have reached the ears of Queens’ Democratic Party establishment, led by Congressional Rep. Joseph Crowley, because a representative for Queens Democrats told Gotham Gazette that the organization is in the midst of building a website, set to launch “very soon.”</p> <p>“Expanding how the Queens County Democratic Organization communicates with its membership and the public is a large priority for Congressman [Joe] Crowley,” said Mike Reich, executive secretary for the Queens Democratic Party. ”Currently our robust outreach is done via email and the organization will continue to build on ways to engage members of the community in the digital space.”</p> <p>Technologically, the Queens Democratic organization follows only shortly behind the city’s four other Democratic county committees, including the Kings County (Brooklyn) Democratic Party, which launched <a href="http://www.brooklyndems.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">a website</a> in 2015, and the New York County (Manhattan) Democratic Party which <a href="http://manhattandemocrats.org" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">went online</a> in 2013.</p> <p>Bronx and Richmond County (Staten Island) Democratic parties also have inviting websites that have been in operation “for years,” according to representatives from both organizations.</p> <p>There is no uniformity across the county committee sites, and many are missing essential information, like committee event calendars, a directory of district leaders and county committee members, district leader part maps, party rules, minutes from meetings, and party calls. They also use old fashioned postage to announce rare and under-attended committee-wide meetings and do little to promote the events on social media.</p> <p>While for over a century the tight-knit, transactional style of party leadership has helped county dynasties retain power, if in the current digital age party organizations fail to modernize and engage the next generation of voters and activists, self-taught crops of Democratic organizers threaten to upend the old order. Without better digital presences, there may soon be too few people active in the party to keep a hold on power.</p> <p>New Queens Democrats, which in several months has modestly grown to nearly two dozen members, is now focused on supporting other progressives who want to run for county committee, a massive body of representatives from each election district that meets biennially, but has few concrete powers aside from helping to select candidates for special elections and nominating judicial candidates. In New York City, where most elected seats are guaranteed to be Democratic, the county committee vote <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/opinion/7128-squadron-departure-spotlights-importance-of-county-committee" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">effectively decides the winner</a> of most special elections, and is part of the pipeline of party operatives and officials.</p> <p>The new Queens club is modeled after two other political clubs, the Manhattan Young Democrats and the insurgent New Kings Democrats in Brooklyn, which have successfully infused the Democratic apparatuses in their boroughs with progressive committee candidates and nudged the organizations in a more transparent, tech-friendly, outreach-focused direction.</p> <p>The county committee system was originally designed to give ordinary New Yorkers a voice in their party organization, but with little understanding or available information of how the arcane system works, few take advantage of it in a meaningful way, and in each borough, thousands of seats are vacants at any given time. In 2009, the Manhattan Young Democrats launched the city’s first “<a href="https://gomyd.com/open-seat-project-the-faq/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">open seat project</a>” to get more people to run for county committee and fill these vacant posts.</p> <p>Unlike government agencies, Democratic county organizations are privately run, often dynastic entities, operating autonomously from the state Democratic Party, according to John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany.</p> <p>“The parties can select and recruit and organize themselves any way they want,” said Kaehny. “If they want to be backwards and insular and uninviting, protect the status quo and refuse to be dynamic and invite new blood, they can.”</p> <p>When county organizations are reluctant to embrace technology or lack a web presence, it suggests that they are more focussed on maintaining old power structures that have existed for decades than engaging with the public, according to Kaehny.</p> <p>How the organizations choose to engage with the public is &nbsp;“a reflection of what the leadership is and the priorities of the leadership,” he said.</p> <p>Manhattan’s Democratic party is fractured, but it is also likely the most transparent and inclusive of New York’s Democratic organizations. In part, this shift is attributed to the efforts of the Manhattan Young Democrats -- which published one of the first county committee <a href="https://gomyd.com/open-seat-project/county-committee-faq/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">explainers</a> on the internet -- and Ben Yee, an open government advocate who has won awards for his transparency work at the New York State Senate.</p> <p>Yee, who got his start working on former President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, joined the Manhattan Young Democrats in 2009, where he was instrumental in creating the open seat project. That year, MYD recruited and elected 70 young people to Manhattan's county committee, and that number has multiplied each year since.</p> <p>“We were running people for this thing and we weren’t really sure what the body did -- we just knew it was a governing body -- because all this stuff was very difficult to find out. You couldn’t Google this at all. It was just ridiculous,” said Yee.</p> <p>While at first, Democratic party leaders may have seen the rapid influx of committee members as a nuisance, some soon learned to embrace the enthusiasm and volunteer work coming from the Manhattan Young Democrats.</p> <p>“We kept running people, we kept being super active, we kept posting things that they weren’t really able to control,” said Yee. The first two years, they were like ‘this is annoying,’ the next two years, they were like ‘this is still annoying,’” but by year six, Yee says he asked to be third vice chair for the county Democratic party and they said “sure.”</p> <p>Yee, who has since been promoted secretary of the Manhattan Democratic Party and is currently running for state committee, and a friend, Chris Bailey, put together a robust website for the Manhattan Democratic Party in 2013, and Yee has taken it upon himself to make sure it is updated regularly. “There’s definitely been an opening up” in the party, said Yee.</p> <p>While occasionally he faces pushback from the county leadership, led by Chair Keith Wright, over what information can be posted -- the minutes from meetings may need to be reviewed by a lawyer before posting, for example -- Yee says for the most part, the party leadership is appreciative of his efforts.</p> <p>“Over the years, they’ve realized that this is really beneficial for us. It’s just about finding the line and the rationale for not publishing things, and sometimes the reason is valid, and we work around it,” said Yee.</p> <p>Resistance, Yee says, stems from fear of culpability for misstatements and to some extent maintaining power, but party leaders have largely seen transparency as a net gain for the party, especially with regard to the influx of younger people and talent.</p> <p>Since the Democratic Party is so powerful in New York, county organizations don’t feel compelled to act as organizers. In swing areas with more balanced party enrollment, <a href="http://www.westchesterdems.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">like Westchester County</a>, Democratic organizations tend to be more dynamic and ambitious in their outreach efforts, said Yee.</p> <p>Naturally, New York City’s Republican committees, which hold a miniscule degree of influence in most parts of the city, appear to be more focussed on outreach to the general public. While Manhattan’s Democratic district leaders struggled to maneuver the petition printing backlog during the most recent petitioning process, the Staten Island GOP <a href="http://sigop.com/slider/june-2016-update-help-qualify-our-republican-candidates-get-your-petition-packet-today-2/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">is willing</a> send a free packet of petitions to anyone interested in volunteering for one of its endorsed candidates.</p> <p>In stark contrast to the Queens Democratic organization, Queens’ GOP committee has eight full-time staffers and five to six volunteers on its digital outreach team. The aggressive engagement strategy includes Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, complete with hashtags for every day of the week, and responsiveness is a top priority, according to staff members.</p> <p>While Democratic party leaders were difficult to reach by phone, Michael Conigliaro, executive director of the Queens County GOP, eagerly organized a conference call with the office’s boisterous digital outreach crew, requesting that Gotham Gazette list all of their names (Fred Darowitsch, Ryan Kelly, Michael Janis, Angela Ferri, Gabriel Miller). &nbsp;</p> <p>Noting the strides made by the Manhattan county Democratic organization, Yee believes the Democratic Party as a whole needs to “get its act together” in terms of engaging voters and transparency if it wants to be successful as an electoral force.</p> <p>“The Democratic Party is actually, in my opinion...drifting farther and farther away from its base because it’s literally getting more and more out of touch -- fewer and fewer people understand how the Democratic Party works,” said Yee. “The Democratic Party needs to refocus on the fact that it serves people and unless it does that and opens up the process so that regular people can have an input into the governance of the party, it’s not going to be very successful in the future.”</p> <p>The other Democratic county party websites are not without merits. The Bronx Democrats, chaired by Assemblymember Marcos Crespo, is effective at digital engagement, utilizing Twitter and Facebook and sending out weekly e-newsletters to constituents about events held by elected officials.</p> <p>"It's very important to the chairman to ensure that our constituents are engaged. We are proud to have a party that came out strongly, we are proud to have the highest Democratic turnouts in America and the chairman is proud to engage with the constituency and be as transparent as possible," Yves Filius, political coordinator at the Bronx Democratic Party.</p> <p>However, the site, which was launched by former county boss turned Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie “more than five years ago,” according to Filius, is not particularly designed to court new talent or explain the county committee system. It includes an elaborate photo spread of Bronx elected officials but no committee meetings on its calendar.</p> <p>Like other county machines, the Bronx party continues to be known for <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/government/5891-rumored-scheme-brings-scrutiny-to-bronx-political-machine" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">backroom deals</a> when it comes to elected seat swapping or maneuvering so that county-aligned candidates get the posts the establishment wants. In Queens, there has been extensive recent <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/6944-crowley-appointee-to-board-of-elections-sees-spike-in-queens-court-profits" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reporting</a> in the news media about patronage.</p> <p>The Staten Island Democrats, which operates in an area represented by several Republican elected officials, including Borough President James Oddo, appears more outreach-oriented, with a website inviting Staten Islanders to run for office, and promoting a leadership initiative, but offers little information about the county committee process.</p> <p>Nationally, cities are turning to technology to make government services and information more accessible. In New York City, agencies are bound by <a href="https://cityofnewyork.github.io/opendatatsm/LocalLaw11of2012.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Local Law 11 -- signed in 2012</a> by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg -- which mandates that most digital data managed by the city be made available to the public through a single web portal. A manual published by the City’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) outlines technical standards and guidelines for city agencies.</p> <p>While Democratic organizations are not bound by these regulations, they can take a cue from these guidelines and strides made by city governments to become more user friendly, according to David Moore, a civic technologist who launched New York City’s <a href="https://nyc.councilmatic.org/about/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Councilmatic</a>, an interactive online tool for understanding the activity and legislation that moves through the City Council.</p> <p>“We’ve seen city websites become better designed and more easy to navigate. This should be a goal for the county,” said Moore, pointing to “<a href="https://council.nyc.gov/news/2015/04/15/introducing-council-2-0/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Council 2.0</a>” and a 2015 redesign of the New York City Council’s website, spearheaded by Council Speaker Melissa Mark Viverito in 2015 and designed to make more data publically accessible and the city’s main governing body more responsive.</p> <p>While setting up a Democratic county party website is a good first step, “it is crucial to demystify the process more; they could use some testing to see how they are able to explain how this very old school county committee process works,” said Moore.</p> <p>If the state Democratic party is interested in better engaging the grassroots, they should designate funds towards creating baseline standards for digital outreach on the county level, according to Moore.</p> <p>The 2016 presidential election energized voters all over the city, including many younger ones, and there is an abundance of grassroots organizations and engaged New Yorkers.</p> <p>“There is so much interest in local engagement now after the 2016 local elections, that volunteer for social media, web development, should be easy to find, in counties as huge as Brooklyn and Queens, for example,” said Moore. “The county committees should be on the record soliciting and supporting outreach to get more people aware of their work and their responsibilities.”</p> <p>One such organization is Gowanus Gathering for Action, a group of progressive organizers in Central Brooklyn, which has taken interest in the county committee system and was surprised at how little information was available.</p> <p>Web designer Jonathan Crocket is working with the group to create the County Committee Sunlight Project, <a href="https://ccsunlight.org/about" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">which allows</a> people to search for their election district, and find out where committee vacancies are located through a color-coded, interactive map.</p> <p>"We are living in a different time now, and people need to interact with their party. The Trump administration has not materialized overnight. People don't have a say, and when they don't have a say, they resort to more radical dispositions," said Crocket, who hopes to eventually advance the project to include state-wide committees.</p> <p>Brooklyn Democratic Party website came to be in a similar way, with some prodding from progressive reform-minded district leaders Josh Skaller, who is party of the Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats, and Nick Rizzo of the New Kings Democrats.</p> <p>“When I came in, it was a campaign pledge of mine, and I found out that they were already working on it,” said Rizzo of a website for the county party. “So in 2014, they knew they were already behind and this was something they had to do.”</p> <p>When then-Assemblymember Vito Lopez stepped down from his party boss post <a href="http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/vito-lopez-powerful-brooklyn-assemblyman-stripped-leadership-post-committee-finds-sexually-harassed-2-employees-article-1.1143794" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">amid a sexual harassment scandal</a>, and was replaced by current Chair Frank Seddio in 2012, it created an opportunity for culture shift throughout the organization and <a href="http://www.brooklyndems.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the website</a> was part of that, according to Rizzo.</p> <p>The Brooklyn Democrats site includes directories of district leaders and county committee members -- though the lists are not always up-to-date -- and two full-time staffers who are responsible for maintaining the site and updating it with event listings.</p> <p>“I think it was pretty painless, and that’s a credit to Frank Seddio,” said Rizzo. “I understand that it doesn’t seem like a priority for a lot of old school politicians, but it it sends a message that we are listening and we care.”</p> <p>One thing that has not been modernized at the old office is the move from snail mail to email -- 41 out of 42 district leaders do now posses an email address -- but like everything, “it’s a process,” said Rizzo.</p> <p>

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

Read more by this writer.

</p>
Voting Reform Advocates Say Cuomo Can Do More Through Executive Order 2017-07-26T04:00:00+00:00 2017-07-26T04:00:00+00:00 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7089:voting-reform-advocates-say-cuomo-can-do-more-through-executive-order Ben Max <p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/34717216573_c5971089a9_z.jpg" alt="Cuomo podium" width="600" height="400" /></p> <p>Gov. Cuomo (photo: The Governor's Office)</p> <hr /> <p>Governor Andrew Cuomo&nbsp;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.</p> <p>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 <a href="https://www.governor.ny.gov/sites/governor.ny.gov/files/atoms/files/Executive_Order_169.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new order</a> mandates that all agencies that interact with the public through professional licensing, recreational activities and other avenues carry the forms. <br /> <br />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.</p> <p>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.</p> <p>“While we appreciate Governor Cuomo’s intentions, his proposed executive order will do little to&nbsp;address the issues New York State voters face on Election Day. Voter purges, strict registration&nbsp;and party change deadlines, and long lines at the polls cannot be fixed with enhanced voter&nbsp;registration,” said Jennifer Wilson of League of Women Voters in a statement.</p> <p>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.</p> <p>“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.</p> <p>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.”</p> <p>“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.</p> <p>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.</p> <p>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.</p> <p>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.</p> <p>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.</p> <p>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.</p> <p>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.</p> <p>Reinvent Albany called on the new Cuomo task force, CUNY and SUNY to hold public hearings around improving voter registration.</p> <p>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.</p> <p>When asked about the failure to pass these reforms, Cuomo <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/6823-cuomo-punts-voting-reform-to-after-the-budget" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">said there was “no appetite” in the Legislature</a>.</p> <p>"There is more to do; there is no political will to do it. Otherwise we would have done it in the budget," Cuomo <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/6908-activists-lawmakers-rally-for-voting-reform-at-capitol" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">said of the reforms</a> when talking with reporters at an annual Easter open house.</p> <p>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.</p> <p>“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.</p> <p>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.</p> <p>

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

Read more by this writer.

</p>
<p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/34717216573_c5971089a9_z.jpg" alt="Cuomo podium" width="600" height="400" /></p> <p>Gov. Cuomo (photo: The Governor's Office)</p> <hr /> <p>Governor Andrew Cuomo&nbsp;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.</p> <p>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 <a href="https://www.governor.ny.gov/sites/governor.ny.gov/files/atoms/files/Executive_Order_169.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new order</a> mandates that all agencies that interact with the public through professional licensing, recreational activities and other avenues carry the forms. <br /> <br />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.</p> <p>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.</p> <p>“While we appreciate Governor Cuomo’s intentions, his proposed executive order will do little to&nbsp;address the issues New York State voters face on Election Day. Voter purges, strict registration&nbsp;and party change deadlines, and long lines at the polls cannot be fixed with enhanced voter&nbsp;registration,” said Jennifer Wilson of League of Women Voters in a statement.</p> <p>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.</p> <p>“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.</p> <p>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.”</p> <p>“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.</p> <p>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.</p> <p>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.</p> <p>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.</p> <p>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.</p> <p>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.</p> <p>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.</p> <p>Reinvent Albany called on the new Cuomo task force, CUNY and SUNY to hold public hearings around improving voter registration.</p> <p>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.</p> <p>When asked about the failure to pass these reforms, Cuomo <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/6823-cuomo-punts-voting-reform-to-after-the-budget" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">said there was “no appetite” in the Legislature</a>.</p> <p>"There is more to do; there is no political will to do it. Otherwise we would have done it in the budget," Cuomo <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/6908-activists-lawmakers-rally-for-voting-reform-at-capitol" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">said of the reforms</a> when talking with reporters at an annual Easter open house.</p> <p>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.</p> <p>“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.</p> <p>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.</p> <p>

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

Read more by this writer.

</p>
Reviews Are In: What Watchdogs Say About The New State Budget 2017-06-15T04:00:00+00:00 2017-06-15T04:00:00+00:00 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7003:reviews-are-in-what-watchdogs-say-about-new-state-budget Ben Max <p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/24334328716_29ac89de3e_z.jpg" alt="Cuomo budget presentation" width="600" height="399" /></p> <p>(photo: The Governor's Office)</p> <hr /> <p>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 <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/6867-10-key-takeaways-for-new-york-city-from-the-new-state-budget" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">$153.1 billion budget was passed</a>, watchdogs both in and out of government have released analyses, helping to better inform citizens and increase accountability.</p> <p>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.</p> <p>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.</p> <p>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.</p> <p><strong>Comptroller Tom DiNapoli</strong><br />State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli released a <a href="http://www.osc.state.ny.us/reports/budget/2017/2017-18-enacted-budget-report.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">report</a> 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.</p> <p>“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.”</p> <p>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.</p> <p>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.</p> <p>“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.”</p> <p><strong>Citizens Budget Commission</strong><br />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.</p> <p>In a later report, CBC also <a href="https://cbcny.org/research/when-2-percent-isnt-2-percent" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">criticized</a> 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.”</p> <p>CBC has created a “<a href="https://cbcny.org/research/budget-navigator" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">budget navigator</a>” to allow citizens to see how city and state money is being spent.</p> <p><strong>Empire Center for Public Policy</strong><br />Empire Center, a conservative think tank based in Albany, has released a <a href="https://www.empirecenter.org/budget/">slew of criticisms</a> 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.”</p> <p>“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 <a href="https://www.empirecenter.org/publications/budget-pluses-and-minuses/">post</a> on the Center’s blog.</p> <p>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?”</p> <p><strong>Citizens Union</strong><br />Citizens Union identifies the budget’s large non-specific lump sum funding in its “<a href="http://www.citizensunion.org/spending_in_the_shadows__nonspecific_lump_sum_funding_in_the_fy_2018_new_york_state_enacted_budget">Spending in the Shadows</a>” 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.”</p> <p>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.”</p> <p><strong>Reinvent Albany</strong><br />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 <a href="http://reinventalbany.org/2017/05/budget-and-transparency-watchdogs-groups-call-on-senate-assembly-and-governor-cuomo-to-pass-clean-contracting-reforms/">release</a> in May calling for “five clean contracting reforms,” all of which failed to make it into the budget:</p> <p>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.</p> <p>2. Transfer responsibility for awarding all economic development awards to Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) and end awards by state non-profits and SUNY.</p> <p>3. Empower the Comptroller to review and approve all state contracts over $250,000.</p> <p>4. Prohibit state authorities, state corporations, and state non-profits from doing business with their board members.</p> <p>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.</p> <p>The groups have continued to call for such reforms, but legislative leaders have been hesitant to challenge Cuomo, who is opposed.</p> <p><strong>New York Public Interest Research Group</strong><br />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.)</p> <p>“The process by which these decisions were made was awful and arguably worse than in the recent past,” said the organization in a <a href="http://www.nypirg.org/capitolperspective/?p=1861">statement</a> 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.”</p> <p>***<br />by&nbsp;Ben Brachfeld &amp; Jynn Schubert<br /><a href="https://twitter.com/GothamGazette" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">@GothamGazette</a></p> <p> Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. </p> <p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/24334328716_29ac89de3e_z.jpg" alt="Cuomo budget presentation" width="600" height="399" /></p> <p>(photo: The Governor's Office)</p> <hr /> <p>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 <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/6867-10-key-takeaways-for-new-york-city-from-the-new-state-budget" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">$153.1 billion budget was passed</a>, watchdogs both in and out of government have released analyses, helping to better inform citizens and increase accountability.</p> <p>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.</p> <p>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.</p> <p>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.</p> <p><strong>Comptroller Tom DiNapoli</strong><br />State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli released a <a href="http://www.osc.state.ny.us/reports/budget/2017/2017-18-enacted-budget-report.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">report</a> 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.</p> <p>“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.”</p> <p>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.</p> <p>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.</p> <p>“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.”</p> <p><strong>Citizens Budget Commission</strong><br />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.</p> <p>In a later report, CBC also <a href="https://cbcny.org/research/when-2-percent-isnt-2-percent" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">criticized</a> 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.”</p> <p>CBC has created a “<a href="https://cbcny.org/research/budget-navigator" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">budget navigator</a>” to allow citizens to see how city and state money is being spent.</p> <p><strong>Empire Center for Public Policy</strong><br />Empire Center, a conservative think tank based in Albany, has released a <a href="https://www.empirecenter.org/budget/">slew of criticisms</a> 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.”</p> <p>“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 <a href="https://www.empirecenter.org/publications/budget-pluses-and-minuses/">post</a> on the Center’s blog.</p> <p>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?”</p> <p><strong>Citizens Union</strong><br />Citizens Union identifies the budget’s large non-specific lump sum funding in its “<a href="http://www.citizensunion.org/spending_in_the_shadows__nonspecific_lump_sum_funding_in_the_fy_2018_new_york_state_enacted_budget">Spending in the Shadows</a>” 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.”</p> <p>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.”</p> <p><strong>Reinvent Albany</strong><br />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 <a href="http://reinventalbany.org/2017/05/budget-and-transparency-watchdogs-groups-call-on-senate-assembly-and-governor-cuomo-to-pass-clean-contracting-reforms/">release</a> in May calling for “five clean contracting reforms,” all of which failed to make it into the budget:</p> <p>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.</p> <p>2. Transfer responsibility for awarding all economic development awards to Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) and end awards by state non-profits and SUNY.</p> <p>3. Empower the Comptroller to review and approve all state contracts over $250,000.</p> <p>4. Prohibit state authorities, state corporations, and state non-profits from doing business with their board members.</p> <p>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.</p> <p>The groups have continued to call for such reforms, but legislative leaders have been hesitant to challenge Cuomo, who is opposed.</p> <p><strong>New York Public Interest Research Group</strong><br />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.)</p> <p>“The process by which these decisions were made was awful and arguably worse than in the recent past,” said the organization in a <a href="http://www.nypirg.org/capitolperspective/?p=1861">statement</a> 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.”</p> <p>***<br />by&nbsp;Ben Brachfeld &amp; Jynn Schubert<br /><a href="https://twitter.com/GothamGazette" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">@GothamGazette</a></p> <p> Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. </p> For Second Time, Legislature Sends FOIL Penalty Bill to Cuomo 2017-06-08T04:00:00+00:00 2017-06-08T04:00:00+00:00 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6982:for-second-time-legislature-sends-foil-penalty-bill-to-cuomo Ben Max <p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/34028283924_d0fddf59c0_z.jpg" alt="bill signing Cuomo" width="600" height="400" /></p> <p>(photo:&nbsp;Philip Kamrass/Governor's Office)</p> <hr /> <p>A bill that would greatly strengthen New York’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL), already <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/6039-cuomos-foil-order-has-more-limited-scope-than-vetoed-bills" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">vetoed once</a> by Governor Andrew Cuomo, has again passed both houses of the Legislature -- with some minor adjustments.</p> <p>The bipartisan <a href="https://www.nysenate.gov/legislation/bills/2017/a2750/amendment/a" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">legislation</a>, which passed the Assembly in May and the Senate on Monday, mandates that city or state agencies be liable for court costs incurred by any individual who submits a FOIL request, is wrongfully denied documents, and then prevails in a lawsuit. Currently, the public officers law states that a court “may” award legal fees -- leaving the decision up to a judge -- rather than “shall,” a word change that would effectively penalize state agencies that willfully disregard disclosure law.</p> <p>The governor’s office did not provide indication which way Cuomo is leaning this time.</p> <p>The Freedom of Information Law allows everyday citizens, journalists, advocates, and others to seek and obtain information, like documents and communications, from government entities. The scope of the law is fairly wide, though there are significant exceptions, including for the deliberative process and much of what the state Legislature does.</p> <p>Nearly identical legislation passed the Legislature in 2015, <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/6033-vetoing-foil-bills-cuomo-points-finger-at-legislature-issues-executive-order" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">but Cuomo vetoed it</a>, along with another FOIL-related bill, at the eleventh hour and with some harsh words. In his 2015 veto letter, Cuomo wrote that the bill “would allow attorneys’ fees to be assessed against a state agency, even if the state agency ultimately prevails.”</p> <p>In the same letter, Cuomo, who regularly rails against the Legislature’s FOIL exemption, suggested that tightened FOIL requirements should also apply to the legislative branch. The governor is known for communicating himself in ways that are not FOIL-able -- for example, he is known not to use email.</p> <p>Based on feedback from Cuomo’s office and <a href="https://www.dos.ny.gov/coog/pdfs/2016%20Annual%20Report.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommendations</a> from the Committee on Open Government, which helped craft the bill, the legislation has been amended to create a two-tier system. The first tier relates to situations where the complainant in the FOIL lawsuit was victorious because the agency failed to respond to a request or appeal, in which case the court would still have discretionary authority to award attorneys’ fees. The “second tier” mandates the award of attorney fees when a party denied access to records “has substantially prevailed” and the court finds that “the agency had no reasonable basis for denying access.”</p> <p>“We think [the two-tier system] address the veto messages that we had prior and conversations we’ve had with the governor’s office,” said Assemblymember Amy Paulin, a Democrat from Scarsdale who authored the bill and sponsored it in the Assembly, in an interview with Gotham Gazette. “So we are very confident that it will be a law this year and it will give everyone the opportunity to to file a complaint when there’s been a violation.”</p> <p>This legislation, which has the backing of the newspaper industry and has been the subject of numerous editorials, would have immense implications for news outlets, good government groups, think tanks, and other organizations focused on transparency.</p> <p>Reinvent Albany and the New York Civil Liberties Union also worked closely with Paulin and Senator Patrick Gallivan, the Senate sponsor, to fine tune the language, and hailed the legislation as an important step.</p> <p>“We think this bill is a very big deal and, if the governor signs this, it will be the most important transparency legislation to pass in quite awhile,” John Kaehny, executive director of ReInvent Albany, told Gotham Gazette.</p> <p>Kaehny noted than many are dissuaded from bringing FOIL lawsuits, even when they are confident they were wrongfully denied, because they fear being stuck with the legal bill. “How many people or groups can afford to ‘win’ a FOIL lawsuit when winning gets them a government document and a bill for $10,000 or $50,000 in attorneys' fees?” he asked rhetorically.</p> <p>Other states -- including California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, and New Jersey -- already have such laws granting legal fee reimbursement to those who file FOIL requests and are wrongly denied.</p> <p>A spokesperson for the governor’s office said the bill is “under review.”</p> <p>Gallivan and Paulin said they were hopeful that Cuomo would sign this version of the bill. “If the governor cares about transparency, he should sign it,” said Gallivan.</p> <p>

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

Read more by this writer.

</p>
<p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/34028283924_d0fddf59c0_z.jpg" alt="bill signing Cuomo" width="600" height="400" /></p> <p>(photo:&nbsp;Philip Kamrass/Governor's Office)</p> <hr /> <p>A bill that would greatly strengthen New York’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL), already <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/6039-cuomos-foil-order-has-more-limited-scope-than-vetoed-bills" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">vetoed once</a> by Governor Andrew Cuomo, has again passed both houses of the Legislature -- with some minor adjustments.</p> <p>The bipartisan <a href="https://www.nysenate.gov/legislation/bills/2017/a2750/amendment/a" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">legislation</a>, which passed the Assembly in May and the Senate on Monday, mandates that city or state agencies be liable for court costs incurred by any individual who submits a FOIL request, is wrongfully denied documents, and then prevails in a lawsuit. Currently, the public officers law states that a court “may” award legal fees -- leaving the decision up to a judge -- rather than “shall,” a word change that would effectively penalize state agencies that willfully disregard disclosure law.</p> <p>The governor’s office did not provide indication which way Cuomo is leaning this time.</p> <p>The Freedom of Information Law allows everyday citizens, journalists, advocates, and others to seek and obtain information, like documents and communications, from government entities. The scope of the law is fairly wide, though there are significant exceptions, including for the deliberative process and much of what the state Legislature does.</p> <p>Nearly identical legislation passed the Legislature in 2015, <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/6033-vetoing-foil-bills-cuomo-points-finger-at-legislature-issues-executive-order" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">but Cuomo vetoed it</a>, along with another FOIL-related bill, at the eleventh hour and with some harsh words. In his 2015 veto letter, Cuomo wrote that the bill “would allow attorneys’ fees to be assessed against a state agency, even if the state agency ultimately prevails.”</p> <p>In the same letter, Cuomo, who regularly rails against the Legislature’s FOIL exemption, suggested that tightened FOIL requirements should also apply to the legislative branch. The governor is known for communicating himself in ways that are not FOIL-able -- for example, he is known not to use email.</p> <p>Based on feedback from Cuomo’s office and <a href="https://www.dos.ny.gov/coog/pdfs/2016%20Annual%20Report.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommendations</a> from the Committee on Open Government, which helped craft the bill, the legislation has been amended to create a two-tier system. The first tier relates to situations where the complainant in the FOIL lawsuit was victorious because the agency failed to respond to a request or appeal, in which case the court would still have discretionary authority to award attorneys’ fees. The “second tier” mandates the award of attorney fees when a party denied access to records “has substantially prevailed” and the court finds that “the agency had no reasonable basis for denying access.”</p> <p>“We think [the two-tier system] address the veto messages that we had prior and conversations we’ve had with the governor’s office,” said Assemblymember Amy Paulin, a Democrat from Scarsdale who authored the bill and sponsored it in the Assembly, in an interview with Gotham Gazette. “So we are very confident that it will be a law this year and it will give everyone the opportunity to to file a complaint when there’s been a violation.”</p> <p>This legislation, which has the backing of the newspaper industry and has been the subject of numerous editorials, would have immense implications for news outlets, good government groups, think tanks, and other organizations focused on transparency.</p> <p>Reinvent Albany and the New York Civil Liberties Union also worked closely with Paulin and Senator Patrick Gallivan, the Senate sponsor, to fine tune the language, and hailed the legislation as an important step.</p> <p>“We think this bill is a very big deal and, if the governor signs this, it will be the most important transparency legislation to pass in quite awhile,” John Kaehny, executive director of ReInvent Albany, told Gotham Gazette.</p> <p>Kaehny noted than many are dissuaded from bringing FOIL lawsuits, even when they are confident they were wrongfully denied, because they fear being stuck with the legal bill. “How many people or groups can afford to ‘win’ a FOIL lawsuit when winning gets them a government document and a bill for $10,000 or $50,000 in attorneys' fees?” he asked rhetorically.</p> <p>Other states -- including California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, and New Jersey -- already have such laws granting legal fee reimbursement to those who file FOIL requests and are wrongly denied.</p> <p>A spokesperson for the governor’s office said the bill is “under review.”</p> <p>Gallivan and Paulin said they were hopeful that Cuomo would sign this version of the bill. “If the governor cares about transparency, he should sign it,” said Gallivan.</p> <p>

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

Read more by this writer.

</p>
Government Watchdogs Push 'Clean Contracting' Reform in Albany 2017-05-10T04:00:00+00:00 2017-05-10T04:00:00+00:00 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6927:government-watchdogs-push-clean-contracting-reform-in-albany Ben Max <p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/2017/25944005563_4e277f7372_z_1.jpg" alt="Kaloyeros infrastructure" width="600" height="400" /></p> <p>Alain Kaloyeros in 2016 (photo: The Governor's Office)</p> <hr /> <p>A coalition of budget and transparency watchdog groups are calling on the Legislature to pass, and for Governor Cuomo to sign, comprehensive “clean contracting” legislation in response to the bid-rigging scandal that rocked the state Capitol last year and continues to reverberate.</p> <p>Specifically, at a Wednesday press conference the groups called for restoration of reviewing powers to State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli for all state contracts exceeding $250,000, an end to non-academic contracting by state-controlled non-profit organizations, the creation of a comprehensive “database of deals,” and a prohibition against state authorities, corporations, and affiliated non-profits doing business with their board members.</p> <p>The organizations -- including Reinvent Albany, New York Public Interest Group, Citizens Union, League of Women Voters, Fiscal Policy Institute, Common Cause, and Citizens Budget Commission -- are also urging state leaders to reduce the potential for conflicts of interest by exploring options to limit campaign contributions from anyone seeking a state contract. Nineteen states and New York City -- but not the state -- already have these anti-pay-to-play laws in place.</p> <p>“The moment of truth has arrived. State and federal prosecutors say $800 million in state economic development contracts were rigged, but so far, the Legislature and governor have yet to act,” said John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, standing in the state Capitol. “It’s time they pass common sense legislation that includes independent oversight over state contracts, uniform contracting rules, and transparency that will prevent corruption and abuse before it happens.”</p> <p>In 2016, an investigation into a sprawling alleged pay-to-play scheme connected to the Governor Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion economic development program resulted in charges against nine men, including a former top aide to Cuomo, Joe Percoco, and the former president of SUNY Polytechnic Institute, Alain Kaloyeros, a close government partner of Cuomo’s, on bid-rigging, bribery, and other charges.</p> <p>In the aftermath of the scandal, DiNapoli called for comprehensive procurement reforms, including the restoration of his office’s powers to review contracts with CUNY- and SUNY-affiliated non-profits -- a power that was stripped by Cuomo and the Legislature in 2011. The governor and lawmakers had reasoned that they could more quickly move economic development funds to important projects, especially in previously downtrodden Buffalo, where Cuomo has dedicated so much focus since taking office.</p> <p>Following the enactment of the 2017 state budget, DiNapoli issued a statement noting the lack of procurement reform. “Hopefully before the end of session, the procurement reforms my office has advanced will be addressed,” he said. The Legislature is in session until mid-June. Legislative leaders are looking at some procurement reform measures, while Cuomo remains opposed to what DiNapoli and government watchdogs are calling for.</p> <p>At the time of the arrests, Cuomo vowed sweeping reform, and proposed a slew of them in his 2017-2018 executive budget. However few of these oversight and transparency measures -- which are different from those being proposed by legislators, DiNapoli, and reform groups -- made it into the agreed-upon spending plan, announced in early April. Additionally, at least one other key oversight and transparency provision -- a mandated report on the governor’s Start-Up NY program -- was actually removed. Instead of focusing on reform, the governor <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/6875-ramped-up-economic-development-funding-less-transparency-in-new-state-budget" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">has continued boosting</a> the his signature economic development programs and infrastructure projects, to which the state is dedicating billions of dollars every year.</p> <p>Senator John DeFrancisco, a Republican from Syracuse and deputy majority leader, has proposed legislation encompassing the Comptroller’s Clean Contracting Bill, which has been approved by the Senate Finance Committee, and some form of it is expected to pass the Senate. A similar bill sponsored by Assemblymember Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo Democrat, is currently being considered in the Assembly.</p> <p>Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, a Long Island Republican, both expressed support for the legislation during a joint appearance at the Times Union’s new media center in Colonie on Tuesday.</p> <p>“I truly believe the comptroller plays an absolutely critical role in public policy in New York,” Flanagan said.</p> <p>“You don’t always have to wait for something bad to happen to restore confidence to the public,” added Heastie.</p> <p>The “database of deals” -- which has long been advocated by good-government organizations -- was supported by both the Senate and Assembly in their one-house budget resolutions, and the governor agreed in the budget to create a report by January 2018 detailing the spending by each economic development program. However, critics say the database should go further, providing data on the benefits received by each company.</p> <p>Cuomo, in his executive budget, proposed prohibiting campaign finance contributions to the executive by vendors when they are bidding on and negotiating contracts, and expanding the power of the Office of the Inspector General to include the SUNY Research Foundation and CUNY-affiliated nonprofits. He also proposed instituting a Chief Procurement Officer who would be appointed by the governor, a position that many called redundant and less effective than the position of Comptroller.</p> <p>“How many scandals and indictments are needed before we enact any meaningful reforms,” asked Ron Deutsch, executive director of the Fiscal Policy Institute, a think tank. “We need to restore the public’s trust and put real accountability measures in place to ensure that we have full transparency and a solid return on investment before we continue to provide billions of taxpayer dollars to private businesses under the guise of economic development.”</p> <p>The legislation is currently facing opposition <a href="http://www.nystateofpolitics.com/2017/04/suny-opposes-procurement-reform-bill/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">from SUNY</a>. A spokesperson for Cuomo’s office said the governor finds the legislation “duplicative” and “overly broad,” and believes it does not address the core of the process on contracting reform. She noted that the comptroller can already perform audits on all procurement contracts before they are paid, he just cannot slow down the initial contracting process when awards are made.</p> <p>Flanagan <a href="http://www.nystateofpolitics.com/2017/05/flanagan-wants-middle-ground-on-procurement-reform/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">has indicated</a> that there may be room for negotiation on the final bill. Heastie has been vague as he plans to discuss the issue with his majority conference.</p> <p>Cuomo’s former aides, associates, and donors are set to go on trial late this year.</p> <p>Another spokesperson for the governor, Rich Azzopardi, sent Gotham Gazette a statement attacking the watchdog groups. "This is the same crew who preaches transparency for others and then sues to overturn state law and keep their benefactors secret. If we need a crash course on hypocrisy we know who to ask," he said.</p> <p>“To create needed independence and effective oversight, the governor and the Legislature must enact sensible clean-contracting reforms,” said Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union. “Not to do so would be an unfortunate and careless shirking of their greatest responsibility to ensure that government operates in the interest of the people. Stronger oversight and increased transparency in the awarding of state contracts, including providing the state Comptroller with increased independent authority for oversight and approval, are principles that a strong and effective democracy must embrace.”</p> <p>

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

Read more by this writer.

</p> <p> Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. </p>
<p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/2017/25944005563_4e277f7372_z_1.jpg" alt="Kaloyeros infrastructure" width="600" height="400" /></p> <p>Alain Kaloyeros in 2016 (photo: The Governor's Office)</p> <hr /> <p>A coalition of budget and transparency watchdog groups are calling on the Legislature to pass, and for Governor Cuomo to sign, comprehensive “clean contracting” legislation in response to the bid-rigging scandal that rocked the state Capitol last year and continues to reverberate.</p> <p>Specifically, at a Wednesday press conference the groups called for restoration of reviewing powers to State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli for all state contracts exceeding $250,000, an end to non-academic contracting by state-controlled non-profit organizations, the creation of a comprehensive “database of deals,” and a prohibition against state authorities, corporations, and affiliated non-profits doing business with their board members.</p> <p>The organizations -- including Reinvent Albany, New York Public Interest Group, Citizens Union, League of Women Voters, Fiscal Policy Institute, Common Cause, and Citizens Budget Commission -- are also urging state leaders to reduce the potential for conflicts of interest by exploring options to limit campaign contributions from anyone seeking a state contract. Nineteen states and New York City -- but not the state -- already have these anti-pay-to-play laws in place.</p> <p>“The moment of truth has arrived. State and federal prosecutors say $800 million in state economic development contracts were rigged, but so far, the Legislature and governor have yet to act,” said John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, standing in the state Capitol. “It’s time they pass common sense legislation that includes independent oversight over state contracts, uniform contracting rules, and transparency that will prevent corruption and abuse before it happens.”</p> <p>In 2016, an investigation into a sprawling alleged pay-to-play scheme connected to the Governor Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion economic development program resulted in charges against nine men, including a former top aide to Cuomo, Joe Percoco, and the former president of SUNY Polytechnic Institute, Alain Kaloyeros, a close government partner of Cuomo’s, on bid-rigging, bribery, and other charges.</p> <p>In the aftermath of the scandal, DiNapoli called for comprehensive procurement reforms, including the restoration of his office’s powers to review contracts with CUNY- and SUNY-affiliated non-profits -- a power that was stripped by Cuomo and the Legislature in 2011. The governor and lawmakers had reasoned that they could more quickly move economic development funds to important projects, especially in previously downtrodden Buffalo, where Cuomo has dedicated so much focus since taking office.</p> <p>Following the enactment of the 2017 state budget, DiNapoli issued a statement noting the lack of procurement reform. “Hopefully before the end of session, the procurement reforms my office has advanced will be addressed,” he said. The Legislature is in session until mid-June. Legislative leaders are looking at some procurement reform measures, while Cuomo remains opposed to what DiNapoli and government watchdogs are calling for.</p> <p>At the time of the arrests, Cuomo vowed sweeping reform, and proposed a slew of them in his 2017-2018 executive budget. However few of these oversight and transparency measures -- which are different from those being proposed by legislators, DiNapoli, and reform groups -- made it into the agreed-upon spending plan, announced in early April. Additionally, at least one other key oversight and transparency provision -- a mandated report on the governor’s Start-Up NY program -- was actually removed. Instead of focusing on reform, the governor <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/6875-ramped-up-economic-development-funding-less-transparency-in-new-state-budget" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">has continued boosting</a> the his signature economic development programs and infrastructure projects, to which the state is dedicating billions of dollars every year.</p> <p>Senator John DeFrancisco, a Republican from Syracuse and deputy majority leader, has proposed legislation encompassing the Comptroller’s Clean Contracting Bill, which has been approved by the Senate Finance Committee, and some form of it is expected to pass the Senate. A similar bill sponsored by Assemblymember Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo Democrat, is currently being considered in the Assembly.</p> <p>Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, a Long Island Republican, both expressed support for the legislation during a joint appearance at the Times Union’s new media center in Colonie on Tuesday.</p> <p>“I truly believe the comptroller plays an absolutely critical role in public policy in New York,” Flanagan said.</p> <p>“You don’t always have to wait for something bad to happen to restore confidence to the public,” added Heastie.</p> <p>The “database of deals” -- which has long been advocated by good-government organizations -- was supported by both the Senate and Assembly in their one-house budget resolutions, and the governor agreed in the budget to create a report by January 2018 detailing the spending by each economic development program. However, critics say the database should go further, providing data on the benefits received by each company.</p> <p>Cuomo, in his executive budget, proposed prohibiting campaign finance contributions to the executive by vendors when they are bidding on and negotiating contracts, and expanding the power of the Office of the Inspector General to include the SUNY Research Foundation and CUNY-affiliated nonprofits. He also proposed instituting a Chief Procurement Officer who would be appointed by the governor, a position that many called redundant and less effective than the position of Comptroller.</p> <p>“How many scandals and indictments are needed before we enact any meaningful reforms,” asked Ron Deutsch, executive director of the Fiscal Policy Institute, a think tank. “We need to restore the public’s trust and put real accountability measures in place to ensure that we have full transparency and a solid return on investment before we continue to provide billions of taxpayer dollars to private businesses under the guise of economic development.”</p> <p>The legislation is currently facing opposition <a href="http://www.nystateofpolitics.com/2017/04/suny-opposes-procurement-reform-bill/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">from SUNY</a>. A spokesperson for Cuomo’s office said the governor finds the legislation “duplicative” and “overly broad,” and believes it does not address the core of the process on contracting reform. She noted that the comptroller can already perform audits on all procurement contracts before they are paid, he just cannot slow down the initial contracting process when awards are made.</p> <p>Flanagan <a href="http://www.nystateofpolitics.com/2017/05/flanagan-wants-middle-ground-on-procurement-reform/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">has indicated</a> that there may be room for negotiation on the final bill. Heastie has been vague as he plans to discuss the issue with his majority conference.</p> <p>Cuomo’s former aides, associates, and donors are set to go on trial late this year.</p> <p>Another spokesperson for the governor, Rich Azzopardi, sent Gotham Gazette a statement attacking the watchdog groups. "This is the same crew who preaches transparency for others and then sues to overturn state law and keep their benefactors secret. If we need a crash course on hypocrisy we know who to ask," he said.</p> <p>“To create needed independence and effective oversight, the governor and the Legislature must enact sensible clean-contracting reforms,” said Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union. “Not to do so would be an unfortunate and careless shirking of their greatest responsibility to ensure that government operates in the interest of the people. Stronger oversight and increased transparency in the awarding of state contracts, including providing the state Comptroller with increased independent authority for oversight and approval, are principles that a strong and effective democracy must embrace.”</p> <p>

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

Read more by this writer.

</p> <p> Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. </p>
Renewed Push for 'Performance Budgeting' Through Mayor's Management Report 2017-02-13T00:00:00+00:00 2017-02-13T00:00:00+00:00 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6754:push-for-performance-budgeting-through-mayor-s-management-report Samar Khurshid <p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/2014/03/24722286022_fc206fafab_z.jpg" alt="24722286022 fc206fafab z" width="600" height="400" /></p> <p>Council Member Ben Kallos (Photo:&nbsp;William Alatriste/New York City Council)</p> <hr /> <p>A critical study by a fiscal watchdog on the city’s annual performance report has led to renewed calls for city agencies to base their budgets on the efficiency of services.</p> <p>The Citizens Budget Commission, an independent nonprofit, released an <a href="https://cbcny.org/research/mayors-management-report" target="_blank">analysis</a> earlier this month of the <a href="https://data.cityofnewyork.us/report" target="_blank">Mayor’s Management Report</a> (MMR), a detailed survey of city agencies and their functioning which the Mayor's Office of Operations puts out twice a year. The preliminary version of the report, the PMMR, covering the first four months of the 2017 fiscal year, was released last Monday and will be followed by the full MMR in September.</p> <p>The MMR contains performance evaluations of 44 city agencies, helping the city improve the efficiency and delivery of services and helping the public keep the administration accountable. Elected officials rely on the reports to conduct oversight of agencies, citing them in annual budget hearings.</p> <p>CBC’s report notes, however, that while the MMR has thousands of indicators related to the “volume or quality” of services, there is little examination of efficiency through unit-cost measures, which gauge the city’s spending on each unit of service. “Unit cost indicators enhance accountability, inform operational changes, and highlight ways to increase efficiency,” the report reads.</p> <p>The city’s already limited use of unit cost indicators has declined, according to the CBC’s analysis, and in last year’s MMR for fiscal year 2016, only 10 agencies reported a total of 35 unit cost indicators out of more than 2,000 metrics tracked by the city. These include, for instance, the cost to the Fire Department per ambulance tour per day, which grew from $1,799 in fiscal year 2012 to $1,937 in 2016, a 7.7 percent increase. In the same period, the average cost for the Department of Citywide Services to train a city employee fell 56 percent from $253 to $112. The report points out that the city can easily create more such unit cost indicators with current data and recommends steps to implement those measures across city agencies, including aligning units of appropriation with specific services and linking service quality with cost and efficiency.</p> <p>“While the MMR provides thousands of indicators, the report is short on indicators that assess the efficiency of city government operations,” said Ana Champeny, director of city studies, CBC, in an email. “The City should develop more unit-cost measures that could support agencies in making their operations more cost-efficient.”</p> <p>Elected officials and good government advocates have long been <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/6270-push-for-a-better-mayors-management-report-continues" target="_blank">pushing for an improved MMR</a>, calling for increasing the number of indicators and clarifying how agencies measure their performance. Last year, at an April oversight hearing on the MMR held by the City Council’s Committee on Governmental Operations, many of those concerns were raised, including the need to link agency funding with performance.</p> <p>Council Member Ben Kallos, chair of the governmental operations committee, has been pushing the city to do better for years and, at his request, the latest reports now show spending information by general categories of appropriation. But, he points out, the report still fails to connect budgeting with agency goals, despite being mandated by the city charter. “The MMR should be treated as an investment document,” Kallos said in a phone interview, “and spending should be tied to specific programmatic performance goals so New York City residents know how their tax dollars are being spent and can advocate for them to be increased or decreased.”</p> <p>He noted, for instance, that the PMMR shows more homeless families and individuals entering the system than in previous years, as reflective of the city’s homelessness crisis. At the same time, it also shows fewer adults exiting permanent supportive housing than before. “If we have performance budgeting, the mayor would have to say he’s spending certain amounts of money to improve that number,” Kallos said. “We would be able to tie the amount of spending to that number and we’d be able to understand what the barrier is and possibly solve it with more funding.”</p> <p>Government reform groups have argued that the city has improved the MMR but has been slow to institute certain common sense changes that have been recommended for years. “[The MMR] was a huge leap forward when it was first introduced forty years ago,” said John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, and co-chair and founder of the New York City Transparency Working Group. “It is basically obsolete. It needs to evolve so the public, the City Council and the mayor himself can tell how city agencies are doing.”</p> <p>Pushing for a more comprehensive MMR, Kaehny said, would be consistent with the city’s reputation as a national leader in areas of open governance and transparency. He also believes that the charter’s mandate, to make MMR goals linked to the budget, is more realistic now than it has ever been, with the ubiquity of data and the means to compute it in the digital age. “This is a logical evolution of the MMR,” he said, although pointing out that city agencies and public sector unions may be wary of such scrutiny. “This would really put them under a microscope, it would show trends citywide and show how efficient the city can provide services over private entities.”</p> <p>Mindy Tarlow, director of the Mayor’s Office of Operations, said in a statement to Gotham Gazette that the city’s public reporting of data on delivery of services has been more comprehensive and transparent “than any other major urban jurisdiction in the country” for the last forty years. “We continue to work closely with our colleagues at the Office of Management and Budget to further align performance and spending,” she said.</p> <p>

***
by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

</p> <p>With reporting by Ben Max.</p>
<p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/2014/03/24722286022_fc206fafab_z.jpg" alt="24722286022 fc206fafab z" width="600" height="400" /></p> <p>Council Member Ben Kallos (Photo:&nbsp;William Alatriste/New York City Council)</p> <hr /> <p>A critical study by a fiscal watchdog on the city’s annual performance report has led to renewed calls for city agencies to base their budgets on the efficiency of services.</p> <p>The Citizens Budget Commission, an independent nonprofit, released an <a href="https://cbcny.org/research/mayors-management-report" target="_blank">analysis</a> earlier this month of the <a href="https://data.cityofnewyork.us/report" target="_blank">Mayor’s Management Report</a> (MMR), a detailed survey of city agencies and their functioning which the Mayor's Office of Operations puts out twice a year. The preliminary version of the report, the PMMR, covering the first four months of the 2017 fiscal year, was released last Monday and will be followed by the full MMR in September.</p> <p>The MMR contains performance evaluations of 44 city agencies, helping the city improve the efficiency and delivery of services and helping the public keep the administration accountable. Elected officials rely on the reports to conduct oversight of agencies, citing them in annual budget hearings.</p> <p>CBC’s report notes, however, that while the MMR has thousands of indicators related to the “volume or quality” of services, there is little examination of efficiency through unit-cost measures, which gauge the city’s spending on each unit of service. “Unit cost indicators enhance accountability, inform operational changes, and highlight ways to increase efficiency,” the report reads.</p> <p>The city’s already limited use of unit cost indicators has declined, according to the CBC’s analysis, and in last year’s MMR for fiscal year 2016, only 10 agencies reported a total of 35 unit cost indicators out of more than 2,000 metrics tracked by the city. These include, for instance, the cost to the Fire Department per ambulance tour per day, which grew from $1,799 in fiscal year 2012 to $1,937 in 2016, a 7.7 percent increase. In the same period, the average cost for the Department of Citywide Services to train a city employee fell 56 percent from $253 to $112. The report points out that the city can easily create more such unit cost indicators with current data and recommends steps to implement those measures across city agencies, including aligning units of appropriation with specific services and linking service quality with cost and efficiency.</p> <p>“While the MMR provides thousands of indicators, the report is short on indicators that assess the efficiency of city government operations,” said Ana Champeny, director of city studies, CBC, in an email. “The City should develop more unit-cost measures that could support agencies in making their operations more cost-efficient.”</p> <p>Elected officials and good government advocates have long been <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/6270-push-for-a-better-mayors-management-report-continues" target="_blank">pushing for an improved MMR</a>, calling for increasing the number of indicators and clarifying how agencies measure their performance. Last year, at an April oversight hearing on the MMR held by the City Council’s Committee on Governmental Operations, many of those concerns were raised, including the need to link agency funding with performance.</p> <p>Council Member Ben Kallos, chair of the governmental operations committee, has been pushing the city to do better for years and, at his request, the latest reports now show spending information by general categories of appropriation. But, he points out, the report still fails to connect budgeting with agency goals, despite being mandated by the city charter. “The MMR should be treated as an investment document,” Kallos said in a phone interview, “and spending should be tied to specific programmatic performance goals so New York City residents know how their tax dollars are being spent and can advocate for them to be increased or decreased.”</p> <p>He noted, for instance, that the PMMR shows more homeless families and individuals entering the system than in previous years, as reflective of the city’s homelessness crisis. At the same time, it also shows fewer adults exiting permanent supportive housing than before. “If we have performance budgeting, the mayor would have to say he’s spending certain amounts of money to improve that number,” Kallos said. “We would be able to tie the amount of spending to that number and we’d be able to understand what the barrier is and possibly solve it with more funding.”</p> <p>Government reform groups have argued that the city has improved the MMR but has been slow to institute certain common sense changes that have been recommended for years. “[The MMR] was a huge leap forward when it was first introduced forty years ago,” said John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, and co-chair and founder of the New York City Transparency Working Group. “It is basically obsolete. It needs to evolve so the public, the City Council and the mayor himself can tell how city agencies are doing.”</p> <p>Pushing for a more comprehensive MMR, Kaehny said, would be consistent with the city’s reputation as a national leader in areas of open governance and transparency. He also believes that the charter’s mandate, to make MMR goals linked to the budget, is more realistic now than it has ever been, with the ubiquity of data and the means to compute it in the digital age. “This is a logical evolution of the MMR,” he said, although pointing out that city agencies and public sector unions may be wary of such scrutiny. “This would really put them under a microscope, it would show trends citywide and show how efficient the city can provide services over private entities.”</p> <p>Mindy Tarlow, director of the Mayor’s Office of Operations, said in a statement to Gotham Gazette that the city’s public reporting of data on delivery of services has been more comprehensive and transparent “than any other major urban jurisdiction in the country” for the last forty years. “We continue to work closely with our colleagues at the Office of Management and Budget to further align performance and spending,” she said.</p> <p>

***
by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

</p> <p>With reporting by Ben Max.</p>