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Citizens Union


Dialing for Dollars: City to Phonebank Tax Refund Awareness

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DCA EITC subway advertising (photo: @carmeneboon)

In life, they say, only two things are certain: death and taxes. Fortunately for low-income New Yorkers, the latter comes with federal refunds. And the de Blasio administration is making a major push to ensure that more of those eligible cash in.

In preparation for tax season, the City's Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) will launch its annual campaign tomorrow to inform taxpayers about credits, including the Earned Income Tax Credit and the NYC Child Care Tax Credit. According to a press release from DCA, more than 2,000 volunteers will staff phone banks across the five boroughs for the first-ever tax credit awareness phone-a-thon organized by the City, reaching out to residents in English, Spanish, and Chinese.

The initiative, being run by de Blasio's DCA Commissioner Julie Menin, is part of the administration's aggressive efforts to help improve quality of life for those on the margins.

Since 2002, the City has organized a Tax Credit Campaign every year, handled by the DCA's Office of Financial Empowerment (OFE), to help residents not miss out on vital benefits in the tax system. In what is a new initiative, though, thousands of calls will be made on Saturday to refund-eligible New Yorkers.

One of the main credits that often goes unavailed is the EITC. For qualifying families, EITC can go a long way. One in five low-income New Yorkers are either unaware of this tax credit or unwilling to go through what they perceive as a tedious process. In effect, they are leaving money on the table, particularly since it is a refundable credit. It can lower taxes, and even be paid out if they owe no taxes, but only if it is filed. Last year, 1.8 million EITC claims were filed in New York State, totaling $4.1 billion in credits. The average credit amount was $2,309 - an amount that can make a major difference for individuals or families struggling to get by, especially in a high cost of living city like New York.

Commissioner Menin will lead the six-hour long phone-a-thon on Saturday at the Downtown Brooklyn location, with Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, Rep. Nydia Velazquez, State Assembly Member Jo Anne Simon, and City Council Member Rafael Espinal all set to participate. Mayor Bill de Blasio is also expected to visit, and make remarks and a few phone calls.

The phone-a-thon, just one day after Friday's Internal Revenue Service annual EITC Awareness Day, aims to increase filings in New York City by at least 50 percent. The value of refunds, according to official expectations, will be nearly $90 million and will put $135 million into the local economy. Families could receive as much as $10,000. New Yorkers will also be told of 200 tax preparation sites across the city which will help process tax filings free of cost.

In October last year, the IRS announced that the federal credit in 2015 would be adjusted for inflation, increasing the maximum amount by around $100 (to $6,242 from $6,143) for a joint family with three children or more.

Although the EITC is a federal credit, New York State and even New York City offer their own versions of EITC. So for those who qualify, the benefits can reach up to $8,293 for a family with three children earning under about $52,000 a year and $670 for a single person without children earning under about $20,000. What's more, the EITC does not take away from other benefits such as the SNAP program (food stamps), Medicaid, or public housing assistance.

The campaign is being promoted on Twitter with #GotMyRefund. Many city officials are promoting the event in their feeds and some, like Public Advocate Letitia James, have been sending e-mail blasts to their subscribers.

Fitting into the De Blasio Agenda
Promoting awareness about EITC is in line with the mayor's push toward reducing the inequality gap in the city. In the latest Mayor's Management Report (MMR), the bi-annual assessment of individual city agencies, released in September last year, there was a specific requirement for agencies to report their efforts on promoting equity.

One of DCA's stated goals in the report was to empower low-income New Yorkers and promote their financial stability. As part of that effort, DCA reported that its OFE partnered with community organizers, non-profit groups, and private volunteers to directly aid residents through free and discounted tax preparation and filing. According to the MMR, the network of volunteers at Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) sites helped 96,661 city residents file their tax returns in the 2014 fiscal year.

The City Council has also been attempting to increase EITC participation levels in the city. Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, advocating for a more affordable city, wrote in the Huffington Post last month, "The Federal Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is an under-utilized lifeline for many eligible individuals facing financial hardship. The program would enable qualifying New Yorkers to keep more of their income and better contend with the looming cuts to section 8 vouchers."

Council Member Dan Garodnick introduced a resolution on the issue in June of last year that has not been voted on yet. It calls on Congress to pass legislation expanding EITC, and for the state Legislature to allow the City to increase its own EITC from 5% to 10% of the federal credit.

by Samark Khurshid, Gotham Gazette

Note: this article has been updated.

Is Heastie, Assembly Speaker Favorite, Ready to Hold the New York City Mantle?

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Heastie, second from left, at a Thursday rally in the Bronx (photo: @RandiMartos)

The race to replace Sheldon Silver as Assembly Speaker appears to be narrowing to two main candidates. One is from New York City and one is from upstate New York. Assembly Member Carl Heastie, who serves as the Bronx County Democratic Committee Chair, has the backing of Mayor Bill de Blasio. Assembly Member Joseph Morelle of Rochester, who serves as Assembly Majority Leader, has the backing of Gov. Andrew Cuomo - and is set to take over as interm speaker on Monday.

Heastie has quickly wrapped up support from former speaker candidates Assembly Members Keith Wright of Manhattan and Joe Lentol of Brooklyn, who have in turn asked their supporters to back Heastie. Assembly Member Catherine Nolan from Queens, also still in the running for speaker, appears to be losing the support of her borough's Democratic establishment.

But even as Democratic Party leaders coalesce behind him, not everyone from the city is sure Heastie is the right choice. Heastie carries baggage from his work as Bronx County Chair, wherein he has backed a number of ethically-challenged candidates. Heastie stayed neutral in the race between now-convicted State Sen. Pedro Espada and the man who replaced him, Sen. Gustavo Rivera.

Heastie is known as a consensus builder and has worked with those who beat his incumbents or preferred candidates. However, many advocates and legislators are worried that Heastie is concerned not with reform, but with consolidating power. Watching the party bosses rally support behind one of their own has many questioning how much of an improvement Heastie would be over Silver in terms of transparency and member empowerment. A number of Bronx legislators claim that Heastie and long-time ally Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. have designs on Heastie becoming speaker and Diaz Jr. running for mayor. Diaz Jr. is a vocal supporter of Heastie for speaker.

Perhaps alarming to many Democrats, especially reform-minded progressives, Heastie has also made public statements seemingly supporting the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision - he has insisted that campaign donations do not influence politicians. Heastie also voted against marriage equality in 2007, but did vote for it subsequently.

The election of a new speaker will have untold impact on city issues this year and beyond as Mayor de Blasio finds himself in a particularly tough spot in Albany. De Blasio needs an ally in the speaker's office, and seems willing to go with Heastie even if he may not perfectly line up ideologically.

2015 was already going to be a tough year in the capital for de Blasio and his agenda. And then his closest ally, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, was arrested on federal corruption charges.

Now, with Silver on the way out from the position and his replacement unclear, de Blasio's agenda could be in even further jeopardy. With the race in full sprint and a vote set for Feb. 10, a great deal is at stake for the mayor and the city as jockeying intensifies. It may be difficult to overstate how important it is to de Blasio that he has a close ally running the Assembly, which is part of why he appears staunchly behind Heastie, though without saying so publicly.

De Blasio bet big when he decided to openly challenge Republican control of the State Senate during last year's elections. He wanted the city to be able to decide its own minimum wage, take back rent control from the State, and more - all with the impending sunset of both mayoral control of schools and key rent laws.

He bet big and he lost - leaving scorned Senate Republicans more eager than ever to block his proposals and Gov. Andrew Cuomo emboldened, co-opting de Blasio's progressive rhetoric and pairing it with more moderate and conservative proposals.

Silver's demise is trouble for de Blasio and many in New York City as the long-time speaker was set to fight Cuomo's education reform agenda, push for a higher minimum wage, and act as the counterweight to Senate Republicans in negotiations over rent control. Whoever replaces Silver, the popular wisdom goes, will be significantly weaker in budget negotiations with Cuomo and Republican Senate Leader Dean Skelos. Nevertheless, how de Blasio- or New York City-friendly the next speaker is will be immensely important and there are major differences among the candidates for speaker in this regard, and others.

The mayor's office did not respond to request for comment about de Blasio's priorities and the Albany landscape, though de Blasio has told reporters this week that he is not personally in contact with candidates. De Blasio appears invested in Heastie despite some issues in the Assembly member's profile and ways in which the two may not see eye to eye.

Heastie, the 47-year-old Bronx County Democratic Party Chair, has a reputation for being flexible. Under Heastie's leadership the Bronx Party has generally backed its own establishment candidates - even when they face legal trouble or corruption charges - but welcomed newcomers into the fold. Heastie has insisted in interviews on the TV program BronxTalk that he doesn't choose which candidates to back on his own but goes with the consensus of other Bronx politicians.

In a statement declaring his candidacy, Heastie insisted that he is interested in reform and transparency: "Voters deserve an Assembly that will not only fight for all New Yorkers, but will enact the type of lasting reforms that will increase accountability and transparency in our state government."

But Heastie faces skepticism from the Assembly's burgeoning reform caucus, which is calling on speaker candidates to answer some very pointed questions about democratizing the body and improving transparency. "I don't know what Carl believes," one member told Gotham Gazette. Another Bronx member admitted that they aren't "particularly fond" of Heastie or "what he stands for," but said that those sentiments are outweighed by the fact that if Heastie takes the reigns, "guys from the Bronx won't have to beg and scrape to explain what our districts need."

The establishment groundswell around him is also being questioned by The Daily News Editorial Board, among others.

Good government groups are calling for an open, public hearing wherein the speaker candidates are vetted, going on the record on reforms of the body and the role of the speaker.

Heastie is known for being particularly close-lipped with the Albany press corp, relying on his spokesperson to get his message out. On Tuesday he told reporters while leaving the Assembly conference, "You all know my favorite term: No comment."

Gary Axelbank, host of BronxTalk, said that isn't the Heastie he knows. "He has been on the show nine times starting in 2000," Axelbank said. "I've enjoyed a long relationship with him from the start of his public service. He has always been an excellent guest and he has never said 'I don't want to talk about someone who has been indicted or why the county backed an indicted official.' I really see him as a stand-up guy willing to represent what he does."

Heastie has cosponsored legislation on housing, immigration, corrections, education, and discrimination, but his largest focus has been stopping wage theft.

But, Heastie drew outrage when he sponsored legislation that allowed pay-day loan lenders to charge up to 200 percent interest. Advocates said the loans take advantage of Heastie's most vulnerable constituents. The Daily News reported that Heastie's Bronx Committee received a $10,000 donation from the check-cashing industry. Heastie countered in later interviews that the donation was only for the committee dinner.

His campaign finance reports show that he takes in significant cash from the medical industry. City & State reported last year that Heastie's campaign accounts were examined by The Moreland Commission on Public Corruption because he had over $25,000 in unitemized expenses. "I've heard nothing from them. I'm not concerned whatsoever. You're not required to itemize expenses under 50 bucks," Heastie told City & State.

Heastie's take on campaign finance also appears to be at odds with the Democratic Majority in the Assembly (and a good many Democrats everywhere). During a 2013 interview on BronxTalk, Heastie argued that political contributions do not influence elected officials.

Axelbank first asked if it hurts democracy to have some candidates running with the support of outside PACS. Heastie responded, "I guess thats a better question to ask the Supreme Court 'cause they're ones that ruled we can have these independent expenditure. It's difficult to say that people that want to express an opinion in an election should not be heard."

Axelbank went on to ask whether money makes a candidate more likely to support a donor.

"No, that's another one of problems I have. The press seems to do - and people running against elected officials say - they believe that because someone supports you or contributes to your campaign someone owns you or you've taken a bribe. I've received contributions from someone I disagreed with. Gotta start looking at individuals."

An astonished Axelbank replied, "Certainly money to campaigns buys influence. Who could deny it?"

To which Heastie replied "I'm never gonna admit to that."

Axelbank pushed further on Heastie's support of pay-day loan vendors. Heastie responded that the press writes to fit its agenda.

On key issues to Mayor de Blasio and many New York City Democrats and residents, Heastie, Morelle, and Nolan offer a mixed bag:

Michael McKee, of Tenants PAC, expressed a sentiment that defies conventional wisdom. "I think in a crazy way this is good for us," said McKee of Silver's impending replacement. "What would we expect from Shelly Silver? A half-baked compromise. Frankly we are happy that the focus is now on reform and making the process more Democratic."

Furthermore, McKee isn't sure that a speaker from upstate wouldn't be especially helpful to New York City and its many tenant-friendly Assembly members.

"Even a speaker from upstate will need votes from city members. It's just how the math works. It is ironic in a way that a speaker from upstate would have to deliver more for the city because they can't just say 'Of course I support New York City, I live there.'" McKee declined to voice a preference in candidates.

Conventional wisdom would say that Heastie would be the better ally (over Morelle) of de Blasio when it comes to a push on rent regulations.

McKee is urging tenants to contact their legislators, "to let them know the new leader has to stop the phaseout of the rent laws or there will be no affordable housing left in New York City because the Senate is owned lock and stock by the real estate lobby."

McKee and other tenant advocates are concerned that de Blasio will significantly curtail his demands on the rent laws in Albany in an effort to focus on other areas. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whose own agenda also hangs in the balance of the speaker turnover and who is also surely looking to influence who takes the Assembly reins, didn't even mention the expiration of the rent laws in his State of the State address this year - which didn't go unnoticed by advocates. Cuomo is said to favor Morelle for speaker.

When asked by Gotham Gazette about Cuomo's omission de Blasio's response was cautious.

"I think [rent regulations have] been one of the things that has preserved what affordability we do have in New York City – and we have an affordability crisis in New York City – it's a lot of what we talked about in the last year – it's a lot of why we have the most expansive affordable housing plan in the history of this country – to build or preserve 200,000 units of housing – because we have a profound affordability crisis in New York City," de Blasio said immediately following Cuomo's speech. "And you can't address income inequality without addressing the affordability of housing, which is the number one expense. So, I'm going to work to protect rent regulation. I'm going to look for ways that we can expand upon it and strengthen it. We've had a huge number of units lost from rent regulation or from other programs that protected affordability, and we have to address that – and I'm hopeful that we can get something done."

Education and Women's Rights
When it comes to education policy, union members and liberal advocacy groups tend to favor Nolan who serves as the Assembly education committee chair. Nolan has criticized Cuomo's plan to revamp the teacher evaluation system and make it easier to fire failing teachers. Nolan has lead Assembly members in challenging Cuomo's cuts to education funding over the past years. Of course, Nolan's chances are looking slimmer by the day, though she has said she's staying in the race.

Morelle and Heastie are thought to be closer to Cuomo on education but not so much that they would accept his reform plan. Even Morelle, who would be much more likely to align with Cuomo and Skelos on education, would have to answer to Assembly members who are largely tied to the teachers unions. There is little doubt, though, that Cuomo could very well get more of what he wants on education with Silver out of the picture - how much more remains to be seen.

Nolan has also asserted that she would be better for the Assembly on women's issues. De Blasio has pushed for the legislature to pass the stalled Women's Equality Act.

Nolan stressed in her announcement of her speaker candidacy that electing her could help alleviate the Assembly's sexual harassment issue. "Lost in the names that have been mentioned as potential candidates for Speaker is that of a woman," Nolan's announcement reads. "A woman has never served as Speaker of the Assembly. The press has written extensively and derisively about the sexual harassment cases that have occurred in the legislature over the last few years. It is past time for that 'culture' to end once and for all. I am committed to doing just that."

Whether Nolan is still being seen as a viable candidate and how much support she has is unclear. Meanwhile, there has been a public outpouring for Heastie.

As for de Blasio's minimum wage push, the governor has already thrown him a major bone by calling for an advanced scale even beyond the one currently phasing in over time. The governor did not match the mayor's requests in his proposal, but did call for a statewide $10.50 minimum wage and an $11.50 minimum in New York City within a couple of years.

Nolan and Heastie being the remaining city-based candidates are likely to be on board with Cuomo's plan, or even a push beyond if de Blasio even seeks one. It would appear that de Blasio may be wise to drop his call for local control of the minimum wage. Nolan and Heastie have both advocated increasing the wage in the past. Morelle is considered to be more concerned about the business-side of policy, where opposition to minimum wage increases has been prevalent, but he has backed previous wage increases.

Morelle, of Rochester, may be the most removed from city issues, but according to McKee's logic he might have to deliver in ways city-based legislators wouldn't if he's elected and wants to maintain support. Morelle is scheduled to take over from Silver on an interim basis starting Monday, Feb 2. He is considered business-friendly and moderate compared to his more liberal city-based competitors. He enjoys strong ties to Cuomo, another more moderate Democrat, which concerns many in the city, and many legislators believe it is the Assembly's duty to combat the suburban and upstate-focused Senate. Historically, Assembly speakers have been virtually exclusively from New York City - and today 63 of the 150 members hail from the five boroughs.

A number of reform-minded Assembly members have expressed concern that all three of the remaining candidates are Silver loyalists. None of them called for his resignation in public and they all have been relatively close to him.

With good government groups weighing in that they want a transparent process and the new Assembly reform caucus looking for reforms that allow individual legislators more freedom to bring their bills to the floor and increased input in the budget process, it is possible that reformers will be looking for a strong sign of independence.

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

First Steps Taken to Convert Closed Bronx Prison to Re-entry Hub

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Fulton Correctional Facility (photo via the Osborne Association)

Earlier today New York State handed over the keys for the shuttered Fulton Correctional Facility in the Bronx to The Osborne Association - a group tasked with providing services to the formerly incarcerated, easy re-entry, and reduce recidivism.

For many politicians and advocates, from the Bronx and elsewhere, the handover is an example of how New York State is changing course from jailing as many small-time offenders as possible to focusing on how prison time can disrupt and damage communities.

With the shift, Osborne now has to focus on using the State's $6 million grant to convert the facility, and on finding partners to run the ambitious range of services it plans to provide, local businesses that would like to locate in the new facility, and a reliable funding stream to support them.

The seven-story structure has served many purposes over the years: church, synagogue, nursing home, drug rehab facility, YMCA, and work-release facility. The plan now, according to Elizabeth Gaynes, executive director of The Osborne Association, is to provide ex-cons a one-stop shop to help them return to society smoothly.

"While the crime rate has certainly decreased and the prison population has declined in New York State and New York City, there are still a great number of people across the state under correctional supervision," said Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. "I believe that transforming this structure into a re-entry facility will provide individuals who are transitioning back into society from prison an amazing resource, one that provides them with the necessary tools and resources to succeed upon release and become proactive members of our community."

Over 60 percent of the state's prison population hails from the five boroughs and city data released in 2013 shows that the South Bronx is one of the top five communities where NYC-based inmates list their home address.

However, the state's prison population in general is in decline - it is currently lower than it has been in two decades. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has closed 13 prisons since taking office and famously declared in his 2011 State of the State address that "an incarceration program is not an employment program."

Many advocates hoped at the time that Cuomo would target upstate prisons because the majority of the state's prison population hails from New York City and housing them upstate separates them from the family and community advocates argue help in rehabilitation. But Cuomo didn't limit the closures to upstate. He closed both Fulton in the Bronx and Arthur Kill Correctional Facility on Staten Island. Advocates were particularly stung by Fulton's closure because it was a work release facility. Converting Fulton Correctional is intended to give ex-cons a one-stop shop for all their needs close to their home communities.

Gaynes says her group plans to use all seven floors of the facility to provide a myriad of services to ex-convicts including temporary housing, job training and health care. It will also provide job opportunities in a full-scale kitchen with catering service and a green businesses incubator. The roof is expected to host beehives. Two of the floors will focus on temporary housing and another floor will be dedicated to more long-term housing for elderly former inmates.

Gaynes had to convince state officials that they would be better off providing these services and reducing recidivism rates rather than selling the property to a developer. Her pitch worked.

The Empire State Development Corporation granted Osborne $6.5 million for the project. Diaz Jr.'s office helped Osborne secure a $650,000 grant from the New York City Department of Citywide Administrative Services; the Bronx Delegation of the City Council allocated $50,000, and Councilmember Vanessa Gibson delivered $10,000 in city funding. The entire renovation is expected to cost $9.5 million, fundraising is ongoing.

"The next step is to hire an architect," said Gaynes. "Unfortunately we can't wait to build until we know exactly what is going to be here, but because it was a church, a synagogue, and YMCA before it was a work release center, we think it will fit our needs. I think we will end up with really something that is beautiful."

State Sen. Gustavo Rivera is particularly proud of the plan as he took it up as one of his first projects after being elected in 2011. He said he was quickly impressed by Oborne's proposal and thought it would be important for his district. "It will be great to be there and know I was involved from the start," Rivera said prior to Thursday's handover.

However, Rivera notes that there is still a lot of work ahead. He attended one of the community meetings hosted by Osborne and got a taste of just how involved the group wants Bronx residents to be. "We discussed the needs of the community. Housing. OK. Well what kind of housing? Classes? Well, what kind?" he recounted.

Perhaps most impressive, Rivera said, was that Osborne provided layouts of the building with movable labels to indicate where services could be provided.

Gaynes said she is a little concerned that she might not be able to meet all of the community expectations which have grown to include a pool. Swimming facilities or not, it is an ambitious project to be sure.

Even with the handover accomplished and plans for the facility underway Osborne hopes to find partners to actually run the supportive housing and other services.

Rivera said he hopes the State will continue to stay involved and support the project. "We will need to get the message out, work on funding for all these programs they want to offer. We aren't walking away from this now."

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Support Grows for New Veterans Department, Mayor Must Be Convinced

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Mayor de Blasio and MOVA Commissioner Sutton (photo: Mayor's Office)

A little over a month after Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed retired Army Brigadier General Loree Sutton as the new Commissioner of the Mayor's Office of Veterans Affairs (MOVA), she was called before the City Council to testify. In late September of last year, the committee was hearing a much-anticipated bill, Intro. 314, that would turn MOVA into its own department instead of a poorly-funded office under the mayor.

It is a plan advocates had been pushing for a while and they were eager to hear what the new commissioner would say regarding the legislation. But they didn't get much from Sutton that day - in her short testimony, she declined to take a position on the bill.

"Introduction 314 deserves all due consideration as we dedicate ourselves to the historic journey that lies ahead," Sutton said during her testimony on Sept. 29, 2014. "After completing my assessment and sharing my findings with Mayor de Blasio, I look forward to following up with the New York City Council Committee on Veterans to discuss this important proposal in further detail."

Sutton set out on a 90-day review of her department and several pieces of relevant legislation introduced by the Council, including Intro. 314; while also learning about the veterans community in New York City. Following the 90 days, which expired on Dec. 1, Sutton was to submit a report to de Blasio with recommendations. When asked by Gotham Gazette earlier this week, de Blasio said the report had been submitted, but he had not yet reviewed it.

Sutton's report has not been made public, so it is unclear if the commissioner recommended to back the bill. De Blasio said he thinks the intention behind the legislation is a good one, but still appears cool to the idea.

"I have never been convinced that turning an office into a department in any subject matter is really the way to get things done best," de Blasio said during a briefing with reporters on Tuesday. "I am certainly going to look at it. But my central question, which I will wait for more guidance from General Sutton on, is what is the best way to serve veterans?"

De Blasio may be lukewarm on the legislation, but nearly 30 council members feel Intro. 314 is the best way to serve veterans. It would allow the Council to hold preliminary and executive budget hearings on veterans issues and services, a move many feel could lead to more funding, as well as contracts being awarded to veteran service providers directly instead of through other city agencies unfamiliar with veterans groups.

"This bill will fundamentally change the city's capacity to meet the demand of a growing and diverse veterans' community," Council Member Eric Ulrich, chair of the Council's Veterans Committee said by email Wednesday. "Aside from the symbolic significance, it will allow for more funding to support VSOs and direct providers who serve veterans and their families."

The bill has been quietly gaining steam in the last several weeks and as of Tuesday Intro. 314 had 27 sponsors. That's enough to get it passed by the City Council and close to the magic number of 34 votes needed for a veto-proof majority of the Council's 51 members.

Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who actively supports veterans and veterans issues, has not added her name to the bill yet, but she is considering it.

"Anything we can do to really bolster that office to do its function and serve on behalf of our veterans is something I would seriously consider," Mark-Viverito said at a recent press conference. "We want to continue to help that agency, that division, to help function as strongly as it can. We will look at it aggressively and see if we can move forward."

The time for consideration, however, is becoming thin. The mayor must submit a preliminary budget by February 24 and a final Fiscal Year 2016 city budget must be passed by June 30. Funding for the new department would need to be included in the budget to avoid delays in setting up the department until the following budget cycle.

The Veterans Committee will next meet on February 10 to hear legislation that will reform the Veterans Advisory Board. While all five members of the committee are sponsors on Intro. 314, there is no scheduled vote for the bill.

With the backing of the majority of his fellow council members, Ulrich will continue to push for Intro. 314.

"It is something that should have been done years ago and it will be a game changer in how we help local vets and transitioning service members," Ulrich said.

by Kristen Meriwether, Gotham Gazette

Assembly Democrats Move to Oust Silver, Establish Replacement Plan

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Sheldon Silver (photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

On Monday, Feb. 2, New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver's 20-year reign as leader of the Assembly's Democratic majority is scheduled to come to an end. Albany, as many have come to define it, will be changed drastically without Silver's domineering grasp around the chamber's throat.

Silver has come to represent many things to many different people. He was vilified upstate as some sort golem of greed and corruption manifested to represent New York City; for others Silver was a champion of progressive causes who listened to the people. For still others Silver served as a symbol of all the corruption and detachment of the state capital, a hypocrite who stifled democratic conversation, smashed any inkling of opposition, and unceremoniously turned on members whose scandals were causing him too much trouble.

Now, he faces several federal corruption charges of bribery and kickbacks, which have finally led to his seemingly imminent ouster.

Rochester Assembly Member Joseph Morelle, who currently serves as majority leader, is scheduled to become interim speaker until a vote on Feb. 10, Democratic Assembly members determined on Tuesday. Good government groups have called for a "transparent" selection of a new leader. Some members insist they want to use the next two weeks to vet speaker candidates. The Assembly is already discussing a change to its rules so that the speaker serves at the leisure of the members, not a two-year term.

Silver told reporters on Tuesday that he will not resign his Assembly seat. "I will be a member of this house," Silver said. "I was elected by my constituents and I do not intend to resign my seat in this house. I believe very deeply in the institution. I hope they can have somebody here who can carry on the good work that has taken place." He also added, though, that he would not hinder a replacement process. In fact, he may very well vote on his replacement as an ordinary member of the Assembly.

Almost a full week into session the only "good work" the Assembly has officially done this year is to vote Silver in as speaker. That is something Assembly Republicans don't want anyone to forget. They paced back and forth on Monday waiting to see if session would happen. Republican Assembly Member Jim Tedisco carried around his "research" on how to remove a speaker. "This could really hurt budget negotiations," he said of the distraction and power shake-up.

Exactly who will succeed Silver in the long term is not clear, but jockeying for the position is intense with New York City-based Keith Wright of Manhattan, Carl Heastie of the Bronx, Cathy Nolan of Queens, and Joe Lentol from Brooklyn all appearing to be actively campaigning for the position. They, or whichever emerge as frontrunners before Feb. 10, will have to overcome Morelle.

Wright faces opposition from members who are annoyed by his ties to Gov. Andrew Cuomo - the governor named Wright a co-chair of the state Democratic Party in 2012. Carl Heastie is thought to be the leader at the moment and has hired two veteran aides to help his effort, though he is thought to carry baggage from his duty as Bronx County Democratic Chair and issues related to his campaign spending.

Other members have begun to focus on reforming the speakership with term limits and other changes that will allow individual members more control over what bills come to the floor. Under Silver, the Assembly has become notoriously autocratic.

Labor unions, lobbyists and elected officials from across the state are all weighing in on the process. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio appears to be backing Heastie despite comments he made to the press on Tuesday.

"I'm not talking to Assembly members at all," de Blasio said. "We're trying to keep abreast of what's happening because we have a lot of things that really matter to us, like the budget and a lot of other things. We're trying to stay close to what's happening so that we are able to act on the substance of the situation."

De Blasio made it clear, though, that he sees it as essential that the next speaker is also from New York City. "I think it is crucially important to New York City to have leadership in the Assembly that wants to be fair to New York City - and let's be clear, we often don't get our fair share from state government," de Blasio said.

On Monday Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. issued a statement insisting just that. Many city legislators from both houses agree with Diaz being that the Senate is controlled by Republicans who mostly hail from the suburbs and upstate and "Cuomo is Cuomo," as one legislator put it.

But Diaz has a specific city-based speaker in mind. He has long allied with Heastie who is also the Bronx County party chair. A number of lawmakers close to the pair say they have shared a dream of Heastie becoming speaker and Diaz becoming mayor.

Silver's colleagues met in closed door meetings on Monday and Tuesday rather than holding scheduled legislative session and debated what to do about their embattled speaker. Last week, when Silver was first arrested some members jumped to his defense claiming he faced "flimsy charges." Some went as far as to suggest there was a conspiracy against Silver.

Members emerged from their first conference last week having decided to back Silver - without having read the charges against him and with his chief of staff in the room. The unity began to crumble over the weekend as editorial pages slammed Silver and the members who were so willing to defend him. The only Assembly Democrat to call for his resignation was Charles Barron, who has long been outspoken had had no help from Silver in his election.

On Monday legislators met for five hours behind closed doors with Assembly staffers pushing reporters further and further back from the meeting. Members debated Silver's proposal that he temporarily cede power to five colleagues until he was cleared of his charges. Eventually that proposal was disregarded and members appeared to announce that they had agreed that Silver should step down as speaker.

"I and other members of the conference expressed the idea that the speaker can no longer serve as the speaker and he must resign," said Assembly Member Brian Kavanagh, who met with a breakaway faction of young legislators during the day and had been set to make an announcement that was nixed by Silver's arrival.

Silver left the capitol seemingly defiant, declaring "I am the speaker."

Members met again for hours behind closed doors on Tuesday without Silver. They finally emerged appearing to have Silver's agreement to resign the speakership - though his comments indicated otherwise. The Assembly members indicated that if he did not resign by Monday they would move to formally remove him.

Despite being known for protecting his members, in recent years Silver was forced to become more reactive to protect his own image. It was only May of 2013 when Silver led an effort to boot entrenched Bronx Assembly Member Vito Lopez from his seat. Lopez faced a number of sexual harassment charges from interns - some of the cases were settled in secret with state money at the behest of Silver. It wasn't until new victims came forward that the old cases were revealed and Silver began to feel the political blowback. Silver faced calls to resign from editorial boards, women's groups, and politicians, but he survived partly by focusing on punishing Lopez.

Silver stripped Lopez of his committee chair and staff and launched ethics probes. Lopez announced in May that year that he would resign from the Assembly at the end of the session and run for City Council (a race which he lost). Advocates were outraged - feeling the pressure, Silver drafted a resolution to vote Lopez out of the chamber and Lopez resigned before the vote. Silver went on to pressure Assembly members Micah Kellner and Dennis Gabryszak to resign after they faced sexual harassment accusations.

The Assembly has lagged behind most government organizations in transparency for years. The Senate, which has been notoriously opaque in its legislative practices, have a website that allows users to search for detailed legislative information and watch session live. The Assembly website has only recently come close to catching up. 

A number of legislators said privately that they maintained public support for Silver because of the issues he represents and his negotiating power. He was expected to be the Democratic counterweight to Cuomo's education reform plans, push for a higher minimum wage, and ally himself closely with de Blasio's agenda. Silver, however, hasn't always delivered for the city. In 2008, without much explanation, he killed a push to enact congestion pricing in New York City.

In 2009, after Senate Democrats took control of that chamber after four decades in the minority the absurdly decadent infrastructure implemented by long-ruling Sen. Joseph Bruno was revealed. From a fully-staffed printing plant to a TV station used exclusively by Republican candidates to record campaign ads, the GMC van outfitted with captain's chairs and a meeting table known as the "Brunomobile," it was clear to everyone that it had been good to be the king. Sources indicate that Assembly Democrats are eager to keep their demons in the closet. Silver is reportedly negotiating to protect the jobs of his long-term staffers.

However, Assembly Democrats won't be able to control how much damage Silver's fall does to their reputations. Some insiders theorize that with Silver removed from power he might be more inclined to share the Assembly's dark secrets with the U.S. Attorney prosecuting him (U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, whose office is also performing ongoing investigations of other Albany-related matters that are yet to be made clear).

On Monday as legislators began to gather to discuss Silver's future, Assembly Members Wright, Deborah Glick, and Barron waited for one of the Capitol's ornate elevator cars to arrive. A sign on one door read "Out of service." As the wait grew longer someone in the legislators' entourages joked, "Shelly's out and the elevators aren't working already."

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Oddo as BP: Less Pomp, More Circumstance


SI BP Oddo (left, foreground) with constituents (photo: BP's office)

STATEN ISLAND - Borough President James Oddo is on a mission to make local government more relevant to Staten Islanders. Rather than give a speech about his first 13 months on the job and the year ahead, Oddo opened up his office to residents on Sunday afternoon for handshakes, hugs, and information on what borough hall can do for them.

"There's a certain level of apathy that Staten Island has been known for. People just don't want to interact [with government] and we want to change that. We try to change it every day," said Oddo.

So, instead of giving a State of the Borough address, Oddo, a Republican, did something far more interactive: yesterday, he hosted "DIrect Connect Sunday" at Staten Island Borough Hall. It is one indication of Oddo's attempt to focus his borough presidency, now in its second year, on constituent services.

Many of the nearly 350 people who attended had never been past the 109-year-old building's lobby. On Sunday they explored the restored marble halls, looked at New Deal-era murals depicting the island's history, and learned more about the topography department's vault of more than 4,000 maps dating back to the 1700s. The key to the event, though, was the more current information Oddo and his staff were providing: display boards and personnel were on hand to showcase the island's current challenges and how the borough president plans to fix them. Oddo and his delegates were also there to listen.

"This is a big deal, because he doesn't have to do this," said John Healey, an accountant from Oakwood.

Visitors included the island's official NASA ambassador, an American Baptist minister, representatives of the 9/11 Flag Football League, a young boy from the Little Dolphin School, and many more.

Those who knew Oddo as minority leader in the City Council, or member of a local community board before that, said this type of accessibility is normal. The borough president is active on social media and his secretary said he responds to people with handwritten letters.

"He's such a good guy. Nothing he wouldn't do for you," said Mario Rapaglia, owner of Bario's Caterers. Rapaglia recently lost 50 pounds and Oddo excitedly complimented him on his trim jawline.

As borough president, Oddo has been using his gregarious nature to get more people engaged and make them rethink stagnant perceptions about their community. Turning around old feelings of neglect may be difficult, but he claims to be up to the task. A bust of Superman tearing open his dress shirt to go save the day sits on Oddo's wooden conference table and may serve as encouragement.

"We love to wallow in 'the forgotten borough' and we too often highlight the shortcomings that we have," Oddo said of Staten Islanders. "I am more keenly aware of our challenges than anyone, and we have them just like any other community, but we also have lots of great things."

One of Staten Island's biggest challenges is the health of its residents. In addition to some of the city's highest rates of obesity, smoking, cancer, mortality, and heart disease, the island is in the midst of a prescription drug and heroin abuse epidemic. According to Rose Kerr, Oddo's director of education, there are only 12 substance abuse counselors serving the island's 70 schools. Oddo has started many health initiatives, but the problems are too large to be fixed quickly. Kerr said the work needs to start at home.

"The families really need to know that this is a serious issue, whether it's in their backyard or somebody else's," she said.

Despite these issues, Oddo said Staten Islanders have a lot to be proud of. Once completed, Freshkills Park will be three times the size of Central Park and is expected to attract people from far beyond the city. Tech companies have begun scoping out the island for development and the North Shore will soon feature the world's largest ferris wheel, along with a new outlet mall.

Of course, any future waterfront development will be tinged with the bad memories and ongoing recovery from Superstorm Sandy. While Oddo said he's cautiously optimistic about Mayor Bill de Blasio's plans, the rebuilding process is taking far too long. He blames much of this on poor decisions made immediately after the storm and an overly complicated bureaucracy created by the Bloomberg administration.

"The results don't reflect the amount of energy we've all put into it, and until the results do none of us should be thankful or satisfied with anything that's happened," he said.

Though he's one of the few Republicans in local government, Oddo is open to ideas from all sides. He fondly recalls a strong working relationship with former City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, a Democrat, and the books on display in his office include authors ranging from David Plouffe to Rudy Giuliani.

Oddo said he also has strong ties to all of his fellow borough presidents. Inspired by a recent wall ball challenge between Eric Adams and Ruben Diaz Jr., Oddo may soon reignite a sports rivalry of his own. Former Borough Presidents Marty Markowitz, of Brooklyn, and James Molinaro, of Staten Island, used to compete over which of their local baseball teams won more games. The victor got to keep the Borough Cup, a trophy shaped like the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, for a year. The competition was forgotten, but Oddo may look to start it up again this summer.

[Related: our look at Queens BP Melinda Katz's State of the Borough speech]

Until then, he has more serious matters to handle. Without a congressman, and potentially soon without an Assembly speaker that can bring as much money into the city, Staten Islanders will need more of a voice than ever.

Oddo has remained mostly neutral in recent political dramas. Mayor de Blasio, on the other hand, has come out strongly against former Rep. Michael Grimm while backing Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

"Individual elected officials should say or not say what they feel, but if they do say, they should be consistent every time they say. I don't engage in that. I didn't engage in it with Republican Grimm, I'm not gonna engage in it with Democrat Silver," said Oddo.

While Oddo wouldn't get any more specific than that, he made it clear that his long term priorities haven't changed.

"Eventually there will be a new speaker and we as Staten Island electeds will have the same mission we had in the previous iterations, and that is to get the rest of government to treat us fairly."

[This article is part of our ongoing 'State Of's series in which we're reporting on early 2015 assessments and initiatives by a variety of elected officials, from the President to the Governor, Mayor, and Borough Presidents]

by Cole Rosengren, Gotham Gazette

The Week Ahead in New York Politics, January 26

New York City Hall

New York City Hall

What to watch for this week in New York politics:

As this week begins, we're watching the following storylines, with others sure to emerge (oh, and if you haven't heard, there's some snow coming - please keep in mind that any events listed below are subject to cancellation!):

  • The latest in the Sheldon Silver saga, which will cast a cloud over this year's Albany legislative session. Silver announced on Sunday evening that he is (temporarily) ceding power to a quintet of Democratic Assembly members. The Assembly is back in session on Monday (Silver is expected to be there) and joint budget hearings begin this week (and last about a month) as lawmakers analyze Gov. Andrew Cuomo's FY2016 proposals, which he outlined this past Wednesday.
  • De Blasio starts his week dealing with the impending snow storm - expect updates from the mayor (and from Governor Cuomo throughout the first couple of days of the week - and also expect plenty of scrutiny of how the de Blasio administration handles the storm).
  • Comptroller Scott Stringer begins his week with an appearance at ABNY in the morning (details below) and then on NY1's Inside City Hall and Al Jazeera's "Real Money with Ali Veshi." 
  • In the meantime, we're also watching to see if there's movement in the relationship between de Blasio and the police unions - things seem to be thawing a bit in this cold war. And, will there be further criminal justice reform protest?
  • Who will the Democrats field in the race to replace Michael Grimm as the rep from New York's 11th Congressional District? Will Gov. Cuomo set a date for a special election? The Republicans have already chosen to field Staten Island District Attorney Dan Donovan as their candidate. Arguments in the case pursuing more info from the Pantaleo grand jury will begin in court on Thursday of this week.

 More to be aware of:

  • Deadlines for applying to community boards are looming in the next week or two - consult your borough president's office for details.
  • The City Council application process for discretionary funding from council members in the next fiscal year is ongoing. Consult the City Council or your local council member for more info.

As always, there's a great deal happening at the City Council and all over the city, with many events to be aware of. The week ahead in more detail below...

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

Monday - please note that Monday evening and Tuesday events are very much subject to cancellation due to the snowstorm
Monday morning, the Association for a Better New York (ABNY) will host New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer for a breakfast discussion of his "first year in office," and his "vision for building a city of shared prosperity and economic growth." [Read our report on Stringer's first year as Comptroller, including an interview with Stringer and other experts, such as former Comptroller John Liu]

As we mentioned, the Assembly is back in session on Monday (and Tuesday). So is the State Senate.

Monday's City Council schedule consists of the Committee on Courts and Legal Services meeting jointly with the Committee on Public Safety for an oversight hearing to examine "how the City Evaluates the Effectiveness of the Provision of Indigent Defense."

Monday afternoon, Council Member Ben Kallos, in association with the City's Department of Health, will host "Safer Sex Seminar for Seniors" at the Stanley Isaacs Neighborhood Center.

*There have already been a variety of Monday evening events cancelled - be on the watch for Tuesday cancellations as well!

(Side note: Monday's a week from Groundhog Day, so watch out for lots of talk about the passing of the groundhog Mayor de Blasio mishandled last year)

Tuesday - be aware it is likely that all Tuesday events below are cancelled/postponed due to the weather!

On Tuesday, the City Council's schedule *was* set to include a meeting of the Committee on Education for an oversight hearing regarding "overcrowding in NYC Public Schools"; a meeting of the Committee on Recovery and Resiliency jointly with the Committee on Fire and Criminal Justice Services for oversight "Examining the City's Enhanced Emergency Response Plans post Superstorm Sandy"; a meeting of the Committee on Higher Education regarding a bill relating to "Information and city services to reduce college sexual assault"; and a meeting of the Committee on Economic Development for an oversight hearing regarding "economic development in Sunset Park." [Read our preview of this hearing and its controversial backstory]

Joint Legislative Budget hearings commence on Tuesday, Jan 27 in Albany. Tuesday's hearing will concern "Local Government Officials/General Government."

Tuesday morning, the Assembly Standing Committee on Tourism, Parks, Arts and Sports Development, will convene for an oversight hearing in Albany "to review the implementation of the State Budget and its impact on the programs under the purview of the Committee on Tourism, Parks, Arts and Sports Development."

The New School's Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy, will host an all-day conference, "Disaster Recovery & Resilience: The Tips, Techniques and Best Practices for Public and Private Organizations" - "a full-day program drawing upon the lessons learned from the World Trade Center, Hurricane Sandy and other occurrences."

NYCEDC Nonprofit Capacity Building Workshop: "This will be a full-day training made up of four modules, each approximately one hour."

On Tuesday evening, Brooklyn Independent Media will present a live broadcast of their next community town hall event: "Brooklyn for Sale: The Price of Gentrification." Comptroller Stringer is set to deliver opening remarks and the event will feature Council Member Robert Cornegy, among other panelists moderated by BRIC's Brian Vines; 7:00 p.m. BRIC House Ballroom.

Wednesday's City Council schedule will include a meeting of the Committee on Sanitation and Solid Waste Management regarding a bill aimed at "Reducing permitted capacity at putrescible and non-putrescible solid waste transfer stations in overburdened districts"; the Committee on Transportation will meet jointly with the Committee on Aging and the Committee on Mental Health, Developmental Disability, Alcoholism, Substance Abuse and Disability Services, for an oversight hearing on "How Access-A-Ride Serves the City's Seniors and People with Disabilities"; a meeting of the Committee on Consumer Affairs to oversee "Education and Outreach on Financial Literacy for Young Adults," and to discuss a bill aimed at targeting "young adults with outreach and education regarding consumer protection issues."

State Senate public safety hearings commence: The Senate Standing Committee on Crime Victims, Crime and Correction will meet jointly with the Senate Standing Committee on Civil Service and Pensions, the Senate Standing Committee on Investigations and Government Operations, and the Senate Standing Committee on Codes; to examine "police safety and public protection in New York City."

There will be a Wednesday Joint Legislative Budget Hearing in Albany on Environmental Conservation.

On Wednesday, Manhattan BP Gale Brewer will attend the groundbreaking ceremony for the first academic building of phase 1 of the Cornell Tech Roosevelt Island Campus.

"Prospects for Election Reform in the Digital Age: One Year after the Presidential Commission on Election Administration," Wednesday evening at New York Law School: "Robert Bauer, Partner, Perkins Coie LLP, former Co-Chair of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration and former White House Counsel, Michael Ryan '95, Executive Director, New York City Board of Elections, and David Becker, Director, Election Initiatives, The Pew Charitable Trusts discuss the impact of technology on the voting process. Anthony W. Crowell, Dean and President of New York Law School, moderates the discussion."

Wednesday evening is also the "Riders Alliance Citywide Membership Meeting" - "We'll meet together with other Riders Alliance members and friends, eat dumplings, and strategize for a year of progress toward better public transit for all New Yorkers."

Thursday's City Council schedule will include a meeting of the Committee on Housing and Buildings for an oversight hearing on "A Review of the 421-a Tax Benefit Program"; a meeting of the Committee on Parks and Recreation to review "the Annual report on non-governmental funding for NYC parks"; and a meeting of the Committee on Cultural Affairs, Libraries, and International Intergroup Relations regarding a bill in relation to "cultural liaisons."

Thursday's Joint Legislative Hearing in Albany will focus on transportation.

Thursday evening will see a "Public Meeting of the Contracts Committee of the Panel for Educational Policy" at Tweed.

City Council Member Costa Constantinides will give his State of the District address on Thursday evening in Woodside, Queens: "All are invited to join me as I give my State of the District address and discuss our upcoming priorities. I'll examine the successes of our neighborhood and my vision for our community."

According to Public Advocate Letitia James, "New York State Supreme Court Justice William Garnett will hear oral arguments in the Garner case on January 29th. The Public Advocate will continue to work to bring police and communities together and increase transparency and accountability in our justice system."

Friday and the weekend
Friday's City Council schedule is a meeting of the Committee on Juvenile Justice for an oversight hearing, "overview of the Division of Youth and Family Justice's services and programs for remanded youth."

Manhattan Community Board application deadline is January 30th (Friday); Brooklyn's is the 31st (Saturday).

The City's Department of Consumer Affairs is organizing "Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) Awareness Day Phonathon" for Saturday, with several events throughout the city.

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

by Rati Mukhuradze and Ben Max

2015 'State Of's the Union, State, City & Boroughs

cuomo sots

Gov. Cuomo giving his State of the State speech (@NYGovCuomo)

As politics and governing get going in 2015, we're following elected leaders as they give their "state of" speeches, in which they typically give their assessments of the current, well, state of their domain, along with an agenda for the year ahead. Our "state of" coverage:

State of the Union (Tues 1/20)

State of the State (Wed 1/21)

State of the City

States of the Boroughs


Albany Power Dynamics Allow Immense Power, Little Reform


Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (photo: @NYSA_Majority)

In Albany, that old saying that absolute power corrupts absolutely appears to be holding true as yet another high-profile legislative leader is facing federal corruption charges.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, has been at the table for agreement on just about all the major legislation that has become New York State law since 1994 and his name is inextricably linked with the state capital. On Thursday, he was arrested after turning himself in to federal authorities in Manhattan after being charged with five counts including corruption, conspiracy, and fraud, and for using his public office in a scheme to receive $4 million in bribes and kickbacks. He faces up to 20 years in prison for each charge.

Silver is innocent until proven guilty, of course, and has declared that he "will be vindicated," but it appears to many New Yorkers, yet again, that the fox has been running the hen house.

"Politicians are supposed to be on the people's payroll, not on secret retainer to wealthy special interests they do favors for," U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said Thursday while announcing the charges against Silver.

"These charges, in our view, go to the very core of what ails Albany: the lack of transparency, lack of accountability, and lack of principle joined with an overabundance of greed, cronyism and self-dealing," Bharara continued.

The problems Bharara refers to have, for some, no greater manifestation than the way in which virtually all major decisions in Albany are made: with three men in a room.

For decades, Silver has been one of those three men. And for decades, the three men, including whomever Silver has been accompanied by, have dragged their feet on ethics reforms - even while legislator after legislator has been indicted.

Despite the fact that New Yorkers across the state elect 63 Senators and and 150 Assembly Members, all major policy that is decided in Albany gets filtered through and approved by what is usually three men in a room. Lately the formula changed as the Independent Democrats' Jeff Klein has also had a seat at the table. But normally there are three men: the governor and the speaker of each house of the Legislature. Silver has been the Assembly's representative since he was elected speaker in 1994 and he has grown immensely powerful in that position, leading what continues to be a heavily Democratic body.

It is this traditional Albany power structure and Silver's ability to control his members that have presided over minimal changes to the state's good government laws. There have been some updates to those laws, though.

"Its ironic, Silver supported the 2011 ethics law that required for the first time public disclosure of outside income and led to his trip up today," said Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, a good government group.

Although, Silver's outside income as an attorney has been a hot topic for years, no law required he disclose it until 2011 when Gov. Andrew Cuomo reached an ethics reform deal with legislators. The deal required major electeds and state officials to file outside income disclosures that gave the source and range of their incomes but did not require lawyers to disclose the names of their clients. Flags were raised earlier this year when The New York Times reported that Silver had failed to disclose income from a private practice and another law firm.

"For many years, New Yorkers have asked the question: How could Speaker Silver, one of the most powerful men in all of New York, earn millions of dollars in outside income without deeply compromising his ability to honestly serve his constituents?" U.S. Attorney Bharara said on Thursday. "Today we provided the answer. He didn't."

Silver is accused of pressuring real estate firms with business in front of the State to hire one of two law firms that would then give him a kickback. He is also accused of steering $500,000 in state funds to a doctor who referred patients with asbestos to a Silver-affiliated law firm.

Make no mistake, Silver isn't the only powerful New York State legislative leader to be indicted in recent years. No, five former or current leaders have been indicted since 2000. They include former Republican Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, former Democratic Conference Leader John Sampson, Former Majority Leader Pedro Espada, and Former Democratic Majority Leader Malcolm Smith.

While Silver's immense power is undeniable, Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) says it would be unfair to blame Silver for the watered down ethics reforms Albany has seen over the years or the failure to pass major reform of the campaign finance system. Why? Because there are two other similarly powerful men at the negotiating table.

"It is a political game of Clue," said Horner. "Was it Silver and Colonel Mustard in the dining room with the candlestick?"

Horner said blaming Silver for Albany's ethics morass ignores the obvious flaws in the system.

"The three men in a room, powerful leadership model in New York is a real issue. The governor is extremely powerful in New York so it isn't surprising the Legislature has given itself a strong leader," said Horner. "But the three-men formula makes it extremely hard to see what is really going on in policy negotiations. That secrecy combined with the nonexistent state enforcement and reform efforts that are designed to fail are what is driving the problem."

Both houses of the Legislature sued Gov. Cuomo's Moreland Commission on Public Corruption to stop subpoenas seeking information on the outside income of legislators who make more than $20,000 a year. Cuomo had very clearly stated that he would empanel the commission if the Legislature failed to agree to a number of his ethics reform proposals that he issued after it was revealed one legislator had worn a wire for the FBI, taping her colleagues in an attempt to avoid jail time for a corruption charge.

In a letter to his conference, Silver explained why he was taking legal action: "One or more of the Commissioners have said publicly that the purpose of the Commission is to 'investigate the Legislature.' As well, numerous statements have been made that the reason for the investigation is because the Legislature did not enact proposed 'reform' legislation," he wrote. "One thing is certain: it is an improper and illegal use of Executive authority for appointees of that branch of government to 'investigate the Legislature' merely because the Commissioners would like to compel passage of proposed legislation."

Silver wasn't the only leader making more than $20,000 in outside income--both Republican Leader Dean Skelos and Klein of the IDC also work at law firms and have reported significant outside income.

Dadey of Citizens Union said that federal charges being brought against Silver "shows why Moreland was succeeding at its job."

Bharara is reportedly looking into the Cuomo administration's interference with that commission, as members of Moreland contend that Cuomo staffers tried to kill subpoenas that targeted groups close to Cuomo, such as those tied to the real estate industry. Advocates have questioned whether Cuomo really wants major reform as he is the chief beneficiary of the current campaign finance system and his policy decisions appear to benefit a number of his largest donors.

Bharara made reference to Moreland on Thursday. "But a deal was cut that cut off the commission's work, to the great relief of Sheldon Silver, who furiously fought its subpoenas and urged the commission's early shutdown," he said. "Moreland was made to close its doors after only nine months, its work barely begun, and while litigation over those subpoenas about Sheldon Silver's outside income was still pending before a state judge."

Before wrapping up his presentation, Bharara told reporters to "stay tuned" as his investigations continue.

Meanwhile, Horner said he isn't surprised that Assembly Democrats have yet to condemn Silver. "They are just learning about the charges and he is innocent until proven guilty," he said.

Lobbyists and other insiders point out that Silver has gone out of his way as leader to protect his members from scandal. Silver was roundly criticized for quietly paying a settlement to interns who accused former Assembly Member Vito Lopez of sexual harassment. But one legislator told Gotham Gazette, "They see that as him going to bat for their conference. They see that as him taking the burden on his shoulders to protect them."

Leaders of the legislative houses in Albany are granted immense power by their chambers. On Thursday, as word of Silver's arrest spread through Albany, Assembly Democrats either declined to speak to the press or said they supported Silver.

After cancelling Thursday's scheduled legislative session and conferencing, Democratic members said they voted to support Silver without even reading the charges against him. For decades Silver has fought behind the scenes to protect members while bringing home cash to individual members' districts, fighting for their pet projects and deciding whether their bills live or die. Silver is the end-all for Assembly Democrats--he is all just about any of them have ever known as a leader.

The phrase "he knows where the bodies are buried" became strikingly commonplace at the Capitol on Thursday as some wondered whether Silver might be interested in sharing some of his secrets in an effort to make a more palatable deal for himself.

Complicating matters immensely and bringing it back to the significance of the three men in a room model, Silver is also the counterweight to the Senate Republicans and to Cuomo's fiscal policies. The assembly speaker is a champion to teachers unions and has pushed The DREAM Act, public financing of campaigns, and other progressive measures. All are among the reasons why his Democratic members, with the lone exception of Charles Barron, continue to support him and why Democrats in New York City, such as Mayor Bill de Blasio, were also non-critical in response to his arrest.

In other words, as long as he is not forced to resign due to a guilty plea or conviction, Silver is the Democrats' best hope for favorable policies coming out of that room.

Horner said he hopes the recent scandal will lead to a push for reform. "This isn't outside good government groups calling for change, or a scandal involving a backbencher," said Horner. "This is the guy at the center of everything and there is no ignoring it. Of course muscle memory will be for them to continue along as though they aren't the center of controversy. Maybe it will take more indictments from Bharara to change that."

Dadey said that there couldn't be a bigger impetus for action. "What better example could there be of the need for better disclosure, better ethics laws, and campaign finance reform? If not now, when?" he said.

Cuomo dedicated only a few brief words to reform in his State of the State speech on Wednesday. The governor called for campaign finance reform and a pay raise commission that would offer one level of pay to full-time legislators and another to those with outside income. He also suggested capping lawmakers outside pay. Legislators balked at the idea. Silver was expected to lead the charge against it.

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

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

Katz Shares Vision for 'World's Borough' with Her 'Queens Family'

bp katz sotb

Queens BP Katz delivers her SOTB speech (photo: @FlushingTwnHall)

QUEENS - "If it's good for families, it's good for Queens," said Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, repeating the phrase that she said guides her policies at Borough Hall. Katz spoke to a packed Colden Auditorium at Queens College on Thursday, marking her 387th day in office with her first State of the Borough address.

Katz recapped her first year as Queens borough president while expanding on her vision for 2015. Like each of the other borough presidents in New York City, Katz has quite a bit of room for defining the role, which is less powerful than it was a few decades ago, but still allows for quite a bit of creativity, policy-making, and impact.

Among her accomplishments last year, Katz highlighted the overhaul of the Queens Library Board of Trustees after financial impropriety came to light by then CEO Tom Galante. "Sunlight is the best disinfectant," she said at Thursday's speech, reiterating a statement she made on the need for the change in leadership. Katz also discussed being instrumental in the World's Fair Anniversary Committee, which organized cultural events last year to celebrate the 1964 and 1939 World's Fairs. She also worked with the mayor and City Council to raise funds for the renovation of the New York State Pavilion in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, she said.

For 2015, Katz outlined a big vision. She stressed her theme for the speech, calling Queens "The World's Borough," a moniker recently given added credence by popular travel publication, The Lonely Planet, which named Queens the top travel destination in the United States for 2015. Stepping up to the dais, Katz greeted the audience in a number of languages, including Hindi, Mandarin, French and Spanish.

"Being borough president is more than a job for me. It's a passion," said Katz as she emphasized her strong family connections with the borough and the motivations behind her work, chiefly her young sons who she said keep her grounded.

"My parents believed that Queens held all the elements of any great city and that no one should have to cross a bridge or go through a tunnel to get great arts, culture, fine dining and great neighborhoods," she said, stressing the cultural diversity of the 2.2 million residents of the borough, nearly half of whom were born outside the United States.

Katz's priorities for the new year are nothing short of ambitious. A top item on her list is tackling the overcrowding of schools in Queens, an issue she has brought up before. "We need to get our students out of trailers and into classrooms," she said, referring to temporary trailers set up at numerous overcrowded public schools. She criticized the complicated system of new education standards the state has adopted. "It's not a common core," she said. "It's a common problem." Pre-K was also on the list as she called for volunteer organizations to help with hosting pre-K programs - Queens enrollment is expected to quadruple over the next year.

This year will not be without its challenges, as Katz explained her office will be working on a number of formidable causes, including affordable housing. She urged the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) to create 2,500 public housing units in the borough this year, up from the originally proposed 750. She called for increasing emergency rooms in the borough and creation of a permanent Rockaway ferry service. But she also took the time to praise the work of the 700 Queens residents working on local Community Boards, stating her outright opposition to term limits on Community Board members.

Among the lighter moments of the speech was Katz's announcement of an annual Queens Day to celebrate the borough's cultural diversity. Referring to a few travel publications, Katz said, "They all agree that Queens is hot and on the move. Sorry Eric!," a cordial joke aimed at Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, who was in attendance.

The speech was also attended by many elected officials including New York State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, City Comptroller Scott Stringer, Public Advocate Letitia James, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and many other council members, Queens District Attorney Richard Brown, and newly-inaugurated State Senator Leroy Comrie, who was a deputy Queens borough president before his election.

Katz honored the late former Gov. Mario Cuomo, who called Queens home, and NYPD Detectives Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu with a moment of silence.

[This is part of our 'State Of's series wherein we're reporting on so-named speeches by a variety of elected officials, from the President to the Governor, the Mayor, the City Council Speaker, and the Broough Presidents - visit the landing page here]

by Samar Khurshid, Gotham Gazette

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