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Major City Issues at Play in Politically Charged, Post-Budget Legislative Session


cuomo budget paid leave pic

Gov. Cuomo announces the budget deal (photo via The Governor's Office)


Governor Andrew Cuomo dismissed the idea of extending state government's legislative session this year to tackle ethics reform during an appearance in Binghamton on Wednesday. "We have a relatively light agenda because we did so much work in the budget," the governor said. "We passed the minimum wage increase, we passed paid family leave, we passed a great package for the middle class, we passed a great package for upstate New York, more education funding than ever before."

It's a concerning statement for some advocates and elected officials who see the session full of unresolved issues - including, but beyond ethics - especially ones that impact New York City, issues that the governor himself tackled during his January State of the State speech or has since brought to the table. Some advocates take the governor's statement as an acknowledgement that he traded away issues Senate Republicans oppose to get a minimum wage increase, and not only in the budget, but for the rest of the legislative session that has just begun and is scheduled to end in June.

All-important control of the State Senate will be up for grabs again in November, but a key battle in the overall war will be decided on April 19 in the contest to fill the seat vacated by former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, recently convicted on federal corruption charges. The April special and impending November elections mean legislators are anxious to get back to their districts while avoiding political landmines.

Ethics reforms are one of the many issues jettisoned from budget talks that lawmakers say were dominated by minimum wage negotiations. Major issues of particular importance to New York City yet to be addressed this year include mayoral control of schools; a multitude of criminal justice reforms, some of which were introduced by Cuomo; housing programs, including a replacement for the 421-a property tax credit aimed at spurring affordable housing development; and two education matters that have been linked in the past: The DREAM Act and the education investment tax credit.

Mayoral Control
Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan and his conference have used Mayor Bill de Blasio as a progressive boogieman since the mayor tried to help Democrats win control of the chamber in 2014. Last year Flanagan successfully beat back the mayor's push for a seven-year extension of mayoral control, getting his negotiating partners to settle on one year. He again maneuvered discussion of renewal out of this year's budget discussions and before a spending deal was even announced, he scheduled hearings on mayoral control for May 4 in Albany and May 19 in New York City. Mayoral control is due to sunset on June 30.

Many Democrats expect Senate Republicans to delay actually acting on mayoral control until as late as possible in order to keep de Blasio "in check." With no other sensible alternative, de Blasio has been gracious about the situation so far, saying he plans to attend the hearings "personally" and welcomes the chance for "dialogue" on the issue.

Criminal Justice Reforms
Gov. Cuomo has supported three major criminal justice reforms over the last two years: Raise the Age, an effort to end New York's practice of treating 16- and 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system; an effort to create independent review of police killings of civilians; and a program to increase data reporting of the race and ethnicity of individuals involved in police interactions. Unable to deliver on the first two last year, Cuomo took executive action. He moved 16- and 17-year-olds out of adult prisons and gave Attorney General Eric Schneiderman's office the discretion to look into police killings of civilians. Advocates were pleased, but acknowledged both issues still needed to be addressed in law.

This year Cuomo has proposed a bill that would give his office the ability to convene an investigation into police killings of civilians but only if certain criteria is met. He has continued to push for Raise the Age but not with the urgency supporters would like. They point out that even being held in separate facilities from older inmates, 16- and 17-year-olds are still treated as adults when arrested and tried, which make negative outcomes and criminal records more likely.

On Tuesday, supporters of a bill that would mandate the state collect data on police interactions with the public gathered in Albany to push Senate Republicans and Cuomo to act on an issue they call "common sense."

The bill, sponsored by Assembly Member Joseph Lentol and state Senator Daniel Squadron, both Brooklyn Democrats, would require the state to collect and report data on the number of tickets and misdemeanor arrests across the state; the number of civilian deaths in police custody or during an arrest; the race, ethnicity, and sex of those charged with misdemeanors and violations; and the geographic location of enforcement-related activity and arrest-related deaths. Lentol said the bill is not "anti-police" but a "transparency" and "open government" tool to improve relations between police and communities across the state. Lentol prodded Gov. Cuomo to act, noting that Cuomo has a similar bill that has failed to garner support.

"Yet again, communities of color were left behind in New York State budget negotiations, with no meaningful advancement of any criminal justice reforms," said Alyssa Aguilera, co-executive director of VOCAL-NY. "Passing the STAT Act this legislative session provides an opportunity for Governor Cuomo and the New York State Legislature to show they value the safety and dignity of all New Yorkers."

Squadron told Gotham Gazette that the bill is one that Senate Republicans "put in a black box, a dark room," never to be seen again. "This isn't something we have debated. We haven't heard their argument against it, it just disappears." Lentol, however, said that he believes police unions are using their influence to block the bill.

Assembly Member Jeffrion Aubry, Democrat of Queens, supports Lentol's bill and said that he feels his constituents and advocates are growing frustrated that the Senate fails to vote on criminal justice reforms year after year. "I think the governor is really going to have to move on some of these bills and not just wave his hands in the air and say 'It's the Republicans'" Aubry said. "We know he can get what he wants. He has an election coming up and he's got to deliver for these communities."

A spokesperson for the governor, Dani Lever, said in a statement that "The governor has and continues to push for comprehensive criminal justice reform to address the treatment of juveniles in the system and the prosecution of fatality cases involving law enforcement. Despite the legislature's failure to agree on these reforms, the governor has taken bold action and issued executive orders appointing a special prosecutor in police cases (the first of its kind in the country) and removing juveniles from adult state prisons. Until the legislature passes real reforms, the governor's executive orders will remain in effect."

Housing
Last year in an unprecedented move, Cuomo put the fate of the 421-a tax abatement program in the hands of the two stakeholder industries - real estate developers and construction unions. Whatever deal they reached on wages in new housing developments utilizing 421-a was to be enacted into law with other reforms to the program, but if they failed, 421-a would sunset. Negotiations floundered and 421-a is dead.

The program is thought to be essential to affordable housing production in New York City, making it profitable for developers to build new rental housing with some affordable units included. When Cuomo rejected compromise legislation crafted by de Blasio last June, it was one of the final straws to break de Blasio's back (along with the mayoral control compromise and more), leading to his now-infamous tirade against the governor on June 30. De Blasio's affordable housing goals rely on 421-a-related production.

On Monday, Cuomo told NY1's Errol Louis that he is looking for a replacement. "You can have a fair program that pays a fair rate to the unions and also a fair rate of profit to the developers," Cuomo said. "I believe there is that balance to be struck. But they have to strike that balance. We're still trying, but the Legislature is not going to approve a plan that kicks the labor unions out of the affordable housing business."

Bill Murrow, the governor's top aide, followed up those comments on Tuesday during a Crain's New York Business breakfast event, indicating that labor and real estate are indeed negotiating again. "The developers, REBNY, and the construction trades...they'll find some common ground. I am hopeful that sometime between now and June that something will actually happen," Mulrow said.

On Tuesday, tenant advocates gathered in Albany to demand that negotiations on 421-a or something like must also include strengthening rent regulations. Delsenia Glover, campaign manager for the Alliance for Tenant Power opened the press conference by condemning the deal that renewed the rent laws last year. "We pretty much got nothing," she said. "At the time Governor Cuomo said they were the 'strongest rent laws in history.' It's not true, we got nothing." Members of the crowd shouted "He lied!"

Glover said she has been disturbed to hear "lamentations" that 421-a is dead, saying she was glad a "giveaway to luxury developers" and "$1.1 billion tax suck" was dead and that assertions that developers won't be able to build affordable housing without it is patently false.

"Our demand," said Glover, "is this: If 421-a or anything that looks like 421-a is revived or created then the rent laws must be reopened, we get rid of vacancy bonus, fix preferential rents, and then maybe we can have a conversation."

A number of legislators who spoke after Glover pushed against the idea of any 421-a renewal. Assembly Member Walter Mosley of Brooklyn said he doesn't use the term '421-a' because "We don't want nothin' like 421-a to resurface, but ultimately we understand if anything like 421-a comes to the floor then we reopen the rent laws. Without that we have no discussion."

Assembly Housing Chair Keith Wright, who introduced a plan of something of a 421-a alternative earlier this year to a tepid response, brought up his proposal in front of the audience that was openly hostile to any replacement. Wright's plan would utilize the state's abandoned property fund to give a subsidy of $100,000 per affordable unit at a cost of about $200 million per year, compared to 421-a's 25-year property tax break and $1 billion annual tax revenue price tag.

"The plan was not...people were intrigued by the idea," Wright told the crowd, seeming to catch himself in an effort to promote the measure, "but listen anything in Albany takes a minute to work up to, but we are still pushing that plan, but we are still under siege."

Wright is a close ally of Cuomo and many expect that his plan was the first shot fired in an effort to restore a 421-a plan. The fact that Cuomo and Wright are openly pushing a replacement and that Senate Republicans are likely to want to deliver for real estate developers makes many advocates think it is a question of "when" not "if" a 421-a replacement comes to the floor of both houses. They hope to keep up public pressure to win some sort of concessions when it takes place.

Other Education Issues
Last year Cuomo tried to connect the DREAM Act that would allow the undocumented access to college tuition assistance and the education tax credit that would give benefits to those who donate to private schools. The DREAM Act has massive support in the Assembly, which has passed the measure repeatedly over the last few years and the education tax credit is a favorite of Senate Republicans. Cuomo's bid at linkage failed last year (he did not attempt to link them again this year, but did include both in his executive budget), but both issues remain on the table and the fact that they were left out of the budget has rankled a number of lawmakers.

Sen. Simcha Felder, a Democrat from Brooklyn who caucuses with Republicans, was said to be so upset that Republicans didn't demand the education tax credit be part of the budget that he didn't conference with them during budget negotiations (he was then the lone Senate "no" vote on the minimum wage and education budget bill). Meanwhile, DREAM supporters like Sen. Jose Peralta, a Democrat from Queens, railed against its exclusion during the late-night budget debate.

For supporters of each measure the problem seems to be that opposition to the other measure has become a litmus test for some in their party's base. Senate Republicans have included language touting the disinclusion of the DREAM Act in the budget on the Senate website, listing it as an accomplishment:

"Rejecting the Use of Taxpayer Dollars to Fund College Tuition for Illegal Immigrants:

"The final budget rejects an Executive Budget proposal that would have cost state taxpayers $27 million and reward people who are here illegally by giving them free college tuition. The measure would have extended all other criteria, exemptions or opportunities found within the education law - including all scholarship and tuition assistance programs funded with state tax dollars - to illegal immigrants while hardworking middle-class families are already being forced to take out massive college loans to pay for higher education."

Meanwhile, public school advocates are entrenched against the education tax credit, saying that it is a taxpayer giveaway to millionaires who will flood their favored schools with donations using up the credit before average families can utilize it. The Alliance for Quality Education, a teachers union-aligned group, has held press conferences and briefings against the policy this year.

Albany Tradition
If the past is indeed prologue than it is a safe bet that many of these issues will not come to a vote in both houses this year. With an important special election, a presidential race, and the entire Legislature up for (re)election, leaders will likely be looking to rest on the work they did in the budget and get back to their districts. While there will be a lot of noise made by the media and good government groups around ethics reform, no one who knows Albany is holding their breath.

Mayoral control of city schools is the only key policy related to New York City facing an expiration date and all-but-sure to see action. The questions are what Senate Republicans demand in exchange for extension, how long it is extended for, and how much they make de Blasio sweat in the process.

Including Wednesday, April 6, there are currently 25 session days remaining until its scheduled end on June 16.

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Budget Leaves Cuomo's Affordable Housing Plan A Mystery


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Gov. Cuomo arrives to outline the budget agreement (photo via The Governor's Office)


Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed a sweeping $20 billion plan to build and preserve affordable housing and fight homelessness during his State of the State speech earlier this year. The plan, to be implemented over five years, is expected to create 100,000 new units of affordable housing and 6,000 supportive housing beds for the homeless. The policy book accompanying Cuomo's speech and executive budget outlines several general housing categories and promised more detail "in the coming weeks."

Last week, Cuomo and legislators agreed on a new $147 billion state budget for fiscal year 2017 that includes nearly $2 billion for affordable housing, but it offers no details on where the housing will be built, who will build it, or when the state will start looking for projects to fund.

In the place of specifics is a notice that the plan is to be worked out in a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between Cuomo and legislative leaders. In other words, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, and Cuomo will be allowed to decide behind closed doors, through a negotiated legal document, how to spend the initial $2 billion intended for affordable housing projects. It is unlikely to face scrutiny from the public or rank-and-file legislators.

"The debate over supportive and affordable housing was pushed off because all the oxygen in the room was sucked up by the minimum wage debate," said Assembly Member Andrew Hevesi, a Queens Democrat who has sparred with the Cuomo administration in the past over the governor's funding of supportive housing, of budget negotiations.

Senator Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat, said she believes that Cuomo and legislative leaders will have to spell out what they plan to do with the $2 billion of budget money lined out for housing programs in a resolution later this year and put it to a vote in both houses. "I believe each house will have to vote on a resolution lining out specifically how it's going to be spent," Krueger told Gotham Gazette. "I don't know what they believe, however," she said referring to legislative leaders and the Cuomo administration. "We are a little loosey-goosey with the law around here, it's just the Capitol."

Hevesi said he believes that the same budget negotiating teams that negotiated human services and housing issues from both legislative houses and the Cuomo administration will reconvene to hash out the details later this session. He does not expect a public vote. He said he expects the Assembly, which is dominated by New York City Democrats including Heastie, to work as an advocate for the city and its specific housing needs during negotiations.

During a Tuesday press conference at the Capitol, Assembly housing committee Chair Keith Wright said that housing is still "an open question in the budget" that will be worked out by "MOU."

"This has never been done before," said Krueger. "You are not supposed to have lump sum appropriations decided without the vote of the Legislature. We are talking about a hypothetical plan to spend $20 billion on housing, there should be a robust discussion on how it's being spent, where it's being spent, and the plusses and minuses of any particular approach."

David Friedfel of the Citizens Budget Commission said that while it isn't "uncommon" for MOUs to be used in the budget, it is new to see one used in a program related to housing. "It's not uncommon but it's not something we support," Friedfel told Gotham Gazette. "We've seen these MOUs used to create the pots of money that got Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos into trouble."

In fact, MOUs are used throughout this year's budget, especially in language funding the governor's major infrastructure projects.

This year's budget also includes more of what good government groups have come to call "slush funds" created for use by the Governor and Legislature.

Cuomo administration officials did not respond to requests for comment about the housing MOU or about when to expect more details about the governor's affordable housing and homelessness plans.

In January, Cuomo outlined some overarching goals for his housing plan. His policy book released for his State of the State and budget address says the intention of his $10 billion housing plan is: "To add critical supply to the state's stock of affordable housing."

It says the plan "will create and preserve 100,000 units across the state. This historic investment offers a transformational blueprint to address the diversity of housing need across the state, strengthen protections for tenants, and create new opportunities for low-to moderate income households. The Plan —which boosts state spending on housing programs by nearly $5 billion—will build and preserve affordable units and individual homes; make homeownership affordable for first-time buyers; increase investments in the revitalization of our communities; promote housing choice opportunities for all New Yorkers; revamp services in ways that better serve clients including New Yorkers seeking affordable housing..."

The policy book is short on other specifics, but promised, "The comprehensive House NY 2020 Plan will be released in the coming weeks." Almost three months later and with the new budget passed, there still aren't many specifics.

The Capital Budget shows a $1,973,475,000 allocation for a "Housing Program" under the Division of Housing and Community Renewal. Nearly $600,000,000 of that goes to the creation of an "Infrastructure Investment Account." The language for the program states:

"In support of a comprehensive, statewide multi-year housing program in accordance with a plan approved in a memorandum of understanding executed by the director of budget, the speaker of the assembly and the temporary president of the senate."

Any of the cash appropriated to the account can be "suballocated to any state department, agency, or public authority for the purposes stated herein, only in accordance with a plan approved in a memorandum of understanding executed by the director of the budget, the speaker of the assembly, and the temporary president of the senate, who shall file such approval with the department of audit and control and copies thereof with the chair of the senate finance committee and the chair of the assembly ways and means committee."

The budget language further stipulates that the cash for the fund be doled out over a five-year period.

The budget also contains a $57.5 million line for the creation of supportive housing, which is long-term housing with social services, and $5 million for emergency and transitional housing for people with AIDS.

"It's concerning that we have a verbal commitment of $20 billion but here we have a $2 billion commitment meant to be spent over five years," said Sen. Krueger, who said it could be worrisome for those interested in building affordable housing. She noted that the nature of construction dictates that all the money wouldn't need to be spent up front, but having it lined out in budget documents would be helpful to those interested in utilizing state cash to subsidize affordable housing.

Mayor Bill de Blasio appears to be one of the many New Yorkers interested in having more details on the state's affordable housing agenda. De Blasio has an ongoing ten-year, 200,000 unit affordable housing plan, as well as several programs aimed at combatting homelessness. "We look forward to seeing further action on increased State support for homelessness and housing as the session continues, and ensuring those priorities receive the scrutiny they merit," de Blasio said in a statement reacting to the passage of the state budget.

The mayor had a similar reaction after Cuomo's State of the State address in January. "You know, it's an initial idea," de Blasio told reporters at the time of the $20 billion, five-year plan announced that day. "We have to see the specifics about timelines and how it's going to play out, but look, it can only be for the good of New York City if the state is making an additional commitment to New York City on affordable housing on top of the 200,000 units we're already committed to."

A representative of the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) had the same message this week. "We are looking forward to hearing more about the State's plans for additional resources for the construction and preservation of affordable housing in New York City," a spokesperson said in a statement emailed to Gotham Gazette.

Cuomo's plan follows de Blasio's, outlined in 2014, to create 80,000 units of affordable housing and preserve another 120,000 units (preservation of units includes extending rent regulations through benefit-agreements with landlords). De Blasio also pledged to create 15,000 supportive housing units over the next 15 years, announcing in December a new supportive plan after negotiations with the state on a new joint program did not yield results (there have been three such programs in the past, stretching back several mayors and governors). Going back to last year, the governor has been a regular critic of de Blasio's management of the city's homelessness crisis. When announcing his supportive housing plan, de Blasio challenged the state to act. It appeared Cuomo was doing so as he delivered his State of the State.

Now, advocates are concerned there may not be all that much new money in the budget. Cuomo administration sources have indicated the $20 billion figure includes "on and off budget resources" including tax credits and funding for housing-related departments such as the Department of Homes and Community Renewal.

Friedfel of CBC said that the use of MOUs makes it harder to follow how money is being spent, but that it also has advantages for those spending it. "It does make it more difficult to track than a more generic appropriation," said Friedfel. "It also gives them more freedom about how to spend it."

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

State Budget Agreement: By the Numbers


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Gov. Cuomo outlines the budget agreement (photo via The Governor's Office)


AGov. Andrew Cuomo welcomed reporters into the Capitol's Red Room for the first time in nearly a year to announce a budget deal at 8:30 p.m. Thursday night. The announcement came as both houses of the Legislature took a break from voting on budget bills that had already been introduced, yet neither legislative majority leader joined Cuomo for the press conference.

Legislators from the minorities of the two houses lamented having little time to review the bills and the fact that most of them were short any real policy decisions and featured sections marked "intentionally omitted."

After weeks of haggling, bursts of information, and rumors, Cuomo announced some hard numbers contained in the budget, just a few hours before the start of the new fiscal year. The governor happily announced that New York would see a phase-in of a $15 minimum wage and a paid family leave program. He appeared less thrilled when admitting his proposed Medicaid cost-shift to New York City was not part of the budget (this after his CUNY cost-shift had been taken off the table a few days ago).

"I am very excited about this budget," Cuomo said. "We call it a budget – really it is an overall operating plan for the state of New York and I believe that this is the best plan that the state has produced, if its passed, in decades, literally."

The state budget agreement by the numbers:

8:30 p.m: scheduled time of Gov. Andrew Cuomo's announcement of a budget deal; 3.5 hours before the start of the new fiscal year.

$147 billion: estimated size of the state budget.

0: legislative leaders present at Cuomo's budget announcement.

0: times Republican Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan mentioned a minimum wage increase or paid family leave in a seven-paragraph statement put out by is office to celebrate the budget agreement.

4: men who controlled budget negotiations (Cuomo, Flanagan, Heastie, and Klein).

3: budget bills introduced to both houses to be voted on before a deal was actually announced.

3 p.m: time the Assembly started debating the first budget bill, without a deal announced.

4 p.m: time the Senate began debating its first budget bill, without a deal announced.

6: budget bills left to vote on after a budget deal was announced.

12/31/2018: date New York City will see its minimum wage hit $15 per hour for businesses with more than ten employees.

12/31/2019: date New York City will see its minimum wage hit $15 per hour for businesses with ten or fewer employees.

12/31/2021: date Long Island and Westchester County will see the minimum wage hit $15 per hour.

$12.50: hourly minimum wage localities north of Westchester will reach on 12/31/2020, at which time the state budget director and department of labor will set a path to $15 per hour.

6: years Cuomo claims to have kept budget growth under 2 percent. (Some budget watchdogs claim Cuomo uses tricks and gimmicks to appear to meet the cap.)

2: years in a row the state budget has been voted through after the March 31 midnight deadline and thus technically "late."

6.5%: increase in school aid, which totals $24.8 billion.

$240: increase in per pupil aid for charter schools.

12 weeks: length of new New York paid family leave benefit, for paid time off to care for a new child or ailing relative.

2018: year paid family leave will begin in New York

50% of an employee's average weekly wage, capped to 50 percent of the statewide average weekly wage, is where paid family leave pay will start. When fully implemented in 2021 it will be 67 percent of an employee's average weekly wage, capped to 67 percent of the statewide average weekly wage.

6: months workers will have to have worked at a job before being eligible for New York's paid family leave.

$26.6 billion: amount the budget includes for capital facilities operated by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA).

$1.5 billion: marked for phase II of the Second Avenue Subway.

63: copies of a report detailing changes made to the executive budget that Senate Republicans had to have printed off for Senators after Sen. Liz Krueger pointed out the report was required by law.

Not in the Budget
$485 million previously proposed cost shift to New York City for CUNY funding.

$250 million Medicaid cost shift to New York City.

A plan to replace the 421-a property tax credit used by New York City to entice developers to include affordable housing in their developments.

$240 million initially sought by the Cuomo administration to give CUNY staff retroactive raises.

0 criminal justice proposals from the executive budget included in the final budget.

0 ethics reforms.

[Related: Everyone Agrees Albany Needs Ethics Reform, Except the People Who Matter Most]

[Related: For State Budget, Leaders Choose 'On Time' Over Open]

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Everyone Agrees Albany Needs Ethics Reform, Except the People Who Matter Most


three men at a table

Heastie, Cuomo, Flanagan (l-r) (photo via The Governor's Office)


"Top of my agenda is going to be ethics reform," said Governor Andrew Cuomo, speaking on NY1 on Jan. 3. "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."

While the governor did unveil an aggressive ethics agenda during his State of the State speech a week later, Cuomo’s words ring hollow now, as a state budget containing no government ethics reform passes and any hope for such reform happening this year is pushed to the legislative session, where it is unlikely to occur.

Cuomo has done nothing public on ethics reform despite the promises he made during his Jan. 13 State of the State address. “We have to remember the people we serve, and it’s our responsibility to give them the government that they deserve,” Cuomo said at the time. “And remember the stronger the citizen trust, the stronger the government’s ability.”

Just about a month after two of New York’s most powerful legislators were convicted of several federal corruption charges in separate trials, Cuomo laid out a plan to close the LLC loophole, which allows limited liability companies to circumvent New York’s campaign donation limits and give large sums of money to candidates through various LLCs, limit the amount of outside income legislators may earn, and adopt a publicly funded campaign finance system, among other reforms.

Yet, as negotiations for the state budget come to a close, the “three men in a room” deciding the state’s roughly $150 billion budget have not moved ethics reforms that could help give the people they serve “the government that they deserve.” In a Siena College poll released Feb. 1, 89 percent of New Yorkers said corruption in state government is a serious problem, with 60 percent calling for outside income to be banned.

Although Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Democrat and one of the “three men in a room” along with Gov. Cuomo and Republican Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, has pledged to “increase transparency and accountability” and “restore the public’s trust in government,” the lack of any ethics reform in the state budget calls Heastie’s follow through on that commitment into question.

“The Assembly has pledged to enact comprehensive ethics reforms, and we take that commitment very seriously,” said Heastie in a press release detailing the ethics reform component of the Assembly’s budget plan, which was released Friday evening March 11. Like Cuomo, Heastie outlined an ethics reform agenda, but did little else to publicly promote it.

On that Friday morning three weeks ago, Heastie outlined the Assembly Democrats’ ethics package at an event held by Crain’s New York Business. The plan also includes a proposal to close the LLC loophole, as well as proposals to limit the amount of outside income legislators may earn (though not as strictly as Cuomo’s plan), and to make it so that legislators who also work as attorneys can only earn money for the casework they perform, rather than for simply serving as "of counsel," lending their name to a law firm - a practice at root of the scandal that brought down Heastie's predecessor, Sheldon Silver.

Both Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos were brought down last year by corruption convictions related to their use of their public offices for private gain.

The new head of the Republican-controlled Senate, meanwhile, has repeatedly questioned the need for further ethics reform, and he and many other Senate Republicans are opposed to making the Legislature full-time or placing any limits on lawmakers’ outside income.

Sen. Flanagan has previously pointed out that the Senate passed a pension forfeiture bill, aimed at ensuring that legislators convicted of public corruption cannot collect a government pension, in a deal with the Assembly, only to have the Assembly back out at the last minute. Pension forfeiture is notably absent from the Assembly's reform plan.

As the New York Times Editorial Board writes, “In Albany, this is how the stage gets set for each legislative house to praise itself and to blame the other for the failure, yet again, of meaningful reform, and for Mr. Cuomo to blame them both.

New Yorkers, legislators, and government reform groups alike say that ethics reform is essential, “especially considering the context of the past year,” as Cuomo himself said during his State of the State. Yet at a time when Cuomo has the most leverage, he has failed to achieve reform. Heastie has decided not to aggressively pursue the Assembly's plan, and Flanagan has appeared totally disinterested in the issue. The minorities in each house - one Democratic, one Republican - have actually been more vocal than the majorities.

“We are blowing our Watergate moment,” Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins told the Wall Street Journal. “This year’s budget process has been nothing but a series of covert meetings and phone calls shielded from the press and public.”

Senate Republicans’ resistance to outside income limits and closing the LLC loophole have left room for Cuomo and Heastie to play a blame game. In part because neither did anything beyond one speech to promote ethics reform leading up to the budget, there is room to question their seriousness. But, Senate Republicans have, it seems, let the two Democrats and Assembly Democrats in general off the hook.

“It is incumbent upon legislators to work to significantly reduce corruption, and we can do so by passing these common sense measures,” Assemblymember David Buchwald said upon signing a pledge to fight for good government reform, including closing the LLC loophole. “I think the vast majority of New Yorkers would want to see their representatives sign this pledge.

"In recent times, the New York Legislature has been marked by regular bribery, rampant kickbacks and a rancid culture," U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who prosecuted both Silver and Skelos, said during a talk in Albany in February.

A coalition of government reform groups, including Citizens Union, Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, the New York Public Interest Research Group, and Reinvent Albany, released a statement denouncing the governor and legislative leaders for failing to pass any ethics reform in the three-and-a-half months since former legislative leaders Skelos and Silver were convicted of corruption, despite strong public demand for action to be taken.

“With a recent poll showing that nearly 90% of New Yorkers believe that unethical behavior is a serious problem in state government a month before former legislative leaders Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos are sentenced for public corruption,” the statement reads, “the governor and legislative leaders have an obligation to New Yorkers to reach a significant agreement on ethics reform.”

“The collapse of ethics reform during the budget is failure by the governor to mobilize overwhelming public support for change," said Blair Horner, executive director of NYPIRG. “New York State’s political leaders have chosen to ‘kick the can’ instead of tackling the needed reforms to respond to Albany’s ‘Watergate moment.’”

When Cuomo was asked in February whether ethics reform were likely to remain in the budget, the governor replied, “As we get closer and actually have budget conversations, it’s going to be at the top of the list.” Not long after, Cuomo conceded that ethics reform would not be included in the budget.

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by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette
     

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

For State Budget, Leaders Choose 'On Time' Over Open


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Heastie, Cuomo, Flanagan (l-r), June 2015 (photo via The Governor's Office)


As negotiations over the state's $150 billion budget sputtered on Thursday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo ramped up pressure on legislators to accept a deal. Speaking with reporters, Cuomo implied legislators could jeopardize a potential pay raise if they can't deliver an on-time budget.

"So they're gonna need to be able to make that case not just to the pay commission but to the people of the State of New York in November when they go to seek re-election," Cuomo said. "So performance matters - if they don't pass a budget on time obviously that is a failure of performance."

Cuomo has made better state government function, including on-time budgets, a signature of his time as governor. Legislators and good government groups dismiss the governor's insistence that an on-time budget is paramount, especially when negotiations come so close to the April 1 start of the new fiscal year.

In Albany it has practically become tradition for rank-and-file lawmakers to be asked to vote on a budget with only a few hours time to review its contents. The state constitution requires bills to age three days before they are voted on in order to facilitate public review, but Cuomo, like many governors before him, has taken to issuing "messages of necessity" to bypass the otherwise-mandated waiting period. Final budget votes - with debate that is often only for show or to get comment on the record - have stretched late into the night with rank-and-file members discussing measures they discover in the budget almost in real time.

With no budget deal reached as of Wednesday evening, it is all but certain that this year will see the governor again issue messages of necessity and a very short window between budget bills printed and voted on.

Meanwhile, a seven-member commission has begun meeting to determine pay raises for legislators and other state officials. Three of the members of the commission were appointed by the governor, two by the chief judge of the Court of Appeals, and one each by the legislative majority leaders. Legislators haven't had a pay raise since 1999, currently earning a base salary of $79,500.

Contrary to Cuomo's statement Wednesday, the language creating the pay commission does not explicitly mention "performance" as something to be factored into deliberations. The commission is scheduled to make its recommendations in November, right around Election Day when every state Senate and Assembly seat is on the ballot. The recommendations would then automatically take effect in 2017, unless the Legislature votes to oppose them.

A number of legislators told Gotham Gazette pay raises wouldn't factor into the time it takes them to consider the budget.

"Our conference is going to go over and deliberate what's in there, we are going to know what we're voting on," said Senate Deputy Minority Leader Michael Gianaris, a Democrat from Queens. "That review is going to be done at the pace that it takes. We are not going to go out there ignorant to what's in the budget. If those negotiating the budget wanted to ensure timeliness they should have concluded negotiations earlier."

Gianaris' sentiments were echoed by a number of Assembly Republicans and Senate Democrats. The groups represent their chamber's minority, though, and not driving negotiations, which are largely taking place among Gov. Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan.

"Cuomo should look in the mirror if budget is late," tweeted Republican Assembly Member Steve McLaughlin. "Absurd argument to pin it on the legislators who haven't seen it."

John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, pointed out that budgets have passed with fairly controversial measures tucked in at the last minute by lobbyists and their government allies thanks to the lack of thorough review.

"Does anyone really want their state legislator voting on a $150 billion, 10,000 page budget they haven't had time to look at?" Kaehny asked rhetorically. "Does anyone other than the governor really think it is more important to pass a budget on time and unscrutinized, than a few days late and fully examined? Do people want their state representative voting for a budget that could be stuffed full of things like tax breaks for yachts and private jets - like last year?"

Dick Dadey, executive director for Citizens Union, said that a budget that is "a few days late but ages for the requisite three days for public review is far preferable to an on-time budget when the public has no time to review the $150 billion that taxpayers are funding."

In stark contrast to his predecessors Cuomo has successfully delivered on-time budgets each year he has held office. It was typical for budgets to go weeks and even months over deadline before Cuomo became governor. Cuomo has actually used messages of necessity considerably less than his predecessors, but he has used them to pass the budget three times since taking office in 2011.

"As a practical financial matter it won't amount to much if they are a few days late," said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group. "It will shake what little confidence the public has left in state government. The last reasonable claim the governor can make that he brought order to chaos in Albany is in on-time state budgets," said Horner.

This year's final budget negotiations appear to be difficult for both legislative majorities for different reasons. The Assembly majority is fighting a Cuomo proposal to force New York City to take on $250 million in Medicaid funding. The Senate majority is grappling with Cuomo's push to raise the minimum wage to $15 across the state. Some see the wage increase as a winner with voters and admit Cuomo was very successful in pushing the issue, but others are adamant an increase will hurt the economy and hurt them at the polls in November.

Sen. Joseph Addabbo of Queens, who is in favor of the concept of both the minimum wage increase and the paid family leave proposal that appears to be close to finalized, said it is critically important to him to see exactly how those measures are actually implemented. "It's not about beating the clock. I'm not voting on a $150 billion budget without getting every detail," Addabbo, a Democrat, told Gotham Gazette.

Many good government advocates see this year's budget negotiation as one of the least transparent in modern history. Coming on the heels of the convictions of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, Cuomo and legislators have held clandestine meetings at the Governor's Mansion and routinely dodged the press. They have been more open about the process in the last few days, but after dealing with two press scrums on Thursday Flanagan dodged the press by exiting a back door of Cuomo's office.

Legislative leaders have rejected discussion of ethics reform and adding transparency to stashes of cash the governor and the Legislature insert into the budget without any particular use given.

Both Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb and Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins have decried being left out of negotiations and assailed this budget season as the least transparent in memory. Representatives for Cuomo, Heastie, and Flanagan did not return requests for comment on the use of messages of necessity and concerns over budget transparency.

Gianaris said that while he agrees that rank-and-file legislators need time to examine the budget, "The real issue is that had this process been open and transparent along the way we wouldn't be sitting here at the eleventh hour with nothing. If all conferences had been included we could have wrapped this up a long time ago." 

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

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

Criminal Justice Reform Again Given Little Attention in Budget Negotiations


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Gov. Cuomo in Dannemora (photo via The Governor's Office)


As Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders rush to deliver an on-time budget, criminal justice reform advocates aren't holding out hope that any of their major legislative priorities will be included in the final document. Advocates are resigned that many of their priorities, which are backed by Cuomo and included in his executive budget, will be pushed to the post-budget legislative session.

A budget is due by midnight Thursday, with the new fiscal year beginning on Friday, April 1, but a deal must be in place sooner so that bills can be drafted and voted on. The legislative session then extends into June. Cuomo and legislative leaders said Tuesday that they were getting close to settling the major funding and policy differences that would be included in the budget, with no mention of criminal justice issues.

For some advocates it is no surprise given the complexities of their issues, like the push to raise the age of adult criminal responsibility in New York and legislation to amend state law to create a special prosecutor to preside over investigations of police killings of civilians.

To others, it isn't surprising for an entirely different reason: they are used to seeing Cuomo pitch major criminal justice reforms during his State of the State address only to abandon them during budget negotiations due to push back from Senate Republicans.

"For years we've seen this pattern where the governor comes out with big bold ideas in January but he doesn't follow through," said Alyssa Aguilera, co-executive director of VOCAL-NY, a community organizing and reform group. "We know the governor is very powerful and can move things when he wants to. He should be acting on these issues that really impact the low-income communities of color who are really his base."

The Cuomo administration did not return request for comment.

Legislators who support criminal justice reforms say they've been focused on the budget and won't likely return to other legislative issues until next week.

Aguilera noted that Cuomo has previously pitched decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana only to abandon the issue. Last year Cuomo dropped "Raise the Age" and legislation to create a special prosecutor to investigate police killings of civilians during budget negotiations. He has also previously abandoned a push to provide inmates with a college education.

However, last year while facing pressure to act from family members of the deceased, advocates, and legislators, Cuomo issued an executive order giving Attorney General Eric Schneiderman the ability to investigate police killings of civilians under certain circumstances. The order allows the Attorney General to investigate any case involving a police killing of a civilian and to take over a case from a local District Attorney.

The bill Cuomo is backing this year would allow an independent monitor to look into cases if a grand jury decided to not move forward against an officer or if a District Attorney did not put the case before a grand jury in a "reasonable" time. The monitor could then make a recommendation to the Governor. The Attorney General would no longer have a role.

Advocates see the proposal, which is not garnering momentum, as a substantial weakening of Cuomo's executive order. Aguilera said she is concerned the current environment might not be ideal for getting the special prosecutor bill her group supports. "Our biggest fear really is seeing a rolling back of our victory. We fought for the executive order which was a very good, solid executive order. We are realistic that the current leadership in the state Senate means it might not be the right time for a stronger bill. We need to protect the current executive order. We don't want to see a watering down of what we already have," she said.

Supporters of the plan to raise the age of criminal responsibility in New York are more optimistic about their chances. New York is currently one of just two states, with North Carolina, to try 16- and 17-year-olds as adults.

"I think it's going to be a priority for the governor once other priorities are taken care of," said Paige Pierce, CEO of Families Together New York State. "We aren't surprised or unhappy it is being dealt with outside of the budget. We want the attention paid to it that it deserves."

The issue of how to treat 16- and 17-year-olds in the state's criminal justice system is complicated. Senate Republicans don't want to be soft on crime, or give the appearance of being so, while Assembly Democrats want to provide a host of alternatives to criminal court.

Lawmakers and advocates say that last year they came close to compromise legislation. "We got so close last session, we just ran out of time," said Stephanie Gendell, associate executive director for policy and government relations at Citizen's Committee for Children of New York.

Gendell said that legislators from both sides of the aisle were motivated to deliver on legislation when they heard details of how 16- and 17-year-olds were treated. "Certain pieces of Raise the Age just aren't controversial to anyone. That's why we got so close," said Gendell. "Legislators were surprised to hear that a 16-year-old arrested can be held all night without parental notification, without anyone knowing. The more people learn the more they are motivated to act."

Cuomo did push last year to leave funding in the budget to enact Raise the Age reforms were a deal reached, and that money was there, but no deal occurred. The governor included similar language in this year's executive budget. Advocates are anxious to see if the language makes the final budget bills, setting the stage for an agreement in the months ahead. Cuomo also has bail reform on his agenda for the legislative session ahead.

The governor, Democratic Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, and Republican Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan continue to negotiate the budget framework.

With no legislative deal reached last year Cuomo took executive action, placing all 16- and 17-year-old inmates in an alternative facility. He followed up by pushing the issue again in this year's State of the State address. The Assembly put forward its own version of the bill in its one-house budget. Senate Republicans have indicated some interest in compromising on reform legislation.

"Part of why this doesn't get passed in the budget is that it is a very comprehensive piece of legislation," said Gendell. "Out bill is very long and there is a lot to it. When we get to legislative session we can talk more about the details. Senator Flanagan said he didn't want to deal with Raise the Age in the budget, he didn't say he didn't want it to happen at all."

[Related: Cuomo's Executive Action on Raise the Age Prompts Questions]

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

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Confusion, Concern Remain as Cuomo Promises Full CUNY Funding


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Shirley Jackson of the CUNY Student Senate at Thursday's protest (via @PSC_CUNY)


Gov. Andrew Cuomo's budget proposal to have New York City take over $485 million in funding for CUNY still has a number of legislators and advocates on edge despite the administration's repeated attempts to quell concerns. Advocates and faculty held a "die in" at Cuomo's New York City office on Thursday afternoon and a number of legislators say they remain ready to delay the state budget and vote against it should CUNY face any cuts, or cost shifts.

"The governor has said the CUNY budget won't change and I am here today to hold him to his word," Barbara Bowen, president of PSC/CUNY, the system's main labor union, told Gotham Gazette before Thursday's protest. Bowen said the administration had reached out to her and was "insistent on their message."

More than 40 protesters were eventually arrested at the rally, which was over general cost shifts, a push for increased funding, and the expired faculty union contract.

Facing backlash for the cost-shifting proposal after he unveiled it in January, Cuomo said that the state budget wouldn't "cost CUNY a penny" and that his administration would team with City Hall to find "efficiencies." However, when the time for 30-day amendments to the governor's fiscal year 2017 budget proposal rolled around, the proposed cost shift remained. The de Blasio administration has indicated it has yet to have detailed discussions about savings with the Cuomo administration. CUNY is a joint city-state system.

"It is appalling that the faculty union and for-hire political advocacy groups are knowingly misleading their members and the public to score cheap political points." Cuomo spokesperson Dani Lever told Gotham Gazette. "We have said repeatedly and unequivocally that CUNY will receive its full $1.6 billion in state aid this year. Further, the Governor has urged CUNY and its faculty union to resolve their current contract negotiations. The fact that these groups are ignoring reality is alarming, irresponsible, and a flagrant disregard for the students they claim to advocate for. Rather than using unfounded and untruthful scare tactics to lie to the public, they should support the Governor's fight to direct more funding to students instead of administrative costs."

Lever did not respond to questions about whether the de Blasio administration was involved in finding efficiencies at CUNY. De Blasio's team also failed to respond to a request for comment. When asked recently, de Blasio has only said in general terms that he and his aides continue to talk with the governor and his team.

As outcry mounted earlier this month, Cuomo and State Director of Operations Jim Malatras said they will hire a management expert to find cost savings in management at CUNY and SUNY. Cuomo stressed that the administration was looking to shave administrative costs at CUNY during a press conference in Manhattan on March 17.

"These are back office savings," Cuomo said. "They have nothing to do with students in classrooms. As a matter of fact, if you reduce the money you're spending in the back office, you can do better and do more with students."

Some legislators say they have approached the administration for clarity. They have asked questions about what Cuomo's intentions are, whether the management expert precludes negotiations with the city, whether the administration is still looking for the city to pay more of a share of CUNY costs, and whether a $240 million pot of cash Cuomo put aside in his budget to help cover retroactive pay raises for CUNY staff would remain if the operating cost transfer is restored. They say they were referred to previous statements and not given any particular clarity on the situation.

When asked about the $240 million for retroactive raises administration officials said that it was "out of our hands" because CUNY is in mediation with its union. They further indicated that all interested parties are involved in looking for efficiencies at CUNY, but that the current plan is for a management expert to look for efficiencies to be included in next year's budget (fiscal year 2018).

"This year's executive budget proposal ensures that CUNY will receive full funding," said Malatras in a statement sent out on March 16. "The $1.6 billion in aid it receives has not changed, and will not change under this budget. The funding stays constant. CUNY supports hundreds of thousands of students, many of whom are new to our state or our country, or are the first in their family to attend college. The Governor's commitment to supporting those students and the institution that serves them could not be stronger, and his budget proposal reflects that reality."

The question is not necessarily whether CUNY will be fully funded, but whether the state budget will indeed shift hundreds of millions of dollars in CUNY costs onto the city. The implications of that shift are not immediately clear - the de Blasio administration insists it would be devastating.

Some rank-and-file legislators who aren't privy to the backroom budget negotiations among Cuomo and majority leaders of the two houses harbor a deep mistrust of the administration's plans. They see the proposal as an attack on the city, motivated by the governor's feud with de Blasio, as well as a negotiating tactic that gives Cuomo more leverage over Assembly Democrats.

"Actions speak louder than words. We have a document that we have to deal with that tells us CUNY is going to be cut by nearly half-a-billion dollars," Sen. Gustavo Rivera, a Bronx Democrat, said of the governor's budget proposal. "It may be off the table but we don't know. They didn't take it out of the budget with 30-day amendments, so as far as we're concerned it's in play."

The Assembly, which is controlled by Democrats, did not include the cost shifts in its one-house budget. The Republican-controlled Senate's budget supports Cuomo's cost shift. De Blasio opted not to include the shifts in his preliminary city budget proposal, saying that he was taking the governor at his word that the "efficiencies" wouldn't cost the city any money. The state budget is due by April 1, the city budget by July.

Malatras told The New York Times in a recent interview that the governor's proposal was a negotiating tactic to get City Hall and CUNY to take reforms seriously. "The only way you compel change sometimes is where you put financial skin in the game," Malatras said.

"You don't start a conversation by punching someone in the face." Sen. Rivera countered. "We are talking about a cut to an essential service that provides people with a future. CUNY serves 70 percent students of color and 40 percent immigrants. I'm not sure why anyone would put it in the budget. You don't start a conversation by saying 'Here you have to come up with $485 million to fund an essential service.'"

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, also a Bronx Democrat, has been adamant that the governor's proposal will not remain.

"It looks like the Cuomo administration was wishing, hoping, praying that City Hall was going to pick up the tab," said Sen. Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat who has been outspoken against the cost shift. Krueger said she now believes the proposal is off the table but said, "I think people should be concerned."

Advocates and legislators say that Cuomo's proposal has created outrage and debate about education funding that they doubt the governor anticipated. "This has sparked a public conversation about CUNY," said Bowen. "But that conversation won't be adequate if all it decides is whether it will be cut and funding is restored to where it was. Because the state funding level is not adequate."

Bowen said that state funding for CUNY remains at "recession levels." She and her allies are now pushing for several budget demands. They say per-student state funding has fallen by three percent under Cuomo.

"I hope to see a final enacted budget with no cost shift," Bowen said, "that also includes at least $240 million for retroactive raises, that freezes tuition, and has provision that will have state funding increase every year to be constant with inflation."

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

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Oft-Criticized Ethics Watchdog Names Cuomo Aide as Executive Director


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Gov. Cuomo gives an ethics reform speech in 2015 (Governor's Office via flickr)


The state's independent ethics commission took the first official ethics-related action in Albany since the convictions of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos on Tuesday when it appointed a man with ties to both Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders as its new executive director.

Seth Agata, who JCOPE - the Joint Commission on Public Ethics - says it hired after a nine-month, nationwide search, currently serves as the head of the state's Public Employment Relations Board. He is seen by many as an ultimate Albany insider, and to some that bolsters his prospects for the job, while to others it should have been a disqualifying trait. Agata becomes the third former Cuomo aide of three people to hold the position over a five-year period.

The 14-member board includes appointees by the Governor (six), the two legislative leaders (three each), and the minority leaders of each house (one each). The JCOPE chairperson is selected by the Governor, the Executive Director is chosen by board members themselves.

"A better choice [for executive director] is someone who is clearly independent from both the Governor and the Legislature," John Kaehny, of Reinvent Albany, told Gotham Gazette. "In the entire United States there must be at least one, well-qualified person, who didn't used to work for the governor."

Agata has also worked in Cuomo's counsel's office, as a counsel for program and policy for the Assembly Majority, and as counsel in the investigations office of the State Comptroller.

The body, which has been maligned as rudderless and ruled by infighting, is charged with ethics monitoring, "ensuring transparency," and "providing accountability through enforcement actions to address ethical misconduct." Critics also say JCOPE, which was created through a 2011 law, is designed so that slight dissension can block investigations into public officials and candidates.

Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, praised Agata, calling him a good choice, but also expressed reservations about his connections to Cuomo and the Legislature. "Seth Agata has the kind of trained eye we need to suss out what is really going on in Albany," said Dadey. "I wouldn't say it about anyone else [with such ties to the governor], but Seth has the kind of character we need to lead JCOPE in an independent fashion toward the reforms it so badly needs."

However, Dadey added: "It is a sad commentary on the state of affairs in Albany when the only action the Legislature and governor take on ethics following the conviction of both legislative leaders is the appointment of a JCOPE chair who has ties to both the governor and Legislature."

Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group was also torn about the appointment. He called on JCOPE to make the details of its search for a new director public. Horner described Agata as "thoughtful" and "straightforward," but said the big question comes down to "the hiring process."

"The public deserves to hear from JCOPE about the process that led them to pick Agata," said Horner. "Independence is clearly a major factor in running an ethics commission, we need to hear from JCOPE why they thought he was the right choice."

The press release announcing Agata's hiring said it followed a search that included advertisements in "top legal publications and newspapers" and resulted in 200 resume submissions.

"Seth Agata is a tremendous choice for Executive Director of the Commission," Commission Chair Daniel Horwitz said in a statement announcing Agata's hiring. "He brings a wealth of knowledge, experience, and integrity to the position."

Previous JCOPE heads include Letizia Tagliafierro, who worked for Cuomo during his time as attorney general and later as his director of governmental operations. She left JCOPE and took a position as deputy commissioner of the state's Department of Taxation and Finance in 2015. Her appointment in 2013 drew the ire of legislative members of JCOPE, including one who quit in protest.

Tagliafierro replaced Ellen Biben, who worked as the governor's inspector general and in the attorney general's office when Cuomo held that position. Biben now is now a Court of Claims Judge - she was nominated for the position by Cuomo.

Agata's appointment comes as Cuomo has admitted that talk of ethics reforms have been jettisoned from budget discussions and legislative leaders, especially Republican Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, appear loathe to take any major action. Good government groups have pushed Cuomo to lead on reform in the wake of the Silver and Skelos convictions but the Governor has remained quiet on the issue since January.

Horner and other members of the good government community say JCOPE is designed in such a way that does not foster transparency or faith that its process is not political. JCOPE has 45 days from receiving a complaint to decide whether to investigate an ethics violation but it has no obligation to reveal its investigations.

An investigation can be stopped by three votes out of the 14 commissioners and most of their business is conducted behind closed doors. If a violation is found against a sitting member of the Legislature, JCOPE then has to refer the case to the Legislative Ethics Committee, which is controlled by the legislative leaders. JCOPE can disperse punishment to regular government employees.

The body is charged with maintaining income disclosures from the legislature, lobbyist registrations, and fielding complaints about ethics violations across state government. Legislators' outside income has been the source of much discussion as Cuomo and others have proposed strict limits, while Republicans (and some Democrats) in both legislative houses have balked. Silver's non-government income was at the source of his federal corruption conviction.

JCOPE's most recent actions mostly focus on enforcing compliance with financial disclosure statements, lobbyist registration, and smaller violations of the public officers law by state employees. The commission has only revealed investigations of two lawmakers over the last few years, both sexual harassment cases. They involved former Assembly Members Vito Lopez and Dennis Gabryszak.

The commission announced the launch of two new investigations from its meeting on Tuesday. It is suspected that at least one of those investigations relates to Sen. Marc Panepinto, who announced last week he will not seek reelection. Rumors have swirled about misbehavior in his office.

"I am very disappointed when a person who runs for office and holds themselves out to be trusted by their community winds up involved in a sordid affair," Cuomo told reporters this week when asked about Panepinto. "So, I don't know the details. I don't want to know the details. But let somebody else run who will respect the position."

When asked about the phrasing "sordid affair" by The Buffalo News, a Cuomo spokesperson said the governor was referring to things he had read in the press.

JCOPE members appointed by legislative leaders have openly complained of interference from the executive branch and pushed for JCOPE to look for an executive director without ties to the administration.

Critics say JCOPE has picked around the edges while federal investigators have tackled serious investigations that get to the root of corruption in state government. U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, good government leaders, and others have called on Albany to strengthen both preventative measures and enforcement mechanisms.

Kaehny of Reinvent Albany said that he feels Agata's resume should have immediately disqualified him from the job. "Even if Seth Agata is as wise as Solomon and pure as the driven snow, he used to be one of Governor Cuomo's top people, and there are inherent questions about whether he can be impartial and completely non-political, rather than a potential political weapon for the governor."

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

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Cuomo's Public Schedules Offer Little Information


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Cuomo gives a press briefing in Tarrytown (Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)


Earlier this month, Gov. Andrew Cuomo was facing pressure from the press, local officials, and the public to make his first appearance in Hoosick Falls, a small town near the Vermont border. Residents of the town were told in December that their drinking water was unsafe for consumption due to contamination from a toxic chemical that may lead to cancer. Cuomo, whose administration has been accused of mishandling reports about water contamination in the town since 2014, had been conspicuously absent.

On Sunday, March 13 at about 7:30 a.m. reporters received an updated public schedule for Cuomo announcing that at 10:15 a.m the governor would give a press briefing in Hoosick Falls. Assembly Member Steve McLaughlin, a Republican who represents the area and has been a consistent critic of the Democratic governor, said he learned of the visit from members of the press who contacted him to see if he planned to attend. McLaughlin was not contacted by the Cuomo administration, he said, nor were a host of other elected officials from the area. Some local reporters had been told specifically the governor would not be visiting the town that weekend.

"I had been there a day before for the St. Patrick's Day Parade and I said then, 'Leaders lead, they show up when people are hurting, they don't show up for a photo op,'" McLaughlin told Gotham Gazette. "I will contend the reason [Cuomo] didn't show up for 109 days is because this situation is politically damaging to him - it isn't a situation where he's hooking up and towing someone and taking a picture; people are hurting here."

The situation was typical of how the administration often handles Cuomo's public schedules - most days, no matter what the governor might actually be doing, his public schedules, emailed to the press the night before, put him in Albany, New York City, or the New York City area, with no additional information.

Occasionally the administration will issue an update about an appearance or an event with varying amounts of lead time. Sometimes a few hours, often less. Events the governor attends are regularly ones that appear unlikely to be last-minute decision. One such update was issued on January 21 at 5:29 p.m. to announce Cuomo was attending a 6 p.m. gala held by the Real Estate Board of New York, whose members include large Cuomo donors.

Other events Cuomo attends, such as fundraisers or gatherings with legislators at the Executive Mansion, are left off his schedule. Some of these events, for candidate campaigns, should be left off of the governor's official government schedule. Yet, strangely, on March 9, Cuomo held a ceremony to honor former New York Mets catcher Mike Piazza and no notice was given, though the administration later gave members of the press an account of the proceedings.

Administration officials paint last-minute updates and omissions as the result of minding the schedule of a very busy governor, but the pattern has rankled the press, annoyed legislators who feel the governor should notify them when he visits their districts, and stymied issue advocates and protesters. It has a growing number of critics saying that the administration shares little with the press and the public as a political strategy to protect Cuomo from unwanted coverage.

Cuomo's schedules also come in stark contrast of those of other major New York elected officials - senators, members of Congress, Mayor Bill de Blasio, and others mostly issue detailed daily schedules full of events, whether the press is invited or not. They also often send their schedules earlier than the governor's office does. Case in point: on Monday evening, de Blasio's Tuesday schedule, with two public events, was sent to members of the media at about 5:30 p.m.; Gov. Cuomo's, also with two public events, was emailed at a little after 10 p.m.

"It is highly unusual for officials to play this kind of game," said Douglas Muzzio professor of political science at Baruch. "The governor is truly unique in this regard compared to other electeds. It throws everyone off, prevents people from covering things, seeing him, meeting him. It keeps everybody on edge."

The Cuomo administration flatly denied that the governor's schedules are designed to reduce interaction with the press or voters. "People have all kinds of opinions, it's just not true," Cuomo spokesperson Rich Azzopardi told Gotham Gazette.

"There is a clear difference in style and substance between this governor and people who are willing to go into the lion's den and deal with it and take not only the accolades, but the criticism head on," said Assembly Member McLaughlin. Cuomo has made a habit of "ducking, covering, and avoiding and misdirecting," McLaughlin added, saying that Cuomo has had "the hypocrisy" of saying he would run the most transparent administration in history. "People are waking up to it," he said, "The answer to it is to stop doing what you're doing, but his answer will be to double down and do more of what got him in trouble to begin with."

The situation is particularly pointed this year as budget negotiations again play out almost entirely behind closed doors. Unlike his two immediate predecessors, Cuomo has not held public leaders meetings to discuss budget priorities.

Meanwhile, Cuomo hasn't held a traditional media availability on the second floor of the Capitol since June of last year. While the governor has taken press questions after events at a variety of locations around the state, he has eschewed a traditional Albany press conference for well over 200 days.

A recent Freedom of Information Law request for any email communications sent by Cuomo, filed by Gannett's John Campbell, resulted in no information. An administration official told Campbell that Cuomo has no state-issued email account or Blackberry device.

"Do you get the impression this governor doesn't want coverage, doesn't want to answer any questions?" asked Barbara Bartoletti of The League of Women Voters. "Wasn't this the governor who said he would have the most transparent administration in history? Well it hasn't turned out that way. He doesn't seem to let people know he is going to be somewhere unless he is handing out money or responding to a disaster."

John Kaehny, of Reinvent Albany, said that from his perspective the governor's office has been ahead of the game on releasing the governor's schedules when compared to other elected officials, albeit months after the fact. Kaehny points to the administration's information portal that is updated every few months with the governor's past schedules, including the names of groups and people he meets with. "We're happy to have more complete schedules later, rather than faster, less specific schedules right now," said Kaehny, who acknowledged it might be different for the press.

"The state website allows searches by name so you can see what meetings they've had with the governor," explained Kaehny. "That isn't comparable to anything [Mayor de Blasio] has at the moment. It's extremely useful."

Azzopardi touted Cuomo's transparency website in a statement to Gotham Gazette: "This administration has proactively made more documents and data publicly available than any other in recent memory. The governor's final schedules are publicly posted on CitizenConnects and have been since the beginning of this administration."

Cuomo's schedules have been shown to have at least a hole or two. In 2012 The Wall Street Journal reported that Cuomo's schedules did not show an October fundraiser where the Governor was pitched on a massive casino project by Genting, a group that had given millions to a lobbying group created at the governor's behest. Administration officials said the omission was a mistake.

Blair Horner, of the New York Public Interest Research Group, noted that compared to Albany standards where the leaders rarely announce their plans to the public, Cuomo's scheduling isn't particularly concerning.

For others however, it is concerning that the governor who pledged utmost transparency appears to only be interested in interacting with the public of his choosing and has limited his press interaction.

"Is he afraid of the press or does he think New Yorkers aren't interested in what their governor is doing?" asked Bartoletti. "I don't know why he wouldn't want to be more visible."

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

Read more by this writer.

Assembly Announces Internal Reform Plan to Mixed Reviews


heastie cuomo reporters

Assembly Speaker Heastie (photo via The Governor's Office)


On Thursday afternoon - after session, at the end of Sunshine Week - the Assembly's year-long path to greater transparency and participation took a major step as Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie announced recommendations made by his reform committee and pledged to enact them.

The proposals - some actual rules changes, others pledges - are designed to empower members through the committee process and give members and the public a clearer view into the legislative process. This transparency will in part come through utilizing technology and best practices in the chamber that has been especially criticized for resisting new digital tools and openness for decades. Heastie, a Democrat from the Bronx, replaced longtime Speaker Sheldon Silver last year when Silver was arrested with corruption charges that he was later convicted on. Silver was well-known for limiting the power of members and eschewing technology.

Changes announced by Heastie, who had appointed a special working group to make recommendations, include moving to a two-year session so that bills that have moved through committee but have yet to receive a vote in year one aren't forced through the same process in year two; a revamp of the Assembly website; a commitment to broadcast all committee hearings (something the Senate already does); and giving all members the right to have a certain number of bills considered by committee.

Good government groups say that they are pleased with many of the proposals, but that the agenda doesn't rise to meet the needs of the times given the recent convictions of Silver and former Republican Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. They also warn that a sharp eye must be kept on implementation of a number of the report's recommendations that won't actually be voted on as rules changes.

Some of the recommendations will be implemented by chamber rules reforms with bill language expected on Friday and a vote to follow early next week. While other parts will be implemented over time, with no particular deadline given as of yet.

"A lot of times committees put out these grand proposals that go nowhere," said Assembly Member Brian Kavanagh, co-chair of The Assembly Working Group on Operations, Participation and Transparency, "but the Speaker has already accepted the recommendations and committed to implementing them. We've put them out there and now we can be held accountable."

Heastie thanked Kavanagh and fellow co-chair Gary Pretlow in the press release announcing the reform package adding: "They worked diligently with the other members of the workgroup and the conference to sort through the numerous recommendations from members, advocates and constituents. We will continue to work together as a conference to identify ways to increase our members' ability to effectively meet the needs of their constituencies." The release included supportive statements from the other 12 members of the working group.

The process that led to the recommendations was sparked by the election of Heastie to Assembly Speaker after Silver's indictment on multiple federal corruption charges. Heastie named the working group in the spring of last year citing the need for more openness and democratization of the chamber. The group has been criticized for not holding any public hearings and for leaving out members of the Republican minority conference.

"The reforms offered by the Assembly Majority might help build a better website, but don't do enough to rebuild the public's trust," said Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, whose conference offered a slew of internal reforms that were quickly rejected by the majority earlier this year.

"If this was a normal year where the Speaker and [Senate] Majority Leader hadn't just been indicted there would be a lot to get excited about," said John Kaehny of Reinvent Albany. "Of course, this doesn't address secret budget negotiations, requiring a rigorous public debate of the budget, or preventing the Speaker being able to stop any bill from coming to a vote, but it has a lot of smaller things people have wanted for a long time."

Silver had long been accused of bottling up bills he opposed regardless of how much support they enjoyed from Democrats or Republicans.

"Under Sheldon Silver's tenure the Speaker became more powerful and individuals less so and that contributed to an the environment that led to corruption and the disempowerment of members to where they felt they were potted plants," said Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union. "This is a welcome recalibration of that relationship. This is a modest but important first step."

Kaehny said that while the report does not reshape the power structure of the Assembly it does contain quite a few items from good government groups' "wish list" when it comes to transparency and technology.

Republican Assembly Member James Tedisco, who has proposed a number of reform bills, criticized the working group for not making recommendations that would lessen the power of leadership, provide insight into how secret pots of money are spent, or provide equal funding to the offices of members of both parties.

"The one consistency about Albany is nothing changes when it comes to leaders voluntarily giving up any of their unbridled power to rule like kings," Tedisco said in a statement. "The rank and file members of the so-called Majority 'Reform Caucus' had an opportunity to rise up and disperse power back for their own constituents. They chose to keep it the same as it ever was and remain serfs in the Kingdom of Albany."

Kavanagh believes his group's reforms will help lawmakers move their bills independently. "The approach we've taken here is to make the committee process central to the legislative process," Kavanagh told Gotham Gazette. "Members can get their bills in the committee process early enough and get enough of their colleagues to vote for it so it gets to the floor. If committee members are voting down a bill in committee that is not dysfunction, that is democracy."

Changes meant to tweak the committee process include the move to a two-year session so that bills introduced in the first year of session would not be sent back to square one if they didn't make it to a floor vote. Bills that don't come to a vote during session currently must be reintroduced the next year. The Assembly will adopt this new approach independently and is asking the Senate to consider a similar system so that either house could vote on a bill passed in the first year of session in the second year.

Another change would give lawmakers of any party "the right" to have five bills voted on in committee in the first year of session, and an unlimited number in the second year. The push for committee consideration is allowed at the end of session, the new rules would extend this period in the second year two weeks earlier than is currently allowed.

While these changes are covered by actual rules reform, a measure that seems common sense to most good government groups - making sure committee hearings happen at regularly scheduled times and not during actual session while votes are occurring - is not being moved as a rules change, but instead a pledge.

"We're not saying it would never happen," said Kavanagh, who pointed to the high-paced nature of the end of session where bills are quickly passed by one house and hand delivered to the other for approval. But Kaehny said that forcing committee meetings to be scheduled ahead of time could actually correct a problem not addressed in the changes: making sure high-priority bills like the budget aren't jammed through without time for public review.

The fact that the scheduling of committee hearings is moving ahead informally, as a pledge, gets to the heart of another concern for Kaehny - a number of major recommendations aren't set to be codified in the rules.

Proposals that are exciting to Kaehny such as linking recordings of committee hearings to a bill's web-page, providing wireless access in public spaces, bringing more bills up at the start of session, and creating a floor debate list to keep members and the public apprised of the Assembly's schedule, are all simply pledges and not to be codified in the rules.

Kavanagh said that a number of tech-centric projects will need to be gauged and will take considerable time and investment. One pledge commits to the creation of a "C-Span"-like legislative channel.

With over 40 recommendations of a wide scope and spectrum, Kaehny said that "Follow up on all of this is critical." He urged legislators to keep track of implementation of all of the working group's recommendations while admitting, "This isn't all simple stuff, this could take some real time to do."

[Related: In Albany, Sunshine Week Begins with Darkness]

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

Read more by this writer.

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



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