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Heastie Takes to Twitter to Respond to Cuomo on Tax Plan


cuomo heastie standing photo

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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

In Albany, Bharara Challenges Lawmakers to Act, Not Enable


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Preet Bharara (photo: Buck Ennis)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Bharara Visits Capital He Upended


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


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

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

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

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

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

Bharara has made it clear that he continues watching.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

60 cent weekly deduction from employees' paychecks

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

27 cent weekly deduction from employees’ paychecks

Time Off & Payout

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

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

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

TDI Expansion?

Does not expand TDI

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

Does not expand TDI

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Calls for Public Discussion of New Affordable Housing Incentive Program


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The REBNY gala (photo via REBNY on Facebook)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

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In Albany, State Senators Ambush De Blasio on Property Tax Reform


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Mayor de Blasio in Albany Tuesday (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)


Mayor Bill de Blasio surely wasn't expecting a warm reception in Albany Tuesday, but he walked into an ambush. In front of a bipartisan group of state legislators, de Blasio sat for a grueling, nearly five-hour budget testimony. Senate Republicans peppered the mayor with questions about instituting a property tax cap in the city, taking away from any focus on Gov. Andrew Cuomo's budget proposals that would shift state Medicaid and CUNY costs to the city and changing the political dynamics of the budget dance between the city and state.

The hearing was led by Senate finance chair Sen. Catharine Young, a Republican who appeared determined to push de Blasio on the property tax issue as well as his opposition to the city paying more for CUNY and Medicaid. At least one legislator suggested he would give de Blasio his support in a fight against Cuomo's proposed cost shifts in exchange for the mayor's support for a property tax cap. De Blasio indicated in a brief conversation with reporters later in the day that Republican Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan had told him during their private meeting that he was not proposing such an exchange.

De Blasio pushed back against the proposed two percent tax cap saying that while his budgeting so far has kept well within the parameters of the Senate bill - which, not coincidentally, passed in the chamber while de Blasio was testifying nearby - he is "philosophically" opposed to such a cap.

"One thing I'm adamant about is presenting budgets that do not include a property tax increase," said de Blasio, whose aides were quick to present members of media with data indicating that city homeowners pay the lowest property tax rates in the state and that a cap would cost the city billions in revenue each year.

While de Blasio is not raising property tax rates, homeowners do pay increasing property taxes as the values of their homes rise.

Traditionally mayors and representatives for localities from across the state travel to the legislature's joint budget hearing on local government to give their evaluations of the governor's proposed budget while pushing for more funding. This year de Blasio was expected to focus on key aspects of his own agenda that need continued funding and the proposals in Cuomo's budget that would shift additional costs onto the city, estimated to cost the city well over one billion dollars annually. De Blasio is also looking to renew mayoral control of schools and advance his affordable housing plan, which hit a major snag when negotiations to renew the 421-a tax break failed.

However, Senate Republicans appeared fixated on keeping de Blasio on the defensive by repeatedly pushing the tax cap proposal. Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the legislature passed a two percent local and school-based property tax cap in 2011, though New York City is the only locality excluded. The property tax cap is the only tax the city controls independently of the state. Both Queens Sen. Tony Avella, of the Independent Democratic Conference, and Republican Sen. Andrew Lanza, of Staten Island, insisted property taxes were driving the middle class out of the city. It was a contention that de Blasio refuted.

In what is sure to be an extremely sensitive topic for the rest of session, de Blasio pressed the legislature to renew mayoral control of schools permanently, or for at least seven years as it had done before he was mayor. De Blasio received just a one year extension last year and Gov. Cuomo has called for a three-year extension.

Last year Senate Republicans held the issue over de Blasio's head seemingly in retribution for his involvement in efforts to help Democrats win the chamber. The policy is now up for renewal again during an election year when de Blasio has indicated he will again help Senate Democrats.

The mayor touted increasing graduation rates, lower dropout rates, and the successful implementation of universal pre-kindergarten.

"Successes like these are why there's bipartisan consensus on mayoral control and that is why educators, business leaders, civic leaders alike want it renewed," de Blasio testified. "It would build predictability into the system, which is important for bringing about the deep, long-range change that is needed."

De Blasio also used portions of his testimony to compliment Cuomo on prioritizing supportive housing, affordable housing, an increase in the minimum wage, and a paid family leave proposal. He also praised the continued push for the Dream Act and raising the age of criminal responsibility, two policies the governor and Assembly Democrats have backed, but that have run into opposition in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Sen. Young, who represents parts of western New York, and her colleagues pushed back against complaints de Blasio made about Cuomo's plan to shift costs for Medicaid and CUNY onto the city. She insisted the city is "awash in money right now" and implied that the city gets more than its fair share in Medicaid funding from the state. Sen. Liz Krueger, a Democrat from Manhattan, sought to contradict the assertion when she had time to speak and ask the mayor questions.

"So, Senator Young brought up the amount of Medicaid money New York City gets compared to the rest of the state," said Krueger. "Do we get special rules for New York City? Or is it just a ration of the number of poor people drawing down Medicaid throughout the state, and the New York City share?"

Dean Fuleihan, de Blasio's budget director, responded that the city does not set its rate of Medicaid reimbursement and does not get a rate different than any other municipality in the state.

Krueger continued that strategy of questioning while discussing Cuomo's proposal to shift more costs for CUNY onto the city. "In fact, this proposal that the governor's making, what it does is shift a greater burden to the locality for CUNY students than for SUNY students," said Krueger.

"That's correct," Fuleihan replied.

"And is it true that CUNY students are already lower-income on average than SUNY students throughout the state?" Krueger asked. "Correct," said Fuleihan.

Democrats weren't just coming to de Blasio's defense, though. Sen. Bill Perkins pressed the mayor on his relationship with charter schools, while others expressed concerns that his housing plans could lead to gentrification and wondered about the efficacy of the 421-a program, which de Blasio wants to see renewed, albeit with his desired changes.

Toward the end of the hearing de Blasio and Young appeared to try to find common ground on housing despite the fact that Young said that she would like to see an end to affordable housing regulations.

Young encouraged de Blasio to tackle the shortage of affordable housing. De Blasio responded by pointing to 421-a. "We think there is a solution available given the plan we put forward that had widespread support," said de Blasio, referencing his plan to renew 421-a that was scrapped when Cuomo and the legislature decided to let developers and unions negotiate the wages portion of the bill and they could not come to an agreement.

Young then pushed de Blasio to pick whether he favored the budget from the last fiscal year or the governor's current plan. "There are so many unanswered questions in the current budget, I can't answer that question," de Blasio said. Cuomo has yet to outline how he will pay for major construction projects, including the revamp of Penn Station and the city's airports. The governor also has general outlines of housing plans that his policy book promises will be fleshed out in the coming weeks. Further, Cuomo indicated he would abandon plans to shift costs from CUNY and Medicaid to the city if "efficiencies" can be found by the city and state working collaboratively. "There are a lot of elements of this budget we don't have the full facts on," said de Blasio, adding that he was very appreciative of the governor's supportive housing proposal.

Young said it was clear to her that de Blasio should favor this year's proposed budget over last year's enacted. "From what I can see there are significant investments to the city across the board," said Young.

[Related: De Blasio Releases Cautious $82 Billion Budget]

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

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'Dangerousness' Aspect of Cuomo's Bail Plan Troubles Reformers


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Gov. Cuomo delivers his State of the State


In his recently-released policy agenda for 2016, Gov. Andrew Cuomo included a plan to reform the state's bail system. While it has not been fully fleshed out yet, Cuomo's proposal dictates that judges would use a scientific assessment tool to determine an individual's "risk to public safety" while setting bail, a proposal similar to one Mayor Bill de Blasio recently made, with both coming under fire from criminal justice reformers.

De Blasio made his call on the state to reform bail laws in the wake of the shooting of NYPD Officer Randolph Holder by an alleged assailant with a long rap sheet of drug-related arrests. The mayor and others attacked the judge who put the alleged shooter into a diversion program instead of setting a high bail and effectively holding him in jail.

The plan was criticized by public defenders and criminal justice reform groups as a step in the wrong direction. Groups like Legal Aid Society are concerned adding 'dangerousness' to a judge's evaluation of an individual could lead to preemptive detention and institutionalized racism, see people charged with nonviolent crimes hit with disproportionate bail because they are deemed to be a threat, and lead to even more jail overcrowding as judges feel the need to remand an increasing number of defendants out of the fear of political blow back.

The same groups are now surprised and concerned to see Cuomo is running with the idea.

"I think this could make things terribly worse," said Jonathan Gradess, executive director of the New York State Defenders Association. "I think the mayor made a mistake when he called for this. I understand it was after a shooting of a police officer but it's wrongheaded and the governor is wrongheaded in now proposing the same thing the mayor did. We'd be giving a legal protection to the racism that already exists in the system."

Advocates for criminal justice reform and a number of Democratic legislators were surprised when presented with Cuomo's bail reform plan given that most of the criminal justice priorities contained in his address and other recent action lined up with major progressive reform agenda items. These include Cuomo's push to raise the age of adult criminal responsibility from 16 to 18 and to expand alternatives to incarceration programs.

Cuomo's budget book lists the bail plan under the "Fairness For All" section, along with increasing "opportunities for families to stay close during incarceration" and "reward[ing] success after release," among other planks.

The governor appears to be making the same argument that de Blasio made, which is that there needs to be more leniency for non-violent offenders, but harsher discipline for those who commit the gravest crimes - or who may commit them.

The Cuomo administration intends to utilize a risk-assessment program like the one developed by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, an organization that looks to use a fact-based approach to combating societal problems. The program aims to gauge an individual's risk of reoffense by evaluating factors including age, criminal record, and previous failures to appear in court. The foundation has touted the predictive tool as a way to remove biases from the process of setting bail. Criminal justice reformers and public defenders worry it will have the opposite impact.

Members of the Cuomo administration stressed that they have yet to settle on a plan, or develop a program bill with the parameters for the program and that any judgement by outside groups is simply uninformed.

"Bail reform, when combined with an assessment tool, has the opposite effect of what they are suggesting," Alphonso David, counsel to Governor Cuomo told Gotham Gazette of critics. "What we've seen when it has been implemented in areas of Kentucky and in the city of Chicago is a decrease in crime, a decrease in reoffending, and a decrease in jail population."

Nevertheless, advocates are concerned that an impersonal evaluation tool will make it easier for judges to rationalize denying bail.

"Over the last couple of years we've been heartened to see an incredible amount of attention paid to the problems with our bail system -- people languishing in jail for years who have not been convicted of anything, who simply can't pay the price for their freedom and how our bail system disproportionately impacts people of color," said Justine Olderman of The Bronx Defenders.

"Policy makers have vowed to fix these problems," Olderman said. "Yet at the same time, they call for including dangerousness in the bail statute which will expand the reasons that a person who is presumed innocent can be held in jail. They seem to do so without any recognition that including dangerousness will undermine their bail reform efforts and will only exacerbate our current bail crisis."

Lately, the conversation about bail has focused on preventing the poor from disproportionately having to serve jail time when they can't afford to pay even small amounts of bail for minor crimes. City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito first announced plans to back a bail fund, then de Blasio followed suit with a public bail fund, followed by Democratic state Senator Michael Gianaris introducing legislation that would eliminate cash bail for certain individuals.

Gianaris said that he hopes there will be room for discussion of his plan given that the governor put the concept of bail reform in his 2016 agenda. "The debate is long overdue," said Gianaris. "The bail system has no rational basis. It just imprisons poor people who have not been convicted, the rich simply pay bail."

Gianaris acknowledged that the concept of basing bail on dangerousness has split progressives in the past. "This has been an ongoing debate with progressives falling on different sides of it. My bill doesn't change what a judge considers. It just does away with the financial component of bail."

Advocates say Cuomo's proposal simply doesn't jive with the rest of his progressive criminal justice agenda.

"I was surprised to see this in the same agenda with 'raise the age' and other criminal justice reforms," said Justine Luongo, who is the attorney in charge of Legal Aid Society's legal practice. "I understand why you would go this route: you want to prevent terrible tragedies, but this leads us down the wrong path."

Cuomo's 2016 policy book states that New York is one of four states that do not require judges to consider public safety when setting bail and that the current "approach means that people in New York who do not present a risk to public safety are detained while people who may present a risk to public safety are able to post bail and gain release."

The policy book goes on to say: "Governor Cuomo will introduce legislation to require judges to consider public safety when making release and bail decisions. The legislation will also permit judges to use research-based, accepted risk assessments when considering a defendant's threat to public safety. Other states and cities are using these risk assessments with good results: more people are released from jail before trial, without any attendant rise in crime."

The New York Times reported in June that a North Carolina precinct that has implemented the Arnold Foundation's assessment tool has seen its jail population drop by 20 percent.

State Senator Gustavo Rivera, who said he was very pleased by the majority of Cuomo's criminal justice agenda, was taken aback by the bail proposal. "As far as the bail proposal and my current understanding of it, I am deeply concerned that it might be going toward preventive detention," Rivera, who has backed a bail fund in the Bronx, told Gotham Gazette. "The state moved away from that, it rejected that in the past."

The state legislature has periodically debated having judges consider dangerousness since the 1970s, but in the end has decided against it.

"I think conceptually most people support judges being able to consider public safety when setting bail," said David, Cuomo's counsel.

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance has advocated for this particular change to the state's criminal justice law. "My Office has long supported a change to the state's antiquated law that only permits us to take an individual's risk of flight into account when setting bail," Vance said in a statement in July that was issued as part of an announcement touting a $17.8 million commitment from de Blasio to supervise 3,000 defendants as part of a community release program designed to avoid bail or jail time before trial.

"Today, I'm calling on Albany to amend that law to enable prosecutors, judges, and defense attorneys to also evaluate dangerousness and risk of re-offending when making bail determinations, as is the practice in nearly every other state in this country," Vance's July statement continued. "The use of an updated science-driven risk assessment tool will help actors in the criminal justice system better understand who can safely be released and supervised in the community while awaiting their day in court."

Reform advocates and a number of public defenders said they've seen no proof that states that consider dangerousness are actually preventing crime. They insist that only a small portion of those released on bail actually go on to be rearrested while awaiting trial.

"I have not come across any empirical data that New York has greater rearrest rates than any community with a dangerous statute," said Olderman.

Advocates fear the assessment tool will be used to jail a larger swath of people who haven't been found guilty of any crime, that judges will tend toward remanding defendants rather than posting bail for fear that there could be political backlash should someone out on bail is accused of another crime.

"We are very concerned there will be findings of dangerousness by this assessment tool in cases where there is no nexus with violence," said Luongo. She said that a youth with a history of non-violent misdemeanors could be deemed dangerous because of assessment criteria.

"In the current system a number of factors are already taken into account when setting bail, in domestic violence cases for example. We have registries for gun offenders and domestic violence, a judge can already take dangerousness into account," said Luongo. "Our concern is here that we are talking about predictive, preventative detention. It is troubling that the governor is not talking about striking a balance, doing away with bail in misdemeanor cases as former Chief Judge Lippman has suggested."

Jonathan Lippman, who was forced into retirement recently due to age restrictions on his position, has long pushed the legislature to overhaul the state's bail system as he has argued it disproportionately impacts the poor, forcing those unable to pay even the smallest bail to serve long jail terms before trial and thereby destroying any chance they have at a normal life. However, Lippman has advocated the state to move on the bail reform de Blasio and Cuomo are pushing for. In August, Lippman defended de Blasio's stance in an interview with Politico New York in October.

"I think they're fearful of this idea of preventive detention, but at some point you have to have confidence in judges and their judgement — that's what judges are there for — and you have to have a balanced bail statute that makes some sense and keeps violent people in, and there's a presumption that people who are not violent, and won't hurt anybody, are at their job and with their families and out on the street," Lippman said of Legal Aid Society criticism, according to Politico New York.

Legal Aid Society is also concerned that once a judge labels someone "dangerous" it could become very difficult to lose the label even in the face of facts. Luongo said that facts in cases can quickly change as seen in the recent highly-publicized Brownsville group rape case. "If one judge finds a defendant "dangerous," who is going to be willing to reverse that? Are judges going to be willing to step on another judge's toes?"

Robyn Pangi of The District Attorneys Association of New York told Gotham Gazette that her organization had not yet seen any specifics of Cuomo's plan. "District Attorneys would like to be involved in conversations regarding changes to the current bail system, particularly a proposal that takes into account the dangerousness of a defendant when setting bail," Pangi said in a statement. "DAs are interested in different mechanisms of pretrial detention, but stress that any sound proposal must take into account public safety and allow for prosecutorial appeal of the judge's decision in cases where the DA feels that public safety has not been given sufficient consideration."

There may not be much room for debate on the proposal this year as many important Democratic legislators are opposed to the idea from the get-go.

"I think this is a non-starter," said Gradess, of New York State Defenders Association.

Albany can be a place of trade-offs, though, and Cuomo could work to convince initial opponents to agree to a full package of bail reforms that also satisfy what they would see as progress.

Cuomo's counsel, Alphonso David, told Gotham Gazette that he would be surprised to see opposition to the plan once the administration releases its full bill. "We can't be driven by fears, we have to be driven by data," said David. "We don't legislate based on fear, we legislate based on data."

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing

Good Government Groups Rate Cuomo's Ethics Package


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing

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


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Governor Cuomo presents his 2014-2015 Executive Budget


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cuomo Outlines $144 Billion Budget


cuomo built to lead speech sots

Cuomo taking the podium for his State of the State


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Senate Republicans are not particularly open to the plan.

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

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

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



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