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Cuomo's Public Schedules Offer Little Information


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

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Assembly Announces Internal Reform Plan to Mixed Reviews


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

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

In Albany, Sunshine Week Starts with Darkness


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


The first Sunshine Week following the convictions of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos got off to an inauspicious start Monday as representatives of the state's major good government groups gathered in Albany to give their evaluation of the ethics reforms put forward in the one-house budgets released by the Assembly and Senate majorities over the weekend.

"Unfortunately with a late Friday release what we're seeing is what I've begun to call 'The Albany Shuffle,'" said Susan Lerner of Common Cause NY. "Issues addressed with bills that aren't quite strong enough, that have a low probability of making it into law. What we need now and what we've been saying quite consistently is there is a crisis of corruption, this is the moment for a robust ethics package, and that we need the governor to be asserting his leadership bringing both houses of the Legislature together on a strong comprehensive ethics package."

Sunshine Week is supposed to be a celebration and examination of transparency and openness in government. It arrives in Albany this year for one of the most secretive and restrictive budget processes in recent memory. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan have carried out clandestine budget negotiations with an efficiency rarely seen. Usually reporters are tipped to budget meetings, proposals are floated in the press, and press conferences held to update the public on progress. This year the information has largely dried up and Cuomo hasn't held a second floor press conference since late June of last year.

"It's as dark a process as I've ever seen," Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group told Gotham Gazette.

While Cuomo included ethics reforms in his budget he hasn't mentioned reform since without direct provocation by reporters. The Assembly majority released an ethics reform plan on Friday and the Senate majority appears to have no interest in new reforms to prevent or punish corruption, other than a pension forfeiture measure.

The Cuomo administration lashed out at good government groups last week after they called on the governor to hold public meetings with legislative leaders on ethics reform. Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi said that there would be further discussion of ethics reform while also looking at who funds good government groups and whether they are actually "shadow lobbyists."

Horner said he believes that state leaders are working together to squash reform talk in hopes that public interest wanes. He also believes they are misjudging the impact of the Skelos and Silver convictions. "No public hearings, no public input around the biggest scandals that have rocked Albany in generations, and so it's sort of a stunning rebuke not only for the public's right to know, but also for Sunshine Week that this is what we are talking about - Albany being closed to public scrutiny and what may be a colossal failure by Albany's political establishment to deal with the biggest issues facing state government."

On Monday, good government groups didn't have anything to evaluate when it came to the Senate's budget proposal because it does not contain any ethics reform proposals.

"This week is Sunshine Week, which is the national celebration of openness in government," said Horner. "In Albany, unfortunately, the curtains are tightly drawn in terms of what the public can see in [government] deliberations."

Horner, Lerner, and other government reform group representatives criticized the Assembly plan as having no particular logic. One measure included in the Assembly budget restricts legislators' outside income to 40 percent of a state Supreme Court judge's salary, which comes to about $70,000. Legislators currently earn $79,500 per year. Gov. Cuomo proposed a bill earlier this year restricting outside income to 15 percent of that salary - Cuomo's plan is drawn from the current Congressional model.

The Assembly also proposed a law that would restrict lawyer-legislators from simply earning money by having their name at a law firm, requiring them to prove they actually do casework. Horner said that the language of the law is so vague it is hard to tell who would judge what was legitimate work for a law firm and how it would be enforced. Heastie told reporters on Friday that his conference hadn't quite figured out enforcement yet.

Lerner and Horner both said they believe that the governor and legislative leaders will play the "blame game" on ethics, without reaching any consensus. Cuomo will blame the Legislature for proposing weaker measures than he did, or for not supporting reform at all, and both houses of the legislature will blame each other.

Early Monday rank-and-file lawmakers were boning up on their house budgets as the majorities moved swiftly to vote on the plans. Many expect that a vote on the overall budget could come by the end of the week, delivering an early spending plan - the deadline is the end of the month. However, if that does come to pass many legislators expect contentious issues like ethics reform, a minimum wage hike, and paid family leave to be excluded, pushed to the legislative session to follow the budget.

A deal by the end of the week would also mean that the "three men in a room" - Democrats Cuomo and Heastie and Flanagan, a Republican - would have quickly hammered out their differences in typical Albany fashion. Asked on Friday by Gotham Gazette about how many negotiation sessions the three had had, Heastie was evasive, saying there had been meetings, but only on broad strokes. He indicated that specific discussions would heat up once the two chambers passed their one-house budgets. Heastie did give a speech in New York City on Friday and take more than 45 minutes of questions from reporters.

Democratic Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins criticized the budget process before her house voted on the Republican-crafted, one-house bill. "Today on the first day of Sunshine Week, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that this year's budget process has taken a step back in transparency," she said. "The much maligned 'three men in the room' process seems to have been replaced by a more secretive format of covert meetings and phone calls shielded from the press and public. I hope that in the remaining time left we can open up this process and allow all New Yorkers to see what we are doing on their behalf."

Assembly Republicans expressed horror that the Democrats' reform plans weren't stronger and didn't address a multitude of gripes they have with how power is allocated in the chamber. Senate Democrats decried the lack of any reforms in the Republican budget. Both majorities said there would be more discussion of ethics - Assembly Democrats say it will come during budget negotiations, Senate Republicans insist it will be after.

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

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Democrats and Republicans Run Parallel Races in Special Elections Created by Corruption


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Chris McGrath, Republican candidate for state Senate (photo: @McGrath4Senate) 


Both groups are accustomed to scrapping for power and attention. With two recent federal corruption convictions, each saw an opportunity to grab more. And now, in downtown Manhattan and Nassau County Long Island, Republicans and Democrats are running parallel campaigns to seize upon a chance to flip one seat in each of the two houses of the New York State Legislature. 

Assembly Republicans and Senate Democrats again find themselves in similar positions - each trying to win a special election to replace a deposed leader by painting the majority candidate as a product of the man they are vying to replace and symbol of Albany dysfunction. The majority candidates, in turn, face questions about how much government reform they actually support.

The races to replace former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Manhattan Democrat, and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, a Long Island Republican, have become testament to the quirkiness of New York politics and the Albany tradition whereby legislative majorities look the other way and promulgate a system long-criticized for a lack of transparency and ethics.

To be sure, the Senate race presents a far more likely opportunity for the minority party to pick up a seat, as well as a more consequential potential shift in the house with a near-equal balance of power. Democrats not only hold a far wider voter registration advantage in Manhattan, but in their control of the Assembly.

Set for April 19, the two elections are unfolding against the backdrop of budget negotiations in Albany, which Silver and Skelos - along with Gov. Andrew Cuomo - dominated for years. It seemed likely earlier this year that budget season would include ethics reform as a major ingredient, however Cuomo, a Democrat, has rarely mentioned ethics since unveiling a significant reform platform during his State of the State address in January.

On Friday, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie outlined his chamber's ethics plan, which aligns fairly closely with Cuomo's. Senate Republicans, on the other hand, have indicated that they see little need for further reforms to prevent and punish government corruption.

Many believe that ethics reforms will be dropped from the budget, where Cuomo has the most leverage to negotiate them if he truly wants them enacted. In the legislative session to follow the budget, there's no urgency like during budget time and this year legislators will be in a hurry to get back to their districts for campaign season. It leaves many Albany observers and actors wondering whether there will be any tangible impact on Albany from the recent corruption convictions besides the two vacancies they created.

In the special election to replace Skelos, Democratic Assembly Member Todd Kaminsky, a former federal prosecutor, and Christopher McGrath, a personal injury attorney, face off in the Nassau County district.

The stakes are particularly high as control of the 63-seat Senate depends on just a few swing districts. Democrats have tried to paint McGrath as part of the Republican county apparatus that supported Skelos. Senate Republicans have mostly pushed back against ethics reforms such as limiting outside income, closing the LLC loophole, and other tougher campaign finance laws, saying that there will always be bad apples and that previous reforms should be enough.

McGrath has said he will not step away from his law practice if elected, something Democrats have seized on as Silver was convicted on charges of using state money in a scheme to receive kickbacks from his law firm. The new Assembly ethics plan unveiled on Friday includes both new limits to what legislators can make in outside income and a mandate that lawyer-legislators must earn their outside income through casework, not simply being "of counsel" at a firm.

Democrats have played up Kaminsky's experience as a federal prosecutor and his condemnation of corruption across party lines. "Todd Kaminsky is exactly who Long Islanders need to clean up Albany," said Senator Chuck Schumer as he endorsed Kaminsky on Friday (pictured). "As a federal corruption prosecutor, Todd took on the tough cases and made sure that if you broke the law, you were held accountable - regardless of whether you are a Democrat or Republican."

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Republicans have countered that Kaminsky failed to break from Silver during his time as an Assembly member. They have also made Kaminsky's election about Mayor Bill de Blasio, saying that a Democratic majority would be a mechanism for spreading de Blasio's liberal agenda across the state.

McGrath has supported Republican-backed measures to strip pensions from lawmakers convicted of corruption and to put term limits on legislative leaders.

"How can [Todd Kaminsky] say he supports pension forfeiture, term limits for leaders but he and his NYC allies in Assembly won't pass either?" tweeted Republican spokesperson Scott Reif late last month. Reif and Democratic spokesperson Mike Murphy have been regularly engaging in public arguments about the race on Twitter.

The forfeiture issue became complicated when Senate Republicans passed a measure that would have any state employee forfeit their pension if convicted and unions pressed the Assembly to back a law limited to elected officials.

"Despite all the bluster that ethics reform isn't important I think these convictions have changed their thinking," said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group about Senate Republicans. "It's clearly changed their choice in candidates. They've picked a relative outsider in Chris McGrath." Horner said Senate Republicans also chose a relative unknown in their successful 2015 bid to replace Sen. Tom Libous, who was also convicted on federal charges, with relative unknown Fred Akshar.

Sen. Michael Gianaris of Queens, who heads the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee, painted McGrath as a "Skelos crony" in an interview with Gotham Gazette. Gianaris referenced a Daily News story that reported McGrath represented a Republican political club and campaign manager and long-time friend of Skelos in a suit brought in 1997 by a former employee of the Nassau County Bridge Authority who said he was forced from his position after trying to remove a number of patronage hires.

"What's past is prologue," said Gianaris. "When Nassau County Republicans had ethics trouble years ago they went to Chris McGrath and here they are after Skelos' conviction turning to him again."

Democrats have hit McGrath for the association in attack ads. McGrath's campaign and representative of the Republican Majority have said that McGrath simply represented his friend.

The race to replace Silver has similar theme, albeit with the shoes on the other feet, but is decidedly lower stakes. Assembly Republicans have little chance of taking a majority in their chamber for the foreseeable future, however winning Silver's seat would be a tremendous moral victory for them. Some Democrats have privately acknowledged that they expect Republican candidate Lester Chang to perform better than expected in what is an extremely Democratic district, thanks to a fractious Democratic nomination process.

In that process, local Democrats decided to support a Silver disciple despite condemnation from many Democrats, Republicans, and government watchdogs.

The special election process dictates that instead of a primary the local party apparatus picks a candidate. To name a Democratic nominee, four clubs marshalled their members, with three of them backing Alice Cancel, whose name will be on the party's ballot line. One of those clubs counts Silver's wife and their allies as its members. The result was a number of reform Democrats decrying the process. Yuh-Line Niou dropped out of the selection process in protest and his now running on the Working Families Party Line. She's been endorsed by Comptroller Scott Stringer and several others (Cancel happens to work under Stringer at the comptroller's office.)

District Leader Paul Newell, who previously challenged Silver unsuccessfully, has decided to skip the special election and run in a Democratic primary in the fall when the seat will be up for grabs again. District Leader Jenifer Rajkumar also plans to run at that time.

Cancel has done nothing to distance herself from Silver and has in fact praised him repeatedly. "For us, he was a hero — because of the things he brought to our community, because of the schools that we didn't have that were built because of his negotiations to get it done for the community. The money that he poured in for our seniors, for our daycare, for our Head Start. Why would we be attacking him?" Cancel said in an interview with The Lo-Down about the selection process and her candidacy.

"I think people are aware of both of those things," Newell told Gotham Gazette. "There is no question he did a lot for his district, but they are also aware that reform is necessary."

Manhattan Republican Chair Adele Malpass said that she sees Cancel's candidacy as a clear indication that the Silver indictment had little impact on those in power. "It shows there is no consequence for corruption, there was no message received at all," Malpass told Gotham Gazette. "This was just business as usual. They had eight candidates to choose from and the one they picked was backed by Silver's wife and called him a hero. This is just the party boss system and people are afraid to challenge them."

Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, who has been an outspoken critic of the power enjoyed by both legislative majorities and their reticence toward reform, recently headlined a fundraiser for Chang and did some campaigning with him.

"It is surprising to me to see Silver indicted, tried and convicted so quickly only to turn around and have his wife, and Judy Rapfogel involved in selecting his replacement," Kolb told Gotham Gazette, referring to Silver's former chief of staff. "And then on top of that, [Cancel] comes out and says [Silver's] a hero."

Despite his previous criticism of both majorities Kolb offered a brighter interpretation of how the Senate Majority has handled filling Skelos' seat. "Yes local republicans were involved in the selection process, but Dean Skelos' family was not involved in selecting a candidate," Kolb told Gotham Gazette. "I think Todd Kaminsky is a handsome, experienced prosecutor, but he supported Shelly Silver and he didn't support the [pension] forfeiture amendment."

Kolb said that if Chang is elected he will be able to vote his conscience and will not be ordered how to vote by leadership - something he says occurs in both the Senate and Assembly majorities.

Horner, of NYPIRG, said he suspects that Gov. Cuomo and both majorities have been working to tamp down discussion of reform because it benefits them politically. "It's pretty clear the political establishment in New York does not want to allow any oxygen into the room on ethics," Horner told Gotham Gazette. "That air fuels the fire of voters anger and they want it to burn out, they want to smother. If it's not in the budget then I assume they will do it in June and they are hoping by then people won't be as angry. We need a champion and the governor is the obvious person to be that champion but he is choosing not to do it."

It is unclear how much the Silver and Skelos convictions or the former leaders' ties to candidates seeking to replace them will have on voters. But, about 9 in 10 New Yorkers recently polled called government corruption a "very serious" or "somewhat serious" problem in state government.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who took down both Silver and Skelos, has repeatedly said that corruption in government is cultural, not partisan or regional.

"In recent times, the New York Legislature has been marked by regular bribery, rampant kickbacks and a rancid culture," Bharara said during a talk in Albany last month. "Recent events paint a portrait of the show me the money culture in the worst possible way. It continues, by the way, to be a bipartisan affair, Republican and Democrat, in the Assembly and in the Senate, upstate and downstate."

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

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Heastie Outlines Assembly Ethics Plan


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Carl Heastie (photo: Office of the Governor - Kevin P. Coughlin)


In a major departure from his predecessor, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie publicly laid out his conference's proposals for government ethics reform during a wide-ranging speech and interview Friday morning. At a breakfast event hosted by Crain's New York Business, Heastie explained the proposals for preventing government corruption that will be contained in the Assembly's one-house budget, the release of which is key to intensifying negotiations with Governor Andrew Cuomo and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan.

The announcement comes after many weeks of silence from the Legislature and Gov. Cuomo on ethics reform despite the fact that the leaders of both legislative houses were indicted and convicted on multiple federal counts of corruption last year. The proposals largely align with what Cuomo, a Democrat, outlined during his January State of the State address, while two of the policies are likely to face major push back from the Republican Senate majority. Heastie leads the Democratic Assembly majority.

Two Assembly proposals likely to face opposition from the Senate deal with outside income legislators are allowed to earn. One takes direct aim at an issue that fell Heastie's predecessor, Sheldon Silver: The Assembly would limit attorneys to only making money for casework they perform, rather than from being "of counsel" and simply lending their name to a law firm. The second would prevent legislators from earning more in outside income than they receive in legislative salary. Legislators currently make $79,500 per year, though a compensation commission has recently begun examining the issue and is likely to recommend significant raises for lawmakers, who have not seen a raise in 16 years.

Other measures Heastie outlined include closing the LLC Loophole that allows wealthy donors to subvert the state's campaign contribution limits, tightening rules around the use of campaign funds and party "housekeeping" accounts, which are also used to get around state campaign finance laws.

Unlike anything Silver ever did, Heastie described the Assembly's one-house budget and then took questions from two reporters for 45 minutes in front of a crowd of more than 200 in a Manhattan club ballroom. Heastie followed that Q&A by taking questions from other journalists in attendance for about 10 minutes.

A significant portion of the dialogue centered around government ethics and corruption, with Heastie both outlining new reform plans and defending himself and his colleagues as good public servants. After Heastie made his opening remarks, Crain's editor Erik Engquist and Politico New York reporter Laura Nahmias asked the speaker a wide variety of questions, including several that pushed Heastie for his take on what actually plays into corruption in Albany.

Confronted with a recent poll that found 90 percent of voters think Albany has a corruption problem, Heastie defended his members. "I don't want to ignore fact that there's been issues amongst elected officials, but I do believe the majority of elected officials go there for the right reasons," said Heastie, adding that "in any industry you are going to have bad apples."

Heastie also continually referred to things that "tripped up" his fellow legislators - apparent references to the rash of high-profile corruption cases Albany has seen over the last decade.

He challenged the media to cover "the good things" the Legislature does and also praised prosecutors for doing their jobs. Heastie pushed back against the assertion that campaign contributions can lead to corruption and half-joked that the only way for politicians to win is to only accept donations from groups they don't support because the press points out donations to politicians when they coincide with legislation that is favorable to a donor.

"Leveraging your name is something that got my predecessor in trouble," Heastie said, pointing to the "of counsel" measure contained in the Assembly budget. Asked later how the bill would actually be enforced Heastie replied that the conference hadn't actually gotten that far, but said the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) is a possibility.

"We have a significant number of lawyers in the conference and people are comfortable with what we've put forward," said Heastie.

Gov. Cuomo's budget contains a number of ethics proposals, including one that would limit legislators' outside income to 15 percent of their government salary. The budget also includes an end to the LLC loophole, pension forfeiture for legislators convicted of abusing their office, and increased transparency measures. Cuomo, however, has been focused on stumping for his $15 minimum wage plan, only discussing ethics reforms when questioned by the press.

Asked if ethics reforms were likely to stay in the budget late last month Cuomo responded: "Well, we're going to see. I would like to get it done in the budget, I made it as part of the budget. And I think that everyone understands that you need reforms in Albany. I proposed very drastic reforms — primarily for the Legislature, which is where we've seen a lot of corruption recently. Limiting outside income, passing pension forfeiture, more disclosure, more transparency, closing the LLC loophole. I stated it very clearly in my State of the State. It's part of the budget. And as we get closer and actually have budget conversations, it's going to be at the top of the list."

The governor's office did not respond to a request for comment on the Assembly Democrats' ethics plans.

When Gotham Gazette asked Heastie if he had any sense of what Senate Majority Leader Flanagan might think of the proposals, he said to ask Flanagan. Flanagan's office did not respond to a Gotham Gazette request for reaction to Heastie's announcement of the Assembly's budget-based ethics reforms.

Heastie told Gotham Gazette that no "detailed" budget discussions have taken place yet because neither house has fully issued its one-house budget proposals. "There hasn't been any real discussion except overall of what we think we need to see happen through the budget," said Heastie. A budget deal is due by April 1, when the next fiscal year begins. If ethics reforms are not accomplished in a budget package, they could be hashed out in the legislative session to follow, though there is reason to be skeptical that significant reform would be agreed upon between April and the end of session in June.

Meanwhile, Assembly Democrats have faced major criticism from the Republican minority for a drawn out rules reform process whereby the chamber will change its practices in an effort to become more democratic. Last year, after replacing Silver, Heastie put together a commission to look at altering the rules of the chamber to increase transparency and participation. That group has had almost a year to work on the issue and has held no public hearings. The group's two chairs have given Gotham Gazette and other media outlets conflicting timelines for the release of what they said is a 49-point reform plan. On Friday, Heastie told Gotham Gazette, as the chairs have in the past, that the reforms should be released soon.

"They're being brought out in three different forms," Heastie told Gotham Gazette. "Some we can draft up in rules, some I can do administratively, and then there's some technology things. We'll probably put things out in the next week or so."

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

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Key to Vision of Closing Rikers, City Council Bail Fund Moves Through State Process


MMV SOTC bail fund story

Mark-Viverito delivers her State of the City (photo: William Alatriste)


Last year, New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito unveiled her plan for a fund that would cover bail for poor individuals charged with low-level criminal offenses who would otherwise be forced to wait in a city jail for their court date. The Council dedicated $1.4 million of budget funds to back the project, which is nearing launch.

The program, if successful, could not only keep hundreds of individuals from staying in jail because they can't afford bail, but also lead to the expansion of state law that oversees and licenses bail funds, allowing for more criminal charges to be covered and higher bails paid.

The Council bail fund is going through a fairly lengthy process to get up and running, with no clear start date more than a year after the initiative was announced. Mark-Viverito recently said she expects it to be functional in the coming months, but that the bureaucratic process of getting licensed by state overseers takes time. The fund has just been approved as a not-for-profit charity by the state attorney general's office, the second in four key steps. A heightened sense of urgency around the bail plan has emerged after Mark-Viverito announced this year that she hopes it will be a key element of actualizing "the dream" of closing Rikers Island jails. 

About 10,000 people are currently held in Rikers Island and other city jails, most awaiting a court appearance after being arrested for a low-level, non-violent offense. Some have been in jail for weeks or months because they can't afford bail and the criminal justice system moves at a snail's pace. It is a situation that many, including Mark-Viverito, have decried with increasing intensity over the past two years.

"We need to take a comprehensive approach to criminal justice reform that ensures a fairer system, improves police community relations, and addresses the fact that far too many of our young people – mostly low-income black and Latino males – are locked up at Rikers," Mark-Viverito said during her 2015 State of the City address.

She continued: "For instance, if you are accused of jumping a turnstile or committing other minor offenses in New York City, you may be locked up. And if you can't afford bail you will spend on average 15 days in jail. The results are predictable: people lose their jobs, or their housing, and cannot take care of their children while they are in custody. These are people who are accused of minor offenses and are still considered innocent in the eyes of the law. This is not justice."

During this year's State of the City address, on Feb. 11, the speaker said that she wants to see "the population of Rikers to be so small that the dream of shutting it down becomes a reality." She announced a new criminal justice commission, led by former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, that will make recommendations for how to improve the criminal justice system.

Last week while discussing her belief that Rikers Island should eventually be closed, Mark-Viverito cited her bail fund as something that will reduce the population over time. Asked when she expected the bail fund to start, Mark-Viverito said she is waiting to be licensed by the state.

"We're waiting for the state, unfortunately, there's some state authorizations you need...some sort of licensure is needed," Mark-Viverito told reporters. "We needed, initially, a federal authorization, we've received that, we're waiting for the state, once that's done, we're ready to roll out. It's just we can't...without that authorization. So hopefully within the next months. It's just a normal process, obviously we are on top of it, but it's a normal process, it's bureaucratic."

In follow-up conversation with Gotham Gazette, representatives of Mark-Viverito's office stressed the process is going well, is not an undue burden, and that the hope is to launch the program in a few months. The office said the process to incorporate the program began officially in July 2015. The first step involved registering as a non-profit on the federal level; the second, attorney general approval as a charity. With that second step complete, the application will go to the state Department of Financial Services, which licenses charitable bail funds.

As approved by the AG, the fund shows "Initial directors" George McDonald, of The Doe Fund and David Howard, and Alphonso Wyatt, who were previously associated with the the fund. According to its bylaws, "The sole member of the Corporation shall be The Doe Fund, Inc., a New York not-for-profit corporation." McDonald is the founder and CEO of The Doe Fund, which has worked for decades to employ, house, and train homeless New Yorkers to help them stabilize their lives.

According to the filing, "the purpose" of the new organization will be "to assist indigent defendents charged with low-level crimes avoid the experience, complications and related hardships of pretrial detention caused by their inability to afford bail." Once it becomes a bail fund, it will "provide bail assistance" and "research, analyze and document the effectiveness and social impact of" its activities.

Before 2012 Mark-Viverito's bail fund wouldn't have needed state approval because charitable bail funds operated in a legal gray area. That year, Bronx state Senator Gustavo Rivera successfully advocated for a state law to oversee bail funds after a judge ordered an organization in his district to stop covering bail.

Now, as bail funds grow in popularity, Rivera said he is working with the state Department of Financial Services to smooth the application process and guide smaller groups that are interested in opening funds. Rivera said that as the evidence of the efficacy of such programs grows he hopes to expand the law that now only covers misdemeanor offenses and has a cap of $2,000 bail.

Rivera was approached by the Bronx Defenders (a nonprofit legal defense group) in 2010 shortly after he defeated disgraced then-Sen. Pedro Espada for his seat. When the bill passed in 2012, the Bronx Freedom Fund became the state's first licensed charitable bail fund.

Since then the group has shown promising results, which Mark-Viverito and others have noticed. It released a study last year showing that 97 percent of its clients returned to all their court appearances - some to more than 15 dates in a row. The group says that 27 times its bail money was returned even before the conclusion of a case. Out of 188 cases, 62 percent ended in a dismissal of all charges, 22 percent in a violation that carries no record, and 12 percent with a misdemeanor plea and no jail time.

The fund has $100,000 to pay bail and it is periodically replenished when their clients fulfill their court obligations. Individuals are interviewed by the fund to determine their eligibility. Alyssa Work, former director of the Freedom Fund, told Gotham Gazette last year that the application process involved a defendant filling out a form, and her checking to see if they have family and community ties or steady employment. She also would evaluate their criminal record.

Rivera has held a two roundtables on bail funds and has heard some concerns from interested groups. "We've been tweaking the paperwork you have to go through to get people licensed as bondsmen," said Rivera. "We've been discussing having the application fee waived for certain smaller organizations that aren't flush with cash, some folks have found it difficult to find someone at [Department of Financial Services] to answer questions. But the most important thing is that we've been working with DFS on this all along and they've been very helpful."

Organizations wishing to start a bail fund have to complete four major steps: register as a non-profit under federal tax laws; register as a charity under New York State law through the AG's office; obtain a charitable bail license from the state DFS; and, finally, obtain an individual bail bond license from DFS.

Mark-Viverito's office is now on to the third step.

Obtaining a charitable bail organization license from DFS requires a detailed application, a fee of $1,000, and the fingerprinting of all officers, directors, trustees, and executive personnel.

Rivera said that while he intends to keep working with DFS on the application process, he does "hope to eventually introduce legislation that expands the legal parameters of bail funds." Rivera continued, "Right now the cap on bail is $2,000, we might want to move that. There is a small list of offenses currently covered and we may want to expand that list. We know we are helping people whose only crime is being poor, who can't afford bail, allowing them to be able to fight for their freedom, when they otherwise might be sitting in Rikers or somewhere else."

In a statement to Gotham Gazette, Mark-Viverito said, "New York City is proud to lead the way in reforming a broken bail system that unjustly subjected our young people of color to senseless violence and abuse. By approaching this issue thoughtfully and deliberatively, we hope that our proposal for a citywide bail fund can serve as a model for other cities and municipalities seeking to change the way poverty and the criminal justice system intersect."

Like Mark-Viverito, Sen. Rivera supports closing Rikers. Mayor Bill de Blasio called the idea "noble," but has said he doubts it is achievable. "My job is to level with the people of New York City," de Blasio recently told reporters. "This would cost billions and billions of dollars, be logistically very difficult, and we don't have the space right now."

De Blasio has, however, also focused on bail reform, calling the current system unfair, with a burden that keeps the poor in jail for crimes they haven't been tried for, much less convicted of.

De Blasio has a supervised release program scheduled to begin March 1. Funded by asset forfeiture funds from the Manhattan District Attorney's Office and the City Tax Levy, the program will provide judges with the option of sending those charged with misdemeanors or nonviolent felonies to supervised release programs overseen by agencies run in each of the five boroughs, rather than setting bail. The plan is expected to eventually serve 3,000 defendants.

"There is a very real human cost to how our criminal justice system treats people while they wait for trial," de Blasio said in a July statement announcing the program. "Money bail is a problem because – as the system currently operates in New York – some people are being detained based on the size of their bank account, not the risk they pose. This is unacceptable. If people can be safely supervised in the community, they should be allowed to remain there regardless of their ability to pay."

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

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Several Significant Questions About The Governor's Budget


Cuomo built to lead sots

Gov. Cuomo at his State of the State (via The Governor's Office)


Gov. Andrew Cuomo's 2016-2017 budget proposal has legislators and budget experts scratching their heads as to how major capital projects will be paid for, how the state plans to make good on a promise to fund the MTA, and how certain measures might affect funding for New York City. Many are wondering if the governor will keep his pledge that his plan to shift millions in costs for CUNY and Medicaid "won't cost New York City a penny."

These questions linger almost two months after the plan was first released, rankling Mayor Bill de Blasio, City Council members, and city-based state legislators, and alarming budget watchdogs.

Only one month remains until the April 1 start of the new fiscal year and budget negotiations have been muted. State of Politics reports that there was an initial budget conversation on Wednesday morning among Cuomo and legislative leaders. The way Cuomo has positioned things, there are questions about whether the State Assembly and Speaker Carl Heastie, de Blasio's most important ally, will be willing and able to take on the political cost of going to battle for the city - on CUNY, Medicaid, and other issues like affordable housing bonds and homelessness-prevention vouchers. The Legislature recently finished holding budget hearings and the Assembly and Senate one-house budgets are expected imminently.

Potential state cuts loomed large over the initial New York City Council preliminary budget hearing on Tuesday, at which de Blasio's budget director reiterated several times that possible state cuts could be crippling to the city, but that the city plans to hold the governor to his word and that Assembly Democrats will be essential in the process.

Cuomo's move to have New York City assume additional MTA, CUNY, and Medicaid cuts are among his most controversial, along with the governor's plan to take more control of affordable housing being built in the city. While many await more detail from the governor as the clock ticks, there is also mystery around major infrastructure projects for the metropolitan region that the governor is overseeing as well as a proposal from the governor to create a new entity to take more control of such projects.

As the governor pushes other policies that city Democrats back, like a minimum wage increase and paid family leave, he appears to be exacting whatever costs from the city he can in order to both undermine de Blasio and help the state pay its obligations.

Cuomo has a variety of government ethics reform proposals in his budget, but he has not been promoting them publicly, leaving many to wonder their fate. Meanwhile, in recent days new light has been shone on billions of dollars in the governor's budget with no determined purpose, to be used by Cuomo and legislative leaders as they see fit at a later date.

The City's Burden
A recent evaluation of New York City finances by State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli warned that Governor Cuomo's budget provides major economic threat to the city. "The largest and most immediate budget risk is the proposed state Executive Budget, which includes three proposals that would increase the city's costs by $985 million in FY 2017 and by about $1.2 billion in each subsequent year (a total of $4.8 billion during the financial plan period)," reads the comptroller's report.

It continues: "The two proposals with the greatest budgetary impact ($785 million in FY 2017 alone) would require New York City to pay a larger share of the local cost of Medicaid and of the costs of the senior colleges of the City University of New York. After the release of the Executive Budget, the Governor stated that efficiencies would be identified to mitigate the budgetary impact of these proposals, but such savings have not yet been identified."

The Citizens Budget Commission, a nonprofit, nonpartisan watchdog based in New York City, quickly cried foul over the proposals in Cuomo's budget that would move costs for CUNY and Medicaid to the city (both are joint city-state programs that the state has traditionally supported to a far greater degree than the city).

CBC estimates the shift would cost the city $800 million. De Blasio pledged he would do "whatever it takes" to stop the plan, saying it could impact major plans to expand pre-kindergarten and other initiatives. As focus on the budget measure intensified Cuomo characterized the plan as a mutual agreement between the city and state to find efficiencies in the programs. De Blasio had only met briefly with Cuomo before the State of the State address and said he had learned about the shift that could cost the city nearly a billion dollars when most New Yorkers did.

Cuomo, in a NY1 interview, claimed "At the end of the day, what you will see is it won't cost New York City a penny, but we will make joint streamlining policy efficiency changes."

Some observers expected Cuomo to adjust the plan in his 30-day budget amendments, but nothing about it changed - apparently leaving it up to the city's allies in the Legislature to negotiate it.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, the city's most powerful advocate in Albany, has expressed major concern over the plans, but it appears that he would have to own the cost of a change as part of budget negotiations, possibly preempting other major initiatives his conference wants.

E.J. McMahon, president of the Empire Center, a budget-focused think tank, said he believes that undoing Cuomo's plan would cost Heastie "$500 million" during negotiations which would limit what else Assembly Democrats could bargain for given that Cuomo appears committed to a 2 percent overall cap on spending growth.

The governor's budget makes for 1.7 percent spending growth so there isn't much room for new initiatives and losing the savings created by the cost shift would further tighten the equation. "1.7 to 2 [percent] is $300 million," said McMahon, "So $500 million is a pretty significant number in budget negotiations."

Dave Friedfel of the CBC agrees. "To add $500 million back on to the budget would blow through the governor's spending cap. It will have a major impact on negotiations," Friedfel said.

The Fiscal Policy Institute, also a think tank, argued in its budget testimony that the state should scrap the 2 percent spending cap. "There is no reason to hold annual spending growth below two percent if it means that we are under-investing in education and poverty reduction," reads the FPI testimony. "This unforced austerity has already caused the state to underinvest in several critical areas, and the continuation of the cap guarantees further harmful cuts to local governments, education and human service programs."

Meanwhile, Heastie has pressed for a millionaire's tax that would allow the state to spend more on education. The Cuomo administration has derided the plan and Heastie has fired back. Mayor de Blasio has continued to express support for raising taxes on the highest earners, but he has not made a focused push on the issue since his efforts failed in 2014.

Asked about whether there have been joint efforts between the Cuomo and de Blasio administrations to find efficiencies as the governor discussed, Morris Peters, spokesperson for the division of budget, said in a statement: "We have been having conversations with our partners in government and we will continue to do so."

During City Council budget testimony on Tuesday, de Blasio's budget director Dean Fuleihan said that talks had yet to occur between the city and state but that he expects them to take place soon.

"I've also said I'm going to take him at his word, but I'll hold him to it," de Blasio told a gathering of the state Legislature's Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic, and Asian Caucus last month, referring to Gov. Cuomo and the CUNY and Medicaid cuts. "When the budget is passed on April 1 I fully expect there won't be any negative impact on New York City," de Blasio continued. "He said it won't cost us a single cent. That's what we expect, and I think a lot of people are going to make sure that happens."

Construction & Housing Takeovers
Another, little-discussed measure contained in Gov. Cuomo's budget would see the creation of "The New York State Design and Construction Corp." that would be given oversight of public construction projects worth over $50 million. The DCC would be a subsidiary of the state's Dormitory Authority and would be headed by three commissioners, all appointed by the governor.

"The DCC's primary purpose will be to provide additional project management expertise and oversight on significant public works projects undertaken by state agencies, departments, public authorities and public benefit corporations throughout the state," reads the governor's State of the State policy book.

The proposal has raised concerns for legislators and budget watchdogs who believe Cuomo is trying to have more influence over independent authorities like the MTA. The MTA board is made up of members appointed by the city and other localities serviced by the agency. The Governor also appoints members and names the chair. Representatives of Citizens Budget Commission (CBC) are concerned the body would create more bureaucracy and confusion. For example, the DCC could void contracts signed by the MTA. CBC has written legislators urging them to oppose the plan.

John Kaehny, of watchdog group Reinvent Albany, said he was taken aback by the plan. "The Dormitory Authority is the premier slush fund for pork barrel spending. To house a project management agency within it is alarming. We agree with budget watchdog groups who view this as a power grab and another attempt to reduce transparency and accountability."

"What is his motivation for proposing this unprecedented design and construction corporation?" asked McMahon, of The Empire Center. "It will allow [Cuomo] to reach in and take control of any project he wants. The governor is the kind of guy who will say 'Stop that, give it to me, I can do it better!' The governor likes to draw power to the center, to the top, to him."

Cuomo is also looking to increase the state's say over New York City development of affordable housing. Per the governor's plans, The Public Authorities Control Board would be allowed to veto individual housing projects proposed by the city that utilize tax-exempt bonds, given to the state by the federal government, which the state then allocates to municipalities.

Cuomo administration officials say the plan would add a new level of transparency to a system that allocates billions of dollars to construction each year. City officials and affordable housing developers say that there is no need for another level of bureaucracy.

The Control Board is made up of the governor and both legislative leaders. Mayor de Blasio has panned the proposal, as have a number of contractors and housing advocates who worry the plan will create overlap and uncertainty around badly-needed projects that increase affordable housing stock. The Real Estate Board of New York has also raised concerns that more state say would create uncertainty and possibly confuse lending institutions.

"We think adding these additional layers will only slow down the process at a point where thousands and thousands of people are waiting for housing that will allow them and their families to be able to make ends meet," de Blasio told legislators during budget testimony earlier this year.

Adding to the drama around the city's affordable housing plans, De Blasio administration officials, housing advocates and developers are also growing nervous that Cuomo may continue to divert some of the flow of federal housing bonds that the city relies on to create affordable housing. After doing so with millions of dollars in bonds that the city thought it could count on in 2015, Cuomo is considering using the bonds for the state's newly expanded role in creating affordable housing. During his State of the State, Cuomo outlined general plans to invest billions in affordable housing, but he has yet to flesh those plans out. His policy book promised details "in the coming weeks."

MTA Financing
Last year, Cuomo and his MTA Chair Thomas Prendergast began a campaign to push the city to contribute more to the MTA capital plan. Eventually a deal was struck where the city agreed to contribute $2.5 billion and the governor pledging an additional $7.3 billion, bringing the state's total pledged contribution to $8.3 billion, all part of the $26 billion overall five-year plan. For months Cuomo was asked how the state would pay its share and he retorted that the question would be answered in his budget.

His budget plan simply raised more questions. Cuomo's plan appropriates $1 billion for the MTA capital plan and pledges to provide more of the promised $8.3 billion when the MTA spends through other capital funding. The city has in turn put off its commitment to extra funding since the city-state agreement was contingent upon parallel fund allocation.

Budget experts believe the Cuomo administration will allow the MTA to issue bonds to raise the $7.3 billion once it spends the funds it has on hand. "[The governor] already committed to $8.3 million for the MTA and we all wondered where that would come from," said McMahon. "The answer is that the MTA commitment he signed was not worth the paper it was written on. Once the MTA is done spending money it raises itself, the state will direct them to issue their own bonds."

Jamison Dague of CBC said that while the MTA has a backlog of projects that need to be addressed, he would like to see the state spell out specific funding for the agency. "What they've done here is tell the MTA, 'You have resources to draw down before we come in with the pledge.' The MTA has a lot of capital funding sources they are still trying to spend."

However, Dague said knowing where the state funding is coming from is prudent for both the MTA and state's long-term planning. "You always want to identify revenue for big capital work before you get going with big contracts," Dague said.

Legislators expressed outrage over the plan during a budget hearing last week. "I have no idea how we can actually do a capital program and actually approve a capital program with language that 'it'll be there when you need it.' Corporate America would laugh at this. Any country would be surprised with this type of approach in funding," said Senator Marty Golden, a Republican from Brooklyn, according to Politico New York.

The Cuomo administration has vigorously defended its position. "The Governor put unambiguous and iron-clad language in the budget to make good on his commitment to provide $8.3 billion towards the MTA's capital plan," Morris Peters of the Division of The Budget told Gotham Gazette in a statement. Peters pointed to budget legislation that he said would cement the state's commitment to funding the MTA "in law."

Infrastructure Spending
This year's State of the State address was centered around the idea that Cuomo is rebuilding New York. "Built to Lead" was the theme and the governor announced a myriad of projects including revamping Penn Station, retooling the Javits Center, reconstructing LaGuardia Airport, and a major contribution to the rail tunnel underneath the Hudson River. The combined cost of the projects is estimated at over $100 billion.

Budget watchdogs say Cuomo's plans are bold but not backed up with detailed funding mechanisms. The governor's budget points to federal funding, cash from public authorities, and investment from public/private partnerships to fund a number of the projects. It leaves the state assuming $29 billion of project costs. Watchdogs say the budget only appropriates two-thirds of that cash. "I think the situation was created by the governor's desire to portray himself as having a grand plan. So we all wondered: 'With what money?'" said McMahon.

Cuomo has also already allocated billions of dollars worth of the state's bank settlement funds to other projects such as upstate revitalization. The state is also relatively close to bumping up against a borrowing cap that was signed into law under Gov. George Pataki, so it is unlikely the state could fund all of the projects if it wanted to.

"I think the governor's ambition is admirable," said Dague of CBC. "But one of the concerns is he has promised to take on so many projects while leaving the funding details to be filled in. Another concern the legislature has is that the projects aren't being put through rigorous analysis. There isn't a discussion of how the state makes use of its limited capital projects funds--why this and not that. And there also is the question in some cases of: 'Why are these projects in the governor's budget and not the MTA's?'"

Peters, of Cuomo's administration, said that the budget clearly lays out how Cuomo's grand plans will be paid for. The list of major infrastructure projects are funded by a combination of resources, including from the state and federal governments, public authorities, and private investment, as clearly laid out in our budget materials."

Cash Stash
Another major concern for budget watchdogs is the $2.4 billion in funds stashed in 80 different pots in this year's executive budget not labeled for any specific use, as identified by good government group Citizens Union in a new report.

It is actually common for the governor and both houses of the Legislature to create slush funds in the budget each year. The practice came under increased scrutiny last year after the arrest of (now former) Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who used cash from one of those pots of money in a scheme to earn referral fees through his law firm. Silver has been convicted on federal corruption trials and faces sentencing soon.

This year, according to the Citizens Union "spending in the shadows" report, the governor has $2.2 billion worth of this discretionary money, the Senate $815 million, and $686 million for the Assembly. Last year, Cuomo inserted language into the budget that would have required legislators to reveal their connections to any organization that received funding from these pots of cash, but he has not reinserted the language this year. Cuomo has outlined a series of ethics reforms that he says he intends to negotiate with legislative leaders

"With former Speaker Silver convicted in part because of his access to and illegal use of a healthcare-related lump sum pot, we need no greater reason to reform this form of budgeting," said Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, in a statement. "We need a whole new set of rules and level of transparency to ensure that taxpayer dollars are not used to personally enrich elected officials or used in unseemly pay to play schemes."

Policy Questions
Cuomo has again packed his budget with his major legislative priorities, a practice that has earned the governor criticism - some say that the budget should only include operational and capital spending, not new policy. This year, Cuomo is including an increase of the minimum wage toward $15 per hour, paid family leave, and raising the age of adult criminal responsibility from 16 to 18, among other policies.

The governor has the support of Assembly and Senate Democrats on the outlines of all of these issues while Senate and Assembly Republicans have voiced varying levels of dissent. The Governor recently told reporters the minimum wage issue might be removed from the budget debate.

Assembly Democrats, who control that chamber, are pushing for The DREAM Act, which Cuomo has included in his budget but has not rallied for publicly this year. Senate Republicans, who control that chamber, have been vigorously opposed to the plan, which would allow undocumented residents access to education aid.

Also on the Assembly to-do list is the millionaire's tax they argue will allow an increase in education spending, among other things. The Cuomo administration and the Senate have both rejected the idea.

Cuomo has remained nearly silent on the package of ethics reforms he pitched in January. Although he's taken to touring the state in an RV to tout his wage plan at a series of rallies, he has discussed ethics reform when prompted by reporters. His plans would strictly limit legislators outside income and close the LLC loophole that allows corporate donors to avoid campaign finance limits.

The governor was asked about the lack of discussion around ethics reform during one of his RV stops last week. He replied that discussions were happening "in phases."

"There's not a lot of continuity between $15 minimum wage and ethics," he said. "It's kind of a hard transition: 'I want to talk to you about a $15 minimum wage, oh, and now I wanna talk to you about limiting income for legislators.' It's not the most fluid transition. Maybe you could do it. It's tough for me."

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

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been changed to reflect the report of the initial budget meeting between Cuomo and legislative leaders.

Housing Groups Defend Homelessness Report After Pushback from Cuomo Administration


vocal homelessness protest - matt curtis vocal ny

A Vocal-NY protest (Matt Curtis/Vocal-NY)

 


 

Housing groups are coming to the defense of a report issued this week that critiques Gov. Andrew Cuomo's homelessness policies and questions his attempts to place the blame for a rising homeless population on Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Kristi Berner, spokesperson for the State's Office of Temporary and Disability insurance, slammed the report in a statement to the Daily News on Monday, calling it "an obvious political tactic to distract from the city's incompetence in managing the homeless problem."

Now, The Alliance for Tenant Power Coalition and the Met Council on Housing are countering, saying that the Cuomo administration is politicizing legitimate policy issues to distract from the governor's own accountability. They say that the groups and the report are not tools of the mayor and point out that they have been critical of some of de Blasio's housing policies as well.

"We have been, and will continue to be, critical of Mayor de Blasio's housing plan for what it will do to our communities. But he is not the only elected official who is responsible for our city's affordable housing and homeless crisis," reads the statement signed by The Alliance for Tenant Power and Met Council on Housing, which was sent to Gotham Gazette. "Governor Cuomo's actions, his refusal to fight for stronger rent laws, and his handling of the homeless crisis are all worsening a situation that is at a breaking point," the groups say.

"We are fully supportive of the report entitled New York Needs a 21st Century Homeless and refute the claim by Cuomo's spokesperson that it is "trying to give cover to de Blasio." The only "political spin," is Cuomo's attempt to shirk his own responsibilities for exacerbating the affordable housing and homeless crisis," concludes the statement.

The Cuomo administration declined to comment for this story. Doe Fund President George McDonald told the Daily News in a statement that the report "seems to be most critical of people who have demonstrated the longest and most intensive commitment to serving the homeless, like Governor Cuomo, and least critical of newcomers to the crisis."

The introduction of the report in question, authored by DC 37, VOCAL-NY and the Community Service Society, acknowledges that the state and city face a major homelessness crisis but posits, "As bad as the current crisis is, it can be reversed – but only if Governor Cuomo and the New York State Legislature adopt a genuinely progressive vision and abandon the failed policies of the Pataki era."

It continues: "Indeed, even though Cuomo has been governor for five years, his administration has done little to change the broken policies and deeply inadequate funding levels of the Pataki years. Starting now, Albany must work with the City to expand funding for permanent housing assistance and to enhance prevention efforts. Equally important, State officials need to work collaboratively with the City to make improvements to the shelter system engaging in accusations and counter-productive media skirmishes."

Last November advocates and legislators joined with de Blasio in pressuring Cuomo to match the city's commitment to fund thousands of units of supportive housing. Cuomo avoided the issue until his State of the State address when he announced a $10 billion plan to create 6,000 units of supportive housing and new emergency shelter beds. Cuomo linked these investments and others to renewed state oversight of shelters around New York, especially in New York City and Buffalo.

Since then, the Cuomo and de Blasio administrations have exchanged a host of letters over the city's handling of homeless shelters, partly in response to a series of violent incidents at shelters. The New York Times reported last month that the de Blasio administration was particularly outraged when the state issued a letter concerning a gang rape at a homeless shelter that appears to have never taken place without any investigation. City officials called the letter, which was leaked to the Post, "a media hit."

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

Read more by this writer.

Caucus Members Cheerful But Cautious as Cuomo Embraces Their Agenda


heastie cuomo david

photo via The Governor's Office


There was great cause for celebration during the annual winter weekend gathering of the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic, and Asian Legislative Caucus. After a number of years of feeling pushed aside by Gov. Andrew Cuomo there is a strong sense among caucus members that they finally have the governor's ear. Much to the gratification of state legislators of color - who largely represent parts of New York City - Cuomo has made a number of the caucus' priorities regarding criminal, social, and economic justice part of his platform and is campaigning for them publicly.

"Here we are a year later and so many good things have happened in a positive way just because they now have somebody who looks like us to sit at the table and negotiate," Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, the first African-American elevated to that position, told a gathering at the Wilborn Temple First Church in Albany on Sunday.

"They're now talking about raising the minimum wage, they're now talking about paid family leave, the highest investment and opportunity programs for our young people to go to college, the largest investment in education and aid increase in the history of the state of New York, and that was last year," Heastie told the excited group of attendees, referring to the governor and other legislators.

Caucus weekend is an annual tradition where members of the BPHA Caucus gather in Albany for speeches, workshops, networking, and celebrations.

For many legislators in the nearly 60-member caucus, Heastie's rise to leadership is icing on the cake - a cake baked over years of pushing to the fore issues of importance to their constituents. A great number of caucus members chalk up Cuomo's priority shifts to caucus members' lobbying, strategizing, and joint efforts with labor and activist groups. They take pride in the governor's focus on things like a minimum wage increase and paid family leave, "Raise the Age," and a bill to appoint a special prosecutor in the event of a police killing of an unarmed civilian. In many ways, they say, the priorities of their districts have become mainstream, and rightfully so.

On Sunday of caucus weekend last year, Cuomo held a brunch in Heastie's honor at the Executive Mansion where, according to Politico New York, Cuomo called Heastie a leader "for the entire state." Senate Republicans have tried to characterize Heastie and the Assembly's agenda as New York City-centric.

This past week, Cuomo was in Harlem for a rally in support of his paid family leave proposal. He used some of his speaking time to focus on racial equality. "The economic inequality is actually compounded by something else and that is the racial inequality. It is bad to be poor and white, but on the numbers it is worse to be poor and a minority. That is the truth," Cuomo told the crowd made up largely of people of color, including a number of state lawmakers.

Still, caucus members are not necessarily kicking their feet up. They now see their main objective as not only making sure Cuomo delivers on these issues during budget negotiations, but that he does so in a way they favor. There is debate in the caucus about how far to push Cuomo, and what is actually reasonable to expect from him.

A number of members see Cuomo's proposals relating to criminal and economic justice as not going far enough, while some see other proposals as misleading or damaging despite having been designed to address an issue important to the caucus. Other members are concerned with making sure their requests of Cuomo are reasonable, pragmatic, and sacrifice the unattainable for the attainable.

"I believe that some of what we see is due to the consistency in the messaging of our caucus members," said Assembly Member Nick Perry of Brooklyn, who chairs the caucus. "Our members have continued to push certain issues while a number of them hold important legislative positions. We are also more united and organized than we have been and we have become more realistic in how the body engages on issues."

Perry's pragmatic approach jibes with the governor's, but has also alienated some newer members who are less interested in playing politics and want to see immediate results.

"We have advocated very effectively with the governor," said Perry. "I have said that I admire the governor's approach because my observation is he is mostly realistic in what he rolls out. That approach is one that I support and that I adopt for myself. I don't want to go to the governor with things that look good, sound good, but are not doable. I am focused like a lazer on doing things, not on soundbites."

The DREAM Act
One major issue that could cause consternation within the caucus is The DREAM Act. Assembly Member Francisco Moya of Queens, who sponsors the bill in the Assembly, said he believes that the legislature is closer than ever to becoming law.

"I think our priorities showing up in the governor's budget is absolutely a testament to our strength, unity, and ability to push the issues that matter most to our communities," said Moya of the DREAM Act, which would allow state financial aid to go to undocumented immigrants. "Three years ago we were told the DREAM Act was dead and now it's been in the executive budget for two years. It's because our issues don't just resonate in our communities anymore, but in communities across the state."

Moya criticized Cuomo earlier this year for not mentioning the DREAM Act in his State of the State and budget address, though he was pleased to see the act included in the budget.

He now says that discussions are ongoing with the Cuomo administration and that a number of options are on the table. It seems unlikely to many that the act has any chance to pass in an election year when Senate Republicans, who control that chamber, have campaigned against it in the past. But some legislators believe Cuomo could take executive action to show his commitment to the issue. That possibility was in play last year after Cuomo removed the DREAM Act from budget negotiations but advocates were torn about whether executive action would help or hurt the cause.

Perry however, doubts that current political realities will allow much movement on the bill. "We know there are some things that are just never gonna happen," said Perry. "Things that act like a poison pill in the pot. We are cognisant that no one is going to cut their head off just to make a deal."

Perry said he believes it could be politically impossible for Senate Republicans to support the measure. "The Dream Act is a significantly tough one," said Perry. "The Republicans have made it out to be more of a monster than it could ever be. They have backed themselves into a position that makes it impossible to do unless something changes. They've used the issue to bring out votes."

Special Prosecutor
Cuomo's legislation to name a special prosecutor in the event of a police shooting of an unarmed civilian is a main concern to caucus members who are happy to see Cuomo address the issue but see the legislation he included in his budget bills as weaker than his standing executive order that allows Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to look into such cases.

"While I applaud the governor for putting it in his budget, I think we would be better served if the role of special prosecutor wasn't taken out of the hands of the attorney general," said Moya.

Cuomo's bill would create an office to advise the governor whether to call for a special prosecutor in the case of a police killing of a civilian. Caucus members generally see Cuomo's bill as creating an unfunded office to do the job the attorney general is currently tasked with.

Cuomo sent a mixed message during his State of the State address, telling legislators they could back Assembly Member Keith Wright's bill that would create a permanent special prosecutor's office within the AG's office, while including his own bill in the budget.

"Assemblyman Keith Wright has advocated for such a law for over a decade," Cuomo said at the time. "It is an historic achievement and it should not be left to my executive order. Make it yours, make it permanent, pass the bill," Cuomo said.

Perry said he believes the governor's heart is in the right place and his support of the measure means there is room to negotiate. "The governor's proposal is not perfect but it moves things forward in a very big way. We know it has to be tweaked and fixed in some ways but that's a part of process."

Cuomo spokesman Frank Sobrino said in a statement that the onus is on the Legislature to act on the special prosecutor bill they prefer. "The Governor has taken bold action to address significant public concerns and ensure that there is an independent entity tasked with addressing police fatality cases. We believe the Legislature needs to act to create—in law—an independent office to review these cases, ensuring that all New Yorkers, regardless of race or ethnicity, have trust in our criminal justice system."

Legislators and advocates will be ready to push Cuomo to issue another executive order appointing Schneiderman as special prosecutor should Senate Republicans block legislative action, said Sen. Gustavo Rivera, the Senate sponsor of Wright's bill.

Raise the Age & Bail Reform
Assembly Member Gary Pretlow, a caucus member who represents part of Westchester, said that "Raise the Age," a campaign to increase the age of criminal responsibility and prevent New York from treating 16- and 17-year-olds as adults upon arrest, is what he most wants to see Cuomo deliver on. "Raise the Age is so important because so many lives have been ruined by the records that have been created--it's an employment thing, you can't get a job when you've got a record, it's not so much about prison."

Cuomo took executive action last year to move the state's relatively small teenage prison population to a separate facility after the Legislature failed to act on his legislation. However, teenagers are still arrested and processed as adults, leaving them to be interviewed by police without their parents present and eventually subject to the stigma of a criminal record that juvenile offenders don't have. Some caucus members took issue with how the governor proposed to change the process last year, worrying that Cuomo's bill wouldn't do enough to protect teens. The bill would allow courts to consider adjudicated youthful offender cases to be considered in future cases. Advocates and some Democratic legislators felt the stipulation undermines the purpose of classifying someone as a youthful offender. Negotiations on the details will likely take place later this year, but it is unclear that Senate Republicans have any interest in taking up the issue.

Meanwhile, caucus members are also concerned that Cuomo's bail reform proposal could actually fill prisons rather than reduce the number of people waiting in jail for their day in court.

There is a feeling among a number of younger caucus members that some of Cuomo's criminal justice proposals are superficial. Legislators who have been pushing Cuomo to enact legislation mandating certain prisoners be kept in facilities within a reasonable traveling distance of their families were heartened to see a proposal in Cuomo's policy book titled "Increase Opportunities for Families to Stay Close During Incarceration," but upon closer inspection they found that the program is not designed to keep prisoners physically closer to their families. "To help maintain these incarcerated individuals ties with family, the Governor will invest $300,000 to expand a successful video visitation program between incarcerated parents and their children," reads the policy book. "The state will also explore the use of secure e-mail communication tools for use by incarcerated individuals and their families."

Proof in the Pudding
Many caucus members are going to judge Cuomo's commitment to their issues on his follow through when budget negotiations hit the wire. Cuomo dropped the DREAM Act from his budget early in negotiations last year. Cuomo later tried to tie passage of the DREAM Act to an education tax credit favored by Senate Republicans. Cuomo publicly campaigned for the tax credit but not the DREAM Act, irking the latter's supporters. Cuomo has not linked the two this year and he has rarely mentioned the Dream Act.

Moya said he is still waiting to see Cuomo apply the same sort of force he has on the fight for a $15 minimum wage, marriage equality, and the SAFE Act to the DREAM Act. "I think it is incumbent on the governor to fight for the DREAM Act as hard as he is fighting and has fought on other issues," said Moya. "It's time for him to really show his leadership. We've seen when the governor wants a controversial bill he can get the other side to go along with it."

Perry said that he believes the caucus is in a new place with the governor--instead of making great demands of him, they are now at the table negotiating details. "I don't want to be in a situation where the only reason we get something is because we flex our muscle. I want folks to look at our proposals and say 'this is reasonable, it's not going overboard.' There are some tough tasks that need getting done but we want to make sure that we don't mess up a good session by putting the impossible in the way of the possible."

Rivera said that he agrees that the caucus has made strides by being more pragmatic. "There are some folks who are certainly more vocal and critical, but I'm not going to tell them to be quiet," he told Gotham Gazette. "The experiences they've had and the pain they have is real. Our job is to actually get things passed. We have to get things moving and you may want ten steps but can only move four. Some people may only settle for 10 and I don't ask them to be quiet about it."

Despite some criticism and concerns, caucus members are extremely invigorated to have Cuomo pushing some of the concepts they hold most dear, like a higher minimum wage and paid family leave, as well as "Raise the Age" and more. Members attribute that to the work they have done in concert with labor and advocacy groups to push economic issues as "common sense" to New Yorkers across the state to the point that it didn't make political sense for Cuomo to ignore them.

The Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic, and Asian Caucus will be focused on the details during budget negotiations in the coming months. And while members are happy to see Cuomo backing their issues in theory, many of them say they know who they must rely on to do the heavy lifting. "Our real champion at the negotiating table is Speaker Heastie," Moya told Gotham Gazette. "Just look at this, it is the first time in the history of New York state that we have an African-American speaker and he has been doing a tremendous job championing the issues the governor has now brought up."

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

Read more by this writer.

Assembly Reform Group Nears Release of 49-Recommendation Report


Heastie laughing

Assembly Speaker Heastie photo: (Office of the Governor - Kevin P. Coughlin)


The long wait for recommendations from a group of Democrats charged with finding ways to improve the transparency and democratization of the state Assembly may soon be over. According to Assembly Member Gary Pretlow, co-chair of The Assembly Working Group on Operations, Participation and Transparency, the release of a 49-point report is imminent.

Pretlow told Gotham Gazette that the the committee's report will be made available after a press release is written and legislators return from their week-long mid-February break. According to Pretlow and several other sources, the rest of the majority conference was briefed on the dozens of recommendations contained in the report, some of which wouldn't be acted on until the start of next session, in 2017. Others that could be implemented as "tweaks" to operating procedure or legislation could be voted on this session, they say, while some would have to be agreed to by both the Senate and Assembly.

"We're just waiting for the press release to be done," Pretlow told Gotham Gazette. "We did a presentation of all 49 recommendations to the speaker [Carl Heastie] and all the members but we didn't give them copies because you'd already know what was in it if we did that. So, hopefully the report will be out after the break."

Both houses of the Legislature are due back in session on Feb. 24.

Assembly Member Brian Kavanagh, the group's other co-chair, said that the committee was "reaching a consensus" but refused to give a timeframe for the report's release, saying that Gotham Gazette's previous report that the group had missed its own deadline was unfair. Since January, Kavanagh has told other outlets that the timeline for the report's release was "soon," but with "no timeframe."

Neither Kavanagh or Pretlow would divulge any of the 49 proposals.

A number of legislators briefed characterized many of the changes as "common sense" and "overdue" with fewer "large," "big deal" changes. A few members indicated that they believed some larger issues have yet to be resolved. A number of members said they expect a public review process.

The group has been presented with a wide array of proposals from legislators and good government groups--things as simple as creating electronic alerts to notify legislators of committee hearing times and locations, using the internet to enhance public comment and participation, and revamping the Assembly's legislative search tool. More complex and politically difficult issues include creating a way for bills with wide support to be considered in committee and advanced to the floor for a vote.

Assembly Republicans and reform groups have derided the Assembly panel's deliberations for a lack of public hearings and for excluding legislators from the Republican minority. Kavanagh and Pretlow polled Democratic members and held meetings with good government groups for input on what changes might lead to more open debate, allow rank-and-file members to advance legislation, and perhaps even provide members from both parties with equal resources for staffing and offices.

Heastie announced the appointment of the working group on April 16 of last year after he won a leadership battle sparked by the indictment of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. At the time, Kavanagh was a member of an upstart reform caucus that asked candidates for Silver's position to consider whether changes should be made to increase transparency and make it easier for bills to make it to the floor for debate without the speaker's direct blessing. The group has been largely inconspicuous since Heastie announced it.

Earlier this year Assembly Republicans proposed a number of rules changes of their own that Democrats quickly rejected. Republican Assembly Member Jim Tedisco, who is backing a bill that would allow members to bring a bill to the floor for a vote if they have the support of 76 members (a majority in the 150-seat chamber), has pressured the group to release its recommendations. "They said they needed ways to make the Assembly more transparent, well we gave it to them and they rejected it," Tedisco told Gotham Gazette of the Republicans' attempt at rules reform, which included term limits for leadership positions.

Tedisco announced earlier this week that he was writing Kavanagh a letter asking for the transparency group's report. "These guys are just playing stall ball," said Tedisco. "It's nearly been over a year and now they aren't going to release it over vacation. It's the longest lived and least productive working group I've seen in my life."

Tedisco said Kavanagh arrived at his desk shortly after he announced he was writing him, looking to collect the letter. "So I handed it to him, with the signatures of 25 other guys who signed the letter." He added that he didn't admire Kavanagh's position. "I've never seen Superman and Clark Kent in the same room and I've never seen a powerful leader voluntarily give up power," said Tedisco, referring to the hold of the speaker and majority on the Assembly. There are many questions about how much reform Heastie is willing to support.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara - who took down Silver and his Senate counterpart, former Republican Senate President Dean Skelos - has focused on what he said was the corrupting nature of the "three men in a room" structure that concentrates power in legislative leaders and the governor. He called on rank-and-file members to stand up and challenge leaders when they use their power to block votes or interfere in committees.

"You have to make sure everyone in the institution has an independent operating mind and brain and gut," Bharara told interviewer Alan Chartock of WAMC radio during his visit to Albany on Monday. "So at least somebody in the face of overreaching, or face of despotism, or face of corruption, will rally people to go to the other side and say 'This is enough, we can't go along with this.'"

Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, said Bharara's comments spotlighted the need for more for rules reform and increased transparency. "I think the U.S. Attorney's remarks were on target. They showed the necessity of the working group and the need for it to get its job done," said Dadey.

Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb said that Assembly Democrats should defy their leadership and issue a set of recommendations that takes some of the power back from the speaker--especially given how Silver was removed from office.

"The U.S. Attorney is dead right in asking, 'since when has it become acceptable for three men to decide everything,'" said Kolb, who lamented the rejection of his caucus' proposed rules changes. "These were good ideas, but from the minority point of view it was arrogance - they said, 'We're in charge and you're not.' The Kavanagh group did a lot of hooting and hollering for almost a year. It is nonsensical to continue to stall."

Democratic members point out that getting over 100 politicians, many of whom have long enjoyed the perks of being in the majority, all on the same page about revamping the rules of the chamber isn't exactly an easy task. While good government groups have been critical of the time it's taken many of them indicate they are withholding judgement until they see the final product.

DeNora Getachew, campaign manager and legislative counsel for the Brennan Center, said that she has had no indication of what the working group has focused on or that they've considered the Brennan Center's many reports on legislative rules that focus on empowering members to bring bills to the floor without the speaker's blessing. "That's the heart of how to empower and operate a more democratic process," said Getachew.

"The report should have been out before the start of 2016 so the rules could have been enacted this year," said Dadey of Citizens Union. "I would have prefered the group acted quickly and had an open public discussion but I am hopeful that the report is one that we can embrace."

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

Read more by this writer.

Note: Gotham Gazette is published by Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union.



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