Gotham Gazette Mon, 01 Jun 2020 04:22:53 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Corruption, Elections Loom Over Lengthy 2016 Legislative Agenda Cuomo announcement infrastructure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Corruption, Elections Loom Over Lengthy 2016 Legislative Agenda Wed, 06 Jan 2016 22:17:26 +0000
Fight for MMA Legalization Sees New Life After Silver KO ufc ring

A UFC event (photo: @UltimateFighter)

The path to the legalization of mixed martial arts, or MMA, in New York got a major boost earlier this year in the form of the arrest of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. Silver was seen as the lone impediment to the state removing its ban on the sport and allowing the (notoriously underfunded) New York State Athletic Commission to issue regulations so that New Yorkers can reap the financial benefits of the large events that are now sanctioned in every other state in the nation. The State Senate has passed the bill five times; Silver blocked the bill from ever coming to the Assembly floor.

Silver's replacement, Assembly Member Carl Heastie, of the Bronx, has been a sponsor of the bill and he and the Bronx Democratic Committee he oversees have received donations from MMA interests. While Heastie took his name off the bill when he became speaker, many in the conference expect that with Heastie in charge of the chamber the bill will come to a vote and pass. Heastie has said any bill that comes through his chamber will do so on its merits, not because of his influence.

Assembly Members say that Joseph Morelle, now the bill's lead sponsor, got the OK from Heastie to add more sponsors to the bill. Some insiders say that Silver demanded that no more sponsors be added to the bill last year.

On Friday, Heastie spoke about the legislation during a radio interview on WNBF, of Binghamton, and said the bill would be dealt with in the spring. "After we pass the budget and come back from Easter recess, we'll probably conference MMA and if there's enough support from the conference, we'll bring it to the floor for a vote," he said, according to Politics on the Hudson.

A number of politicos insist that the real barrier to the legalization of MMA in New York still remains - and that it is the behavior of Zuffa, LLC, the parent company of the world's largest MMA promotion, the Ultimate Fighting Championships (UFC).

Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta, owners of Zuffa, LLC and Station Casinos have earned a reputation as union busters and their strong-arm tactics with the Las Vegas Culinary Union is reportedly what has bolstered Silver and other politicians' opposition to the New York bill. The Culinary Union had connections to The Hotel Trades Union that had been actively opposing MMA legislation until recently. But many legislators still carry their talking points against legalization.

Zuffa has spent over $1 million on lobbying efforts and donated over $500,000 to state politicians through its various subsidiaries since 2007 according to records with the New York State Board Of Elections. The major beneficiaries of Zuffa's largesse include Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has taken in $180,000 from the company - more than 30 percent of Zuffa's total donations in New York. The Assembly Democratic Campaign Committee brought in $110,000 despite Silver's resistance; Senate Republicans $95,000; and the Senate Democrats around $40,000.

UFC officials and convinced proponents of bringing MMA to New York say that the sport would bring $135 million annually to the state.

Some things have changed since 2007, when Zuffa began lobbying in New York. The UFC bought, absorbed, and shuttered some competitors, signed a 7-year broadcast deal with Fox, significantly increased the number of cards they put on around the world, and garnered increased attention from national sports media.

Despite its growth 2014 was likely the worst year for Zuffa since they acquired the UFC in 2001. The company's bond rating was downgraded due to significantly lower pay-per-view sales. That was attributed to an injury bug that hit many of the promotion's champions. But perhaps more significantly for the sport itself, 2014 was a year plagued by fighters involved in incidents of domestic violence, failed drug tests, reports about the long-term brain damage incurred by combatants, and backlash from jilted fighters in the form of a class action lawsuit claiming that UFC is a monopoly.

Lorenzo Fertitta, CEO of Zuffa, was in Albany last week talking up the benefits of legalization.

"When you talk about doing an event up in Buffalo or Syracuse where the border of Canada is right there, we'll be able to attract the significant fan base that we have in Canada, importing Canadian tourists," Lorenzo Fertitta told Auburn Citizen last week. "When we do an event in New York — it's such a worldwide, global city — we're going to have people from all over the world attending that event there. There's a huge appetite for the sport and there's really no reason that it shouldn't be allowed in this state."

When Zuffa first began dumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into campaign accounts nine years ago the pitch on legalization was that MMA represented a growing fight sport that was safer and less corrupt than boxing, and that would attract tourism dollars to New York. And, that regulation would ensure the safety of both amateur and professional fighters who now regularly take part in underground fights across the state despite the ban.

Fighters who are banned by athletic commissions in other states for any number of reasons from drug use to blood borne diseases can legally compete in amateur bouts in New York. No one in New York tests them or keeps track of their bouts. Amateur fights take place only a few blocks from the capitol in The Washington Avenue Armory and even in Madison Square Garden. Professional fights in New York, where health and safety regulations would be in place, are illegal.

"When we come in to an area that has been unregulated the first thing you see is the implementation of the correct safety measures," said Lawrence Epstein, Chief Operating Office of UFC. Epstein said regulation also means that amateur promoters actually pay fighters for their bouts. "We see fighter pay increase," said Epstein.

"It is really an odd situation in New York. These amateur bouts aren't underground they are totally out in the open. Meanwhile professional bouts are illegal," Epstein added.

Jordan Breen, executive editor of, a site that has covered MMA since its infancy and has at times bumped heads with Zuffa because of its deep coverage of the company, said that the UFC has intentionally blurred the line between UFC the company and MMA the sport. "Thats the problem," said Breen. "The UFC has marketed itself as the sport and it is not a good approach when it comes to regulation. The two should be separate issues."

Breen said that given New York's reputation at the most union-friendly state it is "understandable how Zuffa's union-busting ways have come to haunt them" here.

UFC fighters are not covered by the federal Muhammad Ali Act that was passed in 1999 to protect the rights and welfare of fighters. While some fighters can make into the millions of dollars for one fight, most on the UFC roster earn a few thousand dollars per bout and can be released by the UFC on a moment's notice.

Their job as professional athletes requires daily training sessions and camps that can be costly. Once they get in the cage to fight they punch, kick, and wrestle to win three- and five-round affairs. Judges decide winners by a points system if one of the fighters is not knocked out, submitted, or saved from more damage by a referee stoppage.

The UFC used to award large bonuses, sometimes to the tune of $50,000, for knockout of the night, submission of the night and fight of the night. And UFC president Dana White's favorite phrase is "Don't leave it in the hands of the judges." In other words, 'Hurt your opponent enough so that there is no question about who won.'

The UFC recently changed the names of the awards to "performance of the night," apparently in an attempt to do away with the notion that they are advocating increased violence.

State Senator Liz Krueger of Manhattan is the sponsor of a bill that would create a two-year moratorium on MMA and have the Department of Health study the impacts of the sport.

"I call the fighters 'future brain damage victims,'" said Krueger. She says New York should take the moral high ground and uphold its MMA ban because of the negative health effects and because she says it promotes violence against women. She doesn't buy the economic pitch either. "Let's be adults. This isn't the golden ticket for the Western New York economy - just like casinos aren't either."

Krueger may be right about the brain damage. According to researchers at University of Toronto, a third of MMA fights end in knockout or technical knockout and result in more brain trauma than boxing. The UFC, for its part, began working with the Cleveland Clinic on another study that has enrolled 400 former and current fighters. Initial data indicate that UFC is safer than boxing and football.

Zuffa began providing healthcare for all of its fighters in 2011 - not an inexpensive undertaking given that they pay both men and women to do each other bodily harm.

Breen acknowledged that fighter safety is a major concern, but said that regulation was the only way to ensure better outcomes. "By not providing regulation you are enacting as an enabler, you are tacitly complicit in these underground shows where these guys beat the heck out of each other like Mad Max in the Thunderdome."

State Senator Brad Hoylman of Manhattan is also concerned about the health impact of MMA, but he has offered a bill that would allow the sanctioning of the sport but also create a tax that would go toward a fund for fighters who suffer brain injuries.

In Rochester on Wednesday, Governor Cuomo told reporters that any positive economic impact MMA could have for the state outweighs concerns about violence.

"This is a big sport and it's growing, and if it can create jobs and economic growth in the State of New York, then I'm interested in it," Cuomo said; later adding: "I understand the point [about violence]. I focus on that less. Football is a violent sport, rugby is a violent sport, some people say politics is a violent sport. So I get that point, but to me it's more about the economics and whether or not we create jobs."

Cuomo has publicly stated the he has watched UFC fights, joking that he watches fights after he has "a particularly frustrating session with the press." Epstein called the admission "bold" and said his company has had conversations with Cuomo about legalization.

Last year as the NFL dealt with the Ray Rice scandal, UFC president White claimed the UFC had a much more thorough approach to domestic violence incidents. On Feb. 7, 2014 UFC fighter Thiago Silva was arrested for menacing his wife and her friend at a gym with a gun. He faced charges of aggravated battery with a deadly weapon, aggravated assault with a firearm, and resisting arrest. In September the DA's office decided to drop the case because Silva's wife had apparently moved out of the country. The UFC quickly reinstated Silva. Then Silva's wife posted videos of him acting erratically and apparently sniffing cocaine. Two weeks after reinstating Silva the UFC terminated his contract.

Women's groups like the National Organization for Women (NOW) have campaigned against the sport saying it incites violence against women. Epstein said that the accusations are "meritless rhetoric," and "outright lies." He pointed to Ronda Rousey, UFC's bantamweight champion and Olympic medalist in Judo, who has headlined numerous events and has been hailed as an inspirational female athlete.

Perhaps the biggest blow to the UFC's mainstream reputation came this January. Coming off a horrible 2014 the company booked the biggest fights it possibly could. One of those cards featured Endicott, New York native Jon Jones, the company's light heavyweight champion, fighting his rival Daniel Cormier, an Olympic medalist in wrestling. Jones won the contest handily, and the event was hailed as a major success.

On Jan. 7 of this year it was revealed that Jones had tested positive for cocaine during a random drug test administered by the Nevada State Athletic Commission, the commission that sets the standards for regulation of the sport. Jones faced a meager fine, went to rehab, and left a day later. The UFC praised him for dealing with his illness. The athletic commission could not take action against Jones because their rules state that they can't discipline a fighter for street drugs found through out-of-competition testing. Jones is actually pondering legal action because he believes the results of the test should not have been released.

Only a month later two of the company's biggest stars, Anderson Silva and Nick Diaz, headlined a card in Las Vegas. Diaz tested positive for elevated levels of marijuana metabolites, as he had done numerous other times; and Silva, who is regarded in many circles as the sport's Babe Ruth, failed multiple drug tests, including a pre-fight test for steroids. Critics have wondered why the commission did not report the test before the fight to prevent the bout. Some have posited that the commission has no real interest in reporting the tests before an event because it would be required to cancel something that functions as a boon for the Las Vegas economy.

Epstein says that these positive tests prove that regulation and the UFC's safety protocols are working - major stars are getting caught because the UFC is testing them. The UFC also announced that it would fund random out-of-competition drug testing for its roster of over 600 fighters.

Former UFC champion George St. Pierre, perhaps the promotion's biggest star, retired from MMA and has refused offers to lure him back, insisting that he won't fight until performance enhancing drugs are less of a norm in the sport.

Zuffa also faces multi-million dollar class action lawsuits from former fighters who say the company prevented them from earning what they were worth by monopolizing the sport. The suit accuses the UFC of "illegally maintaining monopoly and monopsony power by systematically eliminating competition from rival promoters, artificially suppressing fighters' earnings from bouts and merchandising and marketing activities through restrictive contracting and other exclusionary practices." The lawsuit is backed by major law firms.

Breen said he believes legalization and regulation in New York could be much needed wins for the UFC and the upstate economy, "There is no denying there is a certain prestige to Madison Square Garden for the UFC. But with Broadway and New York's sports teams the UFC would just be a drop in a bucket. I imagine it would do extremely well in Buffalo where the Sabres play. It would draw a massive number of Canadian fans."

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Fight for MMA Legalization Sees New Life After Silver KO Sun, 08 Mar 2015 20:41:48 +0000