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State Legislature Battles Over Minimum Wage Increase

Photo provided by Office of Gov. Andrew Cuomo

The debate over minimum wages continues to divide the NY State legislature, with the Democrat-controlled assembly led by Speaker Sheldon Silver calling for the state rate to go up to $8.50, from the current $7.25. Republicans in the Senate and some business groups oppose the measure, saying it will hurt jobs and the broader economy.

The assembly held a series of hearings across the state in April, with more to come in May. Pro-labor groups such as the Business and Labor Coalition of New York testified on behalf of the legislation, saying that raising the minimum wage is essential to make sure workers can survive at the present costs of living. Many New Yorkers who make minimum wages came out as well.

"These hearings are an important next step in the process to raise the minimum wage," said Silver in a statement. "It is important for our communities to speak up. Raising the minimum wage fairly rewards low-wage workers, helping those who are striving to help themselves and in the process, giving a boost to local economies."

Similar debates are ongoing in many states around the country, driven by a slow economic recovery. California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri and New Jersey are all considering increases.

New York's minimum wage peaked in 1970, when it was $1.85 per hour, a purchasing power equal to about $10.70 today. The state's minimum wage is 19th from the top in the country. Vermont's minimum wage is $8.46 per hour and in Massachusetts, it's $8 per hour.

For the Raise

Analysts at the Fiscal Policy Institute, a liberal-leaning think tank, said that the increase would benefit 880,000 New Yorkers who earn below $8.50 per hour as of 2011, about 10 percent of the state's workforce, according to FPI research. The institute goes on to say that at $8.50, a person employed full time would earn slightly less than the federal poverty rate for a three-person household.

'Women, blacks and Latinos would be among the main beneficiaries of a higher New York minimum wage since they are disproportionately represented in low-wage jobs,' said James Parrott, deputy director of FPI.

FPI adds that the increase would drive greater consumer purchasing power, increasing demand for goods and services and stimulating the economy. The institute's testimony cites a study from the MIT journal Review of Economics and Statistics, which found that high minimum wages did not reduce employment across the country.

Assemblyman Keith Wright, chair of the labor committee, co-sponsored the bill and held many of the hearings. The bill has the support of politicians like assemblyman Sam Roberts and Dan Cantor, executive director of the Working Families Party. Mayor Michael Bloomberg also supports the increase.

Governor Andrew Cuomo said that he supports an increase in principle but he has yet to see how it will affect New York State's economy, which will dictate his decision.

Against the Raise

Many Republican senators and assembly members criticized the bill, skeptical of its merits or fearing job loss. Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos called it a 'job killer' and it 'increases all the costs of the job creators.' Other legislators who oppose the bill include State Sens. John DeFrancisco, Tom Libous and Patty Ritchie, as well as Assemblymen Will Barclay and Gary Finch.

Russell Sykes, a senior fellow at Manhattan Institute, a right-leaning think tank, said that raising minimum wage will not help many low-income New Yorkers because many people who earn minimum wage live in households which have other, higher income.

'Higher minimum wage would reduce job opportunities for the very people it's supposed to help, even as the benefits flow mainly to households that aren't poor,' Sykes wrote in an op ed.

Sykes, who worked as deputy commissioner at New York's Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance", said that there are better ways to help New Yorkers, such as Earned Income Tax Credit, a federal and state tax break for poorer families with children. He said that these programs are much more targeted towards actual poor households who need the help.

Parrott responded that EITC and raising the minimum wage are good complementary measures and one should not replace the other.

Still, there are some organizations that think that the $8.50 per hour goal is a step in the right direction but not enough, such as the nonprofit group National Employment Law Project, which testified at similar hearings in New Jersey, in March. According to the group, a minimum wage consistent with 1970 standards would come out to $10.39.

As Advocates Push for Redistricting Reform, GOP Offers A Slower Way

new york redistricting
Republicans have reason to fear they will lose seats in the State Senate if an independent redistricting commission draws the new lines.

Independent redistricting isn't the sexiest issue in Albany. The creation of district lines every 10 years just doesn't grab as much attention as cuts to services that more obviously affect peoples' daily lives.

And yet redistricting is one of the major hot button topics facing legislators this year. Good government advocates and legislators in the minority party -- notably Senate Democrats -- have been pressing hard to take the drawing of district lines away from a group handpicked by legislators and give the task to a non-partisan group. The idea is that a non-partisan group would draw lines based not on how to get incumbent members reelected but on how best to represent communities.

The pressure has been mounting, owing to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has proposed legislation, and former Mayor Ed Koch, who gathered pledgesfrom legislators during the campaign season to support independent redistricting. Cuomo's bill would create independent redistricting -- and give a fair amount of power to the governor. Neither house has moved on it.

Yesterday, though, as good government groups stepped up their efforts to change redistricting, the State Senate approved a bill that would do just that -- but not for another decade.

Choosing Sides

An overwhelming majority of legislators have indicated their support for independent redistricting, according to a study released yesterday by Reshape New York, a campaign to fight for redistricting reform. Sixty of 62 current senators have signed a pledge, voted for a bill in committee or voiced their support for taking redistricting out of the hands of the legislature. One hundred and twenty-one members of the 150-member Assembly have spoken in support of reforming the process. Cuomo's legislation would basically achieve what good government groups and legislators have been pushing for.

Yet change is not guaranteed. There are only a few months left before it will simply be too late, and the old redistricting practice will be used for 2012 and the rest of the decade. Then it will be 2021 before there is another chance to see reform initiated and put into action. Assembly Democrats and Senate Republicans both issued their one-house budgets over the weekend, and both budgets contained funding for the Legislative Task Force on Demographic Research and Reapportionment -- the group that has traditionally redrawn district lines. In other words, neither majority is planning for an overhaul to the system.

What is the holdup?

It comes down to how one defines reform who might benefit from what changes.

Winner and Losers

For one, when Republicans in the Senate signed Koch's pledge during the campaign last year they were in the minority. Most members of the minority (whichever party that happens to be at the time) support redistricting reform because they know the majority party will use the current system to keep itself in power.

So now that the Republicans hold a narrow majority, they have been stonewalling on the issue. They still profess to support reform but say a constitutional amendment is necessary to change the current system. Such an amendment would need to be approved by two successive legislatures and face a public referendum. In other words, change could not happen in time to alter the process this time around.

Whatever one thinks of its merits, the Republicans' position, many observers say, is a matter of survival. By most counts, if district lines were drawn fairly, the overwhelmingly greater number of registered Democrats in the state would probably mean that Republicans would lose the majority for the foreseeable future.

Senate Republicans would rather let Koch and other painted as enemies of reform -- as the former mayor has said he will do if they stand in the way of ,independent redistricting -- so they introduced a bill of their own. Sponsored by Republican Sen. John Bonacic , it calls for a constitutional amendment to create a new body to draw district lines. On Monday, it made its way through the committee process.

Koch and his allies wrote letters and distributed memoranda decrying the Senate Republican bill as a stall tactic. Koch wrote that the legislation "would not apply for the current redistricting cycle to be completed next year and therefore would not meet the requirements of the New York Uprising pledge, which specifies that the reforms apply to the redistricting pursuant to the 2010 Census." (New York Uprising is Koch’s advocacy organization.)

Sen. Mike Gianaris put it more bluntly: "A proposal that doesn't take effect for 11 years is a dodge."

Citizens Union executive director Dick Dadey said the amendment was "unacceptable." He noted that besides not addressing redistricting this year the amendment would would undo a bill Democrats passed last year that counted inmates for redistricting purposes not where they were incarcerated but where they lived before they were jailed. That measure would put more voters in the Democratic city and fewer in the upstate rural districts, where most state prisons are, further reducing the number of GOP seats. Along with that, Dadey said, the amendment permit a district to be 5 percent larger or smalller than the average size, "allowing for political manipulation."

The bill passed by a vote of 35-24. The aye votes came from Republicans and four members of the Senate Independent Democratic Conference. One observer noted that the bill made it through the entire legislative process in the Senate -- committees, debate and a vote, while Cuomo's measure is still waiting for any sort of hearing.

Members of the Independent Democratic Caucus said they supported the amendment because, while it is not perfect, it achieves a goal Democrats had when they were in the majority and did not act on. Senate Democrats had all the opportunity in the world to pass legislation or an amendment while they were in power but did not. Sen. Liz Krueger reportedly accused on member of the independent Democrats of colluding with Republicans to kill other reform measures and get the amendment passed.

A GOP Split

While many Senate Republicans insist that the only legal way to change the redistricting process is through a constitutional amendment, some Assembly Republicans, including Minority Leader Brian Kolb, said they support legislation that would address the issue for this year. Redistricting reform would not likely give Assembly Republicans a gigantic boost, but it would likely allow for more competitive districts upstate. Kolb said he would support Cuomo’s bill with some tweaks.

"I know that they say they would prefer to do it from a constitutional perspective, and I don’t disagree with that, it’s the preferred way to go," Kolb told the Times Union. "I think for this particular cycle only, we should try to get a non-partisan redistricting bill that I think will pass muster. Do I think it's possible? Yes, but that's only if everybody’s interested in making it happen."

High Stakes for the GOP

But will Senate Republicans sign what some see as their own death warrant?

Blair Horner of the Public Interest Research Group says that the notion that Republicans would be wiped out by independent redistricting is simply false. "Right now Democrats enjoy an enrollment advantage in a lot of Republican districts and yet the Republicans still control the Senate. The partisan argument doesn't hold water." Horner said Republicans, in some districts, would just have to run harder and raise more money than they do now.

As for how he is lobbying Republicans to support independent redistricting, Horner says it is fairly straightforward. "The argument is just a logical one," he said. "Cuomo promised to veto the lines if they don't pass independent redistricting. They can wait until next year to see if he vetoes the lines, and if there is no override, the courts would redraw the line. I argue it is more logical to start now than to have the court take this over and do it in a month’s time."

Cuomo's threat to veto any bill that does not create an independent redistricting commission is the key to this puzzle. With a veto, the courts are left to redraw district lines, leaving legislators at their mercy. But there is concern among some Senate Democrats that Cuomo may not follow through on his promise -- that perhaps the governor would deal with Republicans to come to some sort of a compromise rather than actually vetoing redistricting done under the old system.

"In the end, come it comes down to the governor," said Horner. "If redistricting reform happens it will be because of the governor; if it doesn’t it will come down to the governor. There will be a vote on redistricting reform and in this case we will know which elected officials broke their promise."

2010 in Review: Scandals, Budget Cuts and Top-Level Changes


Photo by Saebaryo
Andrew Cuomo campaigning.

(For other year end coverage, see Gotham Gazette's review of the big things that did not happen in New York in 2010, and our roundup of prominent prognosticators' predictions for 2011.

Regardless of what may confront him in 2011, Andrew Cuomo had a pretty good year in 2011. That makes him one of the few New York luminaries who did.

For most of the city and state's political players, the year now ending was marked by budget cuts, scandal and overall bad news. And with the City Time controversy breaking into the headlines and more deficits on the horizon, the coming year could bring more of the same.

Until then, though, here are Gotham Gazette's picks for the Top 10 New York stories of 2011.

Coming Up Cuomo

Eight years after his political career appeared to have ended -- and 16 years after his father lost his bid for a fourth term as governor -- Andrew Cuomo resoundingly defeated Republican Carl Paladino to win election as the state's 56th governor.

In many respects, the victory night celebration in Manhattan marked a kind of anticlimax to two and a half years of bizarre twists in the state's politics.

Cuomo's path to victory began in March 2008 when Eliot Spitzer resigned as governor in the wake of reports he frequented high-priced prostitutes. It picked up steam as Gov. David Paterson's brief honeymoon skidded to a halt when he locked horns with the legislature over efforts to cut state spending. Cuomo then got a huge boost when Paterson, weakened and enmeshed in various allegations of wrongdoing (see below), decided not to seek election.

Already blessed with high name recognition, general approval from the public for his performance as state attorney general and a formidable war chest, Cuomo's good fortune continued as the state Republican Party appeared in disarray. In September, Carl Paladino, a multimillionaire real estate developer and Tea Party sympathizer from Buffalo, thrashed the establishment GOP candidate, Rick Lazio, in the primary.

Paladino's upset win -- along with his plain speaking on the mess in Albany -- brought him a quick spike in the polls. His campaign, though, quickly foundered amid accounts of pornographic and racists emails and other bizarre behavior --including rantings about gays, a physical confrontation with a Post reporter and wandering off in search of the bathroom in the middle of the only gubernatorial debate.

For his part, Cuomo ran a tightly controlled race, offering few specifics about how he would cut the state spending by billions or other policy areas. The move paid off on Election Day, as he came away with more than 61 percent of the vote.

From Hearst to Tweed

Cathleen Black
Photo by Kaplan101
New schools chancellor Cathleen Black

On Nov. 9, after eight years as schools chancellor, Joel Klein announced his resignation. Talk of Klein's leaving had been wafting around for months, if not years, so the real surprise in the City Hall press conference was not that -- but rather Mayor Michael Bloomberg's choice to succeed him: Cathleen Black, the chair of Hearst magazines.

The choice startled just about everyone, and in the days and weeks to come began to appear ever more confounding. While Bloomberg praised Black -- who travels in many of the same moneyed circles as the mayor -- as a world class manager, it rapidly emerged she had no experience in public education and as far as anyone could tell, little interest in it.

With critics describing the appointment as "a slap in the face' to the city's public school parents and teachers, and an example of cronyism, efforts mounted to block Black. State education commission David Steiner -- the one person with the legal authority to stop the appointment -- appointed a panel to advise him on whether to grant Black the waiver she would need to become chancellor, given her lack of education experience. That group voted against the waiver.

Steiner -- apparently nervous at the prospect of saying no to Bloomberg -- then engineered a compromise that would require Black to name an education deputy in return for his OK. She or someone (Bloomberg? Klein? Patricia Harris?) selected educator Shael Polakow-Suransky.

Window-dressing or not, it closed the deal for Steiner who promptly gave his blessing to Black. It did little or nothing to mollify some politicians and parents. Legal efforts to block Black will be heard in an Albany court on Thursday.

No End in Sight

In June Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the City Council http://www.gothamgazette.com/article/searchlight/20100625/203/3299">agreed to a budget that cut $1 billion in spending. Although less draconian than the mayor had originally threatened -- it did not, for example shut down any city libraries or lay off teachers -- the approved budget still pared city services. Some senior centers and day care site closed, for example, and libraries cut hours. The city also raised some fees- -- though not taxes.

And the cuts apparently did not go deep enough. Last month, Bloomberg unveiled a new round of $1.6 billion in reductions -- many of which could take effect without the council's approval. They represented the ninth round of slashes in the last three years. This time the cuts are slated to fall on libraries (as usual), the Administration for Children's Services, the fire department -- which plans to some companies shut during evening hours -- and Homeless Services. The plan also calls for teacher layoffs over the next 18 months, something averted in the spring when Bloomberg froze teacher salaries.

As the year ended, council members held hearings and denounced the cuts. Whether they could avert any remains to be seen.

But whatever happens with that, the worst could still come. In announcing the cuts last month, Deputy Mayor Stephen Goldsmith said even with the latest cuts, the city still faces a $2.4 billion shortfall for fiscal year 2012. Discussions on that begin early next year.

And the state could be in even worse shape. After a year in which the legislature and governor proved unable or unwilling to tackle the state's fiscal woes, the government faces a deficit estimated at $9 billion to $14 billion for the next fiscal year.

A Widening Net

Investigators began probing possible scandal at the New York state pension funds in 2006. But this year more people and firms fell, as Attorney General Andrew Cuomo seemed intent on wrapping up as many strands in the probe as possible before moving on to his new job.

In the "pay to play scandal," then State Comptroller Alan Hevesi and some of his associates used the state's $122 billion pension fund to reward financiers and firms that supported their campaigns, gave them money or did other favors. (Hevesi resigned in 2006 in the wake of allegations that now seem almost quaint.) In October, Hevesi pleaded guilty to having take $1 million in money and favors.

Last month, one of Hevesi's closest associates, former political consultant Hank Morris, reached a plea bargain on what has been described as a "minor charge." Morris reportedly took $19 million in fees for himself.

Altogether as of early November, six people in addition to Hevesi and Morris have pleaded guilty in connection with the probe, 16 firms have settled, and more than $139 million has been paid to the fund and the state, according to Cuomo.

Cuomo, though, has not been able to wrap up the case of Steven Rattner, the former Obama administration car czar and investment advisor to Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Rattner has agreed to pay $6.2 million to the Securities and Exchange Commission for his involvement in the kickback scheme. Cuomo has filed two lawsuits against Ratter seeking at least $26 million. The fight between the two men has turned nasty, with Cuomo describing Rattner's behavior as "the most egregious" of all the skulduggery into the pension fund case -- and calling Rattner a liar to boot.

The Really High Cost of Yankee Tickets

David Paterson
Photo by Azi Paybarah
David Paterson, last February, shortly before announcing he would not seek election to a full term as governor

Gov. David Paterson's really, really bad year started with a storm of rumors in February that the New York Times was at work on a story about him that would prove so damaging he would have to resign. Sex? Drugs?

Whatever the paper may -- or may not -- have unearthed about Paterson's personal proclivities, on Feb. 16, what many believed to be the story came out -- and it concerned not Paterson but a close confidant: David Johnson. Johnson had been arrested on drug charges as a teenager, the article said, and for assault in the 1990s. He also had, it continued, "on three occasions been involved in altercations with women, two of which led to calls to the police." That piece, New York magazine commented, met with "widespread media disappointment."

But eight days later, the paper published the bombshell. It reported that Paterson and members of the state police persuaded Johnson's former girlfriend to abandon her efforts to seek an order of protection against Johnson, who she charged, assaulted her in her apartment on Halloween night.

Two days later, with Attorney General (and potential political rival) Andrew Cuomo looking into the case -- at Paterson's request -- Paterson announced he would not seek re-election in November.

Months later, former Chief Judith Kaye, assigned by Cuomo to conduct the probe, determined Paterson made errors of judgment in the matter but did not break the law.

The governor did not fare as well in another case that came under Kaye's scrutiny: his alleged acceptance of free World Series tickets. Kaye found Paterson might have committed perjury when he told state investigators he had always planned to pay for the tickets to the opening game of the 2009 series. Earlier this week, the state ethics commission fined Paterson $62,125 for soliciting and taking the tickets -- a hefty premium for tickets that, had he gotten them the normal way, would have set him back $2,125. Meanwhile Albany District Attorney David Soares reportedly is continuing to investigate the possible perjury charges.

As for Johnson, he was arraigned on misdemeanor assault charges in August. Last month, Paterson officially fired Johnson, who had been suspended without pay since February.

Grade Deflation

New York City's vaunted leap in student achievement under Mayor Michael Bloomberg took a major hit this summer as the state Department of Education changed its scale for grading the tests. Responding to widespread criticism that scores had risen because tests had gotten dumber -- not that students had gotten smarter -- in the last several years, the state raised the score a student must reach to be considered "proficient" in English language arts and math.

The new scoring had only 54 percent of students in grades three through eight last school year meeting the standard for math -- down from 82 percent the previous year -- and 42.4 percent in language arts down from 69 percent the previous year.

The new system also found that, instead of narrowing as Bloomberg and his school chancellor Joel Klein had long proclaimed, the achievement gap between races had widened. Many blacks and Latinos had, apparently, scored at the lower end of the proficient category and so were knocked out of the category when the state raised its bar.

Despite the new scores, Bloomberg stood by his program. "There is a lot of evidence we are making great progress," he said. "Everybody basically knows this is working."

Power Loss

On Dec. 2 the House of Representative voted to censure Rep. Charles Rangel, for years the most powerful member of New York's House delegation. Although Rangel faces no criminal charges, the 333 to 79 vote delivered a harsh and very rare rebuke to the Harlem congressman, who had briefly served as chair of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee.

Rangel stood accused of failing to pay taxes on a vacation home in the Dominican Republic, of filing misleading financial disclosure forms and of improperly soliciting donations from corporations with business before his committee for a center named in his honor at City University of New York.

Following the censure, Rangel saidhe made mistakes but "there was no deception involved."

Although Rangel was already facing ethics charges during last fall's campaign, he handily turned back challengers in both the primary and the general election. He has saidhe plans to serve out his current term but many suspect it will be his last.

If You See Something...

Riverbank State Park
Photo by T.L. Miles
Police evacuated Times Square as they investigated and disarmed what turned out to be a car bomb.

Acting on a tip from a street vendor, police on May 1 disarmed a crude -- and smoking car bomb -- in the heart of Times Square on a Saturday night. Although the device, made of propane, gasoline and fireworks packed in a Nissan Pathfinder -- appeared crude, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said it still could have killed people and created havoc. "We were very lucky," he said.

The threat prompted the evacuation of thousands of tourists and other in the busy area, left people shut out of their hotels and forced cancellation of some Broadway shows.

Two days later, police arrested Faisal Shahzad, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Pakistan, for placing the bomb. In June, he pleaded guilty, telling the court that the U.S. should withdraw its troops from Afghanistan and Iraq and end its drone raids there or face further attacks. In October, a judge sentenced him to life in prison.

While many aspects of Shahzad's plan appeared amateurish, evidence emerged in subsequent days that the Pakistani Taliban may have played a role in the aborted attack and that Shazad had had bomb training in Pakistan.

Crime Capital

Pedro Espada
Photo by Azi Paybarah
Pedro Espada

Continuing in the footsteps of former Majority Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno and former State Assemblymember Brian McLaughlin, members of the state legislature continued their record of wrongdoing in 2010.

Leading the rogues gallery was Pedro Espada, until very recently State Senate majority leader and New York's highest ranking Latino politician. Last week, Espada and his son were indicted for allegedly siphoning more than half a million dollars from a group of health clinics they run -- and using it to pay for home improvements, a serious sushi habit and other expenses. Espada, who denies any wrongdoing, also faces a civil lawsuit charging he stole many millions more from those clinics, which are supposed to care for poor people in the Bronx.

Espada lost his re-election bid in September's primary.

In February, the Senate removed one of the miscreants in its midst -- Hiram Monserrate -- following his 2009 conviction on misdemeanor charges arising from a dispute with his girlfriend. (Monserrate won acquittal on far more serious charges involving slashing the woman with a broken glass.) In expelling Monserrate -- the first senator to suffer that fate in almost century -- the senators said they were taking a strong stand against domestic violence. His supporters, though, said he was being singled out for bucking the party leadership, and some charged he was the victim of anti-Latino prejudice.

Out of politics, Monserrate, though, is not out of trouble. In October, he was indicted on charges of fraud and conspiracy dating back to his days as a member of City Council. The charges allege that Monserrate steered some of his member items money to a nonprofit he controlled and used the funds to help finance a run for the State Senate. (The indictment is part of the ongoing federal investigation in abuses involving member items

Other legislators in trouble in 2010:

--Former Queens State Assemblymember Anthony Seminerio was sentenced to six years in prison in February after pleading guilty to charges that he improperly solicited money from people and organizations who had business with the state.

--Earlier this month, State Sen. Kevin Parker of Brooklyn was convicted of misdemeanor charges arising from his attack on a New York Post photographer. Parker, who has been in trouble for fighting with people before, won acquittal on felony charges in the assault, but could still face expulsion from the Senate.

--And just in case you thought only legislators from New York City got in hot water, earlier this month, former State Sen. Vincent Leibell pleaded guilty to federal obstruction of justice and tax evasion charges. He had been slated to become Putnam County executive next month -- but now could end up going to jail instead.

Flip Flop

After just two years in Democratic hands, the State Senate will return to Republican control when the new legislature takes office next month. Although a number of seats shifted, the decisive move for the GOP came in a ruling by a state Supreme Court judge that declared Jack Martins the winner over incumbent State Sen. Craig Johnson ion a Long Island district. The state's highest court upheld the decision this week.

Democrats had had a razor thin 32-30 vote edge, and the Republican margin will be just as small. Whether that will mean another two years of turmoil and gridlock in the upper chamber remains to be seen. Of course, the new majority leader, Dean Skelos, tried to turn back such fears. "We're prepared to work with the governor-elect and all of the members of the State Legislature to do the people's business, and look forward to a productive 2011 legislative session," he said.

Will Cuomo Draw the Line on Gerrymandering?

Elkanah Tisdale (1771-1835)
This 1812 cartoon of legislative districts in Massachusetts shows the original gerrymander -- a division of the state aimed at boosting the fortunes of Gov. Elbridge Gerry and the Democrats.

On Nov. 2, voters in California and Florida approved measures on the ballot to take the politics out of drawing legislative district lines.

In New York, the voters do not have the power to go to the ballot to change the redistricting process. That leaves it up to Gov.-elect Andrew Cuomo and the State Legislature to decide whether to keep redistricting in the hands of legislators or enact reforms to create a more independent process. With the state receiving census data from the federal government by April 1, 2011, and new districts needing to be drawn before the 2012 legislative elections, the clock is ticking on this important issue.

Cuomo and a majority of members of the legislature have expressed their support for change. But whether that will become a reality in time for the upcoming redistricting remains to be seen, along with how the governor, legislators and advocates will draw independent lines.

Gerrymandering in New York

Line drawing, known as redistricting, occurs every 10 years after the completion of the U.S. Census to ensure that the all citizens are equally represented across congressional, state legislative and local council districts. The next round is slated to begin in 2011.

When legislators draw their own lines -- as is the case in New York -- it often becomes inherently political. Known as "gerrymandering," lines are configured in the best interests of the elected officials who draw them. (The term "gerrymander" was from a district formed in Massachusetts under Gov. Elbridge Gerry, which resembled a salamander, hence "gerry-mander.")

To avoid this, California recently formed a citizen redistricting commission, made up entirely of members of the public. In New York, the majority party in each house of the state legislature appoints the members of the Legislative Task Force on Demographic Research and Reapportionment or "LATFOR," which draws the maps. In addition to drawing their own lines through LATFOR, the leadership also draws lines for New York's congressional districts. The political decisions made by line-drawers can split natural communities, create oddly shaped districts and reconfigure lines to put potential challengers out of districts, sometimes by only a block or two.

The task force's maps must be approved by the legislature and the governor, although the last two governors signed the plan into law with little input.

In 2011-2012, , the Democrats will draw lines for the Assembly, and the Republicans will draw lines for the Senate as was the case in the last three redistricting cycles. From 1975 to 2008, Republicans controlled the Senate and Democrats controlled the Assembly in what was the longest standing partisan split in state legislatures across the country.

This in no small part was due to the way district lines are drawn. Some also blame the state's redistricting process for the dysfunction in Albany. Though it has been criticized for decades by good government groups, editorial boards and those elected officials or challengers who have been disadvantaged by gerrymandering, New York has kept its redistricting process.

Now observers think the time could be ripe for change, with public confidence in state government at an all-time low. Many candidates promised redistricting reform during their campaigns for office this year -- including Andrew Cuomo.

Cuomo's Stance

Cuomo's campaign policy book, the New NY Agenda, prominently featured redistricting reform. Its three-page entry (as long as the entry for education) favors the creation of an independent commission. Cuomo cites growing support for reform proposals, including legislation sponsored by Assemblymember Michael Gianaris and Sen. David Valesky that creates an independent commission.

As far as the specifics, Cuomo states that an independent commission must be "diverse in every sense of that word," and not motivated by self-interest, as is the case when legislators draw their own district maps. Cuomo alludes to criteria for drawing the lines, stating that the commission would be driven by the values of population equality, contiguity, compactness, minority representation, and preservation of communities of interest and pre-existing administrative boundaries.

Working with the Legislature

For redistricting reform to become a reality, it must have support from members of the legislature -- the very people who have benefited from the current configuration of lines. In the last year, however, the legislature has begun to take steps in support of redistricting reform and the creation of an independent commission. In 2010, two Senate committees -- elections and government operation -- passed the Valesky/Gianaris legislation. The Assembly Governmental Operations Committee passed the bill as well. The Senate is set to hold hearings on redistricting, at which Democratic Sen. Martin Dilan, the current Senate co-chair of LATFOR, will preside. These will focus primarily on the criteria used for drawing the lines (of course Dilan will not hold this post next year, when Senate Republicans take back the majority).

During the campaign season, NY Uprising, a group formed by former Mayor Ed Koch in conjunction with Citizens Union (the sister arm of Citizens Union Foundation, which publishes Gotham Gazette), asked candidates to pledge their support for an independent redistricting commission. A majority of the incoming legislators signed on, backing strict criteria for drawing lines like those in the Valesky/Gianaris legislation. NY Uprising has secured the pledges of over three-quarters of senators, including 31 of the 32 incoming Republican senators with Dean Skelos, the Republican leader, among them. In addition, incoming Republican Sen. Mark Grisanti from Buffalo, who did not sign the pledge, states on his campaign website that he aims to "establish a nonpartisan citizens apportionment commission."

NY Uprising also has secured the pledges of 22 of 30 incoming Democrats in the Senate, and two additional Democratic senators are already co-sponsors of the Valesky legislation, yet did not sign the pledge.

The Assembly also appears to have a majority in support of an independent commission, including a majority of the Democratic conference. Though Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has not signed the pledge, he has indicated publicly a willingness to consider a change to the process. While most Assembly Democrats did not sign the NY Uprising pledge, many of those members are co-sponsors of the Valesky/Gianaris legislation. Taken together, those who support the bill or signed the pledge make up a firm majority of the Democratic conference. When adding the Republican support in the Assembly, over two-thirds of members support the creation of an independent redistricting commission.

Silver stated in September that he will not "stand in the way of redistricting reform." Koch has subsequently met with Silver and said he believes Silver is moving closer to supporting reform.

Democratic Assemblymember Hakeem Jeffries, who has been a strong supporter of an independent redistricting commission (and was infamously drawn out of the district held by then-incumbent Assemblymember Roger Green in 2002 by a couple blocks), believes that Cuomo will have the speaker's ear on reform.

"Speaker Silver has expressed openness to considering the issue of redistricting reform, which should permit Gov.-elect Cuomo to jumpstart a meaningful dialogue with the Democratic conference in the Assembly on this issue," said Jeffries. "It will be important for him to approach reform with a firm but sensitive hand, understanding that this is an issue that some members view as a matter of political life or death."

Others, including NY Uprising, are also confident that there will be sufficient support from the legislature. "Gov. Cuomo will certainly have opposers to reform, but we are confident that he will mount an effective campaign to pass redistricting reform. … It is no easy fight, but it will succeed," said Mark Botnick, a spokesperson for NY Uprising.

Keeping the Campaign Promises

Pledges, of course, are not action. Koch has said he will use a <a-href="http://nymag.com/news/intelligencer/encounter/66467/">strategy of shamingmembers who do not keep their promises by going into their districts and letting their constituents know they are "liars." Cuomo seems likely to a take a softer approach, given the pushback that former Gov. Eliot Spitzer received when he threatened to go into the home districts of legislators. Cuomo, after all, will need to work with the legislature on a number of issues if he hopes to fulfill his campaign promise to turn the state around.

Given that many feel there will be change of some kind in the redistricting process, it remains to be seen how independent a new commission will be and how strict the guidelines will be for drawing districts. Should the legislature create a commission not seen as independent enough, members of the Senate and Assembly risk criticism from those who have long opposed the current process, and potentially the governor.

Cuomo has stated that he would veto any redistricting plan that "reflects partisan gerrymandering." Some feel that will serve as a kind of insurance policy to push the legislature to act in 2011.

"There will be legislation calling for an independent commission, because Cuomo has stated that he will veto the lines if there is not. The state must face these issues with the 2012 election approaching," said Botnick. "Albany is looked down upon by governments across the country. Legislators want to change that perception and become leaders."

The State Budget as a Distraction

Given the enormous budget challenges facing Cuomo as he enters office on January 1, 2011, there has been some <http://nymag.com/news/intelligencer/69382/>speculationthat redistricting reform could be used as a bargaining chip in the fight to change the state's costly pension system.

Jeffries, however, does not believe that redistricting reform will be sacrificed for the budget. "Once the budget is complete, the legislature should turn to redistricting reform as a matter of priority. I don’t think the issue should be linked to the budget and don't expect that it will," he said.

Should the budget be passed on time, the legislature will have the remaining months of the session to deliberate on redistricting reform. They then could enact a bill before they go home for the summer.

Rachael Fauss is research and policy manager for Citizens Union Foundation, which publishes Gotham Gazette.

the state's new divorce laws take effect

Photo by Daniel Lobo

For better, for worse, richer, or poorer, New York has joined the other 49 states in enacting no-fault divorce, effective last month. The only basis for divorce now is "irretrievable breakdown of the marriage" for at least six months.

While the new Domestic Relations law provides no definition of "irretrievable breakdown," in the Uniform Marriage & Divorce Act, it meant "No reasonable prospect of reconciliation." To avoid the possibility of one spouse obtaining a divorce -- or even remarrying -- before the couple's economic relationship is determined, the new law says, "No judgment of divorce shall be granted ... unless and until the economic issues of equitable distribution of marital property, the payment or waiver of spousal support, the payment of child support, the payment of counsel and experts' fees and expenses as well as the custody and visitation with the infant children of the marriage have been resolved by the parties, or determined by the court and incorporated into the judgment of divorce."

The Real Issues

As contemporary realities have increasingly made fault obsolete, most divorce cases have come to be about money, property and children and not about who is legally at fault. It is uncommon for one spouse to attempt to hold the other hostage in a failed marriage, though it sometimes happens. New York State had already taken fault out of the equationin determining monetary and property issues. Other than in a few exceptional cases, there was little harm to a defendant who was accused of, say, adultery or abandonment.

Under the old divorce law, fault was often fabricated and testimony perjured, usually with the knowledge of all concerned. Either the husband or the wife would take the witness stand and swear that the other party wrongfully refused to have "marital relations," left the marital home, or acted in a cruel manner, which constituted unhealthy and unsafe behavior when described in some detail. The defendant would have an opportunity to contest the charges, but typically did not because he or she also wanted the divorce, or at least did not want to contest it. Occasionally one spouse resisted divorce and might even be successful in showing that the fault allegations were untrue, or couldn't be proved, and the marriage would go on.

Until the 1970s, the only basis for divorce in New York was adultery. Then came fault grounds that included adultery, but also cruelty, abandonment, a separation agreement (filed with the county clerk, initially for two years and later reduced to one year), court ordered separation and, finally, imprisonment of one spouse for three years or more. One of those had to be proved. When adultery was the only possibility, one spouse might leave the state, relocate to Nevada for six weeks to establish residence and obtain a divorce there. Others went to Mexico, Haiti or the Dominican Republic for "quickie divorces," which New York had to recognize. Or private investigators, armed with cameras, would catch the unfaithful partner in a hotel room with someone other than the spouse. Now, it's goodbye to all that.

As the issue has been debated in the legislature and elsewhere over the past several years, many women and women's organizations opposed no fault divorce. They theorized that if a husband could get an immediate divorce and even remarry, the wife would lose out financially. To prevent that under the old system, judges had generally preferred not to sign off on the divorce until support and equitable distribution were decided. Those opposed to no-fault were successful until this year.

Many lawyers and judges agree that, since the decision to award the divorce is such a small part of the overall proceedings compared to the economic issues, taking the grounds for fault out of the picture will not significantly affect legal billing and other costs of divorce. Other divorce lawyers, however, supported the change in law even though they said it would reduce their income.

One major change, though, could allow lawyers' fees to rise. There is now a presumption, though it can be contested, that fees for lawyers and experts shall be paid by the richer spouse in order to insure that the parties are adequately represented. This is expected to be of great help to wives who do not have the money to pay retainer fees and on-going legal bills.

Gaps in the Law

Lawyers and judges who have studied the new laws, which apply only in Supreme Court, which has exclusive jurisdiction over divorce, and not in Family Court, all seem to agree that the legislature will have to revisit the new statutes.

To take another example, what if one party wants to avoid divorce because selling the marital home in the current economy would be unwise? There does not appear to be a way to prevent the divorce.

Problems are anticipated in the new laws surrounding spousal maintenance. As to provisions regarding the support of the non-monied spouse and dependent children, specific formulas have been enacted for spousal support (still often referred to by some as alimony). Previously a judge determined these amounts. Now, the statute distinguishes between a payor (the monied spouse) earning less than $500,000 a year, and those above "the cap." In New York City, particularly in Manhattan, that is not so unusual an income.

Where the payor's income is under $500,000, the mathematical formula for temporary support at the commencement of an action is the lesser of 30 percent of the payor's income minus 20% of the payee's income, or 40 percent of the sum of the two incomes minus the payee's income.

While everybody is subject to the same formulas, any amounts over $500,000 are distributed by the judge applying more subjective factors. They could include transference of property to keep it out of eequitable distribution, future earning capacity of the parties, need for further education and access to health insurance. Also, the judge may consider the existence and duration of a pre-marital joint household -- a factor that will be interesting because it gives weight to the idea that there is life before marriage, when the issue being dealt with is about life after marriage.

The factors for the court to consider in deviating from the mathematical formula are slightly different in cases involving less than $500,000 and those going above the cap. But among the nearly 20 factors are present and future earning capacity, need for education or training, standard of living, wasteful dissipation of marital assets, medical insurance, tax consequences.

If the income of the payor (usually the high-income husband) is based on salary, documented by a W-2 form, then the number is a known factor. Under both the old and new law the problem arises when income and assets can be easily hidden by the spouse who is self-employed or in a cash business. The court may consider factors outside the mathematics of the formula, for example, imputed income, where the monied spouse says he earns X, but the court concludes that with two Escalades in the driveway, he is clearly earning more than he is disclosing.

The statute calls for a worksheet to calculate the percentage of income the more affluent spouse will pay to the other. No one knows, in figuring the percentage of income to be paid, whether the spousal maintenance should be subtracted from gross income first or the child support. The law offers no guidance as to whether subtractions are to be made from gross income to child support first, off the top, to arrive at the amount of support to the spouse or if is it the other way around.

Another problem the lawyers see is that the formulas are used to set temporary award, not in calculating "final" or so-called permanent awards, which are not really permanent. Yet at the initial stage -- before discovery -- the judge will not know the couples true income and other circumstances. The temporary awards could become permanent even though they were based on inadequate information.

"It won't work. Most decisions are not going to apply the formula; in practice it will rarely be applied" for higher income people, said Anne Peyton Bryant, an attorney in the office of Raoul Felder and Partners, P.C./ "Motions for temporary maintenance for high income people will be decided more on the basis of exceptions than the rules or the mathematical formulas If income is below the cap, the formula will work for them."

As for child support, the court can review the amount previously ordered when there has been a change in either parent's income of 15 income up or down, or support was last reviewed three or more years before. It would appear that other significant changes in circumstances could be brought before a judge. Custody remains unchanged and is still governed by the best interests of the child.

There is much disagreement about how much will actually change under the new divorce law and how it will all work, but that won't be known until decisions start coming out of the courts.

Emily Jane Goodman is a New York State Supreme Court justice

Divisions in District Dominate Brooklyn Assembly Race

Walt Whitman Houses
In his long-shot effort to unseat Assemblymember Joseph Lentol, Andre Soleil charges Lentol has neglected the problems facing residents of the Walt Whitman houses and other poorer parts of the Brooklyn district.

After 38 years in the State Assembly, Joseph Lentol is running for the office once again. And his only challenger in the Democratic primary, Pentecostal minister and attorney Andre Soleil, believes it is time for a change. Voters in the district "haven't had a choice since 1985," said Soleil, who faces the slim odds of beating a long-time incumbent in this year's race.

Lentol, though, believes he has earned the chance to remain in Albany and represent the 50th Assembly district. Throughout the years, he said, he has worked to improve Brooklyn's waterfront, advocated for tenants' rights and sought to pass legislation addressing environmental issues in the district, such as the bill to close RADIAC, a radioactive waste site located next to a public school.

In Brooklyn's 50th Assembly district, the issues are as varied as the population. To the north, the candidates have weighed in on key issues in Williamsburg and Greenpoint such as the newly passed extension of the 1982 Loft Law and the planned Domino housing project along the waterfront.

Soleil has accused the Assembly member of neglecting social issues in the southern part of the district, which includes Fort Greene and Clinton Hill. Soleil claims that Lentol has not paid sufficient attention to the city police department's stop-and-frisk policy and that the high rate of HIV/AIDS cases in those areas has not been properly dealt with.

Lentol disputes Soleil's claims and said he remains confident of his relationship with his constituents.

Whichever man wins will face Republican/Conservative Jacqueline Haro in November.

On the Waterfront

Lentol and Soleil differ over the plans to convert the abandoned Domino Sugar refinery on Kent Avenue in Williamsburg to a residential development.

The Assembly member opposes the project, arguing it will overtax essential neighborhood services including schools, public transportation, the local police precinct and the fire department. "What many don't know," Lentol said, "is that the city already closed "The People's Firehouse" serving the area, although the population has increased in recent years.

Lentol agrees with the developer, Community Preservation Corp.'s setting aside of 30 percent of the apartments as affordable housing. "We like the affordable housing. I like the fact that they did some sort of compromise, but I would like to see the project scaled down" more than it already has been, he said.

Soleil supports the project as it is. "For these development projects, I would certainly support developers who make agreements with the surrounding community," he said. "That's exactly the kind of housing project that I think needs to be encouraged throughout the city."

Soleil does not believe that the project will put too much stress on the waterfront area. If it does, for example, strain the transit system, he said, the community should "lean on the MTA to increase the frequency of trains. It would be incumbent upon the state to use the additional property taxes to make that possible."

A 'Lofty' Proposal

On June 21, Gov. David Paterson signed an extension to the 1982 Loft Law, which protects residents of illegally converted loft apartments by requiring landlords to modify the buildings to meet safety standards. Loft tenants, many of whom live in Williamsburg and the surrounding neighborhoods, will have the same rent stabilization protections that other residents of the city currently enjoy.

Those who oppose the law have charged that landlords will pass the cost of increasing safety standards onto the tenants. The Bloomberg administration has criticized the law, saying that it will hurt manufacturing.

Lentol, who sponsored the bill, believes that an increase in rent would be worth it. "In the long run, it would be beneficial to somebody who's renting their apartment. We want the building to be brought up to code, even if it's a struggle," he said.

Soleil also supports the measure. Responding to the mayor's concerns for industry, he said, "The residential use is something that is better for us at this time. Our city needs to be able to adapt to the changing economy." He added, "the manufacturing systems have gone to New Jersey."

Stop, Question, and Frisk

In his campaign, Soleil has focused on the southern part of the district, including Fort Greene, The candidate, who is black, accuses Lentol, who is white, of "largely ignoring the black and Latino population" in the area. He has criticized the Assembly member for not having an office in the southern part of the district and claims that he rarely sees him at community events.

Joseph Lentol
Joseph Lentol was first elected to the State Assembly from North Brooklyn in 1972 and said he has developed a strong relationship with his constituents in the years since.

"That's not surprising to me," retorted Lentol, "because I've never seen him in Fort Greene or Clinton Hill." Lentol asserted that over the years he has been to many community meetings. "Ask the people of the district if I'm in touch with the community. I'm confident in my relationship with my constituents, he said.

To bolster his argument, Soleil pointed to the police department's use of the stop-and-frisk, particularly in Fort Greene's Walt Whitman and Ingersoll housing projects. "Stop-and-frisk is a way of life" in Fort Greene, the candidate said, much as it in Bronwnsville. As a lawyer, Soleil said, he has defended a number of people who have never been arrested and who have been brutalized for "looking suspicious."

Lentol has not done enough to address the issue, Soleil claims. "Developments for low-income tenants should not be treated as concentration camps."

On July 16 Paterson signed into law the bill limiting the records the police could keep on such stops. Lentol says that he "has been a passionate supporter of that bill and was a key player in passing it and getting it through the committee," although he is not officially listed as a sponsor. Using stop-and-frisk, he said "to keep lists on people that haven't done anything is just insane."

Health Problems

Soleil also charged that Lentol has neglected the health needs of some in the district. "Fort Greene is a hotbed of HIV infection," said Soleil. He attributes this in part to the many Fort Greene residents who, he said, end up in the in the criminal justice system.

Andre Soleil
Andre Soleil has loaned his campaign $25,000, indicating, he said, that he is willing to put his money where his mouth is.

According to government sources, the state of New York has the most HIV-positive inmates in the country. About 97 percent of incarcerated individuals will be released and once again live in their communities.

Hepatitis C infection rates have become problematic in recent years as well. In 2007, for instance, 16 percent of incoming female inmates and 11 percent of new male inmates tested positive for the disease. Lentol's office has funded needle exchange program in an effort to fight this problem in the area.

Soleil recalls defending a man who contracted Hepatitis C and B after going to prison in 1976 and was neither told of nor treated for the diseases. If elected, Soleil said, he would hope to craft legislation requiring the Department of Corrections to test inmates for such diseases and then treat them if necessary.

Lentol says he "helped shepherd out of committee and voted for a bill that gave the Department of Health oversight in matters related to healthcare in the state's Department of Corrections. According to a press release, the legislation "authorizes [the health department] to conduct annual reviews of HIV and hepatitis C care in state and local correctional facilities, to mandate necessary changes, and to publicly release annual reports on correctional care."

By many accounts, Lentol's office has worked with various AIDS organizations including the Brooklyn AIDS Task Force and NYC AIDS Housing Network, and has supported a needle-exchange program with V.O.C.A.L.

Money and Support

Lentol said he has yet to ask for endorsements in his campaign. He currently has $273,322 on hand.

For his part, Soleil said, "We have not received endorsements and nor are we seeking them. We will be making 80,000 contacts in our district over the summer, and we're looking to win."

Outside Income by Member

Council members serving in 2009 brought in at least $533,000 in outside income.

Below are all current council members' income disclosure for 2009 -- a quarter of them were not serving at the council last year.

These figures do not include assets (like the market value of securities or real estate).

Peter A. Koo*
$556,000 - $625,000 or more
Owns a number of pharmacies, interest
Domenic M. Recchia, Jr.
$155,000 - $430,000
Attorney, real estate
Thomas White, Jr.
$115,000 - $370,000
Executive director at a nonproft, real estate, pension and social security
G. Oliver Koppell
$107,000 - $210,000
Attorney, social security, pension, interest
David G. Greenfield**
$105,000 - $285,000
Executive director of nonprofit, attorney
James G. Van Bramer*
$100,000 - $250,000
External affairs officer for Queens Library
Karen Koslowitz*
$100,000 - $250,000
Deputy borough president in Queens
Daniel Dromm*
$100,000 - $250,000
Stephen T. Levin*
$75,000 - $220,000
Legislative assistant, royalties
Lewis A. Fidler
$71,000 - $185,000
Attorney, interest
Fernando Cabrera*
$61,000 - $105,000
Professor, lecture
Mark S. Weprin*
$60,000 - $100,000
Deborah L. Rose*
$60,000 - $100,000
Director of dropout prevention program
Ydanis A. Rodriguez*
$60,000 - $100,000
Brad S. Lander*
$46,000 - $105,000
Director and senior fellow at Pratt Institute, consulting, real estate
Jumaane D. Williams*
$40,000 - $60,000
Strategic planning consultant
Robert Jackson
$40,000 - $60,000
Daniel J. Halloran III*
$40,000 - $60,000
Inez E. Dickens
$15,000 - $120,000
Real estate
James Vacca
$11,000 - $85,000
Professor, mutual funds
Larry B. Seabrook
$5,000 - $40,000
Daniel R. Garodnick
$5,000 - $40,000
Elizabeth S. Crowley
$5,000 - $40,000
IRA withdrawal
Peter F. Vallone, Jr.
$10,000 - $80,000
Attorney, real estate
Eric A. Ulrich
$1,000 - $5,000
Development associate at Queens church
Jessica S. Lappin
$1,000 - $5,000
Gale A. Brewer
$1,000 - $5,000
Charles Barron
$1,000 - $5,000
James Sanders, Jr.
Joel Rivera
Diana Reyna
Christine C. Quinn
Annabel Palma
James S. Oddo
Albert Vann
Michael C. Nelson
Rosie Mendez
Darlene Mealy
Melissa Mark-Viverito
Letitia James
Vincent M. Ignizio
Sara M. Gonzalez
Vincent J. Gentile
James F. Gennaro
Helen D. Foster
Julissa Ferreras
Mathieu Eugene
Erik Martin Dilan
Leroy G. Comrie, Jr.
Margaret S. Chin*
Maria Del Carmen Arroyo

*Members that just joined in January 2010.

**David Greenfield joined the council in March 2010. He was not a candidate in 2009.

The District is Brooklyn Heights, But Albany is the Issue

Assembly District 52

When the Metropolitan Transportation Authority cuts service, not even Brooklyn Heights and Carroll Gardens easily absorb the loss. Despite being Brooklyn's most affluent neighborhoods, these two communities cannot escape the trouble in Albany.

According to one candidate for State Assembly, corruption and mismanagement in the state capital is responsible for cuts that have reverberated in these sections of Brooklyn and throughout the city.

Engineer and former unsuccessful candidate for New York City Council Doug Biviano announced on May 12 that he would challenge Joan Millman, the assemblywoman from Brooklyn’s diverse 52nd District, in the September Democratic primary. A fourth-generation Brooklynite who studied at Cornell University, Biviano has attacked what he sees as Albany's corrupt tendencies and has accused Millman of not taking action to address the misdeeds of her colleagues in the capital.

Almost every problem, Biviano believes, has its roots in corruption and waste and the misdeed of Albany incumbents.

For her part, Millman points to a number of accomplishments including having successfully advocated to designate the Gowanus Canal as an Environmental Protection Agency superfund site, holding hearings on funding for the New York City Board of Elections to introduce new optical scan voting machines, and urging the inclusion of a new middle school in Two Trees Management's Dock Street project in Brooklyn.

Keeping Brooklyn Going

Like so many New Yorkers, the people of the district have felt the sting of MTA service cuts, which will create hardships for many, particularly the area’s elderly and disabled residents. Both Biviano and Millman have stepped up efforts to try to restore the original bus lines.

Assembly District 52, which spans from Brooklyn Heights and Vinegar Hill in the north to Gowanus in the south, lost several bus routes on June 27, including the B37, B51, B71 and B75. By many accounts, travel has become chaotic and overcrowded because there is no parallel subway for many of those bus routes.

Millman, who spent over 30 years in education as an elementary school teacher and librarian and educational consultant to former City Council President Carol Bellamy before going to Albany in 1996, began fighting the MTA over possible service cuts when the agency proposed eliminating student metro cards. Now that the students cards have been preserved, Millman has been working to recover the lost bus lines.

On June 25, Millman sent representatives to a large rally at a B71 bus stop, where constituents criticized the transportation cuts. For those who cannot access the subway, such as senior citizens and those with disabilities, buses are the only option. Moreover, the buses, claims the assemblywoman, provide "a link between communities and access to school, work, medical facilities and cultural institutions."

Millman also has sponsored legislation in the Assembly that provides alternative funding for the MTA. One such bill would allow $30 million of federal stimulus money to be included in the MTA's operating budget. Millman has also sponsored a bill to create a residential parking permit system with the fees going to support mass transit. "It is difficult to get traction for a lot of these bills," Millman said, but she added they are at least not completely dead in the water.

But Biviano has less hope for the bills. "These are just short-term fixes," he argued. He blames the MTA budget gap on "entrenched interests" in the state government and, on his web site, says, "We need to elect assembly members who have the guts to stand up to entrenched interests in Albany and force change."

Biviano's plan to fix the MTA's finances would include a low-interest federal infrastructure loan to refinance the authority's debt. Repaying the loan at a rate as low as 0.5 percent interest over 24 years to the Federal Bank for Infrastructure Modernization, which has yet to be officially created, could save the MTA $726 million each year, Biviano calculates. Additional federal stimulus funds could further serve to balance the budget.

That $726 million would allow the MTA to fix its budget in the long-term and stave off fare hikes in the near future.

Changing the Capital

Beyond transportation, Biviano's key point in his bid to represent the 52nd Assembly District is that Millman has done too little as chair of the Assembly Committee on Election Law to reform New York’s system.

Joan Millman
Incumbent Joan Millman said she has offered solutions to the MTA's daunting budget woes.

"The election law system keeps most of Albany reelected for life," Biviano charged. This, he believes, results in complacency by legislators, which is not in the best interests of the voters. "There's no push" by the elected officials, "Biviano said. "They do the bare minimum. There's no accountability whatsoever."

Currently, 98 percent of incumbents return to the capital if they seek another election, prompting Biviano to call Millman's work with election law as an "Incumbent Protection Program." Challengers should be encouraged, Biviano said, not undermined by the system.

Millman, though, defended the election process. The ballots, she said, "are not that difficult to get on. You need 500 signatures." Regarding the high reelection rates of incumbents, she said, "Look, the voters make that decision. I pass decent legislation, so I think they're satisfied. I’m running on my record."

After petitioning for enough signatures to enable him to get on the ballot, Biviano, like other challengers, will be up against the system of member items, also known as earmarks of pork. Under this current system, Biviano said, "Money comes with the incumbent’s name on it." Groups that receive the money may therefore be reluctant to throw their support behind someone else and risk that funding. Voters also may associate the funds with whoever the incumbent is.

Doug Biviano
Challenger Doug Biviano sees the misdeed of Albany's incumbents as causing any of his districts problems.

Assemblywoman Millman, though, does not think the member items play a significant role. "This year there may not even be member-items, given the trouble with the budget," she said In past years, according to Millman, the amount was "never very large" for her district -- in the neighborhood of about $175,000, which she disbursed to various nonprofit groups.

If elected, Biviano said he would introduce ethics reform legislation to foster competitive elections by creating term limits, requiring all candidates to disclose their income, and advocating for an independent redistricting commission.

Yet Millman, who also supports changing the redistricting system, charges that Biviano lacks a concrete plan to end the Albany corruption. At an Independent Neighborhood Democrats meeting, she said, Biviano was unable to articulate a plan of action.

"What I do in Albany, is that I associate myself with the good government groups and with the legislators that try to help the most people," Millman said.

Millman has received endorsements from the Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats and Lambda Independent Democrats. As of July 11, her campaign had $154,773 on hand compared to Biviano's $5,659.

Claims of Dysfunction At City Clerk's Lobbying Bureau

Photo (cc) 2009 Noah S. Kunin

Better late than never.

The City Council and the Bloomberg administration are in the process of forming a commission to look at the city's major lobbying law revamp approved in 2006 -- two years after the group was supposed to be formed.

The five-member lobbying commission should have been empaneled in early 2008. An administration official said the passage of the city's pay to play law, restricting contributions from those that do business with the city, including lobbyists, delayed its implementation.

But as the city prepares to take another look at the law, critics contend the city clerk's lobbying bureau, which oversees lobbying disclosure and enforcement, is inundated by delay and dysfunction. Perhaps, they charge, the office just isn't up for the job.

For example, the clerk's office has discontinued its annual top 10 lobbyist report, detailing what firms brought in the most cash every year, since former clerk Victor Robles left in 2007. The current clerk, Michael McSweeney, has officially held the reins since early 2009 and prior to that was deputy clerk since 2004. (Hector Diaz immediately preceded McSweeney, but he held the post for only a year.)

Nonprofits, many registering for the first time in the last several years, claim the agency is unresponsive and disorganized. It takes weeks, if ever, to get answers from the office, leading to inaccuracies when reporting and so-called illegitimate fines, the groups argue. Just last month, the Urban Justice Center filed a lawsuit against the clerk over violations it says it doesn't deserve.

"It's just bad management," said Doug Lasdon, executive director of the Urban Justice Center. "It's just bad government."

"Whatever it is," Lasdon continued, "somebody over there is making some really bad decisions."

McSweeney declined to respond to the criticism, although he did say some of these issues will be addressed in a report to be released by his office later this year. He declined to give any more detail.

Fighting Fines

Under the 2006 law, any organization or company that is paid or expends more than $2,000 worth of time trying to sway officials must register as a lobbyist and report its activity to the city clerk every two months. They must disclose who they were targeting and what for. If they fail to do so, they can be fined thousands of dollars.

Under McSweeney, registration of lobbyists has skyrocketed. Since 2007, the number of lobbyists registered with the office has more than doubled -- from 246 to 580, according to the office's annual reports.

For veteran lobbyists who have been circulating City Hall's corridors for decades, those numbers indicate the clerk's oversight is effective.

"To point the finger and say the city clerk hasn't been doing a good job ... I wouldn't do it," said Arthur Goldstein, who has been a lobbyist in New York for 20 years. Goldstein said he always gets a timely response from staff there.

But much of the increase in registered lobbyists has come from nonprofits registering for the first time. After the 2006 law took effect, the clerk's office boosted its outreach and enforcement to register organizations and companies who engaged in lobbying, but hovered below the radar, officials said. That meant nonprofits.

Four years later, some of those affected say it isn't going very well.

"The clerk's office does not provide the best guidance for not-for-profit agencies," said Allison Sesso, deputy director of the Human Services Council. "We have had several trainings on this issue, and it's amazing to me that so many organizations are trying to comply. The guidance that is available from the city is so all over the place. [Nonprofits] are really at a loss."

The lobbying bureau has been without a department head for several months, but many of these issues, nonprofits say, go back years.

Unfamiliar with the system, some nonprofits that have tried to register their lobbying activity inadvertently filed the wrong paperwork or they claim it got tied up in the city clerk's allegedly clunky lobbying database. In the Urban Justice Center's case, the group says it filed the right information in the database, but it never reached the clerk's office.

When the center reached out to fix the problem, Lasdon said, the clerk's office refused to listen. They organization now faces a $2,700 fine, which they are challenging in court.

"I think it's a combination of mismanagement and insensitivity," said Lasdon. "Somebody running a city agency that deals with small not-for-profits has to have a better understanding of what we go through and how to work with us."

As of February 2010, the clerk has issued $314,790 in late fees, according to its annual report from March. In a statement from the city's Law Department, Corporation Counsel Michael A. Cardozo called the lawsuit "frivolous," contending the clerk's office had agreed to reconsider the fines despite the center's failure to comply with the lobbying law requirements.

The Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty is equally frustrated with the clerk's office. It is facing approximately $29,000 in fines (the cost of a social worker, says one staffer) for a whole year of missing reports. According to the council, it first registered at the tail end of 2008, thinking it would file reports going forward. The fines from the clerk's office are for missing reports from that year.

Public Information

Meanwhile, the success of other aspects of the 2006 lobbying law remains up for debate.

Inside the Worth Street headquarters, the city clerk was supposed to start posting violations of the law online "as soon as practicable," according to the 2006 law. The clerk said the violations are only posted once a year in the clerk's annual report.

Since being given enforcement powers, the clerk has repeatedly gone after registered lobbyists for late filings. But, critics contend, it rarely triggers its other power: tackling unregistered lobbyists. Last year was the first time the city clerk found entities, including the League of Humane Voters of New York and the Flushing Willets Point Corona Local Development Corp., guilty of unregistered lobbying, according to its annual report.

Also as part of the 2006 revision, all lobbying reporting was moved from filing cabinets to an online database. But as of Wednesday, none of the 2010 filings were posted online. A spokesperson for the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications said it is in the process of revamping the database, and lobbyists were still in fact reporting.

McSweeney said he did not know when those filings would be available online.

Removing Responsibility

Many nonprofits said they want the clerk's office to be more understanding and more flexible in handing out late fees -- now $25 a day, no budging.

As it stands, they contend, it is far more likely to be fined for late filings than for unregistered lobbying. So, critics ask, why register at all?

But at least one good government group wants to go a step further.

In a report to the city's Charter Revision Commission released late last month, Citizens Union, the sister organization to Gotham Gazette's publisher, urged the commission to completely remove oversight from the clerk.

The report argued the Campaign Finance Board should oversee the lobbying bureau, contending it was more transparent and had the capacity to handle financial reporting. Most other cities, including Los Angeles, give lobbying oversight to their ethics bodies.

"The clerk is appointed by the council," said Dick Dadey, the executive director of Citizens Union. "The conflict arises by the clerk being appointed by the very body over which he has authority for lobbying oversight."

In an e-mailed statement, Matthew Gorton, spokesman for the Charter Revision Commission, said, "The Commission is continuing to review this and other proposals offered by the public, experts, and groups like Citizens Union."

The commission will be narrowing down its proposals to put on the November ballot in the coming weeks.

State Budget Remains in Limbo

David Paterson
Gov. David Paterson issues the first of almost 7,000 budget vetoes on Monday.

"Is it over?"

That is the question most asked in Albany these days.

"Do we have a budget?"

That's probably the second most frequent.

The answer to those questions isn't as straightforward as anyone might hope.

It has been a back and forth couple of days in the capital as legislators and the governor battled over the budget, using obscure rules and good old-fashioned vetoesto one up each other.

Don't imagine for one second the battle is over. Bills may have been passed, but deals are still being made and the fallout for the city remains obscure.

The legislature passed its budget bills -- making the need for more emergency budget extenders obsolete. There will be no state shutdown. The legislature made a number of restorations to Gov. David Paterson's budget, but the governor has sworn to use his veto stamp almost 7,000 times to stop all increased spending. The legislature could override -- if the Senate had the votes. But Senate Republicans would need to back the Democrats in the effort, and they have told Democrats not to count on them. Meanwhile, the governor's office and the legislature continue to negotiate over the revenue package.

One Big Ugly Mess

Paterson seemed to have the legislature's number. Using emergency extenders to push through permanent cuts that legislators were determined not to make, Paterson seemed set to make his entire budget plan permanent on Monday. He had already dealt with over 70 percent of state spending in his emergency extenders. But this week, the governor's deadline backfired.

Rather than scrambling to negotiate a three-way deal, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Democratic Conference Leader John Sampson hashed out a deal between themselves -- leaving Paterson on the sidelines. Knowing that governor had some support among their members, the legislative leaders invoked a never-before-used rule that allowed them to reject Paterson's budget extenders. This time they had a funding structure of their own to pass to make sure the state government didn't shutdown.

The legislature managed to pass its budget plan on Monday after substantial effort on Sampson's part to get his conference to vote for it -- but Paterson immediately promised to veto every line of spending the legislature added to his own budget plan, and he has begun to make good on those 6,900 vetoes.

And the legislature has yet to pass its revenue plan. If and when it does, Paterson could veto that plan, sending lawmakers scrambling to reach a new revenue deal.

Legislators have started reaching out to Paterson to restart budget talks. So far, Paterson seems resistant. "I am doing the vetoes. As far as I am concerned, this budget process is over," Paterson told the Associated Press on Tuesday.

The legislature's plan was, at least in some respects, kinder to the city than the governor's. Paterson vetoed the legislature's restoration of $419 million in education aid -- $177 million of which would have gone to city schools.

"I never take any joy in vetoing education money, health care, services for the poor and the indigent," Paterson said at a press conference on Monday night. "It breaks my heart to do this. The only reason I am doing this is because I think that otherwise we are proverbially kicking the can down the road and creating a greater problem."

Education advocates and representatives from the Assembly and Senate say Paterson's veto and the cut in funding will increase class sizes and reduce educational opportunities.

"In high needs school districts across the state, this compromise budget offers a critical margin of protection to the quality of education," wrote Billy Easton of The Alliance for Quality Education. "The governor's veto, if it stands, will hurt the neediest students in the state the most."

Thanks to earlier budget extenders, New York City also is set to lose $302 million in state Aid and Incentives to Municipalities funding.

Black Box Budget?

The state is now left with a mess of a budget that even its authors don't fully grasp. Republican Sen. John DeFrancisco asked Senate Finance Chair Carl Kruger for the size of the budget -- how much spending it includes. "We do not have a number," Kruger replied. If you don't know the total amount of spending, how do you know this budget is balanced?" DeFrancisco demanded.

Eventually, Democrats handed out a memo detailing their budget deal. The total size of the budget is $135.72 billion, slightly larger than Paterson's executive budget of $135.65 billion.

Morgan Hook, spokesman for Gov. David Paterson, said the governor's office expects the budget the legislature passed is around $400 million out of balance, and that number could grow depending on how much funding the federal government delivers in its annual Medicaid payment. Washington coud very well make a devastating cut in the $1.6 billion the state received previously.

If the state does not get the money, Paterson has promised to recall legislators this fall --at the height of election season.

Raising Revenue

The legislature abandoned a number of revenue raisers in Paterson's budget, including a tax on the syrup used in sugary drinks, legalizing mixed martial arts and allowing the sale of wine in grocery stores. "We need to find other sources of revenue," said division of budget spokesman Erik Kriss. "Allowing wine in grocery stores would have given us $150 million in FY 2010-2011. They didn't do mixed martial arts, and they didn't take into account all the spending they added."

Instead, legislators reactivated a sales tax on clothing and footwear retailing for under $110. That measure is expected to raise $330 million. Legislators railed against Paterson's "sugar tax" saying it would hurt New York families by raising their grocery bills. But lawmakers were reluctant to explain how their sales tax on cheap clothing could possibly benefit hard-working New Yorkers.

Originally the legislature proposed limiting the tax deduction for charitable contributions by the wealthiest New Yorkers, allowing those who make over $10 million a year to deduct 25 percent of their charitable donations on their tax returns, down from 50 percent. The rich, especially Mayor Michael Bloomberg who makes substantial charitable donations, have assailed this measure, saying it will drive the wealthy from the state.

"If one half of one percent of the people who pay the highest taxes left this state, our income tax would be cut in half," Bloomberg said.

As a result of the backlash, the legislature amended the legislation to allow New York City to opt out of the measure, since the city has its own personal income tax.

Charitable organizations say the reduced deduction will be extremely damaging to them. "The millions that Albany hopes to gain by this tax hike won't go far to help a state whose operating deficit numbers in the billions," writes Scott Walter on philanthropydaily.com, "but those millions can mean life and death to charities and those they serve."

The bill would reduce the income tax reduction New York City residents can claim to the first $100,000 of their income. That is estimated to raise $120 million.

Video lottery terminals hours will be increased, and more of the income from them will go to the state opposed to the operators of the terminals. That measure is expected to raise $45 million.

Paterson does not have line item veto power over the revenue package and wants more revenue raisers, not fewer. Negotiations between the legislature and Paterson are reportedly ongoing and it isn't clear when the legislature will actually vote on the bill.

However, if the governor does not get what he wants he could veto the entire package and send the legislature back to the negotiating table to find more revenue sources. It would be a power play of epic proportions. "It’s a take it or leave it proposition," commented a Paterson spokesperson, who said she expected Paterson would evaluate the legislation after it passes.

"I can’t even get into the idea of vetoing that bill," said Kriss.

Silver said he doubts Paterson will veto the bill or that there will be major changes to the revenue stream. "I don't envision any great talks about changing it, as far as that goes," Silver said. "I would be surprised. The revenue bill is exactly the same as his bill that he has in that so-called emergency bill with the exception of wine in grocery stores." And yet members of the Senate Democratic conference say they are holding out on passing the revenue measure to come to terms with the Assembly on Paterson's plan to allow SUNY and CUNY to set raise their own tuition without state approval and a plan to deal with the possible lack of Federal Medicaid funding.

An Issue of Counting

Sen. Eric Schneiderman's bill that would count inmates as living in their hometowns rather than at the prison where they are incarcerated is also part of the legislature's revenue bill. It could have major consequences on the future of New York State politics.

The majority of the prisoners now counted as residing in upstate prisons are from the five boroughs. Those inmates now would be counted for redistricting purposes as living in New York City -- not upstate -- severely reducing the number of upstate districts and creating more districts in the city. Last year the legislature passed Rockefeller Drug Law reform in the budget.

In the end the budget battle is not over. There is talk that negotiations could continue after the July 4 holiday because legislators support Paterson's plan to allow SUNY and CUNY to raise their tuition every year and other measures. Lawmakers could conceivably make deals that would see a return of education funds, and Paterson could get revenue raisers he wants like the tax on sugary drinks. It's Albany, who really knows?

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