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Several Significant Questions About The Governor's Budget


Cuomo built to lead sots

Gov. Cuomo at his State of the State (via The Governor's Office)


Gov. Andrew Cuomo's 2016-2017 budget proposal has legislators and budget experts scratching their heads as to how major capital projects will be paid for, how the state plans to make good on a promise to fund the MTA, and how certain measures might affect funding for New York City. Many are wondering if the governor will keep his pledge that his plan to shift millions in costs for CUNY and Medicaid "won't cost New York City a penny."

These questions linger almost two months after the plan was first released, rankling Mayor Bill de Blasio, City Council members, and city-based state legislators, and alarming budget watchdogs.

Only one month remains until the April 1 start of the new fiscal year and budget negotiations have been muted. State of Politics reports that there was an initial budget conversation on Wednesday morning among Cuomo and legislative leaders. The way Cuomo has positioned things, there are questions about whether the State Assembly and Speaker Carl Heastie, de Blasio's most important ally, will be willing and able to take on the political cost of going to battle for the city - on CUNY, Medicaid, and other issues like affordable housing bonds and homelessness-prevention vouchers. The Legislature recently finished holding budget hearings and the Assembly and Senate one-house budgets are expected imminently.

Potential state cuts loomed large over the initial New York City Council preliminary budget hearing on Tuesday, at which de Blasio's budget director reiterated several times that possible state cuts could be crippling to the city, but that the city plans to hold the governor to his word and that Assembly Democrats will be essential in the process.

Cuomo's move to have New York City assume additional MTA, CUNY, and Medicaid cuts are among his most controversial, along with the governor's plan to take more control of affordable housing being built in the city. While many await more detail from the governor as the clock ticks, there is also mystery around major infrastructure projects for the metropolitan region that the governor is overseeing as well as a proposal from the governor to create a new entity to take more control of such projects.

As the governor pushes other policies that city Democrats back, like a minimum wage increase and paid family leave, he appears to be exacting whatever costs from the city he can in order to both undermine de Blasio and help the state pay its obligations.

Cuomo has a variety of government ethics reform proposals in his budget, but he has not been promoting them publicly, leaving many to wonder their fate. Meanwhile, in recent days new light has been shone on billions of dollars in the governor's budget with no determined purpose, to be used by Cuomo and legislative leaders as they see fit at a later date.

The City's Burden
A recent evaluation of New York City finances by State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli warned that Governor Cuomo's budget provides major economic threat to the city. "The largest and most immediate budget risk is the proposed state Executive Budget, which includes three proposals that would increase the city's costs by $985 million in FY 2017 and by about $1.2 billion in each subsequent year (a total of $4.8 billion during the financial plan period)," reads the comptroller's report.

It continues: "The two proposals with the greatest budgetary impact ($785 million in FY 2017 alone) would require New York City to pay a larger share of the local cost of Medicaid and of the costs of the senior colleges of the City University of New York. After the release of the Executive Budget, the Governor stated that efficiencies would be identified to mitigate the budgetary impact of these proposals, but such savings have not yet been identified."

The Citizens Budget Commission, a nonprofit, nonpartisan watchdog based in New York City, quickly cried foul over the proposals in Cuomo's budget that would move costs for CUNY and Medicaid to the city (both are joint city-state programs that the state has traditionally supported to a far greater degree than the city).

CBC estimates the shift would cost the city $800 million. De Blasio pledged he would do "whatever it takes" to stop the plan, saying it could impact major plans to expand pre-kindergarten and other initiatives. As focus on the budget measure intensified Cuomo characterized the plan as a mutual agreement between the city and state to find efficiencies in the programs. De Blasio had only met briefly with Cuomo before the State of the State address and said he had learned about the shift that could cost the city nearly a billion dollars when most New Yorkers did.

Cuomo, in a NY1 interview, claimed "At the end of the day, what you will see is it won't cost New York City a penny, but we will make joint streamlining policy efficiency changes."

Some observers expected Cuomo to adjust the plan in his 30-day budget amendments, but nothing about it changed - apparently leaving it up to the city's allies in the Legislature to negotiate it.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, the city's most powerful advocate in Albany, has expressed major concern over the plans, but it appears that he would have to own the cost of a change as part of budget negotiations, possibly preempting other major initiatives his conference wants.

E.J. McMahon, president of the Empire Center, a budget-focused think tank, said he believes that undoing Cuomo's plan would cost Heastie "$500 million" during negotiations which would limit what else Assembly Democrats could bargain for given that Cuomo appears committed to a 2 percent overall cap on spending growth.

The governor's budget makes for 1.7 percent spending growth so there isn't much room for new initiatives and losing the savings created by the cost shift would further tighten the equation. "1.7 to 2 [percent] is $300 million," said McMahon, "So $500 million is a pretty significant number in budget negotiations."

Dave Friedfel of the CBC agrees. "To add $500 million back on to the budget would blow through the governor's spending cap. It will have a major impact on negotiations," Friedfel said.

The Fiscal Policy Institute, also a think tank, argued in its budget testimony that the state should scrap the 2 percent spending cap. "There is no reason to hold annual spending growth below two percent if it means that we are under-investing in education and poverty reduction," reads the FPI testimony. "This unforced austerity has already caused the state to underinvest in several critical areas, and the continuation of the cap guarantees further harmful cuts to local governments, education and human service programs."

Meanwhile, Heastie has pressed for a millionaire's tax that would allow the state to spend more on education. The Cuomo administration has derided the plan and Heastie has fired back. Mayor de Blasio has continued to express support for raising taxes on the highest earners, but he has not made a focused push on the issue since his efforts failed in 2014.

Asked about whether there have been joint efforts between the Cuomo and de Blasio administrations to find efficiencies as the governor discussed, Morris Peters, spokesperson for the division of budget, said in a statement: "We have been having conversations with our partners in government and we will continue to do so."

During City Council budget testimony on Tuesday, de Blasio's budget director Dean Fuleihan said that talks had yet to occur between the city and state but that he expects them to take place soon.

"I've also said I'm going to take him at his word, but I'll hold him to it," de Blasio told a gathering of the state Legislature's Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic, and Asian Caucus last month, referring to Gov. Cuomo and the CUNY and Medicaid cuts. "When the budget is passed on April 1 I fully expect there won't be any negative impact on New York City," de Blasio continued. "He said it won't cost us a single cent. That's what we expect, and I think a lot of people are going to make sure that happens."

Construction & Housing Takeovers
Another, little-discussed measure contained in Gov. Cuomo's budget would see the creation of "The New York State Design and Construction Corp." that would be given oversight of public construction projects worth over $50 million. The DCC would be a subsidiary of the state's Dormitory Authority and would be headed by three commissioners, all appointed by the governor.

"The DCC's primary purpose will be to provide additional project management expertise and oversight on significant public works projects undertaken by state agencies, departments, public authorities and public benefit corporations throughout the state," reads the governor's State of the State policy book.

The proposal has raised concerns for legislators and budget watchdogs who believe Cuomo is trying to have more influence over independent authorities like the MTA. The MTA board is made up of members appointed by the city and other localities serviced by the agency. The Governor also appoints members and names the chair. Representatives of Citizens Budget Commission (CBC) are concerned the body would create more bureaucracy and confusion. For example, the DCC could void contracts signed by the MTA. CBC has written legislators urging them to oppose the plan.

John Kaehny, of watchdog group Reinvent Albany, said he was taken aback by the plan. "The Dormitory Authority is the premier slush fund for pork barrel spending. To house a project management agency within it is alarming. We agree with budget watchdog groups who view this as a power grab and another attempt to reduce transparency and accountability."

"What is his motivation for proposing this unprecedented design and construction corporation?" asked McMahon, of The Empire Center. "It will allow [Cuomo] to reach in and take control of any project he wants. The governor is the kind of guy who will say 'Stop that, give it to me, I can do it better!' The governor likes to draw power to the center, to the top, to him."

Cuomo is also looking to increase the state's say over New York City development of affordable housing. Per the governor's plans, The Public Authorities Control Board would be allowed to veto individual housing projects proposed by the city that utilize tax-exempt bonds, given to the state by the federal government, which the state then allocates to municipalities.

Cuomo administration officials say the plan would add a new level of transparency to a system that allocates billions of dollars to construction each year. City officials and affordable housing developers say that there is no need for another level of bureaucracy.

The Control Board is made up of the governor and both legislative leaders. Mayor de Blasio has panned the proposal, as have a number of contractors and housing advocates who worry the plan will create overlap and uncertainty around badly-needed projects that increase affordable housing stock. The Real Estate Board of New York has also raised concerns that more state say would create uncertainty and possibly confuse lending institutions.

"We think adding these additional layers will only slow down the process at a point where thousands and thousands of people are waiting for housing that will allow them and their families to be able to make ends meet," de Blasio told legislators during budget testimony earlier this year.

Adding to the drama around the city's affordable housing plans, De Blasio administration officials, housing advocates and developers are also growing nervous that Cuomo may continue to divert some of the flow of federal housing bonds that the city relies on to create affordable housing. After doing so with millions of dollars in bonds that the city thought it could count on in 2015, Cuomo is considering using the bonds for the state's newly expanded role in creating affordable housing. During his State of the State, Cuomo outlined general plans to invest billions in affordable housing, but he has yet to flesh those plans out. His policy book promised details "in the coming weeks."

MTA Financing
Last year, Cuomo and his MTA Chair Thomas Prendergast began a campaign to push the city to contribute more to the MTA capital plan. Eventually a deal was struck where the city agreed to contribute $2.5 billion and the governor pledging an additional $7.3 billion, bringing the state's total pledged contribution to $8.3 billion, all part of the $26 billion overall five-year plan. For months Cuomo was asked how the state would pay its share and he retorted that the question would be answered in his budget.

His budget plan simply raised more questions. Cuomo's plan appropriates $1 billion for the MTA capital plan and pledges to provide more of the promised $8.3 billion when the MTA spends through other capital funding. The city has in turn put off its commitment to extra funding since the city-state agreement was contingent upon parallel fund allocation.

Budget experts believe the Cuomo administration will allow the MTA to issue bonds to raise the $7.3 billion once it spends the funds it has on hand. "[The governor] already committed to $8.3 million for the MTA and we all wondered where that would come from," said McMahon. "The answer is that the MTA commitment he signed was not worth the paper it was written on. Once the MTA is done spending money it raises itself, the state will direct them to issue their own bonds."

Jamison Dague of CBC said that while the MTA has a backlog of projects that need to be addressed, he would like to see the state spell out specific funding for the agency. "What they've done here is tell the MTA, 'You have resources to draw down before we come in with the pledge.' The MTA has a lot of capital funding sources they are still trying to spend."

However, Dague said knowing where the state funding is coming from is prudent for both the MTA and state's long-term planning. "You always want to identify revenue for big capital work before you get going with big contracts," Dague said.

Legislators expressed outrage over the plan during a budget hearing last week. "I have no idea how we can actually do a capital program and actually approve a capital program with language that 'it'll be there when you need it.' Corporate America would laugh at this. Any country would be surprised with this type of approach in funding," said Senator Marty Golden, a Republican from Brooklyn, according to Politico New York.

The Cuomo administration has vigorously defended its position. "The Governor put unambiguous and iron-clad language in the budget to make good on his commitment to provide $8.3 billion towards the MTA's capital plan," Morris Peters of the Division of The Budget told Gotham Gazette in a statement. Peters pointed to budget legislation that he said would cement the state's commitment to funding the MTA "in law."

Infrastructure Spending
This year's State of the State address was centered around the idea that Cuomo is rebuilding New York. "Built to Lead" was the theme and the governor announced a myriad of projects including revamping Penn Station, retooling the Javits Center, reconstructing LaGuardia Airport, and a major contribution to the rail tunnel underneath the Hudson River. The combined cost of the projects is estimated at over $100 billion.

Budget watchdogs say Cuomo's plans are bold but not backed up with detailed funding mechanisms. The governor's budget points to federal funding, cash from public authorities, and investment from public/private partnerships to fund a number of the projects. It leaves the state assuming $29 billion of project costs. Watchdogs say the budget only appropriates two-thirds of that cash. "I think the situation was created by the governor's desire to portray himself as having a grand plan. So we all wondered: 'With what money?'" said McMahon.

Cuomo has also already allocated billions of dollars worth of the state's bank settlement funds to other projects such as upstate revitalization. The state is also relatively close to bumping up against a borrowing cap that was signed into law under Gov. George Pataki, so it is unlikely the state could fund all of the projects if it wanted to.

"I think the governor's ambition is admirable," said Dague of CBC. "But one of the concerns is he has promised to take on so many projects while leaving the funding details to be filled in. Another concern the legislature has is that the projects aren't being put through rigorous analysis. There isn't a discussion of how the state makes use of its limited capital projects funds--why this and not that. And there also is the question in some cases of: 'Why are these projects in the governor's budget and not the MTA's?'"

Peters, of Cuomo's administration, said that the budget clearly lays out how Cuomo's grand plans will be paid for. The list of major infrastructure projects are funded by a combination of resources, including from the state and federal governments, public authorities, and private investment, as clearly laid out in our budget materials."

Cash Stash
Another major concern for budget watchdogs is the $2.4 billion in funds stashed in 80 different pots in this year's executive budget not labeled for any specific use, as identified by good government group Citizens Union in a new report.

It is actually common for the governor and both houses of the Legislature to create slush funds in the budget each year. The practice came under increased scrutiny last year after the arrest of (now former) Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who used cash from one of those pots of money in a scheme to earn referral fees through his law firm. Silver has been convicted on federal corruption trials and faces sentencing soon.

This year, according to the Citizens Union "spending in the shadows" report, the governor has $2.2 billion worth of this discretionary money, the Senate $815 million, and $686 million for the Assembly. Last year, Cuomo inserted language into the budget that would have required legislators to reveal their connections to any organization that received funding from these pots of cash, but he has not reinserted the language this year. Cuomo has outlined a series of ethics reforms that he says he intends to negotiate with legislative leaders

"With former Speaker Silver convicted in part because of his access to and illegal use of a healthcare-related lump sum pot, we need no greater reason to reform this form of budgeting," said Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, in a statement. "We need a whole new set of rules and level of transparency to ensure that taxpayer dollars are not used to personally enrich elected officials or used in unseemly pay to play schemes."

Policy Questions
Cuomo has again packed his budget with his major legislative priorities, a practice that has earned the governor criticism - some say that the budget should only include operational and capital spending, not new policy. This year, Cuomo is including an increase of the minimum wage toward $15 per hour, paid family leave, and raising the age of adult criminal responsibility from 16 to 18, among other policies.

The governor has the support of Assembly and Senate Democrats on the outlines of all of these issues while Senate and Assembly Republicans have voiced varying levels of dissent. The Governor recently told reporters the minimum wage issue might be removed from the budget debate.

Assembly Democrats, who control that chamber, are pushing for The DREAM Act, which Cuomo has included in his budget but has not rallied for publicly this year. Senate Republicans, who control that chamber, have been vigorously opposed to the plan, which would allow undocumented residents access to education aid.

Also on the Assembly to-do list is the millionaire's tax they argue will allow an increase in education spending, among other things. The Cuomo administration and the Senate have both rejected the idea.

Cuomo has remained nearly silent on the package of ethics reforms he pitched in January. Although he's taken to touring the state in an RV to tout his wage plan at a series of rallies, he has discussed ethics reform when prompted by reporters. His plans would strictly limit legislators outside income and close the LLC loophole that allows corporate donors to avoid campaign finance limits.

The governor was asked about the lack of discussion around ethics reform during one of his RV stops last week. He replied that discussions were happening "in phases."

"There's not a lot of continuity between $15 minimum wage and ethics," he said. "It's kind of a hard transition: 'I want to talk to you about a $15 minimum wage, oh, and now I wanna talk to you about limiting income for legislators.' It's not the most fluid transition. Maybe you could do it. It's tough for me."

***
by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been changed to reflect the report of the initial budget meeting between Cuomo and legislative leaders.

Housing Groups Defend Homelessness Report After Pushback from Cuomo Administration


vocal homelessness protest - matt curtis vocal ny

A Vocal-NY protest (Matt Curtis/Vocal-NY)

 


 

Housing groups are coming to the defense of a report issued this week that critiques Gov. Andrew Cuomo's homelessness policies and questions his attempts to place the blame for a rising homeless population on Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Kristi Berner, spokesperson for the State's Office of Temporary and Disability insurance, slammed the report in a statement to the Daily News on Monday, calling it "an obvious political tactic to distract from the city's incompetence in managing the homeless problem."

Now, The Alliance for Tenant Power Coalition and the Met Council on Housing are countering, saying that the Cuomo administration is politicizing legitimate policy issues to distract from the governor's own accountability. They say that the groups and the report are not tools of the mayor and point out that they have been critical of some of de Blasio's housing policies as well.

"We have been, and will continue to be, critical of Mayor de Blasio's housing plan for what it will do to our communities. But he is not the only elected official who is responsible for our city's affordable housing and homeless crisis," reads the statement signed by The Alliance for Tenant Power and Met Council on Housing, which was sent to Gotham Gazette. "Governor Cuomo's actions, his refusal to fight for stronger rent laws, and his handling of the homeless crisis are all worsening a situation that is at a breaking point," the groups say.

"We are fully supportive of the report entitled New York Needs a 21st Century Homeless and refute the claim by Cuomo's spokesperson that it is "trying to give cover to de Blasio." The only "political spin," is Cuomo's attempt to shirk his own responsibilities for exacerbating the affordable housing and homeless crisis," concludes the statement.

The Cuomo administration declined to comment for this story. Doe Fund President George McDonald told the Daily News in a statement that the report "seems to be most critical of people who have demonstrated the longest and most intensive commitment to serving the homeless, like Governor Cuomo, and least critical of newcomers to the crisis."

The introduction of the report in question, authored by DC 37, VOCAL-NY and the Community Service Society, acknowledges that the state and city face a major homelessness crisis but posits, "As bad as the current crisis is, it can be reversed – but only if Governor Cuomo and the New York State Legislature adopt a genuinely progressive vision and abandon the failed policies of the Pataki era."

It continues: "Indeed, even though Cuomo has been governor for five years, his administration has done little to change the broken policies and deeply inadequate funding levels of the Pataki years. Starting now, Albany must work with the City to expand funding for permanent housing assistance and to enhance prevention efforts. Equally important, State officials need to work collaboratively with the City to make improvements to the shelter system engaging in accusations and counter-productive media skirmishes."

Last November advocates and legislators joined with de Blasio in pressuring Cuomo to match the city's commitment to fund thousands of units of supportive housing. Cuomo avoided the issue until his State of the State address when he announced a $10 billion plan to create 6,000 units of supportive housing and new emergency shelter beds. Cuomo linked these investments and others to renewed state oversight of shelters around New York, especially in New York City and Buffalo.

Since then, the Cuomo and de Blasio administrations have exchanged a host of letters over the city's handling of homeless shelters, partly in response to a series of violent incidents at shelters. The New York Times reported last month that the de Blasio administration was particularly outraged when the state issued a letter concerning a gang rape at a homeless shelter that appears to have never taken place without any investigation. City officials called the letter, which was leaked to the Post, "a media hit."

***
by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Caucus Members Cheerful But Cautious as Cuomo Embraces Their Agenda


heastie cuomo david

photo via The Governor's Office


There was great cause for celebration during the annual winter weekend gathering of the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic, and Asian Legislative Caucus. After a number of years of feeling pushed aside by Gov. Andrew Cuomo there is a strong sense among caucus members that they finally have the governor's ear. Much to the gratification of state legislators of color - who largely represent parts of New York City - Cuomo has made a number of the caucus' priorities regarding criminal, social, and economic justice part of his platform and is campaigning for them publicly.

"Here we are a year later and so many good things have happened in a positive way just because they now have somebody who looks like us to sit at the table and negotiate," Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, the first African-American elevated to that position, told a gathering at the Wilborn Temple First Church in Albany on Sunday.

"They're now talking about raising the minimum wage, they're now talking about paid family leave, the highest investment and opportunity programs for our young people to go to college, the largest investment in education and aid increase in the history of the state of New York, and that was last year," Heastie told the excited group of attendees, referring to the governor and other legislators.

Caucus weekend is an annual tradition where members of the BPHA Caucus gather in Albany for speeches, workshops, networking, and celebrations.

For many legislators in the nearly 60-member caucus, Heastie's rise to leadership is icing on the cake - a cake baked over years of pushing to the fore issues of importance to their constituents. A great number of caucus members chalk up Cuomo's priority shifts to caucus members' lobbying, strategizing, and joint efforts with labor and activist groups. They take pride in the governor's focus on things like a minimum wage increase and paid family leave, "Raise the Age," and a bill to appoint a special prosecutor in the event of a police killing of an unarmed civilian. In many ways, they say, the priorities of their districts have become mainstream, and rightfully so.

On Sunday of caucus weekend last year, Cuomo held a brunch in Heastie's honor at the Executive Mansion where, according to Politico New York, Cuomo called Heastie a leader "for the entire state." Senate Republicans have tried to characterize Heastie and the Assembly's agenda as New York City-centric.

This past week, Cuomo was in Harlem for a rally in support of his paid family leave proposal. He used some of his speaking time to focus on racial equality. "The economic inequality is actually compounded by something else and that is the racial inequality. It is bad to be poor and white, but on the numbers it is worse to be poor and a minority. That is the truth," Cuomo told the crowd made up largely of people of color, including a number of state lawmakers.

Still, caucus members are not necessarily kicking their feet up. They now see their main objective as not only making sure Cuomo delivers on these issues during budget negotiations, but that he does so in a way they favor. There is debate in the caucus about how far to push Cuomo, and what is actually reasonable to expect from him.

A number of members see Cuomo's proposals relating to criminal and economic justice as not going far enough, while some see other proposals as misleading or damaging despite having been designed to address an issue important to the caucus. Other members are concerned with making sure their requests of Cuomo are reasonable, pragmatic, and sacrifice the unattainable for the attainable.

"I believe that some of what we see is due to the consistency in the messaging of our caucus members," said Assembly Member Nick Perry of Brooklyn, who chairs the caucus. "Our members have continued to push certain issues while a number of them hold important legislative positions. We are also more united and organized than we have been and we have become more realistic in how the body engages on issues."

Perry's pragmatic approach jibes with the governor's, but has also alienated some newer members who are less interested in playing politics and want to see immediate results.

"We have advocated very effectively with the governor," said Perry. "I have said that I admire the governor's approach because my observation is he is mostly realistic in what he rolls out. That approach is one that I support and that I adopt for myself. I don't want to go to the governor with things that look good, sound good, but are not doable. I am focused like a lazer on doing things, not on soundbites."

The DREAM Act
One major issue that could cause consternation within the caucus is The DREAM Act. Assembly Member Francisco Moya of Queens, who sponsors the bill in the Assembly, said he believes that the legislature is closer than ever to becoming law.

"I think our priorities showing up in the governor's budget is absolutely a testament to our strength, unity, and ability to push the issues that matter most to our communities," said Moya of the DREAM Act, which would allow state financial aid to go to undocumented immigrants. "Three years ago we were told the DREAM Act was dead and now it's been in the executive budget for two years. It's because our issues don't just resonate in our communities anymore, but in communities across the state."

Moya criticized Cuomo earlier this year for not mentioning the DREAM Act in his State of the State and budget address, though he was pleased to see the act included in the budget.

He now says that discussions are ongoing with the Cuomo administration and that a number of options are on the table. It seems unlikely to many that the act has any chance to pass in an election year when Senate Republicans, who control that chamber, have campaigned against it in the past. But some legislators believe Cuomo could take executive action to show his commitment to the issue. That possibility was in play last year after Cuomo removed the DREAM Act from budget negotiations but advocates were torn about whether executive action would help or hurt the cause.

Perry however, doubts that current political realities will allow much movement on the bill. "We know there are some things that are just never gonna happen," said Perry. "Things that act like a poison pill in the pot. We are cognisant that no one is going to cut their head off just to make a deal."

Perry said he believes it could be politically impossible for Senate Republicans to support the measure. "The Dream Act is a significantly tough one," said Perry. "The Republicans have made it out to be more of a monster than it could ever be. They have backed themselves into a position that makes it impossible to do unless something changes. They've used the issue to bring out votes."

Special Prosecutor
Cuomo's legislation to name a special prosecutor in the event of a police shooting of an unarmed civilian is a main concern to caucus members who are happy to see Cuomo address the issue but see the legislation he included in his budget bills as weaker than his standing executive order that allows Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to look into such cases.

"While I applaud the governor for putting it in his budget, I think we would be better served if the role of special prosecutor wasn't taken out of the hands of the attorney general," said Moya.

Cuomo's bill would create an office to advise the governor whether to call for a special prosecutor in the case of a police killing of a civilian. Caucus members generally see Cuomo's bill as creating an unfunded office to do the job the attorney general is currently tasked with.

Cuomo sent a mixed message during his State of the State address, telling legislators they could back Assembly Member Keith Wright's bill that would create a permanent special prosecutor's office within the AG's office, while including his own bill in the budget.

"Assemblyman Keith Wright has advocated for such a law for over a decade," Cuomo said at the time. "It is an historic achievement and it should not be left to my executive order. Make it yours, make it permanent, pass the bill," Cuomo said.

Perry said he believes the governor's heart is in the right place and his support of the measure means there is room to negotiate. "The governor's proposal is not perfect but it moves things forward in a very big way. We know it has to be tweaked and fixed in some ways but that's a part of process."

Cuomo spokesman Frank Sobrino said in a statement that the onus is on the Legislature to act on the special prosecutor bill they prefer. "The Governor has taken bold action to address significant public concerns and ensure that there is an independent entity tasked with addressing police fatality cases. We believe the Legislature needs to act to create—in law—an independent office to review these cases, ensuring that all New Yorkers, regardless of race or ethnicity, have trust in our criminal justice system."

Legislators and advocates will be ready to push Cuomo to issue another executive order appointing Schneiderman as special prosecutor should Senate Republicans block legislative action, said Sen. Gustavo Rivera, the Senate sponsor of Wright's bill.

Raise the Age & Bail Reform
Assembly Member Gary Pretlow, a caucus member who represents part of Westchester, said that "Raise the Age," a campaign to increase the age of criminal responsibility and prevent New York from treating 16- and 17-year-olds as adults upon arrest, is what he most wants to see Cuomo deliver on. "Raise the Age is so important because so many lives have been ruined by the records that have been created--it's an employment thing, you can't get a job when you've got a record, it's not so much about prison."

Cuomo took executive action last year to move the state's relatively small teenage prison population to a separate facility after the Legislature failed to act on his legislation. However, teenagers are still arrested and processed as adults, leaving them to be interviewed by police without their parents present and eventually subject to the stigma of a criminal record that juvenile offenders don't have. Some caucus members took issue with how the governor proposed to change the process last year, worrying that Cuomo's bill wouldn't do enough to protect teens. The bill would allow courts to consider adjudicated youthful offender cases to be considered in future cases. Advocates and some Democratic legislators felt the stipulation undermines the purpose of classifying someone as a youthful offender. Negotiations on the details will likely take place later this year, but it is unclear that Senate Republicans have any interest in taking up the issue.

Meanwhile, caucus members are also concerned that Cuomo's bail reform proposal could actually fill prisons rather than reduce the number of people waiting in jail for their day in court.

There is a feeling among a number of younger caucus members that some of Cuomo's criminal justice proposals are superficial. Legislators who have been pushing Cuomo to enact legislation mandating certain prisoners be kept in facilities within a reasonable traveling distance of their families were heartened to see a proposal in Cuomo's policy book titled "Increase Opportunities for Families to Stay Close During Incarceration," but upon closer inspection they found that the program is not designed to keep prisoners physically closer to their families. "To help maintain these incarcerated individuals ties with family, the Governor will invest $300,000 to expand a successful video visitation program between incarcerated parents and their children," reads the policy book. "The state will also explore the use of secure e-mail communication tools for use by incarcerated individuals and their families."

Proof in the Pudding
Many caucus members are going to judge Cuomo's commitment to their issues on his follow through when budget negotiations hit the wire. Cuomo dropped the DREAM Act from his budget early in negotiations last year. Cuomo later tried to tie passage of the DREAM Act to an education tax credit favored by Senate Republicans. Cuomo publicly campaigned for the tax credit but not the DREAM Act, irking the latter's supporters. Cuomo has not linked the two this year and he has rarely mentioned the Dream Act.

Moya said he is still waiting to see Cuomo apply the same sort of force he has on the fight for a $15 minimum wage, marriage equality, and the SAFE Act to the DREAM Act. "I think it is incumbent on the governor to fight for the DREAM Act as hard as he is fighting and has fought on other issues," said Moya. "It's time for him to really show his leadership. We've seen when the governor wants a controversial bill he can get the other side to go along with it."

Perry said that he believes the caucus is in a new place with the governor--instead of making great demands of him, they are now at the table negotiating details. "I don't want to be in a situation where the only reason we get something is because we flex our muscle. I want folks to look at our proposals and say 'this is reasonable, it's not going overboard.' There are some tough tasks that need getting done but we want to make sure that we don't mess up a good session by putting the impossible in the way of the possible."

Rivera said that he agrees that the caucus has made strides by being more pragmatic. "There are some folks who are certainly more vocal and critical, but I'm not going to tell them to be quiet," he told Gotham Gazette. "The experiences they've had and the pain they have is real. Our job is to actually get things passed. We have to get things moving and you may want ten steps but can only move four. Some people may only settle for 10 and I don't ask them to be quiet about it."

Despite some criticism and concerns, caucus members are extremely invigorated to have Cuomo pushing some of the concepts they hold most dear, like a higher minimum wage and paid family leave, as well as "Raise the Age" and more. Members attribute that to the work they have done in concert with labor and advocacy groups to push economic issues as "common sense" to New Yorkers across the state to the point that it didn't make political sense for Cuomo to ignore them.

The Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic, and Asian Caucus will be focused on the details during budget negotiations in the coming months. And while members are happy to see Cuomo backing their issues in theory, many of them say they know who they must rely on to do the heavy lifting. "Our real champion at the negotiating table is Speaker Heastie," Moya told Gotham Gazette. "Just look at this, it is the first time in the history of New York state that we have an African-American speaker and he has been doing a tremendous job championing the issues the governor has now brought up."

***
by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

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Assembly Reform Group Nears Release of 49-Recommendation Report


Heastie laughing

Assembly Speaker Heastie photo: (Office of the Governor - Kevin P. Coughlin)


The long wait for recommendations from a group of Democrats charged with finding ways to improve the transparency and democratization of the state Assembly may soon be over. According to Assembly Member Gary Pretlow, co-chair of The Assembly Working Group on Operations, Participation and Transparency, the release of a 49-point report is imminent.

Pretlow told Gotham Gazette that the the committee's report will be made available after a press release is written and legislators return from their week-long mid-February break. According to Pretlow and several other sources, the rest of the majority conference was briefed on the dozens of recommendations contained in the report, some of which wouldn't be acted on until the start of next session, in 2017. Others that could be implemented as "tweaks" to operating procedure or legislation could be voted on this session, they say, while some would have to be agreed to by both the Senate and Assembly.

"We're just waiting for the press release to be done," Pretlow told Gotham Gazette. "We did a presentation of all 49 recommendations to the speaker [Carl Heastie] and all the members but we didn't give them copies because you'd already know what was in it if we did that. So, hopefully the report will be out after the break."

Both houses of the Legislature are due back in session on Feb. 24.

Assembly Member Brian Kavanagh, the group's other co-chair, said that the committee was "reaching a consensus" but refused to give a timeframe for the report's release, saying that Gotham Gazette's previous report that the group had missed its own deadline was unfair. Since January, Kavanagh has told other outlets that the timeline for the report's release was "soon," but with "no timeframe."

Neither Kavanagh or Pretlow would divulge any of the 49 proposals.

A number of legislators briefed characterized many of the changes as "common sense" and "overdue" with fewer "large," "big deal" changes. A few members indicated that they believed some larger issues have yet to be resolved. A number of members said they expect a public review process.

The group has been presented with a wide array of proposals from legislators and good government groups--things as simple as creating electronic alerts to notify legislators of committee hearing times and locations, using the internet to enhance public comment and participation, and revamping the Assembly's legislative search tool. More complex and politically difficult issues include creating a way for bills with wide support to be considered in committee and advanced to the floor for a vote.

Assembly Republicans and reform groups have derided the Assembly panel's deliberations for a lack of public hearings and for excluding legislators from the Republican minority. Kavanagh and Pretlow polled Democratic members and held meetings with good government groups for input on what changes might lead to more open debate, allow rank-and-file members to advance legislation, and perhaps even provide members from both parties with equal resources for staffing and offices.

Heastie announced the appointment of the working group on April 16 of last year after he won a leadership battle sparked by the indictment of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. At the time, Kavanagh was a member of an upstart reform caucus that asked candidates for Silver's position to consider whether changes should be made to increase transparency and make it easier for bills to make it to the floor for debate without the speaker's direct blessing. The group has been largely inconspicuous since Heastie announced it.

Earlier this year Assembly Republicans proposed a number of rules changes of their own that Democrats quickly rejected. Republican Assembly Member Jim Tedisco, who is backing a bill that would allow members to bring a bill to the floor for a vote if they have the support of 76 members (a majority in the 150-seat chamber), has pressured the group to release its recommendations. "They said they needed ways to make the Assembly more transparent, well we gave it to them and they rejected it," Tedisco told Gotham Gazette of the Republicans' attempt at rules reform, which included term limits for leadership positions.

Tedisco announced earlier this week that he was writing Kavanagh a letter asking for the transparency group's report. "These guys are just playing stall ball," said Tedisco. "It's nearly been over a year and now they aren't going to release it over vacation. It's the longest lived and least productive working group I've seen in my life."

Tedisco said Kavanagh arrived at his desk shortly after he announced he was writing him, looking to collect the letter. "So I handed it to him, with the signatures of 25 other guys who signed the letter." He added that he didn't admire Kavanagh's position. "I've never seen Superman and Clark Kent in the same room and I've never seen a powerful leader voluntarily give up power," said Tedisco, referring to the hold of the speaker and majority on the Assembly. There are many questions about how much reform Heastie is willing to support.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara - who took down Silver and his Senate counterpart, former Republican Senate President Dean Skelos - has focused on what he said was the corrupting nature of the "three men in a room" structure that concentrates power in legislative leaders and the governor. He called on rank-and-file members to stand up and challenge leaders when they use their power to block votes or interfere in committees.

"You have to make sure everyone in the institution has an independent operating mind and brain and gut," Bharara told interviewer Alan Chartock of WAMC radio during his visit to Albany on Monday. "So at least somebody in the face of overreaching, or face of despotism, or face of corruption, will rally people to go to the other side and say 'This is enough, we can't go along with this.'"

Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, said Bharara's comments spotlighted the need for more for rules reform and increased transparency. "I think the U.S. Attorney's remarks were on target. They showed the necessity of the working group and the need for it to get its job done," said Dadey.

Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb said that Assembly Democrats should defy their leadership and issue a set of recommendations that takes some of the power back from the speaker--especially given how Silver was removed from office.

"The U.S. Attorney is dead right in asking, 'since when has it become acceptable for three men to decide everything,'" said Kolb, who lamented the rejection of his caucus' proposed rules changes. "These were good ideas, but from the minority point of view it was arrogance - they said, 'We're in charge and you're not.' The Kavanagh group did a lot of hooting and hollering for almost a year. It is nonsensical to continue to stall."

Democratic members point out that getting over 100 politicians, many of whom have long enjoyed the perks of being in the majority, all on the same page about revamping the rules of the chamber isn't exactly an easy task. While good government groups have been critical of the time it's taken many of them indicate they are withholding judgement until they see the final product.

DeNora Getachew, campaign manager and legislative counsel for the Brennan Center, said that she has had no indication of what the working group has focused on or that they've considered the Brennan Center's many reports on legislative rules that focus on empowering members to bring bills to the floor without the speaker's blessing. "That's the heart of how to empower and operate a more democratic process," said Getachew.

"The report should have been out before the start of 2016 so the rules could have been enacted this year," said Dadey of Citizens Union. "I would have prefered the group acted quickly and had an open public discussion but I am hopeful that the report is one that we can embrace."

***
by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

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Note: Gotham Gazette is published by Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union.

After New Hampshire: Debates & Voting Dates Until New York


vote nyc boe

image via NYC Board of Elections


On Tuesday, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump won their respective Democratic and Republican New Hampshire primaries by wide margins. This, after Sanders lost narrowly to Hillary Clinton and Trump lost to Ted Cruz in Iowa. On the Democratic side, there are only two candidates - Hillary Clinton came in second to Sanders in New Hampshire. For the Republicans, John Kasich came in second, adding a sense of momentum to his campaign.

Now, there are 48 more states and the District of Columbia to vote before the primary season is over. New York will be the 37th state to hold a vote when April 19 comes around.

It is unclear whether there will still be a race on either side of the aisle when voting comes to New York. The Republican field has a lot of winnowing to do and the two remaining Democrats could be in for a long slog - but, April 19 is a long way away.

Next up, South Carolina and Nevada take center stage. More debates are on the horizon, too, of course. The Democrats are set to debate on Feb. 11, March 6, and March 9. They're also scheduled to debate once in April and once in May, with dates and locations to be determined.

On the Republican side, there are debates set for Feb. 13 and 26; as well as for March 10. There could always be others added, of course.

As for the votes to take place leading up to New York, 34 states will have held either caucus or primary votes for both major parties, while two states - North Dakota and Kentucky - will have only held their Republican vote, with their Democratic vote coming later in the spring. The calendar is below.

Keep in mind that there are actually four election days in New York this year: presidential primary on April 19, followed by congressional primaries in June, state-level primaries in September, and the November Election Day.

The presidential primary calendar (if no party is noted, both major party votes will occur the same day):

Feb. 20
Nevada caucus (D)
South Carolina (R)
Washington caucus (R)

Feb. 23
Nevada caucus (R)

Feb. 27
South Carolina (D)

March 1
Alabama
Alaska caucus (R)
Arkansas
Colorado caucus
Georgia
Massachusetts
Minnesota caucus
North Dakota caucus (R)
Oklahoma
Tennessee
Texas
Vermont
Virginia
Wyoming caucus (R)

March 5
Kansas caucus
Kentucky caucus (R)
Louisiana
Maine caucus (R)
Nebraska caucus (D)

March 6
Maine caucus (D)

March 8
Hawaii caucus (R)
Idaho (R)
Michigan
Mississippi

March 15
Florida
Illinois
Missouri
North Carolina
Ohio

March 22
Arizona
Idaho caucus (D)
Utah

March 26
Alaska caucus (D)
Hawaii caucus (D)
Washington caucus (D)

April 5
Wisconsin

April 9
Wyoming caucus (D)

April 19
New York

April 26
Connecticut
Delaware
Maryland
Pennsylvania
Rhode Island

May 3
Indiana

May 10
Nebraska (R)
West Virginia

May 17
Kentucky (D)
Oregon

May 24
Washington (R)

June 7
California
Montana
New Jersey
New Mexico
North Dakota caucus (D)
South Dakota

June 14
District of Columbia 

***
by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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Heastie Takes to Twitter to Respond to Cuomo on Tax Plan


cuomo heastie standing photo

Cuomo and Heastie (photo: The Governor's Office)


Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie's Twitter account lit up Tuesday with a stream of "fun facts" about income inequality and his proposed millionaire's tax just a day after Gov. Andrew Cuomo dismissed the plan.

"I don't believe there's any reason or appetite to take up taxes this year," Cuomo told reporters on Monday, responding to questions about the taxation agenda put forth by the Democratic Assembly majority on Feb. 2, which calls for increasing taxes on the state's highest earners.

Heastie's tweet storm appeared to be a rebuke to Cuomo, though it did not mention the governor by name.

A few hours after Heastie's tweets stopped, the Working Families Party issued its own retort. "We need our tax system to put working families first, not hedge funds and wealthy campaign donors. That's what both Democratic presidential candidates have been calling for, and it's what New Yorkers expect from our elected officials in Albany too," said WFP New York State Director Bill Lipton in a statement.

Heastie surprised some when he proposed expanding and extending the state's millionaire's tax that isn't set to expire until 2017. Assembly Democrats' plan would create a number of higher tax brackets with those who earn from $1 million to $5 million a year paying the state's current highest rate of 8.82 percent. Those earning from $5 to $10 million annually would pay 9.32 percent and those making over $10 million would pay 9.82 percent.

The increase for millionaires would be paired with a middle-class tax cut. And according to Heastie the income generated by new tax brackets would add funding to education, infrastructure repair, and "other priorities."

Many see Heastie's plan as a way to strengthen his position as leader, cater to major interest groups that back his conference, and give him a popular proposal to use during budget negotiations.

Republican Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan has said that higher taxes would drive millionaires out of the state. "We don't support raising taxes," replied Scott Reif, spokesperson for the Senate Republican Conference when asked for a comment on Heastie's tweets.

A spokesperon for Gov. Cuomo, Rich Azzopardi, said by email that "What the public is hungry for, post Shelly Silver, is ethics reform -- specifically the pension forfeiture bill that was agreed to last year and promptly reneged on by the assembly. We hope they will join us this year and pass this and the other important reforms the Governor outlined."

Heastie's office did not reply to inquiries about whether Heastie was the author of the tweets. As the day progressed, Heastie's spokesperon, Mike Whyland, also took to Twitter on the subject, and more directly criticized the governor.

The speaker's earlier messages had a distinctly populist tone:

E.J. McMahon, director of the fiscally conservative Empire Center, quickly responded to Heastie on Twitter, questioning the data Heastie cited and combatting the notion he said Heastie was propagating that millionaires don't pay anything.

"The whole premise that they are not paying their fair share is nonsense," McMahon told Gotham Gazette of millionaires and taxes. "There is no standard in existence under which they don't pay a major share of their income. Eighty percent of filers in New York pay 15 percent of the taxes collected."

"The premise of these tweets is unsupported by facts," McMahon continued. "They aren't tweeting 'Hey, we need money and here is the best way to get it.' The whole point of these tweets seems to be to make someone who doesn't know better think millionaires aren't paying anything and that just isn't true."

McMahon said that he felt Heastie's tax proposal was motivated by the education lobby that wants to see an increase in education spending. Cuomo's budget factors in a 4 percent increase in education spending but advocates and unions have demanded no less than eight percent.

"You can see the people who support this and are retweeting Heastie are the people tied to the education lobby who think taxes can never be high enough," said McMahon.

Michael Kink, director of Strong Economy for All, a labor-backed progressive group falling into the category mentioned by McMahon, praised Heastie's proposal and said that it is about funding schools as well as having enough funding for other major proposals and needs.

Kink and his allies appear ready to hammer Gov. Cuomo on recent infrastructure problems such as a water main break in Troy that shut off water to at least two towns and the environmental disaster in Hoosick where it was found that toxic chemicals had poisoned the public water supply. Cuomo has recently tried to downplay the Hoosick issue.

"Assembly members have sat in day-long hearings about the budget and heard parents and students testify they need school funding, heard businesses say they support the $15 minimum wage but need some help so it doesn't overburden them; they know about the water line explosion in Troy and not too far away they've seen families drinking poisoned water coming out of a source that should have been overseen by an agency that is suffering under the governor's austerity budget," Kink told Gotham Gazette. "If the state wants to meet these significant needs it is entirely responsible to have a strong funding mechanism."

Kink said that the tenor of the presidential race shows that the electorate is in a populist mood. "I think these will be an interesting set of budget negotiations because the Assembly is more in tune with the populist mood than Flanagan or the austerity version of Governor Cuomo," Kink said.

The idea that there are 'two versions' of Cuomo have supporters of the tax plan ready to campaign hard for it as they've seen Cuomo flip on proposals after gauging voter sentiment. It was only last year that Cuomo said a $13 minimum wage was a non-starter and there was "no appetite" for paid family leave. Now the Governor has made a $15 minimum wage and paid family leave top priorities, expressing strong personal connections to both issues.

McMahon notes that Cuomo actually changed his position on the millionaire's tax in 2011. "He pivoted in 2011 on this issue. So nothing he says is frankly dispositive that this tax will be part of the budget," said McMahon. "The fact [the governor] does things like this encourages them to keep pushing."

Karen Scharff of Citizen Action NY, a grassroots progressive group that supports Heastie's plan, said she certainly won't be writing off the plan until the budget is actually decided on, since negotiations tend to lead to surprising results, no matter what any stakeholder has said. "This is the right time for this plan because one, the wealthiest New Yorkers are wealthier than ever, and, at the same time, the state has desperate needs that have to be funded. Every year things in the budget are up in the air until negotiations are over. And they aren't over."

***
by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

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Note: this story has been updated with comment from the governor's spokesperson and news of social media response from Heastie's spokesperson.

In Albany, Bharara Challenges Lawmakers to Act, Not Enable


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Preet Bharara (photo: Buck Ennis)


Asked how he can spur legislators to enact major ethics reforms during his visit to Albany on Monday, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said he has a "particularly blunt incentive...the avoidance of prison." The reminder from Bharara comes as legislative leaders and Gov. Andrew Cuomo are quietly discussing possible ethics reforms behind closed doors--reforms none of them have appeared interested in discussing publicly since Cuomo outlined his platform in his State of the State address last month.

Speaking before a captive audience, Bharara focused on the lack of a public conversation on ethics by lawmakers and the strict control legislative leaders have over rank-and-file members, and called on legislators to speak up against the norm and blow the whistle on corruption. The crusading U.S. attorney delivered prepared remarks and sat for an interview at an event on public corruption hosted by WAMC public radio and good government groups.

Bharara didn't need an indictment to send lawmakers scurrying for the exits during his visit. Earlier Monday at the Albany Hilton where they both addressed the New York Conference of Mayors, Republican Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan bolted up a flight of stairs before Bharara, the man who successfully prosecuted Flanagan's predecessor, Dean Skelos, took the stage.

Flanagan unsuccessfully tried to avoid reporters who inquired why he wasn't staying for Bharara's remarks. He said that he had "appointments" in his office. Flanagan refused to answer questions about what ethics reforms he might support this session, continuing what has been a deafening silence from legislative leaders on ethics reform for the last month.

Flanagan also avoided mentioning ethics in his speech to the mayors conference--Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb both discussed the need for reform. Democratic Assembly Majority Leader Carl Heastie did not attend the event, his surrogate, Assembly Majority Leader Joe Morelle, spoke instead and also avoided discussing reform.

"They're afraid they're going to get asked questions by the press about ethics reform," said Barbara Bartoletti of The League of Women Voters. "I would doubt we will hear anything from them on it soon. We have said 'please open up these leaders' meetings and tell us what issues you're looking at in the budget' but this governor has not done that."

Silence from both majority leaders and Gov. Cuomo has become the norm since earlier this year when Cuomo proposed a series of significant reforms that include restricting legislators' outside income, closing the LLC loophole, and public financing of elections. Flanagan has openly questioned the need for more reforms, while Heastie has said that his conference is open to discussing a number of proposals.

Cuomo has avoided holding a press conference with the Albany press corp for nearly 230 days, though he has taken a series of questions after events on a number of occasions. The lack of public leadership on ethics gave Bharara, who already attracts massive attention for his high-profile prosecutions, even more of a spotlight on the issue.

Bharara has been cursed and bemoaned by legislators for painting them all as corrupt. On Monday, he seemed at points to be trying a softer approach. While he did speak in stark terms at times, Bharara kept a fairly subdued tone and was quick to crack a joke as he spoke of the nobility in public service, the existence of "good" legislators who speak out against corruption and the "three men in a room" system that dominates decision-making in Albany.

As he said the key to undoing a culture of corruption in any institution is the good actors taking action rather than enabling the bad actors, the U.S. attorney said he expects more legislators will soon buck the closed leadership system. He also cited a recent Siena Poll that showed 92 percent of those surveyed think public corruption is a major problem.

"I heard a very strong exhortation to empower the good people in the legislature to stand up and that's basically what needs to happen," said Susan Lerner of Common Cause NY. "I think it was absolutely the right message and it's not scolding. I think it is important to empower change."

Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, introduced Bharara on Monday afternoon, noting the many lawmakers who have been removed from office in recent years due to corruption. Dadey agreed that Bharara went out of his way to acknowledge legislators who want reform. "He was acknowledging that there are lot of good people serving in the legislature who are tarred by the brush of corruption, by the actions of those who have been convicted," Dadey told Gotham Gazette. "That being said, they have a responsibility to address this issue of corruption and for them to swing too low and not truly address the core issues contributing to all of this is an abdication of their responsibility as state legislators."

Bharara wasn't all sunshine and roses by any means. He lashed out at legislators for "whining" and failing to blow the whistle on corruption. "People knew, people knew before the prosecutors showed up, before the FBI showed up," he said. "People always know. You think no one knew Sheldon Silver was corrupt before he was put in handcuffs? Not a chance."

He also shamed those in the Assembly who tried to keep Silver as leader even after he was indicted. Bharara said that police or teachers who had been arrested and faced a 35-page indictment would find themselves on "desk duty" or in a "rubber room."

Bharara called for there to be more respect for public service by public servants and continued to challenge them to live up to the jobs they hold. He mocked Silver's defense strategy that his behavior was just "politics as usual" asserting that that defense unfairly tarred his fellow lawmakers.

"Looking the other way is not leadership," he said, "blaming the prosecutors is not leadership, kicking the can is not leadership, accepting lies and half-truths is not leadership, making excuses is not leadership, whining is not leadership."

What Bharara did not offer was specifics, though he did give a half-blessing to a few reforms, like pension forfeiture for those lawmakers convicted of wrongdoing. Bharara declined to weigh in definitively on proposed reforms such as increasing legislators' pay and banning outside income, though he did say that there is a good argument to be made for limiting such income.

The U.S. attorney would not comment on his investigation into Cuomo's' Buffalo Billion economic development plan. "We aren't closing up shop anytime soon," Bharara said smiling.

Lerner said she thinks Bharara's visit comes at an important time when the legislature is negotiating reforms behind closed doors and cautioned patience as the process plays out. "The most important thing right now is not what they say publicly but are there internal discussions going on and I believe there are. Like the U.S. Attorney said, we need reform-minded people pushing the leaders for change. I'm very happy not to go to one more press conference that results in nothing. We want them to talk amongst themselves and come to a conclusion that they need to adopt reforms, and that could be a quiet time where they aren't saying much to me and you."

Concern is growing amongst reform advocates that Assembly Democrats have fallen back to their default position under Silver of waiting to voice their individual opinions until they are told what the leader has decided. Meanwhile, Senate Republicans appear desperate not to pass any of Cuomo's substantive reforms. Bartoletti said she expects the issue of reform could slip away given that this is an election year, unless Bharara bags another big indictment.

Bharara made it clear on Monday that he is ready to serve as a constant reminder that reform is needed. "This moment in history calls for something more than just talk," Bharara said. "There's been a lot of talk."

***
by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

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Bharara Visits Capital He Upended


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U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara (photo: @SDNYnews)


For the last year a siege mentality has dominated the New York state capitol. And in some respect, Albany, or at least the political denizens who dwell within the capitol, does appear to be very much in the cross hairs of a conquering army headed by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. The main roads into town feature digital billboards flashing entreaties from the FBI urging New Yorkers to "REPORT CORRUPTION," along with a number for the New York State Public Corruption Task Force.

On Monday, Bharara may drive by those very signs as he makes his way to Albany for a series of events, including two speaking engagements. The crusading prosecutor's presence may be enough to make already-nervous Albany lawmakers break into a cold sweat.

The most powerful people in Albany - lobbyists, legislators, and even Gov. Andrew Cuomo - have watched as Bharara has gone from prosecuting rank-and-file legislators to decapitating both houses of the legislature by securing the convictions of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos on multiple counts of corruption. All the while Bharara has maintained investigations into Cuomo's dealings, with the prosecutor's mantra of "Stay tuned" casting a larger-than-life shadow.

Although he promised major reforms during his recent State of the State address, Cuomo has since avoided the press in Albany, continuing his streak of not holding a press conference at the capitol, now at over 200 days. The current majority leaders have also remained largely mum on ethics since the start of the year. Democratic Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie voiced support for various reforms early in January, but has said little since. His working group on Assembly rules and transparency continues to delay the release of proposals to make the body more open and democratic.

Republican Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan has pushed back against the very idea that there is any need for reforms, pointing to changes made over the last several years and asserting the need for individuals to act of high moral character.

Bharara has made it clear that he continues watching.

On Monday, Bharara will take something of an up-close look, as he heads to Albany for several events and speaks publicly twice. The first speaking event will take place a short walk from the capitol building when Bharara addresses the New York State Conference of Mayors; the other hosted by good government groups and WAMC public radio--a veritable public radio empire that reaches across upstate New York and into Vermont and Connecticut. The topic for both events will, of course, be fighting public corruption. Bharara is also set to appear, along with Gov. Cuomo, at the swearing in of new Chief Judge Janet DiFiore.

Bharara will not be addressing the state legislature, even though he recently made the trip to Frankfort, Kentucky to discuss public corruption and the type of culture that allows it to fester in New York. Throughout his examination of New York state government, Bharara has not only found several examples of illegal activity, but he has also decried legally corrupt practices, such as the infamous "three men in a room" method of deciding virtually all important state policy.

Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, a Republican, invited Bharara to address his conference, but Bharara's office prefered to address a bipartisan gathering. Kolb, in turn, wrote to the majority leaders of each conference in both houses, asking them to jointly invite Bharara to address the legislature as a whole. "They haven't even bothered to respond to my letter," Kolb told Gotham Gazette. "What are they so afraid of?"

Kolb, who will be speaking before Bharara on Monday at the mayors conference, said he hopes to hear more from Bharara on how the "three men in a room" power structure in Albany defeats transparency and allows corruption to fester.

"Mr. Bharara has asked 'Since when has it become acceptable for three men to decide everything?,' And I expect he will focus on that again. It's not about getting our way, but about asking questions about how things are structured, about payments, pots of money. Making sure our constituents are represented. I mean there was even that Skelos quote where he said, 'I control everything.' These guys have too much power," Kolb said.

John Kaehny of good government group Reinvent Albany is also interested in hearing Bharara attack the culture in Albany that might not necessarily be prosecutable.

"Hopefully he says: 'The real scandal is what's legal.'" said Kaehny, referring to what many, including Bharara, have said about Albany's usual ways of doing business.

"In Albany," Kaehny said, "the governor can give a bag full of taxpayer money to a big business and that business can give him a bag of money back, or a bag full via unlimited LLC contributions. All legal. Yet in New York City, it is a crime for people doing business with the city to contribute more than $400" to a campaign.

Among Kaehny's concerns are that law firms that represent state agencies and authorities can also lobby on behalf of private clients.

"It goes on and on," said Kaehny. "The conflict of interest is so baked into how Albany works that Silver tried to use it as a defense."

Bharara has addressed how Albany's culture has played into many of the cases he prosecuted.

"If you're one of the three men in a room, and you have all the power and you always have and everyone knows it," Bharara told an audience at New York Law School last January following Silver's arrest. "You don't tolerate dissent because you don't have to. You don't allow debate because you don't have to, and because the status quo always benefits you."

The three men in the room are the governor, Assembly speaker, and Senate president. For several years running, those men were Andrew Cuomo, Sheldon Silver, and Dean Skelos. Thanks to Bharara, both Silver and Skelos are awaiting sentencing on federal charges.

In his New York Law School speech, Bharara mocked "three men in a room," joking about what happens behind closed doors, asking whether women are allowed and wondering if perhaps it gets "a little gamey in that room."

But he quickly returned to the serious, saying that the elected officials end up getting "swept up in the power and the trappings, because you were never challenged, and because you can easily forget who put you there in the first place. And so I ask again, what kind of a system is that?"

Bharara also took the time to recognize the legislators in attendance--he didn't exactly honor them. "I see there are a number of elected officials here. And after yesterday I guess I have two theories as to why that might be. One might be that you knew I was taking attendance. And the other is that there are a lot of folks now looking for immunity," he said, in his typical wry manner.

That fear that Bharara is watching, that he is still working on unearthing new misdeeds, has paralyzed legislative leaders on a number of issues over the last year. Some have confided to aides and others that they aren't sure what Bharara is after, or who he has flipped to his side. Many note that there are clear connections between legislative action and campaign donations that are ripe for investigation. Legislators have also been put on notice regarding their abuse of per diem reimbursements, use of campaign cash for personal expenses, and other misdeeds.

It appears to many that Bharara started this year by giving Cuomo and legislators an opportunity to reflect on the gravity of the Silver and Skelos convictions and actually get to work on real reforms. A number of insiders see Bharara's announcement in January that he did not have enough evidence to indict anyone on the untimely end of The Moreland Commission on Public Corruption as a way to take some pressure off of Cuomo to allow him to take the initiative on ethics in his State of the State address. Those same insiders see Bharara's visit as a nudge to Cuomo and legislative leaders to actually deliver on reforms this year.

In his State of the State platform, Cuomo announced his intentions to see the LLC loophole closed, strict limits set on legislators' outside income, a public campaign finance system established, and other changes made to prevent corruption. Whether Bharara wades into any of those specifics is to be seen.

[Related: Cuomo Announces Ethics Plan to Questions of Follow Through]

***
by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Everyone's Talking About Paid Family Leave, Only Compromise Will Yield a Deal


cuomo biden paid family leave

Cuomo's paid family leave rally (photo via The Governor's Office)


Last week, the New York State Assembly passed a one-house bill creating a program that would allow workers to take time off to care for a new child or sick loved one while receiving a portion of their usual pay. It is the fifth year in a row the Assembly has done so. "It's appropriate we're here on Groundhog Day, since we've been coming back year after year for paid family leave," said Donna Dolan, head of the New York State Paid Family Leave Coalition, at a press conference announcing the vote.

Just a few days earlier Gov. Andrew Cuomo rallied with Vice President Joe Biden in Manhattan to push his newly-unveiled paid family leave bill. Both detailed their experiences of being torn between work and being at the side of a dying loved one.

"My friends, paid family leave has been an important issue for a long time, but it is an issue whose time has come because things happen," Cuomo told the crowd. "When the planets line up and the political will and the body politic develops, and the body politic says enough is enough – now is the time to pass paid family leave."

It was only last session that Cuomo insisted the legislature had no "appetite" for paid family leave. But now with major attention from media, elected officials, and advocates across the nation focused on whether New York will become the fourth state to pass a paid family leave bill, Cuomo is whipping up support for his plan. As are Assembly Democrats, whose plan is different, while all look to get the blessing of Senate Republicans, who control that chamber.

While Cuomo seeks to thread some middle ground with his plan, Assembly Democrats insist theirs, which includes higher benefits, is the way to go, and Senate Republicans indicate there may be room for compromise while saying they're wary of any additional burdens on businesses.

The Cuomo administration is proposing a plan that would pay benefits through contributions from employee paychecks and reimburse workers starting at the rate of 35 percent of earnings. The Assembly plan would expand the scope of the state Temporary Disability Insurance program to cover paid family leave and would also take contributions from employee paychecks, but would reimburse at a rate of two-thirds of a worker's pay for individuals on leave.

One central point of conflict is whether to connect the paid family leave program to the TDI--a move Senate Republicans appear to be sensitive to because of concerns that increasing the benefit for workers who take off time for their own disabilities would be a cost born by employers as well as workers. TDI is paid for by employers.

The state has kept the TDI reimbursement rate steady at $170 a week for decades. Legislators expect that increasing the rate will take immense political capital as it will almost certainly require contributions from employers.

However, there are also signs there may be room for compromise as the Cuomo administration has said it will introduce amendments to its leave proposal. Advocates expect the administration to increase the amount employees are reimbursed to bring it into line with the Assembly proposal.

"I think it is a very positive thing that everyone is talking about paid family leave," said Sen. Jeff Klein, head of the Independent Democratic Conference, who joined Cuomo and Biden for their rally last month, delivering opening remarks. "Serious discussions haven't started yet, but I'm hopeful."

Soon after speaking with Gotham Gazette, Klein introduced a new version of his paid family leave bill to the state Senate. Klein and the IDC jolted discussion of family leave last year when they successfully advocated for Senate Republicans, whom they have a coalition with and control the chamber, to include a paid family leave plan in their budget.

Before introducing his new compromise bill, Klein told Gotham Gazette that he believes negotiations should focus on Cuomo's proposal rather than the Assembly's because it is "more palatable" to Senate Republicans.

The dynamics around paid family leave have changed since last legislative session. Cuomo appears to have stepped into the role Klein's IDC was playing as they backed paid family leave supported in part by state funds and by deductions from employee paychecks. The Assembly Democrats' plan would use deductions from employee paychecks to expand the TDI, which currently provides partial pay for workers who are disabled and have to take off work.

Last year Cuomo rejected the Senate's family leave proposal put forward by the Independent Democratic Conference. "We need a paid family leave policy that is sustainable and would provide real protections to employees. What we should not accept is the Senate proposal, which is a half-loaf that does not provide sustainable funding or a workable framework for employees and employers," Cuomo spokesperson Melissa DeRosa said in a statement in March in response to the IDC's plan.

Klein's new plan would provide 12 weeks of paid leave starting at two-thirds of a worker's average weekly pay, or 35 percent of the state's average weekly wage by 2017. It would eventually offer 80 percent of a worker's salary, or 50 percent of the statewide average weekly by April 1, 2021. It would be paid for through a 27-cent-a-week contribution from employee paychecks and be distributed through a newly created paid leave system. It would not expand the TDI, but Klein has advocated doing so separately, to raise the TDI benefit after so many years of it staying flat.

Cuomo's plan, presented in conjunction with his State of the State and budget address in January, would create a paid family leave system that would offer up to 12 weeks leave paid for by a weekly, 60 cent payroll deduction. Workers would be able to take leave while earning 35 percent of their pay in 2018, rising to 66 percent by 2021. Leave pay would be capped at a weekly average of statewide pay - the 2014 average according to the state Department of Labor was $1,266.44.

The Assembly plan would expand TDI and provide workers with 12 weeks of paid leave at two thirds of their average weekly wage. It would be paid for with a weekly deduction from an employee's paycheck that would start at 45 cents. The plan would become effective July of 2017.

Advocates have leaned towards the Assembly plan as it provides workers with what they consider the minimum amount of pay to make taking leave feasible, as well as expanding the TDI, and requiring a smaller worker contribution.

Blue Carreker, head of Citizen Action of NY's paid family leave campaign said that her organization thinks any paid leave bill has to cover all workers and all businesses, provide 12 weeks leave, and increase the rates paid by TDI to bring it into parity with what will be paid by the family leave program.

Republican Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan has indicated he is open to negotiations. Following a speech he gave at an Association for a Better New York breakfast last month, Flanagan indicated he was moved by Cuomo's State of the State speech in which the governor described regretting not being at his father's side during his final days.

Flanagan tempered that openness with concerns he has about how a paid leave policy might impact small business. "If you're a business with four employees and someone is going to be gone for three or four months, that's a legitimate consideration," said Flanagan. "So a threshold on what's the size of the business, who pays for it, how are kids paid for, those are all absolutely important components and worthy of discussion, and I think those discussions are already taking place. Where it adds up, I don't have a crystal ball on that, but I think there's a lot more discussion about paid family leave now than there was even six months ago."

Republican Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb told Gotham Gazette, "A lot of business owners are saying 'Are you kidding me? Another thing that is telling me what to do and costing me time and money.'" He added that "there really aren't that many details except in that bill" from the Assembly Democrats, which "almost certainly won't become law."

A number of business groups stand against paid family leave. "Small employers are currently able to accommodate employees and provide flexibility in terms of scheduling," said Michael Durant, New York State director of The National Federation of Independent Businesses. "Those that can afford to offer paid time off already do and to require those that cannot afford the added expense will be dangerous to the small business sector. This is simply a solution in search of a problem and would be yet another government mandate on small business."

A recent DEMOS policy brief showed that 9 out of 10, or 6.4 million, working people in New York don't have paid family leave.

Increasing the TDI is an extremely sensitive issue for businesses and many legislators believe that including it with paid family leave will continue to be a poison pill. Most legislators are convinced by Cuomo's efforts on paid family leave and they see the inclusion of it in his budget and the way he rolled out the issue in the State of the State as a sign of steadfast commitment. They expect he will be willing to increase how much the leave program pays out and perhaps speed the implementation timeline, but not touch the TDI given his relationship with the business community. Increasing the TDI would be an immense victory for labor interests.

Carreker, who was waiting for a meeting with Cuomo administration representatives about paid leave when she spoke with Gotham Gazette, said she is confident a compromise can be reached and stressed she feels that advocates need to focus on educating legislators and small businesses on the impact paid family leave would actually have.

"It's about getting over that initial hurdle of the fear of change, of something different," said Carreker. "The more people that hear the details, the more they'll see it makes sense. This isn't a burden, it's an insurance program that covers the salaries so businesses can figure out coverage while an employee is away so that they don't have to lose good employees."

Klein agrees: "This is not something that puts a burden on business, but something that lends stability to the workforce. I think we're getting it done this year."

Paid Family Leave Proposals Gov. Cuomo Assembly Democrats Senate Independent Democratic Conference
Funding Method

60 cent weekly deduction from employees' paychecks

State TDI program and 45 cent weekly deduction from employees' paychecks

27 cent weekly deduction from employees’ paychecks

Time Off & Payout

12 weeks of paid leave starting at 35% of worker’s pay starting in 2018, rising to 66% by 2021.

12 weeks of paid leave starting at two-thirds of a worker’s average weekly wage, effective July 2017

12 weeks of paid leave starting at two-thirds of a worker’s average weekly pay, or 35% of the state’s average weekly wage by 2017. Will eventually offer 80% of a worker’s salary, or 50% of the statewide average weekly by April 1, 2021

TDI Expansion?

Does not expand TDI

Plan would expand the scope of the state Temporary Disability Insurance program to cover paid family leave

Does not expand TDI

***
by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Calls for Public Discussion of New Affordable Housing Incentive Program


REBNY speaker

The REBNY gala (photo via REBNY on Facebook)


Earlier this year developers and labor unions failed to reach a deal to renew the controversial 421-a tax abatement program that is designed to entice the development of affordable housing. Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislators agreed to extend the program early last year while putting the longterm future of the program in the hands of the special interests that benefit from it--an unprecedented move that was met with loud criticism.

With negotiations failed and the program expired, it appears that real estate groups are looking to Cuomo and state legislators to figure out new life for the program. Without it, the future of rental housing, including affordable units, in New York City is in question. Expressing serious concern, Mayor Bill de Blasio has called on Albany leaders to make the situation right.

Asked about how he would like to see the 42-1 issue resolved, Republican Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan said, "I believe that it should be people of good faith sitting in a room working - I'm not kidding - working on a compromise. The housing question in the City of New York is unbelievably important." Flanagan was speaking to reporters after giving a speech to the Association for a Better New York on Jan. 28.

Tenant advocates also want to get key players in a room to hash out a solution, but they want those meetings open to the public and including all stakeholders, not just the ones that make large campaign contributions.

Left out of the last round of discussions, advocates insist that any discussion of renewing the program should be held in full view. They want the housing committees of the legislature to hold hearings to consider alternatives to 421-a. "Everything in Albany is done in secret," said Michael McKee, treasurer of Tenants PAC. "You would expect the housing committees to hold public hearings on this, but that is just not convenient."

"I would like to see more of a public discussion so that maybe REBNY will come and tell us what happened in negotiations," said Thomas Waters of the Community Service Society, referring to the Real Estate Board of New York, the major association of developers and one of the two main parties left to negotiate an extension of 421-a.

"No other interest gets this kind of special treatment," Waters said, referring to real estate. REBNY and individual developers are known to be among the most prolific campaign donors and spenders throughout New York.

Dan MacEntee, spokesperson for state Senator Betty Little, who chairs the Senate committee on housing, said that there had yet to be any discussions on hearings. "The Senator does recognize the impact of the program and would like to see it continue," MacEntee told Gotham Gazette of 421-a. Little, a Republican, represents several upstate towns.

A spokesperson for Assembly Member Keith Wright, a Harlem Democrat who chairs the Assembly housing committee, said that Wright was not available for comment.

Senator Liz Krueger, a Democratic member of the Senate housing committee, believes that there should be a joint hearing of the legislature's housing and finance committees before anything on 421-a is decided, given that the program deals with housing and taxes. Krueger told Gotham Gazette last year that she would like to see 421-a replaced with a more efficient program.

However, many legislators and advocates say that REBNY is pushing Cuomo and legislators to move quickly on a basic renewal, and one that either does away with Cuomo's insistence last year that prevailing wages for labor are included, or sets a lower increase than the building trades council sought during private meetings.

REBNY President John Banks recently wrote in Real Estate Weekly that he is committed to working with stakeholders to "address the need for more rental housing" while pushing back against calls from labor and Cuomo to include a prevailing wage requirement.

"Given the high cost of property taxes, land costs and construction costs, most owners will opt to do something else rather than build multi-family rental housing with a substantial below market component unless there is a tax benefit program like 421a in place," wrote Banks.

"For example, in the absence of a tax benefit program like 421-a, in many areas of the City, owners will build market rate condominiums where sales prices can offset the high cost of new development (e.g., property taxes, construction, land)."

Advocates say the city simply isn't getting the return on its investment through 421-a and that if the creation of affordable housing is what is motivating public officials then finding a more efficient alternative is paramount.

"The first step is to let 421-a die and spend the money on other housing programs," Waters told Gotham Gazette. "Rather than a program that provides the right to a tax break I'd like to see something like the federal low-income tax credit and have developers apply and have the credit go to those who provide the most affordability."

Tenant advocates have long decried the 421-a program as terribly inefficient.

Waters research has shown that 421-a has only produced one affordable apartment for every $833,000 in tax breaks. "Before the state acted to renew 421-a last June, New York City was foregoing $1.1 billion in revenue each year for a program that led to no more than 1,275 apartments per year," Waters recently wrote in NY Slant.

Meanwhile, advocates point out that provisions in the state's rent laws allow landlords to deregulate 20,000 affordable apartments a year, with landlords voluntarily reporting the deregulation of around 6,000 affordable apartments each year.

"As far as I'm concerned the lapse of 421-a can only be a good thing," said McKee of Tenants PAC. "It is an absurdly inefficient way to get affordable housing. Even if you deliberately tried to create an inefficient program it would be hard to end up with something as absurd as 421-a. I could design a better program than 421-a in my sleep."

A number of observers see the failure to renegotiate 421-a as just another example of how the feud between Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Cuomo has impacted public policy. Last year de Blasio announced a deal with developers to renew 421-a - the mayor was anxious to renew the program that is a key piece of his promise to build 80,000 units of affordable housing over ten years.

Cuomo countered, saying de Blasio had a reached a sweetheart deal with developers and blamed the plan for disrupting the legislature's negotiations. In the end, Cuomo and legislators reached a deal that included much of de Blasio's plan. It mandated that 25 to 30 percent of projects be set aside for affordable housing, banned most coops and condos from receiving abatements, and increased the length of the abatement from 25 to 35 years. All of that came with the caveat that real estate and labor had to come to a deal on wages.

Now many doubt de Blasio will have much of a say at all on the program as legislative leaders and the governor negotiate behind closed doors. Gov. Cuomo has spoken to the importance of reestablishing an affordable housing program at the state level. The de Blasio administration has lamented the loss of 421-a while simultaneously downplaying its importance.

"Having every single set of a tools at our disposal is optimal," Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen told Gotham Gazette when asked about the uncertainty around the 421-a program. Glen noted that the city has several programs at its disposal to encourage the construction of affordable housing but each one is important. "Not one of these individual levers not being available will undermine our efforts or significantly impact our plan, but not having something, a tax incentive...like 421a, you know, does hinder our ability to do what's really important...which is to make sure that there is affordable housing in every corner of the city."

***
by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.



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