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‘Zombie’ Charter School Agreement Rests on Interpretation of Ambiguous Law


de blasio law interpretation

(photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayor's Office)


A much talked-about provision of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s 13th-hour deal to have his control over city schools extended was the agreement that 22 revoked or surrendered charter school charters could be reissued without counting towards the predetermined state cap on the number of charter schools.

In exchange for a two-year extension of mayoral control of city schools, de Blasio agreed to a series of charter school-friendly administrative maneuvers, including the “zombie” charter provision, as well as others around rental reimbursements and school space allocations. The mayor made the deal with state Senate Republicans, Governor Andrew Cuomo, and their charter sector allies.

What has not been widely noted is that language added to the state Education Law at the end of the 2015 Albany legislative session already allowed exactly 22 charters that had been “surrendered, revoked or terminated” on or before July 1, 2015, to be reissued, raising the question of why it was necessary to clarify that point at all.

The answer might lie around the ambiguity of the language. The law states that “such reissuance shall not be counted toward the statewide numerical limit” – the cap of 460 charters – but makes no mention of the separate limit of 50 charters issued after July 1, 2015, for cities of one million or more people, a criteria only New York City fits.

The mention of the state cap and omission of the city cap could be understood as affirming that charters which were revoked and then reissued in the city would continue to count towards that predetermined ceiling of 50, of which there are now 23 remaining aside from the defunct “zombie” charters. It seems that the mayoral administration’s concession was not to read the law that way.

In a brief phone conversation, Department of Education (DOE) spokesperson Toya Holness said Monday that the administration “agreed not to challenge the way [the law] was being interpreted,” but declined to offer examples of potential alternative interpretations.

Scott Reif, a spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, said that it was the Senate Republican majority’s “position that those 22 ‘zombie’ charters shouldn’t be counted towards any kind of cap.”

In essence, state authorizers issues the charters that allow applying entities to open charter schools, but for one reason or another some are revoked or the schools close down, leaving the question of whether those charter slots under either of the two caps are newly available.

Wrangling over the status of revoked charters has been going on for years; in 2010, before the law was changed to include specific directives on reissuing charters, an Assembly bill introduced by charter-friendly Democrats tried to establish that “that revoked charters will no longer count against the cap,” according to its summary. It didn’t pass at the time.

The reissuable charters won’t be separately marked, but simply added the available pool of charters under the cap, which now appears to stand at 45 for New York City, where 216 charter schools currently operate. Potential schools hoping to secure a charter must follow the normal application procedures through state authorizers -- New York City’s Mayor and Department of Education actually have very little control related to charter schools, less so given changes to the laws ushered in by Senate Republicans and Cuomo after de Blasio, a longtime charter foe, took office in 2014. Senate Republicans and Cuomo are supportive of charters and well-funded by charter allies, while de Blasio and state Assembly Democrats are close with and funded by teachers unions, who see largely non-unionized charters as anathema to their survival.

It is not clear why the law was amended to permit specifically 22 reissuances, nor who exactly included the language. It was part of the 72-page end-of-session bill passed on June 25, 2015 that includes a wide variety of measures.

Even if the de Blasio administration stands down from challenging the charter stipulation, the lack of legal clarity means that another entity could. Public school advocates and teachers unions in particular have been consistent opponents of charter school expansion, and have been willing to use legal tools to stop it.

In 2013, the United Federation of Teachers filed a lawsuit against the DOE to try to stop it from offering space to charter schools in existing city public schools; the suit was eventually dismissed by a judge. The UFT, which is largely allied with de Blasio, did not return a request for comment about whether it would challenge the agreed upon interpretation of the charter school law.

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by Felipe De La Hoz, Gotham Gazette
     

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The Week Ahead in New York Politics, July 10


New York City Hall

New York City Hall


What to watch for this week in New York politics:

Mayor Bill de Blasio was due back in New York City on Sunday after a trip to Germany, where he spoke at the “Hamburg Zeigt Haltung” protest rally in support of democratic values outside the G20 summit of world leaders, along with several other appearances and meetings the mayor took part in. De Blasio, who left the city Thursday evening, was criticized for giving little advanced notice of his travel plans to the press or the public, for leaving town soon after the murder of NYPD Officer Miosotis Familia, and for continuing to take trips outside New York that don’t appear to have a clear purpose in terms of helping the city.

De Blasio said he only fully accepted the offer to speak at the rally when he learned that services for Familia wouldn’t be held until the beginning of this week (the wake for Familia will be Monday, the funeral Tuesday) and that it is essential that cities and their leaders take action in the face of the Trump administration and other global forces, on issues like climate change, health care, immigration, and more.

De Blasio is likely to have a busy week back in the city after a quiet one last week that included the July 4th holiday and the trip to Germany. (The week after this week (July 17-21) the mayor and his team will be holding "City Hall in Your Borough" in Queens, the third stop on that five-borough tour.)

It's a very quiet summer week at The City Council, and the state Legislature is not in session the rest of the calendar year, though there are some legislative hearings, like one happening this week. It's unclear if Governor Andrew Cuomo will be active this week.

As always, there are several political events to be aware of this week - see our day-by-day rundown below. And, with city election season in full swing, there will no doubt be a variety of campaign events by different candidates as the week progresses.

***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: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.***

The run of the week in detail:

Monday
As mentioned, Monday will see the wake for murdered NYPD Officer Familia. Mayor de Blasio will pay his respects in the evening.

On Monday at 10:30 a.m., Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul will make an announcement at Graycliff Estate in Derby.

On Monday “at 3:00 PM, Brooklyn Borough President Eric L. Adams will honor a diverse array of Brooklynites as his latest “Heroes of the Month,” highlighted by 19-year-old Mark Kindschuh of Bay Ridge, a college student who saved a man fighting for his life amid a June terror attack in London. Other honorees include NYPD Officer Numael Amador, whose anonymous tip while off duty led to an arrest in the case of the violent attack on Bedford-Stuyvesant cyclist Domingo Tapia; animal activist Anne Levin, who saved an injured cat huddled on the side of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, and high schooler Alina Estrella, who started a community campaign to revitalize Rainbow Playground in Sunset Park.”

Mayor de Blasio will make his weekly appearance on NY1’s Road to City Hall on Monday evening.

There will be a reception at Gracie Mansion Monday evening for former Mayor David Dinkins’ 90th birthday, with Mayor de Blasio giving remarks.

On Monday evening, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams is holding a public hearing at Borough Hall on the redevelopment plan for the Bedford Armory. According to a media advisory from a coalition of groups, "Crown Heights residents and stakeholders will hold a rally against the Bedford Armory Project ahead of Brooklyn Borough President’s public hearing Monday. Residents will be calling on Borough President Eric Adams to reject the plan for Bedford Armory..."

At 7 p.m. Monday, U.S. Representative Tom Suozzi will hold a “Heard in the Third” town hall meeting.

Tuesday
As mentioned, Tuesday will see the funeral for NYPD Officer Familia.

At 9 a.m. Tuesday, the New York City Board of Correction will hold a public meeting at 125 Worth St in Manhattan.

Rep. Adriano Espaillat is holding a small business summit on Tuesday. Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer is among those who will speak.

At 10 a.m. Tuesday, Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul and State Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon will host the second of three hearings on gender pay equity on the governor’s agenda. This hearing will take place in Syracuse, at the Rosamond Gifford Zoo.

At 6 p.m. Tuesday, the Urban Land Institute will host “A Building Boom in the Bronx” as part of its “Borough Development Series” at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, examining the recent development boom in the Bronx and exploring “the development landscape throughout the borough as well as the driving factors that are pushing the Bronx towards an ever-brighter future.”

At 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, City & State will host “Still Standing,” honoring 10 military veterans “who continue to serve the communities through their work.”

On Tuesday at 7 p.m., "First Lady Chirlane McCray will travel to NewYork-Presbyterian/Morgan Stanley Children's Hospital to host the fourth of five Community Conversations across the City. The conversation will focus on mental health, including combatting stigma and supporting those struggling with addiction. She will be joined by Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Dr. Herminia Palacio, Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Executive Deputy Commissioner Dr. Gary Belkin and Columbia University Professor of Medicine, Dr. Rafael Lantigua. Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Assemblywoman Carmen De La Rosa will also attend."

Wednesday
At 8 a.m. Wednesday, the state Senate Joint Task Force on Heroin and Opioid Addiction will meet at the Minnie Gillette Auditorium at Erie Community College in Buffalo to “examine the issues facing communities in the wake of increased heroin abuse.”

At 10 a.m. Wednesday, the City Planning Commission will hold a public meeting at 22 Reade St in Manhattan.

At 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Citizens Union will host “A Closer Look: New York Constitutional Convention” at the Cooper Union, discussing why CU believes New Yorkers should vote “yes” for a constitutional convention when the question is on the ballot this November.

At 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, the Civilian Complaint Review Board will hold a public board meeting at I.S. 323 in Brownsville.

At 7 p.m. Wednesday, Mayor de Blasio will hold a town hall meeting at the Creston Academy in the Bronx. Joining the mayor will be City Council Member Fernando Cabrera, U.S. Representative Jose Serrano, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr, State Senator Gustavo Rivera, and Assembly Member Victor Pichardo.

Thursday
At 8 a.m. Thursday, City & State will host “State of NY Smart Cities: Transportation & Infrastructure” at the New York Academy of Medicine, highlighting “economic development in Smart Cities, tech and innovation in urban development, and smart infrastructure” in panels consisting of elected officials, government officials, and advocates. Panelists include City Council Members Ydanis Rodriguez and Dan Garodnick, Assemblymembers Michael Blake and Clyde Vanel, Department of Transportation CTO Cordell Schachter, MTA Deputy CIO Daniel Queally, and others.

At 8:30 a.m. Thursday, the New York League of Conservation Voters will host the third policy forum of its four-part “Getting to 80x50” series at the NYU Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. This forum will focus on waste.

At 10 a.m. Thursday, the New York City Campaign Finance Board will hold a public board meeting.

At the City Council on Thursday, the Committee on Rules, Privileges, and Elections will hold a hearing at 10:30 a.m. to provide advice and consent on the mayor’s nomination of Thomas Sorrentino to the Taxi and Limousine Commission.

At 3 p.m. Thursday, the CUNY Center for Community and Ethnic Media will host a panel discussion on covering the 2017 New York City elections at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. NY1’s Errol Louis will moderate a panel that includes Dick Dadey of Citizens Union; Rong Xiaoqing of Sing Tao Daily; Javier Castano of Queens Latino; Zenaida Mendez of the Manhattan Neighborhood Network; and Gotham Gazette’s Ben Max.

On Thursday evening at 6:30 p.m., Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer is hosting a public hearing on two proposals for East Harlem: a large-scale rezoning of much of the area (96 blocks) and one specific proposed development.

Friday and the weekend
No events on our radar as of Sunday evening, but Mayor de Blasio may make his weekly Friday morning appearance on WNYC's The Brian Lehrer Show.

***
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: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. (please use "For Week Ahead" as email subject).

***
by Ben Brachfeld and Ben Max
@GothamGazette

What's The [DATA] Point? $32.5 Billion


whats the data point


What's The Data Point? Episode 4 -- $32.5 billion, with Janno Lieber, the MTA's new Chief Development Officer. [You can download What's The Data Point? wherever you get your podcasts, including on iTunes]

For the fourth episode of What's The [Data] Point? we were joined by Janno Lieber, the MTA's new Chief Development Officer who is one month into his work at the MTA, where he is overseeing major capital projects. Lieber discussed his mission, his initial work and the work that lies ahead, the general issues facing the city's subway system, and recent announcements made by Governor Andrew Cuomo that relate to the MTA. He said no one should be panicking about the subways and explained that the MTA can both manage major expansion projects and bring the current system up to a state of good repair at the same time.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think: Ben Max of GG (@TweetBenMax), Maria Doulis (@MariaDoulis) of CBC, and special guest Janno Lieber (@MTA)

***
by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Powerful Assembly Post May Be Vacant Sooner Than Expected


farrell assembly floor

Assemblymember Herman Farrell (photo: The Assembly)


When Assemblymember Herman “Denny” Farrell, who heads the chamber’s Ways and Means Committee, announced he would not seek reelection next year, it set off a murmur about who might succeed him in the powerful -- and lucrative -- committee post.

Farrell, a Democrat elected to the Assembly in 1974 and the third longest serving member of the body, is known for his diplomacy and good natured bantering with Republicans and Democrats alike during budget hearings and on the Assembly floor.

Well-liked among his peers and beloved in his community, Farrell -- who represents Harlem, Washington Heights and Inwood -- was recognized by the Legislature last week, when it voted to rename Upper Manhattan’s Riverbank State Park after him as part of a special legislative session dealing with mayoral control over schools.

Governor Andrew Cuomo also honored the Assembly member at a breakfast at the Executive Mansion on June 20, speaking in eulogistic terms of Farrell’s time in the Assembly and as former chair to both the Manhattan and State Democratic Parties.

“Denny also taught me politics was the means to the end, and that was getting into government to achieve power…not power you would use personally, not power to take care of some donors, to take care of some unions, to take care of the political complex — power to do good things for your people and for your community,” Cuomo said, according to a recording of his remarks obtained by Politico New York. “Government is about accomplishing things for people and making their life better. Everything else is bull----.”

While Farrell’s current two-year term is set to officially end at the end of 2018, the grand farewell he received in Albany and other indicators have signalled to many in Harlem that he plans to resign before January, when the Legislature is next due back in the capital. The move would virtually ensure the party nomination of his chief of staff, Rev. Al Taylor, in a special election, according one Harlem insider who spoke to Gotham Gazette on the condition of anonymity. For special elections to the state Legislature, the borough party committees name the party representative on the ballot.

“His departure is something that a lot of people Uptown are talking about. Farrell is putting a lot of his energy and political assets into his chief of staff, Al Taylor. Wherever Denny is, Al is nearby,” the insider said, noting that the Assembly office’s most recent quarterly newsletter featured Taylor more than Farrell. “All the signs point to Farrell's resignation being imminent.”

In addition to Taylor, Juan Rosa, a former City Council staffer and community activist, is considering a run for the seat, according to multiple people familiar with the district.

Farrell, who did not return a request for comment, has not confirmed any plan to vacate his Assembly seat before January 2019, when his term would officially end.

If Farrell does indeed leave before the end of the year, not only would Taylor have the inside track to the Assembly, but Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie would name a new Ways and Means chair, the top Assembly budget post below the Speaker, before the next budget season in Albany -- a move that would likely prompt a series of new committee chair appointments throughout the Assembly for the 2018 session.

“When you make one change, you make 30 changes. That is always the part that outsiders don’t understand,” said former Assemblymember Richard Brodsky. “Part of the calculus that any Speaker makes is not just how to fill that position, but how it will affect the entire food chain.”

As capital watchers have noted Farrell’s imminent departure, it has also become apparent that several female legislators are in line for the committee leadership job -- a post no woman has ever held before.

While new leadership appointments are made every year by the Speaker, the Ways and Means chairship is arguably the most powerful and well-paid committee position in the Assembly. It is also arguably the most challenging, as the committee is tasked with budget hearing leadership and examining any legislation considered by the body that has a fiscal component.

The position comes with a significant stipend. On top of the standard $79,500 legislative salary, the Ways and Means chair earns $34,000, on par only with the $34,500 stipend received by the Assembly Majority Leader, currently Joseph Morelle, of Monroe County. Other committees, such as Codes and Education, may deliberate over a comparably high volume of bills, but come with a stipend of $18,000 each. The Ways and Means chair also has access to a significantly larger staff than any other chair in the Assembly.

Geography and seniority have long played a role in who is selected for both leading Ways and Means and other top committees. For Ways and Means, other factors typically considered include knowledge of the budget process, diplomacy, ability to get along with Republicans in both legislative houses, and the stamina to sit through many hours of annual budget hearings.

The longest serving member of the Assembly is Richard Gottfried, of Manhattan, who is followed by Assemblymember Joseph Lentol, of Brooklyn. Gottfried, who has headed the Assembly Health Committee for more than 30 years, told Gotham Gazette he has expressed to Heastie and previous speakers that he is not interested in leading Ways and Means.

“I almost can't imagine how lucky I am to have had this job; it is just about a dream position for me,” Gottfried said of leading the Health Committee. “I love being able to focus on health policy and consider myself enormously happy to have this job.”

He noted that the Speaker must ultimately assess the person’s ability to speak on behalf of the Assembly majority's view of the budget and be someone who can represent the diverse views of the Democratic Conference.

“The speaker has to be concerned with, among other things, maintaining the solidarity and cohesion of the Democratic Majority because there are always a lot of forces eager to pick us apart,” said Gottfried, who is currently focussed on trying to see single-payer health care passed in New York.

An obvious choice for Heastie might be Lentol, the second most senior member of the Assembly, who has held his seat since 1972 and has served as chair of the critical Committee on Codes since 1992. Lentol competed against Heastie in the race to replace former Speaker Sheldon Silver in 2015, as did Assemblymember Catherine Nolan, of Queens, the sixth longest serving Assembly member. Lentol did not return a request for comment on whether he was interested in the Ways and Means position.

Assemblymember Robin Schimminger, who represents a swing district encompassing Niagara and Erie Counties, follows Lentol and Farrell in seniority, but his district geography and more moderate place on the political spectrum could rule him out for such an influential position in the New York City-focussed conference.

While women have historically been underrepresented in the Legislature, including in leadership positions, for the first time in history, several are in the mix for the Ways and Means post, including Nolan, who was first elected in 1984, Assemblymember Helene Weinstein, of Brooklyn, who is the fifth longest serving member of the Assembly, having been elected in 1980, and others.

Weinstein chairs the highly technical Judiciary Committee and Nolan heads the Education Committee.

Between Weinstein and Nolan on the seniority list are Brooklyn Assemblymember Dov Hikind and Assemblymember David Gantt, of Rochester.

Female Assemblymembers Vivian Cook, of Queens; Earlene Hooper, of Nassau County; and Deborah Glick, of Manhattan, also rank among the 15 longest serving lawmakers in the 150-seat chamber. Glick has the distinction of being New York's first openly gay person elected to the state Legislature. She has been outspoken on a range of progressive issues and chairs the important Higher Education Committee.

Seniority withstanding, Heastie has made an effort to provide leadership opportunities to newer members in a way his predecessors did not, according to members of the Assembly who spoke to Gotham Gazette.

“I think we have noticed that under this leadership [Speaker Heastie] has managed to bring a few new members, who have only been here a few months, to be chairmen of committees and subcommittees. It has never happened before. You know, it took me 20 years to get a chairmanship myself,” said Brooklyn Assemblymember Félix W. Ortiz, who chairs the Cities Committee and serves as Assistant Speaker.

He may also consider factors like gender, race, political beliefs, and other elements of diversity in making his decision.

“Geography used to matter, but once you open up that door of identity, lots of people walk in. The Assembly is blessed with about 15 people whose seniority and talent and experience is considerable, it’s going to be hard for [Speaker Heastie] to make a bad choice,” said former Assemblymember Brodsky, who chaired both the Committee on Environmental Conservation and the Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions during his nearly three decades in Albany.

A spokesperson for Heastie did not return a request for comment, nor did the offices of Assembly Members Nolan, Weinstein, Lentol, and Schimminger.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the location of Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Morelle's district.

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Cuomo Refuses to Comply with Trump Election Commission Request


new yorkers cast their votes for president

New Yorkers cast their votes for President (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayoral Photo Office)


New York has joined the ranks of states refusing to comply with a request for voter information sent yesterday by Kris Kobach, the Kansas Secretary of State and vice chair of the newly-created federal Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity.

“We will not be complying with this request and I encourage the Election Commission to work on issues of vital importance to voters, including ballot access, rather than focus on debunked theories of voter fraud,” said Governor Andrew Cuomo in a statement on Friday afternoon.

The letter, which asks that each state provide the administration with available data including the names, addresses, social security numbers, voter registrations, and voting histories of every voter in the state, immediately prompted concern over voter suppression and privacy.

N.Y.U. School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice put out a statement calling on states to carefully review their legal obligations before turning over the data. While voter data is technically public, accessing it generally requires adhering to special protocols and making payments, such as submitting requests in writing for specific data. In New York, accessing public voter data requires mailing a completed form to the state’s Board of Elections, leaving a record of who is requesting the information.

In the statement, Mryna Pérez, the center’s deputy director, recommended that secretaries of state have “frank conversations with their lawyers about the privacy and other implications of complying with Kobach’s extensive request.”

Several voting rights organizations have also condemned the request, including the League of Women Voters, whose president, Chris Carson, called it a “fishing expedition” and a “distraction from the real issue of voter suppression” in a statement.

Activists worry that the data will be used to target voters based on their political affiliations as opposed to the stated purpose of investigating voter fraud. The commission was created by President Donald Trump to investigate non-citizens casting ballots following his widely discredited claim that three to five million people voted illegally in the 2016 presidential election.

As Kansas Secretary of State, Kobach ran a multi-year campaign and developed new computer systems to crack down on illegal voting, which ultimately resulted in only nine convictions, mostly of older Americans who had voted in two states or otherwise violated procedural laws. Dale Ho, director of the American Civil Liberties Union Voting Rights Project once referred to Kobach as the “king of voter suppression” because of his efforts to limit voter registration in Kansas.

New York joins California, Kentucky, Virginia, Massachusetts, and Connecticut in turning away Kobach’s request, which is not legally binding.

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by Felipe De La Hoz, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

What's The [DATA] Point? $780 Million, with 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):

***
by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Mayoral Control Extended in Special Session with Usual Albany Process


Cuomo special session

Gov. Cuomo on Thursday (photo: Philip Kamrass/Governor’s Office)


To prevent the impending lapse of mayoral control over New York City schools, the state Legislature and Governor Andrew Cuomo passed a two-year extension Thursday as part of a larger omnibus bill, which included a pension enhancement for certain uniformed workers, special recognition for former Governor Mario Cuomo, and several benefits for upstate areas.

A special session was called Wednesday by Gov. Cuomo specifically to address mayoral leadership over city schools, which was set to expire June 30, and a small number of other matters, but the ensuing discussion produced a more sprawling legislation package, according to Cuomo. The final deal included a three-year extension of local taxes, $55 million in Lake Ontario flood relief funding, and the renaming of the new Tappan Zee Bridge after the governor’s late father.

According to Cuomo, who held a press conference Thursday afternoon at the Capitol to celebrate what was accomplished, he and legislative leaders arrived at a compromise centered on extending mayoral control ahead of his calling the special session. Once legislators returned to the capital, the negotiations were opened up more broadly, and a larger tentative deal was reached at around 8:30 p.m Wednesday night. That agreement followed a day of meetings behind closed doors, during which rank-and-file lawmakers, journalists, and the larger public were largely left on the sidelines. The Assembly voted to pass the omnibus bill at around 1 a.m. on Thursday, while the Senate passed the bill after some internal rankling at around 2 .p.m.

The opaque nature of the discussions, as well as the expense of keeping lawmakers in Albany at a cost of more than $30,000 -- though not all lawmakers take per diems and estimates vary -- drew criticism from lawmakers across party lines, including Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart Cousins, who along with her fellow Senate Democrats urged their colleagues on the GOP side to move the bill along Thursday.

“Another day and another example of dysfunction in the Senate,” Stewart Cousins said at a press conference outside the Senate GOP conference room. “The GOP/IDC inability to finish this session is an embarrassment. We need to stop wasting taxpayers’ money and do our jobs. The Senate Democrats are ready to vote for this package of legislation immediately. Let's go to the floor.”

Democratic Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, who was adamant during the legislative session that the lifting of the charter school cap in New York City not be included in the final bill, commended the governor and his colleagues in the Legislature for passing a comprehensive bill that would prevent disruption in the management of city schools.

“I am proud of the efforts of Assembly members on both sides of the aisle who worked extremely hard to craft a consensus on the many pressing issues our state faces,” said Heastie, who got his way on the charter school cap, in a statement. “Working with Governor Cuomo, our successes include a two-year extension of mayoral control of New York City schools, giving our educational system stability and allowing our school children to thrive.

During his press conference in the Capitol’s Red Room, Cuomo ceremoniously signed the mayoral control portion of the legislative package and said he had anticipated the special session would only address mayoral control and legislation enhancing pension benefits for certain city police officers and firefighters, known as the “three-quarters bill.” However, several Senate Republicans from Upstate saw the bill as too New York City-centric.

“The agreement was to come back and do mayoral control and the three-quarters bill. When we came back, the Assembly was fine with it,” Cuomo told reporters. “My understanding is, in the conference, the Senate said ‘We also want to do the sales tax extenders. And by the way, it’s not just the sales tax extenders,’ they said, ‘We also want do something on Vernon Downs’...That is what we were trying to avoid. Once you start to expand the wish list, it gets much, much harder to get to an agreement.”

Offering a reason for the delay in legislative voting, Cuomo also celebrated how much got done in the end.

The final bill offers a tax bailout to Vernon Downs, an Upstate racetrack, in order to prevent its closure and retain 300 well-paying jobs in the region; provides for critical transportation needs in Westchester County; and includes passage of a proposed constitutional amendment to aid communities in the Adirondack Mountains with infrastructure projects. In addition to the renaming of the Tappan Zee, the Legislature voted to rename Riverbank State Park in Manhattan in honor of retiring Assemblymember Denny Farrell, who was first elected to the Assembly in 1974.

Flanagan also touted the package, saying in a Thursday statement saying that the omnibus bill "resolves a number of outstanding state issues" after "Senate Republicans were able to put together a more comprehensive package that meets the needs of taxpayers, students, and families throughout our entire state." Flanagan also indicated that there were provisions related to protecting charter schools, something Mayor de Blasio stated would be announced in the coming days as administrative, not legislative, matters.

There was no legislative action regarding the MTA, which Cuomo had declared was in a state of emergency on Thursday morning at an event in New York City. At that event Cuomo did pledge an additional $1 billion to the MTA in next year’s budget.

As had become evident when the budget was passed in April and through the end of the legislative session last week, no government ethics or election reforms made it through Albany this year. Two other top priorities of Mayor de Blasio’s -- design-build authority and additional speed cameras for school zones -- were also left on the chopping block.

Still, at his own news conference on Thursday afternoon, de Blasio said he was very pleased with the outcome, especially on mayoral control. The mayor expressed relief that with the first two-year extension of his term, he would not need an Albany vote next year to keep control of the school system. What the mayor does need, however, is the approval of voters this fall when he seeks reelection.

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

with reporting by Ben Max

Calls for Vetoes as 'Benefit Sweeteners' Head to Governor's Desk


cuomo pension reform

(photo: The Governor's Office)


As the dust settles on the scheduled legislative session in Albany and subsequent “extraordinary session” called by Governor Andrew Cuomo, much of the focus has been on the extension of mayoral control of city schools, finally passed Thursday after serious brinkmanship. There has also been plenty of talk centered on what didn’t happen: procurement, ethics, and electoral reform, the Child Victims Act, and more.

The Citizens Budget Commission (CBC), a fiscal watchdog, is also calling for scrutiny of other items that did pass, though with little fanfare. Specifically, CBC is pointing to 26 bills that it calls “benefit sweeteners,” enhancements of public benefits that it estimates will cost state and local governments at least $34 million by the end of fiscal year 2018. In fact, in order to pass an extension of mayoral control of city schools, legislators and the governor also agreed on one public benefit enhancement that will increase disability pensions for certain uniformed workers.

While that pension “sweetener” clearly has the governor’s blessing, according to Dave Friedfel, CBC’s director of state studies, the organization will send a letter to Cuomo urging him to veto about 10 of the other 26. This includes urging a veto of a “sweetener” that “clarifies eligible beneficiaries of New York City sanitation workers pension benefits, and provides a special accidental death benefit to the beneficiaries,” according to the bill summary, which is estimated to cost $8.9 million in immediate past service and then $6.8 million per year starting in fiscal year 2018, leading to an instant increase of $15.7 million in employer costs for New York City, the most of any of the bills identified.

Fourteen of the bills relate to reforms of death and disability pensions, mostly expanding eligibility criteria for various benefits to different classes of uniformed personnel, including firefighters, court officers, parole officers, and emergency medical service providers. Seven bills relate to expansions of pension benefits, one to health insurance, and three to miscellaneous topics, like repealing the retirement age of 60 for Garden City police officers.

CBC’s criteria is whether bills enhance benefits “without providing enhanced services to taxpayers or off-setting savings.” The watchdog, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization, had been tracking 130 such bills throughout the session, most of which did not pass. For those that did, the attention is now on Cuomo to be judicious, CBC says.

Friedfel stressed that the discussion anchored around “whether these types of issues need to be addressed through a benefit enhancement,” and not on whether they were valid issues.

For example, several bills that were introduced, including one that passed, would extend leave for public employees to receive cancer screening. “Certainly we’re not advocating that people go without those screenings...but it’s unnecessary for the state’s taxpayers to grant additionally for those things,” said Friedfel, adding that some bills had not been requested by localities or employers but the state was unilaterally imposing extra costs.

“Benefit enhancements should be part of the contractual negotiating process,” he said, referring to collective bargaining between government and labor unions.

CBC’s discrete cost estimates per bill range from effectively zero to $15.7 million, for sanitation worker disability bill, in the first year. Thirteen of the bills did not have CBC estimates; of these, 10 had been passed with no fiscal note.

Maria Doulis, vice president of CBC, said in an email that the session brought “a greater volume of bills passed by the Legislature, but the bills themselves are not very costly when compared to some measures that have been floated and even passed in years past. That is encouraging.”

In response to questions over whether the governor intended to veto any of the bills or disputed the fiscal impacts outlined by CBC, Cuomo spokesperson Abbey Fashouer said in an email, “We haven’t seen the report or reviewed and analyzed all of the bills passed by the Legislature, but priority number one is protecting New York taxpayers.”

When the special legislative session was called, reports suggested that Cuomo would seek additional agreements on enhanced disability benefits.

Ultimately, the bill passed by the Legislature Thursday allowed “certain uniformed members of public retirements systems” -- including NYPD officers, FDNY firefighters and other city employees -- to receive accidental disability benefits even if they’re not eligible for a “normal service retirement benefit” and do so “despite being disapproved from receiving a federal social security disability pension.”

The expected cost of this provision would be $8.9 million in fiscal year 2018, then inch up to $12.5 by fiscal year 2022, for a total of about $55 million in those five years, paid for by New York City. Friedfel said the measure “didn’t need to be done in a special session” but it wasn’t “something we’re objecting to.”

At a press conference Thursday afternoon in Albany, Cuomo said of the $55 million estimate, “I don’t even think we’re going to get to the 55, frankly. I think the actual need will be below that.”

At his own press conference at City Hall, Mayor Bill de Blasio reacted to the legislation passed in Albany, celebrating the extension of mayoral control. The mayor said he thought the intent of the pension portion of the bill “was to be considerate to our uniformed officers who stay on the job beyond the minimum number of years, and to respect their reality, particularly if they become disabled.” He stated no objection to it.

“I’m always sensitive to adding to pension burdens, because that’s a big long-term issue, but this was a modest cost and a fair concept,” he said in response to a question from Gotham Gazette.

Cuomo has in the past shown willingness to veto bills passed by the Legislature that would add to the financial burdens related to benefits. He twice vetoed a bill allowing honorably discharged military veterans who had transitioned to the public sector to purchase three years of public pension credit before finally signing it last year, once the Legislature had appropriated funds. He also vetoed nine separate pension “sweeteners” last year.

One of Cuomo’s first major legislative initiatives was reforming the largesse of the state pension system, a reform that will save the state an estimated $80 billion over 30 years. Doulis called it “one of the Governor's early and most significant fiscal accomplishments” and said he had been “pretty good about holding the line and rejecting most sweeteners.”

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by Felipe De La Hoz, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Focused on Fighting Trump, is Schneiderman Looking Away from Albany Reform?


ag schneiderman via schneiderman

AG Eric Schneiderman (photo: @Schneiderman)


New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has quickly become one of President Donald Trump’s leading opponents, using the levers of his office to litigate against Trump’s policies, and has put New York at the forefront of efforts to resist the new Republican administration’s agenda.

Speaking at a Tuesday breakfast event hosted by the Association For A Better New York (ABNY), Schneiderman, a second-term Democrat, discussed his role in the Trump era, which has made his focus much more on Washington, D.C. than Albany, New York, the state capital where Schneiderman has worked as a state senator and sought reforms to the state’s election and government ethics laws.

The focus of the ABNY event Tuesday morning was Schneiderman’s approach to Trump. The attorney general emphasized New York’s fundamental principle of openness and reiterated his pledge to fight President Trump’s travel ban on people from six Muslim-majority countries. “New York values of mutual respect, pluralism, and common sense are more important than ever,” he said to a room of around 250 people at the Sheraton Hotel in Midtown Manhattan. “As long as I am your Attorney General, I promise to do everything I can to stand up for those values and defend all the people I represent  in the challenges we face together.”

He also described his approach toward the legislation that seeks to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which may soon receive a vote in the U.S. Senate. “If the version of the health care bill proposed last week ever becomes law, I’ve promised to go to court to challenge it – and protect New Yorkers from these wrongheaded and unconstitutional provisions,” he said.

In a lighthearted moment, Schneiderman described the experience of quarreling with Trump over the years, even before Trump ran for President. In 2013, Schneiderman filed suit against the real estate mogul for his fraudulent for-profit college Trump University. The president settled in 2016 for $25 million.

Schneiderman noted he has learned to ignore Twitter, a favored Trump medium that the president has long-used to attack Schneiderman and others, and how Trump consistently pulls out all the stops against people when he feels threatened by them. Schneiderman read aloud a few insulting tweets that Trump has sent about him over the years. The attorney general also recalled when the New York Observer, owned by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, published a cover depicting Schneiderman as “Clockwork Eric,” likening him to the 1971 movie “A Clockwork Orange” character Alex DeLarge, who is a violent rapist. The paper published an accompanying feature on Schneiderman that accused him of “political opportunism,” “vindictiveness,” and cast doubt on his investigation into Trump.

When he did mention more local state affairs, Schneiderman cited passage of legislation to end the so-called gun show loophole and development of a drug tracking system, along with changing his office’s mentality. “Consistent with my goal of keeping New York competitive, we have shifted the culture of our office by making it clear that lawyers on my team don’t just get credit for catching bad guys; they also get credit for helping good guys,” said Schneiderman, who succeeded Governor Andrew Cuomo as attorney general.

State government was a distant second to national matters as they relate to New York, in keeping with the event’s intended purpose. The media advisory announcing the event stated Schneiderman was expected to “discuss his work fighting Trump Administration policies that he believes threaten New Yorkers and the rule of law. Attorney General Schneiderman will detail his office’s efforts on both fronts and articulate his priorities for the future in the fight to defend New York.”

While it made sense for Schneiderman to omit state government ethics and voting reform from his remarks, the attorney general was holding his first public speaking event since the end of the scheduled legislative session in Albany, which included none of the reforms Schneiderman has proposed. Tuesday’s event was representative of a shift in focus by Schneiderman away from state reforms and toward taking on federal government policies with the aim of fighting for New Yorkers against a new presidential administration and Republican-controlled Congress. 

A spokesperson for Attorney General Schneiderman disputed this observation. “He can walk and chew gum at the same time, and that’s exactly what he’s been doing,” wrote Amy Spitalnick, the Schneiderman spokesperson, in an email to Gotham Gazette. But, while Schneiderman does oversee a large and busy office, the attorney general has been quiet regarding state reforms in recent months as major decisions are made in the state capital. Schneiderman's office explained that representatives from the AG's office have met with legislative leaders, relevant committee chairs, and advocates about Schneiderman's proposals.

A review of Schneiderman’s May and June press releases show that as the legislative year in Albany headed toward underwhelmingly conclusion, the attorney general spoke out against President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Accords; filed suit against Trump regarding energy efficiency standards; challenged the EPA on toxic pesticides; criticized Secretary of Education Betsy Devos over discontinuing student loan forgiveness policies; announced opposition to potential regulatory rollback in Senate legislation; voiced concern over infringement upon New Yorker’s contraceptive rights by Trump administration policies; and reaffirmed New York’s commitment to protecting so-called sanctuary city statuses; along with other pushbacks against policies originating in Washington.

Schneiderman’s main public efforts have been to, as he sees it, protect New Yorkers from the new president’s policies, many of which he believes threaten New Yorkers rights and needed services. Schneiderman was the subject of profiles in major outlets such as Politico and New York Magazine, both focused on his efforts against Trump. Meanwhile, Schneiderman hired Revolution Messaging, Senator Bernie Sanders’ digital consulting group in April , to work on his political team -- the AG is expected to seek a third term in 2018, but is also regarded as a certain gubernatorial candidate when Cuomo is no longer in the picture.

But the attorney general’s office insists that Schneiderman has been attentive to Albany-related efforts. “Anyone who follows the AG’s work knows he’s been very engaged in the fight for voting and ethics reform, including proposing his own legislative packages on both issues,” the Spitalnick wrote. “That’s in addition to his push to strengthen tenant protections, protect cost-free access to birth control, and more.”

While he has been quiet on both recently, Schneiderman has pushed election and government ethics reforms. In February, he introduced the New York Votes Act, a bill that would institute automatic and same-day voting registration along with early voting. On ethics reform for the scandal-plagued state government, in May 2015 Schneiderman introduced legislation that would give investigatory powers to the attorney general to prosecute corruption by officeholders, ban lawmakers from receiving outside income, and make campaign donation laws more restrictive. None of Schneiderman’s proposals on these two fronts have made it into law, opposed at various turns by the powers that be in Albany, including Governor Andrew Cuomo, the Democratic majority in the Assembly, and the Republican-led majority in the Senate.

Asked for recent examples of how Schneiderman has pushed his electoral and ethics proposals, or for any plans to get them moving, the AG’s office pointed to examples in the more distant past. Schneiderman does not appear to have held a public event, issued a press release, or written an op-ed on either voting or ethics reform since February, when he released his electoral reform package. The state budget was passed in early April and the scheduled legislative session ended last week, both without any of these reforms.

Speaking with reporters following his Tuesday ABNY speech, the attorney general said the legislative session ending without ethics reform was a missed opportunity. “I think that it is essential that the state government show an ability to, and a willingness to, reform,” he said in response to a question from Gotham Gazette. “Otherwise, we're just going to have more scandals and a further erosion of public confidence.”

“The willingness to get it done is there and I think there is an unfortunate tendency to cling to the status quo,” he added, though he did not cite evidence of the existence of any “willingness” and his spokesperson did not explain what he meant when asked in a follow-up email.

Corruption has plagued New York’s capital for years, with legislator after legislator removed from office because of ethical scandal. Recently, former State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos were convicted separately on public corruption charges. Not long after that, charges were announced against nine associates of and donors to Gov. Cuomo in a massive alleged bid-rigging scandal. In September 2016, Schneiderman’s office brought charges against two former Cuomo aides along with state official Alain Kaloyeros as part of that scandal. In March, Schneiderman’s office also charged state Senator Robert Ortt and former state Senator George Maziarz for embezzling funds, though the charges against Ortt were dismissed by a judge on Tuesday.

Despite months of inaction on election and ethics reforms in Albany, Schneiderman said Tuesday he is hopeful. “I do really believe that we are at a point where the public is demanding reform and there are enough legislators who get the need and are willing to get a step towards it,” he said in the gaggle. “So I think that's something which should be coming.”

How The Mayoral Control ‘Special Session’ Works


de Blasio desk Albany

(photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayor's Office)


To prevent the lapse of mayoral control over New York City schools, Governor Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday called an “extraordinary session” of the state Legislature to convene on Wednesday at 1p.m. in Albany. Often referred to as a “special session,” details of how the day will unfold -- especially what legislation will pass -- are still unclear.

Currently, the session has been called for just one day, with the only named purpose the extension of authority granted to the New York City Mayor, currently Bill de Blasio, to run the city schools. But, as of Tuesday evening, there is no specific bill on the table and Cuomo’s proclamation leaves the discussion open to “such other subjects” he “may recommend.”

"The Governor is calling an extraordinary legislative session for Wednesday, June 28 to take up the issue of Mayoral Control. The Governor has discussed the extraordinary session with the legislative leaders,” said Melissa DeRosa, secretary to the governor, in a statement.

The failure to reach a deal by the end of the week would lurch the educational system for 1.1 million city schoolchildren into uncertainty, and the process would commence to revert school governance back to the Board of Education and local school boards -- which, while in power, were frequently charged with inefficiency and corruption.

Like most educational experts, Governor Cuomo, Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie have all expressed support for mayoral control and believe that the old school board system was worse. But, the GOP-controlled Senate want to tie an extension to an increase in the cap on charter schools in New York City. The Assembly wants a clean extender of mayoral control, but did tie it to other local extenders in the form of expiring tax rates that also have widespread support.

On Wednesday, the three men will meet again try to break the impasse over the issue, and perhaps negotiate other policies, while reporters try to glean some insight into the negotiations. After breaking last Wednesday night at the end of the scheduled legislative year without deals on mayoral control, local tax extenders, or several other high-profile items, legislators, some of them on vacation, are being called back to the capital to handle unfinished business.

A majority is needed in both houses for the session to commence, and it is the responsibility of the legislative leaders to compel their members to return to the Capitol, according to Cuomo’s office.

According to Albany lore, the executive can call in state troopers to force lawmakers back to the Capitol for a special session. This myth, cited by several legislative staffers, does not appear in the state constitution. Senate rules do require a quorum, or 60 percent of members to be present for any motions or resolutions, and empower those present to send the Sergeant at Arms to bring absent senators back from their districts if necessary. In post-session remarks this past Thursday, Cuomo did jokingly reference constituents using force to send their local legislators back to Albany to finish their business.

While special sessions are sometimes intended to tackle a single topic, The New York Times reported that the governor may be offering the Senate GOP approval of a bill to increase accidental disability pensions for firefighters, police officers, and other city employees in exchange for a sign-off on one year of mayoral control without charter school provisions attached. This has opened the door to lawmakers and interest groups who want to see other bills considered in renewed negotiations.

Also caught in the crossfire, is a standard two-year extension dozens of local and county taxes. If it lapses, counties could face a $1.8 billion collective hole in their budgets, according to the New York State Association of Counties. Like with mayoral control, virtually all the major stakeholders believe in an extension, but disagree on the details of a deal.

Now NYSAC is calling for the Legislature to tackle legislation that would permanently allow county governments to extend their sales tax rates every two years.

Senator Michael Gianaris, a Queens Democrat, wants the special session to include action on New York City’s rapidly deteriorating subway system, following a particularly dramatic derailment incident Tuesday morning, which left dozens of straphangers injured. Just before the end of the scheduled session Gianaris had put forth a new proposal for a temporary dedicated revenue stream to infuse cash into the MTA.

“With the state legislature likely to return to Albany soon to address outstanding issues, fixing the MTA should be a top priority. When they return, the Governor and members of the legislature should not leave the Capitol until a solution to the MTA crisis is enacted,” wrote Gianaris in a petition for lawmakers to consider his bill to establish a dedicated funding stream for emergency maintenance and repairs.

While only the governor sets the agenda for a special session, his power is limited.
Technically, the Legislature never gavels out of session. According to the state constitution, if the Assembly goes dark for four days consecutively, lawmakers cannot reconvene until the following calendar year.

So, for more than two decades, every third day, an Assembly member has entered the chamber, and triple-banged the gavel on the podium -- a ritual that keeps the Legislature endlessly in session. This practice is intended to prevent recess appointments by the Governor and also allows any new legislation to age the requisite three days before becoming law.

Since the legislative session never really ends, when a special session is called, the Legislature must return to Albany, but can immediately gavel out and go home. Its members can also stay and reconvene to consider legislation of their choosing.

The Legislature first turned over control of city schools to the Mayor in 2002.
Previously, they were governed a seven-member Board of Education and 32 elected community school boards. The Board of Education, which had two mayoral appointees and one each from the borough presidents, selected the chancellor. The mayor could also influence the school system through the city budget.

Authority to appoint superintendents in elementary and middle schools was stripped from the Board in 1996 due to evidence of corruption and patronage in some school districts. Since this shift test performance and graduation rates dramatically improved at city schools, reports The New York Times.

Without clear direction, the session can get expensive.
Compensation, per diem allowances and travel expenses for members can add up, not to mention the cost of additional legislative staff. There are 150 seats in the Assembly and 63 in the Senate. It’s not clear how many legislators will be back to Albany for Wednesday’s session.

Legislators are paid a per diem rate of $175, which is to cover hotel and food, plus they are compensated for travel expenses at 55 cents per mile, not including tolls. For a lawmaker from Buffalo, which is approximately 300 miles from Albany, the travel bill tallies up to around $150 each way, for example. There is also a partial per diem rate of $59 when lawmakers do not spend the night.

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note: This article has been updated to clarify how lawmakers are gathered back to the Capitol during a special session.



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