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


(photo: nysenate.gov)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Samar Khurshid, Gotham Gazette
@samarkhurshid    @GothamGazette

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

Good Government Groups Want Legislators to Pledge to Fight for Reform


The pledge (photo via @CitizensUnionNY)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The comments left many legislators scratching their heads.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

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

Corruption, Elections Loom Over Lengthy 2016 Legislative Agenda

Cuomo announcement infrastructure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

40 Questions for New York Politics in 2016

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photo: William Alatriste

Happy new year! As we jump right into 2016, Gov. Andrew Cuomo prepares for his State of the State and budget address, Mayor Bill de Blasio works to improve his public approval ratings, and the two keep on feuding. There's a lot to look for in the new year, here are about 40 political questions we're asking as the year begins - if you want to share them, answer any, or let us know one we missed, tweet @GothamGazette:

  1. How will the Cuomo-de Blasio feud play out?
  2. Who's next for Preet Bharara?
  3. What will Albany do about preventing public corruption?
    1. Will the LLC loophole close?
    2. Will New York move forward on a public campaign finance system?
    3. Will there be agreement on pension forfeiture?
    4. Will further limits be placed on legislators' outside income?
    5. Will legislator salaries be raised?
    6. Does the budget process become more transparent?
  4. What kind of Assembly reforms will Speaker Carl Heastie allow in terms of the ways in which his legislative house conducts its business?
  5. How does the Governor's minimum wage push wind up?
  6. What happens with the 421-a tax break/affordable housing program?
  7. Will the de Blasio administration show significant progress in turning around struggling schools?
  8. What happens with mayoral control of city schools, as dictated by state policy?
  9. What do teacher evaluations look like next, as dictated by state policy?
  10. What's the future of the Common Core in New York?
  11. Does the opt-out movement continue to grow?
  12. How do the 2016 elections affect which party controls the state Senate?
    1. Who wins the special election for the seat previously held by Dean Skelos?
    2. Who wins other vacant state legislative seats, like that held by Sheldon Silver?
  13. Will de Blasio improve his relationship with Albany Democrats?
  14. Can de Blasio effectively reduce the street and shelter homeless populations?
  15. How will the city and the state approach the homelessness crisis together/separately?
  16. Will New York "raise the age" of criminal responsibility from 16 (to 17 or 18)?
  17. Will de Blasio successfully negotiate paid parental leave with the city's municipal unions after announcing he is offering it to nonunion city employees?
  18. Will the State move on a paid family leave program?
  19. Can Cuomo show more progress in his efforts to revive struggling city and regional economies?
  20. How do the mayor's rezoning proposals fare in the City Council?
  21. How does City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito differentiate herself from Bill de Blasio?
  22. Will the City Council move any bills that the mayor isn't behind - like the Right to Know Act?
    1. Will de Blasio use a veto for the first time as mayor?
  23. What's next for Mark-Viverito as she faces term-limits (at the end of 2017)?
  24. Can the Mayor keep making progress toward his affordable housing goals?
  25. What will city elected officials' compensation increases look like once the mayor and Council come to an agreement based on the compensation commission's recommendations?
    1. Will Council pay increases come with the elimination of lulus and other reforms?
  26. Who will replace Charlie Rangel in Congress?
  27. How does it go for the two new District Attorneys, in the Bronx and on Staten Island?
  28. Can the NYPD continue to drive crime down, reducing murders after a small rise, while also improving community relations?
  29. Will there be progress on Rikers Island?
  30. What steps will the City take to desegregate its schools?
  31. What does Bill de Blasio's cabinet look like after a deputy mayor is replaced and the homeless services department is reassessed?
    1. Will other top officials leave the administration?
  32. What will happen with Uber?
  33. Will the City pass a plastic bag fee?
  34. Is there a compromise on reducing Central Park carriage horses?
  35. Can de Blasio improve his public approval ratings?
  36. Does anyone formidable emerge to declare a challenge to de Blasio for 2017?
  37. What will Comptroller Scott Stringer's charter school audits look like?
    1. What other audits and reports come from Stringer's office?
  38. Will Public Advocate Tish James continue to use litigation against the city to seek change? If so, what suits?
  39. How are New York officials involved in the presidential race?
    1. How will de Blasio, Cuomo, Mark-Viverito and other city and state officials who have endorsed her be involved in Hillary Clinton's campaign?
    2. Who wins New York in the Democratic and Republican primaries?
  40. Who becomes the next President of the United States?

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

The Week Ahead in New York Politics, January 4

New York City Hall

New York City Hall

Happy New Year!

So far, New York politics in 2016 looks a lot like 2015. On Sunday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a new Executive Order related to homelessness that appears to be the opening salvo in his plan to take aim at the issue, most pressingly in New York City, where he's criticized Mayor Bill de Blasio's handling of the crisis that includes about 60,000 homeless people. Cuomo's order notes that homelessness is a problem around the state and says that when temperatures are below freezing, municipalities must provide shelter to homeless individuals, move homeless people to shelter, extend shelter hours, and maintain quality shelter conditions that meet state and local laws and regulations.

The move gets at the rivalry between the governor and the mayor, which shows little sign of abating, despite the fact that there are real policy issues - and lives - at stake. De Blasio has battled a persistent homeless census, issues with the conditions of homeless shelters, and a good deal of criticism from the governor and others, which has all led to a shake-up in his administration. To fight homelessness, de Blasio has enacted a good deal of new policy and drastically increased funding toward a variety of programs, but he has only just recently been able to level off a growing number of people without consistent housing.

On Sunday, the de Blasio administration was quick to point out that the governor's executive order does little, if anything, to change things in the city, which already has a must-shelter law and where the city recently announced new protocols for shelter hours and services. There is one main point of contention, though, which is the order's provision that homeless individuals must be moved to shelter - something the de Blasio administration says can only be mandated through state law.

De Blasio is sure to get questions about these issues when he holds a press conference centered around another topic Monday morning in Brooklyn - see below for details.

Cuomo, meanwhile, is gearing up for his January 13 State of the State and budget address, which is likely to include other policies aimed at homelessness. Cuomo is set to make an announcement on Monday in Manhattan - see below for details.

The state Legislature returns to Albany for its first session day of 2016 on Wednesday of this week. There are legislative hearings on the minimum wage and the failed Health Republic insurance exchange this week - see below for details.

Later this week, de Blasio is likely to hold a ceremony to sign his own recent Executive Order, the one mandating paid parental leave for about 20,000 nonunion city employees. De Blasio announced the policy in late December and promised to reopen collective bargaining with city unions in order to make the benefit part of their contracts. He's also looking to the state and federal governments to act on paid family leave so that all New Yorkers (and Americans) can take time off to care for a new child or a sick or elderly relative (de Blasio's initial policy is only for new parents, it does not cover care for sick or elderly relatives, but most paid family leave bill proposals do). [Read: De Blasio Moves on Paid Parental Leave]

As always, there's a great deal happening all over the city, with many events to be aware of - read our day-by-day rundown below.

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

The run of the week in detail:

On Monday at 7:15 a.m. outside Barclays Center in Brooklyn, "Mayor de Blasio, Senator Charles Schumer, elected officials and senior Administration leadership will meet morning commuters...to pass out flyers on the City's new commuter benefits law. Tomorrow is the first work day after the law went into effect on January 1." Read about the new transit benefit laws here: New Transit Program Called 'Win-Win' for Many Commuters and Employers.

At about 7:30 a.m. inside Barclays Center, "the Mayor will hold a press conference to discuss commuter benefits." Then, at 1:30 p.m. Monday at One Police Plaza, de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner Bratton "will hold a press conference to discuss historically low crime numbers in New York City."

At 11 a.m. Monday at 1199 SEIU headquarters in Manhattan, Gov. Cuomo will make an announcement, kicking off "The Mario Cuomo Campaign for Economic Justice." City officials, including Comptroller Scott Stringer, will attend.

At 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, City Council Members Dan Garodnick and Rosie Mendez will co-host a community town hall focused on "Homelessness on the East Side" at the Parish Hall of the Church of the Epiphany. A variety of other Manhattan elected officials are also co-sponsoring and will either attend or send representatives.

The New York State Legislature holds its first day of 2016 legislative session in Albany on Wednesday.

At 9 a.m. on Wednesday in Albany, the Senate Standing Committees on Health and Insurance will hold a public meeting about "The demise of Health Republic and preparing for the future."

At the City Council on Wednesday:

  • At 9:30 a.m., the Committee on Housing and Buildings will meet about a resolution calling on the city and state to sign a fourth New York-New York supportive housing plan.
  • At 10 a.m., the Committee on Finance will meet to discuss a budget extender and two items related to Business Improvement Districts
  • At noon, the Council will hold the year's first Stated Meeting. As always, this is expected to be prefaced by the Council Speaker's pre-stated press conference.

At 8:30 a.m., Senator Charles Schumer "will discuss Congress' year-end budget and how it impacts New York" at an Association for a Better New York breakfast event.

At the City Council at 10 a.m. Thursday, the Committee on Aging will meet for an oversight hearing about social adult day care.

At the state Legislature on Thursday: an 11 a.m. public hearing in Albany held by the Senate Standing Committee on Labor to analyze "the overall impact increasing the statewide minimum wage to $15/hour would have on workers, employers, and the state as a whole."

Friday and the weekend
Nothing on our radar right now, but that can easily change as events are announced once the week gets going. Stay tuned for updates here and elsewhere.

Read more recent highlights from Gotham Gazette:

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 Ryan Brady and Ben Max

Predictions! Experts Look Ahead to New York Politics in 2016

de Blasio new year's family festivities

Ringing in the new year (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

As we usually do about this time of year, Gotham Gazette asked New York politicos to look into their crystal balls for predictions for the year ahead. Below you'll find insights from elected officials, journalists, advocates, analysts, and others who are tuned in to New York politics.

Looking back at last year's predictions for this year, some of our forecasters did quite well (see Nicole Gelinas, Ruben Diaz Jr., Alexis Grenell); while others missed the mark (see Eric Adams, Sal Albanese, Bob Gangi). Gelinas predicted that the Central Park carriage horses would not be out of a job, and was right; Diaz Jr. predicted that new Bronx Metro North stations would get funded, and was right; and Grenell predicted that 9 out of 10 Women's Equality Act planks would get passed in a compromise, and was right. Meanwhile, Adams predicted Brooklyn winning the 2016 DNC and hosting a Pope Francis mass; Albanese predicted Bill Bratton would be out as NYPD commissioner; and Gangi predicted the mayor would end broken windows policing - none of which came true.

See a new round of political predictions, these for 2016, below.

***Have something to add to the conversation? Tweet us @GothamGazette. And, be sure to read the latest reporting from Gotham Gazette; including our look back at The Top Ten Stories of 2015 in New York Politics and much more.***


Kathryn Wylde, president & CEO, Partnership for New York City
The City Council will rise to the occasion and pass the Mayor's Mandatory Inclusionary and Quality Affordable Housing Zoning Amendments, but the 421a incentives needed to complete the city's production goals will get kicked back to the legislature, and no one can predict how that ends up.

Alyssa Katz, editorial board, New York Daily News

  • The 421-a real estate tax abatement expires as construction unions and developers are not able to resolve their differences by their mid-January deadline. Spooked by the Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos corruption scandals, the Legislature will not revive it in anything resembling past form.
  • Mayor de Blasio prevails on the City Council to pass his mandatory inclusionary zoning plan for affordable housing, secured at the price of unplanned-for increased city spending to subsidize low-income housing above and beyond the zoning requirements.
  • Either Police Commissioner Bill Bratton or Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña will announce their retirement by the end of 2016.
  • The school testing opt-out movement persists despite Gov. Cuomo's Common Core revamp.
  • Gov. Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio reach a pained detente, driven by de Blasio's need to secure ongoing mayoral control of the schools.
  • The Brennan Center wins its lawsuit to close the LLC loophole, in an important victory to clean up New York's elections.
  • Hillary Clinton takes New York's Democratic primary, but Bernie Sanders comes within 20 points of her. Chris Christie and Marco Rubio make decent showings in the New York Republican primary but Donald Trump wins.

Adam Forman, Center for an Urban Future

  • Schools in Brooklyn Heights and the Upper West Side are rezoned. Realtors in Rye, Ridgewood, and Great Neck enjoy record breaking annual sales commissions.
  • Mayor de Blasio bans all unpaid internships in city government. Employers across the city soon follow suit.
  • East New York residents agree to a proposed rezoning on the condition that Cobble Hill and the West Village are subject to an equivalent upzoning. The entire plan is scuttled immediately.

Michael Powell, columnist, The New York Times

  • Mayor de Blasio announces a 51st State secession movement. Gov. Cuomo announces a state takeover of NYC.
  • Preet Bharara resigns, noting that he has contracted a quite severe case of tendinitis and carpal tunnel syndrome signing all the political indictments.

Nicole Gelinas, Manhattan Institute
The horse carriages and their customers will be ringing into 2017.

City Council Member Mark Levine
Mayor de Blasio will reverse his previous policy position and decide to see Star Wars Force Awakens. He will like it so much that he orders a pilot program exploring NYPD use of light sabers.

Staten Island Borough President James Oddo, via his end of year message
2016 will bring a new economic development campaign to entice businesses who are being priced out of other boroughs to think of Staten Island instead of New Jersey.

Carol Kellermann, president, Citizens Budget Commission

  • The confluence of global warming, increased traffic congestion and the compelling need for improvements and enhancements to the region's transportation infrastructure will cause political leaders to coalesce around and adopt a plan for east river bridge tolling and congestion pricing.
  • The mayor and City Council leadership will truly end the "budget dance" and focus the spring budget debate only on policy issues over which they differ.
  • The mayor will propose (and have approved) spending of several hundred million dollars from his current "surplus" on extending parental leave to all municipal workers and will argue that the NYC initiative should be a model for the governor to apply to state workers and for the presidential candidates to consider and debate.

Christina Greer, professor of political science, Fordham University, and author of Black Ethnics

  • In early 2016 the Cuomo-Diaz Jr. alliance strengthens, but Diaz finds himself in the cold once de Blasio and Cuomo come to an understanding.
  • Bratton will continue being broken-windows-policy Bratton, de Blasio will continue to support him, thus weakening de Blasio's relationship and credibility with communities of color.

Jeff Smith, New School urban policy professor and author of Mr. Smith Goes to Prison
Because of a split in the Latino community, Rangel's seat will continue to be represented by an African-American - likely Keith Wright.

Doug Muzzio, political scientist, Baruch College

  • Preet indicts senators, assemblymembers, county and state officials and former officials. But not Cuomo.
  • Mike Bloomberg declares another run for City Hall. If he wins and serves full term: longest serving NYC mayor.

Jeff Foreman, director of policy, Care for the Homeless
Governor Cuomo uses his State of the State address in January to agree to and promote the NY/NY4 Supportive Housing plan, agreeing to NYC's 15,000 units and matching Mayor de Blasio with 15,000 units for NYC and another 5,000 units elsewhere in the state, but sets it as a 10-year - not a 15-year - program.

Heath Brown, professor of public policy, City University of New York, John Jay College
Political contributions from New Yorkers to various presidential candidates will top $100 million in 2016, but NY will still trail California and Texas by a long shot in total contributions.

Assemblymember Luis R. Sepulveda, 87th AD

  • Raise the age will become a reality in New York.
  • The Mayor and the Governor will break bread and work to resolve the homelessness problem in New York.
  • And, much to my chagrin, the Mets will win the World Series.

Nick Powell, opinions editor and columnist, City & State NY
Continuing their destructive feud, Cuomo (and, by extension, the Legislature) will deny de Blasio mayoral control of schools. Part of a calculated play that will end with Cuomo getting behind a rival Democrat for the New York City mayoralty in 2017.

Evan Siegfried, Republican strategist and president of Somm Consulting
Cuomo will decide to personally primary de Blasio in 2017, but launch his campaign in 2016 because it would be too much fun not to.

Alexis Grenell, Democratic political strategist
A nasty blind quote about de Blasio is attributed to a mysterious, highly placed Democratic source in the Cuomo administration.

Michael Benjamin, columnist and former Assembly member
Neither Governor Andrew Cuomo nor Mayor Bill de Blasio will be the Democratic vice-presidential nominee.

Ted Hamm, chair of journalism and new media studies, St. Joseph's College, Brooklyn
The investigation of the Eric Garner case will continue throughout most of 2016. Commissioner Bratton will continue to maintain that he's waiting for the DOJ to finish its inquiry before the department can start its six-month long disciplinary hearing. In the meantime, Officer Daniel Pantaleo will continue to collect his paycheck.

Joe Bello, Navy veteran and veterans advocate
The de Blasio administration will struggle to make "functional zero" for homeless veterans and right before his State of the City, Governor Cuomo will come through with real estate developers that will help house the remaining veterans, stealing Mayor de Blasio's thunder once again.

James Parrott, deputy director and chief economist, Fiscal Policy Institute
With tax collections growing 5% a year and local government budgets outside of NYC stretched to the breaking point, election-year legislators will respond to their constituents' calls for needed public services and convince Governor Cuomo to stretch, lift, bend or create new exemptions to his 2% state spending cap.

Mike Okhravi, CEO of DocChat
Health care across the state will continue to become more unaffordable for New Yorkers, as New York's DSRIP will not positively impact providers or patients.

Alex S. Vitale, associate professor of sociology, Brooklyn College

  • Governor Cuomo will come through with substantial new funding for CUNY to avoid a strike in the spring.
  • Gun violence will fall significantly in communities with new gun violence prevention programs that were funded in Mayor de Blasio's first budget, but have only recently been fully staffed. This will in turn contribute to the continuation of overall crime declines. However, homelessness numbers will continue to increase. The combination of dropping crime and rising disorder will again put "broken windows" policing at the center of debates around police reform.

Andrew Berman, executive director, Greenwich Village Society for Historical Preservation
In 2016, Mayor de Blasio will stop blocking sensible community rezoning plans that incentivize or require affordable housing while maintaining a reasonable scale of development in areas like University Place and Chinatown. Instead of taking the current path with the deeply unpopular 'Zoning for Quality and Affordability' and 'Mandatory Inclusionary Housing,' the Mayor will come up with individually tailored and narrowly focused changes to the city's zoning...In general the Mayor will realize that he can't truly address affordability issues and the needs of average New Yorkers while continuing to try to please the real estate developers who have so generously supported his campaign. Or, I predict 2017 won't be a very good year for the Mayor.

HAPPY NEW YEAR from Gotham Gazette!

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Top Ten Stories of 2015 in New York Politics

de blasio conference speech

Mayor de Blasio (photo: Rob Bennett/Mayoral Photography Office)

Gotham Gazette's top ten storylines of New York politics in 2015:

10. Big State Money Matters
In 2015, New York banned fracking, made plans for three new casinos, and gave away more big bucks toward economic development in areas of the state struggling to create jobs. Governor Andrew Cuomo was loved by environmental activists for the fracking ban, but criticized by those that look to fracking for economic stimulation, which is at the heart of the move toward casinos and state development grants.

9. Housing New Yorkers
Mayor de Blasio continues to struggle with New York City's homelessness crisis while he pushes forward with his ambitious and in some respects controversial affordable housing plans.

De Blasio is undergoing a shake-up in his administration in terms of leadership on the homelessness issue, all while Gov. Cuomo promises state-led fixes come January. De Blasio is pushing forward not only programs in place to prevent people from losing their homes and to get people out of shelter and into permanent housing, but also to mitigate a street homelessness issue that became a major political problem for the mayor. And, he's moving on his rezoning proposals, which have met quite a bit of community pushback, that are key to his affordable housing plan of building or preserving 200,000 units over ten years.

8. Education Debates Continue
The Common Core continues to stir controversy and is under review yet again - just like the standardized tests tied to the learning standards and their role in measuring student, teacher, and school progress. A big 2015 opt-out movement pushed the issue further. Teacher evaluation policies continue to shift as the weight of those tests is likely to be reduced after having been increased just a few months ago.

The battle over charter schools is largely settled, at least for now, strange as it is to say. Charters have been protected by Cuomo and state policy, and de Blasio has largely put down his sword, knowing that he has other dragons to slay. Charter advocates say they don't plan to hold big rallies in 2016 and Eva Moskowitz says she isn't running for mayor in 2017.

Mayor de Blasio's pre-kindergarten program has gotten off to a truly impressive start and he's dedicating increasing resources to schools serving the most disadvantaged students. But, as de Blasio and his schools chancellor, Carmen Farina, continue to implement their vision, questions have arisen: are they turning around struggling schools? Do they need more time or do they just not get it? They promise progress through more resources, community schools, tough love, and personnel reshuffling when necessary.

With the legislature, Gov. Cuomo signed off on just one-year extension to mayoral control of city schools and de Blasio will have to ask for another extension in 2016. Cuomo also promises another round of education reform proposals come January.

7. Policing New York City
Crime continues to trend down overall; though murders are up slightly, as are reported rapes; but shootings are down, as are several other major felony crimes. Complaints about police to the civilian board that fields them are down, as are marijuana arrests.

But, questions continue to arise from the right and the left about Bill de Blasio and Bill Bratton's NYPD: Are they really reformers, as de Blasio promised they'd be? Or is the broken windows approach too aggressive? Not being practiced aggressively enough?

Stop-and-frisks are down, but they're still disproportionately targeting black and Hispanic men compared to their proportion of the overall population. Cops have begun a new form of community policing in certain higher crime precincts, we'll know more in 2016 about how that is playing out, as we will about the efficacy of the department's new training protocols, instituted by de Blasio and Bratton. There's a host of NYPD reform and reporting bills sitting in the City Council that are opposed by Bratton (and thus, de Blasio), and are not moving - a major 2016 test for the Council Speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, and her progressive allies.

6. City & State Flush With Cash
The New York City economy is very, very good, and tax revenue is allowing the city a ballooning budget - including new union contracts - while the state has had an influx of cash due to bank settlements, allowing for billions in spending on infrastructure and more. Some parts of the state aren't doing well, and Gov. Cuomo continues to step in to send economic development funds their way. Everyone's wary of an economic downturn, but the city is so flush it is socking away money even while adding more to a budget clocking in at about $80 billion.

5. Cuomo-De Blasio Feud
The 2015 Albany session didn't go well for de Blasio - not just with the limited extension of mayoral control, but also with regard to his 421-a proposal aimed at furthering his affordable housing plan and with rent regulations coming in less generous to tenants than the mayor had hoped.

After de Blasio lashed out at Gov. Cuomo on June 30, it was on from there - an even more obvious, angry, and petty rivalry, which manifested regarding Legionnaires' Disease, minimum wage, the MTA, homelessness, crime, and more. Some say the feud is hurting New Yorkers whose lives and quality of life are in the balance as the two avoid collaboration about as much as possible. But, others say de Blasio and Cuomo are now trying to outdo each other on progressive policy and it may actually be helping struggling New Yorkers to a good degree.

As 2015 closes, neither will so much as say the other's name. As much as they say their staffs are in constant contact and they recently shared a well-publicized dinner to begin repairing the relationship, it's hard to believe that New Yorkers aren't unwilling victims of this rivalry.

4. City Continues Progressive Policy Push
Mayor de Blasio and a like-minded City Council are pushing forward with policies to help New Yorkers at the margins, and those in the middle class and struggling to make it. They've passed and continue to push new workplace and workforce regulations; affordable housing requirements; environmental and immigrant protections. They've implemented a municipal ID program; expanded library service, aid for senior citizens, community schools, and more as they seek to increase and equalize opportunity.

As mentioned, some question the city's free-spending ways, but the money is there and most fiscal watchdogs give city officials at least passing grades over the last couple of years in terms of responsible budgeting. Questions remain about new welfare standards, effective management of city services and the homelessness crisis, and more. For now, some think city government is overreaching in its efforts and spending, but the results appear positive as the city is relatively safe, the economy humming, and more New Yorkers feeling as though the government is working for them.

3. De Blasio's Up and Down Year
The mayor is doing a lot - while the city is safe and the economy continues to boom - but he's hit some roadblocks and gotten hit from the left and the right, all while being locked in his bitter feud with Gov. Cuomo, which is largely unhelpful to the mayor's agenda.

From the left, critics say de Blasio is too cozy with real estate; too harsh on homeless New Yorkers; and not enough of an NYPD reformer. From the right, they say he's too easy on homeless New Yorkers; not tough enough on crime; spending too much money on progressive programs; not closing enough failing schools or supporting charters; and not a strong enough manager.

No matter the criticisms, de Blasio has many programs in place and progress to point to in terms of his pre-kindergarten, affordable housing, and Vision Zero road safety plans, among others.

De Blasio's missteps regarding the presidential race and his approach to communications have hurt him, but he did find more solid footing as the year came to a close.

2. Cuomo Tacks Left
Governor Cuomo made a big liberal push starting just after Albany business wrapped up for the year. He moved on the minimum wage; nail salon workers; teacher evaluations; and several criminal justice reforms, to name a few of many signs of a governor who has found his inner liberal. This came after a tumultuous Albany season in which the governor was the only one of the 'three men in a room' still standing after Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos were each indicted (and later convicted). While Cuomo oversaw budget and legislative deals that largely continued his more centrist governing style, he shifted hard left this summer and into the fall and winter. Next steps for Cuomo: showing New Yorkers he's finally going to lead a real push to clean up Albany corruption.

1. Preet Bharara's Trophy Wall
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara took down two men who were among the three most powerful in New York state when he got to them. The indictments and convictions of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos shook Albany - to the extent that anyone was surprised by more corruption among state lawmakers, charges against the two sitting legislative leaders within months of each other was truly shocking. Don't forget that they weren't the only state lawmakers forced from office due to corruption charges this year, and they're among dozens over the past decade or so who've stepped down or been removed from office for ethical problems.

Silver and Skelos have been replaced atop their chambers and will now be replaced in office come special elections. Will Albany replace key elements of the system that they, and so many others, took advantage of? As Bharara would say: stay tuned.

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Assembly Reform Group Will Miss Own Deadline

assembly capitol

(photo via the governor's office on flickr)

The Assembly working group on operations, participation, and transparency is set to miss its self-imposed December deadline to issue recommendations on how to make the chamber more accommodating to the public and rank-and-file members.

Assemblymember Gary Pretlow, the group's co-chair, told Gotham Gazette: "We wanted to get it out before the end of December but that's not gonna happen."

The 12-member group was put together by newly-minted Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie in April as a concession to pressure from reform-minded members and good government groups. The group has gotten off to a slow start and it is unclear how promising the endeavor will be.

In August Pretlow told Gotham Gazette that he and fellow co-chair Brian Kavanagh had only solicited ideas from members via email and not had much response. Heastie defended the group's pace that month.

"The idea was for them to meet and have conversations and come back to us with recommendations in the next session. So I've left that to the 12 members of the committee...they have time," Heastie was quoted by State of Politics. However, by Pretlow's description, only two of the members have had any real say so far.

Pretlow says things have picked up for at least himself and Kavanagh, if not the rest of the working group.

"Assemblyman Kavanagh and I have been wading through 15 pages of recommendations. We've been meeting about every week. We didn't want to bring everyone to Albany every week because then you guys would say we were milking per diems. So it's damned if you do, damned if you don't," Pretlow told Gotham Gazette.

Pretlow said he hopes to present the 12 other members of the group with recommendations within the next two weeks and then share what they agree on with the full Assembly when it returns to session January 6.

Proposals the group could be considering include ones that would more equally distribute resources amongst members, allow for a more open committee process, mandate use of the internet to better publicize important hearings, and allowing rank-and-file members to more easily advance their bills.

The group has faced criticism for not including Assembly Republicans who have long complained of having their voices silenced in legislative committees and bills killed before they reach a vote.

Pretlow said that he and Kavanagh have met with some groups with outside interest in reforms, "We met with the so-called good government groups to take their suggestions and we looked for input from the public but we haven't got any," Pretlow said.

When asked how the group solicited public input, Pretlow said he thought perhaps there was "something on the internet," and encouraged Gotham Gazette to contact Kavanagh for specifics. Kavanagh's office did not return request for comment.

"We've gots lots of recommendations from what's been in the press," said Pretlow. "It's not like this is a secret group."

Representatives of good government groups had slightly varying takes on their meeting with the working group but agreed it wasn't particularly eventful.

Blair Horner, of The New York Public Interest Research Group, said it was hard to read the pair either way and that he felt they were on a "fact-finding mission."

"It was hard to read the tea leaves, they played it close to vest and they were non-committal," said Horner who noted that the working group can't make promises as the Democratic conference will have to approve the recommendations.

Other attendees felt the pair outright rejected many of their proposals without even the slightest consideration and that it seemed they were more concerned with perception and political power than moving on major reform. "We essentially read a list of proposals to these guys and they told us why they can't, or won't, do them," said one attendee.

Some reformers were hoping the group would have recommendations that would have been debated in public hearings, and agreed on in time to pass during their first day in session. It is more likely the conference will discuss the recommendations for the first time as a body on that day.

"The only thing I have to say is that now is clearly the time for Heastie and the Assembly Democrats to make a clean break with a very corrupt and undemocratic past," said John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, when told about the delay. "It's on the Assembly Democrats to change the culture and the rules that have been a breeding ground for scandal after scandal. We hope Speaker Heastie is up to the challenge."

Heastie, who replaced his predecessor, Sheldon Silver, when Silver was indicted (he has since been convicted on federal corruption charges), has received praise from a number of his younger members for listening to a wider range of legislators than Silver and for empowering rank-and-file members.

"Since becoming Speaker, I have made a special effort to create issue specific workgroups and a new subcommittee structure that promotes member participation while exploring new ideas to move New York forward," said Heastie in a statement announcing the creation of the working group. "Members have a lot of great ideas, and the creation of this new workgroup is an opportunity for us to build on the strong processes already in place that promote transparency and accountability."

However, there is growing concern among reformers in and out of the Assembly that Heastie is essentially punishing Kavanagh for pushing for more reforms, which could theoretically weaken Heastie as leader, by sticking him with a group that is meant to be a dog and pony show. Pretlow told Gotham Gazette in August that he wanted to make sure the group didn't do anything to infringe on Heastie's "power."

"This has got to be torture for the guy," said a fellow Democrat of Kavanagh, "He actually wants change and Carl is making him pay for it."

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Cuomo's FOIL Order Has More Limited Scope Than Vetoed Bills

Cuomo event thumbs

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

When Gov. Andrew Cuomo vetoed two bills that would have strengthened the Freedom of Information Law last Friday he framed his action as though the bills were an assault by the legislature--a legislature that refuses to operate under the same set of FOIL rules. A message accompanying his subsequent executive order, which calls for the speeding of FOIL appeal responses, promised: "We will introduce a bill early next year to bring the same, necessary high standards of transparency to the legislature."

Cuomo is now expected to meet with a number of stakeholders in the FOIL debate on Wednesday, including representatives of good government groups.

Assemblymember David Buchwald, sponsor of one of the vetoed bills, told Gotham Gazette that he rejects the ideas that his bill was an attack on the governor and that the issue is one that pits Cuomo against the legislature. He notes that the Assembly has passed his bill for years, that is has been around since before Cuomo became governor, and that, importantly, it has a far wider scope than Cuomo's order. Buchwald says his bill would make executive agencies, local governments, the comptroller and attorney general offices, and the legislature file appeals to FOIL requests within 60 days.

Cuomo is certainly correct that the Freedom of Information Law significantly limits the type of legislative records that are available to the public.

"There are always people who argue that you can't improve some things until every single thing has been improved, but that position doesn't improve things for New Yorkers. It is designed to make sure there is no change," Buchwald told Gotham Gazette.

"This piece of legislation primarily comes out of the Committee on Open Government, which is an executive branch agency. The governor might be right to point back to the legislature, but this legislation has been on his desk and he could have acted at any time. It is not a mere football to be part of this battle," Buchwald said.

John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, noted that most state legislatures are not subject to FOIL and that New York's FOIL is modeled after the federal Freedom of Information Act which does not cover legislative or judicial records. Reinvent Albany issued a report on Tuesday comparing Cuomo's executive order to the vetoed legislation, declaring the order a "setback for transparency."

The report goes on to rebut Cuomo's criticisms of the vetoed bills:

"Previous governors have signed bills strengthening and modernizing FOIL, including the biggest recent change, which explicitly addressed emails. Yes, FOIL should apply to the state legislature, as it does in almost two dozen states. But it is bizarre and unprecedented for a governor to veto FOIL bills which strengthen the existing FOIL—which applies to state agencies and authorities and non-profits, the attorney general, comptroller, and all local governments—because it does not apply to the legislature."

Buchwald noted that Cuomo could have introduced legislation at any time to increase the strength of FOIL.

The governor's subsequent executive order took part of Buchwald's bill and implemented it for the executive branch - requiring executive agencies to appeal a judge's decision to grant a FOIL request within three months, down from nine. But Buchwald's bill would have required an agency submit an appeal within 30 days and finalize the paperwork within 60.

Additionally, Buchwald's bill applied those rules to not only the executive but the comptroller, attorney general, local governments, and authorities. Authorities have become of particular interest to the press corp and good government groups as the Cuomo administration has funded the Buffalo Billion economic development program through such mechanisms and has been criticized by many for a lack of transparency. United States Attorney Preet Bharara is reportedly investigating contracts related to the Buffalo Billion.

Bob Freeman of The Committee on Open Government told State of Politics that he is involved in discussions with the governor's office about revamping New York FOIL. "Although they were indeed vetoed, I've already spoken to the counsel to the governor, we will be working soon on developing legislation that involves a meeting of the minds that would advance the goals the Committee on Open Government has expressed," Freeman said of the two bills.

"The executive order the governor issued hours later shows that there is a lot of merit to my bill but it would have applied to local governments, the attorney general, comptroller and authorities. And the governor's order doesn't touch any of Assemblywoman Paulin's bill," Buchwald said.

Paulin's legislation, also authored by The Committee on Open Government, would have changed a single word in the law from a judge "may" award legal fees if an agency is found to have improperly denied a FOIL request, to "shall." Five other states, including California, New Jersey, and Illinois have such a law.

The Cuomo administration appears to be responding to criticisms of the vetoes and subsequent executive order with a heightened sensitivity. Sources say Cuomo counsel Alphonso David has made an unprecedented number of calls in a short period of time on the matter. A number of sources told Gotham Gazette that they hope the Cuomo administration is actually looking for input from interested parties during Wednesday's meeting and not simply going to reveal their plan while demanding endorsements. Cuomo appears ready to make a renewed push on ethics reform in January when legislators return to Albany. This appears likely to include an expanded FOIL bill.

Freeman told State of Politics that Cuomo's executive order is a "positive step forward," but that "It's not nearly as expansive as a law would have been."

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Negotiations to Extend Important Affordable Housing Tax Break Said to Reach Impasse

Cuomo empty lot

(photo via The Governor's Office on flickr)

It appears that labor leaders and real estate developers are at an impasse in their negotiations of an extension for a controversial tax abatement program meant to encourage affordable housing. Known as 421-a, the program gives real estate developers significant property tax breaks for building affordable housing as part of otherwise market-rate buildings. State lawmakers decided in June to leave the future of the expiring program contingent upon an agreement between labor and business.

Sources close to negotiations characterized discussions as "dead," adding that the Real Estate Board of New York was "unhappy" with the direction of negotiations with the construction workers union. Others told Gotham Gazette that there hasn't been any movement for some time, while other key stakeholders appeared not to have thought or heard anything about the status of negotiations in weeks.

However, spokespeople for John Banks, head of the Real Estate Board of New York, and Gary LaBarbera, head of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, told Gotham Gazette that negotiations continue.

"These are ongoing, good faith, negotiations and we are not going to discuss them publicly," said Jamie McShane, of REBNY, by email. "The negotiations mark a great opportunity to engage in frank and honest discussions about how we can build much more affordable housing, ensure construction workers are treated fairly and create job opportunities for residents of the city."

LaBarbera, issued a similar statement: "We continue to meet with REBNY representatives and are hopeful we will reach an agreement on an extension of the 421-a program in the weeks ahead which provides workers with good wages and benefits and needed affordable housing across New York City."

Both groups say they are working toward a deal by the January 15 deadline. It is unclear whether Gov. Andrew Cuomo's office is involved in mediating negotiations - Cuomo helped spearhead the deal that left extension of 421-a, a government tax and housing policy, up to private parties. The Cuomo administration did not return request for comment.

The 421-a exemption is a favorite of the development industry that has been applied liberally but enforced loosely. It is also seen as essential to building affordable housing in New York City, especially in most desirable neighborhoods.

When 421-a was expiring in June, Cuomo and legislative leaders agreed on a compromise. The deal temporarily extended the program, to the end of the year, while setting up tighter requirements for the affordability component but leaving the future more precarious. Seemingly spurred by concerns that federal prosecutors were watching closely, legislators left it up to labor unions and real estate representatives to negotiate the final, crucial aspect of the deal: the prevailing wage component. Allowing labor unions and the real estate industry to decide legislative policy has been questioned by a number of tenant and good government groups, as well as people in government.

In announcing the major aspects of an end-of-session deal on June 25, Cuomo's office outlined the 421-a extension: "The legislation extends the 421-a program for six months, with a provision that allows representatives of labor and industry groups to reach a memorandum of understanding regarding wage protections for construction workers. If such an agreement is reached, the program will automatically be extended for four years."

Sen Liz Krueger, Democratic member of the Senate Committee on Housing, Construction and Community Development, told Gotham Gazette that she has been informed that negotiations are on the rocks. Krueger has been against putting 421-a negotiations in the hands of real estate and labor. "I've heard through the grapevine that negotiations aren't going well and, OK, that says to me that the program comes to an end," said Krueger. "I believe that it is inappropriate for groups that benefit from a tax break to be in charge of negotiating it."

Having control over the tax breaks, which can be worth millions of dollars, and the jobs created by construction is a major motivator for real estate and labor but many speculate that developers would be more willing to walk away from the negotiating table if labor demands for worker pay eats too far into their bottom line. There are also questions about how easily LaBarbera is able to negotiate with one voice on behalf of the various unions within his larger organization.

Though an agreement may be on the verge of alluding stakeholders, there is more time till the deadline, and deals do tend to get reached at the eleventh hour.

One party certainly paying close attention, if not working to influence negotiations, is the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio, whose affordable housing goals rest, in part, on 421-a-related development.

"We fought hard to secure a program that eliminated tax breaks for luxury condos, doubled affordable housing production, and slashed subsidies per apartment by a third," said Wiley Norvell, a spokesperson for the mayor. "Against some strong political headwinds, we got these reforms passed. The rest is in the hands of the parties that officials in Albany chose to hammer out final program details."

In Fiscal Year 2015, 421-a accounted for more than $1.1 billion in government tax expenditures.

Yet, a recent ProPublica investigation of 421-a found "The failure of city and state regulators to effectively police the tax break at the heart of such deals and hold developers to their word."

This discrepancy is something de Blasio and his team have vowed to change and are working with state partners to correct. It is also part of the impetus for changes in the policy that Norvell alluded to.

When developers apply for and receive the tax abatement, they do not have to pay property taxes for three years during construction, after which their exemption lasts decades in exchange for keeping some units in their new buildings under rental affordability caps. It is part of the state tax code, but applies to New York City development and is overseen by the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development.

Though he has decried how it has been applied and enforced in the past, Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to see 421-a extended, and his ambitious affordable housing plans include units accrued through the program. In the spring, de Blasio offered his own 421-a reform plan, which he got real estate buy-in for, but was rejected by Cuomo, who insisted in more protections for labor. The deal reached by Cuomo and legislative leaders was actually very similar to de Blasio's proposal, but was indeed more favorable for the construction unions - if they could reach a compromise with real estate leaders, of course.

"The story of 421-a has been told," said Krueger. "We don't get the bang for our buck; It has been abused; the real estate industry has learned how to avoid delivering affordable housing and it drives up land prices, which is not helpful in New York City."

Vicki Been, head of de Blasio's housing department, said in November that the administration hoped a deal on 421-a would be reached, but that the city and the administration's affordable housing plans would survive even without one.

"Life will go on," Been said during an event at New York Law School. "There was life before 421-a, and there will be life if 421-a fails. We will survive and still deliver our 200,000 units," Been said, referring to the administration's ten-year goal of preserving or building 200,000 affordable units. Still, Been indicated she would like to see 421-a extended and that, in a newly strengthened form, it would be helpful in achieving the administration's goals.

Cuomo has indicated that he is confident in whatever negotiations might yield. "Organized labor is part of the process and that's what this legislation stipulated," Cuomo said in July, according to State of Politics. "The legislation speaks for itself and it sets up the process and whatever the process yields, that's what the process yields."

If no deal is reached, there may be several fingers pointing at Cuomo for abdicating responsibility. Meanwhile, enough 421-a funded affordable housing is in the pipeline already that an expired program later renewed sometime in 2016 may not cause too many problems for affordable housing development in the city. Some have expressed concern, though, about the ability of nonprofit affordable housing builders to survive without 421-a; and those builders are not necessarily well-represented by REBNY.

Krueger said that she would be happy to negotiate an all new affordable housing program that takes into account the lessons learned from 421-a. She'd like to have a public debate with all the stakeholders involved. However, she fears if a deal with REBNY and labor fails to materialize, a replacement might be negotiated behind closed doors at the last minute in the state budget--specifically the funding bill that is usually presented to legislators and voted on after all the other budget bills.

"I believe now is the right time to negotiate a bill with all the facts on the table," said Krueger. 

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

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