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Good Government Groups Rate Cuomo's Ethics Package


cuomo sots scene

Scene at Gov. Cuomo's State of the State (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)


On Tuesday in Albany, the heads of three major good government groups gave their evaluation of the ethics proposals Gov. Andrew Cuomo included in his State of the State address and budget presentation last week. Susan Lerner of Common Cause, Dick Dadey of Citizens Union and Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group expressed general contentment with most of what Cuomo unveiled during a press conference, but gathered to call for follow through and one key addition to the agenda.

The groups are quite pleased with Cuomo's plan to shut the LLC loophole, which allows donors to skirt the state's campaign contribution limits by creating multiple fronts. "We think the language the governor has proposed is strong and clear, and we do not have any suggestions for strengthening it, so please note that sometimes you can make good government groups happy," said Lerner regarding the loophole. Cuomo has been the greatest benefactor of the current system, though in the past he has expressed a belief that it should be closed while not necessarily fighting for that reform.

Lerner said she was also encouraged to see a public campaign finance proposal and election reforms put forward in Cuomo's plan.

Horner said that it was "proper" for Cuomo to put forth a bill limiting lawmakers' outside income to 15 percent of their state salary, which is currently $79,500, but may soon be increased. Still, he expressed disappointment that a measure of the bill that limits legislators from accepting advances from book sales does not apply to the executive branch (Cuomo recently received hundreds of thousands of dollars for penning a memoir). Overall Horner said he thought the proposal would "significantly reduce lawmakers' temptation to use private office for public gain."

"The governor was given a historic opportunity to overhaul the state's campaign finance and election laws and in his State of the State message he largely delivered," said Horner.

Dadey, however, said Cuomo made a grave oversight by not proposing any bill that tackles "slush funds" in the state budget, pots of money that have been abused by legislators, as spotlighted in the cases against former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former state Senator Malcolm Smith.

Dadey said that the pots of money are "rife with potential for corruption," and said that the governor and the legislature should shed more light on how the money is used. "These lump sums must not be allowed to exist in such large categories...but rather lined out in budget," said Dadey. "If there is a reason for them to continue to exist that needs to be publically disclosed."

The groups praised Cuomo's plan to make reforms to the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, or JCOPE, by making the ethics watchdog subject to public meetings laws and requiring lawmakers to disclose their actual income rather than a range. However, they said Cuomo didn't go far enough and that the structure of the board must be revamped to avoid deadlocks, the Comptroller and Attorney General should be allowed to appoint representatives, and the executive director should not be hired directly from the legislative or executive branches.

Dadey dismissed concerns that Cuomo did not make his ethics package part of his budget bills which would give him the upper hand in negotiations with the legislature. "I think they're so important that they have to stand alone. That's what I would like to think," said Dadey.

The groups had previously introduced a "Clean Conscience Pledge" at the start of the year, asking lawmakers and the governor to sign on to working to do everything they can to pass legislation limiting outside income, closing the LLC loophole, and making clear the purpose and recipients of discretionary funds in the budget.

So far 22 legislators have signed the pledge. Four of the signees are from the 103-member Assembly Democratic Majority, no members of the 31-member Republican Senate Majority have signed, nor has Governor Cuomo, a Democrat.

Asked by Gotham Gazette if they had had discussions with members of the majorities about the pledge or received indications why more legislators have not signed, Horner responded: "These are tough proposals. I think the houses want to process how they're going to respond to the governor's package and the pledge. This is really an opportunity for lawmakers who are often cut out of process to express a point of view. I'm urging them to get on the stick on this quickly to let the public know you want Albany cleaned up and this is the easiest way to show it."

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

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing

Once Rife with Problems, City Budget Process Now a Model for State System in Need of Reform


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Governor Cuomo presents his 2014-2015 Executive Budget


In 1975 New York City was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, having balanced its budget for years with massive borrowing and shady accounting tricks. Banks were at the point where they would lend no more. Mayor Abe Beame had written the announcement of the city's default. City lawyers were in State Supreme Court filing a petition for bankruptcy and police were prepared to serve the banks.

At the last minute bankruptcy was averted as the federal government provided the city with loans. Those loans combined with the state-created Financial Control Board, which required the city to use generally accepted accounting practices and provide four-year financial plans, are credited with turning things around.

Gone were the days when operating expenses were reclassified as capital investments, when labor costs were paid for with new loans, when raids on existing funds were acceptable ways to pay for new expenses. The city underwent such a turnaround in the following decades that its budget process is now thought to be a shining beacon across the country. The Financial Control Board that used to strike fear into the hearts of mayors is now a sleepy, almost forgotten entity.

The state government, however, is facing a crisis of its own--not a fiscal one, but a crisis of trust, brought on by a series of convictions of sitting legislators that was capped late last year by the convictions of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. For years, the Silver and Skelos served as two of the 'three men in a room' deciding the budget with the Governor. It's a process that has been decried by good government advocates, reform-minded legislators, and the U.S Attorney, Preet Bharara, who brought Silver and Skelos to justice for abusing their positions.

"I think people should start to talk about budget transparency as a matter of ethics," said Sen. Liz Krueger, the Democrats' ranking member on the state Senate finance committee. "People really should care about the lack of transparency in the state budget process for a whole lot of reasons. One of them is that if you don't know what's going on, pay-to-play wins the day. If someone wants something in the budget they get it there with a whole lot of lobbying money that no one knows about. That's the harm, that's the danger and I'll tell you that happens constantly."

A number of major corruption cases, including Silver's, have centered on the opaqueness of the budget process that allows legislators and the governor to put aside secret slush funds. For example, Silver was able to direct discretionary funding to a cancer doctor who in turn sent Silver and his law firm lucrative clients suffering from a rare form of cancer.

Former Sen. Malcolm Smith was convicted in a scheme whereby he would provide a developer a $500,000 lump sum from the budget. A report from good government group Citizens Union found that the 2014 and 2015 fiscal year budgets had over $3 billion in lump funds, while Cuomo's proposed 2016 budget had around $2.6 billion. Citizens Union, Common Cause NY, and NYPIRG have this year called on legislators to support reforms making budget spending more transparent.

"Preet Bharara, the federal prosecutor who convicted both Silver and Skelos, basically said the strongest tool these guys had to game the system was unbridled power and an unbelievable lack of transparency in policing 'three men in a room,'" said Assemblymember Jim Tedisco, a Republican from the Capital Region who has proposed a bill that would force any pot of cash negotiated in the budget to be line-itemed and mandate that it is publicly documented how the cash is eventually spent.

"The other thing Bharara told us is 'if you see something, say something,'" Tedisco said. "I didn't know about these pots of money and I'm sure my Democratic colleagues in the chamber didn't know either. So if you don't know who got the money, you can't stop what's going on. We just don't have that transparency holistically."

Slush funds aren't the only part of the state budget that thwart transparency. Today the bad practices New York City was forced to abandon are commonplace in the state budget process. The state budgets without generally accepted accounting practices, routinely raids other programs, has lump-sum appropriations where spending is at times decided by memorandum of understanding between the governor and legislators, and routinely pushes expenses down the road.

This year Gov. Andrew Cuomo has proposed a slew of major infrastructure projects including the revamp of Penn Station and a third track for the Long Island Rail Road, but his budget proposal does not lay out how to fund them. Meanwhile, his budget continues funneling cash to economic development projects that are managed by entities with little transparency. Cuomo's Buffalo Billion project is currently under investigation by Bharara's office.

Frank Mauro, executive director emeritus of the Fiscal Policy Institute, who also served as the director of research for the city's last major charter revision and as secretary of the Assembly's ways and means committee, said that the differences between the city and state budget processes are striking. "I don't think many people know just how different the city process is from the state's," said Mauro.

The city budget process begins when the Mayor submits his Preliminary Budget to the City Council before January 21 each year (this was just moved from Jan. 16). Then the City Council holds public hearings over a period of several weeks, bringing in agency commissioners and budget directors to examine spending, considers budget priorities from community boards and borough presidents, and takes testimony from groups and citizens.

The Council must issue its findings and recommendations by March 25. The Mayor then has until April 26 to propose an Executive Budget, with explanations of programs as well as a fiscal outlook for the city. The Council then holds another series of public hearings which are followed by negotiations between the mayor's budget office and the Council finance division. These negotiations must result in a balanced budget by the end of June, with the new fiscal year beginning July 1.

The Council is allowed to increase, decrease, add or omit any appropriation for personal services, or omit or change conditions related to any appropriation. The Council then votes on the budget. The mayor can veto any additions or increases the Council adds but may not interfere with any decreases.

The city process also includes a significant role for the Comptroller, who oversees city contracts and audits city agencies. The Comptroller is the city's chief financial watchdog and analyzes the Mayor's budget proposals, performing independent forecasting, raising red flags, and making recommendations.

"In the state budget you have to investigate where the money has gone, where certain programs are accounted for, and even then, good luck," said Sen. Krueger. "Even the [state] comptroller's office does not know until years later what was actually spent."

The state process begins when the Governor devises an Executive Budget based on the needs of agencies and any programs he or she supports and delivers the budget to the Legislature. Both houses of the the Legislature put out their own budgets, mainly to signal their major priorities for the year. The Governor delivers his executive budget along with appropriation, revenue and budget bills by February 1. The Legislature typically holds a series of budget hearings on particular topics, like transportation and local governments.

Under reform legislation passed in 2007, the Legislature is supposed to convene conference committees between both houses to reach agreements on aspects of the budget and set priorities. These committees have been ignored in the past despite the reform legislation.

The Governor and Legislature are also required agree on a revenue forecast on or before March 1. They are generally very good at doing this, failure to do so results in the state Comptroller setting the forecast. The Legislature can only reduce or entirely remove spending proposed by the Governor and it has no control over the Governor's proposals for spending. The Legislature can add spending, but the Governor has the ability to line-item veto. The Legislature must vote on a budget by April 1, which is the start of the state's fiscal year.

It isn't until the budget is voted on that a new financial plan is created showing how all the changes impact spending. So while a budget may start as balanced under the Governor's proposed plan, it rarely ends that way.

The state budget is usually full of non-budget policies because the budget process gives the Governor the upper hand - the Legislature can either negotiate the Governor's priorities, stall, or fail to vote on a budget on time, in which case the Governor can simply issue emergency extenders that put his budget into place.

Budgets are normally negotiated exclusively between the two majority leaders of the Legislature and the Governor, and time and again budget bills are not given the three-day waiting period for review mandated by law. Instead, the Governor issues messages of necessity that allow the budget bills to be voted on immediately. The result is legislators voting on voluminous budget bills late at night, having little or no time to actually read them. "To say there is any level of public review is just insulting," Krueger said.

"I think the biggest difference between the state and city budget processes is that the state budget is a political negotiation and you don't see a financial plan until a month later," said Tammy Gamerman, a senior research associate with the Citizens Budget Commission (CBC). "With the city they tell you how they are going to balance the budget."

Adding further mystery to the state budget, Governor Cuomo has taken to combining his State of the State address and Executive Budget presentation, doing so this year and last. This leads to less public explanation of the budget and more focus on big policy initiatives the governor is backing. In his speech last week, the governor laid out a number of government ethics proposals, including public financing of campaigns. He did not discuss changing the budget process.

The city budget process is not perfect, of course. The City Council continues to push the Mayor to more specifically account for agency spending, providing more units of appropriation instead of lump sums. There is also a good deal of discretionary spending available to the City Council Speaker that watchdogs want more accounting for.

Sen. Krueger, who is one of the most outspoken legislators during late night state budget votes, picking at and tracking spending threads while most legislators are waiting to simply cast a "yes" vote and get back to their districts, said that 'three men in a room' has led to an absolute lack of budget transparency and alienated the public.

Krueger says she has seen a decrease in attendance at budget hearings, even from groups that have a lot at stake in the budget. "At the end of the budget process each year, after I'm done beating my head against the wall over one thing that made it through the budget process or the other, I come to find out there are 16 other things I missed," Krueger told Gotham Gazette. "I don't catch a huge number of things and I do care about this. So imagine what it is like for someone who isn't a legislator, who doesn't have experience with this. I want people to know they should be involved in the process. They should come to hearings just to point out 'Hey, you know New York has state parks that need to be funded and that isn't in here.'"

Most rank-and-file legislators and advocates acknowledge that budget reform is not a hot topic at the moment. The last time there was major attention on the subject was in 2009 when Senate Democrats briefly controlled the chamber. They issued a report that recommended conference committees be given control over larger sums of budget funds, that the state adopt generally accepted accounting principles, a two-year budget cycle, and the creation of a legislative budget office.

Krueger has since introduced bills that would create a state agency in the model of the city's Independent Budget Office - a nonpartisan, publically funded agency that provides information to elected officials and the public about the budget, reviews budget proposals, and provides policy analysis. The bill has gone nowhere in the Senate.

Krueger and other reformers also want to see the state require bills to have truthful financial impact statements. Currently, bills introduced from rank-and-file legislators, committee chairs, legislative leaders, or the Governor are supposed to have impact statements, but some simply lack them while others are presented in a dishonest way. Rather than presenting a program's cost for a year, some bills only represent a month's cost, or less.

Gamerman said she feels that some progress has been made toward budget transparency over the last few years.

"Accountability issues born of the financial crisis of the '70s forced the city to use generally accepted accounting principles," said Gamerman. "There isn't any similar oversight of the state. The state has increased transparency through the Open Budget website. There is more info on agency spending. One of the big differences between the city and state is the city does a much better job tracking performance with the Mayor's Management Report. The state has been talking about doing something similar."

Mauro said that he finds it unlikely there will be a major push for reform unless the Legislature feels the Governor is abusing his current powers because the status quo still works for the leadership. "It's an unlikely scenario where the Governor isn't running roughshod over the Legislature with budget powers that we'll see a push for change," said Mauro.

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing

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

Cuomo Outlines $144 Billion Budget


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Cuomo taking the podium for his State of the State


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Senate Republicans are not particularly open to the plan.

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

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

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

Cuomo Unveils Ethics Plan to Questions of Follow Through


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Cuomo during his State of the State (photo via The Governor's Office)


To open Gov. Andrew Cuomo's sixth State of the State address Wednesday, a video began with a frightening picture of the "bad old days," when legislative dysfunction held the people's agenda hostage. Despite the avalanche of indictments that have taken place under Cuomo, including last year's arrest and conviction of two legislative leaders on federal corruption charges, the Cuomo Era was portrayed as only positive, leading into the governor's speech.

Toward the end of that speech, and at page 274 part 10 of his new policy book, Cuomo acknowledged what he called "a threshold issue that must be addressed." After having outlined a wide variety of policy proposals dealing with infrastructure, business development, and economic and social justice, Cuomo acknowledged said none of it would work if New Yorkers don't have faith in their government.

The governor then outlined a sweeping government ethics and campaign finance reform platform, setting a high bar for negotiations with the legislature and impressing some reform-minded good government groups and lawmakers. However, due to the history involved - both Cuomo's and the state legislature's - there are more than a few skeptics about prospects for success in enacting new measures to prevent corruption.

While some reformers applauded the governor's ambitious plan, many are waiting to see how well the governor does in moving his proposals through the legislature.

Citizens Union released a statement saying that "Cuomo stepped up in a big way and proposed important reforms that, if enacted, would help rebuild the public trust and protect New Yorkers against another crime wave of corruption in Albany." The group is among three that recently unveiled a "clean conscience pledge" for lawmakers to sign guaranteeing that they would fight for reforms like closing the LLC loophole.

In his speech, Cuomo tied effective government to ethical government, something Albany has not been able to do.

"We have proven competence, and we have proven we can make government work, but recent acts have undermined the public's trust in government," Cuomo said. "Public trust is essential for government to function at the level we need. I have a number of recommendations that will be in the budget that I believe will help restore the public trust."

LLC Loophole
Cuomo's first reform proposal, closing the LLC loophole, faces an uphill climb. For years, Cuomo himself has been the major beneficiary of the loophole, which allows companies to create shell entities through which to donate virtually unlimited amounts to candidates. In fact, Cuomo has taken more than a million dollars in donations from LLCs tied to just one company: Glenwood Management, the real estate firm at the center of the corruption trial of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and featured in that of former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. Cuomo has refused to return money from Glenwood and denied that political donations influence him in any way.

Cuomo poses his argument for closing the LLC loophole in his briefing book as one of equity. "It is our responsibility to even the playing field so that rich and poor New Yorkers alike have their voices heard in our political process," it says.

Senate Republicans have shown no appetite for closing the LLC loophole, which Assembly Democrats still appear ready to do and Senate Democrats attempted to force to a vote last year.

Assemblymember Daniel O'Donnell, a Democrat, was skeptical of the Governor's proposal, not because he isn't in favor of closing the loophole, but because Cuomo continues to take contributions from LLCs. "He can't play both sides and take LLC donations and tell us to pass a law to stop them," said O'Donnell. "I don't take LLC donations, there will be a sign at my next fundraiser saying: 'I don't take LLC donations.'"

Outside Income
In perhaps the most bold reform proposal in his budget, Cuomo wants to limit lawmakers' outside pay to 15 percent of their base salary, which would match the rule for members of the U.S. Congress.

Blair Horner, of the New York Public Interest Research Group, hailed the proposal as an effective post-Watergate reform. However, legislators are keenly aware that Cuomo's proposal does not include a raise for them to make up for any lost outside income as many good government groups have recommended and that the restriction only applies to legislators, not the governor, attorney general, or comptroller.

"You can't keep telling us that you'll give us a raise down the road if we just pass this," O'Donnell told Gotham Gazette. There is a pay commission set to soon make recommendations, which could lead to raises for lawmakers.

Cuomo has not been above making outside income, of course. The governor's book deal with HarperCollins (a subsidiary of NewsCorp) is estimated to be worth at least $700,000. The International Business Times has documented how the state has pledged to give NewsCorp a one-time payment of $15 million in 2016 and access to $15 million in tax credits as part of a drive to make the company an "anchor tenant" at 2 World Trade Center.

FOIL
The governor wants everyone to be subject to the Freedom of Information Law - the legislature is currently exempt to FOIL rules. Cuomo's proposal appears to be driven by flack the governor received late last year after he vetoed two bills that were designed to make the FOIL appeals process faster and more affordable. The move came to the dismay of good government groups - the bills applied to the executive chamber, state agencies, as well as the comptroller, attorney general and local governments. At the time, the governor promised action in the new year.

"It is indefensible, especially in today's context for you to say you believe in the Freedom of Information Law and for you to sign bills reforming the Freedom of Information Law, but excluding yourself," Cuomo told the legislature during his speech Wednesday. "Let's make a statement to the citizens and taxpayers of this state that you get it. If you pass a FOIL bill, include yourselves. I will sign it the very same day."

Public Campaign Finance System
Cuomo has flirted with voluntary public campaign financing system before - his last push on it resulted in a pilot program that only applied to the 2014 comptroller's race (Cuomo isn't particularly friendly with Democratic incumbent Thomas DiNapoli) and only DiNapoli's opponent opted in, but he failed to raise the $200,000 minimum to qualify. The program was limited in scope due to pushback from Senate Republicans and they are showing no signs of having a new position.

Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan made no mention of the program or campaign finance reform in general in his response to the governor's State of the State.

"If the governor is planning to do campaign finance with taxpayer funds we aren't going to stand for it," Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb told Gotham Gazette.

Good government groups hailed Cuomo's inclusion of public financing. "It's time to address the legal bribery that happens every day at the Capitol. It's time to change the system. Small donor matching is the only way to ensure that elected officials are putting voters before big donors," Karen Scharff of Citizen Action NY said in a statement. "A comprehensive approach to reform, like the Governor proposed, centered around public campaign finance, is the only way to restore public trust and restore democracy."

Pension Forfeiture
Both Silver and Skelos filed for sizeable pensions after being convicted on multiple federal counts of corruption last year. Beforehand, the heads of both legislative majorities came to a deal with Cuomo to strip pensions from legislators convicted of violating the public trust.

The Senate proceeded to pass a bill that would have stripped the pension from any public employee found guilty of a felony. But, facing pressure from public employee unions that worried their members would be targeted by the law after being convicted of crimes having nothing to do with their jobs, the Assembly stalled. Now Cuomo is attempting to get both sides to come to the table again. "This is nothing new," Kolb told Gotham Gazette. "We could have done this last year if (Assembly) Democrats hadn't stopped it."

O'Donnell said he was concerned about the impact the Senate's version of the bill could have had on workers and their families but he said he was more than happy to vote for a bill that "targets the right people."

The Rest
Cuomo also proposed a change in law that would force political consultants and those seeking state contracts to register as lobbyists. He also pledged to commit $1 million to fund a nonpartisan commission to help prepare for a constitutional convention where voters could have a chance to redraw New York's constitution. Cuomo has quietly supported a convention over the last few years.

Additionally, the governor outlined plans to make it easier to register to vote.

The Forecast
At the end of the day it appears that Senate Republicans are diametrically opposed to Cuomo's grandest ethics proposals. In an election year, which 2016 is, Senate Republicans may be moved to take some action, but it is unlikely they will move on Cuomo's version of outside income limits or public financing of elections.

Senate Republicans have run on their opposition to "using taxpayer dollars" for campaign finance and Flanagan has repeated that he believes lawmakers should hold outside jobs. Ethics were not a major part of Flanagan's rebuttal to Cuomo's speech.

"At the end of the day all the laws in the world won't prevent bad people from doing bad things," Flanagan said in a pretaped video. "We take this seriously and are already hard at work to restore the public trust," he said. "But we should not lose sight of what has already been done to improve the state's ethics and disclosure laws and to hold elected officials accountable for their actions."

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

Assembly Democrats Reject Republican Rules Changes, Promise Own Proposals Soon


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Assembly Minority Leader Kolb and colleagues (photo via @NMalliotakis)


A majority of Democrats in the New York State Assembly voted down a series of 13 rules changes proposed by their Republican counterparts designed to make the chamber more equitable and allow members of the minority to get their bills to a vote.

While a push for rules changes led by Republican Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb and their defeat by Assembly Democrats has become an annual Albany tradition, this year the focus on reform is at a peak thanks to the federal convictions of former legislative leaders Dean Skelos and Sheldon Silver.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, who became the chamber's leader after Silver's indictment, convened a working group on operations, participation, and transparency last year to come up with a series of recommendations to make the chamber more open to its members and the public. However, the group has been criticized for not holding any public hearings, neglecting to include Assembly Republicans, and failing to keep up with its own deadlines.

Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh, one of the group's co-chairs, told Gotham Gazette that he expects he and his colleagues will reveal proposals shortly and that they will "touch on" a lot of the Republicans' concerns.

"The working group is putting together a broad set of proposals that we hope to make soon and I expect them to include a wide range of reforms that will touch on what Republicans have proposed," Kavanagh said. "They haven't proposed anything new. We are aware of the proposed changes Republicans want to make in this house."

Assembly Republicans also advocated for a package of bills that would create eight-year term-limits for legislative leaders, shut down legislators' campaign accounts if they are convicted of a felony, and do away with the much-criticized Joint Commission on Public Ethics.

The Assembly Majority has had preliminary discussions about banning outside income, but Heastie has indicated those conversations are in very early stages. Both the Assembly and Senate majorities are expected to have a larger conversation about reform after Cuomo unveils highly-anticipated ethics reforms in his State of the State address. While Democrats hold power in the Assembly, Republicans control the Senate, albeit by a much slimmer margin.

During a Tuesday morning press conference touting the reforms, Kolb appealed directly to the man responsible for securing the indictments of Skelos and Silver, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. "You all read recently that the federal prosecutor has spent a little time in Kentucky talking about ethics," Kolb said. "I think we should invite Mr. Bharara or somebody like him to talk to the New York State Legislature about ethics and corruption."

Kolb said he wanted to send a message to Bharara that some action is being taken to fight the status quo. He said he wants to see the end of the "three men in a room" system whereby the governor and majority leaders of each house decide the budget and most other pieces of legislation without much outside input. Kolb pointed out that two of the three men from recent years are no longer in office, given the indictments of Silver and Skelos.

Bharara has taken to criticizing the situation in Albany and has repeatedly told the public to "stay tuned" regarding new investigations and indictments of state politicians. "There are by my count 213 men and women in the state legislature, and yet it is common knowledge that only three men essentially wield all the power," Bharara said after the arrest of Silver last January. "I must confess a little bit of confusion about this: When did this come to pass? Why has everyone just come to accept it?"

Assembly Republicans proposed a number of reforms that are considered worthwhile by a host of good government groups. The 13 proposed changes included making public the process of selecting a speaker, allowing members to bring one substantive bill to the floor during their two-year term regardless of its support, requiring committee meetings to be webcast and roll call votes recorded, imposing eight-year term limits on committee chairs, and requiring equal funding for each legislator's' office.

John Kaehny of Reinvent Albany told Gotham Gazette that Assembly Republicans failed to reach out to good government groups for their support. "So how serious was this?" asked Kaehny, adding that he would be happy to support "serious recommendations."

Heastie was asked about the progress of the working group last week on The Capitol Pressroom with Susan Arbetter and he responded by asking for patience, saying that the group was finalizing recommendations and still having discussions with members. "I want the message to be that we are open to all kinds of ideas surrounding transparency," Heastie added.

Arbetter then asked Heastie for his thoughts on Assemblymember Jim Tedisco's "Spirit of 76" legislation that would allow a bill to come to a vote if it has the support of 76 members (a majority of the 150-seat Assembly), no matter their party.

"The party in the minority always finds a way to dilute the power of the majority," Heastie responded, "but our kind of government is a majority rules system."

Arbetter pressed Heastie on whether the working group might be considering something like Tedisco's bill.

"The working group is looking for ways to have more transparency, to not have bills bottled up, to come up with ways to make things a little smoother," Heastie told Arbetter. "There are a mountain of things new members feel is a challenge. But in all fairness the workgroup is not looking to undo the majority rule the way we have in our government."

Senate Republicans passed a bill on Tuesday that sets term limits for leadership positions. It is not expected to pass in the Assembly. Kolb told reporters before the rules vote that he would not act unilaterally and term-limit himself if Assembly Democrats failed to pass such a measure.

Assemblymember Steve McLaughlin, of the Capital Region, scolded Assembly Democrats Tuesday, saying, "Thirteen times this body could have voted to reform the way we do business and thirteen times you voted no."

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

Cuomo Heads Into State of the State After Big Announcements, With More to Say


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


Governor Cuomo is going big. Decrying a state that has lost its ambition for transformative projects like the Erie Canal, the governor has spent the past week traveling the state and announcing major infrastructure, transportation, and economic development plans. Cuomo has also revealed new pieces of his $15 minimum wage campaign and criminal justice reform policies, among others, as he sets his agenda for 2016 and frames budget negotiations in Albany.

So far, Cuomo has outlined 14 planks of his 2016 platform, providing an extensive preview of his State of the State and budget address, which he will give on Wednesday in the capital. Still, there are key pieces of his speech that the governor has kept under wraps, including what he has said are top priorities: government ethics, homelessness, and education.

It is also unclear what priority, if any, Cuomo will give to policies like the DREAM Act, which he has assured proponents will be in his budget again, but has not given indication of its place in his speech. Advocates are also hopeful that the governor includes a significant paid family leave proposal on Wednesday, and many are watching to see if he unveils a plan for a statewide policy on car-hailing apps, like Uber.

While the governor is clearly going big on infrastructure - with plans that could total $100 billion in costs, according to his office - he has promised to lead with ethics as lawmakers continue to fall to corruption convictions, trust in Albany is low, and New Yorkers say Cuomo has not done enough to clean up state government.

"Top of my agenda is going to be ethics reform," Cuomo, a Democrat, said Jan. 3 on NY1. "We have done a lot in Albany, but we haven't done enough. And I'm going to push the legislature very hard to adopt more aggressive ethics legislation, more disclosure, more enforcement, etcetera."

What exactly this will include is unclear, but good government groups, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, and many others have put forth recommendations. Chief among these are limiting legislators' outside income and closing the infamous LLC loophole, which allows virtually unlimited campaign donations. Whether Cuomo broaches a public campaign finance system will help gauge how bold he's going on reform.

Wherever ethics does fall, that portion of Cuomo's address is likely to be dwarfed by the volume of discussion of the infrastructure plans the governor has outlined and his discussion of economic justice, including his minimum wage crusade.

The infrastructure plans, which include a new track on the Long Island Rail Road, a revamped Penn Station, road and bridge upgrades, and more, will be attached to the governor's previously announced projects led by a new Tappan Zee Bridge and LaGuardia Airport.

During a Jan. 5 appearance on Long Island, Cuomo said of New Yorkers, "we don't think big anymore. And we don't believe we're capable of doing big anymore. And we don't believe government is a vehicle to do big anymore." But, he promised to resurrect New York's "big" thinking as he announced new plans and referenced ongoing building - all under the banner of this year's tagline: New York State, Built to Lead.

"This year in the State of the State we are going to propose the largest construction project program in modern political history in the state of New York," Cuomo promised. "Roads and bridges upstate, airports upstate and downstate, new mass transit, new attractions, new rail transit and new mass transit downstate which is desperately needed. And we are going to do it region by region."

While Cuomo has outlined the meat of his building plans, he has not gone into detail on how it will all be funded, though he has promised to do so on Wednesday in his executive budget.

Cuomo has called the budget "the most complex piece of legislation we pass," which is true in part because it is a way of doing business in Albany that a good deal of policy is unnecessarily included in budget negotiations. For the governor, whomever it may be, forcing additional policy into the budget is a way of using executive leverage that doesn't exist in post-budget legislative session. For the second straight year, Cuomo is combining his State of the State, which is usually a more policy-focused speech, with the announcement of his budget.

A budget deal is due by April 1, whereas the legislative session continues into June.

Budget watchdogs are eagerly awaiting the details of Cuomo's spending plans. Nicole Gelinas, of the Manhattan Institute, recently wrote in City and State that "Cuomo evidently did not make an important resolution: stop announcing huge infrastructure projects without a way to pay for them."

"The risk in starting lots of new projects without having a way to pay for them," Gelinas wrote, "is that the governor will force the MTA and the rest of the state to scrimp on old stuff that people don't see, like replacing subway tracks and signals."

After all the drama that accompanied Cuomo's negotiations with Mayor Bill de Blasio over an MTA capital spending plan, Cuomo may try to steer clear of criticism for his spending plans. As the Citizens Budget Commission points out, Cuomo continues to have billions of dollars to spend from bank settlements with the state. In outlining 12 things to watch for in Cuomo's budget, CBC asks, "How much will the Governor propose to spend for transportation infrastructure? How much will be borrowing versus pay-as-you-go capital, and will a new revenue source be proposed?"

Throughout his time as governor, Cuomo has prided himself on reigning in state operational spending, and even while outlining his new plans so far this month, Cuomo has touted his brand of fiscal responsibility. It is unlikely Cuomo will outline an increase in state spending above the two percent cap he has followed.

Meanwhile, many, especially from New York City, are watching closely to see what the governor outlines around homelessness, the latest issue on which Cuomo has decided to undermine and supercede de Blasio. Cuomo issued an executive order just after the new year and has promised a robust policy plan in his State of the State.

The plan is likely to include more oversight of homeless shelters, which the state is already responsible for, and of operations aimed at reducing homelessness. How much money Cuomo will dedicate to supportive housing, rental subsidies, and other relevant measures is to-be-seen. De Blasio recently announced a major supportive housing plan and, along with advocates and legislators, called on Cuomo to match it (and create a fourth New York/New York supportive housing deal).

The governor has not yet made clear his education platform for this year, though he has indicated he will follow recommendations made by the common core task force that he empaneled in September and received a report from in December.

Becoming "The Education Governor" has been full of fits and starts for Cuomo. While he has protected and promoted the growth of charter schools, other aspects of his education policy have not gone as planned - these include the rollout of the common core learning standards and tougher teacher evaluations by tying them more closely to the results of student standardized test scores.

The task force recommended a revamp of the common core system, more stakeholder input, a reduction in standardized testing, and increased local control over standards and curriculum. The governor's office said that "no new legislation is required to implement the recommendations of the report," so there could be few specific proposals in Cuomo's State of the State.

The governor did recently announce he will be investing in the community school model, something de Blasio has expanded vastly in New York City, especially with regard to so-called "failing schools" as he tries to turn them around under the threat of state takeover. Cuomo may take aim at hastening school improvement.

On NY1, Cuomo said "many of these failing schools have been failing for over 10 years, believe it or not. And the system, the bureaucracy, has been too tolerant, in my opinion. And we are – we're going to be focusing on the closing schools, we're going to be investing in the school system to make sure we're doing everything we can on the state side."

As he has done before, Cuomo also distanced himself from education-related problems: "Education in this state is run by a department called the state education department," Cuomo said. "It is not under the governor. I wish it were, many governors in the past wished it was...It's run by the Board of Regents, which is selected by the legislature, primarily the Assembly."

Discussing the common core he said, "We started a new curriculum as part of a national movement called the common core curriculum. And that was rolled out over the past few years; that brought with it a testing regimen on the new curriculum. It was not implemented well. It was rushed. It was confused."

Adding that "It created a backlash among parents that frankly shocked everyone," Cuomo mentioned "the opt-out movement, where the parents didn't have the kids take the tests because they didn't like the way it was addressed, they didn't like that the kids were getting lower grades, whatever region."

Cuomo said the state education department has to make significant changes "and bring the parents along. Because if the parents don't have trust in the education system, then you have nothing and that's where we are now," Cuomo concluded, setting the stage for next steps by his administration and the state education department, which is doing its own common core review (new SED Commissioner MaryEllen Elia was named to Cuomo's task force, so there appears to be some, if not significant, overlap).

While there will almost certainly be sections of Cuomo's speech on education, homelessness, and ethics, the bulk will likely be on infrastructure, economic development and opportunity. He'll showcase these efforts through his push for an eventual $15 per hour minimum wage, a downtown revitalization initiative, tax breaks for small businesses, and the major projects he's outlined.

On NY1, Cuomo explained how he sees economic development, saying that "in Upstate New York [it] means basically restoring the economy, and in downstate New York it means growing the future economy – the high tech economy, having the transportation infrastructure to do that – and making sure the economy is working for everyone."

He promised to address "very high unemployment among young minority males, black and brown," which he called "just unacceptable," adding, "We have to make special economic initiatives there."

To follow that up, Cuomo announced new regulations related to spending on minority- and women-owned businesses. Prior to that, Cuomo also announced "the Empire State Poverty Reduction Initiative," a $25 million program to "bring together state and local government, non-profit and business groups to design and implement coordinated solutions to increase social mobility in ten cities with the highest poverty rates in the state."

The governor has promised to continue to fight to raise the age of criminal responsibility in New York from 16 to 18 - New York is one of just two states that automatically treat 16-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system. Like on several other issues, Cuomo has taken executive action on the issue in the absence of legislation, with a plan to move 16- and 17-year-olds into a separate prison facility from older inmates.

Where other social justice issues that, similarly, the governor has backed before but not been able to pass, like the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA) and the DREAM Act, are featured in Cuomo's remarks is also being watched closely by supporters of those policies.

The governor published an op-ed this week detailing the measures he's taken to protect transgender New Yorkers in the absence of GENDA passing the legislature, where it has been blocked by the Republican-controlled Senate. Cuomo did not indicate that he would be pushing GENDA forward in his State of the State.

There are also questions around whether Cuomo will include a proposal and dedicated funding for paid family leave, something that de Blasio recently moved on for some city employees and called on the state to pass for all workers.

One other policy area the governor has been quiet on leading up to his address, but he could make waves with an announcement on is app-based car services. When de Blasio was battling with Uber last year, Cuomo jumped into the fray to defend the company, where one of his former top aides now works, and say that a statewide policy is needed. Since then, Uber has waged a campaign across the state, getting many public officials on board. Cuomo may surprise people by outlining state policy around Uber and other e-hailing services like Lyft.

Tune in at 12:30 p.m. Wednesday for Cuomo's speech - stream online at the governor's website - and see below for the full outline of proposals Cuomo has outlined thus far in 2016.

***
by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
@tweetBenMax

For an outline of all 14 proposals Cuomo has announced thus far, the following was released by Cuomo's office on Tuesday:

The signature proposals announced so far include:

PROPOSAL 1: Restore economic justice by making New York the first state in the nation to enact a $15 minimum wage for all workers. While highlighting this proposal, the Governor announced that the State University of New York will raise the minimum wage for more than 28,000 employees.

More information available here; video and other media available here.

PROPOSAL 2: Launch a comprehensive plan to transform and expand vital infrastructure downstate and make critical investments in the region. Most notably, the proposal includes a major expansion and improvement project for the Long Island Rail Road between Floral Park and Hicksville.

The project will allow the LIRR to increase service, reduce congestion and train delays caused whenever there is an incident along this busy stretch of tracks and will enable the LIRR to run "reverse-peak" trains to allow people to take the LIRR to jobs on Long Island during traditional business hours. By allowing the LIRR to increase service between Floral Park and Hicksville, it will provide a more attractive alternative to driving and thereby reduce traffic on Long Island's major east-west highways, like the L.I.E., Northern State and Southern State, and more trains will make it easier for Long Islanders to reach LaGuardia and Kennedy airports by train.

More information available here; video and other media available here.

PROPOSAL 3: Bolster New York's legacy of environmental protection. The Governor has proposed allocating $300 million for the State’s Environmental Protection Fund – the highest amount ever for the fund and more than double the fund’s level when the Governor first took office. The Governor also announced two major investments in water infrastructure in Suffolk and Nassau Counties.

More information available here.

PROPOSAL 4: Make a series of investments and new initiatives to continue growing the economy and building stronger, more vibrant communities across New York State. These proposals include significant tax relief for small businesses, increased funding to support municipal water infrastructure improvement projects, a new effort to revitalize and transform downtown areas in each region of the state, and a sixth round of the successful Regional Economic Development Council initiative.

More information available here; video and other media available here.

PROPOSAL 5: Invest in Upstate transportation infrastructure. This includes a plan to offer a tax credit that cuts tolls in half for the New York residents and businesses who utilize the Thruway most often – benefitting nearly one million passenger, business and farm vehicles using E-Z Passes; eliminating tolls for agricultural vehicles; and keeping tolls flat until at least 2020 for all other drivers.

More information available here; video available here.

PROPOSAL 6: Transform Penn Station and the historic James A. Farley Post Office into a world-class transportation hub. The project, known as the Empire Station Complex, will feature significant passenger improvements, including first-class amenities, natural light, increased train capacity and decreased congestion, and improved signage to dramatically enhance the travel experience. The project – which is anticipated to cost $3 billion – will be expedited by a public-private partnership in order to break ground this year and complete substantial construction within the next three years.

More information available here; video and other media available here; conceptual renderings are available here.

PROPOSAL 7: Dramatically expand and improve the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center to stimulate the regional economy. The proposal will expand the Javits Center by 1.2 million square feet, resulting in a fivefold increase in meeting and ballroom space, including the largest ballroom in the Northeast. A four-level, 480,000 square foot truck garage capable of housing hundreds of tractor-trailers at one time will also be constructed to improve pedestrian safety and local traffic flow.

More information available here; video and other media available here.

PROPOSAL 8: Modernize and fundamentally transform the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, dramatically improving the travel experience for millions of New Yorkers and visitors to the metropolitan region. This proposal includes a new approach to rapidly redesign and renew 30 existing subway stations across the system. It also includes a number of technology initiatives to bring the system into the 21st century, including expanding Wi-Fi hotspots, accelerating mobile payments and ticketing to replace the MetroCard, and providing USB ports on subway trains, buses and in stations to allow customers to charge their mobile devices.

More information available here; video and other media available here.

PROPOSAL 9: Launch a Municipal Consolidation and Efficiency Competition designed to reward local governments that take real steps to make living and working in New York State more affordable. The competition will challenge counties, cities, towns and villages to develop innovative consolidation action plans yielding significant and permanent property tax reductions. The consolidation partnership that proposes and can implement the greatest permanent reduction in property taxes will receive a $20 million award.

More information available here.

PROPOSAL 10: Dramatically expand and improve access to high-speed Internet in communities statewide. Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul detailed this proposal shortly after the New York State Public Service Commission voted to approve the merger of Time Warner Cable and Charter Communications, which will dramatically improve broadband availability for millions of New Yorkers and lead to more than $1 billion in direct investments and consumer benefits.

Additionally, the state issued a $500 million solicitation for private sector partners to join the New NY Broadband Program, which will greatly expand Internet access in all regions of the state, with a focus on unserved and underserved areas.

More information available here; video available here.

PROPOSAL 11: Launch a $200 million competition to revitalize Upstate airports. The proposal is designed to enhance airports throughout Upstate New York, and promote new opportunities for regional economic development and partnership between the public and private sectors.

The Governor made this announcement as he also kicked off the start of renovations that will transform the New York State Fairgrounds site into a premier, multi-use facility. The Governor marked the official start of the historic renovation project with the implosion of the grandstand today.

More information available here.

PROPOSAL 12: Combat poverty and reduce rampant inequality through the Empire State Poverty Reduction Initiative. The $25 million program will bring together state and local government, non-profit and business groups to design and implement coordinated solutions to increase social mobility in ten cities with the highest poverty rates in the state.

More information available here.

PROPOSAL 13: Launch a "Right Priorities" initiative to further New York’s status as a national leader in criminal justice and re-entry reforms. The Governor's proposal will help at-risk youth find positive opportunities in their communities, while also providing citizens who enter the criminal justice system the opportunity to rehabilitate, return home, and contribute to their communities.

More information available here; video and other media available here.

PROPOSAL 14: Increase opportunity for minority- and women-owned business enterprises across New York State.

In 2014, Governor Cuomo established a goal of 30 percent for New York’s MWBE state contract utilization – the highest goal of any state in the nation. However, under state law, that goal only applies to contracts issued by state agencies and authorities; it does not apply to state funding given to localities such as cities, counties, towns, villages and school districts, which amounts to approximately $65 billion annually. This year, the Governor will advance legislation addressing this disconnect by expanding the MWBE goal setting to localities and entities that subcontract with those localities. Doing so will leverage the largest pool of state funding in history to combat systemic discrimination and create new opportunities for MWBE participation.

More information available here.

Concerns of ‘Voter Fatigue’ as New York Schedules Four 2016 Election Days


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Mayor de Blasio votes (photo via @BilldeBlasio) 


As New Yorkers begin a year of many voting opportunities, there are important questions that elections will help answer - like who the next U.S. President will be and which party will control the state Senate - but also concern about voter fatigue and thus, turnout.

There will be at least four chances for New Yorkers to cast votes in 2016, with three different primary election days leading up to November’s general election. There will be a presidential primary vote in April; congressional primaries in June; and state legislative primaries in September. There will also be special elections sprinkled in to fill empty seats in the state Assembly and Senate.

On April 19, New Yorkers will vote in their party primaries for president; on June 28, it will be primaries for all 27 New York members of the House of Representatives, with Senator Chuck Schumer on the ballot, too; and on September 13, primaries for all 63 seats of the State Senate and all 150 seats of the State Assembly.

No date has been set by the governor yet for special elections in the state legislature, including those to replace former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, whose 2015 corruption convictions created vacancies.

In 2015, some New York City voters cast ballots for new district attorneys, judges, and city Council members, among others. By the time New Yorkers vote for president in November, it could be their sixth trip to the polls in 14 months. Or, for residents of District 17 in the South Bronx, their seventh trip, as the resignation of City Council member Maria del Carmen Arroyo means a special election to fill her seat will occur February 23.

Frequent elections can result in voter fatigue, and diminish voter turnout. New York already has one of the lowest voter turnout rates in the country, with only 29 percent of eligible voters showing up to the polls to cast their votes in the 2014 general elections for state-level positions, including governor.

A recent New York Times editorial called the “extra burden” numerous election dates places on voters a sign of “dysfunction in Albany,” and urged lawmakers to “change the election schedule as soon as they return to Albany on January 6.”

Given how much it costs the state and municipalities to hold these elections, some have also argued that it would make financial sense to consolidate the number of days elections are held on.  (This is at least part of the governor’s rationale for holding special elections on an already-scheduled election day (by law, the city must hold its special City Council election within a shorter time frame).)

“There is no reason the state primary can’t be held on the same day as the congressional primary,” the New York Times editorial board wrote, “thus eliminating the extra election and saving the state $50 million.”

“We do have a bill that we have passed almost every year in the Assembly to combine [the dates],” Assemblymember Michael Cusick said in response to calls from members of the New York State Board of Elections to consolidate the state and federal primaries during a Dec. 10, 2015, New York State Assembly hearing on enhancing the voter experience. “That is the goal of our committees, to get the primaries in one day, so we can save the state and municipalities money.”

Despite the benefits of merging election dates and support from the Assembly, combining the dates has not yet happened, perhaps because, as the New York Times editorial board suggests, “New York State lawmakers created this problem because it’s easier on the politicians, even though it’s costly and harder on the voters.”

The 2016 elections are for local, state, and federal posts, including district leaders, state Senators and Assembly members, members of Congress, and, of course, the president. Some races are special elections, such as those likely to be set for April 19, to fill four vacancies in the state Legislature, including the former seats of Silver and Skelos, who were both forced to leave office in December after being convicted on several counts of federal corruption.

Several special elections have already taken place in the past year to fill seats forfeited due to corruption convictions, spurring growing calls for ethics reform in Albany from good government groups and lawmakers alike.

In 2015, special elections were held to replace former State Assemblymember William Scarborough, who vacated his seat in May after he pleaded guilty to felony charges of wire fraud and theft; former Brooklyn State Senator John Sampson, who was convicted of obstruction of justice and lying to federal agents as part of a corruption investigation in July; and former Deputy Senate Majority Leader Thomas Libous, who was also convicted of lying to the FBI in July.

Governor Cuomo has said time and again he does not see any point in calling a special session to deal with ethics reform, though, as he has promised ethics reform will be at the top of his 2016 agenda. And while consolidating voting days may be a step unlikely to be taken by the state Legislature, some reforms aimed at improving New York’s low voter turnout are currently being considered by state lawmakers.

Reforms like early voting, better ballot design, and an upgraded, online voter registration system would help increase voting accessibility and thus, advocates argue, voter turnout. Other bills have been introduced in the state Senate that would allow same-day voter registration on election day, voting by mail, and holding the congressional and state primaries on a single day, City and State reports. The Voter Friendly Ballot Act, which would create a simpler, easier-to-read ballot, has passed in the Assembly.

According to a 2014 report from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, New York ranks 46th in voter turnout. Six of the states that rank in the top ten for voter turnout all allow same-day registration. Nine of the states that rank highest in voter turnout allow early voting.

Currently, eleven states and D.C. allow same-day voter registration, and 33 states and D.C allow early voting. New York currently does not allow either.

Reforms such as these, supporters say, would help to modernize election laws in New York, and could - if used in combination with methods to increase voter engagement - help to bring the state’s voter turnout on par with that of states that already have policies to make voting more accessible in place.

As of January 10, the 2016 New York election dates are:

April 19, 2016 — Presidential Primaries and special elections to fill four state Legislature vacancies
The state Legislature has decided on April 19, 2016 as the date for both the Democratic and Republican presidential primaries.

Additionally, Governor Andrew Cuomo has said he will set a special election date to coincide with the presidential primary on April 19 to fill four vacancies in the state Legislature, including former Assembly Speaker Silver’s seat, and the Staten Island seat of former Assemblymember Joe Borelli, who won a City Council seat. That special election means that a local party organizations will select the candidates who will appear on their ballot lines. Cuomo has not officially declared these special elections for April.

June 28, 2016 — Congressional Primaries
New York voters will decide on their party’s candidates for all Congressional races in the state on June 28, 2016, during the primaries for all 27 of New York’s members in the House of Representatives. Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer is also running for reelection on the same day - he is unlikely to face a primary challenge.

September 13, 2016 — State Legislature Primaries
There will be primaries for all 63 members of the New York State Senate and all 150 members of the New York State Assembly on September 13, 2016. Elections will also be held on that day for district leaders in Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx.

November 8, 2016 — General Election
On November 8, 2016, voters across the country will vote for the next President of the United States. New Yorkers will also vote in a number of other critical races, including all State Senate and Senate Assembly seats, 27 races for the House of Representatives, and one US Senate race.

Voter turnout is typically higher for presidential elections than for any other race, and Democrats in New York are hoping increased turnout in a state that almost always votes blue in presidential races can help them to regain control of the State Senate.

After the 2016 elections conclude, the 2017 elections for New York City-level offices, including the mayor, are expected to heat up.

***
by Meg O’Connor, Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette  @MegOConnor13

New York One Signature Away from Calling for Overturn of Citizens United


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(photo: nysenate.gov)


In a landmark year for corruption in the state legislature, 2015 saw the arrest and conviction of two of the most powerful political leaders in New York. A crescendo of voices across the state -- from good government watchdogs to lawmakers -- expressed outrage and demanded stronger ethics laws and campaign finance reforms. In one sense, Albany now has the opportunity to put its money where its mouth is -- and all it needs is one signature.  

New York is one signatory away from becoming the 17th state in the country to call for a constitutional amendment to negate the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in the Citizens United case, which gave entities such as corporations and unions the same rights as individuals in contributing to electoral campaigns.

A successful bipartisan appeal for a federal constitutional amendment in the State Assembly has yet to be replicated by the State Senate, where 31 senators -- one short of a majority -- support overturning Citizens United to minimize the role of money in politics. While agreement by a majority of each house from New York would only be advisory, like the other states that have reached consensus, a groundswell for negating Citizens United could influence Congress.

"As we've seen again and again, Citizens United has opened the floodgate to unchecked and often opaque corporate political contributions, muscling real people out of the political process,” said State Senator Daniel Squadron, a Brooklyn Democrat, in a statement to Gotham Gazette. Squadron is leading the effort among the Senate Democratic Conference and has 23 co-signers on a letter addressed to the United States Congress which calls for the constitutional amendment.

(Squadron also said that the state legislature should support his Corporate Political Activity Accountability to Shareholders Act, which would increase transparency and accountability.)

Senators Ruben Diaz Sr. and Simcha Felder are the only Democrats who have not joined their colleagues on the letter. The five members of the Independent Democratic Conference together signed an identical version of Squadron’s letter while Senate Democratic leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins independently wrote to members of Congress. (Felder is elected as a Democrat but caucuses with Republicans in the Senate, and Diaz Sr. is often difficult to pin down ideologically.)

Sen. Stewart-Cousins, in her missive, said that the independent contributions made possible by Citizens United “represent a deliberate effort to unfairly influence the electorate and empower a small group of individuals and corporations. Elected officials are becoming more beholden to the interests facilitating these outside funds while the public’s trust in our democracy erodes.”

Stewart-Cousins is adamant about reforming the state’s campaign finance system and believes that Senate Democrats have led the fight on many fronts. She lays blame with the members on the other side of the aisle. “We need to restore the public’s trust in state government and that will only happen when the Senate Republicans agree to listen to the voters and take meaningful steps to clean up Albany,” she said in a statement to Gotham Gazette.

While the Democrats who support overturning Citizens United total 29 votes, only 2 Republican state senators have supported the effort -- Senators Phil Boyle and Kemp Hannon, albeit in language different from the Democrats’ letters (it, for example, decries the massive potential outside spending to support Hillary Clinton's presidential bid). Sen. Boyle, who circulated his letter among his colleagues, refused to comment for this article.

Reluctance of New York Republicans to join the effort comes as a growing number of voters, including Republicans, oppose Citizens United. In a Bloomberg poll from September, 78 percent of respondents said they wanted the decision overturned.

“We’re at a crossroads in the movement where Democrats who hadn’t signed on are signing on, and where Republican voters are strongly in favor of a constitutional amendment, but we’re working to make that transition with Republican legislators,” said Jonah Minkoff-Zern, co-director of the Democracy Is For People campaign at Public Citizen, a nonprofit advocacy group that has been garnering a coalition to lobby state legislators for their support in the matter.

Senior attorney Gene Russianoff, from the New York Public Interest Research Group, is not surprised by the Republican legislators’ lack of support. Some of these state senators, he said, “feel teflon-proofed” and he applauded those who signed the petition. “Citizens United is the right target to fight the influence of money and political interests,” he said.

For good government groups like NYPIRG and Citizens Union of the City of New York, the Supreme Court’s decision to treat corporations as individuals in campaign finance has wreaked untold havoc on elections.

“New York State is severely hampered by federal court decisions in terms of how it can address the corrosive role of money in politics,” said Rachael Fauss, director of public policy, Citizens Union. “Action by the New York State Legislature would help drive attention to this national problem, and put New York on the record as being against campaign money being considered free speech.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whom many reformers look to be more of a leader on campaign finance reform in New York, recently made clear he thinks that as long Citizens United is around, his hands are largely tied. In an interview with WNYC’s Brian Lehrer on Dec. 21, the governor promised that he will advocate for campaign finance reform in 2016, but conceded that he could only do so much.

“If you say, 'Well, money influences,' then forget it, because [with] Citizens United you're not going to get the money out of the system until the federal government changes the court or the law or both,” he said. He was also dismissive of New York City’s public campaign financing system, calling it a “mockery” that independent committees can donate large sums of money to candidates as a result of Citizens United.

Advocates and reform-minded legislators continue to push Cuomo to call for a statewide public campaign finance system, which he has given lukewarm support for in the past.

Just a few hours after Cuomo’s Dec. 21 WNYC remarks, Mayor Bill de Blasio held a roundtable with members  of the news media at which he also said passing a constitutional amendment was an “imperative” without which “we’re in an environment where a lot of very wealthy, powerful people will use their money to reinforce the status quo.”

In an editorial on Dec. 22, a day after Cuomo’s remarks on WNYC, the Albany Times Union called on the remaining state senators to take the bold step and join the growing call for an amendment.   

On the surface, New York calling for a constitutional amendment may be symbolic in the absence of Congressional action. But, according to Common Cause NY executive director Susan Lerner, “In this instance, symbolism is especially potent.” She believes that owing to New York’s large congressional delegation, even symbolic measures carry significant weight.

“Remember, New York is a donor state,” she said, referring to New York’s influence on elections all over the country. “Everybody running for office comes to New York for campaign contributions. When New York elected officials say the system has gotten out of control, it’s particularly applicable.”

***
by Samar Khurshid, Gotham Gazette
@samarkhurshid    @GothamGazette

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

Good Government Groups Want Legislators to Pledge to Fight for Reform


pledge

The pledge (photo via @CitizensUnionNY)


Lawmakers returned to Albany for the first day of the 2016 legislative session in the wake of two seismic corruption convictions of their former house leaders. Waiting for them were representatives of three leading good government groups, asking New York state legislators to sign a pledge to fight for good government reform.

On the first day of session since both former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos were convicted on multiple federal corruption charges, good government groups unveiled a pledge asking legislators to "support, vote for, and work zealously to sign into law legislation that:" closes the LLC loophole, bans or reduces outside legislators' income, and requires transparency for all discretionary funds in the state budget.

Citizens Union, Common Cause, and the New York Public Interest Research Group revealed the "Clean Conscious Pledge" just as lawmakers were scurrying to chambers for roll call and to hear their leaders set the year's agenda. The groups hope the pledge will demonstrate that rank-and-file members support major ethics overhaul in the wake of the Silver and Skelos convictions.

So far the website hosting the pledge lists three initial signers among the 200-plus members of the Senate and Assembly: Sen. Michael Gianaris and Assemblymembers Felix Ortiz and David Buchwald.

"New Yorkers send elected officials to Albany to solve problems, not create them," said Blair Horner of NYPIRG in a statement. "This pledge is the first step in showing New Yorkers that the state's elected leadership is serious about ending Albany's ethics crisis. It's time for the governor and legislators to solve this problem."

Reform was clearly on the mind of many legislators returning to the capital, but the heads of both legislative bodies approached the issue in strikingly different ways Wednesday. Both Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Democrat, and Senate Majority Leader Flanagan, a Republican, did begin by addressing the issue of ethics reform, touting reforms made to outside income disclosure laws last year. Then they both were quick to blame the other house for inaction. Heastie noted that the Assembly "took action on a series of proposals that were unfortunately not adopted by the state Senate."

One of those actions was passing a bill to close the LLC loophole that allows businesses to create multiple fronts to get around campaign donation limits.

Meanwhile, Flanagan pointed out that the Senate passed a pension forfeiture bill it had reached a deal on with the Assembly only to have the Assembly back out at the last minute because of concerns about how it would affect union members. The bill is aimed at ensuring that legislators convicted of public corruption are not able to collect a government pension - something both Silver and Skelos are in line to do.

Heastie mentioned in his remarks that he would like to try to reach a new agreement on the issue. Both Skelos and Silver are set to take home sizeable pensions despite their convictions.

But that is where the similarities between their comments ended. "Make no mistake – over the coming weeks, discussions around proposals on ethics will be a priority of this house. The Assembly is serious about ethics reform and we know that words are not enough," Heastie told the chamber.

Flanagan, on the other hand, downplayed future action on ethics and told the chamber that if legislators did their jobs and served their constituents, "things will take care of themselves." Flanagan then went on to list a number of notable attractions in districts across the state, like zoos and parks, and said that legislators must be proud of their districts.

The comments left many legislators scratching their heads.

"Senator Flanagan didn't have much to say about the needed changes Senate Democrats have been talking about to restore the public's faith in us and address these massive scandals," said state Sen. Liz Krueger. "He basically said we already did what needed to be done and said how great it was and then listed places in people's districts. I don't think I heard anything on how he wants to address ethics."

In her remarks on the Senate floor Wednesday, Democratic Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins called for ethics reform and restoring trust in elected officials - as did Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, a Republican.

Assemblymember David Buchwald, a Democrat, became the first legislator to sign the good government groups' pledge. Buchwald issued a statement touting his commitment. "I am proud to be the first state legislator to take this meaningful pledge to restore integrity and the public's trust in state government," said Buchwald. "It is incumbent upon legislators to work to significantly reduce corruption, and we can do so by passing these common sense measures. I think the vast majority of New Yorkers would want to see their representatives sign this pledge."

A number of other legislators said they had yet to see the pledge with the chaos of the first day of session but said they planned to consider it.

Krueger, who said she supports the efforts of the good government groups, said that she had yet to see the pledge and was cautious to lend her support without seeing all of the details. When read the gist of the pledge Krueger was favorable. "It's important to me how the pledge is written," said Krueger, "I'm hesitant to sign a pledge committing to do something I can't control."

Legislative leaders are waiting to see exactly how far Cuomo will push on ethics - he has said he'll be outlining a major reform plan at the top of this State of the State and budget address on Jan.13.

Krueger said it is now incumbent on Cuomo and the public to make it clear to legislative leaders that massive reform is needed. "This is about how hard the governor pushes and how loud the public screams," she said.

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

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

Corruption, Elections Loom Over Lengthy 2016 Legislative Agenda


Cuomo announcement infrastructure

Cuomo (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of the Governor)


Lawmakers returning to Albany this week to kick off the 2016 legislative session are faced with a litany of unresolved issues from last year and the spectre of the recent convictions of two former legislative leaders.

Add to that impending elections for all 213 legislative seats, some of which will be critical for the future of state Senate control and the prospect of future indictments hinted at by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara and you have a recipe for potential paralysis.

Familiar issues like raising the minimum wage, paid family leave, juvenile justice and criminal justice reforms are all on the table. Newer issues like regulating fantasy sports gambling and tweaks to the state's health insurance marketplace will also be up for discussion.

Complicating some issues will be Gov. Andrew Cuomo's repeated 2015 use of executive action, which irked some legislators and, according to some advocates, let the air out of pushes for major legislation. But the elephant in the room remains how to deal with the plague of corruption that has dogged the capitol for years.

There is a little extra motivation for the legislature to move on more comprehensive ethics fixes - when session ended in June, former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Majority Leader Dean Skelos had merely been indicted on federal corruption charges, six months later both men have been convicted and will soon face sentencing. Further, their trials exposed how major donors are able to exploit the state's campaign finance system and how both Silver and Skelos were able to use their influence to pressure entities with business before the state to provide them and their associates with financial benefit.

Cuomo has promised that ethics reform will be at the top of his 2016 agenda.

Aside from the unprecedented legislative scandal, both houses of the legislature will also be preparing for an election season that many see as do or die for control of the state Senate, currently led by Republicans. Upcoming electoral contests could motivate leaders from both houses to compromise, or it could create more strife, legislative paralysis, and a blame game that will play out in the elections.

Still, there are a variety of major policy issues at play as 2016 session begins, including:

Full-Time Legislature
A number of good government groups, as well as Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and even U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, have posited that a better paid, full-time legislature might reduce certain kinds of corruption. Better pay might reduce the temptation to take bribes and with outside income banned it would be much harder for legislators to hide any ill-gotten gains.

A number of Assembly Democrats say their conference has seriously discussed the possibility of advocating for a full-time legislative body. In a Dec. 7 interview with Gary Axelbank of BronxTalk, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said he wanted to see how stricter income disclosure rules passed last year work before he advocates a total ban on outside income.

Heastie told Axelbank a full-time legislature would have to be paid considerably more. "Is the public ready to pay legislators $150,000-$160,000 a year?" Heastie asked. "If you're going to have people go full time, there's going to have to be a hefty pay raise from $79,500." Legislators haven't had a raise in 15 years, though a new commission is examining the rates and will issue recommendations.

Majority Leader John Flanagan has repeatedly said he is steadfastly opposed to a full-time legislature. He said it on Wednesday's first session day, and last month he told reporters, "We are ostensibly supposed to have, or legally supposed to have, a citizen Legislature or a part-time Legislature. I want the people with a depth of background. I think it's useful to have people from varying walks of life."

Still, upon replacing Skelos, Flanagan gave up his second job, a move he explained Wednesday as important because of his time commitment as Senate leader, which comes with a stipend.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has noted that the constitution calls for a part-time legislature and Republican opposition to going full-time, but called the idea "something worth talking about." It's more likely that legislators compromise on a significant cap on outside income and additional rules.

LLC Loophole
The now-infamous LLC loophole was featured during the Silver and Skelos corruption trials, but has been a cause of consternation among reformers for quite some time. In practice, the loophole allows anyone to game the campaign finance system by setting up multiple LLCs, or limited liability corporations, from which to donate to candidates for office.

Cries to close the loophole reached fever pitch last session, but in the wake of the Silver and Skelos trials have become even louder. Glenwood Management, a Manhattan real estate firm at the center of the Silver and Skelos cases, used the loophole to subvert the state's campaign donation limits by creating a number of front companies. The firm has been the largest contributor in the state for years. The Assembly moved to close the loophole last year but the Senate refused to vote on the issue. The Assembly is poised to move again on the issue but it appears that they might face opposition not only from Senate Republicans but from Cuomo as well.

Speaking with reporters in Manhattan on Dec. 13, Cuomo said that closing the LLC Loophole was "a priority." However, on Dec. 21, Cuomo said in a WNYC radio interview that closing the loophole would be ineffective because of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which allows for independent expenditures on behalf of candidates.

"You need people in office who are going to use their best judgment in office," Cuomo said on WNYC, "because you're not going to change the campaign finance system because of Citizens United."

Cuomo also refused to return over a million dollars in donations from Glenwood Management. "If I believed that I could be influenced by a million dollars, or a thousand dollars, or fifty dollars, then I'm in the wrong place and I should resign immediately," he explained.

Minimum Wage Hike
Cuomo kicked off the rollout of his 2016 agenda with another rally for an eventual $15 hourly statewide minimum wage and by extending a path toward $15 per hour to 28,000 SUNY employees. Cuomo has promised to push the legislature to adopt his plan to get all workers across the state to at least $15 per hour over the next several years.

Cuomo rapidly evolved his position on the minimum wage last year after opposing a hike to $13 per hour proposed by Democratic legislators. But, he utilized the state's wage board provision to boost the minimum wage plan for fast food workers to an eventual $15 per hour and has rallied across the state to push the legislature to support the same figure.

The Assembly pushed for an eventual $15 minimum wage for New York City in its single-house budget last year and is expected to support Cuomo's push. There are some Democratic members from Upstate and Western New York who are concerned about backlash from business groups. Republican Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan has not written off the possibility of a path toward a $15 minimum wage and there are some who think he will look to compromise with Cuomo on the timeline for full implementation of the raise as a way to take the debate off the table before election season.

Cuomo has already begun outlining tax reform, especially to reduce the burden on small businesses, which many see as part of the plan to get the minimum wage hike passed. A heightened minimum wage is popular around the state and has endeared the governor with many of his erstwhile liberal friends.

Tax on the Rich
With one sentence of his remarks on the opening day of session, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie changed the expected dynamics of negotiations to come. "We will fight for a tax structure that promotes fairness, equity, common sense," Heastie said, adding that he wanted tax cuts for the working class and to ask "wealthy New Yorkers" to pay their "fair share."

Cuomo has repeatedly rejected calls for a tax on the highest earners over the last few years - especially when the calls came from Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2014. It isn't clear how hard Heastie will push on the issue but if it takes off it could eventually be used as leverage toward enacting a full minimum wage increase.

Criminal Justice Reform
Last month the Cuomo administration made good on a promised executive action when it unveiled a plan to move 16- and 17-year-old inmates with medium and minimum security classifications to a juvenile facility in Hudson. The move is expected to impact up to 100 inmates. However, advocates are not satisfied. New York is still one of two states to treat 16- and 17-year-olds as adults upon arrest.

Criminal justice experts want the entire process changed in state law, something Cuomo has backed and tried to enact last year to no avail.

While advocates plan to continue to push, and held a press conference on the first day of session to resume doing so, Cuomo's executive action may have reduced the legislature's appetite to act. A number of Senate Republicans were concerned about housing teens in adult prisons but are not convinced the entire criminal justice process should be altered. Meanwhile, Cuomo and Democrats from the Senate and Assembly have disagreed on exactly how the 16- and 17-year-olds should be processed by the courts.

Meanwhile, having failed to build a consensus with the legislature on how to revamp the criminal justice system to address concerns about how police shootings of citizens are investigated, Cuomo issued an executive order last summer allowing the Attorney General to name a special prosecutor in such cases.

The move angered some district attorneys and members of law enforcement but gave the governor a boost with progressive activists. However, Cuomo promised to evaluate how the order worked and return to the legislature with a plan to change the law.

Members of the Assembly Majority are anxious to tackle the issue but Senate Republicans are unlikely to want to touch it - especially in an election year. A good gauge of where the issue stands in the pecking order will be to see what kind of mention it gets, if any, in Cuomo's State of the State address. A number of legislators say they expect Cuomo to declare victory on both of these criminal justice issues by pointing to his executive actions and thereby avoid any major legislative battles.

Car Service Apps
In 2015, Mayor Bill de Blasio decided he wanted to limit the expansion of Uber, the most popular car-service app, citing concerns about congestion. It was as if the mayor stepped on a landmine. Uber quickly mobilized its drivers and users and rolled out an effective public relations campaign, even enlisting Cuomo - who may not have needed much prodding to contradict de Blasio.

The mayor walked away limping but with plans to return to the issue. Now the state has to decide how to handle Uber and Lyft's push to be allowed in New York, including in upstate cities. In late October, Cuomo indicated that he thinks the state should issue regulations as a whole. "You can't do Uber city by city," Cuomo said. Cuomo's former top advisor Matt Wing is now in charge of communications for Uber in the Northeast.

Localities would need to give up oversight of transportation insurance and allow Uber to pool insurance for its drivers. The taxi industry, which is steadfastly opposed to Uber, is currently regulated city by city.

Fantasy Sports Gambling
A number of Assembly Democrats are chomping at the bit to address the issue of fantasy sports betting sites like Draftkings and FanDuel, which were recently sued by AG Schneiderman for being illegal gambling in violation of New York law. Schneiderman then amended the suit to ask the companies to return all money it made from New Yorkers. Democratic Assemblymember Gary Pretlow told Gotham Gazette that he plans to come up with regulations, oversight, and consumer protections that could keep the sites alive should they be found illegal in the court battle.

Meanwhile, a number of Senate Republicans are interested in ending any ambiguity about the legality of the sites by passing a bill stating that it is a game of skill and not of chance. Sen. Michael Ranzenhofer introduced such a bill in December. He told The Buffalo News in November that he hadn't spoken to representatives of the sites but was motivated by what he saw as Schneiderman's "overreach."

"It's just once again. New York shouldn't have Uber, shouldn't have mixed martial arts, or sports betting. When all this commerce and activities is allowed in many other states, it just seems like one issue after another in New York," Ranzenhofer told the Buffalo News.

A Variety of Others
Expect a major push from both houses of the legislature to restore education funding cuts.

The Ultimate Fighting Championship is advancing a court case to force New York to allow them to hold events in the state and has even booked a spring date at Madison Square Garden to hold its mixed martial arts bouts (MMA). The legislature could intercede before the case is settled.

Cuomo has already revealed a number of infrastructure related plans. Senate Republicans are looking to increase investment in the state's roads and bridges upstate while a number of city-based Democrats want to see the governor better invest in the MTA and do more to relieve congestion.

A number of Assembly Democrats are looking for partners in the Senate Majority for bills that would encourage guns are stored safely. There are several other bills that address implementing employee training and stricter checks and balances for gun stores as well as ones that would allow police to take away guns belonging to perpetrators of domestic violence.

Cuomo has been focused on national solutions to gun violence as of late but some Assembly Democrats think there is room to pass smaller pieces of legislation this year.

The Gender Expression Non Discrimination Act, or GENDA, appears to have lost a great deal of momentum after Cuomo enacted a number of its tenets through executive order earlier this fall. The Empire State Pride Agenda, which had been backing the bill, announced it is closing its policy operations because it feels it has completed much of its work, but some advocates point out that Cuomo's GENDA order could quickly be undone by the next governor.

The DREAM Act is another long-standing Democratic priority that many are unsure of its place in this year's agenda, which may be determined by whether Cuomo features it in his State of the State and budget.

The Assembly and Senate majorities and the Independent Democratic Conference will have to settle their differences over how to implement paid family leave before they look to negotiate a final bill with the governor. "I'm always optimistic," IDC head Sen. Jeff Klein said of a resolution on paid family leave in November. "It is an extremely important issue resonates with residents across the state." Klein brought the policy up again in his opening remarks on the Senate floor, and Flanagan said a conversation would happen, but that the details must be determined. Heastie said the Assembly would again bass a paid family leave bill this year, as it has several years in a row.

Generally speaking, Flanagan succinctly summed up his conference's priorities with his opening remarks on Wednesday, saying its focus will be "jobs, jobs, and jobs."

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



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