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15 Questions for the Final Week of State Budget Negotiations

Cuomo de Blasio press conference 2014

De Blasio & Cuomo in 2014 (photo: The Governor's Office)

The New York State budget, which is expected to be delivered on time, is due April 1, but as state government leaders enter the final week of negotiations there are many questions left open for New York City.

These include the fate of more than $100 millions in state-to-city funding cuts proposed by Governor Andrew Cuomo; whether more than $1 billion in affordable housing funding will be released; final budgetary allocations toward city schools and NYCHA; whether mayoral control of schools will be extended; and where the stand lands on multiple tax policies, including Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposed “mansion tax.” An added transactional surcharge on buyers of New York City property at more than $2 million, de Blasio would use the revenue to subsidize affordable housing for seniors. Cuomo said Monday during a NY1 appearance that the mansion tax has gone nowhere since the mayor proposed it in January.

There are also statewide proposals that are of interest to the city, such as voting reform and Cuomo’s Empire State Trail, among others, that are being debated.

The “three men in a room,” which this year is actually four -- Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, and Senate Independent Conference Leader Jeff Klein -- will meet frequently this week behind closed doors to negotiate the final spending and policy details of the $150-plus billion budget.

Klein, of the Bronx, leads the eight-member breakaway group of Democrats who form a ruling coalition with the Senate GOP, led by Flanagan. Heastie, also of the Bronx, leads the Assembly Democratic majority and is the only ally of Mayor Bill de Blasio of the four men in the negotiating room, though there are issues on which Klein or Cuomo and de Blasio agree.

Cuomo, a second-term Democrat, unveiled his $152 billion executive budget plan in January following a six-stop State of the State tour, during which he promoted his big ticket infrastructure projects, budget items, and policy agenda.

De Blasio, testifying before a joint legislative budget committee in late January, laid out his concerns with certain cost shifts to the city in Cuomo’s budget plan and outlined New York City’s needs from the state in terms of education, healthcare, affordable housing, and more. Heastie, whose majority conference is dominated by New York City-based legislators, is seen as something of a surrogate for de Blasio and the city’s interests during budget negotiations.

Heastie and his conference back passage of the “mansion tax,” though it is seen as a long shot. It has been de Blasio’s main focal point of public advocacy related to the state budget, including his participation in an Albany rally this past week. In conversations with reporters, de Blasio has also referenced several areas of state funding to the city that are priorities as well as policy goals like permission to install more speed cameras and to use design-build contracting.

As the Senate and Assembly presented their one-house budget resolutions earlier this month -- their formal responses to Cuomo’s budget proposal and their declarations of priorities heading into final negotiations -- several sticking points emerged.

For residents of New York City, there is much at stake.

1. Will the final budget include more than $100 million in cuts and cost shifts to New York City, primarily related to placement of foster children and special education services?
Gov. Cuomo has proposed more than $100 million in cuts and cost shifts to New York City, primarily related to placement of foster children and special education services, according to Cuomo’s 2017-2018 financial plan.

"There are several cuts in the State Executive Budget that are going to have an effect on thousands and thousands of New Yorkers,” de Blasio said during his budget testimony in February.

According to the de Blasio administration, funds earmarked for New York City programs that hang in the balance based on Cuomo’s proposed budget include $32.5 million for public health programs; $66 million for the education and care of 8,900 foster care youth; $25.5 million for senior centers; and $30 million “for more than 800 special education students who have highly specialized needs.”

The mayor and the Assembly are also calling for the restoration of $65 million in MTA funding that was slashed in Cuomo's budget proposal.

2. What will the final education aid number for New York City be?
The governor is proposing a statewide school aid increase of nearly $1 billion for the 2017-18 school year. Of the $961 million aid increase Cuomo has outlined, New York City schools would receive an aid increase of $294.9 million, a percentage of new funding that is in line with the city’s proportion of students.

Both legislative houses and the mayor, who has highlighted $1.6 billion still owed to New York City schools as part of the 2006 Campaign for Fiscal Equity decision, are calling for increased education aid in the final budget.

“We want to keep pushing for greater education aid. This is a fight that’s been going on for ten years, as you know, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity decision by our highest court in the state. We’re still not getting our fair share, nor are a lot of upstate cities and rural areas,” said de Blasio on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show on Friday.

The Senate’s one-house calls for Cuomo’s proposed education Foundation Aid to be doubled, while the Assembly is calling for a $1.4 billion increase, or $1.03 billion more than the increase proposed by the executive budget.

Cuomo says school funding is dependent on revenue from the extension of the “millionaires’ tax” -- set to expire this year -- a budget measure Senate Republicans oppose and Assembly Democrats want to increase.

3. Will the “millionaires' tax” be extended?
Cuomo strongly supports extending the millionaires' tax, a Governor David Patterson policy that was implemented in 2008 in response to the economic collapse. Mayor de Blasio and Assembly Democrats have proposed expanding the tax to include new brackets for New Yorkers earning $5 million, $10 million and $100 million a year.

Early projections are that the millionaires’ tax will be extended -- Republicans have, after all, approved it before. However, chances of the additional tax brackets being added to the tax seem slim, as that expansion is opposed by both Cuomo and Senate Republicans.

4. Will de Blasio’s ”mansion tax” pass?
De Blasio has made the mansion tax the main focus of his public advocacy related to the state budget, holding about a half-dozen related events in the past two weeks. De Blasio and Assembly Democrats want the state to allow the city to add a dedicated surcharge to home purchases over $2 million to create hundreds of millions of dollars in new revenue per year to use directly for subsidies to tens of thousands of low-income senior citizens.

The mansion tax faces some opposition from within New York City, as well as questions from budget watchdogs. Senate Republicans are opposed to it, and Gov. Cuomo said Monday on NY1 that the mayor proposed it in January and "It never went anywhere in January and it hasn't gone anywhere since."

5. Will the affordable housing MOU be settled? Will there be more state aid for NYCHA? What about 421-a?
The state is still sitting on about $2 billion in affordable housing and anti-homelessness funds that were allocated last year but can only be released by a memo of understanding among Cuomo, Heastie, and Flanagan that details how the money will be spent.

The cob-webbed funds have become the ire of de Blasio, Assembly Democrats, and affordable and supportive housing providers, anti-homelessness advocates, and others.

Among the sticking points related to the aforementioned funds as well as other past and future money for housing are funding levels for NYCHA and the tax abatement program known as 421-a. Cuomo’s new 421-a proposal does not have the support of de Blasio or Assembly Democrats, and Senate Republicans are unlikely to release the housing money until a new 421-a program is in place.

Meanwhile, de Blasio and others are calling for more state investment in NYCHA as well as the utilization of $100 million set aside in the past that Cuomo had earmarked for NYCHA repairs but has not spent.

6. There are now three alternatives to Cuomo’s Excelsior Scholarship, which aims to extend tuition-free CUNY and SUNY. What version will wind up in the budget? Will whatever version of the college tuition plan that passes include The Dream Act?
Many questions were raised during budget hearings and public discussion about how the scholarship program will be paid for, but also about the program’s rigid course-load requirements and limits on how other financial aid sources, like the state’s Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) and Pell grants, could be spent.

The Assembly Majority has accepted the Excelsior Scholarship, with modifications, including an expansion of TAP benefits that loosened requirements on how aid can be spent. The Senate Majority, IDC and Assembly Minority have indicated they prefer some form of TAP expansion, which would be inclusive to students at the state’s private colleges, who they say are penalized for their schools' tuition increases under Cuomo’s plan.

7. Will the the budget extend mayoral control of city schools?
It is the third straight year that de Blasio is seeking an extension of mayoral control of city schools from the state -- he’s received two straight one-year approvals, in large part due to his icy relationships with Cuomo and Senate Republicans. De Blasio wants mayoral control to be made permanent, but he would gladly settle for the three-year extension Cuomo has included in his budget yet again or, preferably for the mayor, the seven-year extension the Assembly has called for.

Mayoral control is not in essence a budget matter and it has been kicked from budget negotiations each of the past two years, left for the legislative session to follow.

As with other de Blasio priorities, the fate of mayoral control could come down to how much the Assembly prioritizes it in negotiations. It is at least somewhat valuable to Senate Republicans as a bargaining chip.

8. Will the state extend Design-Build authority to New York City?
Design-build is a procurement and contracting strategy that streamlines the process for capital projects, avoiding multiple bidding processes and simply hiring once for the design and the building of a project, like a bridge reconstruction. The state has used design build on several projects to great success in terms of time and money savings. In another example of the home rule dynamics that frustrate city leaders, New York City is seeking needed permission to use design-build.

"If the City also had access to [design-build], similar benefits would be realized. Our capital agencies have identified $7.3 billion in projects, with around $450 million in immediate savings. If the rest of New York State has access to design-build, New York City certainly should as well as a matter of common sense," de Blasio said during his Albany budget testimony in late January.

At a recent press conference focused on their Vision Zero street safety program, de Blasio's transportation commissioner, Polly Trottenberg, said she was on the verge of travelling to Albany to advocate for more speed cameras for the city and for design-build permission. Trottenberg said she wasn't quite sure what was standing in the way of design-build passage given the virtual unanimity behind it, including from labor unions, which can be skeptical.

De Blasio added, "for everyone who wants to see us rightfully achieve more of these good capital projects more quickly that will make people safe, we need your help getting design build done. It’s going to literally free up a lot of money because things will be done a lot more efficiently. It will free up a lot of money. We’ll be able to cover a lot more ground. It just makes sense for everyone."

9. Will the budget account for funding cuts proposed by the Trump administration?
It is unlikely that there will be significant adjustments to the state budget based on funding cuts that could come from Washington, D.C., despite the fact that President Trump has indicated he is seeking major reductions in domestic spending that include key areas of funding that go to New York. Cuomo and legislative leaders have both acknowledged the uncertainty and possibility that a special session may be needed once the federal budget is more clear.

Short of that, Cuomo had inserted language in his budget proposal that would have allowed his administration to make mid-year budget adjustments based on federal dynamics without approval from the Legislature.

Criticized from inside and outside government as a dangerous power-grab, Cuomo’s proposal was denied in both the Senate and Assembly one-house budget resolutions.

“There are lump sums that are at the complete discretion of the governor,” Flanagan said at a press conference. “I don’t think that’s an appropriate way to do things,” he added of the mid-year executive-only adjustments.

Heastie has said that if federal cuts blow a hole in the state government, Cuomo will have to revisit the budget with the Legislature: “the Legislature is an equal branch of government and should be respected,” he said.

10. It appears likely some version of Raise the Age will pass the Legislature this year, but what version will wind up in the budget?
With North Carolina, New York is one of just two states that tries 16- and 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system. Cuomo and Assembly Democrats have for years sought to “raise the age,” but Senate Republicans have opposed the measure. Now, at the behest of the IDC, the Senate GOP appears open to some version of raising the age of criminal responsibility, and negotiations of the details are happening.

The only thing that may hold up a raise the age deal would be if the Assembly and Cuomo are not willing to go along with what the Senate is willing to do. In other words, the devil is in the details, and we will soon see if the sides can come to a compromise. Senate and Assembly Democrats have warned that they are skeptical of a watered-down deal that keeps too many offenses in criminal court as opposed to family court, or that has a too-long timeline for implementation.

11. Governor Cuomo proposed allocating $200 million in this budget for the multi-year construction of the Empire State Trail, but has been met with limited enthusiasm -- can he salvage the project?
The Empire State Trail is to some one of Cuomo’s most exciting 2017 proposals; proponents of the project say it will put New York on the national biking and hiking map and give a boost to state tourism and coffers. The Senate has rejected the Empire State Trail plan to make room for “other funding priorities," and the Assembly allocated only $20 million for the project.

If Cuomo makes the funding enough of a priority in negotiations, his desired allocation is likely to be there when the votes are cast at the end of the week.

12. Will ride-hailing apps be legalized for areas outside New York City?
The push to expand ride-hailing -- apps like Uber and Lyft -- has the support of the governor, Republicans and Democrats in both houses who argue the expansion would be good for local economies while reducing drunken driving and expanding transportation options.

The Senate has approved a bill to expand ride-hailing apps outside New York City, where they are currently legal. The major sticking point in negotiations is the same as last year, when a deal was elusive: the insurance requirements that companies will be forced to meet.

13. Will government ethics, campaign finance and/or voting reforms be included in the budget?
Though Cuomo’s executive budget includes an ambitious ethics and electoral reform agenda, much of which has the support of the Assembly majority, Senate Republicans have indicated that they will block the measures. The governor, who has not publicly pushed for reform in these areas since his State of the State, has indicated that he will negotiate them after the budget is passed.

“We are going to try like heck. It’s not necessarily a budget discussion. The budget is primarily finances. If there’s a policy matter that  related to the finances then I try to include it because it’s good to reconcile as much as you can. Many of the democracy issues that you talk about we are going to take up after the budget,” Cuomo said during a press conference last week.

One thing both houses reject is the establishment of new inspectors general, which are appointed by the executive branch, at the state education department and Port Authority. Both houses also are pushing for increased disclosure and transparency measures for Cuomo’s Regional Economic Development Councils (REDCs), but it is unlikely Cuomo will agree.

14. Senate Republicans seem intent on reforming workers’ compensation, will they get anywhere?
The governor included mention of workers’ compensation reform in his budget proposal, and Senate Republicans, who last year compromised with their Democratic colleagues on minimum wage increases and paid family leave, are emphasizing sweeping changes to workers’ compensation as a top priority this year. The Senate’s one-house budget included a number of workers’ compensation reforms, like updates to duration caps, streamlining measures, and independent medical examinations.

“High workers' compensation costs threaten New York’s future. These high costs are already holding down wages across the state, but further increases in premiums will negatively impact job growth and could ultimately result in hardworking men and women losing their jobs,” said Flanagan at a March 15 general budget conference committee.

The business community says the rising cost of workers’ compensation has become unsustainable, while labor groups argue that arbitrary caps on how long recipients may receive payments put at risk those who are permanently injured on the job.

15. Will the budget include provisions to protect New York’s immigrant and LGBTQ communities in the face of threats from the Trump administration?
With a new federal administration that has wasted no time implementing a crackdown on immigrants and a calling for the removal protections for LGBTQ Americans and women, among other groups, the Assembly passed a series of measures to foster state-level safeguards. The Liberty Act prohibits city and state officials, including law enforcement, from needlessly inquiring about someone’s immigration status and GENDA (the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act) -- which has the support of the IDC -- bars discrimination based on gender identity.

There are also questions around funding for immigrant legal services, but most items in these categories are not priorities for Senate Republicans, who almost exclusively hail from outside New York City.

by Ben Max and Rachel Silberstein

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Note: this story has been updated to reflect Cuomo's Monday comments on the mansion tax.

Will Latest Indictment Give New Life to Ethics Reform in Albany? Don’t Bet On It

rob ortt

State Sen. Rob Ortt (photo: @SenatorOrtt)

Corruption charges brought against a member of the state Senate Republican majority Wednesday have provided an opportunity for Democrats to jumpstart the seemingly dormant conversation on government ethics as state budget negotiations enter their final week.

Senator Rob Ortt, of Niagara County, pleaded not guilty in Albany County Court Thursday morning, following his indictment on three felony counts of filing a false instrument, according to reports. For state government, this is just the latest scandal in an unrelenting stream of misconduct cases brought against members of both legislative houses on both sides of the political aisle, as well as individuals from and associated with the executive branch.

More than 30 current or former New York state lawmakers have been convicted of crimes or accused of wrongdoing over the last decade, according to a New York Times tally.

The charges against Ortt, who maintains his innocence, come as legislative leaders and Governor Andrew Cuomo face an April 1 deadline for a new budget. They also add a new dynamic to the miniscule difference that accounts for party control in the state Senate, where Republicans hold a bare majority and Democrats are divided among themselves.

The Senate’s mainline Democrats, eager to regain control of the house, quickly jumped on this latest scandal as an opportunity to once again push for ethics reform, something that leaders of the majority conferences and the governor have shown reluctance in addressing this year. Cuomo laid out an ambitious reform agenda in January, but has done nothing to promote it publicly since.

“Once again this highlights the need for real ethics reforms, something the Senate Democrats have been calling on for years, and really shows the absurdity that there has been no talk in this budget process of cleaning up Albany and passing the strong ethics reforms,” said Senate Democratic Conference communications director Mike Murphy in a statement.

Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s probe of election fraud in Niagara County found that Ortt’s wife held a no-show job, allegedly in order to offset a $5,000 salary reduction in Ortt’s previous capacity as Mayor of North Tonawanda, according to the charges.

A defiant Ortt denied the allegations to reporters after a court appearance Thursday with his lawyer Steve Coffey. “I am not guilty. I am not resigning. I believe I will be exonerated and vindicated,” said Ortt.

Ortt and his attorney both maintain that the indictment brought by the attorney general’s office is politically motivated, a charge denied by Schneiderman.

The Niagara County case was referred to Schneiderman by the state Board of Elections, a bipartisan agency. Schneiderman, a Democrat and former state senator, has prosecuted cases involving Democrats like former Senator Shirley Huntley of Queens, New York City Council Member Ruben Wills, and Democratic political operative Steve Pigeon, as well as Republicans.

Additional charges related to the probe were brought against Ortt’s predecessor, former Senator George Maziarz, also a Republican, who is alleged to have “orchestrated a multilayered pass-through scheme that enabled him to use money from his own campaign committee” as well as the from the Niagara County Republican Committee, “to funnel secret campaign payments to a former senate staffer who had left government service amid charges of sexual harassment,” according to the Attorney General’s Office.

“No-show jobs and secret payments are the lifeblood of public corruption,” Schneiderman said in a statement. “New Yorkers deserve full and honest disclosures by their elected officials — not the graft and shadowy payments uncovered by our investigation. These allegations represent a shameful breach of the public trust — and we will hold those responsible to account.”

Maziarz, who also pleaded not guilty Thursday, was charged with five felony counts of offering a false instrument for filing. If convicted, both Ortt and Maziarz face maximum sentences of one and a third to four years on each count.

Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, in an appearance with reporters, stood behind Ortt, saying he was confident in the judicial system and that he would not expect his colleague to resign.

“I’m going to continue to work with Rob, I’m sure he’s going to be back here tomorrow. The primary thing that he’s concerned about and I am concerned with is getting the budget done in a timely fashion,” said Flanagan.

Typically, leaders of majority legislative conferences are resistant to increased oversight and transparency measures, as well as limitations on outside income or campaign contributions, while members of the minority conferences are for more reform. In the Legislature’s one-house budget resolutions, voted through last week, the Senate and Assembly presented ethics reform plans that were not particularly aligned. Notably, the Assembly’s resolution included more support for reform, including provisions for early and automatic voting, restrictions on use of campaign housekeeping accounts, and closure of the LLC loophole, which allows lawmakers to benefit from nearly unlimited and opaque campaign contributions.

The resolutions are meant to serve as guiding documents during budget negotiations, which occur among the “three men in a room” -- in this case, Governor Cuomo, Flanagan, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, and, this year, a fourth man, Independent Democratic Conference Leader Jeff Klein.

Cuomo, a second-term Democrat, has been mostly silent on ethics since introducing his wide-ranging plan for reform during his State of the State, which touched on campaign finance reform, increased contract oversight, and electoral reform. At a press conference earlier this week, Cuomo, who wields significant leverage over priorities addressed in budget talks, said policy matters, such as voting and ethics reforms, would likely be tackled after the budget was delivered.

“The budget is primarily about finances,” Cuomo said in response to a question from a WNYC reporter. “If there’s a policy matter that is related to the finances then I try to include it, because the budget is a good vehicle to reconcile as much as you can. Many of the democracy issues that you talk about, we are going to take up after the budget.”

"[I]t’s hard to believe that charges against one senator and one former senator will move the needle when convictions against the former leader of the Senate and the former speaker of the Assembly didn’t,” said Blair Horner of NYPIRG about the prospects of the latest indictments leading to reform. "It does remind everybody about how bad things are in Albany, that they have not really solved the problem," Horner said.

Senate Republicans have opposed closure of the LLC loophole, which good government groups argue makes lawmakers particularly susceptible to pay-to-play politics. Earlier this week, when asked about calls from good government to include significant ethics reform in the state budget, Flanagan pointed to the Legislature’s moves to increase transparency.

“I would say that the good government advocates have not been looking at what we’ve done in the past six years,” Flanagan said. “We have more transparency and more disclosure measures for elected officials than any other state in the country.”

John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, said that the increased transparency measures are good, but only meaningful campaign finance reform will stem the flow of corruption in Albany.

“Transparency is the first step you take in the long road towards clean government,” said Kaehny. “The crucial steps that have to happen are restrictions on unlimited political giving, in particular, closing the LLC loophole and housekeeping accounts. Otherwise there’s just a gusher of money pouring in.”

But will the latest indictment drive the Legislature to overhaul its laws? “I think that’s pretty unlikely,” said Kaehny.

by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette

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95 Faith Leaders Join Push for Passage of State Rent Subsidy Proposal

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Prayer at Cavalry Baptist Church (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

As New York City battles a homelessness crisis, with 60,000 people in shelters, a statewide proposal to drastically reduce and prevent homelessness is gaining groundswell support. On Monday, dozens of faith leaders from across the state signed a letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo, calling his attention to that plan, the Home Stability Support program.

The HSS proposal, sponsored by Democratic Assembly Member Andrew Hevesi of Queens, would replace the state’s existing patchwork system of rental subsidies with a single supplement for families and individuals who are homeless or in danger of becoming homeless. It would apply to those receiving public assistance and people facing evictions or homelessness because of hazardous living conditions or domestic violence.

“The problem of homelessness has reached a critical juncture,” reads the letter signed by 95 faith leaders from 15 cities across the state. “The costs to our communities are unsustainable. It is time to boldly and adequately attack the preventable causes of record homelessness.”

The HSS proposal would provide state funding to bridge the gap between state shelter allowances (rental supplements given to those on public assistance, which are between $264 and $447 a month depending on household size) and up to 85 percent of the household’s fair market rent. It would also give local jurisdictions the option to raise that supplement to 100 percent.

“This is a hard one to oppose,” said Marc Greenberg, executive director of the Interfaith Assembly on Homelessness and Housing and one of the leaders on the letter to Cuomo. “It’s a choice between keeping a family in a welfare hotel for $3,500 or more a month, as opposed to paying $1,500 to $2,000 to keep them in their homes.”

A spokesperson for the governor’s office said they are reviewing the proposal, which has strong support in the Democratically-controlled Assembly, but a less than favorable outlook in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has expressed support for the plan, which would drastically overhaul the fight against homelessness, but has said he is not counting on its passage. He has continued to call out the state for its limited help in preventing homelessness going back several years, and pushed ahead with his own multi-pronged effort that has seen limited results -- de Blasio’s combination of rental subsidies and eviction-protection efforts have helped stabilize the rise in homelessness and prevented the homeless population from hitting 70,000, which is where his office says it would be if not for its programs.

De Blasio recently outlined a new approach to sheltering homeless New Yorkers, and announced that a new, more sober goal of reducing the shelter population to about 57,500 over the next five years.

The HHS proposal, which would cost the state about $450 million a year, could be a game-changer. New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer has estimated that it could reduce the city’s shelter population by 80 percent in 10 years for families with children and by 60 percent for adult families. It would also save the city $316.6 million in the same time by keeping people out of shelters.

To ease concerns about the price tag, Assembly Democrats opted to phase the program in over five years, at an initial cost of $40 million in the first year, which they included in their one-house budget resolution last week. “I see it as a no-brainer,” said Assembly Member Hevesi, in a brief phone interview. “I haven’t heard any objection that we couldn’t counter. You’re helping vulnerable people get off the streets and stay off the streets.”

Hevesi said he’s had productive conversations with Republican Senators about the proposal and has met with the governor to discuss it. He’s optimistic about its prospects. “I think we’re in a good place for now,” he said.

The proposal has significant support from elected representatives and community advocates -- four of New York City’s five borough presidents also announced their support this week. But, to pass the plan must meet approval from not just the state Assembly, but also Cuomo and the Senate.

Significantly, state Senator Jeff Klein, who leads the Senate Independent Democratic Conference, has announced his support for the subsidy proposal. Klein, who also recently expressed opposition to de Blasio’s shelter siting plans, sees HHS as smart economically and for communities. The IDC mentioned the proposal in its own Senate budget resolution, but the Senate majority did not.

“We included it in our budget proposal and believe it's critically important to help citizens access adequate housing,” said Mike Whyland, spokesperson for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, in an email. “That is our goal as we negotiate the final budget.”

Spokespersons for the Senate majority and the IDC did not respond to requests for comment.

“The federal landscape is changing, and whatever funds we’re using could be used more effectively this way,” said Greenberg, of the Interfaith Assembly on Homelessness and Housing. “The governor would be wise to support this.”

For the coalition of faith leaders, support for the program transcends politics as they fight the homelessness battle on the frontlines. “It cannot be politics as usual when it comes to people’s lives,” said Greenberg. “What the faith community is trying to do is remind lawmakers of the demands of their own faith...If you say you have faith, what does your faith challenge you to do?"

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Cuomo Punts Voting Reform to ‘After the Budget’

Cuomo press conference NYC

Gov. Cuomo (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)

Governor Andrew Cuomo all but confirmed Tuesday that major voting reforms he’s proposed would not be part of the new state budget, which is due by April 1.

In January, Cuomo outlined the “Democracy Project” as part of his 2017 State of the State agenda, and included its widely prized measures like early voting, same-day voter registration, and an enhanced form of automatic voter registration in one of his budget bills. But, on Tuesday Cuomo indicated that the push to modernize New York’s antiquated voting laws would be left for the April through June legislative session that follows budget adoption.

Cuomo, a second-term Democrat, has proposed sweeping voting reforms before, and New York has watched as they have been implemented with successful results in dozens of other states, while paltry voter turnout continues here.

On Tuesday, Cuomo appeared at a press conference in New York City, which the governor had called to criticize two Republican congressional representatives from New York for authoring amendments to the federal health plan that would shift certain Medicaid burdens in New York from the counties to the state. During the question-and-answer session, a WNYC reporter asked Cuomo how he would be able to persuade Senate Republicans to adopt his voting reform agenda during budget negotiations.

“We are going to try like heck,” he said, but added, “It’s not necessarily a budget discussion,” conceding a point Cuomo is typically hesitant to make.

“The budget is primarily about finances,” Cuomo continued. “If there’s a policy matter that is related to the finances then I try to include it, because the budget is a good vehicle to reconcile as much as you can. Many of the democracy issues that you talk about we are going to take up after the budget.”

Between now and April 1, Cuomo and legislative leaders will negotiate the details of the new state budget. The Governor sets the stage for budget season with his Executive Budget in January, which is then followed by legislative hearings, one-house budget resolutions that respond to the Governor’s proposals, and closed-door negotiations. The spending and policy pieces that make it into the budget often depend upon how much priority agenda items are given by the Governor, the Senate Majority, and the Assembly Majority.

Cuomo, as the most powerful of the “three men in the room,” can often push through his top priorities, as he did last year with $15 minimum wage and paid family leave programs.

In January, Cuomo announced the Democracy Project in a press release amid his six-stop State of the State tour. The goal, Cuomo's announcement stated, was “modernizing voting in New York to increase participation in the democratic system.” The Democracy Project “will remove barriers to voter registration" and "make voting easier for New Yorkers.”

“Early voting will shorten lines at the polls,” the announcement stated, “allow New Yorkers to cast ballots up to 12 days before Election Day.” It also promised that automatic and same-day voter registration “will increase voter participation.”

While Democrats who control the Assembly appear open to the three voting reforms, among others, they do not appear to be placing it especially high on their list of priorities. Republicans who control the state Senate are opposed to voting reform, worrying that greater turnout could spell the end of their paper-thin majority margin.

Two of the three reforms, early voting and automatic registration, are widely implemented throughout the country, and would be easy to implement legislatively, but have stalled in the Senate. Along with the Assembly majority, the Independent Democratic Conference, a breakaway group of Senate Democrats who have a ruling coalition with Republicans, also support the measures. However, the IDC’s power to move the GOP conference in this case may be especially limited.

Same-day voter registration, which would allow unregistered voters to register and vote on Election Day, would likely have to be implemented through a state constitutional amendment, which requires the approval of both legislative houses for two consecutive legislative cycles and then approval by the public through a ballot vote.

Last week, representatives from advocacy groups like the New York Civil Liberties Union, the Working Families Party, and Common Cause NY joined with female state lawmakers at the state Capitol to push for early voting and automatic registration to be included in the budget. The press conference, which coincided with Women’s History Month and framed voter inclusion as a women’s issue, was followed by a rally on Sunday in New York City’s Battery Park.

Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause NY, who helped organized the press conference and the rally, criticized the governor’s Tuesday revelation.

“It's not enough to ‘try like heck,’” Lerner said in a statement. “New Yorkers deserve the same rights as voters in Alaska and Vermont. We need voting reform now, and that means including funding in the 2017 budget to ensure that the next election cycle is an example for the nation, not a national embarrassment."

Lerner noted that New York ranked 41st in the nation for voter turnout (based on the 2016 presidential election), with less than a third of eligible voters participating. “Far from the progressive symbol the Governor likes to tout, we are out of step with 34 other states that have some form of early voting, and nowhere near California which also has Automatic Voter Registration,” Lerner said.

On Tuesday Cuomo did not cast blame on anyone for what he was foreshadowing as a failure to move voting reform through the budget. At the press conference, however, he did tout how well he has been able to work with Republicans over the past six years. He did not indicate that he planned to try to convince Senate Republicans to back his voting reform agenda.

A few days ago, Scott Reif, a spokesperson for Senate Republicans, told WNYC radio, "There are many bills out there which seek to boost voter participation. We'll take a look at all of them."

by Ben Max and Rachel Silberstein

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

The Week Ahead in New York Politics, March 20

New York City Hall

New York City Hall

What to watch for this week in New York politics:

The New York political world is still reeling from and reacting to the news that Mayor Bill de Blasio and his aides will not be charged in either of two investigations into their behavior. Comptroller Scott Stringer has said definitively he is running for reelection, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said it’s time to move on to focus on key problems facing the city, and de Blasio himself held a testy press conference and then flew to Florida for a weekend away.

As for this week, the mayor will be back Monday after getting some sun, rest, and taking in some spring training baseball. He has no public events Monday.

It’s budget season, with just 10 days until a new state budget is due. Governor Andrew Cuomo and state legislative leaders will begin pushing the pace in negotiations, especially given that last week the two houses of the Legislature passed their one-house budget resolutions. Notably, there’s been little indication that government ethics, voting or campaign finance reform is a high priority for legislators or for Gov. Cuomo. [Read: Since State of the State, Cuomo Silent on Ethics Reform]

Before he gets back to budget business in Albany, on Sunday Cuomo was in the Bronx, where he “announced a $1.8 billion project to transform the South Bronx by realizing the long-sought reconstruction of the Bruckner-Sheridan Interchange.”

With budget negotiations into their final weeks, it’s a rare four-day week of legislative session in Albany. That and much more to watch for this week -- see our day-by-day rundown 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: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.***

The run of the week in detail:

At the City Council on Monday, there will be a preliminary budget hearing of the Committee on Mental Health at 3 p.m.

The New York State Legislature will be in session on Monday in Albany.

City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito is heading to Albany Monday “to meet with State leaders.”

On Monday at 11:30 a.m. in Albany, “Citizens Union (CU) will release the latest edition of its report, Spending in the Shadows, on unspecified lump sum spending in New York’s FY 2018 Executive budget. The report examines numerous pots of money under state government control that have little detail, few restraints and little public accountability – all part of a recipe for public corruption. The report documents $4.3 billion in funds that are subject to spending decisions by individual elected officials, representing an increase of nearly $2 billion from last year’s executive budget. The report also documents other opaque spending that lacks criteria for spending, and does not specify any official as having authority.” The press conference will be on the third floor of the state Capitol.

At 12:30 p.m. Monday, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, City Council Member Margaret Chin, OATH Commissioner Fidel Del Valle, and Chinatown organizations and leaders will hold a “press conference to announce “What to do if you get a city summons” town hall,” at the Chinese-American Planning Council.

At 12:30 p.m. Monday, schools Chancellor Carmen Farina will deliver remarks at the Hispanic Federation Education Summit, at the CUNY Graduate Center.

At 6 p.m. Monday, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. will host the second of two public hearings of their “Gifted and Talented Task Force,” focusing on “gifted and talented education in New York City public schools, as well as the admissions process for the city’s specialized schools,” at the Bronx High School of Science.

At 6 p.m. Monday, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer will host a reception for her office gallery commemorating women’s causes and political life in New York, as part of Women’s History Month. The reception will honor the late Maggie Peyton.

At 8 p.m. Monday, Comptroller Scott Stringer will deliver remarks at the Fort Greene Association Quarterly Meeting.

Mayor de Blasio has a busy Tuesday:

  • 10:30 a.m. press conference on Vision Zero near New York City College of Technology in Brooklyn, NY 11201
  • 2 p.m. at Tweed Courthouse, "as part of the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ Cities’ Day of Immigration Action, the Mayor and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark Vivierito will host a press conference on new policy guidance."
  • 4 p.m. public hearing and bill signing at City Hall: "the Mayor will hold public hearings and sign 14 pieces of legislation– Intro. 1161-A in relation to requiring DOHMH report annually on immunization rates of NYers for Human Papillomavirus; Intro. 1162-A in relation to requiring DOHMH to report annually on the use of contraceptives; Intro 1172-A in relation to requiring DOHMH to report annually on maternal mortality; Intro. 748-B in relation to amending the New York City charter in relation to drug strategy; Intro. 882-A in relation to requiring that a hearing loop – which helps people with hearing loss hear better – be installed in certain capital projects; Intro. 1280-B in relation to requiring NYPD to make collision reports available online to individuals involved; Intro. 1071-A in relation to requiring DOT to conduct a study of private streets; Intro. 1474-A in relation to lowering the tax on the transfer of a taxi medallion; Intro. 1475-A in relation to removing restrictions on the transfer of taxi medallions; Intro 873-A in relation to establishing a car-sharing pilot program that reserves some street parking spaces for car-share vehicles; Intro. 267-A in relation to requiring DOT to designate parking spaces in municipal parking lots for car-share organizations; Intro. 247-A in relation to increasing the fines for performing electrical work without a license; Intro. 820-A in relation to requiring DSNY to consider programs that would incentivize recycling in public housing; and Intro. 1198-A in relation to requiring DEP to publish a plan for reducing flooding in Queens Community Districts 12 and 13, and to report annually on progress."
  • 7 p.m. "the Mayor and First Lady Chirlane McCray will host a Greek Independence Day Reception" at Gracie Mansion.
  • During the 7 and 10 p.m. hours, the mayor will make a taped appearace on NY1's Road to City Hall.

At the City Council on Tuesday, there will be preliminary budget hearings on:

  • The Department of Parks & Recreation at 10 a.m.
  • The Department of Education at 10 a.m.

The New York State Legislature will be in session on Tuesday in Albany.

At 8:30 a.m. Tuesday, Crain’s New York Business will host its 2017 Arts & Culture Breakfast, discussing how artists and cultural workers can secure funding for their projects. Speakers will include City Council Majority Leader Jimmy Van Bramer, who will talk with Jeremy Smerd, editor of Crain’s, as well as Diane Coffey, the Director Emerita of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and current Managing Director at the Peter J. Solomon Company, who will speak with Crain’s publisher Jill Kaplan.

At 9 a.m. Tuesday, Council Speaker Mark-Viverito will deliver remarks at the New York Immigration Coalition Annual NYC Legislative and Policy Breakfast, at Tribeca Grill. At 11 a.m., Mark-Viverito will announce a capital funding investment in a NYCHA senior center, with NYCHA Chair Shola Olatoye, at Betances Senior Center in the Bronx.

At 9 a.m. Tuesday, Public Advocate Letitia James will deliver remarks at the JCRC "Confronting Fear & Hate in New York City" forum at Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies. At noon, James will deliver remarks at the Queens Chamber of Commerce St. Patrick's Day lunch.

On Tuesday at 11 a.m., Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan will appear on the Capitol Pressroom radio program, hosted by Susan Arbetter.

At 11:30 a.m. Tuesday, Comptroller Scott Stringer "Hosts Press Conference and Unveils Major New Report" at Greenwich House.

On Tuesday at 6 p.m., John Jay College of Criminal Justice will host a community information forum regarding the upcoming referendum on whether to call a state constitutional convention, in an event postponed one week due to last Tuesday's snowstorm. Panelists and moderators scheduled for the original event included Michael Benjamin of the New York Post; Brigid Bergin of WNYC; Josh Robin of NY1; Dick Dadey of Citizen Union; and Evan Davis, the former president of the New York City Bar Association and current senior counsel at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP.

At 6 p.m. Tuesday, the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce will host “LGBT Financial Planning in the Trump Era.” Paul Schindler of Gay City News will moderate a panel featuring financial advisor Alexander J. Fruchtman and attorneys Dylan T. McKeon, Yolanda Kanes, and Pablo G. Velez.

At 6 p.m. Tuesday, City Comptroller Scott Stringer will hold a Women's History Month Celebration at the New York Supreme Court.

At 6 p.m. Tuesday, the Manhattan Institute will host the 2017 William E. Simon Forum on Philanthropy and Social Entrepreneurship, discussing the impact of “sunset provisions” on philanthropy. MI’s Howard Husock will moderate a panel consisting of Edwin Feulner of the Heritage Foundation, Heather Higgins of the Randolph Foundation, and James Piereson of the William E. Simon Foundation.

At the City Council on Wednesday, there will be preliminary budget hearings that include testimony from:

  • The Mayor’s Office on Immigrant Affairs, the Human Resources Administration, the Department of Youth and Community Development, and CUNY at 10 a.m.
  • The Human Rights Commission at 1 p.m.

The New York State Legislature will be in session on Wednesday in Albany.

At 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, the New York City Food Policy Center will hold “The Inner Workings of New York City's Water,” with James Tierney, DEC NYS Deputy Commissioner; David Warne, DEP NYC Assistant Commissioner; Eric Goldstein, Senior Attorney and New York City Environment Director at the National Resources Defense Council; Professor Allan Frei, Department of Geography at Hunter College, CUNY Institute for Sustainable Cities; and moderator Charles Platkin.

At 6 p.m. Wednesday, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, City Council Member Margaret Chin, and OATH Commissioner Fidel F. Del Valle will cosponsor a forum with ACCES discussing what to do when you get a summons and how to navigate the city’s Administrative Law Court.

At 6 p.m. Wednesday, the city's Panel for Educational Policy will hold its monthly meeting at the High School for Fashion Industries.

At 6 p.m. Wednesday, the New York City Bar Association will host “How to Get on the Ballot in New York City.” The program will feature election lawyers discussing how to run for office in the city with prospective office holders who may feel overwhelmed by the complexity. Speakers include Martin E. Connor, former State Senate Minority Leader and Chair of the City Bar Election Law Committee; a Representative of the Office of General Counsel at the Board of Elections; Sarah K. Steiner, former Chair of the City Bar Election Law Committee; and Matt Sollars and Dan Cho, of the New York City Campaign Finance Board.

At 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, the Brooklyn Historical Society will host “Whose Park? Equity in NYC's Green Spaces,” to discuss whether New York City’s green spaces are distributed and used equitably. New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman “moderates a candid discussion with Ford Foundation President Darren Walker and former Brooklyn Bridge Park President Regina Myer about parks, equity, and the complicated mediation between users.”

At 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, the Gotham Center for New York City History, in association with the Brennan Center, will host “The History and Future of Criminal Justice Reform in New York City” at the Graduate Center at CUNY’s Elebash Recital Hall. The event will feature Shannon King of the College of Wooster; Alex Vitale, author of City of Disorder; Martin F. Horn, former Commissioner of the Departments of Probation and Correction; and Alice Speri, multimedia reporter at The Intercept.

At the City Council on Thursday: The Committee on Housing and Buildings will meet at 10 a.m. to discuss several proposed laws regarding illegal residential conversions, requiring landlords to distribute voter registration forms, and the denial of building permits where outstanding charges are owed to the city.

At the City Council on Thursday, there will be a preliminary budget hearing on The Department of Environmental Protection at 10 a.m.

The New York State Legislature will be in session on Thursday in Albany.

At 6:30 p.m. Thursday, City Council Members Helen Rosenthal, Mark Levine, and Bill Perkins, along with Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, will host a Hate Crime Forum to discuss the recent rise in hate crimes as well as how to identify, report, and stop them.

Friday and the weekend
At 8:30 a.m. Friday, the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce will hold its annual Women's History Month Celebration at Brooklyn Law School’s Forchelli Conference Center. Joni Yoswein, of Yoswein New York, will moderate a discussion featuring Ingrid Lewis Martin, senior advisor to Borough President Eric Adams; Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon; and Senator Roxanne J. Persaud.

At noon Friday, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer will speak “at 106th anniversary commemoration of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, Washington Place and Greene Street.”

On Saturday, Cycle 6 Voting Week for Participatory Budgeting will begin.

At about 9:30 a.m. Saturday, Manhattan BP Brewer will speak at the “33rd annual GreenThumb GrowTogether Conference, Hostos Community College.”

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

Adjusting to Albany: Senator Jamaal Bailey

jamaal bailey

Sen. Jamaal Bailey (photo via @jamaaltbailey)

State Senator Jamaal Bailey knows his way around Albany. A University of Albany graduate, Bailey launched his legislative career as an intern for Assemblymember Carl Heastie, who is now Speaker of the Assembly and one of most powerful people in the state. Working for Heastie, Bailey was instrumental in pushing legislation to enact more stringent safety measures on nicotine-laced water, a bill that eventually became law, and one that he’s proud of today.

A Democrat who grew up in Co-Op City in the Bronx, Bailey went on to serve as District Leader for the 83rd Assembly District and, most recently, as Heastie’s community relations director. In 2016, state Senator Ruth Hassell-Thompson, representing parts of the Bronx and Mount Vernon, left the Senate for a position in Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration. Bailey -- with the backing of the Bronx Democratic County Party -- ran for the 36th District seat, and won by a wide margin after beating four other candidates in a crowded primary.

Now, the youngest member of the Senate (Bailey is 34) is looking to make an impact outside of Heastie’s shadow. But, he faces a challenging climate on several fronts. At the top of the list is the fact that Democrats are in the minority in the state Senate, which makes moving priorities difficult.

In February, Gotham Gazette spoke with Bailey about starting his tenure as a state senator, making his voice heard, his priorities for the coming legislative session, and more.

GG: How is your first month at the Senate going? What’s the orientation like?

JB: I’m really excited about being able to lead the community that I’ve grown up in and to just be able to represent them in Albany. Honestly, it’s an amazing feeling; it’s an amazing pleasure.

The training is kind of hit the ground running. You get familiar with what’s in the building, the support staff and how they do it. But a lot of the preparation, it just comes in real time. Just seeing the bill and you have to vote on it. You go to committees and see what kind of policy is being advanced.

A lot of it is on-the-job training, despite the fact that my conference has done a lot in terms of getting me oriented and teaching me the ropes. But I feel like when it’s game time, it’s just a different feeling when it’s real.

GG: You got your start working for Speaker Carl Heastie, so you are familiar with Albany, but what’s your commute and living arrangement like?

JB: The commute itself isn’t bad. As you said, I used to work for the Speaker, so I’m used to it. I also went to University of Albany. The more difficult portion about the commute, the hardest part, is being away from my two daughters.

I drive; I’m on my own schedule. I know other members prefer the train and it gives them time to think and read and digest things, and I think that’s awesome, you know, to each their own. If I want to come down and see my family after a session, and drive back up, it gives me flexibility. I have a 2-year-old and 2-month-old.

GG: How do you connect with your 2-year-old during session? Facetime?

JB: Absolutely, I don’t know how my predecessors in the state Legislature did it before without Facetime -- and I don’t want to know. It’s not face-to-face interaction, but I get to see my wife and my children and even if I’m 150 miles away, it’s something positive.

GG: Where do you stay when you are in Albany?

JB: I generally try to stay uptown at the University of Albany. It’s a little bit out of the way, and I guess I’m familiar with the territory. Restaurants: The Wings over Albany was my college favorite — and I still frequent there — on Western Avenue.

Also, the City Line Diner is also on Western Avenue. My chief of staff, Jason, and I travel up there. Those are my favorite locations so far. The New World Bistro, a colleague introduced us to that location and it’s a pretty good place as well. Having been up here before, it helps. It’s a little different than being a student, but knowing where things like the mall is, and Target — those little things help.

GG: Have you had much floor time?

JB: I think I spoke on the floor four or five times [so far]. The first time I spoke was concerning a resolution concerning Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It was a honor to have that be my first time speaking on the floor of the Senate, at such a hallowed institution, and about such a revered individual, so I was honored to do that.

Concerning matters that would be specifically related to my constituency — I think everything is related to my constituency — I just haven’t spoken a lot on bills, so to speak.

GG: What policies would you like to see passed this session?

JB: I’m solidly behind raising the age of criminal responsibility. As you know, New York State is one of only two states that prosecute 16- and 17-year-olds this way. It’s obviously much more nuanced than just a hashtag. I think it has to be well thought out and implemented properly, but I am hopeful that we can raise the age of criminal responsibility.

I would also like to see the Dream Act passed. There are so many folks that are undocumented individuals who are seeking an education and the Dream Act would be able to assist them. I’m also a huge proponent of local business cooperatives. I believe it could be a method of building community wealth that we really haven’t examined as a state, so I would like to direct my colleagues in that direction -- of taking a hard look at cooperatives as a form of economic development, which we haven’t as a state yet.

I’m also a proponent of making sure people are eating healthy. Trying to attack the issue of food deserts and eating healthy. These are all issues that I care about and I am honored of being one of a few individuals who has the honor of calling himself senator.

GG: Is it difficult being in the minority, particularly at a time when the Democratic conference is so fractured?

JB: You obviously would like to be in a position where you’re able to set policy and govern, but being in the minority, it doesn’t mean you don’t try. You still fight just as hard as I would if I was in the majority conference. I think it’s very important to me -- especially as a freshman -- to remember what I’m doing this for I need to make sure I’m advancing the wants and needs of my constituents.

It’s a different situation, but I am hopeful that we can one day come together and govern together as Democrats. That would be a goal to see that we can set some progressive policy, and ideal for the residents of the state of New York.

GG: Anything unexpected or surprising about working at the state Legislature?

JB: I would say that I am excited that I have a great staff, and I get to have great young folks that work for me. I am the youngest member of the state Senate now. On the first day of orientation I spoke to Senator [David] Carlucci [of the IDC] and he said told me, essentially -- and I’m paraphrasing -- “Congratulations, you are now the youngest senator.” It had formerly been Senator Carlucci.

There is a point a pride in being the the youngest member of a legislative body and I want to make sure I’m setting an example especially for the young people in my district, that you know, you can be anything you want to be. I spoke to two different groups today: I spoke to high school kids and for a Black History celebration, to third-to-fifth-graders. I want the children to know that I grew up in the Northeast Bronx just like them, and went to school there. I want the children in my district to know that being a state legislator was not something that I thought was within the realm of possibility. I want to be a shining example of what you could be if you work hard, and stay focused, and set goals for yourself.

[Read more from our series, Adjusting to Albany: Meet NYC's New Class of State Legislators]

by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Adjusting to Albany: Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou


Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou (photo via @yuhline)

Yuh-Line Niou, Assemblymember for the 65th District in Lower Manhattan, has a tough task. The new Assembly member takes the seat held by disgraced former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver for 40 years. Niou won the September 2016 Democratic primary -- backed by the Working Families Party -- and November general election after losing a prior special election to Alice Cancel, who had been the choice of the Silver machine.

Now, she must navigate growing into her role as an elected official, managing constituent services in a district that once got special attention given Silver’s powerful perch, and making her mark on Albany’s crowded landscape.

In February, Nious spoke with Gotham Gazette about the challenges of meeting the outsized expectations of her district, getting to know her new colleagues and figuring out how to be heard in a notoriously dysfunctional state government. She also shared some of the less glamorous aspects of being a new legislator from New York City, such as taking the train to and from Albany and ordering pizza to her hotel.

GG: How was your first month as a state legislator? What was orientation like?

YLN: The first month has been pretty hectic. It’s been exciting in a lot of ways, but it’s also a lot to take in. It’s a pretty steep learning curve, because everybody else seems to know what’s going on a lot more than I do. It’s been also really exciting to get to know a lot of my colleagues. My cohort -- it’s very exciting for us to be together, because we’re all freshmen together, and there’s about 11 of us on the Dems side. It’s been kind of fun, that part of it...There’s a lot of folks that just listening to them talk and understanding some of the issues that they are fighting for, I admire them.

GG: What’s your commute like? Where do you stay? Favorite restaurants? Tell us about your day-to-day.

YLN: Actually, because there’s been so many events going on in-district, I commute Sunday night and I take the latest train usually. Sometimes it’s 9 p.m. and sometimes 11 p.m. I take the Penn Station Amtrak, and usually when I get [to Albany] it’s around midnight, or if I got the 11 o’clock, it’s like 2:30 a.m. But I try to go to as many district events as possible before I leave; because we’re up here, we don’t to get to be in the district as much as we would like and people want to see me out there. But because of the schedule and how busy it is is [in Albany] -- It’s almost budget season, it’s actually the last day for budget letters -- everything is really hectic.

I’m staying at the Holiday Inn Express — very fancy! — I actually have not gone out to eat at all really. Sometimes in the dead of night, when we finally get done with everything, it’s like 11 p.m., and everything’s closed. I go back to the Holiday Inn, and then I order pizza.

GG: Have you had much Assembly floor time? Do you speak up for your constituents?

YLN: It’s really great, because they help us by putting things into packages and days. So there hasn’t been much difficulty with drafting policy or the legislative schedule yet. I think that things get full and really crazy fast right after the budget is done — for the policy side.

Right now, we’ve done a lot on women’s rights and I was able to speak up on reproductive health. We had a bunch of resolutions heard. Mine was the Lunar New Year resolution, and it was really great, because over 80 legislators signed on to it. We also had the immigrant rights debate, a lot of criminal justice reform debates. So those were really impactful right now, because of what’s going on on a federal level.

GG: You are coming in during a strange climate given what’s going on nationally. How has the Trump administration shaped your priorities?

YLN: That a really big question. One of the things that I’m lucky enough to be a part of, is being part of ‘the people’s budget,’ I’m one of the legislators who is helping to put it together — and that’s the document that the Black, Hispanic, Asian and Puerto Rican Caucus put together. It’s really exciting. We get to talk a lot about the things I just mentioned, with criminal justice reform, and immigrant rights and women's rights. And we get to talk a lot about what we, as a caucus, would like to focus on. The other budgets don’t necessarily make those things a priority, so at least it’s a document for folks who believe in those things to have a voice. It’s a very exciting project and I’m really honored to be a part of it.

One of the pieces -- because of the weird climate -- one of the things I got to speak up on, was stopping data registries, and I think that’s really important because I know the city is going through some stuff with the [IDNYC (municipal identification card)] program. We are all trying do our best to look at what’s happening, and then do really good preparation to be a good buffer and good representation of our district.

GG: You get this question a lot, but, Asian-Americans have been underrepresented in public office in New York State for so long. As the first Asian-American state legislator representing Manhattan, is there a lot of pressure to be a voice for an entire ethnic group?

YLN: I worked for [Assemblymember] Ron [Kim] last year and he was the only Asian-American on the entire state level — I bet he felt that! Right now, there’s both me and him, and it’s nice. But I also know that there are many of our colleagues that have very large Asian-American populations, and many of them have been very good at representing those communities in those districts as well. But yes, of course, a lot of people are going to come to our office with a lot of language-access needs, and immigration issues, and things like that. Just very basic things, like how to use mail. These are things Ron and I had to deal with that a lot at his office, because he was the only Asian-American elected on the entire state level, so many times a lot of those issues came to us.

I don’t get tired of the question, by the way. I think it’s sad that we have to keep asking the question more than anything. Because, I think that you are right, absolutely, we are the most underrepresented minority in New York State and the most rapidly growing as well in our state. We are at least 10 percent of the population in our state and we definitely don’t even have 1 percent of representation on a state level. That’s shocking, for sure. I think it's upsetting in the sense that, ‘Oh, I can’t believe I am the first on a state level,’ because I didn’t think that that was still a thing, but unfortunately, it is. I think it's very important to represent my whole district, but it is also a community that grew together, and everybody is supportive of one another. That’s why it’s such an incredible district.

GG: Any other surprising moments or takeaways from the past month and a half?

YLN: There hasn’t been anything completely unexpected, but I definitely have just been just moved by how supportive everyone is. Especially with my office, the speaker [Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie] has been very, very good with my district and understanding the difficulty that I am under.

Given the history of this office, I think that we know that this district was serviced like no other district, because there were a lot of resources that, having the former speaker represent the district, that the district would have. Certain expectations have been set by the seat, which means I have to provide a very high level of constituent service and representation, but with only a fraction of the budget.

I was very moved and surprised by how much the Speaker understands that, and by how supportive the staff has been, on [The] Ways and Means [Committee], and the different committees, how they’ve been for our district in general, because it's got to be a drastic change.

I think it's my responsibility to the district to ensure that I’m super responsive, that we are able to get to folks’ needs very quickly and efficiently, because it's crucial. This is a constituency that literally had the most service and then almost no service for a period of time. It’s been a shock to the system. I’m hoping to make sure we are 100 percent accessible, that we are always transparent, and my priority is always constituents first.

[Read more from our series, Adjusting to Albany: Meet NYC's New Class of State Legislators]

by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Adjusting to Albany: Assemblymember Robert Carroll

robert carroll

Assemblymember Bobby Carroll (photo via @Bobby4Brooklyn)

A lifelong resident of Windsor Terrace, Robert “Bobby” Carroll hails from something of a Brooklyn political dynasty. His grandfather co-founded the influential Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats (CBID) club, and, until he assumed his state Assembly seat, Bobby Carroll served as the club’s youngest president. Carroll previously worked as an attorney alongside his father, John Carroll, who has also served as CBID’s president, and in 2001 ran unsuccessfully against Mayor Bill de Blasio in a Democratic primary for City Council.

Bobby Carroll is also a cousin of Bay Ridge Democratic district leader Kevin Peter Carroll, who is currently running for the 43rd City Council District seat.

Carroll’s name recognition and political connections likely helped him shore up endorsements early in the race for the 44th Assembly District seat -- including from his now predecessor, Assemblymember James Brennan, who was retiring, other electeds, political clubs, and good government groups -- and now he is eager to make a name for himself as a progressive reformer on the state level.

Gotham Gazette spoke with Carroll in February about his priorities for the upcoming session, his first few weeks in the Legislature, and more.

GG: What was the orientation like? Was there a sexual harassment training?

RC: We took several ethics courses and general orientation. And I believe all Assembly members go through sexual harassment training every two years. I am not sure which ones were because I am a freshman and which are regular training sessions.

I noticed that you had the opportunity to to speak up on the floor in defense of the City Council’s plastic bag bill, despite the fact that the Legislature voted to block it. Were you disappointed with the way your chamber voted?

Well I voted no, so obviously I would have rathered us not override the City Council bill. But, you know, that’s part of politics and part of democracy, that you are not always going to agree with your colleagues. What I do think is really important in government — and it’s the reason I’m in government— is to be a voice for your constituents, and to be your own voice, so then you can stand up and say ‘this is what I think, this is what I’ve decided on this issue.’

I think it’s important to have an open and transparent debate so the vast views of our conference and our state are fully expressed on the floor of the Assembly and the state Senate, so that we can finally come to some type of agreement about how we are going to move forward in New York State.

GG: Are there bills you are working on? What are your priorities for the session?

RC: We are working on some of the bills that Assembly Member Brennan had. He had a lot of bills in the 32 years that he was in office. That is just one set of bills that we are working on. We are also working on a bunch of bills around electoral reform, criminal justice reform right now. These issues are very, very pressing.

We have the budget coming up, it's going to monopolize a lot of time for the next six weeks. [The budget] is...a very good litmus test for what we care about in the state, what we are going to spend money on. I think it's absolutely imperative that we make sure that we fully fund our public school system in New York City. If you look at the CFE [Campaign for Fiscal Equity], we are still short about $1.6 billion. It’s very, very important to have that fully funded.

I think it’s very, very important to really dig down deep and see if we are actually funding the MTA capital budget through 2019. I think the projections that some folks have on operating funds that are going to come in through tolls and fares and other ways of raising revenues for the MTA are very optimistic. But we need to have very, very tough conversations about how we are investing in our education and our infrastructure. If we are investing in our infrastructure, those are great ways to spur business and create better lives for New Yorkers.

GG: Are you enjoying Albany? The commute? Any favorite restaurants?

RC: I really like it. I take the train up. I enjoy the train — it’s a beautiful train ride on Amtrak. It’s quicker than driving most of the time. It’s only about two-and-a-half hours from Penn Station and from where I live it’s only about 30 minutes on the subway to Penn Station, so it’s really quick.

I usually writes some emails, read the paper. There’s WiFi, so I’ll usually watch something on Netflix. When I’m up there I’ve been hopping around, a couple hotels, bed and breakfasts, kind of getting the lay of the land and a couple of different neighborhoods in Albany. I don’t drive, so I like to be within a 10- or 15-minute walk to the Capitol.

I went out with my parents to Jack’s Oyster House — that was pretty cool, I really like that place on State Street, they have good oysters and pretty good steak. It’s a little expensive for a legislator to be going there often. There are a couple of different bars and restaurants a couple of Assembly members and I -- and some other folks -- have gone out to on occasion. But we are also in chambers a lot, just this Monday we were in chambers until 10:30 [p.m.]. So it's not a place where it's like happy hour every night. It’s 6:30 [p.m.] and people are like, ‘Oh, well, what are we going to do?’

GG: Any moment you are particularly proud of or any disappointments, such as the plastic bag issue, for example?

RC: I wouldn’t consider the plastic bag thing a disappointment. I spoke up on behalf of my constituents and what I thought was right. I think if you are going to be in politics, you have to understand that you’re not going to win every fight, and you have to be ready to stay in the arena. I think there are going to be a lot of issues like that. I used to practice election law before I got here. We were with Attorney General Schneiderman...when he introduced his package of reforms.

We are not only going to be fierce advocates for Schneiderman’s reform package, we are going have a couple bills in the next few weeks that are going to push that even further. I think we are going to be introducing a whole host of bills that will end up helping folks if we are talking about criminal justice, if we are talking about education, and if we are talking about our transportation system.

[Read more from our series, Adjusting to Albany: Meet NYC's New Class of State Legislators]

by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Adjusting to Albany: Meet NYC’s New Class of State Legislators


photo via @NYSCapitolTours

While the ethics trainings and orientation for new state legislators may have evolved over the years, one thing has remained constant: the daunting task of navigating the Capitol’s maze-like corridors during one’s first weeks of work in Albany.

Orientation provides some roadmap to Albany’s byzantine legislative processes, including workshops in drafting bills, organizing a press conference, and conducting research, and legislative staffers are provided for support, but it can take a few weeks, if not months, for newly minted politicians to fully acclimate to life as a state lawmaker.

In fact, much of the training happens on the job, according Assemblymember Tom McKevitt, who oversees the trainings for incoming Assembly members in the chamber’s Republican minority.

“For many people they are coming to a different part of the state, they are leaving their families, leaving their hometowns, to come to a very different place,” said McKevitt, who represents part of Long Island, and has served in the Assembly for just over a decade. “New York State government is a massive operation. It really is. So we try to give them as much knowledge as possible and give them as much resources as possible to get them as productive a start to their legislative careers.”

All new legislators in the Senate and the Assembly receive mandated training when they begin their legislative careers in Albany. In addition, each party conference provides training, as McKevitt indicated for the Assembly minority.


* AM Yuh-Line Niou
* Sen. Jamaal Bailey
* AM Robert Carroll
* AM Carmen De La Rosa
* AM Brian Barnwell
* AM Tremaine Wright
* AM Stacey Pheffer Amato
* Sen. Marisol Alcantara
* AM Clyde Vanel
* AM Inez Dickens

This year, there are 10 new state lawmakers from New York City, joining the 150-seat Assembly, which is dominated by Democrats, and the 63-seat Senate, which is narrowly controlled by Republicans. All of the new reps from the city are Democrats -- there are only a handful of New York City Republicans in the Legislature altogether, mostly from Staten Island.

Gotham Gazette began interviewing each of those 10 new members in February to gauge how they are adjusting to life in the state Legislature, which is notoriously dysfunctional and insulated, and has seen its share of corruption scandals in recent years.

While the first weeks of the legislative calendar leading up to one-house budgets in March are always fairly intense for new legislators, this year appears to have been more so. As with other state capitals and city halls around the country, the inauguration of President Donald Trump, followed by the unconventional president’s chaotic first two months in office, have cast a long shadow over governing in New York.

As the Trump administration rushes to follow through on campaign promises to scale back reproductive rights, repeal the Affordable Care Act, and ban immigrants from select countries, many legislators, especially Democrats, are feeling more uncertainty and a greater sense of urgency. Both come in part from their constituents -- New Yorkers who overwhelmingly voted for Hillary Clinton in November.

Several incoming lawmakers hailing from the five boroughs are facing challenging political climates in their districts and given local political dynamics. Yuh-Line Niou, now representing Lower Manhattan’s 65th Assembly District, must deliver for a constituency accustomed to receiving an exceptionally high level of resources given that the seat had been held for decades by (now convicted) former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

The 31st Senate District’s new representative, Marisol Alcantara, is a member of the Senate’s Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), at a time when the breakaway group of Democrats that forms a coalition majority with Republicans is facing some significant backlash. Meanwhile, Senator Jamaal Bailey, of the 36th Senate District, is joining the mainline Senate Democratic Conference that is struggling in the minority.

To begin our series on new city-based state legislators, Gotham Gazette spoke with Niou, Bailey, and Brooklyn Assemblymember Robert Carroll. Read their interviews through the links below, and stay tuned for our interviews with the seven other new lawmakers from the five boroughs. 

yuh line niou2
Yuh-Line Niou

Assemblymember for the 65th District
Lower Manhattan
Elected 2016; took office 2017
Democrat & Working Families Party
“This is a constituency that literally had the most service and then almost no service for a period of time. It’s been a shock to the system.”
READ THE FULL INTERVIEW with Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou

jamaal bailey
Jamaal Bailey

State Senator for the 36th District
Parts of the Bronx and Mount Vernon
Elected 2016; took office 2017
Democrat & Working Families Party
“But a lot of the preparation, it just comes in real-time. Just seeing the bill and you have to vote on it.”
READ THE FULL INTERVIEW with Senator Jamaal Bailey

robert carroll 2
Robert Carroll

Assembly Member for 44th District
Brooklyn (Windsor Terrace, Kensington, Park Slope, Flatbush)
Elected 2016; took office 2017
Democrat & Working Families Party
“I think if you are going to be in politics, you have to understand that you’re not going to win every fight, and you have to be ready to stay in the arena.” 
READ THE FULL INTERVIEW with Assembly Member Robert Carroll

Carmen for assembly
Carmen De La Rosa

Assembly Member for 72nd District
Manhattan (Harlem, Inwood, Hamilton Heights, and Washington Heights)
Elected 2016; took office 2017
Democrat & Working Families Party
“It’s definitely a great place to be, coming from the City Council, it’s sort of government on a larger scale, so it’s a welcome challenge for me.”
READ THE FULL INTERVIEW with Assemblymember Carmen De La Rosa

Brian Bramwell
Brian Barnwell

Assembly member for the 30th District
Parts of Astoria, Long Island City, Maspeth, Middle Village, and Woodside
Elected 2016; took office 2017
“The budget process was certainly long, but I don’t have a problem with that. In my opinion, it’s better to negotiate and negotiate and negotiate, instead of just doing the deal for the sake of doing a deal.”
READ THE FULL INTERVIEW with Assemblymember Brian Barnwell

Coming soon, interviews with:

  • Assemblymember Tremaine Wright
  • Assemblymember Stacey Pheffer Amato
  • Senator Marisol Alacantra
  • Assemblymember Clyde Vanel
  • Assemblymember Inez Dickens

by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Since State of the State, Cuomo Silent on Ethics Reform

Cuomo policy book Albany

Gov. Cuomo (photo: Governor's Office, flickr)

For the second year in a row, in his January State of the State, Governor Andrew Cuomo laid out an ambitious ethics reform agenda that touched on a variety of issues and aimed at restoring public trust in New York State’s scandal-plagued government. But, also for a second year in a row, Cuomo has not followed up with any discernible public push to rally support for that agenda or put pressure on members of the state Legislature to pass it.

Acknowledging that corruption and greed had tainted all branches of government, including his executive branch, Cuomo said on January 11 in Albany, “Imagine what we could do if we had the complete confidence of the people. If we had that confidence, there is nothing we couldn’t do – and I am not going to stop until I get there.”

Cuomo outlined his ten-point ethics and good government agenda in his Albany State of the State speech, his 2017 policy book, and his executive budget proposal -- which is significant in that the governor is again proposing to push through government ethics policy in the state’s spending plan. The budget process is where Cuomo has the most leverage over the Legislature, but that has not paved the way for pushing through reform measures.

The governor’s agenda -- put forth after major corruption scandals in the Legislature and the governor’s inner circle over the past two years -- includes campaign finance reform and transparency and oversight measures. “This bill contains provisions needed to enact into law major components of legislation relating to Good Government and Ethics Reform,” Cuomo’s budget bill says, under “purpose.”

But while Cuomo outlined the need for new campaign finance and ethics measures and proposed a slate of reforms, as in years past, the governor has made virtually no mention of these reforms since, nor has he indicated how he will persuade a resistant Legislature to pass them. Cuomo has made a variety of public appearances since his early January State of the State tour, but none have focused on government ethics or campaign finance reform.

A spokesperson for the governor said that Cuomo’s priorities have not shifted, and that ethics will factor into budget negotiations this month. Cuomo and legislative leaders must agree to a new state budget by the April 1 start to the next fiscal year.

“The Governor has included comprehensive ethics reform in his Executive Budget proposal just as he has every other year. We will continue to strongly advocate for the passage of these meaningful reforms and we urge the Legislature to join us in this effort,” said Cuomo spokesperson Abbey Fashouer, in a statement to Gotham Gazette.

While Cuomo may pursue ethics measures in closed-door negotiations, his public priorities have been elsewhere. The governor has promoted state infrastructure spending and investments in Central Brooklyn, traveled to Israel to condemn anti-semitism and show solidarity, and made other public appearances, including a rare cabinet meeting at the Capitol.

Meanwhile, this week the two legislative houses passed their one-house budget resolutions, and offered little indication that the governor’s ethics agenda or reforms sought by good government advocates are on the precipice. Over the six-plus years Cuomo has been governor, there have been various incremental ethics reform measures passed, but they have proved insufficient in preventing corruption in state government.

In 2016, in the wake of the arrests of then Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos on public corruption charges, Cuomo proposed similar reforms in his State of the State, but was criticized for neglecting to push for them publicly. Most of the measures were not passed -- particularly because of an obstinate Republican majority in the Senate -- and those that did were again seen as small, mostly symbolic steps, insufficient for fixing Albany’s systemic pattern of corruption.

Then, last year, the spotlight moved from the Legislature to the Cuomo administration and orbit. Nine Cuomo associates, including his longtime friend and advisor Joseph Percoco, were arrested for their roles in a massive bid-rigging, bribery, and kickback scandal related to Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion and other economic development efforts. This increased scrutiny in his own front yard, coupled with an increasingly fraught relationship with state legislators may diminish some of the governor’s willingness to barter for the reforms, according to John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany.

"His moral authority to pummel the Legislature is not very high right now. Because instead of the Legislature being on political trial because of Skelos and Silver, it’s the governor this time,” Kaehny said. “So every time the governor brings up issues like limits on outside income -- which good government groups advocate for -- for legislators, they are just going to say, ‘well, who’s on trial, you or us?’"

In the wake of the scandal, Cuomo renewed his call for ethics reforms and vowed to appoint a procurement officer to review all state contracts “with an eye towards eliminating any wrongdoing, conflicts of interest or collusion.” But, this and other proposals Cuomo has made for new ways in which he will monitor executive branch operations have come up short for critics who note that Cuomo’s solutions keep mechanisms under his purview, instead of empowering independent, outside regulators.

Cuomo sought to levy some of his proposed ethics reforms at the Legislature, including term limits for lawmakers and restrictions on outside income, in exchange for a pay raise, a move that enraged state lawmakers who have not seen a salary increase since 1999. A pay raise commission imploded and talks went nowhere, though they could be resurrected when the “three men in a room” start to hash things out.

"I think any hope in big progress this session was wrecked by the whole fight over the pay raise, which was perceived as incredibly bad faith by the governor by the Legislature,” said Kaehny.

Also quieter this year are editorial boards and good government groups, who last March called on those “three men in a room” -- Cuomo, Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie -- to have an open and transparent meeting on proposed ethics reforms.

This budget season, advocates and reformers in and out of government have turned their attention to a clean contracting campaign as a result of the bid-rigging scandal. Many have called for reinstating Comptroller Tom DiNapoli’s power to review contracts that go through government-created nonprofits, like those at the center of the economic development scandal. Cuomo and the Legislature voted to strip DiNapoli of this authority in 2011.

Little has seemed to grab the attention of legislators, other than many Democrats in both chambers who are pushing for campaign finance reform, starting with closure of the LLC loophole. And Cuomo, defiant in the face of calls for reforms that bring outside oversight to his administration, does not seem particularly animated by his desire to push through ethics and campaign finance reform.

by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

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