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The Week Ahead in New York Politics, January 9

New York City Hall

New York City Hall

What to watch for this week in New York politics:

This week in New York politics will be dominated by Governor Andrew Cuomo, who is giving six regional State of the State addresses. Before we turn to New York politics, though, there's also a lot to watch for in national politics this week: President Barack Obama is giving his farewell address Tuesday night and cabinet nominations by President-elect Donald Trump face confirmation hearings throughout the week.

We're also watching for continued fallout from the Friday release of an intelligence report indicating that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian interference into the U.S. presidential election, with a preference for Trump. While the report did not delve into whether Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee and John Podesta, Hillary Clinton's campaign chair, had any direct affect on the outcome of the election, Trump has continued to insist that it did not have any affect, while also lying by saying that the intelligence community also said that. Trump is scheduled to hold his first press conference in months on Wednesday in New York City (he has announced and cancelled other press conferences so it is to be seen if he follows through on this one).

In New York, Cuomo kicks off his State of the State tour Monday morning in New York City, with Mayor Bill de Blasio among those set to attend -- see details below. Cuomo's tour is being criticized by a number of state legislators who say he should be sticking with the 90-year tradition of giving a State of the State address to the Legislature in Albany.

The two legislative majority leaders won't be attending any of Cuomo's speeches; the Legislature is in session in Albany on Monday and Tuesday, while Cuomo will give an address in Albany on Wednesday. Cuomo is also due to release his Executive Budget by January 17. It is unclear if he will give a budget presentation of any kind. Proposals made during State of the State speeches often have corresponding budgetary needs, of course, and Cuomo and legislative leaders are known for moving new policy matters through the budget procecss -- a new state budget for fiscal year 2017-2018 is due by April 1.

(Ahead of Cuomo's 11 a.m. speech, you can hear Gotham Gazette's Ben Max on WNYC's The Brian Lehrer Show previewing the speech -- 93.9FM or wnyc.org)

[Read: Under Clouds, Cuomo Launches State of the State Tour with New Proposals]

Other than attending Cuomo's speech, de Blasio starts his week with an afternooon press conference on FDNY statistics (see details below) and his usual Monday appearance on NY1's Inside City Hall. Comptroller Scott Stringer is also among those slated to attend Cuomo's speech in the city.

Meanwhile, there are a number of events around the city this week, including a busy week at the City Council -- see our day-by-day rundown below.

***Do you have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics?
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The run of the week in detail:

Governor Cuomo starts his three-day, six-stop State of the State tour Monday with two stops:

  • At 11 a.m., Cuomo will deliver his New York City State of the State Address at the 1 World Trade Center, 64th Floor.
  • At 3 p.m., Cuomo will deliver his Western New York State of the State Address at the University at Buffalo Center for the Arts.

Ahead of Cuomo's Buffalo speech, "advocates and leaders [will] hold a news conference to discuss how local residents are getting screwed by his nuclear bailout deal. The nuclear bailout deal is estimated to cost nearly $8 billion and will force Buffalo residents to pay higher energy bills over the next several years." The press conference will be held in Buffalo at 11 a.m.

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

The New York State Board of Regents will meet on Monday and Tuesday at 89 Washington Avenue in Albany.

At 10:30 a.m. Monday, "Congressman Adriano Espaillat (NY13) will hold a press conference...at the intersection of Vermilyea Avenue and 204th Street following last week’s arrest of 32 individuals accused of running a drug marketplace on Vermilyea Avenue in Inwood. Rep. Espaillat will be joined by local and state officials, community leaders and officers from the New York Police Department – 34 Precinct." Espaillat will be joined by State Senator Marisol Alcantara, Assemblymember Carmen De La Rosa; City Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, NYPD representatives, and community activists.

At the City Council on Monday: The Committee on Small Business and the Committee on Civil Service and Labor will hold a joint meeting at 1 p.m. to discuss a proposed law on “the reporting of information on the workforce of contractors performing construction work for the city.”

After attending Gov. Cuomo's Monday morning speech, at 1:30 p.m., Mayor de Blasio "and Fire Commissioner Daniel A. Nigro will host a press conference to make an announcement on 2016 FDNY statistics" at 75 Canal Street. Later, in the 7 and 10 p.m. hours, the mayor's latest Inside City Hall appearance will air on NY1.

Gov. Cuomo’s State of the State tour continues Tuesday with two stops:

  • At 10:30 a.m., Cuomo will deliver his Westchester State of the State Address at the SUNY Purchase Performing Arts Center.
  • At 1 p.m., Cuomo will deliver his Long Island State of the State Address at Farmingdale State College’s Roosevelt Hall Student Union.

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

At 8:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Empire Center will hold “Diagnosis: Disruption - HCRA, the ACA and NY's Coming Healthcare Storm.” This event will be “a forum on the future of the state’s healthcare system examining both the pending expiration of New York’s Health Care Reform Act and the looming repeal of Obamacare.” There will be two panels at this event--one on “Putting ‘Reform’ Back in the Health Care Reform Act” (moderated by Casey Seiler, the State Editor of the Times Union) and one on “Managing New York Healthcare Under President Trump” (moderated by David Sandman, the President of the NYS Health Foundation).

"Hundreds of New Yorkers will flood the halls of the Capitol on Tuesday, kicking off this year’s legislative session with a message to our state’s leaders: working families need an agenda that protects them and boosts quality of life, not one that will simply make the rich even richer. The community leaders and activists, representing dozens of issue advocacy, community, faith, and other organizations from across New York will release a new legislative platform that will both defend against Trump’s radical agenda and make progress in creating a fair and equitable community for everyone. Throughout the day, participants will meet with legislators to discuss the struggles facing working families in New York. The day of action will culminate with a rally at the Million Dollar Staircase to release the full issue platform." Participating groups include: ALIGN, Alliance for Quality Education, Citizen Action of New York, Community Voices Heard, Hand in Hand: The Domestic Employers Network, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, Long Island Progressive Coalition, Make the Road NY, National Institute for Reproductive Health, New York City Coalition for Educational Justice, New York Civic Engagement Table, New York Communities for Change, NYS Labor-Religion Coalition, Strong Economy for All Coalition, VOCAL-NY.

The city Board of Correction will meet at 9 a.m. on Tuesday.

At 9 a.m. on Tuesday, the New York City Industrial Development Agency (NYCIDA) will hold a Board of Directors Meeting.

“The New York City Department of Finance (DOF) will provide an update about its benefits programs during a meeting of the Queens Borough Cabinet, chaired by Borough President Katz, on Tuesday, January 10, at 9:30 am at Queens Borough Hall.”

On Tuesday at 11 a.m. in Queens, “Majority Leader Jimmy Van Bramer will drop off over 1,000 boxes and cans of food collected through his annual food drive to the Center of Hope International “Bread of Life” Food Pantry in Long Island City, run by Bishop Mitchell Taylor.”

At 11:15 a.m. on Tuesday, the Alliance for Quality Education will have a rally in Albany to push state government to increase funding to schools. This rally will take place at The Well, Legislative Office Building. Senate Democratic Leader Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Education Chair Catherine Nolan will be among the participants.

At the City Council on Tuesday:

  • The Committee on Land Use will meet at 11 a.m.
  • The Committee on Economic Development will meet at 1 p.m. for an oversight hearing on the economic impacts the increased security for President-elect Trump has on local businesses and New York as a whole. City Council Member Dan Garodnick will chair the hearing, which will also feature the city Department of Small Business Services, NYPD, Fifth Avenue BID, local business owners, 56th street property owners, and others.
  • The Committee on Mental Health, Developmental Disability, Alcoholism, Substance Abuse and Disability Services will meet at 1 p.m. to discuss a proposed law and two proposed resolutions targeted at helping people in the LGBTQ community.

At 6 p.m. Tuesday at PS 13 in Brooklyn, “Council Member Espinal, CEC 19 & CB 5 Co-Host Public Hearing to Receive Community Input on Proposed New 1,000 Seat School; a Major Commitment of the East New York Neighborhood Plan.”

On Tuesday at 6:30 p.m., schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña will attend a town hall meeting of District 10’s Community Education Council at P.S. 86 in the Bronx.

At 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, there will be a Mental Health Advisory Committee Meeting.

At 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, City Council Member Laurie Cumbo will begin her Community Exchange Series with “a panel and expo to teach you everything you need to know about Affordable Housing and Area Median Income (AMI).” This event will take place in the EOJ Auditorium at Medgar Evers College.

"Tuesday evening, Manhattan Borough President Gale A. Brewer and the Stand for Tenant Safety Coalition will host a town hall meeting and training on “construction as harassment,” disruptive construction in residential buildings with the intention or effect of harassing and displacing tenants." 6:30 p.m. at the MBP's office at 1 Centre Street.

On Tuesday evening in Albany, City & State NY is hosting its annual State of Our State reception.

Governor Cuomo will conclude his State of the State tour Wednesday with the final two stops:

  • At 11 a.m., Cuomo will deliver his Central New York State of the State Address at the John H. Mulroy Civic Center in Syracuse.
  • At 2 p.m., Cuomo will deliver his Capital State of the State Address at the University at Albany’s Performing Arts Center, Main Theatre.

At the City Council on Wednesday: The Committee on Finance will meet at 11 a.m. to discuss a proposed law on “the sale of tax liens and notice to property owners when property tax bills are available online.”

At 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, the Civilian Complaint Review Board will meet.

At 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, the Brooklyn Historical Society will hold “Civic Responsibility Then and Now: A View from the Archives.” This event will look at what it means to be civically engaged in the modern age, while at the same time going into “archives to consider the varied approaches to Civil Rights tactics over the course of our nation’s history.” BHS Director of Public History Julie Golia and BHS Oral Historian Zaheer Ali will be speakers at this event.

At the City Council on Thursday:

  • The Committee on Consumer Affairs will meet at 10 a.m. to discuss a proposed law “requiring certain security measures at nonbank ATMs.”
  • The Committee on Higher Education will meet at 10 a.m. for an oversight hearing on “infrastructure disrepair and decay at the City University of New York.”
  • The Committee on Finance; the Committee on Mental Health, Developmental Disability, Alcoholism, Substance Abuse and Disability Services; and the Committee on Aging will hold at joint meeting at 1 p.m. to discuss the proposal to amend two local laws on exempting certain senior citizens from rent increases.

“The next public meeting of the New York City Campaign Finance Board will be held on Thursday, January 12, at 10:00 AM.”

Friday and the weekend
At 8:30 a.m. on Friday, the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce will hold an “MCC Chairman's Breakfast Featuring a Conversation with Former U.S Attorney General, Eric H. Holder, Jr.” Holder and Manhattan Chamber of Commerce Chair Ken Biberaj “will be discussing the important issues facing the private sector from regulatory enforcement and criminal justice to cyber security and national security issues.”

On Friday at noon at Brooklyn Law School, Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul will speak at the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce's annual State of the State event.

At 2 p.m. Sunday, State Senator James Sanders, Jr. will host a debate on whether the Obama Administration was fruitful or fruitless. Guest speakers will include Rev. Dr. Alfonso Wyatt and Dr. Ron Daniels. This event will take place at the Black Spectrum Theatre, which is at 177 Baisley Blvd. in Jamaica.

[Read: Under Clouds, Cuomo Launches State of the State Tour with New Proposals]

The weekend of January 13-16 is Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend. Our next Week Ahead will published Monday evening, January 16.

Have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics? E-mail Gotham Gazette executive editor Ben Max any time: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. (please use "For Week Ahead" as email subject).

by Brendan Birth and Ben Max

Under Clouds, Cuomo Launches State of the State Tour with New Proposals

Cuomo speech Albany

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

Heading into a three-day, six-stop tour across the state, Governor Andrew Cuomo has formally released ten planks of his 2017 State of the State agenda. Through public events and press releases, Cuomo has announced a variety of proposals under the banner “excelsior, ever upward.”

Cuomo’s State of the State junket comes as he’s feuding with state legislators and with the backdrop of a major corruption scandal in his administration, particularly his economic development programming. The second-term Democratic governor saw top aides, associates, and donors indicted last year on corruption charges including bribery and bid-rigging.

Now, in a break with decades of tradition, instead of giving one speech to the Legislature in Albany, Cuomo decided to tour New York giving his assessment of the state of the state and outline proposals that will set the stage for upcoming negotiations with the state Senate, which is controlled by Republicans, and the Assembly, which is controlled by Democrats. It is not clear how much tension between Cuomo and state lawmakers over a failed pay raise commission and special legislative session led to his decision to take the State of the State on the road this year.

"By definition, these regional addresses are designed to communicate directly with the citizens of New York, not legislators,” said Rich Azzopardi, a Cuomo spokesperson. “Our goal has always been to bring the issues to the people, to develop the public support, and then have it communicated to the elected representatives."

The governor is expected to tailor each speech to the region where he gives it, with some overarching themes and highlights that apply across the state. He’ll speak in New York City and Buffalo on Monday; Westchester and Long Island on Tuesday; and Syracuse and Albany on Wednesday. Cuomo is also due to release his Executive Budget by January 17. In past years, Cuomo has combined a State of the State address and budget outline into one speech.

Local officials may be present at the various speeches this week, but the top legislative leaders -- Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate President John Flanagan -- have said they won’t be attending. The Legislature is in session Monday and Tuesday in Albany, making it difficult for Heastie and Flanagan to appear at the Cuomo speech closest to their respective homes: New York City for Heastie and Long Island for Flanagan. (Mayor Bill de Blasio is among those who will attend Monday’s speech in New York City.)

Cuomo’s ten proposals thus far include initiatives to enhance public college tuition assistance; a revamp of John F. Kennedy Airport; a child care tax credit for parents; efforts to guard against cyber attacks; “protecting seniors from financial exploitation and foreclosure”; “banning bad actors from the financial services industry”; enhancing wage theft enforcement; encouraging electric vehicle use; modernizing voting; and closing the Indian Point power plant.

Reports started surfacing last week, first in The New York Times, that Cuomo had reached a deal to close the power plant in Westchester, which supplies a good deal of power to New York City. On Monday morning, the governor's office made it official in a press release just ahead of Cuomo's New York City speech.

An eleventh plank, a plan for legalizing and regulating app-based ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft, has not been officially announced by the governor, but was reported over the weekend by The USA Today Network. Legalizing such car services outside of New York City, where they already function legally, was debated last year in Albany, but no deal was struck. The USA Today report indicates Cuomo will detail his ride-hailing proposal in Buffalo on Monday.

The governor is also expected to address several other issues, including government ethics. Cuomo attempted to convince state legislators to pass limits on their outside income and other reforms in exchange for a pay raise, but a deal fell apart last month as a special session was considered. It is not clear what Cuomo may propose on ethics, but in recent years he has expressed support for campaign finance reform, including a public-matching system and closure of the LLC loophole; term limits for legislators; and more.

As Cuomo offers government ethics reform, some legislators and watchdogs want to know what he will support in terms of reforming the types of processes that may have encouraged and/or hidden the alleged corruption exposed last year by the office of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. There are calls for changes to contract procurement and budgeting, including restoring oversight powers stripped from the state Comptroller.

Cuomo’s focus on economic development, especially in Buffalo, has been one of the most controversial aspects of his tenure. He has promised new economic development announcements this year, and is likely to outline regional specifics this week.

Much of Cuomo’s attention -- and a lot of state money -- has been dedicated to infrastructure projects, such as a new Tappan Zee bridge, airport renovations, a new Penn Station, Long Island Railroad expansion, and more. Cuomo’s State of the State speeches are likely to have a heavy focus on infrastructure.

As the governor continues to outline his proposals, conflict with state legislators looms large. In order to pass most of what he is proposing, Cuomo will need to compromise with legislators. The parties must agree on a fiscal year 2017-2018 budget by April 1. Budget agreements often include new policies. What does not get done through the budget often moves to negotiation during the rest of the legislative session, which runs until mid-June. Along with corruption in his orbit and problems with state lawmakers, a third cloud hanging over Cuomo's speeches and budget is the impending administration of Donald Trump, with Republican control of both houses of Congress. It is unclear how much federal policies could affect New York, but Cuomo is likely to outline ways in which his administration will protect New Yorkers from threats out of D.C.

Several issues that have been at play over the last couple of years appear on the docket again this year, including ride-hailing, ethics and campaign finance reform, but also raising the age of adult criminal responsibility -- New York is one of just two states in the country that still treat 16- and 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system. How lawyers for those who cannot afford them are funded will also be a focus -- Cuomo was criticized for vetoing a bill that would have had the state pick up expenses by localities for providing indigent criminal defense.

Electoral reform may be taking on new urgency this year after 2016 showed significant problems with the ways New York approaches voting, including holding three different primaries and restrictive registration and voting rules.

Over the weekend, Cuomo’s office announced several of the nine initial State of the State planks in a flurry of Sunday press releases. Cuomo’s call for voting reform, including instituting early voting and same-day voter registration, were hailed by many who have long-criticized New York for being far behind in access to the ballot, including Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.

Calling the set of proposals "The Democracy Project," Cuomo said in a statement, “Voting is the cornerstone of our democracy. This past election shined a bright light on the deficiencies of New York's antiquated election laws and the artificial barriers they create that prevent and discourage voters from exercising this sacred right. These proposals will modernize and open up our election system, making it easier for more voters to participate in the process and helping to make a more fair, more just and more representative New York for all."

Meanwhile, as Cuomo tours the state he will be met with opposition from state Republican Chair Ed Cox, who will hold press conferences outside the governor’s speeches.

Cox, who regularly calls Cuomo a “political thug” on his Twitter account, said in a statement to Gotham Gazette that he wants to see the governor move to reform the state’s tax code to benefit the middle class and small businesses, including lowering taxes, regulatory reform, and a move away from the types of economic development contests that Cuomo has been fond of.

“Unfortunately for the taxpayers of New York, the Governor has done a much better job at giving grand political speeches than he has in delivering on what's necessary to turn this state around,” said Cox. “We continue to have the most people fleeing a state, the highest taxes and the worst business climate in the nation, and this Governor has a laundry list of busted economic development projects and a corrupt administration. He can run from the legislators at the capital, but he can't hide from his failures."

Cox’s fellow Republican, Senate Majority Leader Flanagan outlined similar priorities for the GOP in his introductory remarks this past week when the two houses of the Legislature met for the first time this year. Flanagan focused on jobs and the economic environment of the state.

“I listen carefully to my colleagues on whether it’s college affordability, or raise the age, or things like that,” Flanagan said on the Senate floor. “What people need are jobs. We need jobs more than anything else.” Saying that the state must do more on job creation and that New York tax policy is not working, Flanagan said, “I already see people talking about raising taxes this year already, coming out of the gate! We should talk about how we should come up with a better tax policy, a better regulatory environment, a better business structure...”

Flanagan was referring to Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, who in his opening remarks called for renewing and expanding the state’s millionaire’s tax, which is on the verge of expiration. In his opening remarks, which help establish his chamber’s priorities and the agenda for negotiations with Flanagan and Cuomo, Heastie stressed the need to protect New Yorkers’ human rights and health insurance in the face of potential threats from the incoming Trump administration. He said New York must codify Roe v. Wade into law, a proposal that has been debated in Albany for several years.

Heastie also discussed “strengthening our schools and making college more affordable and accessible.” He called for the Dream Act and praised Cuomo’s proposal to make public colleges tuition-free for lower and middle class students. Heastie also called for investments into transportation and water infrastructure, job training, affordable housing, fighting climate change, and more.

“The state has more millionaires today than ever before,” Heastie said, “and we are renewing our call for a progressive tax structure that supports funding for initiatives that are critical to our families...our plan would create new income tax rates for those earning over $1 million a year. It also would increase the Earned Income Tax Credit to give low-income families a helping hand.”

Heastie is, of course, Mayor de Blasio's chief ally in Albany. De Blasio, who will be attending Cuomo's Monday morning speech in New York City, is cautiously awaiting Cuomo's proposals and budget. The ongoing feud between Cuomo and de Blasio continues to put the city at risk. Last year, Cuomo attempted hundreds of millions of dollars in CUNY and Medicaid cost shifts to New York City that Heastie helped beat back when the state budget was finalized.

 Asked about what he was looking for this year, de Blasio said he's taking a wait-and-see approach. "I don’t want speculate," the mayor told members of the media last week. "You know, the Governor will be coming out with a budget...That’s when we’ll get a first look at the numerical reality." De Blasio has said Cuomo's proposal for more public college tuition-relief is a great one, but he wants to see how it will be paid for.

When Gotham Gazette asked the mayor if he was doing anything differently this year to avoid being surprised by Cuomo like he was last year, de Blasio smirked.

"I appreciate the courtesy of your question," the mayor said. "That was not lack of communication with him and his team, that was a conscious decision not to give us the information until the last moment. So, we are communicating all the time – the two teams. We’ll see if there’s any surprises this year."

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been updated with additional details and comments.

Tensions High as State Legislature Returns to Session

cuomo heastie flanagan

Heastie, Cuomo, Flanagan

Several themes loomed as the New York State Legislature held its first day of its new session on Wednesday in Albany. The 2017 legislative calendar, and with it the 2017-2018 Legislature, began oaths of office and speeches by party leaders in both the state Senate and Assembly. The tone was set, priorities were announced or reaffirmed, tensions were evident, and the jog toward the next state budget -- due by April 1 -- began.

The most important remarks were delivered by the two majority leaders: Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, and Senate President John Flanagan, a Long Island Republican, who laid out their respective agendas for the coming year. Importantly, Flanagan in particular made clear that the Legislature has bones to pick with Governor Andrew Cuomo, who was not in Albany Wednesday, but in New York City, where he was making yet another infrastructure announcement, the second plank of his 2017 State of the State Agenda.

The prologue to Wednesday was a set of late 2016 dynamics that set the stage for what could be a volatile 2017: fraught negotiations between state lawmakers and Cuomo over a potential pay increase and special legislative session; the November election of President-elect Donald Trump; and news that the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) -- a breakaway group of Senate Democrats -- would continue to caucus with Republicans, who maintained their own slim majority in the chamber thanks to the elections and Brooklyn Senator Simcha Felder, a nominal Democrat who caucuses with the GOP.

On specific policy matters, higher education affordability became a central issue of the first session day following Cuomo’s surprise Tuesday announcement of a proposal to make public college tuition-free for students from New York families earning less than $125,000 per year. Cuomo launched the Excelsior Scholarship plan -- his first State of the State proposal -- in Queens with former presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders, garnering national headlines, and forcing legislators to respond. Many want to know more about the potential costs and funding plan -- Cuomo’s Executive Budget is due by January 17.

Leaders and Priorities
In his opening remarks on the Assembly floor, Heastie, who was re-elected Speaker with 99 votes, over 41 for Minority Leader Brian Kolb, emphasized the importance of investing in education, such as fulfilling the state’s campaign for fiscal equity obligation, expanding President Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative, and the passage of the DREAM Act, which would provide college tuition assistance to undocumented immigrants. “The sad truth is that public education is under attack across the country like never before,” Heastie said.

Heastie hailed Cuomo’s plan to make city and state colleges tuition-free for middle- and low-income New Yorkers, noting that the Assembly had been pushing a similar education bill.

“For those of you that have been here for some time, you know that the idea of college affordability started right here in this house,” said Heastie of the Assembly. “I am encouraged that the governor is making this a priority, and we look forward to working with him and the Senate to help make this a reality.”

The Assembly speaker also focused on criminal justice reform, climate change, the importance of codifying Roe vs. Wade into New York law under a Trump administration, updating transportation options in Upstate New York, and New York City’s affordable housing crisis.

Meanwhile, is it often is, the mood was more tense on the Senate floor. Flanagan won re-election as Senate president with 32 out of 63 votes, emblematic of the GOP’s slim majority.

Mainline Democrats, still raw from the election results and caucus decisions by Felder and the seven-member IDC, addressed their Democratic colleagues bluntly and pushed back on two measures proposed by the majority, which they said were aimed at curtailing transparency in Senate proceedings. There was even a movement to make Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins temporary Senate president.

Harsh criticism of Felder and the IDC continued from fellow Democrats and progressive groups, who argue that a unified Democratic Party is necessary to form a bulwark against the incoming federal administration.

Senator Michael Gianaris, a Queens Democrat, made the case for electing Stewart-Cousins as temporary president, noting her long record of accomplishments and her distinction as the first female state legislative leader in either chamber. “I ask my colleagues to consider making history today, and she already has done so by being the first female legislative leader in New York State,” Gianaris said. “Today, we have the opportunity to make her the first female majority leader in either chamber.”

Stewart-Cousins called for unity among Democrats in her opening remarks. “I look at a chamber of 32 Democrats and 31 Republicans, yet once again we are denied our rightful place leading the Senate,” she said. “Democrats must be true to their values especially in the atmosphere we are going to be facing. Democrats should be united!”

In other telling signs of Senate dynamics, IDC Deputy Leader David Valesky moved to nominate IDC Leader Jeff Klein as temporary president, and Republican Senator John DeFrancisco, in his endorsement of Flanagan for the role, compared Flanagan to Stewart-Cousins, saying that under the Republican lawmaker’s leadership, more women than ever have been brought into the Senate.

Transparency Attack
Gianaris also took several jabs at the IDC as he peppered Senate Ethics Committee Chair Thomas D. Croci with questions over a proposed amendment that would have an equal number from each of the two major political parties appointed to the committee. Gianaris questioned how the bipartisan committee would be selected when IDC members have aligned themselves with Republicans.

“Will the minority leader get to appoint the same amount as the majority coalition? Or is the language somehow imbalanced?” said Gianaris.

Croci, a Republican from Long Island, responded that the committee would be split equally by party affiliation and that the rule was intended to clarify the role of the committee as it relates to a similar committee in the Assembly chamber.

“There was some confusion last year about the role of our committee and that of the committee in the Assembly. What we are trying to do is create parity with the Assembly chamber,” Croci said, adding that “some things should transcend politics.”

In another testy exchange, Senator Brad Hoylman, a Manhattan Democrat, challenged DeFrancisco on a resolution to ban cell phone usage on the Senate chamber floor (the ban would include prohibition on taking photos or filming without explicit permission, thus limiting members of the media from doing their jobs). DeFrancisco maintained that filming “upset the decorum in the chamber,” while Hoylman repeatedly challenged DeFrancisco to cite an example in which cell phone usage disrupted proceedings and called it infringement on free speech rights.

Senator Felder stood up and started filming the exchange, prompting applause, and several legislators walked out, muttering things like “I can’t listen to this.” Senate Democratic Communications Director Mike Murphy slammed the “Trump-style” resolution, noting its similarities to a bill passed in Washington penalizing lawmakers who film or take photos on the U.S. Senate floor, which moved after a Democratic sit-in over gun regulation.

“Under the Republicans, the State Senate has repeatedly rushed important votes through in the middle of the night, away from public scrutiny,” Murphy said. “This new rule will continue the GOP pattern of avoiding transparency and concealing their actions from New Yorkers. The people have a right to know what is happening in their Senate Chamber.” The resolution was passed by voice vote.

In her remarks, Stewart-Cousins laid out a wide-ranging progressive agenda for the coming year including raising the age of adult criminal responsibility and expanding universal pre-kindergarten. She addressed Klein and Flanagan directly, saying, “Senator Flanagan and Senator Klein, the Democratic Conference stands ready to work with you when we agree and we will not be shy when we disagree.”

Flanagan, in a somewhat more casual speech, emphasized economic development and job creation as way to address some of the social and economic policy issues raised by Stewart-Cousins. He also made a point to praise the Assembly speaker, calling Heastie a “gentleman” and a “class act.”

Flanagan suggested that fed-up lawmakers step up their pressure on Cuomo this year, urging his fellow legislators to “ask tough questions” on the progress of economic initiatives like Start-Up NY and Regional Economic Development Councils. Cuomo’s record on job creation and use of government subsidies has been questioned, including with regard to a major corruption scandal in the governor’s signature economic development program.

“It’s very simple, the legislative power of the state is vested in the Senate and the Assembly,” Flanagan said. “Not the attorney general, not the controller, and not the governor.”

The majority leader vowed to “stand up for the independence of this body,” suggesting that the Senate may act as a greater check on the governor’s power in the coming year. He was met with a standing applause.

Resisting A Trump Administration
The uncertainty surrounding President-elect Donald Trump -- particularly his promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, a move that could jeopardize insurance coverage for 2.8 million New Yorkers -- loomed in both chambers, and both Democratic leaders vowed resistance to the incoming administration.

“Last November’s election taught us many lessons. Among them, that the road to progress is never easy. But I promise New Yorkers that the Assembly Majority will never allow this state to go backward,” said Heastie.

In the Senate, Stewart-Cousins said, “Many in this great progressive state of New York look to Washington and the new Trump administration with grave concern. The national Republican Party has made it clear that they are looking at rolling back so many hard-won victories for the working men and women of New York.”

As he has mostly done over the past two years, Flanagan ignored Trump on Wednesday. Though he did express support for the president-elect around the time of the Republican National Convention, Flanagan has mostly steered away from promoting Trump or his policies.

IDC Priorities for 2017
On the Senate floor Wednesday, Klein revealed the IDC’s priorities for the coming year, including “Raise the Age,” providing incentives aimed at keeping manufacturing in New York, and an education affordability plan. IDC priorities are often key to budget and legislative negotiations as Senate Republicans have to be willing to allow Klein’s crew space given its role in bolstering the GOP majority.

In contrast to the governor’s proposal to provide scholarships to middle- to low-income New Yorkers at public universities, the IDC plan involves the expansion of the state’s tuition assistance program, raising income eligibility limits from $80,000 to $200,000, and making funding available to all, including undocumented immigrant students.

In its agenda for 2017, the group also proposed $11.1 million in funding for immigrant legal services, and the creation of a Home Stability Support program in New York City, which would help keep homeless or near-homeless people in permanent housing.

New Members Sworn In
Several new lawmakers were sworn in this week. The Senate Democrats welcomed Jamaal Bailey from Senate District 36, which includes Mount Vernon and parts of the Bronx, and John Brooks from Senate District 8 on Long Island. On the Republican side, new members include Christopher L. Jacobs of Erie County; Elaine Phillips of Long Island; former Assemblymember James Tedisco, representing Fulton and Hamilton counties and parts of Herkimer, Schenectady and Saratoga; and Ontario County’s Pam Helming.

The 150-seat Assembly welcomed 18 new members in January, including several Democrats from the New York City area. Tremaine Wright now represents the 65th Assembly, representing Crown Heights and Bed-Stuy, and Bobby Carroll, Brooklyn’s 44th District.

From Lower Manhattan, Yuh-Line Niou accepted her 65th Assembly District seat, which had been occupied by former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver from 1977 to 2016. After losing to Silver ally Alice Cancel in a special election last year, Niou unseated the short-term incumbent by a narrow margin in a crowded field, becoming the first Asian-American to represent Chinatown or any part of Manhattan in the state Legislature.

Brian Barnwell accepted the 30th Assembly District seat, Clyde Vanel assumed his seat representing the 33rd District, and Stacey C. Pheffer Amato assumed her 23rd Assembly District seat, all in Queens. Pheffer’s mother, Queens County Clerk Audrey Pheffer, previously held the same Assembly seat, making them the first mother and daughter to hold the same seat in the New York State Legislature.

Representing parts of Upper Manhattan, former City Council Member from Harlem Inez Dickens took Keith Wright’s vacated 70th District seat, and Carmen De La Rosa, former chief of staff to City Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, assumed the 72nd District seat.

The Legislature is gone from Albany until next week, when session will resume Monday and Tuesday, just as Cuomo tours the state Monday through Wednesday to give six State of the State addresses.

by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Now a Lobbyist, Democratic Power Broker Faces Restrictions in New Job

Keith Wright Governor Cuomo

Keith Wright, left, & Gov. Cuomo photo: (Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)

A Democratic power broker from Harlem has been hired by a prominent lobbying firm to join its efforts to influence city and state government. Formerly state Democratic Party chair and a member of the state Assembly, Keith Wright is joining Davidoff Hutcher & Citron LLP, but under state law he must avoid matters before both chambers of the state Legislature for two years after leaving office.

Wright, who has been involved in New York politics for several decades, is currently chair of the Manhattan Democratic Party. He had been rumored as a City Council or state Senate candidate after he lost in a June Congressional primary and subsequently vacated his Assembly seat after declining to seek reelection. Wright’s move to Davidoff Hutcher & Citron LLP was first reported by Politico New York on Wednesday morning.

The former legislator will “immediately take on a leadership role” in the firm’s lobbying at the state and city levels, according to a press release posted on the DHC website. A partner told Gotham Gazette that Wright's exact role is still being defined.

Under New York State’s Public Officers Law, however, Wright would be barred from lobbying before the state Legislature for two years. Without commenting specifically on Wright’s case, Walter McClure, director of communications for the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics, said in an email that restrictions under Section 8(a)(iii) apply to former legislators. That section of the law prohibits a former member of the Senate or Assembly from receiving compensation for “any services on behalf of any person, firm, corporation or association to promote or oppose, directly or indirectly, the passage of bills or resolutions by either house of the legislature.”

McClure clarified though that a former legislator “could appear before other local, state (such as agencies and/or the Executive Chamber), or federal bodies.”   

Wright has been figuring out his next step since his unsuccessful attempt for retiring Congressional Rep. Charles Rangel’s seat. Wright lost to fellow Democrat Adriano Espaillat in that June primary.

“Keith Wright’s only career has been in government and he’s a valuable commodity because of his public service as an elected official,” said Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, a government reform group. “He needs to do what he knows and he knows how government functions very well so he is doing what I think anyone would do in his position.”

Dadey said Wright is “an honorable guy” and he should be careful not to come in contact with the state Legislature, but, “everything else is fair game” if he follows the law.

Wright’s move comes as budget negotiations will soon begin in Albany. The former Assembly member and Democratic leader has a close relationship with Governor Andrew Cuomo -- as chair of the state party, Wright strongly advocated for the governor’s reelection in 2014. He’s also held crucial positions in the Assembly majority, chairing key committees like housing, and heads the New York County Democratic Party Committee.

“We’ve known Keith for a lot of years,” said Charles Capetanakis, partner at DHC and member of the firm’s management committee. Capetanakis said Wright would be part of the government relations team but could not specify in what capacity. “His role and involvement is yet to be determined,” he said, noting the prohibitions that Wright will face under state law. Wright was not made available for comment.

In the announcement of his hire, Wright said, “While I will always cherish my time as a New York State Assemblyman, I am ready for a new challenge."

DHC's "team of lobbyists" is "led by Sid Davidoff in New York City and Steve Malito in Albany," according to the firm, and "DHC Government Relations clients have included Fortune 500 companies, major cultural institutions, land developers, government contractors, educational institutions, municipalities, public authorities, community interest groups, labor and professional organizations, non-profit corporations, and charities. We have seen success in local, state, and federal advocacy efforts in all of these areas."

Government watchdogs do warn that Wright must tread carefully in his new role on the other side of the fence. “[Wright] has to be very careful in the ethically charged political environment in Albany,” said Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group. “My advice to the assemblyman is to follow the spirit, not just the letter of the law in terms of how he deals with government.”

Although Horner acknowledged that Wright’s new employment opportunity is “perfectly allowed” under state law and is “a well-tried path” for many lawmakers, he said his organization would instead like to see a more comprehensive ban on lobbying across the state Legislature and the Executive.

Citizens Union’s Dadey said, “There is a bright line there that can be followed and [Wright] needs to make sure he follows it, between the Executive and the Legislature. He can influence what the Executive branch presents and decides on the budget but he can’t come anywhere near any legislative activity. There are two halves to this budget process and he needs to make sure he stays in only one half.”

[Read: Special Election for Harlem City Council Seat Kicks Off]

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

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

The Week Ahead in New York Politics, January 3

New York City Hall

New York City Hall

What to watch for this week in New York politics:

Happy New Year! 2017 Promises to be a fascinating year in New York politics. We’re here with our first Week Ahead of the new year, and this week will be an important one. We recently published our Top Ten Stories of 2016 in New York Politics and our 70 Questions for 2017 in New York Politics.

Over the holiday weekend, phase one of the Second Avenue subway extension opened, with a New Year’s Eve inaugural ride and party, led by Governor Andrew Cuomo and the MTA, with many city civic leaders in attendance, including Mayor Bill de Blasio. The line -- a three-stop Q-train extension -- opened to the general public on Sunday.

As for this week, the new State Legislature is seated in Albany on Wednesday. News broke Monday that, as expected, the state Senate’s Independent Democratic Conference will again caucus with Senate Republicans, who are in the majority after the 2016 elections and the decision by Senator Simcha Felder, a Democrat from Brooklyn, to continue caucusing with the GOP.

Also on Wednesday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo will be giving a speech in New York City, at which he is expected to make another infrastructure-related announcement. Before that, Cuomo is scheduled to make an announcement on Tuesday morning at LaGuardia Community College in Queens.

Speaking of Cuomo, we’re waiting for details this week from the governor’s office about his six-stop State of the State tour scheduled for the week of January 9. Cuomo’s office announced he’ll be foregoing the typical Albany address for six regional ones and announced the regions (New York City, Long Island, Western New York, Capital Region, Central New York, Hudson Valley), but no other specifics, yet. Cuomo is also required to release his Executive Budget by January 17.

On Monday Cuomo announced new measures to educate New Yorkers about the new minimum wage, which just increased in the first part of a multi-year regional phase-in passed in 2016. Cuomo also announced enforcement mechanisms, promising punishments for businesses that don’t abide by the law.

Mayor de Blasio starts this holiday week with one public event: a Tuesday evening appearance on NY1’s Inside City Hall. He's scheduled for several Wednesday appearances, including a press conference on crime -- see details below.

See our day-by-day rundown for the week below - it's a light week in terms of pre-scheduled events, but a lot gets in motion this week for the rest of the month and year in city and state politics.

***Do you have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics?
e-mail Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.***

The run of the week in detail:

Monday was the official New Year's Day holiday.

New U.S. Congressional Rep. Adriano Espaillat will have an inauguration ceremony in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday. Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer is among those from New York attending.

The City Planning Commission will hold a review session at 1 p.m. on Tuesday.

Mayor de Blasio is on NY1 in the 7 and 10 p.m. hours.

Neither Comptroller Scott Stringer nor Public Advocate Letitia James has any public events Tuesday.

On Wednesday in the 9 a.m. hour, Mayor de Blasio will appear on Hot 97 radio (in a taped appearance). At about 9:45 a.m., "the Mayor, First Deputy Mayor Anthony Shorris and Police Commissioner James P. O’Neill will view the NYPD photo exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum...Immediately following the viewing, the Mayor and Police Commissioner O’Neill will host a press conference to discuss crime statistics." Later, at 3 p.m., "the Mayor will appear on Power 105.1 with Angie Martinez."

The City Planning Commission will hold a public meeting at 10 a.m. on Wednesday.

At 10 a.m. Wednesday at City Hall, City Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez will announce a new legislation package "aimed at eradicating hit and run crashes from our streets." "Rodriguez will be joined by advocates and elected officials supportive of these measures."

At the City Council on Wednesday:

  • The Committee on Finance will meet at 9:30 a.m. to discuss a proposed law relevant to the Queens Plaza/Court Square Business Improvement District.
  • There will be a Stated Meeting at noon.

"On Wednesday, January 4, at 11:30 a.m., Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) Commissioner Lorelei Salas and New York City Taxpayer Advocate Eunkyong Choi will warn New Yorkers about predatory tax preparer tactics, in particular, advertising for “express refund advances” and “refund anticipation checks” that, more often than not, end up costing consumers more money and results in them receiving a smaller tax refund. Due to a new law, the IRS must hold refunds for filers who claim the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) or the Additional Children Tax Credit (ACTC) until February 15, 2017. After that, most refunds will be processed in approximately 21 days, nearly three times longer than in previous years. These delays may lead to an uptick in consumers using these products."

The 2017 New York State Legislative Session will convene on Wednesday. The new Assembly and new Senate will be inaugurated, leadership positions will be (re)established and Albany lawmakers will begin their business of the new session. A budget is due by April 1.

At 11:30 a.m. on Wednesday, the Association for a Better New York will hold a luncheon with Governor Cuomo, who will discuss infrastructure beginning at noon.

At the City Council on Thursday: The Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises will meet at 9:30 a.m.

Friday and the weekend
No events on our radar as of Monday evening, though we do expect Mayor de Blasio to make his typical Friday morning appearance on WNYC's The Brian Lehrer Show at 10 a.m.

Have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics? E-mail Gotham Gazette executive editor Ben Max any time: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. (please use "For Week Ahead" as email subject).

by Brendan Birth and Ben Max

70 Questions for 2017 in New York Politics

de blasio cuomo chelsea starbucks 2017

De Blasio & Cuomo (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

Happy New Year! As we get ready for 2017, there are, as always, many questions in New York politics. In early 2016, we asked 40 questions for the year ahead. This time, we’re asking 70 for 2017.

There's a lot to look for in the new year, including a mayoral race and other city elections; so here are our big political questions for the year ahead -- if you want to share them, answer any, or let us know one we missed, tweet @GothamGazette:

1. Will Bill de Blasio win a second term as Mayor?
2. Will de Blasio or any of his top aides be indicted?
3. Will U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara and Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance clear de Blasio of wrongdoing well ahead of 2017 votes being cast?
4. Will Donald Trump make life miserable for Bill de Blasio or (and?) will de Blasio find new life as a strong anti-Trump?
5. What will de Blasio’s big 2017 initiatives be? What will his campaign platform look like?
6. Who will and who won’t endorse de Blasio for re-election?
7. How will de Blasio approach Governor Cuomo during 2017?
8. Will de Blasio use a veto for the first time?
9. Who will be de Blasio’s new commissioner for the Administration for Children’s Services?
10. Which high-level members of the de Blasio administration are next to leave?

11. What will the de Blasio administration’s next homelessness-fighting plan look like? Can its ongoing efforts reduce the shelter census?
12. Will de Blasio’s affordable housing plan continue to stay on track?
13. Will city schools show more improvement under de Blasio?
14. Will there be additional movement to desegregate city schools?
15. Will de Blasio insist on more budget savings from city agencies? Will there be a city budget crisis of some kind? What will Donald Trump's presidency mean for New York City?
16. Will the BQX streetcar project continue to move forward as planned?
17. What will happen at the city’s public hospital system?
18. How will the city’s ferry service and Citi Bike expansion programs go?
19. Will de Blasio and municipal labor unions negotiate new paid family leave benefits into their contracts?
20. Will de Blasio change his approach to the news media?

21. Who will win the special election in Harlem for Inez Dickens’ City Council seat?
22. What will City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito’s 2017 agenda look like?
23. Will Mark-Viverito further assert her independence from de Blasio as she nears the end of her time in the City Council?
24. Will the City Council pass the Right to Know Act?
25. Who will win the “empty” City Council seats to replace the seven term-limited members?
26. Who will emerge as the frontrunner(s) to be the next City Council Speaker?
27. What will Melissa Mark-Viverito do next?
28. What will Dan Garodnick do next? Other term-limited Council members (James Vacca, Annabel Palma, Rosie Mendez, Darlene Mealy, Vincent Gentile)?

29. Who will run for Mayor?
30. Will Scott Stringer or Hakeem Jeffries or Ruben Diaz Jr. take the plunge?
31. Can Sal Albanese and/or Tony Avella raise real money and gain any traction in the Democratic primary?
32. Is there a Republican or independent who can make a real run for Mayor against de Blasio (or another Democratic nominee)? Will Eric Ulrich run? John Catsimatidis?
33. What will emerge as the major issues of the mayoral campaign?
34. Will there be a plan in place to close Rikers Island jails?
35. How bad will subway delays and disrepair get?
36. How will the city’s different neighborhood rezonings progress?
37. Will crime continue to trend downward?
38. Will city pension fund performance rebound?
39. Who will win the Brooklyn District Attorney election?
40. What will happen with NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo?

41. Who will Preet Bharara bring corruption charges against next?

42. What will Governor Andrew Cuomo’s big 2017 initiatives be?
43. How will the corruption charges against several members of Cuomo’s orbit play out? How will legal proceedings affect Cuomo’s standing?
44. What happens next with Cuomo’s economic development programs?
45. Will Cuomo cede any power to outside monitors, oversight bodies, or investigative entities?
46. Will Cuomo’s massive infrastructure plan continue to progress? Will he be able to pay for it all?
47. How will Cuomo next seek to undermine and punish de Blasio? Will Cuomo endorse de Blasio for re-election? In the primary?
48. Does Cuomo continue to assert that he’s certain to run for reelection in 2018?
49. How will Cuomo and state legislative leaders get along this year?
50. Will the state Legislature increase its oversight activities to act as more of a check on the Cuomo administration?
51. Will Cuomo and legislative leaders move more budget and policy deliberations into the light of day, reduce the use of messages of necessities, and ensure that there is time for review of major legislation by the public and rank-and-file legislators?

52. Will the Comptroller be restored contract oversight powers stripped by Cuomo and legislative leaders a few years ago?
53. Will the Attorney General be given blanket authority to pursue public corruption cases?
54. What turns do the Cuomo-DiNapoli and Cuomo-Schneiderman relationships take?
55. What gubernatorial contenders for 2018 emerge, Republican, Democrat, independent, and otherwise?
56. Will John Flanagan’s leadership of the state Senate be challenged from within the Republican Party?
57. How much influence will Jeff Klein and the IDC have on the state budget and other policy in Albany?
58. Do new IDC members Jesse Hamilton and Marisol Alcantara stick with the IDC? Do mainline Democrats prepare attempts to unseat them in 2018?
59. Who emerges as new strong voices in the state Legislature?
60. Will lawmakers pass a pay raise for themselves and other government officials?

61. Will there be any movement on new state government ethics reform? Term limits? Outside income limits? LLC loophole closure? A new campaign finance system?
62. What will be the major budget and legislative issues of 2017?
63. What will happen on 421-a?
64. Will there be a ride-hailing bill passed that legalizes and regulates Uber and other such services in areas of New York outside New York City?
65. Will New York “raise the age” of adult criminal responsibility?
66. What will come of the Hoosick Falls water crisis? Other water quality and water infrastructure issues across the state?
67. Will Cuomo and legislative leaders move to release more of the hundreds of millions of dollars allocated toward affordable and supportive housing, and fighting homelessness?
68. Is the DREAM Act dead in New York?
69. Which state legislators win New York City Council seats or other elected offices, and who replaces them in state government?
70. Will a state Constitutional Convention be approved by voters via the November 2017 ballot question?

[LOOK BACK: We had 40 Questions for 2016 in New York Politics, see what they were and if you can answer them!]

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Top Ten Stories of 2016 in New York Politics

Bratton departure NYPD 1PP

Bill Bratton departs (both photos: Michael Appleton/Mayor’s Office)

Gotham Gazette's Top Ten Storylines of 2016 in New York Politics:

10. Bill Bratton Leaves ‘On Top’
In an extraordinary send-off -- his own mini-parade -- Bill Bratton departed 1 Police Plaza on September 16, 2016 for the final time as NYPD commissioner. For about two-and-a-half years Bratton was Mayor Bill de Blasio’s police commissioner and the arrangement worked mostly well for both: Bratton had the job and power in it that he wanted, de Blasio had political cover on his most sensitive issue, and crime continued to trend downward, silencing (or at least quieting) some de Blasio critics.

When Bratton announced his departure, few were shocked. It created a new vulnerability for de Blasio, but also came with a silver lining -- while Bratton gave de Blasio key political cover and got some key results that de Blasio needed, he was himself a political figure, prone to speaking his mind no matter what the de Blasio company line may have been, perpetually battling with the City Council, and the embodiment of his controversial brand of Broken Windows policing.

De Blasio quickly replaced Bratton with then Chief of Department James O’Neill, who he attempted to label not as the broken windows commissioner, but the architect of the new neighborhood policing.

In most quarters, Bratton’s legacy is as a top policing leader, one who continued to oversee crime drops in New York City even as there were 2016 spikes in other cities around the country, and, for some, despite working for a mayor who doesn’t get “law and order.” In other quarters, Bratton is known as the purveyor of an antiquated, racially-biased system of over-policing who did little to change overall NYPD culture or hold badly-performing officers accountable.

Though Bratton did continue to implement broken windows, with its focus on strict enforcement of low-level crimes in order to prevent disorder and more serious crime, he and de Blasio also oversaw several significant policing reforms from 2014 through 2016. These included reductions in street stops and arrests for low-level crimes, including possessing small amounts of marijuana, a new training regime focused on de-escalation, and more. Under Bratton, de Blasio and the City Council agreed to add about 1,300 additional officers to the NYPD force.

Bratton should also be remembered as the central figure who helped de Blasio get through his most challenging period thus far as mayor: the murder of two police officers in December 2014 and subsequent NYPD revolt, during which officers turned their backs on the mayor and then engaged in their own work slowdown. For several weeks Bratton was the voice and face of the administration, making a variety of local and national media appearances -- then and throughout his tenure, Bratton full-throatedly vouched for de Blasio.

9. Criminal Justice Reform Act & More at the City Council
Under the leadership of Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, the New York City Council continued its progressive policy push in 2016. There’s perhaps no better example of this than the Criminal Justice Reform Act, which created an altered legal paradigm for enforcement of low-level nonviolent offenses like being in a park after dark, having an open container of alcohol, public urination, and more.

The CJRA was not the blanket decriminalization of some low-level offenses that Mark-Viverito and other Council members may have wanted, but it was, to them, a good compromise with Mayor de Blasio and Police Commissioner Bratton. The offenses included will now mostly be handled in civil court as opposed to criminal court, avoiding arrest and a criminal record for thousands of New Yorkers, while saving the city money, keeping people out of jail, reducing the criminal justice system’s backlog, and continuing to crack down on all the same behaviors. (NYPD guidance about carrying out the CJRA won’t be public until sometime in the first half of 2017, so there is more to be seen and judged here.)

Along with the CJRA, the City Council and de Blasio in 2016 moved through a variety of other policies that fit with their promise to create a more fair and just city. It is worth noting that on many fronts, including the CJRA, there are voices on the left saying they did not go far enough. But, in terms of moving city public policy leftward, there is the CJRA, along with other examples like new protections for freelancers and grocery store workers; expanding access to feminine hygiene products in city schools, shelters, and prisons; additional steps to make the city more environmentally-friendly; and more.

Also at the City Council in 2016, pay raises for city elected officials were passed. This included raises for Council members, but also major reforms to the position of Council member, formally making it a full-time position and banning outside income, as well as eliminating bonuses for chairing committees.

8. De Blasio Pushes Affordable Housing, Battles Homelessness
Mayor de Blasio saw a major legacy achievement pass in 2016: mandatory inclusionary housing, which requires certain percentages of affordable housing within new residential developments where an upzoning occurs. De Blasio and his City Council partners call this the most progressive zoning for affordable housing in the country, and it is an important piece of the mayor’s larger affordable housing plan.

MIH, which passed in March, is only one piece of that plan, though, which is more focused on preserving affordable units (rental apartments with certain rent caps) than on building new ones. De Blasio’s administration continued to come to deals to preserve affordable units in 2016 and appears to be on pace for its goal of 200,000 units over 10 years. Neighborhood rezonings also come into play here, and the city passed the first under MIH and de Blasio’s bigger plan to rezone about 10 areas of the city with the East New York rezoning in April.

New housing units, especially at the lower end of the affordability spectrum, can’t come online fast enough. While de Blasio and his allies are moving ahead with new and preserved affordable housing, homelessness continues to reach record highs in the city and as 2016 ends the mayor is regularly admitting that his administration needs to do more to battle the crisis -- which now includes about 60,000 individuals, almost half of them children, living in homeless shelters.

De Blasio has promised more of a plan on homelessness early in 2017, but the issue has perhaps become his biggest policy failure. The mayor and his team are quick to point out that their rental assistance, eviction protection, and other measures have kept homeless numbers from reaching even higher heights. And, they correctly point to past and ongoing failures by others at the city and state levels on homelessness-prevention and affordable housing requirements that have contributed to an escalating crisis.

7. Cuomo’s Infrastructure Focus
Governor Andrew Cuomo has outlined a $100 billion infrastructure plan that dots the state in projects related to its roads, bridges, tunnels, airports, convention space, and so on. The governor ends 2016 on a victory lap for getting the first phase of the Second Avenue subway open (Cuomo will take an inaugural ride New Year’s Eve; it’s set to open to the public January 1), and tying it to his larger plan. When discussing his grand plans -- some of which don’t have full or transparent funding appropriations -- Cuomo talks of his ambition as a builder in grand, historic terms, claiming that he has led New York into a new era of thinking big after decades of small-mindedness.

Cuomo’s focus on infrastructure is smart, as long as he can pay for it responsibly. Some want to see him invest even more in the MTA, given the problematic state of New York City’s subway system, which is rife with delays and overcrowding. The state is investing tens of billions into the MTA, but for Cuomo there are also new and sexier things to build, and other parts of the state to attend to.

Cynics also see the governor’s infrastructure push as a helpful distraction from continued dysfunction in Albany and corruption in state government, including Cuomo’s own administration (see more on these topics below). Regardless, Cuomo knows that his infrastructure push will leave him with a physical legacy that few elected officials can claim. He may need re-election to a third term in 2018 to make sure that several pieces of his plan get executed as intended.

6. Cuomo-De Blasio Feud Continues
Yes, this is still happening. As New Yorkers know all too well, Gov. Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio barely speak to each other and don’t hold joint events, even when they should. They can’t bring themselves to appear at the same event unless absolutely necessary, and even then they go out of their way to avoid each other. While it makes for a few good jokes at the annual Al Smith Dinner (one of few occasions where they do share a dais), the two Democrats’ ongoing feud is not good for New Yorkers and makes both look petty and small.

Cuomo de Blasio chelsea bombing

While de Blasio has made his mistakes in navigating the relationship, Cuomo continues to deserve more of the blame for the situation and appears to play a dangerous game in which he regularly leverages his governmental power to undermine de Blasio.

The two have warred over a long-list of issues including funding for the MTA, CUNY, Medicaid, and affordable housing; homelessness policy; responses to Ebola and Legionnaires’ Disease; and much more. They even took their feud to the Democratic National Convention, where they called for party unity behind Hillary Clinton, while displaying none such unity themselves (again, this was more on Cuomo than de Blasio).

Cuomo and de Blasio managed to take a joint tour of the site of a bombing in Chelsea earlier this year (pictured), but couldn't manage to hold a joint press briefing.

Is there any hope for peace and reconciliation -- not to mention good, collaborative city-state governing -- in 2017? In a word: no. But, as 2016 ends the two have mostly settled into a ceasefire of sorts (their spokespeople continue to trade public barbs, but the electeds themselves have largely holstered their guns of late). Two key potential turning points loom on the horizon, though: the governor’s upcoming executive budget, which he’ll release in January, and the mayor’s re-election campaign.

5. New Leaders, Same Albany
2016 was the first full year in power for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, a Long Island Republican. In 2015 they became two of the “three men in a room” in Albany, negotiating major budget and policy deals with Gov. Cuomo. Despite the new leadership -- Heastie and Flanagan took over for disgraced predecessors who are headed to jail -- state government continued to function in its typical fashion: minimal transparency, questionable budgeting, and major spending and policy packages passed in the middle of the night with little public review, even by rank-and-file legislators.

Meanwhile, the two legislative chambers continue to disagree about how to address lawmakers’ ethics and campaign finance reform, with Senate Republicans unwilling to limit legislators’ outside income, close the infamous LLC loophole, or institute a public-matching campaign finance system like New York City has. Assembly Democrats, for their part, are against term limits and have done little to push budget and legislative negotiations into the light of day.

4. Election Results Boost GOP
Clinton Loses, Trump Presidency Looms Over New York; State Senate Stays Republican
New York was the center of the political universe in 2016, with both major party presidential candidates calling the state home, hosting their campaign kick-off events in New York City, and, as it all came to an end, holding their election night gatherings in the city as well. The result was not what most New Yorkers wanted, of course, as Donald Trump won the presidency despite losing his home state to Hillary Clinton, largely due to an especially wide margin in New York City.

As New York Democrats continue to reckon with Clinton’s loss, they are also facing Trump’s win. Both Gov. Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio (each being discussed as a possible 2020 presidential candidate) have promised to fight Trump if he attempts to follow through on some of his most extreme campaign promises, each reasserting their version of New York values since Election Day.

The president-elect has promised to freeze federal funding to so-called sanctuary cities, which are more immigrant-friendly, including welcoming undocumented immigrants, which could cost New York City about $7 billion in the next budget. However, it is not clear whether Trump would actually try to enact such a freeze or if he would be able to if he tried (legally, he would have to take different budget appropriations individually).

Budgeting and policy tie together, of course, and as de Blasio has repeated regularly, it’s not really clear where Trump and his top cabinet officials will try to take the country, though they are likely going to attempt significant reconfiguring of health care, tax, immigration, and other major policy areas, all with significant impact on New York. Right now it’s both wait-and-see and try-to-influence Trump and other federal officials, with much hope residing in New York’s Charles Schumer, who will become Senate Minority Leader.

Democrats not only thought this would be their year to win another presidential race, but to take over the state Senate here in New York, and thus all of statewide government. While we won’t know for sure until the new state Senate is seated and its rules adopted in early January, it is looking almost certain the Republicans will continue to control the 63-seat chamber, offsetting Democrats’ control of the Assembly.

If the GOP does indeed control the Senate, it promises to continue to keep the brakes on some of the more liberal policies that Gov. Cuomo and other Democrats may be seeking in 2017, some of which are long-standing priorities that the GOP has blocked: the DREAM Act, Raise the Age, codifying Roe v Wade in state law.

Others, perhaps even Cuomo if you gave him truth serum, argue that GOP control of the Senate helps keep balance to state government, including fiscal responsibility. As always, there’s a lengthy agenda for state lawmakers in the new year, including things like legalizing and regulating app-based car services like Uber, but the governor’s State of the State and executive budget will give more form to the initial negotiations.

3. State Minimum Wage, Paid Family Leave Programs
The state budget passed on April 1, 2016 included a $15 per hour minimum wage program with different phase-ins by region and paid family leave mandates, placing New York among the national leaders on both. While some conservatives balk at the potential damage of the minimum wage plan to businesses and overall employment, Cuomo made it his signature issue of early 2016 and sees it as a major legacy accomplishment. The wage is about to make one jump as the year ends.

Meanwhile, the paid family leave program will begin to be phased in during 2018 and is seen as another leading progressive victory for Cuomo and his partners in government and beyond. More so than the minimum wage, Republicans are also celebrating the paid family leave policy.

2. Albany Corruption
Scandal again rocked state government this year. But in 2016 it was less the state Legislature and more the Executive Chamber: top associates of and donors to Gov. Cuomo were indicted in an alleged scheme involving bid-rigging, bribes, and kickbacks largely centered on the governor’s Buffalo Billion economic development program.

Among those charged are longtime Cuomo friend, aide, and enforcer Joe Percoco; the longtime head of SUNY Polytechnic Alain Kaloyeros, whom Cuomo worked closely with and heaped praise and power upon; and several major donors to Cuomo’s campaigns who won large state contracts. Cuomo has denied any knowledge of wrongdoing and has not been charged with any crimes. He has also made some changes to state practices and promised other reforms. They are moves that watchdogs call insufficient. Cuomo hasn’t announced support for restoring contracting oversight powers stripped from the state Comptroller or giving the Attorney General blanket power to investigate and prosecute public corruption (something Cuomo called for when he was AG).

1. City Hall Scandals
People close to Mayor Bill de Blasio just want 2016 over with. What started out a promising third year in office for the mayor quickly turned sour -- and largely stayed that way -- when a series of law enforcement investigations into the mayor and his allies came to light. While a couple of controversial items, like the Rivington House saga, appear to be behind de Blasio and company without charges of criminal wrongdoing, 2017 does not at this point appear to offer much respite from controversy.

The New York Times recently reported that there are two different grand juries hearing evidence related to actions by de Blasio and his allies, one related to their involvement in 2014 state Senate elections and another related to whether donors to the Campaign for One New York were promised or received favorable government action. It is not clear whether de Blasio himself could be indicted, but anything short of no charges being filed against anyone will be extremely problematic for the mayor, and the city, given the distraction. Any time de Blasio and his aides are focused on legal issues and not their government work, the city suffers. De Blasio has maintained that he and his allies are innocent, that they not only followed the law, but also ethical guidance. Still, investigators appear to have at least found enough to assemble the grand juries (one state, one federal), and de Blasio and his team clearly at least blurred some ethical lines.

Much of 2016 was dominated by the Rivington House mess, questions about the Campaign for One New York, which took in millions from entities with city business, and decisions made by de Blasio and his political and governmental teams. Those teams have also had blurred lines, with the now-infamous “agents of the city” designation coming to light this year, followed by many questions around de Blasio’s relationships with private sector consultants who regularly advise him while they work for clients with city business.

How those grand juries and any other ongoing investigations turn out will have immense impact on de Blasio’s 2017, re-election bid, and life and career beyond. If the mayor can survive the proceedings, he’ll be a heavy favorite to be re-elected.

That raises one other key story of 2016, not listed above: ongoing rumblings about who may challenge de Blasio. As 2017 begins, several big names (Scott Stringer, Ruben Diaz Jr., Hakeem Jeffries, Christine Quinn) are still on the sidelines.

[Revisit: Top Ten Stories of 2015 in New York Politics]

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Massive Bank Settlements Fueled Spending Spree by Electeds

Cuomo new NY bridge tappan zee

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

In the wake of the financial collapse and the Great Recession, New York City and State officials began to rake in enormous sums of money from settlements with major banking institutions.

Because New York is the major financial industry hub of the world, local officials have jurisdiction over these institutions, and thus related fines, forfeitures, and restitutions. In deals made outside of the budgetary process, New York officials like the Attorney General, and Manhattan District Attorney, and the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York have accrued billions of dollars from settlements.

Where this money goes and how it gets spent are often mysteries. The procedure for allocating settlement money is opaque, and inconsistent across government entities. When asked, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara's office did not explain its process for distributing settlement monies. The offices of Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance did provide some details to Gotham Gazette.

In the early stages of a typical process, parties involved in the investigation confer to determine possible settlement terms. Negotiations take place behind closed doors, with ample room for flexibility.

When settlements are reached, there are often many vagaries. A 2013 J.P. Morgan settlement with the Department of Justice, for example, used broad language like “permissible purposes for allocation of the funds include, but are not limited to" and funds can be spent "to otherwise promote the interests of the investing public."

Settlement terms typically stipulate direct consumer relief—offered by the banks themselves to affected parties—along with a cash component for investigators. This money is then usually used at the discretion of the settling investigator, such as the Manhattan District Attorney’s office. It can be used to fulfill political promises, bolster pet initiatives, or create new priorities. It can also give an unfunded agenda new life.

Cash is, of course, highly prized, and officials may contest who has jurisdiction over settlement money, which is often split among parties. In the past, Shneiderman and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo have sparred over such collections.

Government entities at times hire their own third-party monitors to oversee usage and efficacy of settlement spending, bringing into question whether there are sufficient, independent checks to prevent settlement sums from becoming political slush funds.

Using settlement funds, prominent officials have recently invested in specific sectors: Vance has invested in criminal justice reform, Schneiderman in housing programs, and Cuomo in infrastructure.

Cuomo's has been the most contested of officials who have had settlement monies to spend. The money at Cuomo’s disposal has come from a combination of settlements with the Department of Financial Services, which Cuomo established in 2011, and some see as an effort to supercede work typically done by other government entities, like the Attorney General (while Cuomo is a former Attorney General, he is known to be territorial and has not had a terribly cooperative working relationship with Schneiderman).

With billions of dollars at his disposal, Cuomo created the Dedicated Infrastructure Investment Fund (DIIF) in the fiscal year 2015-16 Enacted Budget. The DIIF is a capital projects fund for nonrecurring expenditures, residing in the broader General Fund.

The DIIF has allowed the governor to bolster weaker tax collections and reallocate money at will, spending on both capital and noncapital purposes. The DIIF is structured to allow maximum flexibility with minimal oversight, garnering criticism from State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, among others.

Settlement money has been a huge boon to Cuomo’s ambitions for the state. He has spent billions toward his $100 billion infrastructure agenda, which includes a new Tappan Zee Bridge, airport upgrades, and much more.

Billion-dollar investments in the Thruway Stabilization Program, Upstate Revitalization Initiative, and Javits Convention Center Expansion have also provoked questions, especially as the governor’s oversight of his Buffalo Billion economic development project has been inadequate, leading to multiple indictments of parties involved.

Each major official who has secured significant settlement funds has charted his own path, investing in a chosen agenda.

Manhattan DA Vance
From 2009 to 2016, the Manhattan District Attorney's Office has collected roughly $12 billion in settlements, with $3 billion going to city and state treasuries, and around $807 million remaining under the DA office’s control, according to an October Citizens Budget Committee report.

Settlement terms have stipulated that this money go to criminal justice projects, leading Vance to form the Criminal Justice Investment Fund. He has used money to both plug budget gaps and fund new projects like a John Jay College of Criminal Justice institute designed to educate prosecutors.

"It's a once in a generation opportunity," Vance said at an October Citizen's Budget Committee event.

According to Vance's office, all funds have been deposited into accounts registered with the city Department of Finance, subject to audit by the city Comptroller. Some are directed by federal guidelines through the Equitable Sharing Program, by which the Department of Justice distributes forfeitures to the law enforcement agency involved in the investigation.

The DA has chosen the CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance to develop funding recommendations and monitor progress.

Vance’s office says settlement resources are funding transformative initiatives. Maggie Wolk, director of planning and management for Vance, told Gotham Gazette that the money will support a “21st century crime-fighting” agenda. Rather than innovative projects, initial settlement money was used to cover existing needs, such as NYCHA security, like exterior lighting upgrades, which are seen as key to fighting crime.

Other funds from Vance have strengthened safety nets: in-prison education, at-risk youth diversion programs, and the Mayor's Task Force On Behavioral Health and Criminal Justice. Vance’s office is also funding a national program to reduce the sexual assault backlog by testing rape kits across the country.

The DA’s most innovative project is the Global Cyber Alliance (GCA). Created in 2015, the GCA is a coalition of more than 120 global partners who collaborate to develop risk solutions for reducing terror, cyber, and financial crimes. Vance is in regular contact with the commissioner of the London police for this project. A November symposium at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York––hosted by Vance––included the U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, and former NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton.

The GCA is the type of initiative that might not exist without settlement funds, but that Vance is able to invest in significantly. Because of the autonomy of district attorney offices and Vance’s Manhattan jurisdiction, he has been in prime position to recover funds and determine how he wants to spend them.

In November 2015, The New York Times reported on Vance’s windfall, highlighting his investments in reducing the sexual assault backlog, the GCA, and the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The piece also raised the question of the amount of oversight involved in these expenditures -- a common theme among top officials who all-of-a-sudden came to control billions of discretionary dollars.

Attorney General Schneiderman
Attorney General Schneiderman’s office says it has collected $5 billion since the financial crisis, using available cash to create programs to support those affected by the mortgage crisis.

“These programs have already provided unprecedented assistance to homeowners and communities across the state,” Schneiderman said in a statement to Gotham Gazette, referring to programs protecting homeowners at risk of foreclosure and communities struggling with vacant and blighted homes.

Schneiderman’s first settlement was in 2012, when 49 states, along with the federal government, reached a $25 billion agreement with some of the nation's biggest mortgage servicers: Ally/GMAC, Bank of America, Citi JPMorgan Chase, and Wells Fargo.

From the settlement, the Attorney General's office received $135 million -- a sum, according to Citizens Budget Commission's David Friedfel, "relatively small in comparison to overall amounts." Schneiderman has faced challenges in getting or keeping settlement money as Cuomo has encroached.

One of Schneiderman's first ventures using settlement funds was the 2012 launch of the Homeowner Protection Program, which provides homeowners with mortgage assistance, including housing counseling and legal services. A December press release details that the Attorney General planned to add another $20 million to his existing $100 million investment in the program.

Another initiative, the Mortgage Assistance Program, created in 2014, provides loans to homeowners at risk of foreclosure. A May 2016 press release reported that the Attorney General has distributed $18 million in loans to preserve $153 million of property value.

Schneiderman has also funded a series of long-ignored land banks: nonprofit organizations that acquire, rebuild, or demolish vacant, abandoned, or foreclosed properties. This investment came in the wake of a 27% increase in vacant and distressed properties between 2000 and 2010, according to the AG's office. Schneiderman initially allocated $12.5 million, and later another $33 million.

A November 2016 report from the AG’s office says that in the past three years, ten land banks have reclaimed approximately 2,000 properties, returned 700, and demolished 400, saving $19 million in property value. That month, the AG announced an additional $20 million in funding.

Like Vance, Schneiderman selected his own oversight committee, tapping Enterprise Community Partners to conduct regular reporting on his uses of settlement monies.

Questions remain about the process of dividing funds among parties relevant to an investigation. Schneiderman's office provided a vague picture of negotiations with settling parties, Cuomo’s office, and other offices like the Department of Justice.

Once terms are determined, money is sent back to the state where it becomes the decision-making jurisdiction of the Legislature and Governor. At this point, the Attorney General is removed from proceedings.

The early stage of negotiations can prove contentious; in January 2014, New Yorkers caught a glimpse of this infighting.

In a landmark $13 billion deal with JPMorgan Chase, Schneiderman negotiated terms that gave him control over a $613 million sum. Cuomo argued that all the money should go into the state treasury. After a public feud, the two reached a deal where Schneiderman diverted $81.5 million to Cuomo, to be used specifically for housing programs.

A New York Times editorial placed blame on Cuomo, calling the exchange an “unnecessary fight.”

Governor Cuomo
According to a November update from state Comptroller DiNapoli, New York has received or is expected to receive approximately $9 billion in settlement funds from the beginning of state fiscal year 2014-15 through the middle of state fiscal year 2016-17, which is the current one and ends March 31.

According to the same update, in fiscal year 2015-16, settlement revenues were 3.7% of State Operating Funds.

Then there’s Cuomo’s Dedicated Infrastructure Investment Fund (DIIF), which, as of the fiscal 2016-17 enacted state budget, was appropriated almost $7.4 billion. The DIIF is an opaque capital projects fund for nonrecurring expenditures.

In his update, the comptroller said appropriation language is "broadly worded" to provide "significant flexibility.” These “mostly unrestricted” funds can be used for non-capital expenses and even transferred back into the General Fund in case of economic downturn or other needs.

Through the middle of fiscal 2016-17, roughly $1.6 billion has been used for noncapital expenses, according to the comptroller’s update.

“The public at large doesn’t know what the government is spending their money on,” said David Friedfel of Citizens Budget Commission, a nonpartisan, nonprofit watchdog. "The appropriations language essentially says that they can use the money for whatever they want.”

E.J. McMahon, research director at the Empire Center for Public Policy, feels the same. "It's basically a grab-bag of different projects that are meant to be politically appealing as much as anything."

Governor Cuomo is using settlement dollars to compensate for tax collections that have seen a decline of $1.3 billion in fiscal 2016-17 over the year before, with personal income tax collections down 3% in the same period year-over-year, according to the comptroller’s update. The state fiscal year begins April 1. Cuomo will be outlining his proposed fiscal 2017-18 budget in January.

In a November press release, DiNapoli further questioned Cuomo's actions. "The use of settlement resources for ongoing spending and to boost the state's bottom line may be obscuring New York's true fiscal position, and leaving uncertainty for the commitments already made,” DiNapoli said.

Both Friedfel and McMahon noted that settlement funds could have been used to pay down long-term debt, which is $63 billion, according to a March 2016 Comptroller report. "One of the other acceptable uses other than debt reduction would've been to take another big chunk of it and put it in reserve. But he didn't do that either," McMahon said of Cuomo. "He's having his cake and eating it too."

The fiscal 2016-2017 Enacted Budget Financial Plan details that $2 billion is going to the Thruway Stabilization Program. According to the governor's office, around one third of this money will go to supporting core infrastructure, and two thirds to the construction of the new Tappan Zee Bridge.

The Tappan Zee replacement (the New NY Bridge) has been a longstanding Cuomo initiative that the governor is, in part, staking his legacy on. Some believe more of the Thruway money should have been spent on less-sexy existing infrastructure.

Friedfel and McMahon took issue with this allocation, which each called a "blank check" to the Thruway Authority. The governor's office denied this was the case.

McMahon argues that the Thruway should not have been the highest priority, citing that the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) only received $250 million to open a Metro-North link in Penn Station.

"The Thruway is not to the rest of the state as the MTA is to downstate," McMahon explained. "There's no comparison."

The governor has also dedicated $1.7 billion of settlement funds to the Upstate Revitalization Initiative (URI) to incentivize economic development.

In this initiative, Regional Economic Development Councils––public-private partnerships made up of local experts and stakeholders––submit development plans to a committee including the New York Secretary of State. Those deemed to have the strongest plans receive a total of $500 million to enact their projects.

In supporting the investment, a representative of the governor's office cited a drop in unemployment since URI’s institution.

“New York’s fiscal discipline under Governor Cuomo has made it possible to dedicate these unplanned settlement dollars to capital projects that will have a huge economic impact,” said Morris Peters at the State Division of the Budget. Cuomo has staked much of his tenure on restoring fiscal sanity to the capital, including a 2 percent cap on annual spending increases in the operating budget.

Experts have concerns about the potential return for taxpayers from URI and other economic development investments made by Cuomo, and recent corruption indictments of eight Cuomo aides, associates, and donors have raised additional oversight questions.

The governor's website states that the URI is "modeled after the success of the Buffalo Billion Initiative,” which is at the center of the corruption scheme including bid-rigging and kickbacks.

The third largest DIIF investment is a high-profile Jacob Javits Center expansion on Manhattan’s west side, to be reimbursed by bond proceeds issued in fiscal years 2020 and 2021. The governor claims that the expansion will generate 4,000 full-time jobs, 2,000 part-time jobs, and $393 million in new economic activity, annually.

A January 2016 press release stated that the center will be paid for "within existing resources."

According to Friedfel of CBC, the expansion loan did not even exist in Cuomo’s executive budget, but later appeared in the adopted budget, raising more questions about how windfall dollars are distributed behind closed doors.

by Benjamin Jurney for Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been corrected to remove mention of Comptroller Tom DiNapoli from among those offices that have won bank settlements.

Report Shows Barriers, Offers Solutions for Non-Traditional Higher-Ed Students

adult learners table brochures

(photo: Kevin Caraballo for NYC Schools)

As the job market has evolved over the past several decades, job requirements have become more and more specialized, requiring degrees and certifications that were not previously necessary. This has forced many who would not previously have considered higher education to pursue postsecondary programming.

In 1973, 28 percent of jobs nationwide required some level of postsecondary education. By 2018, that number is expected to hit 63 percent. This shift has led to a shift in what the postsecondary student population looks like, and these trends have exposed a gap in education offerings.

“The economy is becoming more and more dependent on skilled workers,” said Christian Gonzalez-Rivera, senior researcher at the Center for an Urban Future and author of a new report on “nontraditional students” and their paths to postsecondary degrees. “Employers who once hired people right out of high school for manufacturing are now looking for people with some postsecondary education, whether that’s a Bachelor’s degree, or an Associate’s degree, or a credential in a specific field.”

New York state is no exception to this trend. According to a new CUF study, New York’s public higher education systems, the State University of New York (SUNY) and the City University of New York (CUNY), have seen a large influx of what CUF calls “nontraditional students”-- any student that is over the age of 25, enrolled part-time, working with a full-time job while attending school, raising children, or providing for dependents.

According to the study, The New Normal: Supporting Nontraditional Students on the Path to a Degree, “in New York City, 27 percent of community college students are aged 25 and older, 50 percent have a paying job (52 percent of working students work more than 20 hours a week), and 16 percent have children who they are supporting financially.” Additionally, one in four CUNY students are adults (25+).

“The student body is rather different from what it used to be. While the traditional student is somebody who attends school on a full-time basis, perhaps does a four-year program...increasingly you’re finding a lot more students who are adults or who already have children or are taking care of sick or elderly relatives who also need to go back to school because they know they need to increase their skills if they’re going to compete in today’s labor market,” said Gonzalez-Rivera in an interview discussing the report.

CUF reports that there are currently 139,501 students enrolled on a part-time basis at community colleges operated by SUNY or CUNY. In 1980, 32% of students nationwide attended community college part-time; 42% now do so. Part-timers at SUNY have a 28 percent graduation rate, while at CUNY that number is 24 percent.

“The problem with attending on a part-time basis is that it takes too long, it costs too much and because it takes so long it increases the chances that something’s going to get in the way,” Gonzalez-Rivera said. “The chances increase that you’re actually going to get derailed before you finish.”

While nontraditional students now make up a significant proportion of students in New York’s public higher education systems, these systems have failed to keep up with the changing demographics of their students. “State and federal education policy haven’t really kept up with that new trend,” according to Gonzalez-Rivera. “As a result you have really, really low graduation rates at community colleges.”

CUF’s report proposes several policy changes that would make higher education a lot more feasible for nontraditional students. Some smaller changes include block scheduling, more intensive and proactive advising aimed at preventing failure before it occurs, and “wrap around services” that provide help with non-academic issues such as child care or accessing public benefits.

Gonzalez-Rivera calls them “guided pathways” and believes they would help students structure their programs according to their other obligations, and to “decide what is the minimum path that you can take through school, what are the classes that you have to take in order to complete this degree without distractions.”

CUF is also proposing a much larger policy change that would restructure the traditional higher education paradigm. They call this proposal “stackable certification programs.” The idea is that in order to make it easier for nontraditional students to finish their degree, community colleges should offer students segmented certifications that qualify them for progressively more advanced jobs throughout their time at school, allowing them to earn an income and pay tuition.

As Gonzalez-Rivera put it, “Instead of having somebody have to wait two years to get their credential, they can get a credential every six months, that way they have something in hand and they don’t just go into college, drop out and come out with nothing...it’s about having educational pathways that link up with your career pathways.”

While there are schools that agree with this model, the main obstacles to implementing such a program are accreditation and financial aid regulations. As Gonzalez-Rivera explained, state and federal financial aid programs use highly specific definitions of what exactly constitutes a valid degree program and therefore what programs can qualify for financial aid. “It has to be 15 weeks, at least 600 semester hours, there’s all these technicals definitions,” he said. “The issue is that colleges are innovating in different ways that have nothing to with how long a student is actually sitting in a classroom.”

These innovations include online coursework, expanded course hours in the evening and on weekends, and year-round programs that expedite the length of the program while accommodating to working students’ schedules. Such programs and innovations cannot be effective if they don’t meet financial aid requirements, as many of the students who would be looking to take advantage are lower income and require financial assistance in order to pursue the programs at all.

This is where the intersections between nontraditional students and other issues such as race and socioeconomic status become clear. “Community colleges tend to be, especially for poorer students and students with many other responsibilities outside of school, the community colleges tend to be sort of their entry into higher education,” said Gonzalez-Rivera.

According to CUF, 66% of college-attending African-American students nationwide are enrolled at community college. For Latino students that number is 59%. “When it comes to people of color, lower-income people, the very people who really need that leg up to be able to compete in the labor force are the people who are being left behind by policies that have not kept up with the changing demographics,” Gonzalez-Rivera said.

To properly serve the growing nontraditional student population, CUF argues, community colleges must reform to find “ways to innovate so that students are able to get in, learn the skills that they need and get out very quickly.”

by Luke Foley, Gotham Gazette

Calling for Efficiency, Cuomo Pushes Latest Municipal Consolidation Contest

Cuomo red screen podium

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

Since his time as attorney general, Governor Andrew Cuomo has painted a picture of New York as a state cluttered by redundant and inefficient municipalities, attributing the state’s notoriously high property taxes in large part to a bureaucratic web of overlapping government services.

Cuomo’s latest attempt to detangle the web is an incentivized competition challenging two or more local governments to come up with a bold consolidation plan as a way to cut spending, increase efficiency, and lower property taxes. This could mean anything from localities deciding to share park maintenance services or fire departments, for example, or a plan to dissolve a smaller government into a larger one.

The program piggybacks on a series of tax caps and rebate programs Cuomo, a second-term Democrat, has initiated since taking office. The prize is $20 million, part of $70 million earmarked for improving government efficiency in the $155.6 billion 2016-2017 state budget.

In theory, streamlining government to ease taxpayers’ burden is a good idea, but it is essential to identify not just any municipal consolidation, but the types most likely to produce taxpayer savings. There is also some debate as to whether, and to what extent, municipal consolidation addresses the underlying causes of the New York’s property tax problem. Furthermore, in more affluent localities, residents often say they prefer to pay higher taxes in exchange for the personal touch of smaller government agencies.

In 2010, when Cuomo was running for governor, property taxes were rising at an unsustainable average rate of 5.7 percent per year, with homeowners in 33 of New York’s 62 counties facing a property tax burden surpassing the national median. Initiatives like the new municipal consolidation challenge have been successful at curbing the upward trend, according to Cuomo’s office.

“Over the past five years, Governor Cuomo has restored fiscal responsibility to the state – reducing costs, cutting red tape and delivering relief for New York taxpayers,” said Cuomo spokesperson Abbey Fashouer. “The Municipal Consolidation Competition marks another step forward in these efforts, incentivizing local governments to find innovative ways to share services, find efficiencies and ensure a stronger, more affordable Empire State for all.”

This latest contest supplements Cuomo’s 2014 property tax “freeze,” which is in reality a credit that incentivizes municipalities to find ways to cut costs and stay within the state’s cap of 2 percent annual increase in property taxes, and is projected to save property taxpayers more than $1.3 billion over three years. Cuomo has also instituted an informal 2 percent cap on annual increases in overall state spending.

The tax “cap,” which in 2017 enters its fourth consecutive year, seeks to prevent municipal and school tax levies from increasing beyond 2 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower. This year, at .68 percent, the increase limit -- which applies to all localities except New York City -- is at a record low, and while this is in one way good news for homeowners, strapped municipalities are bound to feel the strain, according to state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli.

"In what is becoming the norm, New York’s local governments must cope with extremely limited growth for property taxes to stay within the tax cap,” DiNapoli said in his announcement of this year’s tax cap. “Low inflation has positive effects for consumers, but it also reflects an uncertain economic environment. Local officials have faced growing fixed costs and limited budget options for years, but 2017 will necessitate even tougher financial choices.”

In response, a growing number of localities are voting to override the tax cap, with 26 percent opting out in 2016. Cuomo’s new contest, which targets the state’s 13 largest municipalities outside of New York City -- only cities, towns and villages with populations of at least 50,000 (according to 2010 U.S. Census data) may apply as the lead applicant -- may help mitigate that trend for the coming year.

One such municipality is the City of New Rochelle, which will be forced to break through the tax cap next year to invest in the city’s infrastructure, according City Manager Charles "Chuck" Strome III.

The city’s chief administrative officer, appointed by the New Rochelle City Council, Strome explained that the city has been searching for ways to share services with neighboring municipalities since before Cuomo took office, partnering with neighboring suburbs of Pelham Manor, Mamaroneck and Larchmont on services like street cleaning, snow removal, and sanitation.

“I’m not really moved by competing for prizes. For me, that’s just a show,” Strome said in an interview. “I think the state’s policies recently have been very detrimental to municipalities. We've been doing things in New Rochelle long before there was a prize at the end of the rainbow.”

Rochester, the state’s third largest outside of New York City, sees itself as a leader in the region on municipal consolidation, forming cooperative agreements with the Monroe County and neighboring municipalities on things like 9-1-1 dispatch services, waste management systems, telecommunication providers, and more. Officials there were more amenable to Cuomo’s consolidation contest, but said that the most “low-hanging fruit” has already been identified and implemented.

“Given that we've done a lot of this already, we're a little challenged to find additional opportunities, but we are open to it,” said Chris Wagner, budget director for the City of Rochester.

Cuomo often focuses on the number of municipalities in New York, suggesting overlapping and redundant governments are a main driver of rising property taxes. “The cost, the waste, the inefficiency of our 10,500 local governments is still this state’s financial albatross and that is what is driving up the cost,” Cuomo said during his 2016 State of the State address, on January 14.

While it is true that on average New Yorkers continue to pay some of the largest property tax bills in the country -- 13 percent of the average household income -- there is a lively debate among social theorists about whether fewer, and thus larger, governmental bodies results in more efficiency and lower property tax bills. And, the actual number of “local governments” is up for debate.

Some dispute the 10,500 figure, saying it includes “special tax districts” -- in-town sectioning created out of specific residential needs that are brought on by suburban growth -- which often amounts to paperwork rather than additional government expenditure. (The 2012 U.S. Census of Governments places the number of cities, towns, and villages in New York State at 3,453 -- which is fewer than the national average for states across the country.)

Since Cuomo took office, the number of government service providers has been reduced, though savings produced have been relatively small. For example, since 2011, 18 New York water districts consolidated into five with a projected annual savings of $1.2 million; 72 sewer/wastewater districts consolidated into three, with a projected savings of $522,000; and six fire and fire protection districts consolidated into two fire districts, with a projected annual savings of $959,570; all according to Cuomo’s office.

Full consolidation of services or government entities tends to elicit resistance, so functional consolidation is often the most politically expedient solution for overlapping services.

Functional consolidation, in which similar municipal agencies both remain in existence, but cooperate on whether to perform the same or distinct functions for a larger geographic area, has been shown to save money and improve quality of life. Either one government entity pays the other for services or one agency performs a specific function and the other agency takes on a different function in exchange.

These partnerships are typically evaluated on a case-by-case basis. In 2012, when the Town of Brighton voted to dissolve its understaffed West Brighton fire protection district and contract with the Rochester Fire Department instead, it resulted in savings for both taxpayers in Rochester and Brighton, according to Wagner, the Rochester budget director. “From our experience, it not only helps on the property tax side of things, but it helps to improve planning and response time to a situation,” Wagner said.

Meanwhile, several years ago, a plan for the City of Rochester to combine water supply systems with Monroe County was nixed when it was determined that it would not result in savings, according to Wagner.

E.J. McMahon, president of the Empire Center, a conservative think tank, notes that smaller towns and villages often prefer to see their tax dollars used for a personal, responsive touch from police, fire, and sanitation agencies. However, McMahon says, these more localized services are not the primary driver of New York’s property tax problem. McMahon points a finger instead at state-mandated Medicaid, pension, and education costs.

“Municipal consolidation is not a panacea and it’s kind of a dodge,” McMahon said. “[Cuomo’s] premise is we have too many local governments, and that’s why we have high local taxes, and that’s essentially untrue.”

A better way to slash property taxes, he says, would be to reform New York’s 30-year-old Triborough Amendment, which requires public employers to maintain contractual agreements, including automatic pay increases, for unionized employees after their collective bargaining agreement expires -- a policy that adds $300 million a year to school budgets across the state.

The governor’s administration says it has taken steps to reduce the number of unfunded mandates -- a term used to describe burdensome state requirements that do not come with requisite funding -- establishing a Mandate Relief Council in December 2013. But while rising local school costs are offset by huge amounts of state funding -- in the 2016-2017 budget, the state allocated $24.8 billion for education aid, up 6.5 percent from the prior year -- and the state has tried to to reel in pension growth, municipalities say they are forced to make painful cuts and delay important capital projects to meet the tax cap year after year.

Strome, the city manager, noted that municipal expenses account for only 18 percent of property tax bills in New Rochelle. The bulk of it comes from school and medicaid expenses. “Most people, if they knew the facts, they'd be happy to have multiple trash pickups and police and fire services and acres and acres of parks for $3,000 a year,” he said. “The state has dumped millions of dollars in increased school aid, but municipalities have gotten zero. In my opinion, until the state seriously looks at how it deals with education, we’d never address the property tax problem.”

nassau special service districts mapIn other areas, like Nassau County, where residents pay some of the highest property taxes in the country (the average annual property tax bill topped $9,000 in 2013, according to a Zillow report), the imbalance is starker. The Town of Hempstead made several difficult cuts this year, including laying off 36 employees, but only 9 cents per tax dollar homeowners pay goes toward municipal programs and services (incorporated villages pay about 2 cents per tax dollar to the township). More that 60 percent of Hempstead taxes go to schools and libraries, another 16 percent goes the county tax -- which includes Medicaid -- and another 5 percent goes toward special districts (which Cuomo counts among the New York’s 10,500 municipalities). (see map, via the Long Island Index)

Cuomo’s office disputes the charge that the governor has not addressed education and Medicaid costs. In addition to flooding cities with education aid, the administration notes both the governor’s Medicaid reform efforts have saved taxpayers an estimated $34 billion over the last five years and the Global Medicaid Cap, which eliminated any growth of Medicaid expenses for counties (meaning any amount of spending over counties’ fixed dollar amount is picked up by the state).

“Governor Cuomo has implemented a number of targeted reforms to deliver relief for New York taxpayers – and they are working,” said Fashouer, a Cuomo spokesperson. “Today, taxes are at their lowest level in decades, we’ve capped [growth of] property taxes at 2 percent, we’re making record investments in education while delivering quality healthcare more effectively and efficiently than ever before.”

The most ambitious type of consolidation is full-scale city-county merger, in which a city and the surrounding county combine to create a metropolitan form of government, or a “super” county. Over the last 30 years, major Upstate cities have faced rising poverty rates and an increased dependence on state aid to balance their budgets. Social theorists say that in addition to consolidating duplicate services, city-state consolidation can curb urban sprawl and compel suburbanites to contribute more significantly to services provided by the city, which are utilized by everyone.

Cuomo’s municipal consolidation contest coincides with the ongoing effort to merge the City of Syracuse and Onondaga County, called Consensus. The region was granted $500 million in a similar 2015 state-funded contest, a portion of which Cuomo said was contingent on Syracuse following through on its ambitious consolidation plan.

Studies on whether larger municipalities are actually more efficient have produced mixed findings. A study done 10 years after the 1998 amalgamation of Toronto, for example, indicates that larger governments become more less responsive and more sluggish, resulting in increased costs.

Not that taxpayer savings should be the primary, or only, motivation for large-scale municipal consolidation.

In the case of the Syracuse merger, more equitable distribution of better quality services across the the county is a major focus. One of the most influential advocates for this type of merger is David Rusk, the former mayor of Albuquerque, New Mexico, who long-argued for what he terms an “elastic city” — one free of geographic limitations — which could help rectify economic, social and racial inequities, he says, and encourage greater political participation county-wide. However, in places like Syracuse, people of color who live in the city fear they’ll lose political influence with a larger unified government, while suburbanites feel that the consolidation could dilute their quality of service.

City-county mergers are notoriously difficult to pull off. While there has been some success in other parts of the country, all recent merger attempts in New York, like a proposed Buffalo-Erie merger in the early 2000s, have failed. The state’s only major regional consolidation was in 1898, when the City of New York was formed out of five boroughs, and the Syracuse-area Consensus plan is seen as an experiment of whether a consolidation of this scale can work again.

Cuomo has enthusiastically supported the Syracuse merger, but as Politico reported, the plan is at risk of being derailed by long-standing differences among Cuomo, Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney, and Syracuse’s Mayor Stephanie Miner, and there are still more questions than answers about how it would meet the at times conflicting interests of city residents and suburbanites.

Occasionally, villages vote to dissolve themselves into neighboring municipalities -- since 1921, 47 village governments in New York have dissolved, 10 of them in the past five years, according to a recent Empire Center report (see graph below). As attorney general, Cuomo pushed through a bill easing the village dissolution process and sweetening the pot for eligible villages with a $58,006 “Community Empowerment Tax Credit” when the dissolution is approved.

village dissolutions nys

In these instances, however, the tax savings per household are usually small, and more often than not, villagers resist consolidation, saying they’d prefer to pay slightly higher taxes to retain their community identity and personal touch from local government.

An example of this is the Village of Cayuga Heights (the Ithaca suburb where this reporter grew up), which has its own mayor and government and where residents consistently vote against joining its fire and police services with neighboring municipalities. “I think if we were to say, ‘Oh, let’s just join up with the Village of Lansing,’ we’d be bigger than the city of Ithaca, but we’d lose a lot too,” said Joan Mangione, the village clerk and treasurer. “When our residents come in to pay taxes, they want to feel ‘this is my best tax dollar at work.’”

Despite an attachment to these extra amenities, Cayuga Heights officials tout the village’s extensive record of looking for consolidation opportunities that make sense: it is a partner in Bolton Point, a water supply plant built in 1976 that serves five municipalities and it is represented in Tompkins County Council of Governments (TCCOG), one of two county committees in the state that meet regularly to discuss shared services, including a progressive healthcare consortium that has saved taxpayers millions of dollars.

Other examples of residents electing to pay a higher price tag for uniquely responsive municipal services can be found in many towns, villages and hamlets of Westchester County, where residents consistently pay the highest property taxes in the nation (an average of $13,842 per household in 2013, according to Zillow). The bloated bill is often justified by the county’s exemplary schools -- where between $20,000 and $50,000 a year is spent on each pupil --- and a small town approach from police, fire, and sanitation workers.

Political scientist and SUNY New Paltz professor Gerald Benjamin, a proponent of municipal consolidation, says that these New York municipalities should be more open to compromise.

“Look, we want low costs, we want our services, we have to have a hierarchy of values, and we want democracy -- which we are not always getting, because it’s too complex,” Benjamin said. “If we want all those things, they run into each other; they are not all aligned. Sometimes you are presented a range of desserts at Thanksgiving — but if you eat them all, you are going to get fat.”

by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette

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