Gotham Gazette Fri, 28 Feb 2020 03:04:25 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Assembly Announces Internal Reform Plan to Mixed Reviews heastie cuomo reporters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

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

Assembly Announces Internal Reform Plan to Mixed Reviews Fri, 18 Mar 2016 01:18:36 +0000
In Albany, Sunshine Week Starts with Darkness heastie cuomo flanagan 2015

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.

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

In Albany, Sunshine Week Starts with Darkness Tue, 15 Mar 2016 02:18:44 +0000
Albany Sunshine Week Looked Like an Eclipse to Advocates Cuomo Heastie ethics

Cuomo and Heastie embrace over ethics deal (photo: Governor's Office via flickr)

The Cuomo administration and the state Legislature are doing battle on a variety of fronts, perhaps none more intense than that over ethics reform. Last week, the administration launched a two-pronged attack in response to criticism of its 90-day email deletion policy and over a push for increased financial disclosure by administration employees and their significant others.

The pushback came during Sunshine Week, when state government is supposed to be focused on transparency and accountability. And while there were several announcements related to efforts to let more sunshine into government, the week was dominated by bickering. Cuomo's office was often focused on deflecting attention back onto the Legislature with surprisingly ugly attacks, even by Albany standards, rather than promoting transparency.

"Instead of sunshine we have an eclipse," said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG). "This is a Sunshine Week where the major players aren't even acknowledging the week with major initiatives. Instead we are fighting about whether the governor should automatically delete email after 90 days and disclosure for girlfriends."

Past Sunshine Weeks have seen the announcement of major open-data portals and other transparency initiatives. To be sure, the governor is pushing his ethics reform package, and even announced a two-way deal with the state Assembly on measures to require lawmakers disclose their outside income, verify their presence in the capital to collect per diems, and more. But, controversy over the email purge and the limited nature of the ethics reform plans have often kept the governor and other legislators on the defensive.

Cuomo responded to criticism of his email policy and new bills to require longer retention of government emails by insisting the Legislature must agree to be subject to FOIL for him to consider making changes. When pushed by Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, Cuomo did declare that he is ready to revisit the policy and said he will be convening a summit around email retention.

In response to the push for more financial disclosure from his administration and, specifically, his wealthy live-in girlfriend Sandra Lee - who Capital New York reported has business with a company that has business before the State - Cuomo spokesperson Rich Azzopardi tweeted, "The administration is glad to negotiate disclosure of all girlfriends," in a thinly-veiled insinuation that legislators have extra-marital relationships.

"This is not anything that is personal," Republican Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos told reporters of his push for Lee to disclose her income. He went on to declare interest in more disclosure from Cuomo's "minions," of which Azzopardi clearly qualifies. "You can find out where any of our council staff people went, how much they paid for lodging, their gas expenses, whatever they chit," Skelos said. "The governor, his staff, when they move their minions for a press conference, other than for security purposes, they don't have to disclose."

"It is getting really nasty," Horner said of the debate over increased disclosure from legislators and the administration. "It is sort of embarrassing."

Bills have been introduced that would do away with the executive's controversial policy that sees all state emails deleted after 90 days unless they are specifically saved. Advocates say the policy interferes with transparency and the freedom of information law, and state employees say it complicates their work.

A bill introduced by State Senator Liz Krueger and Assembly Member Daniel O'Donnell would both drastically reform the email retention policy and make the Legislature subject to FOIL. Attorney General Eric Schneiderman ended his office's 90-day email deletion policy and said it would be formulating a new one, provoking Cuomo to act.

On March 12 Cuomo called for a state government summit on email and transparency, but a date has not yet been set. "We believe the policy should honor transparency while maintaining efficiency," Cuomo's head spokesperson Melissa DeRosa said in a statement. "To that end, as the Attorney General and the legislature appear open to revising their policies, the governor's office will convene a meeting with representatives from the Legislature, the attorney general and the comptroller to come up with one uniform email retention and [Freedom of Information Law] policy that applies to all state officials and agencies."

With no sign of a conference in sight Krueger and O'Donnell issued a statement on the 18th calling on Cuomo to end his policy regardless of a conference. "We don't need to hold a summit before we halt the current indefensible email deletion policy," said O'Donnell. "An immediate suspension and then a summit as soon as possible will enable us to have the intelligent conversation we need regarding a unified state policy." Krueger noted that Schneiderman did not wait for a summit to end his policy.

John Kaehny of good government group Reinvent Albany said that it is "unfortunate" that Sunshine Week was dominated by the email deletion policy, and calls the policy a "big step backwards" that could be adjusted quickly, thereby ending the public outcry against it.

Last Tuesday, perhaps looking to break up a newscycle dominated by his email policy, Cuomo made an impromptu announcement of an ethics package that he had agreed to with Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie but not Skelos, who heads the Senate. The agreement would require tighter disclosure of legislators' outside income, take pensions away from officials convicted of corruption offenses, force lawmakers to check in with a swipe card to collect per diem reimbursements, and tighten rules pertaining to the personal use of campaign funds.

Skelos rejected the package for not holding the Executive to the same disclosure standards as the Legislature and good government groups criticized it for not going far enough, especially considering the indictment of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

The announcement also came on the heels of Schneiderman's unveiling of a drastic reform package that would create a full-time Legislature, among other sweeping reforms. Schneiderman explicitly stated that he was pushing the conversation further than the governor and that incremental steps at ethics reform would no longer suffice. His proposals are likely to go nowhere any time soon.

Sunshine Week did have its moments in the advancement of government transparency. Schneiderman's office announced that it will release an application programming interface, or API, that will allow app developers to use data from the Attorney General's database. Kaehny and Schneiderman's office believe the API will make it easier for programmers to provide real-time data analysis of things like campaign finance, lobbying, and state contracts. "Giving the public direct access to this data will help shine a much-needed light on our state government," Schneiderman said in a statement.

The Senate passed a bill that would codify its practice of livecasting its proceedings and posting votes to the internet - the catch is that the Assembly would also have to pass the same bill. The Senate has passed the bill for years while the Assembly has refused to consider it.

The Assembly, meanwhile, passed a slew of one-house bills that work at strengthening response to freedom of information requests.

"This Sunshine Week was all about passing the buck," said Horner.

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Albany Sunshine Week Looked Like an Eclipse to Advocates Tue, 24 Mar 2015 02:46:58 +0000