Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/1617 Sun, 22 Oct 2017 06:37:07 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Comptroller vs. Governor: An Old Story in New York http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7047:comptroller-vs-governor-an-old-story-in-new-york http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7047:comptroller-vs-governor-an-old-story-in-new-york 6637183655 d9a3047ea6 z

Governor Cuomo (left) and Comptroller DiNapoli (center) (photo: Governor's Office/Flickr)


State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli and Governor Andrew Cuomo have been airing public disagreement in the news media over the past several months. It is the latest chapter in a long story here in New York -- the Governor and the Comptroller sometimes agreeing but often challenging each other.

Calling out Cuomo's fiscal policies
DiNapoli's analysis of the recently-enacted State 2017-2018 budget (crafted by Cuomo and enacted through his negotiations with the Legislature) warns of fiscal risks ahead with uncertainty about the federal budget and $10.5 billion in new state bonded indebtedness. The budget, which also included a number of public policy changes, was enacted with little time for public review, DiNapoli’s report says. It also raised additional concerns about "transparency, accountability and oversight."

Early in May, the Comptroller issued an audit of the State Economic Development Corporation, the governor's economic development agency, citing it for lax reporting on key projects, particularly those that create tax-free economic development zones to encourage business development. “Too often Empire State Development Corporation is either late or not reporting on the results of economic development programs,” DiNapoli said. “We need better reporting to ensure transparency in economic development spending and to promote an informed analysis on the return of the investments state taxpayers make in these programs.” A spokesperson for the Economic Development Corporation said the Comptroller's audit "cherry-picks information" and "profoundly misrepresents our efforts."

Cuomo has called the Comptroller’s audits “opinion” and sought to undermine DiNapoli’s oversight at several turns.

DiNapoli's office signed off on the state Senate Republican majority's list of stipend payments for committee chairs, where in some cases vice chairs have received payments that typically only go to chairs. Democrats and the media have questioned some of these payments. Cuomo used the issue as an opportunity to criticize DiNapoli. "If it was not legal, the Comptroller shouldn't have done it," Cuomo said. "If it's not legal, the Comptroller should call up and say, 'Whoops, I made a mistake, I need the money back.'" A spokesperson for the Comptroller's office responded that "the comptroller's office is not a court of law" and the issue "needs to be decided by the Senate itself, or the legal system."

DiNapoli has often been critical of the Governor's spending plans. Four years ago, in 2013, he issued a report that New York's debt, counting bonds issued by public benefit corporations, amounted to $63.3 billion — about $3,253 per state resident. "We spend billions each year to repay existing debt, so fewer resources are available for more pressing needs," he said. Much of the debt has been developed by public authorities. "Taxpayers have little or no say in how much the state borrows, but they're the ones who have to foot the bill," DiNapoli continued.

The Comptroller responded to an alleged bid-rigging scandal within Cuomo’s economic development programs -- for which nine Cuomo associates and donors have been charged by federal authorities, with a trial set for October -- by proposing more oversight through his office. Cuomo has made his own proposal in response to the scandal, which does not include restoring contract approval by the Comptroller for certain types of programs.

A history of tension and balance
Established in 1797 as an appointed position, the Comptroller's position has been constitutionally based and elective since 1846. The state constitutional convention that year, recognizing the need for an independent Comptroller, made it an independent position, elected by the voters. Until the early 20th century, the position rivaled the Governor's in power, including compiling the state budget, receiving taxes, monitoring banks, and preparing financial reports. That power diminished with the reorganization and consolidation of state government, including the creation of the Division of the Budget, carried out by Governor Al Smith in the 1920s.

But the Comptroller remains the state's chief financial officer, controls payment of state funds, borrows and invests for the state, manages the state retirement fund, reports on the state's fiscal conditions, and audits both state agencies and local governments. The Comptroller's website notes that the Comptroller "is the State’s chief fiscal officer who ensures that State and local governments use taxpayer money effectively and efficiently to promote the common good."

Governors and Comptrollers usually have good working relationships. But there is a potential inherent tension in a relationship between the state's chief executive, who uses public tax dollars to initiate and administer state programs, and the state's chief fiscal watchdog, who makes sure that the state stays fiscally solvent and strong and that those tax dollars are used well.

Comptrollers have challenged Governors many times during the course of state history.

For instance, Arthur Levitt (1955-1978), the longest serving Comptroller in the state's history, criticized borrowing practices that bypassed state constitutional referendum requirements for incurring state debt. Levitt, a Democrat, was a frequent critic of Republican Governor Nelson Rockefeller (1959-1973), whose administration expanded state government and constructed the Empire State Plaza governmental complex in Albany, often relying on bonds.

In a February 1964 speech, Levitt assailed Rockefeller as a "pseudo pay-as-you-go governor" who through the "subterfuge" of selling authority bonds had imposed on the people of the state "a staggering burden of debt without their consent." Rockefeller responded that Levitt "is a partisan, organization Democrat, not an independent, nonpartisan, nonpolitical watchdog of the public treasury, as he likes to be projected." Levitt's motive was "to discredit the fiscal integrity and soundly solvent fiscal policies of this administration."

Levitt had a number of run-ins with Rockefeller, including lawsuits to require more detailed budget information and to open up the books of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Summarizing his years of working with Rockefeller, Levitt concluded, "I haven't been soft on him at all."

"As the people's auditor, I have reported factually to the people in accordance with my constitutional mandate," Levitt said. He made the office a high-profile watchdog and force for fiscal restraint and probity.

Many years earlier, in the 1830s, the state was spending money lavishly on enlarging the Erie Canal, building additional canals and providing loans and other aid to railroads, mostly by issuing state bonds.

Democratic Comptroller Azariah Flagg (1833-1839 and 1842-1847) published an alarming report in 1838, warning that the state had reached "the utmost verge of prudence" and should curtail borrowing.

But Governor William Seward, a Whig (the Whig Party was then one of New York's two most important parties, along with the Democrats), told the Legislature in 1839 that "history furnishes no parallel to the financial achievements of this state." He added that "taxation for the purposes of internal improvement is happily unnecessary," since future canal user fees would provide funds to pay off the bonds.

Seward in 1840 called for spending $4 million more each year for 10 years for canals and railroads. The Whig majority in the state Legislature kept pushing up the debt.

Comptroller Flagg's warning turned out to be warranted.

The state entered a downward fiscal spiral. Recession sparked by the Panic of 1837 cut into state revenues. Canal construction costs rose. Even Seward admitted "severe shock" at learning that canal expansion would cost twice what he had estimated. The Erie Railroad fell behind on its repayment of state loans. Selling state bonds became more difficult as nervous creditors began to worry about New York's solvency. State debt rose to $27 million in 1842, a huge sum in those days.
Comptroller Flagg warned that New York was at "the very brink of dishonor and bankruptcy" and "it is a question of solvency or insolvency."

The voters heeded Flagg's warning. They gave fiscally conservative Democrats a majority in the next Legislature. They curtailed or suspended canal work and railroad aid. With Seward's reluctant concurrence, they enacted a special tax to keep the state solvent. The debt began to decline. Creditors' confidence returned, and state securities regained the status of good investments.

The lure of higher office
Some Comptrollers have had political ambitions and used the position as a stepping-stone to higher office, occasionally another source of tension with Governors.
William L. Marcy, Comptroller 1823-1829, went on to serve as Governor, 1833-1838. Silas Wright served as Comptroller from 1829 to 1833 and Governor, 1845-1856 (in those days, governors were elected every two years). Washington Hunt, Comptroller 1849-1850, went on to become governor, 1851-1852. Lucius Robinson, Comptroller 1862 to 1865, went on to become Governor, 1877-1879.

Martin Glynn, Comptroller 1907-1908, was nominated and elected Lieutenant Governor in 1910 and became Governor when William Sulzer was impeached and removed from office in 1913. But Glynn was defeated when he ran for Governor in his own right in 1914.

Nathan L. Miller, Comptroller 1901-1903, defeated Al Smith in his campaign for reelection as Governor in 1920, running on a platform of fiscal restraint and criticizing Smith's administration for overspending. But Smith returned to oust Miller in 1922.

Millard Fillmore served in the House of Representatives before being elected Comptroller in 1847 (the first person elected rather than appointed to the office). He was nominated for Vice President in 1848, elected along with presidential nominee Zachary Taylor, and became President upon Taylor's death in 1850. He ran for President in 1852 but was defeated.

Cuomo and DiNapoli both playing appropriate roles
Comptroller DiNapoli is playing an appropriate role, in line with many of his most impressive and judicious predecessors such as Arthur Levitt and Azariah Flagg. His reports are clear and readable, his warnings measured and documented, and his custody of the state retirement fund reassuring.

On the other hand, Governor Cuomo, like Nelson Rockefeller, Al Smith, William Seward and other bold, expansionist-minded Governors before him, is inclined to use public funds for innovative programs that he sees as investments in New York's future.

The conscientious Comptroller and the proactive Governor are well-suited to their respective positions. Their views, while sometimes at odds with each other, complement each other and offer the public contrasting visions for New York's future. That is useful for public debate and, hopefully, for creation of sound state fiscal policies.

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Dr. Bruce W. Dearstyne's latest book is The Spirit of New York: Defining Events in the Empire State's History, published in 2015 by SUNY Press.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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Comptroller vs. Governor: An Old Story in New York Mon, 10 Jul 2017 04:00:00 +0000
What's The [DATA] Point? $780 Million, with Comptroller DiNapoli http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7034:what-s-the-data-point-comptroller-dinapoli http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7034:what-s-the-data-point-comptroller-dinapoli whats the data point


What's The Data Point? Episode 3 -- $780 million, with Comptroller Tom DiNapoli. [You can download What's The Data Point? wherever you get your podcasts, including on iTunes]

For the third episode of What's The [Data] Point? we were joined by New York State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, the state's chief fiscal watchdog. With hosts Ben Max and Maria Doulis, DiNapoli discusses his thus far unsuccessful efforts to reform the state's contracting processes in the wake of the $780 million bid-rigging scandal that broke last year with federal charges brought against nine associates of and donors to Governor Andrew Cuomo. DiNapoli also talks state budget matters and the importance of monitoring how taxpayer dollars are spent.

Listen and let us know what you think: Ben Max of GG (@TweetBenMax), Maria Doulis (@MariaDoulis) of CBC, and special guest state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli (@NYSComptroller):

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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What's The [DATA] Point? $780 Million, with Comptroller DiNapoli Thu, 29 Jun 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Murky Definitions for Government Entities Undermine Transparency http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6909:murky-definitions-for-government-entities-undermine-transparency http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6909:murky-definitions-for-government-entities-undermine-transparency 15148467608 52cf785b4f z

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


When Rockland County Democratic Party Chair Kristen Zebrowski Stavisky fills out her annual state disclosure forms, she consults her husband for question six, which requires the listing of contracts held with a state or local agency held by the filer, filer’s spouse, or unemancipated child.

Evan Stavisky, a partner in the prominent Albany lobbying firm The Parkside Group, after checking with the firm’s lawyer, has told his wife that his company does not represent any government entities. So, for the past six years, Kristen has entered “none” for the question, according to the disclosure documents obtained from the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE).

At the same time, between 2010 and 2016, Parkside pulled in more than $1 million from representing quasi-public entities, including four foundations affiliated with city and state universities, three New York City-based public library systems, and a local economic development corporation, according to the lobbying firm’s disclosure filings that can be viewed on the JCOPE website.

One of these contracts, on behalf of the Queens Economic Development Corporation -- which is treated by state law as a public authority -- expired in 2010, so according to filing instructions, Kristen Stavisky was not required to declare it on her JCOPE form for that year. But the other clients -- foundations associated with the CUNY Graduate Center, Queensborough Community College, Queens College, CUNY Creative Arts Team, and SUNY’s University at Buffalo, as well as Brooklyn Public Library, New York Public Library, and Queens Public Library -- fall into an ambiguous zone, defined as local or state agencies in some statutes of New York State law, but not others.

Kristen Stavisky became Rockland County party chair in February 2011, so her first required JCOPE form covered 2010. Political party chairs play a significant role in deciding which candidates run for local and state office, so they are held to the same disclosure standards as elected officials. Meanwhile, Evan Stavisky’s company is paid big money to lobby those same city and state officials on policy and funding matters that impact their clients.

“The reason that party committee chairs are required to disclose potential conflicts of interest because they wield considerable power in relation to elected officials, and they provide the political apparatus to get people elected,” said NYPIRG Executive Director Blair Horner.

As the Stavisky filings show, there is a multitude of quasi-governmental entities that exist in grey area of New York law, and how to classify these entities has been the subject of some debate. A rudimentary search pulled up at least a dozen different definitions for “state agency” and “local agency” in New York State law.

A lawyer for Parkside pointed to the state’s public officer’s law, which defines a state agency as a “state department, any public benefit corporation, public authority or commission at least one of whose members is appointed by the governor, or the state university of New York or the city university of New York.”

While each of the aforementioned Parkside clients rely to some degree on government funding (Queens Library, for example, draws 94 percent of its revenue from city, state and federal sources), have board members appointed by city or state officials, and may serve a public function, as independent 501(c)(3) nonprofits, one could argue these entities do not qualify as a public authority or public benefit corporation. But like more typical government agencies, they are subject to Freedom of Information Laws, according advisory opinions issued by the New York State Committee on Open Government.

A person who willfully files financial disclosure forms incorrectly could face a penalty of up to $40,000 from JCOPE. A spokesperson for the ethics agency -- who is prohibited by law from discussing the disclosure forms of a particular filer -- declined to offer clarification on whether nonprofits associated with CUNY and SUNY were considered government entities according to the public officer's law, but said JCOPE reviews filings and pursues investigations when there appears to be a discrepancy. In other words, the only person who can request an opinion on how a particular filer should answer question six on the JCOPE disclosure form is the filer.

There is also is a lack of consensus on the definition of a “public benefit corporation” and a “public authority,” terms sometimes used interchangeably.

According to Comptroller Tom DiNapoli’s office, public authorities -- which range from transportation agencies like the MTA to bodies created to spur economic development like Empire State Development -- are typically run by boards of directors and are not subject to the same transparency and disclosure as other branches of government. They are also able to borrow money without voter approval, as is constitutionally required of government agencies, a habit that has put the state in fiscal jeopardy.

Public authorities are increasingly enmeshed with state and local government operations, according to the comptroller. They do most of the state’s borrowing and supply revenue streams for the state budget. Sometimes these entities spawn subsidiary public authorities, which are subject to even fewer restrictions. The state’s first public authority, Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, was created in 1921, and more than 1,000 State and local public authorities, and subsidiaries of authorities, have been authorized since.

In 2004 and 2009, in response to a number of investigations into mismanagement, irresponsible borrowing, and questionable financial practices on the part of public authorities and their subsidiaries, attempts were made to streamline the definition and oversight of public authorities.

Then-Comptroller Alan G. Hevesi, raising concerns about “backdoor borrowing,” joined with then-Attorney General Eliot Spitzer to introduce the Public Authority Reform Act of 2004 “to capture all of these entities in one place and impose new rules to govern the conduct of public authorities and their representatives.” The proposed legislation compiled a list of “more than 640” entities, classifying them in A,B, C, and D classes. Class A and B public authorities would be required to adopt specific principles of corporate governance and fiscal integrity. They recommended Queensborough Community College Auxiliary Enterprise Association and the CUNY Research Foundation (two organizations that hired Parkside within the past six years) be classified as “Class B” public authorities.

Based on these recommendations, the Legislature and Governor George Pataki enacted the Public Authorities Accountability Act of 2005, later amended by the Public Authorities Reform Act of 2009, which established the Authorities Budget Office (ABO) and an official definition for “public authority.” The legislation also directed the ABO to maintain a list of state and local authorities, a list that currently does not include CUNY and SUNY foundations, the New York City library systems, or other quasi-governmental nonprofits.

But while the ABO’s office lists 578 authorities, a recent count by the state comptroller’s office found 1,192 state, local, and interstate or international authorities. A footnote in the comptroller’s report addresses this discrepancy: "Due to statutory, regulatory and administrative differences between the Office of the State Comptroller and the ABO, the ABO’s list does not identify certain entities included in this count, such as subsidiaries (which ABO includes with the parent authority), inactive authorities, and college auxiliary corporations."

Government reformers say this ever-morphing patchwork of definitions only serves to confuse the public and obscure conflicts of interests, rather than increase transparency.

“Complexity defeats accountability and complexity defeats democracy. One of the reasons I’m a reformer is to simplify how things work,” said SUNY New Paltz professor Gerald Benjamin. “The purpose of disclosure is for the person who is letting sunshine in to hold people accountable. If the detail of the law prevents transparency from doing its job, then it’s getting in the way of good government.”

While the Staviskys' situation is somewhat unique, this murky territory around what constitutes a government entity creates pitfalls for elected officials and others filing annual disclosure forms.

Furthermore, lax guidelines surrounding CUNY and SUNY nonprofits have led to wasteful spending and, in worst case, exploitation by bad actors. The state is currently facing a crisis of trust in government, according to public opinion polls. In the last year, both the CUNY and SUNY systems were rocked by allegations of financial impropriety involving related nonprofits. Now, more voices are calling for increased oversight of these nonprofits, which, like public authorities and public benefit corporations, are financially intertwined with government agencies and serve a public function.

Notably, two privately-run, deep-pocketed nonprofits affiliated with SUNY Polytechnic Institute -- Fort Schuyler Management Corporation and Fuller Road Management Corporation -- were at the center of federal and state investigations into Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion economic development program. Former SUNY Poly president and CEO Alain Kaloyeros and Cuomo’s ex-executive deputy secretary Joe Percoco, along with six others, will face trial later this year on charges of bid-rigging, bribery, and extortion.

Parkside’s business with CUNY Research Foundation factors into another ongoing investigation into widespread misuse of funds by CUNY-tied nonprofits by State Inspector General Catherine Leahy Scott. An interim report by the inspector general released last year highlights presidential discretionary funds doled out by the research foundation that are frequently tapped for housekeeping costs, and parties, personal drivers, and club memberships. The report also notes that CUNY-affiliated foundations spent a significant amount of money on lobbyists “engaged in questionable and seemingly redundant tasks,” even though the system employs its own centralized and school-based government relations staff.

“These costs are significant to CUNY, and while they may be warranted in certain situations, appear to be duplicative in several cases. Even at this early stage of the Inspector General’s investigation, it seems clear that these activities warrant scrutiny and that centralization of these services should be explored,” wrote Leahy Scott.

Of $842,275 spent on outside lobbying by the CUNY Research Foundation during the report’s 2013-2015 review period, nearly 20 percent went to Parkside Group, and another 50 percent went to two lobbying firms founded by former Parkside executives, according to year-by-year comparison of the report and JCOPE lobbying disclosure forms. The firms were hired to lobby the Legislature and New York City Council on funding as well as policy matters.

When the report was released in November 2016, Governor Andrew Cuomo, who had been dealing with blowback for the scandals tied to his economic development programs, seized on the news of the CUNY investigation as an opportunity to push for sweeping reform across the state and city university systems, vowing to expand the jurisdiction of the state inspectors general to cover the university-based nonprofits, and calling for these entities to embrace good government practices. Language in the enacted 2017 budget expands the inspector general’s jurisdiction to include CUNY nonprofits, particularly, the research foundation, but notably it does not restore the state comptroller’s oversight over procurement through SUNY non-profits -- a power that was stripped in 2011 to expedite Cuomo’s economic development programs.

When reached by phone, Evan Stavisky, joined by his lawyer, offered a series of evolving explanations for their determination on whether Kristen Stavisky would disclose Parkside contracts, but noted that it was immediately obvious to them that as nonprofits, these clients were not government entities. He did not seek advice from JCOPE.

“Each year, our firm completes 12 separate filings for every single client for city and state regulators, a total of more than 500 annually. Since Kristen Stavisky became chair of the Rockland Democratic Party, our firm has filed 3,000 lobbying disclosures and not a single one has been for a government agency. It is false to suggest otherwise,” said Dan Katz, executive vice president and a general counsel to The Parkside Group, in a statement.

While political party chairs are not prohibited from lobbying the New York State Legislature themselves, they are barred from offering “goods or services having a value in excess of twenty-five dollars to any state agency” and from working on “the adoption or repeal of any rule or regulation having the force and effect of law,” according to a 1992 advisory opinion from New York State Ethics Commission, the first incarnation of JCOPE. The law does not necessarily extend to household members of the chairperson, but filers must indicate government contracts exceeding $1,000 held by a spouse or unemancipated child.

The decades-old regulation, along with most of the state’s modern government ethics law, sprang from a 1986 corruption probe that rocked Mayor Ed Koch’s administration, which landed a Bronx Democratic Party chair in prison, and was marked by suicide of Queens Borough President Donald Manes, who was also implicated in the scheme. The party chair, Stanley Friedman, was a stockholder in a company called Citisource Inc., which benefited from a $22.7 million contract with the city’s Traffic Violations Bureau for traffic agents' handheld computers.

The reforms implemented in the Ethics in Government Act of 1987, which were hailed as a major turning point for government accountability in New York, were intended "to enhance public trust and confidence in our governmental institutions [by strengthening] prohibitions against behavior which may permit or appear to permit undue influence or conflicts of interest,” according to then-Governor Mario Cuomo. Many amendments have been signed into law since.

This question of whether a political party chair can lobby government entities is likely to resurface over Keith Wright, currently the Manhattan Democratic Party chair, who earlier this year accepted a position at Davidoff Hutcher & Citron, LLP, a lobbying and government affairs firm which represents The North Shore Board of Education, a government entity, and NYC & Company, a government-funded nonprofit. Wright, who left his seat in the Assembly in an unsuccessful 2016 congressional bid, was not listed in the firm’s January–February JCOPE filings. A spokesperson for the New York County Democratic Committee said Wright does not perform lobbying duties as part of his new role; he advises clients on government affairs.

The Staviskys maintain that Parkside’s business interests are kept separate from Kristen’s duties as Democratic committee leader and that there is no evidence that Evan or his company has benefited monetarily from the arrangement. Critics actually point to other members of the Stavisky family who wield the type of power likely to attract clients like libraries and SUNY and CUNY foundations. Policy and funding matters concerning these institutions fall under the purview of the Senate’s Higher Education Committee, where Democratic Senator Toby Ann Stavisky of Queens, the mother of Evan Stavisky, is the ranking member.

Parkside’s government-affiliated nonprofit contracts picked up in 2009-2010, the last time Democrats held a ruling majority in the Senate. Toby Ann, a former social studies teacher, chaired the Senate’s Higher Education Committee that year.

At the time, Toby Ann, seeking an advisory opinion, wrote to JCOPE that though she was not required to, she would prohibit her son, but not his partners, from lobbying members of the Senate. Despite calls for a probe from ethics watchdogs, a 2009 advisory opinion from the state's Legislative Ethics Commission deemed the arrangement “appropriate,” the New York Daily News reported.

Correction: A previous version of this article misidentifed the source of a 2009 advisory opinion. In 2009, the ethics advisory agency for state legislators was the Legislative Ethics Commission.The article has also been updated to include a comment from New York County Democratic Committee.

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Murky Definitions for Government Entities Undermine Transparency Wed, 03 May 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Cuomo Outlines $144 Billion Budget http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6088:cuomo-outlines-144-billion-budget http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6088:cuomo-outlines-144-billion-budget cuomo built to lead speech sots

Cuomo taking the podium for his State of the State


Gov. Andrew Cuomo's sixth State of the State address was a dichotomy of the mundane and the moving, the political and the personal, striking contrasts whereby he celebrated infrastructure projects and lamented the status of the poor, homeless, and jobless.

As much as Cuomo tried to steer the conversation toward past achievements and future successes he also decried the state's failures to boost the economy for all, house a growing homeless population, and provide low-income families with a liveable wage and benefits. Not to mention the ethical failures of corrupt politicians, which the governor had no choice but to address.

Cuomo's $143.6 billion budget presentation and State of the State focused heavily on both investing in major transportation and other infrastructure and a social agenda that includes an eventual $15 per hour minimum wage and a proposal to provide workers with 12 weeks of paid family leave.

The governor had clearly laid out the "Built" portion of his agenda in the days leading up to Wednesday's address. He's pledged $100 billion for infrastructure projects including a retooling of Penn Station, a third track for the Long Island Rail Road, and an expansion of the Javits Center - all under his New York: Built to Lead banner.

The MTA will also see an investment of $26.1 billion, some of which will go toward a redesign of 30 subway stations and more wifi hotspots. Both LaGuardia and JFK airports will get attention--with LaGuardia being replaced and JFK getting an "overhaul"--as will airports, roads, and bridges in other parts of the state.

"All experts are unanimous that investment today in the infrastructure of tomorrow creates jobs and builds economic strength," Cuomo said. "In Washington, both sides agree. However, like so many issues, Washington just can't get it done. In New York, we can and we will."

Republican Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb said he was concerned by "all the spending" and wanted to see details on how Cuomo will pay for all of his infrastructure projects. "Where is all of this spending coming from? How are we paying for it? Well get those answers or we'll vote no," Kolb told Gotham Gazette.

The "Lead" segment of Cuomo's "Built to Lead" agenda had very much to do with backing up the governor's repeated assertion that New York is the progressive capital of the nation.

Cuomo returned to familiar territory by touting his record, including passage of marriage equality, as well as his being the governor to have closed the most prisons in the state and his various programs to reduce recidivism. "We are better at building and equipping a prison cell than a classroom. We are quicker to find a 16-year-old a jail cell than a job interview and that is just wrong," Cuomo said of the country. "New York State is going the other way."

Cuomo again asked the legislature to "Raise the Age" so that 16- and 17-year-olds aren't tried as adults. New York is one of only two states that continue the practice--North Carolina being the other. Cuomo took executive action last year to move the current population of teens from adult prisons to a juvenile facility, a move that is in process.

Cuomo pledged more job and alternative to incarceration programs, and "bail reform" that will require judges to consider whether a defendant is a danger to the public. New York is one of only four states that don't have judges consider public safety while setting bail.

"We all agree that public safety is paramount," Cuomo said. "But we can also all agree that it is madness to spend over $50,000 a year for a prison cell while ignoring the wisdom of early intervention."

Addressing another unresolved issue from last year, Cuomo asked the legislature to pass a bill establishing a special prosecutor to look into police killings of unarmed civilians. Last year Cuomo issued an executive order putting Attorney General Eric Schneiderman in charge of such cases. The move angered Republicans as well as district attorneys across the state.

"The appointment of an unbiased, qualified individual has helped restore trust in our system and it literally helped to end demonstrations in our streets," Cuomo said. "I urge you to pass a law making this reform permanent. Assemblyman Keith Wright has advocated for such a law for over a decade."

Cuomo's economic justice platform was imbued with a human touch that Cuomo has oftentimes been accused of lacking. His push for a $15 minimum wage, that is named in tribute to his father, who passed away last year, was greeted by cheers from the crowd. Both Republican legislative leaders remained seated while their Democratic counterparts rose from their chairs to applaud the measure.

Cuomo didn't offer any new details but his plan would see the minimum wage increase to $15 by the end of 2018 in New York City and July 1, 2021 in the rest of the state. Cuomo, who opposed a $13 minimum wage in the spring of last year argued vigorously for his plan. "If the minimum wage in the '70s had been indexed to the rate of inflation, you know where it would be? My proposal today at $15 an hour," Cuomo told the crowd. "What that means is that the minimum wage since the '70s has not kept pace. What that means is you've had 45 years of economic injustice where the poor were getting poorer, while everyone else was moving up. That's not America's way because that's not fair."

Cuomo went on to justify his plan because he said through social programs the state is subsidizing fast food restaurants that fail to provide a minimum wage, decrying such corporate welfare. "I say it's time to get out of the hamburger business," Cuomo said, repeating what has become a catchphrase during his minimum wage rallies.

Small business groups across the state are opposed to the measure and claim it will cost jobs. Meanwhile, more Democrats are growing concerned that Cuomo may significantly extend the wage phase-in to reach a deal with Senate Republicans.

Cuomo was expected to make a splash on the issue of homelessness and he did on two fronts. First he announced the commitment of $20 billion to combat homelessness, with $10 billion earmarked for 100,000 permanent affordable housing units and $10 billion for 6,000 new supported beds over 5 years, 1,000 emergency shelter beds, and other homeless services.

"This is New York. And we are New Yorkers and we will not allow people to dwell in the gutter like garbage," Cuomo said. He promised to fund 20,000 supportive housing units over the next 15 years.

Cuomo also unveiled a quality control system for homeless shelters across the state. Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli will oversee the quality review of shelters, with city Comptroller Scott Stringer examining the city system, as he already does, but perhaps with more attention and now with more state collaboration.

"They will do onsite inspections and review operating and financial protocols," Cuomo explained. "Thereafter, shelters they find to be unsafe or dangerous will either immediately add local police protection – or they will be closed. Shelters which they find as unsanitary or otherwise unfit will be subject to contract cancellation, operator replacement, immediate remediation or closure. If an operator's management problem is systemic, a receiver will be appointed to run that system."

Mayor Bill de Blasio praised Cuomo for several announcements, including on supportive housing, pre-kindergarten and minimum wage. He said that Cuomo's announcements of the homelessness audits appeared to be in line with work already happening and did not express initial concern. He did express conern, though, about items Cuomo appeared to bury in budget documents that could cost the city big when it comes to Medicaid payments, CUNY funding, and certain tax rebates. De Blasio said he and his team would review the budget closely and have more to say soon. Budget watchdogs began sounding the alarm, though.

After outlining a variety of programs and proposals, Cuomo turned to government ethics, saying that all depended on public trust in elected officials.

Then, toward the end of his speech Cuomo dropped his rhetorical tone. He described how in late 2014 his father's health was failing and revealed that he was in Buffalo for an inauguration ceremony when he got the news that his father had passed away.

"Life is such a precious gift and I have kicked myself every day that I didn't spend more time with my father at that end period," Cuomo lamented. "I could have. I am lucky. I could have taken off work, I could have cut days in half, I could have spent more time with him. It was my mistake and a mistake I blame myself for every day. But there are many people in this state who do not have the choice. A parent is dying, a child is sick, they can't take off of work."

Cuomo went on to explain how the United States is one of three countries that does not have paid maternity leave. He proposed providing New Yorkers with 12 weeks of paid family leave. Last year Cuomo and legislative leaders were unable to reach a consensus on competing plans. The Assembly has repeatedly passed a plan that would expand the state's disability insurance fund to pay for leave. Last year the Independent Democratic Conference put forward a proposal that had the state covering the estimated $125 million cost of the plan. Cuomo's proposal would be covered by workers through a $1 paycheck deduction.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie told reporters that he wants to see more details on the plan. "Paid family leave is something we've passed for a while," Heastie told reporters. "I want to see the details. It's hard for me to comment before I've seen the details."

Senate Republicans are not particularly open to the plan.

"This is all about getting these things from proposal to reality now," said Sen. Mike Gianaris of the Senate Democrats. "You've gotta like the agenda, these are things the Senate Minority has been talking about all along--paid family leave, minimum wage. It's about getting these things done now. If Senate Republicans decide to block things that are priorities to the people of New York then they will hear from the voters."

[Read more about Cuomo's ethics and campaign finance reform proposals here]

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing

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Cuomo Outlines $144 Billion Budget Thu, 14 Jan 2016 05:44:32 +0000
With Another LLC Loophole Vote Coming, Dwindling Optimism About Any Campaign Finance Reform http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5696:with-another-llc-loophole-vote-coming-dwindling-optimism-about-any-campaign-finance-reform http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5696:with-another-llc-loophole-vote-coming-dwindling-optimism-about-any-campaign-finance-reform Skelos Silver Cuomo

Republican Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (photo: Governor's Office via flickr)


The State Senate Elections Committee is expected to vote Monday whether to advance a bill that would close a controversial loophole in state election law that allows wealthy donors to pour unlimited cash into campaign coffers through the use of multiple limited liability corporations, or LLCs.

Sen. Daniel Squadron, a New York City Democrat and the bill's sponsor, has maneuvered the bill to a committee vote despite major opposition from the Republican majority conference. Monday's vote will come after reform groups and some legislators failed in an attempt to get the State Board of Elections to reverse its 1996 interpretation of state law that created the loophole. Senate Republicans have bristled at using the term "loophole" to describe the BOE interpretation.

"As the focus continues on this critical ethics reform, it will be disappointing if Monday's Elections Committee vote breaks down along the same partisan lines that the recent budget and Board of Elections votes did," said Squadron. "In light of the BOE's professed arguments, I'm hopeful that the Elections Committee will take a serious look at this issue to prevent unlimited sums of anonymous dollars from perverting our state government and the entire political process."

Assembly Member Brian Kavanagh, also a New York City Democrat, sponsors the same bill in the Assembly. Kavanagh told Gotham Gazette he believes his conference is also ready to move on the bill and that he thinks Senate Republicans should be too. "The Republican BOE chair said that he thought the Legislature was the appropriate place to address this. And I know he isn't the only one who believes that."

The LLC loophole has become a major flashpoint in the battle for campaign finance reform because other efforts at reform failed in this year's budget negotiations and a pilot public financing program for last year's comptroller race never got off the ground.

Advocates acknowledge that while having a committee vote on the issue is a victory in itself it isn't exactly likely that the bill passes the Senate given that Republicans currently enjoy a narrow majority that could fall apart at any time due to indictment, illness, or retirement. Their candidates are often bolstered by large donations from single individuals or industries that use the LLC loophole to their advantage.

Advocates admit that the vote may be the last gasp for campaign finance efforts this year. "I think the real chance for reform this year is on the LLC loophole because there is more clear agreement on that," said Rachael Fauss of good government group Citizens Union. "I think we will have to wait for another major push until the budget next year."

Kavanagh said he expects the LLC loophole to remain a major focus for the rest of the year with perhaps some room between the Senate Republicans and Assembly Democrats to negotiate further contribution disclosure rules, including, perhaps, requiring donors to list their employers. Conversation and movement during this year's budget negotiations mostly revolved around legislators' outside income.

The last two years have been a roller coaster ride for campaign finance reform advocates. Last March advocates were in a place they had never been before: Gov. Andrew Cuomo's budget proposal included a system for publicly funded campaigns and the Moreland Commission on Public Integrity was digging deep into just how weak and ineffective the state's Board of Electionss is at enforcing New York's already lax campaign finance rules. "It felt like we had so much momentum," said Barbara Bartoletti of the League of Women Voters, who also served as an advisor to the Moreland Commission.

Over a year later things have changed drastically: Cuomo abruptly killed Moreland in exchange for some limited campaign finance reforms, and despite massive scandals the Legislature has remained obstinant, refusing to make major reforms. If last March was the high of highs, this April has been the low of lows as campaign finance reform appears all but dead for the foreseeable future.

Reformers' best chance at change - having the BOE reinterpret its opinion regarding LLCs - failed and Senate Republicans stand even more steadfast against reform. It isn't surprising that the Legislature has failed to act on campaign finance reform despite the indictment of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and the investigation into Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos because, as Barbara Bartoletti of the League of Women Voters told Gotham Gazette, nothing in Albany is surprising anymore.

"Scandal does not seem to deter the Legislature in its appetite to avoid dealing with the issue," said Bartoletti. In fact, Bartoletti said that scandal appears to have increased the Senate Republicans' affection for the current system. "The Senate Republicans hold such a tenuous grasp on the majority that they are loathe to change the system that gets them elected," said Bartoletti.

Republican Senators do tend to benefit more from the largesse of the real estate industry and corporations that use the LLC loophole to subvert the state's donation limits. Republicans counter that Democrats benefit from massive union donations.

"As soon as the so-called good government groups have anything to say about the unlimited money that unions pump into the coffers of Democrats or the dollars that Mayor de Blasio funnels to Upstate County Democrat Party Committees, we may start taking them seriously," Scott Reif, spokesman for Senate Republicans, said in a statement. "Until then, they should get a life."

Advocates don't put responsibility entirely on Senate Republicans. They look at the governor, saying Cuomo has failed to capitalize on major public outcry over scandal and not used his bully pulpit to push reform. They point to budget negotiations last year when most thought Cuomo was in a position thanks to Moreland and continuing pressure from the US Attorney to truly campaign for public financing of elections.

Instead Cuomo abruptly shuttered Moreland for what advocates call "meager" ethics tweaks and minimal campaign finance measures. The two measures - a pilot program for public financing exclusively in the 2014 comptroller's race and a new enforcement office in the BOE - have not delivered.

Incumbent Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, an advocate of public financing of campaigns, declined to participate in the system because it was so hastily arranged and his Republican opponent failed to raise enough money to participate. The program, meant to perhaps initiate a much larger system, is now defunct.

Meanwhile, little has been heard from the BOE's enforcement unit headed by Cuomo appointee Risa Sugarman.

Moreland dedicated an entire hearing to attacking the BOE's paltry enforcement mechanisms. As part of the deal to kill the commission Cuomo and the Legislature installed Sugarman as the head of an office charged with finding violations of campaign finance law and bringing cases against violators.

Good government groups and election board members alike say that so far Sugarman's appointment has only caused a regression in the board's enforcement actions.

"The independent enforcement counsell is taking a very different approach to enforcement and has given much less focus to the routine enforcement work that was done before the independent office was created," Democratic Board Chair Douglas Kellerman told Gotham Gazette.

Kellerman says that Sugarman has failed to collect fines from those who were found delinquent before she took office in 2014 and has not issued notices to campaign committees that had not filed since the July filing deadline last year. As of January Sugarman had also not begun assembling a report on the biggest violators of campaign contribution limits the board has traditionally issued.

Sugarman did not respond to a request for an interview but she confirmed publically in board meetings with Kellerman that she had not sent the notices.

At a board meeting in January Sugarman argued she had found a number of bad addresses for previous filings. She also said she was waiting for hearing officers to be hired. Hearing officers were the Legislature's contribution to the enforcement unit and are seen by good government groups as an uncesscary hoop to jump through because cases against violators must also be presented in State Supreme Court. Other commissioners pushed Sugarman to act because such a large backlog had been created.

"I guess my overall concern is that there were certainly lots of problems with the old enforcement unit," Kellerman said to Sugarman at the January meeting, "but there were lots of things that were getting done with the old enforcement unit that I'm concerned have now gone by the wayside with the transition and I hate to see us have a step backwards as opposed to forward on this. The over-contribution report was one of those things."

BOE staffers and chairs have expressed frustration that Sugarman doesn't update them on her activities. She has stressed her independence and ability to work on investigations with complete secrecy but some BOE members think the office is directionless and is looking to land big cases at the cost of basic enforcement.

Advocates share a lot of those concerns. "It seems they are missing basic procedure, missing basic compliance that the board used to do such as filing reports and audits," said Fauss of Citizens Union. "It is unfortunate that the board is not in a better position. It is a shame that we don't even see enforcement of basic compliance."

Assembly Member Kavanagh said that he believes Sugarman's office has already accomplished a great deal: "We never had someone looking at filings beyond whether they were on time or not. Without that it is hard to see how real enforcement happens. Now we actually have someone scrutinizing them and I think that will have a great impact."

Bartoletti said she hopes to see increased action from the enforcement unit over the next few months, but is concerned that precious time has already been lost. "We will be watching closely for the rest of the calendar year. We may will be looking carefully at who they hire and how independent they are. I would hope they will be a fully-staffed, functioning enforcement unit by 2016 because without enforcement nobody cares what the laws are," Bartoletti told Gotham Gazette.

Dani Lever, a spokesperson for Cuomo, told Gotham Gazette: "The administration included additional funds in the budget last year to create and support the BOE enforcement unit. The unit is fully staffed and effectively operating at capacity."

Asked whether Cuomo plans to continue to push for campaign finance reform during the rest of session Lever said: "Yes, the Governor has been and remains committed to campaign finance reform."

Right now Bartoletti said she only has faith in one man to do campaign finance enforcement and it isn't technically his job. "The only one doing campaign finance enforcement at the moment is Preet Bharara," she said.

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing

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With Another LLC Loophole Vote Coming, Dwindling Optimism About Any Campaign Finance Reform Thu, 23 Apr 2015 22:40:31 +0000