Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics


Open Government

Council Committee Frequency

Eric N. Gioia $10,000 Investigations*** 6
Albert Vann $4,000 Community Development* 7
Inez E. Dickens $10,000 Standards and Ethics*** 7
Maria Baez $10,000 State and Federal Leg.*** 16
Alan J. Gerson $10,000 Lower Manhattan Redevelopment 24
Michael C. Nelson $10,000 Waterfronts 29
James Sanders, Jr.* $10,000 Veterans 31
Letitia James $10,000 Contracts 32
Domenic M. Recchia, Jr. $10,000 Waterfronts 32
Charles Barron $10,000 Higher Education 32
Kendall Stewart $10,000 Immigration 32
Sara M. Gonzalez $10,000 Juvenile Justice 32
Lewis A. Fidler $10,000 Youth Services 34
Darlene Mealy* $10,000 Women's Issues 34
Larry B. Seabrook $10,000 Civil Rights 35
David Yassky $10,000 Small Business 35
Simcha Felder* $10,000 Sanitation 36
Diana Reyna $10,000 Rules 37
Maria del Carmen Arroyo $10,000 Aging 40
G. Oliver Koppell $10,000 Mental Health 41
Gale A. Brewer $10,000 Technology in Govern. 42
Helen D. Foster $10,000 Parks and Recreation 46
Miguel Martinez* $10,000 Civil Service and Labor 47
Thomas White, Jr. $10,000 Economic Development 47
Michael C. Nelson $10,000 Waterfronts 29
Jimmy Vacca* $10,000 Fire and Criminal Justice 49
Joel Rivera $10,000 Health 53
Michael C. Nelson $10,000 Waterfronts 29
Bill de Blasio $10,000 General Welfare 55
James F. Gennaro $10,000 Environmental Protection 55
Helen Sears* $10,000 Government Operations 57
Robert Jackson $10,000 Education 58
Peter F. Vallone Jr. $10,000 Public Safety 61
Leroy G. Comrie Jr. $10,000 Consumer Affairs 62
Erik Martin Dilan $10,000 Housing and buildings 71
John C. Liu $10,000 Transportation 82
Melinda R. Katz $18,000 Land Use 105
David I. Weprin $18,000 Finance 121
* New Committee or New Chair
*** Does not have a meeting quota.

All other committees must meet every month, besides July and August. As of February, a committee would have been required to meet 31 times.

Special Elections: Better than the Alternative?

Photo (cc) So gesehen
How to fill an empty seat?

New York City recently held a special election to fill three vacant City Council seats in Queens and Staten Island. In the weeks leading up to the Feb. 24 voting, campaigns of the council hopefuls went into hyper-drive, filing petitions, raising money and knocking on doors. Now another campaign is underway -- this time for a special election on April 21 to fill the post of Bronx borough president, left vacant by incumbent Adolfo CarriĂłn's move to Washington to work in the Obama administration.

Special elections demonstrate some of the tough challenges of running a campaign in New York City, with a shortened time frame amplifying the pressure to win. Despite that, they are generally seen as a fairer way to fill vacancies than appointments -- which have come under attack following controversy surrounding the filling of U.S. Senate seats in New York and Illinois -- and can promote much needed, yet often lacking healthy competition.

How Special Elections Work

The City Council seats contested last month became open when their occupants - Joseph Addabbo, Hiram Monserrate and Michael McMahon - won election to other offices in November 2008.

In New York City, special elections to fill vacant City Council seats are nonpartisan, as opposed to special elections for State Senate or Assembly where party committees select the party candidate behind closed doors. (For more on this, see Citizens Union Foundation's report Circumventing Democracy.) This means that in municipal special elections, there are no official Democratic, Republican or Working Families Party candidates. Candidates must create their own party names and symbols to be put on the ballot next to their name.

Nonpartisan special elections provide the opportunity for greater competition, supporters of the system say. In the recent special election, six candidates were on the ballot in Staten Island's 49th District race, and in the two Queens races in District 21 and 39, there were four candidates on the ballot in each.

Once candidates submit their petitions, they confront ballot-bumping a favorite political sport in New York City where candidates scour arcane rules and regulations to try to push rivals out of the election. In a special election, the extra tight schedule means ballot challenges and appeals can easily consume entire campaigns. This was the case in District 49, where candidate John Tabacco fluctuated between being on and off the ballot several times, and was only finally reinstated on the day before the election. As a result, voters in Staten Island's 49th Council District had to vote on paper ballots. Tabacco lost.

The victors in the three contests will serve until Dec. 31, 2009 and will have to run again this fall if they want to secure their seat beyond that. Those who lost their races in February already may be gearing up to run in September's primary election. Often candidates who win special elections go on to victory during the regular election season -- particularly in the case of the partisan State Senate and State Assembly special elections -- but not always. Anthony Como won the 2008 special election in District 30 in Queens to replace City Councilmember Dennis Gallagher but went on to lose his seat during the 2008 general election, when state law required him to run again.

Replacements by Appointment

In contrast to holding a special election, state law provides for vacancies to be filled by appointment. According to New York's Consolidated Public Officers Law, Sec. 42, 4-a, the governor has the authority to make a temporary appointment to fill the vacancy, depending on when the vacancy occurs. For other positions, including state attorney general and state comptroller, the state legislature chooses who will fill the remainder of the term. In 2006, following the resignation of State Comptroller Alan Hevesi, then Gov. Eliot Spitzer and the legislature clashed over who should be appointed. The state legislature ultimately filled the position with an assemblymember, Thomas DiNapoli, rather than one of the governor's preferred candidates.

While special elections at the state and local level have been criticized for low voter turnout, New Yorkers recently saw some of the pitfalls of filling a seat by appointment when Gov. David Paterson had to appoint someone to Hillary Clinton's Senate seat after she became secretary of state. Following much speculation about whether he would name Caroline Kennedy, Paterson ultimately selected then U.S. Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand. The whole process was assailed in the press, prompting calls that the state holds special election to fill any future vacant U.S. Senate seats. There is some precedent for this as states including Oregon, Texas and Vermont, among others, select U.S. Senate replacements through special elections.

The Next Special Election

On March 2, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the special election to fill CarriĂłn's seat will take place on April 21. This election has already been the subject of much press. State Assemblymember Ruben Diaz Jr. has already declared his intention to run and newspapers report that City Councilmembers Maria del Carmen Arroyo and Larry Seabrook also are exploring a run. This election - similar to the Feb. 24 City Council special elections -also will be nonpartisan, although, as with other city races, parties will be able to make endorsements. The Bronx Democrats have already endorsed Diaz.

While nonpartisan elections are one way of trying to increase the number of candidates that run in elections, other reforms that many good government groups have suggested include improved ballot access laws, campaign finance laws, strengthening voting rights and other election reform as ways to continue this trend of increased competition. As New Yorkers look to their next nonpartisan special election, it would be wise to consider what it takes to run a six-week campaign, and for those who can vote -- in this case, residents of the Bronx -- to go to the polls. It's one way to continue the process toward fair and competitive elections.

Andrea Senteno is program associate for Citizens Union Foundation, which publishes Gotham Gazette.

Rural Legislator, City Issue: How Upstaters Decide

Gotham Gazette image by Ya-Hsuan Huang

This year, New York City residents will see legislators from all over the state vote on issues that directly affect their lives. From the transit bailout to school control, rent regulation and perhaps even term limits, the city will watch legislators from rural areas, small towns and suburbs decide its fate. This drama plays out every year, but last year the defeat of congestion pricing and enforcement cameras for bus rapid transit left some New Yorkers wondering how legislators from outside New York City make their decisions when they vote on issues that only affect New York City.

What informs the thought process of upstate legislators when they vote on issues that seemingly relate only to the five boroughs? Which downstate legislators do they talk to for insight? And how much impact do upstate legislators truly have over New York City issues?

Many factors affect the way legislators vote. Who legislators know -- and who their friends and foes are -- influence which bills they back, which ones they oppose and where they will come down on issues that might not have much to do with their districts. If a powerful legislator, such as a committee chair takes a stand on a bill, legislators tend to fall in line so that they will have support on their bills in the future. Certainly belief and ideology, as well as campaign contributions, play a role as well.

A review of some recent debates and votes offers an indication of the complicated calculations that influence voting in the capital.

A Chairman's Prerogative

In the battle for enforcement cameras for bus rapid transit, one member of the Assembly from upstate New York was able to influence the outcome to his liking single-handedly. Some observers say arbitrarily.

Last year, Assemblymember Jonathan Bing of Manhattan introduced a bill that would have allowed the installation of traffic enforcement cameras on buses. These cameras would have photographed vehicles illegally using the rapid transit bus lanes and enable the city to issue tickets. The goal was to increase the speed and efficiency of the notoriously slow New York City bus system. Environmentalists and transportation advocates supported the bill. They expected that the measure, which was pending before the Assembly transportation committee, would easily get to the Assembly floor.

It didn't.

Committee Chairman David Gantt of Rochester, who has long opposed traffic enforcement cameras because of privacy concerns, held an impromptu committee meeting. Six members who had co-sponsored the bill then vote to "hold" the proposal, meaning it would not come to a vote during the legislative session.

According to witnesses and reporting by Streetsblog, the vote, instead of taking place during a regular committee meeting, was held in a hastily called meeting in the Assembly parlor. A number of members missed it, so were counted as voting yes -- in favor of the hold -- since under Assembly rules at the time an absence was treated as a yes vote. A number of legislators from New York City and even some of the measure's cosponsors were recorded as voting to hold the bill.

Gantt dismissed any outrage among the bill's supporters about the way the vote was handled. "They will have to answer that," he said and added "I get more press in New York City then in my own district cause of this stuff."

The number of cosponsors voting to table their own bill struck the New York Times as odd, so the paper ran a piece discussing it. The story quoted Bing saying, "This is such a specific New York City issue, it's one of the many things where you wonder why the State Legislature has any role at all."

Insiders say that Gantt used his influence to trade favors with legislators on the committee so that some of those who initially supported the bill voted with him to table it.

Why did Gantt act to kill the camera measure? He said he wanted to protect the public.

"The problem with bus cameras is, say you pull into a bus lane to drop your kid off to see the game at Madison Square Garden and get a ticket," said Gantt. "I'm worried about the public. It's the same as congestion pricing. I'm not against that, but we shouldn't do anything drastic in a hurry."

Gantt noted that his problem with bus lane enforcement cameras is similar to his problem with cameras used to photograph vehicles running red lights. "Say you let a friend borrow your car, and they get a ticket," he said. "It costs a ton of money to fight that ticket down there." Further, Gantt said, enforcement cameras do not help public safety but are simply "gimmicks" to increase revenue. "New York City is facing a budget gap and so is everywhere else, but you should make real cuts, not use gimmicks," he said.

Supporters of the measure clearly disagree. They believe creating rapid transit bus lanes would allow buses to move through traffic at a decent speed and help alleviate New York's severe congestion problem. They wonder if Gantt truly understood the impact bus rapid transit would have had on the city.

Critics also point to Gantt's sponsorship of a bill last year that would have allowed red light enforcement cameras to be installed at intersections in counties outside New York City. They have charged that the bill would have benefited CMA consulting services of Albany, which distributes monitoring technology. A former counsel to Gantt, Robert Scott Gaddy has a sizable contract to lobby on behalf of CMA Consulting. A Gantt staffer said at the time that Gantt never supported traffic enforcement cameras and only introduced the bill "to control the legislation -- to do what he wants with it."

The Geographic Schism

Observers tend to think the defeat of the bus lane cameras sprung more from one man's -- Gantt's -- strident opposition than from any gap between the city and upstate.

Assemblymember James Brennan of Brooklyn, who chairs the Cities Committee, does not see Gantt's concern about the enforcement cameras as an upstate vs. downstate issue. "It is an issue that affects Buffalo, Syracuse and places all over the state," Brennan said. "It is not just a New York City issue."

Neysa Pranger of the Regional Plan Association agreed. "Generally, legislators defer to those whose districts are affected by the legislation. It is unfortunate how it (bus rapid transit camera legislation) played out, but I think it had more to do with how he (Gantt) felt about the issue than regionalism," she said.

Bing said that he never had a conversation at the time with Gantt about why Gantt opposed the camera legislation. "I reached out to the chairman and said we would like to work with him to make amendments to the bill based on any concerns he had, just as we did with the New York Civil Liberties Union and the transportation unions, but not once did I hear why he was opposed to it," Bing recalled.

Gantt said he communicates with downstate representatives and said he talks largely with those who he thinks "want the best for the state as a whole." Those representatives include Richard Gottfried from Manhattan and Michael Gianaris from Queens.

Deferring to the City

Last year, supporters of a congestion pricing plan that would have charged commuters $8 to enter parts of Manhattan were shocked when Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver announced that the plan did not have "anywhere near a majority in the Democratic conference and will not be on the floor of the Assembly."

The proposal, pushed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, had support from the City Council, environmental groups and labor groups —as well as upstate Republican senators who Bloomberg had supported. It faced stiff opposition from legislators from Brooklyn, Queens and New York's suburbs, who said the plan was elitist and would hurt their constituents.

When the plan failed, supporters blamed outspoken legislators from outside the city, notably Richard Brodsky of Westchester. Critics slammed Brodsky, saying that he opposition stemmed not from concern for his constituents but his relationship with the parking industry. Streetsblog reported that in 2007 Brodsky had received more campaign donations from the parking industry than any other legislator, some $16,700 over a three-year period.

Whatever the reasons for Brodsky's opposition to congestion pricing, though, his suburban constituents would have been affected by congestion pricing more than, say, the constituents of David Gantt from Rochester. Further Brodsky was joined by many legislators from Brooklyn and Queens, who also stood against charging their constituents to drive in Manhattan.

According to Brennan, upstate legislators deferred to legislators from New York City and its suburbs on congestion pricing, and opposition certainly was not limited to one member or to one area.

"No offense to my upstate colleagues, but I think for the most part they didn't express their opinions on congestion pricing. It very much came down to concerns of people who were directly affected," Brennan said. "There is no basis for them to even think it was defeated by upstate members."

Personal Politics

In general, Bing said, members tend to yield to the wishes of legislators whose district would be most affected by a given proposal. "On most issues there is deference to a local legislator," he said. "That happened for congestion pricing. Upstate members deferred to downstate, and the reverse is true. …We tend to defer to the members whose districts are affected."

On upstate matters, Bing said, he relies on legislators including Crystal Peoples of Buffalo and Darrel Aubertine of Cape Vincent. "I would talk to Aubertine about guns and farms and I would tell him about downstate housing," said Bing.

Assemblymember Jack McEneny of Albany, said that the debate over congestion pricing in the Assembly was long and hard. He described the process: "We had this caucus to try to get on the same page, and it is very time consuming. But while we debated, Shelly wouldn't say where he stood. It was debated. Problems came up, like where the money goes, if it is going to transportation, the privacy issue and the specter of people dumping cars in neighborhoods. We would say, 'Shelly, where do you stand?' He would say, 'I don't want to tell you.'"

Finally, McEneny said, when it became clear there was not enough support to bring the bill to the floor members again pressed Silver on where he stood. According to McEneny, Silver responded, "'I'm from the Lower East Side. I'm for it for my constituents but I will go with the will of the conference."

McEneny insists that Silver ensures that his majority discusses issues at great length before moving on them. "Someone says we need an East Side subway stop? I say, why? They explain it," said McEneny. "We challenge one another. We spend tedious amounts of time in caucus and everyone gets to talk."

What would have informed McEneny's vote on congestion pricing had it come to a vote? "'All politics is local,' -- Tip O'Neill," said McEneny. "All politics is personal -- Jack McEneny," he continued. "I read the sponsorship more than I read the bills. I know by the name on the bill if it is someone who knows their stuff or if it is someone who is doing a favor for a friend."

McEneny said that while tensions between upstate and downstate existed in the past, he thinks upstate representatives have reconciled their issues with New York City. "After 9/11 people saw the list of names and realized that New York is the nursery for young professionals," said McEneny. "It is New York's economic engine. They said, 'That's our cash cow.' And we want our children to go there to learn and then come back home."

The Mayor's Role

The personal politics in Albany has posed challenges for Mayor Bloomberg, who has earned the enmity of many legislators for his attitude and for some of his political moves. It is said that a number of upstate legislators find Bloomberg arrogant, heavy handed and elitist.

Transportation advocates say antipathy for the mayor could have helped kill congestion pricing "Everyone hates the mayor, right?" asked Kate Slevin of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign. "You go to Albany with a plan with the mayor's name on it and it is very difficult. Go back with a plan with Richard Ravitch's name on it, and it is a different story. People don't like the mayor and the way he does business."

Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign, a transit advocacy group, said there traditionally has been tension between the legislature and the mayor of New York. "The Tom and Jerry relationship between the state legislature and the mayor dates back centuries. There has always been this tension. One level of government always has it in for another level," Russianoff said.

That relationship between the mayor and the legislature will certainly influence upcoming action on school control, term limits, rent regulation and aid for the transit system.

The fact that the term limits issue has arisen in the capital at all could be viewed as a commentary on the mayor's popularity, along with legislators' reluctance to see out of work City Council members seeking their jobs. Assemblymember Hakeem Jeffries of Brooklyn has proposed a bill that frames the extension of term limits in the city -- and the mayor's push for a third term -- as a statewide issue. His bill would require any extension of term limits be put up to a public vote. To the surprise of observers the legislation has made it out of Assembly, and a similar bill has support in the Senate.

The fate of another issue dear to Bloomberg's heart -- mayoral control of schools -- could also hinge to some extent on distaste for, if not Bloomberg himself, his appointee: School Chancellor Joel Klein. During a series of recent hearings about mayoral control, legislators expressed their frustration about working Klein and his staff. While many of those irked at the chancellor represent New York City districts, Gotham Schools' Elizabeth Green has written, "I haven't found any lawmakers who don't complain about Klein."

The situation has led to speculation that a deal might be made to allow Bloomberg to keep some control of city schools -- if he gets rid of Klein. In the meantime, Klein reportedly has stepped up efforts to communicate with lawmakers in hopes that his effort will yield a better outcome for his boss.

The Power of the Purse

Bloomberg's campaign donations, largely to Senate Republicans, won him support on key issues, such as congestion pricing. It could also work against him. Sen. Suzi Oppenheimer of Westchester, chair of the Senate education committee, will likely have some say in the fate of mayoral control of schools. Perhaps unfortunately for the mayor, he gave money to Oppenheimer's opponent last year and, by some accounts, she does not seem ready to forgive him.

While money always figures in politics, it can be a particularly powerful influence when the issue at hand does not affect a legislator's constituents. The State Senate's stand on rent control provides an example.

Traditionally, the Democratic controlled Assembly would pass rent reform legislation only to see it languish in the Senate, which was controlled by upstate Republicans who greatly benefited from donations from the real estate industry. Many of those senators had no rent control -- and not many apartments--in their districts. To cement the upstate support, real estate interests ran advertisements in upstate districts telling viewers to call their legislatures to "oppose New York City rent regulation."

Now with the Senate having, as Bing put it, a new "urban Democratic majority," one would expect that to change. In general, with both houses controlled by Democrats -- and the three most powerful leaders in Albany all from New York City -- one would expect this to be a good time for issue dear to the Democratic city.

Things, though, might not be that simple. Faced with a thin majority and a few outspoken renegade Democrats, Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith is tiptoeing around sensitive issues. On rent control, for example, Smith said in a recent interview, that the rent regulation proposals passed by the Assembly still "need debate" in the Senate -- and will likely not be taken up until after the state's dire budget situation has been addressed. Insiders say that Smith is concerned that Republicans might be able to win back seats upstate if the Democratic majority is seen as focusing too much on downstate issues.

On top of all of this there is the simple fact that New York City legislators don't always agree. Disagreement between representatives of the five boroughs helped ensure congestion pricing did not come to a vote. It is almost certain that New York legislators will not come down united on school control.

In general, Smith minimized the idea of downstate vs. upstate concern. He believes the basic interests of his urban district in Queens are the same as those of communities in upstate New York, Smith said. Calling the divide a "psychological myth" created by Republicans," he said, "We have seen results of that in the form of a $15 billion deficit. Its not really upstate downstate -- it is people's interests vs. special interests."

Sen. Neil Breslin of Albany frames the same idea differently. "I think of it a lot like a baseball team," he said. "We might be from different places, but we are all playing for the same team to better New York."

A Call for Tighter Ethics Laws

A Call for Tighter Ethics Laws
Photo from
Joe Bruno (left) in his pre-indictment days

Spend time in New York's Capital Region and you will be hard pressed to go very far without seeing former Republican Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno's name -- and not because of his recent eight-count indictment on federal corruption charges.

If you arrive in the region by air, one of your first few steps may lead you past a bust of Bruno at the Albany International Airport. If you catch a minor-league baseball game, you will probably visit the Joseph L. Bruno Stadium. During a walk through Saratoga Spa State Park you will likely encounter the Joseph L. Bruno Pavilion. The list of buildings that bear the former senator's name goes on and on, from a lobby in a local YMCA to a biotechnology research center and a town park.

Local leaders, Democrat and Republican alike, bowed to Bruno whenever they could to secure funding for their own pet projects or to get legislative favors. Bruno famously responded to questions about whether it was fair that upstate New York benefited so greatly from his power, "It's been our turn these last dozen years."

Bruno had a leadership position and as one of the three men in the room wielded large amounts of power. But the types of questions that now face Bruno have confronted many New York's politicians. Most have not been indicted, but concern about their behavior and their use -- or abuse -- of their offices has arisen nevertheless.

A number of activists in New York say this atmosphere of impropriety -- and constant suspicion of impropriety -- must end. With that in mind they have proposed a package of measures designed to change the way business is conducted in the state capital.

A Call for Changes

For his part, Bruno faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and up to a $250,000 fine on charges that he traded his influence in the state legislature for financial gain. Among other accusations, the indictment alleges that Bruno's financial disclosures made from 1993 to 2005 did not include all required information and had misleading and false information. Those filings are required under the state's Ethics in Government Law. As Senate majority leader, Bruno had the power during most of those years to control the ethics committee that would have policed the transgressions Bruno is alleged to have committed.

At least some of the changes offered by good government groups would address that. The organizations want to set new guidelines that they think would reduce the chances that politicians will use their positions to enrich themselves financially and also would give constituents a clearer look into how influence is traded in Albany. They want to establish a new ethics commission that will oversee both the legislative and the executive branches. And they want more transparency and stricter guidelines on the use of campaign contributions.

Last week, members of New York Public Interest Research Group, Common Cause New York, the League of Women Voters of New York State and Citizens Union (whose sister organization is Gotham Gazette's publisher) gathered in Albany to ask for these changes and to challenge the new Democratic leadership in Albany to keep its promises to enact reform.

Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group said that politicians should be falling over themselves to do away with the perception that hangs over the capitol -- the perception that just about everyone in politics is a corruption scandal waiting to happen.

That does not seem to have occurred. Instead, the reaction was not overwhelming, according to Common Cause's Susan Lerner. DeNora Getachew of the Citizens Union said that she felt "this was just the beginning of a conversation."

Richard Azzopardi, a spokesperson for Sen. Craig Johnson, who chairs the committee on Investigations and Government Operations, said the proposals are "very thoughtful."

The Cloud of Suspicion

During interviews following his indictment, Bruno portrayed himself as an honest man who "needed to make a living." But take the time to stand in the shadow of the baseball stadium locals affectionately call "the Joe" and ask residents of Bruno's former district if they were surprised at Bruno's indictment. They will look at you like you've just asked them if they are surprised that leaves fall during autumn. They might say something such as, "He is a New York politician, right?"

Horner said an oversight body to police ethics for both the executive and legislative branches could give New Yorkers more confidence in their representatives' integrity. Currently, each branch has its own separate ethics watchdog. The Legislative Ethics Commission is made up of legislators from both houses. On the executive side, the Commission on Public Integrity has seven members -- all appointed by the governor.

In other words, officials basically police themselves. Horner, for one, thinks that presents a problem.

"Self regulation doesn't work," he said. "The system we have in New York for regulation is unusual in the entire country." Only four other states have similar oversight boards, 29 other states have one independent board that oversees the legislature and executive branches.

The Commission on Governmental Ethics, as proposed by the groups, would oversee both the executive and legislative branches of state government. It would have nine individuals. The governor would name three, and the comptroller, the attorney general, the speaker and minority leader of the Assembly, and the temporary president and minority leader of the Senate would appoint one member each. The executive director would be appointed by the chair and vice chair of the commission, who would be of different parties. Members of the commission would not be allowed to hold political office or be employed by lobbyists.

Horner isn't optimistic that the governor and legislature will approve this suggestion. "Politicians are nervous about the unintended consequences," he said. "They are loath to create an independent watchdog group. There is not enough public pressure for them to make the change. And the governor doesn't talk about it, so we will see."

In 2008, Paterson introduced a campaign finance reform bill, but critics say he has not pursued reform as tenaciously as his predecessor, Eliot Spitzer. "We want to not dictate campaign finance reform. We want to really persuade legislators that it is really the root of the dysfunction we have in Albany," Paterson has been quoted as saying. "We'd like to come to consensus with the two legislative bodies about curtailing it."

Paterson also has not adhered to the $10,000 ceiling on individual contributions that Spitzer imposed on himself. The governor said he would operate under the existing law that sets the limit for contributions at $55,900.

Increasing Transparency

The Ethics Reform Act of 2009 would require politicians to publicly disclose the names of all people they do business with and the amount of money they make from those business dealings. Currently, New York State law requires that public officials disclose the names of the businesses that employ them, but they do not have to report the amount of money they make or the names of their clients. Horner said that this lack of information can make it hard for constituents to know who is influencing who and can also create an appearance of impropriety where none should exist.

John Pikus, the special agent in charge of the Albany division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who oversaw the Bruno investigation, told the press that one reason the Bruno investigation took three years is because of the nature of the legislative process in Albany.

"The ability to understand the legislative process is difficult at best," Pikus said. "There are factors involved in which bills are passed, member items are approved, which never see the light of day. ... And that, really, from our standpoint, from the FBI's standpoint, was the problem. We can subpoena. We can provide opportunities for individuals to come in and talk to us, but the legislative process was almost Byzantine."

Preventing Abuses

The Ethics Reform Act of 2009 also would restrict the amount lobbyists and firms that receive state contracts could contribute to politicians and political committees. Lobbyists and those receiving government contracts also would be barred from serving on boards and commissions that make decisions on audits or the awarding of contracts. A database of lobbyists and contractors would be created to make it easier for the public to see who is peddling influence. And finally, laws on the personal use of campaign funds would be strengthened so that campaign money could not go to pay legal defense bills, tuition, mortgage, rent or utility bills, or dues and fees to country clubs -- as has been the case in the past.

Horner said he hasn't heard much support for these ethics reform changes this year, "The winners of the game rarely want to change the rules," he said.

He, however, does expect a renewed debate on better oversight, increased transparency and more limits on the influence of lobbyists and contractors. "If they address all three things," said Horner, "it will be a very good session.

Making Voting Easier

voting made easy
Image (c) ShooterD

With change in the air as Americans watched the inauguration of a new president and the start of a new year, New York's leaders are setting their agendas for 2009. This month Gov. David Paterson delivered his first State of the State address, focusing on the economy and the challenges facing New York. Mayor Michael Bloomberg's State of the City also emphasized an economic recovery plan. Both executives spoke about education and infrastructure issues, as well as the tough choices government will have to make this year. What was clear in both of their addresses -- mostly from what Paterson and Bloomberg did not say -- is that during these difficult financial times reform will be left on the sidelines, particularly election changes that would make casting ballots easier and more secure for New Yorkers.

In November, Paterson asked New York Secretary of State Loraine Cortes-Vazquez to issue a report analyzing the 2008 election and highlight potential reforms that could increase voter participation. Cortes-Velazquez's report is set to be released in February. Despite the impending report and pleas from advocates, however, many wonder how much of a priority election reform will be for this administration. With a new year ahead, voting advocates and many voters have their own ideas about changes big and small that would make the election process more accountable, more secure and more accessible.

Early Voting

The excitement surrounding the 2008 elections caused record voter turnout nationwide. Voters headed to the polls early in states that allow people to cast ballots before Election Day. The rules for early voting vary from state to state and can range from allowing residents to cast absentee ballots without citing a reason to establishing early voting centers with voting machines.

In New York, state law allows absentee voting only by residents who are absent from the county or too ill to vote in person on Election Day. Despite that, New Yorkers, apparently unaware that early voting is not permitted here, headed to their borough election offices days before the Nov. 4 election to cast their ballots. The New York Times reported that between 50,000 and 60,000 absentee ballots had been received by Oct. 28, and some voters waited up to two hours at their borough office to obtain and cast an absentee ballot. Their votes were included with those cast in person on Election Day. In a press conference, Marcus Cederqvist, executive director of the city Board of Elections, speculated that stories from other states might have led New Yorkers to believe early voting was available here.

Voter advocates have begun pushing for a change in the New York State constitution and state law that would allow voters to cast ballots before Election Day using an absentee ballot without requiring the voter to provide an excuse. No-excuse absentee voting would increase the number of people who would vote in advance of the election and ultimately boost turnout.

Register, Then Vote

Another election change aimed at making voting easier and more accessible to voters is Election Day registration, also know as same-day registration, which is currently allowed in nine states. Election Day registration lets voters both register and vote on the day of the election. In some states, voters are required to fill out an affidavit ballot, and after their eligibility has been verified, the vote is counted. In other states, voters register at a central location and then, on the same day, vote at their local polling place. Still others allow same-day voting if the voter casts a ballot before Election Day.

New York State offers none of these options. Instead people must register to vote at least 25 days prior to the election.

In 2004, New York ranked 46th in voter turnout across the country, and in the last five presidential elections (not including 2008), New York State voter turnout failed to exceed 51 percent of the voting age population. In contrast, in three of the states with Election Day registration -- Maine, Minnesota and Wisconsin -- voter turnout in the 2004 presidential election exceeded 70 percent.

In New York, Assemblymember Michael Gianaris sponsored bill A. 4488 during the 2007-2008 legislative session, which would have amended state election law to implement Election Day registration. This bill has not been reintroduced yet for this session.

Those lobbying for the change cite New York's abysmal voter turnout rates as a key reason for implementing same-day registration. Opponents, on the other hand, argue that the process would be too costly, would create more work for election officials and, if improperly implemented, make elections more vulnerable to voter fraud. None of the nine states with Election Day registration, however, reports increased voting fraud.

Universal Registration

Another election reform that has been receiving attention is universal registration. Under this practice, the government would compile a list of all citizens eligible to vote and use it as the official roster of voters. Anyone on the list would automatically be registered and would only have to show up on Election Day and vote. Lists would be compiled either from census records or by adding names from different municipal or state lists, like social service recipients or people registered with the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Proponents argue that universal registration would eliminate the problems voters encounter with not being on the rolls on Election Day and increase voter participation. A recent report from the Brennan Center for Justice entitled "Universal Voter Registration" examines the link between registration barriers and voter participation. At a recent City Council hearing, state Board of Elections commissioner Douglas Kellner said, "The concept is quite simple: Every citizen over 18 year of age, who is not incarcerated for a felony conviction and who has not been declared judicially incompetent should be entitled to vote. Period."

Other Reforms

Even without bold changes such as these, voting advocates argue that steps can be taken to improve the election process in New York. Modernizing election agency Websites, improving hotline capacity, better training for poll workers and increased access to the polls for disabled voters are among the many changes advocated by organizations like the Brennan Center, Citizens Union, Common Cause/NY, New York Public Interest and Research Group, the League of Women Voters of New York, the Women's City Club of New York and Center for Independence of the Disabled.

For some though, these small-scale reforms -- and the slow or nonexistent progress of the state's election agencies and city and state elected officials to implement them -- signal a need for greater changes to the structure of New York's election administration. Citizens Union (whose sister organization, Citizens Union Foundation, publishes Gotham Gazette) plans to issue a report in the coming weeks that discusses the importance of reforming how elections are run and a departure from what it characterizes as the old way of voting.

While reforming elections in New York state may not top anyone's agenda, at least publicly, for 2009, voters and advocates will no doubt continue to tell their legislators "out with the old, in with the new" when it comes to voting procedures in the state.

Andrea Senteno is program associate for Citizens Union Foundation, which publishes Gotham Gazette.

Will the State Senate Save Rent Control?

tenants rights march
Photo (cc) bmercer

Michael McKee, the treasurer of the Tenants Political Action Committee, worked hard to secure a Democratic majority in the State Senate. Besides making substantial donations to the campaigns of Democratic Senate hopefuls last year, McKee said, more than 50 people from Tenants PAC worked to elect Joe Addabbo in his bid to unseat Sen. Serphin Maltese.


"We knew that as long as the Republicans were in charge we couldn't get the simplest, Mickey Mouse bill out of the Senate," McKee said. According to McKee, Senate Republicans received a steady flow of cash flow from the real estate industry that "kept them in power"and so had no interest in passing legislation that would be favorable to tenants.

Addabbo's campaign was successful, and the Democrats seemed set to become the Senate Majority. McKee expected the Senate would then easily pass housing legislation the Democratic-controlled Assembly had moved on year after year. Now, though, dissension within Democratic ranks has cast doubts over whether 2009 will be the banner year for tenants McKee and other advocates had hoped.

What Tenants Want

In general, housing advocates want to strengthen rent control and reverse many of the measures to weaken it that were enacted by the New York City Council and the Republican-controlled state government over the last two decades. The expected legislation includes A02005, which would would undo the law that allowed landlords to remove rent regulation on vacant apartments on which the rent had reached $2,000 a month rent. Advocates say the passage of A02005 would be a triumph for tenants since it would also restore to rent regulation some apartments that had been decontrolled.

Proponents of the bill in the Assembly say that rent decontrol encourages landlords to harass and mistreat tenants in rent controlled apartments to drive them out and then rent the apartments at market rates. Rising rents also make it difficult for tenants with regulated apartments to even consider moving. Meanwhile landlords have an incentive to lie about the pricetag of renovations on vacant apartments to artificially raise the value of the unit.

Maggie Russell-Ciadri, executive director of Tenants and Neighbors, said that ending decontrol is the single most important issue for tenant advocates. Experts say more than 50,000 rent-regulated apartments were lost between 2005 and 2008 because of decontrol.

Returning rent regulation to the city by repealing the Urstadt law has been a priority for many tenants' advocates for years. The Urstadt law, enacted in 1971 by Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, took rent regulation out of the hands of New York City and gave it to the state. Therefore legislators from districts without much rental housing can influence the price of apartments in New York City. This year, though, advocates are less focused on repealing the Urstadt laws than they were in previous years and have made abolishing decontrol their focus.

Other bills before before the Assembly would address other tenant concerns. One, A1928, would make rent increases for major capital projects a temporary surcharge so that tenants could pay off the costs of improvements rather than having permanent increases in rent. Bill A2002 would increase penalties for landlords who harass their tenants.

Bill A168 would limit a landlord's ability to claim apartments for the use of their family. Now landlords are able to push tenants out of their apartments and some have been able to empty entire buildings to create luxury mansions. The bill would limit recovery for family use to one apartment. Other bills in the Assembly package are designed to close loopholes to keep landlords from drastically raising the rates of their rent controlled apartments.

Democratic Dissidents

Progress on these issues now seems unlikely to proceed as smoothly as tenants groups had hoped. Thanks to hard bargaining by three renegade Democrats who threatened to bolt the party -- the so-called gang of three -- the landscape in the Senate has changed from what many anticipated on Election Day. Sen. Liz Krueger of Manhattan, a passionate supporter of tenants' issues and the ranking Democratic member of the Housing Committee, was assumed to be in line for chair. She was bumped in favor of gang of three member Pedro Espada of the Bronx.

Housing advocates have voiced their displeasure at Espada's nomination, with some calling the gang of three "the Manchurian Democrats."

McKee said that Espada is simply the wrong person to chair the Housing Committee. According to McKee, when Espada served in 1993 as the ranking Democrat on the committee, he was "not only unresponsive" but also "destructive."

However, McKee said, "it's unclear how Espada will perform as chair" and how much it will matter. McKee said that he is sure the Democratic Senate, especially Majority Leader Malcolm Smith, realizes tenants' issues are "life and death" to them. In light of that, McKee expects the Democratic leadership will make sure the Senate does away with rent decontrol regardless of Espada.

Responding to complaints from tenant advocates, Espada said, "Maybe they don't know me." He added that the Section 8 subsidized housing program and tenant-protection issues are "very close to me."

Espada said he grew up on public assistance, has experience being homeless and worked as a tenant organizer. All this, he said, makes him sympathetic to the plight of the working family. "I'd like to meet an advocate who has experience that I don't have," said Espada. "I would ask for their patience and cooperation."

Espada seemed ready to take on broader issues as well. "It's a really exciting time in America," he said, explaining that he expected a "new urban reality," thanks to the Obama administration. "It's time to think beyond brick and mortar housing. We should be thinking out of the box. We should revisit the complete policy of how we assist cities."

One way to expand the supply of housing, he said, would involve making it possible for people to live upstate and quickly and affordably commute downstate. "We need to talk about how we get workers in Manhattan to Sullivan and Ulster counties to live there. There are ghost towns there now. "

As for his loyalty to the agenda of the majority leader and the Democratic majority, Espada said, "As a whole there is a clear synergy, but the idea that we should all be on automatic pilot is ridiculous. We are going to have to take each issue as it comes--not just draw up battle lines, but look at the merits of each issue."

Meanwhile in the Assembly

As housing advocates wonder exactly what they can expect from the Senate, their old allies in the Assembly appear more than ready to push ahead as they have in the past.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver released a statement earlier this month pledging his support to "protect working families who are struggling with the cost of housing." Assembly Housing Committee chair Vito Lopez has already held hearings on rent regulation.

It is expected that next week the Assembly will move to pass the package of pro-tenant legislation

McKee has grown accustomed to seeing the Assembly take action on tenants issues while knowing the legislation will die because of inaction by the Senate. This year he has considerably more hope, but there is still a great deal of uncertainty.

The Senate Looks at How It Operates

The Senate Looks at How It Operates

With their majority finally solidified, the State Senate Democrats last week passed rules changes, which they say, are designed to create more legislative transparency and to balance the power rift between the majority and the minority. Even though the Democrats had moved on reform issues after years of pleading for the same courtesy from the Republican leadership, their actions were greeted with derision by some and a tempered optimism by others.

The changes reverse rules instituted by the Republicans in 2001. Good government groups like the Brennan Center for Justice hope that such amendments will lead to more transparency in the Senate, give the public more input into the legislative process and allow members of both the majority and minority to freely propose and debate legislation.

What the Rules Do

One of the new changes will allow any senator to co-sponsor a bill without permission from the author. Previously, majority senators could prohibit members of the minority from being co-sponsors of their legislation.

Another change will allow senators to file "motions of discharge" to force bills out of committee after 20 days. Previously senators would have to wait 60 days. The longer waiting period allowed the majority to easily block a bill sponsored by the minority by keeping it in committee. The minority could ask for a floor vote, but votes against allowing the legislation to move forward were not a matter of public record.

The rules changes also promote the use of technologies such as the Internet to give the public greater access to the legislative process.

These changes will all expire at the end of the year and will likely be replaced by changes recommend by the newly established Senate bipartisan temporary Committee on Rules and Administration Reform. The committee will have 90 days to hold hearings and make recommendations on rules changes.

Good government groups have said that, while they would have liked more aggressive action, they are happy that reforms were made and are optimistically awaiting the recommendations of the temporary Committee on Rules and Administration Reform.

Sen. Daniel Squadron, who campaigned on reform issues, said, "I am pleased we have made real changes. It might not be everything but it is a real start."

Republicans called the Democrats' proposals weak and demanded more drastic changes to balance power. "This proposal does not go far enough. Right off we're starting on the wrong foot." Sen. George H. Winner Jr. told the New York Times

Some Democrats could not help but giggle. One Democratic senator described the Republican's change of heart as "a convenient conversion," and the "height of political theater and cynicism." "At least we have put the ball on the field," the senator said. Republicans had moved on rules changes in the past. An amendment in 2005 left Democrats displeased.

Equal Treatment?

Republicans have made a fuss over amount of money they will receive to run and staff their offices. They have been pushing legislation that would require equal resources for every legislator. Majority Leader Malcolm Smith responded to the complaints on Monday by guaranteeing that every senator would have a budget of at least $350,000. During the years of Republican control, some Democratic senators were allocated less than $300,000. One staffer said his office never got more than $350,000, and he knew of senators who didn't get $200,000. "In New York City," said the staffer, "that meant two staffers."

The treatment they received from the Republican majority remains fresh in the minds of Democratic senators and their staffers. They don't need to think back far to remember inconveniences like having simple supply orders -- for items from toilet paper to Styrofoam cups to furniture and paper -- take weeks to arrive, or making do on a budget one quarter the size of their Republican counterparts. They can remind themselves of bigger issues such as being effectively powerless to challenge the majority party on legislation or having their mailings to constituents censored.

Some Democratic staffers take a bit of satisfaction in seeing the new minority in their old shoes. One called the Democrats' treatment at the hands of the Republican majority "insulting and repressive." And yet he said he fully expected the new majority to aggressively pursue rules changes -- to increase the ability for the minority to introduce and challenge legislation and to create more transparency in the legislative process.

Another Democratic staffer said the new majority has no reason not to "do what is right." A number of staffers pointed out that, while the rules became more "repressive" as Republicans began to lose their majority over the past decade, the Democrats feel they are in a solid position with control of the Senate, Assembly and governor's mansion. As one put it, "We don't have to play those games."

Hoping For More

While good government groups are pleased with the changes, in some cases they hope to see more decisive action. One activist said, "The fact that the Democrats didn't have a leader until last Wednesday had a major impact. They were scrambling. They didn't have an agreement in place to do anything more aggressive."

They are now looking to the temporary committee on rules. The Brennan Center, Common Cause, the Empire Center for New York State Policy, the League of Women Voters, and New York Public Interest Research Group released a joint memo asking for language that would authorize the temporary committee to reflect five specific issues:

--strengthening standing committees by granting them greater independence;

--allowing individual members to introduce legislation on the floor

--creating opportunity for adequate review of proposed bills;

--providing members with sufficient resources to fund their office and research legislation; and

-- making legislative records immediately available to the public on the Internet.

Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause, said she feels confident the Democratic majority will address these issues, and noted that a number of members of the majority have "spontaneously expressed their deep interest in reform."

Tempered Expectations

The list of members named to the rules and administration reform committee gives some reform proponents hope, as it includes a number of senators known for their commitment to rules changes. The committee is co-chaired by Democratic Sen. David Valesky and Republican Sen. John Bonacic. As of press time the others are Squadron, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, Jeff Klein, Jose Serrano and Liz Krueger. All but Stewart-Cousins, who is from Westchester, represent New York City districts. Minority Leader Dean Skelos will sit on the committee along with fellow Republican Senators Joe Griffo and George Winner.

However, other issues could interfere with the temporary committee. As Squadron pointed out, "Ninety days during the biggest budget season is not a lot of time."

Meanwhile, Krueger may not remain on the committee. According to several sources, she thinks her work as vice chair of the Finance Committee might interfere with her ability to play an active role on the reform committee and so she has asked to be replaced. An official announcement will likely be made in the near future.

Krueger's absence would concerns activists, as she has consistently been one of the most outspoken members of the Senate on the issue of rules reform. Krueger filed a lawsuit against the majority over alleged censorship in 2006. According to Krueger and co-plaintiff Republican Assemblyman Thomas Kirwan, then Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver censored outgoing constituent mailings-making it impossible for members of the minority party to criticize the majority.

Lerner said that while a number of members of the temporary committee are strong advocates for reform, "I think her [Krueger's] colleagues would agree she has spent the most time delving into the issue."

Beyond the Committee

Of greater concern to many advocates, though, are issues beyond the purview of the committee including campaign finance reform, redistricting and the way elections are held. Some insiders said say they expect the Senate to tackle those issues after the budget issue is addressed.

Lerner said she has one challenge for the committee on reform as well as for the Senate as a whole. She would like to see the Senate adopt the committee's rules proposals this year rather than waiting for the rules that were adopted this year to expire. She does not want the issue to get lost during what is sure to be a hectic legislative session.

That request is something committee member Squadron does not think is unreasonable, "We can't wait more than a year. We are not some task force that will make recommendations that will wind up sitting at the bottom of a drawer. The Senate will take action on our recommendations."

The Democrats Take Albany


Gotham Gazette Illustration by Ya-Hsuan Huang

Gov. David Paterson started his first State of the State speech late. Another speech took precedence for a few minutes as new Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith delivered his victory remarks in the Senate chambers. When Smith finished, senators and their staffs made their way to the Assembly, and Paterson took his place on the podium and delivered his address.

Good government activists and heads of progressive groups across the state, particularly in New York City, had waited for this moment for years. They had fought alongside Democratic politicians to ensure this Senate majority would come and that their issues would finally be addressed. As of Wednesday, Albany's three men in a room were all Democrats, allegedly progressive, and all residents of New York City.

And yet, after Paterson delivered his speech, it was clear that many of those groups had not heard what they hoped to. "The state of our state is perilous," Paterson warned before launching into poetry and rallying cries. He did not issue the expected doom and gloom diatribe about the realities of the economy in an attempt to convince legislators and the public to accept the deep cuts he has proposed in next year's budget. The budget, though, was clearly the backdrop to the address and to the beginning of this session in the state capital.

Advocates around New York State are well aware of New York's fiscal crisis and multibillion-dollar deficit, but they take issue with the governor's priorities. They feel he has done little to make sure all New Yorkers share the burden and instead is balancing the budget on the backs of the most vulnerable.

They now hope Senate Democrats will deliver what the governor did not. At this early stage, though, it is unclear whether the new Senate majority will be united enough to take a stand against the governor.

On issues that are based more on policy than funding, such as changing the Rockefeller Drug Laws and a tightening control on campaign contributions, advocates do not know what the shift in the Senate will have. Will the new Senate leaders make real change -- or just become part of the legendary gridlock in Albany?

The New Senate

Only two seats in the Senate shifted from one party to another on Election Day. But that small movement created the groundwork for a more massive change. Committee chairs once filled by Republicans from upstate New York now are controlled by Democratic senators from the five boroughs (see chart below). And yet in at least one case, advocates are not any happier than they were before Democrats took control.

The Senate Housing Committee chair, Republican Sen. John Bonacic from the 42nd district, which includes Delaware, Ulster and Sullivan Counties has been replaced by Bronx Sen. Pedro Espada.

Some housing advocates had hoped ranking Democratic committee member Sen. Liz Krueger would get the post. Instead thanks to his hard-line negotiations as a member of the "gang of three," the renegade Democrats who threatened not to back Smith, Espada won the position.

Tenant advocates, citing Espada's record when he served on the Housing committee during a previous stint in the Senate, are less than thrilled. In a statement, Michael McKee, treasurer of the Tenants Political Action Committee described Espada being named to the position as an "unhappy development for tenants."

Western New York felt slighted when Democratic Sen. William Stachowski, who represents Lackawanna and part of Buffalo, was denied his bid to become head of the Finance Committee. Instead the position went to another "gang of three member," Sen. Carl Kruger of Brooklyn. Stachowski instead got the leadership on the committee on Commerce, Economic Development and Small Business.

Smith has made steps to appease upstate New York by giving some upstate senators positions of power. He named Sen. David Valesky of Syracuse vice president Pro Tempore and Sen. Neil Breslin of Albany head of the Insurance Committee. The fact still remains, though, that the real power in the New York Senate lies in the hands of a racially diverse group of politicians who represent urban districts. On paper at least, that would seem to be good news for New York City.

Senate Democrats announced most of their leaders and committee chairs his week, putting a large number of New York City representatives in key posts. Some positions still need to be decided, but here is the current list:

Majority Leader:
Malcom Smith (Queens)
Deputy Majority Leader:
Jeff Klein (Bronx, Mount Vernon)
Vice President Pro Tempore:
David Valesky:(Rome, Oneida, Syracuse, Auburn)
Darrel Aubertine (Oswego, Jefferson and St. Lawrence counties)
Children and Families:
Daniel Squadron (Brooklyn, Manhattan)
Civil Service and Pensions:
Diane Savino (Staten Island, Brooklyn)
Eric Schneiderman (Manhattan, Bronx)
Commerce, Economic Development and Small Business:
William Stachowski (Buffalo, Lackawanna)
Consumer Protection:
Corporations, Authorities and Commissions:
Bill Perkins (Manhattan)
Crime Victims, Crime and Corrections:
Ruth Hassell-Thompson (Bronx, Westchester)
Suzi Oppenheimer (Westchester)
Brian X. Foley (Suffolk)
Energy and Telecommunications:
Kevin Parker (Brooklyn)
Environmental Conservation:
Carl Kruger (Brooklyn)
Tom Duane (Manhattan)
Higher Education:
Housing Construction and Community Development:
Pedro Espada Jr. (Bronx). He is also vice president of the Senate for urban policy.
Neil Breslin (Albany)
Investigations and Government Operations:
John Sampson (Brooklyn)
Local Government:
Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities:
Select Committee on Budget Reform:
Liz Krueger (Manhattan). She is also vice chair of the Finance Committee.
Tourism, Recreation and Sports Development:
Jose Serrano Jr. (Manhattan, Bronx)
Martin Malave Dilan (Brooklyn, Queens)
Veterans, Homeland Security and Military Affairs:
Eric Adams (Brooklyn)

The Millionaire's Tax

By releasing his budget weeks before his State of the State, Paterson changed the traditional dynamic by which governors use the State of the State to introduce their budget initiatives. On Wednesday, Paterson did not seek to break new ground but to defend his position, which was widely criticized since the budget was introduced last year. He does not seem to have succeeded.

Advocates with big hopes for a Democratic majority were left reeling after the governor's speech. "If the State of the State had a theme, it was the repeated phrase "shared sacrifice." But critics like Billy Easton, executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education, found that disingenuous.

"The governor reiterated the call for shared sacrifice," said Easton, "but he is not listening to New Yorkers who overwhelmingly want those earning over $250,000 to share in the sacrifice by paying a little more in taxes."

"Instead of soak the rich, it's soak the middle class," wrote Dan Cantor, executive director of the Working Families Party, in a statement.

Representatives of Citizen Action New York, Campaign for Fiscal Equity and Hunger Action echoed such sentiments. They all feel that Paterson is not asking all New Yorkers to contribute equally. They suggest a Fair Share Tax that would increase the state personal income tax for those making over $250,000 a year by about 1 percent.

Paterson has described enacting that kind of the tax as a "last resort." Critics of the tax suggest that the wealthy might flee the state to avoid it. Supporters insist that is unlikely.

The Senate's position remains unclear. "They have kept it pretty close to the chest," said Geri Palast, executive director of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity. "Senate Democrats have voiced support for a millionaires tax before, but they were in the minority. Things sometimes change when it's no longer about sending a message but about governing."

Palast notes that the Assembly previously has been open to the millionaires' tax. On the other hand, Assembly Majority Leader Sheldon Silver abandoned a proposal for a millionaires tax in October last year, citing the Wall Street collapse.

The Cuts in Education

In particular many advocates see the governor's budget ax falling disproportionately on the education sector. Paterson has abandoned a program of increasing aid to needy districts and instead has proposed cutting $2.5 billion from the state's legal commitment to fund schools that are most in need. Palast, whose Campaign for Fiscal Equity sued the state to secure more state funding for New York City schools, said that Paterson's cuts to education will further delay improvement in school districts that are in desperate need of funding.

Palast said state budget could be boosted by "progressive revenue options," such as the Fair Share Tax reform. Easton said he fully expects the Senate Democrats to come through and "stand up to the governor and make restoration of the cuts to education. They supported us in the minority and we expect they are the same people they were before they took the majority."

Praise for Paterson

Some advocates, though, were energized by Paterson's speech. They pointed to his criticism of the state's harsh Rockefeller drug laws. During his address, Paterson said: "Few initiatives have failed as badly and for as long as the Rockefeller drug laws."

Caitlin Dunklee, coordinator for Drop The Rock, which is working to repeal the laws, said her group "has never had so much reason to be optimistic," thanks to the governor's speech and the new Democratic majority. She said the governor has basically committed to supporting Rockefeller drug law reform legislation this year.

Paterson's promise to consider recommendations from theCommission on Sentencing Reform, which will release a report later this month, worries Dunklee. Earlier reports by the commission made no mention of Rockefeller drug law reform, she added.

The Governor's Goals

The general consensus is that Paterson's speech demonstrated that he is focused on two things: managing the budget deficit and setting himself up to run for office in 2010. Inconvenient issues like the tax burden on the state's poor and middle class and reforming the very foundation of New York's dysfunctional government have been left for the legislature to confront.

Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, feels the way a lot of activists in New York do: unsure of what she can expect from the new Democratic majority and slighted by Paterson's speech --not by what was said, but by what was not.

"Reform did not receive the barest of mentions. It was an unfortunate reflection," said Lerner. Common Cause has been pushing for rules changes in the legislature for years.

Lerner still hopes to see individual members move bills out of committee and onto the floor for discussion and vote. She also hopes conference committees would work on consolidating similar bills written separately in the Senate and Assembly.

Former Gov. Eliot Spitzer's first State of the State address was all about reform, Lerner noted. His second, she said, "at least had a throw-away line about it." She thinks that the lack of mention in Paterson's speech "was a true reflection of the governor's personal priorities. He feels he can hack it in the current system because it is a system he is accustomed to."

Lerner said she feels hopeful that rules reform might eventually be achieved this year anyway.

Senate Democrats may be more receptive to rules reform than Paterson. They recently put a greeting on the Senate Web site that says: "One of our first orders of business is to reform the rules of the Senate to give members more meaningful deliberation of legislation and foster bipartisan consensus on matters of public interest. Through revamped Senate committees members will debate and amend bills, assuring that majority and minority members share an equal footing on the Senate floor."

Senate Republicans, who are now in the minority, have been pushing for the sort of reforms that Common Cause supports. So there may be room for agreement on some of these issues.

The Guessing Game

Republicans have hinted that they think the Democratic Senate is far from united. Newly minted Republican Minority Leader Dean Skelos was recently quoted in the New York Times as saying of the Democratic majority, ""I reflected upon the fact that the last time it happened, it lasted for one year." And Skelos told the Albany Times Union, "I can guarantee you there are more factions within the Democratic conference than within the Republican conference."

Some advocates, including Palast, said they think the next four months will give New Yorkers a clearer picture of how bad the fiscal crisis is. During that time, she said, we will find out how much funding the Obama administration plans to provide the state, and we will see what sort of alternate funding proposals come about from the Senate and Assembly. And perhaps, too, a clearer picture will emerge of where the newly powerful Democrats stand and what they hope to accomplish.

That though remains weeks, if not months, away. When Blair Horner the legislative director of the the New York Public Research Group was asked to comment on the state of the capital following the governor's speech and the Democratic takeover of the Senate, he replied with one word: "Chaos."


Stated Meeting: Council Approves Firearm Reporting


If police officers pull their triggers the City Council will now be put on notice under legislation passed unanimously by the council on Wednesday.

The New York City Police Department will be required to submit annual reports to the council detailing incidents of gunfire by police officers. The department will have to include the race, gender and age of those involved in the incident.

The bill, (Intro 516-A) sponsored by Councilmember Peter Vallone Jr., has the support of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, according to a mayoral spokesman.

Keeping Tabs on Triggers

Lauded as an effort to keep the police department accountable, the proposal is not an indication of any problems there, city officials cautioned. But, instead, it hopes to identify trends and give the council greater oversight of data, which has been difficult to receive at times. Before this proposal, the department was not required to provide gunfire statistics to the council, and only did so sporadically and voluntarily.

"We haven't determined there is any problem in this area," said Vallone. "But we don't know this information unless we get it, and there is no requirement we receive this information now."

In the past, the department did not include the race, gender or age of individuals involved in shooting incidents with police officers. On the other hand, said Council Speaker Christine Quinn, the department did provide the breed and the sex of a dog if a police officer had shot it. The speaker called the difference "absurd."

Though the administration has expressed support for the bill, the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association opposes the proposal. Association President Patrick J. Lynch said in a written statement, "The NYPD is the country's most restrained police departments in the use of deadly physical force. Requiring a report for every firearms discharge is unjustified and will not benefit anyone but the paper suppliers. It's a solution in search of a problem."

Other police officials have complained complying with the legislation would be costly and labor intensive. Council officials disputed that argument, saying it would only require officials collect more specific demographic information than they already do.

Primarily, the bill will give city officials a snapshot of the types of incidents that lead to pulling triggers by police officers. In recent years, said Vallone, police shootings have decreased significantly. In 1997, a weapon was discharged 253 times. In 2007, a gun was fired by police officers 111 times, and approximately 30 to 40 of those incidents involved animals, he added.

The new data will be provided borough by borough and precinct by precinct. Quinn said the council has not determined whether the annual reports will be made available on its Web site.

Members of the council's Black, Latino and Asian Caucus applauded the proposal, saying it would help determine whether certain races are targeted.

"In communities of color it is extremely important we have that information," said Councilmember Robert Jackson, the co-chair of the caucus. "It seems as though these people that are shot are people of color."


Top New York Stories of 2008

Consider how the world looked a year ago.

Sen. Hillary Clinton was about to sail through the Democratic primaries on the way to her party's presidential nomination. Rudy Giuliani, though faltering, still stood atop some polls for the Republican nomination. Lame duck Mayor Michael Bloomberg mulled a White House bid of his own, while City Council Speaker Christine Quinn touted herself as a champion of reform and fine-tuned her alliance with the mayor in the hopes of succeeding him in 2009.

Up the river, Eliot Spitzer girded himself for another year of battle with his Republican nemesis Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno.

Securities firms handed out a record $38 billion in bonuses, helping to send the average price of a Manhattan apartment to $1.4 million. New luxury projects dotted the skyline, as the city planned for massive new development from Jamaica to the Hudson Yards.

It all seems very long ago. For a look at how we got from there to where we are now, here are the Top 10 New York stories of 2008:

Obama Elected President as New York's Contenders Falter

Illinois Sen. Barack Obama was elected president of the United States on Nov. 4, becoming the nation's first black president. With only four years in the U.S. Senate and a "funny name" as he himself says, Obama stood as the underdog a year ago. Instead New York Sen. Hillary Clinton had staked out the role of frontrunner, garnering the support of all the state's -- and many of the nation's -- leading Democrats. On the GOP side, Rudolph Giuliani seemed to have a decent shot of parlaying his image as America's mayor -- garnered in the aftermath of the Sept, 11, 2001 attacks -- into the nomination. Meanwhile, Mayor Michael Bloomberg looked on, pondering scenarios that could make the nation turn to a bipartisan billionaire.

The setbacks began for Clinton with a third place finish in the Iowa caucuses in early January (Former Sen. John Edwards narrowly beat her out for second place.) She saved her campaign with a victory in New Hampshire's primary, putting her and Obama on a grueling multi-month multi-state fight to the finish. But despite a number of victories, including a resounding triumph in the New York primary on Super Tuesday -- Clinton never again captured the lead.

The race did not end until the final primaries in June when Obama clinched the nomination, paving the way for his nomination at the Democratic National Convention in Denver in August.

Giuliani faded far earlier. Faced with disconcerting poll numbers, he stayed out of the crucial early contests, focusing his attention on Florida. After he came in a distant third there, he withdrew, leaving as his legacy one of the long campaign's best lines (uttered by Joe Biden): " "There's only three things he mentions in a sentence: a noun, and a verb and 9/11."

Giuliani went on to campaign for the eventual Republican nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain.

As 2008 began, Bloomberg continued to play it coy about his ambitions, fooling virtually no one. The mayor apparently dreamed of a polarizing race -- John Edwards vs. Mike Huckabee, say -- that would leave America hankering for a man of the center. When that failed to materialize, Bloomberg abandoned his dreams and went on to pursue other ambitions (see below).

Once Obama became the nominee, he received enthusiastic backing in New York, capturing 62 percent of the state's votes on Election Day. Celebrations in Times Square, Harlem and other parts of the city greeted his historic election. And while New York may have to play second city to Chicago over the next four years, Obama has turned to New York for a number of key appointees including Hillary Clinton for secretary of state, Timothy Geithner for treasury, Eric Holder for attorney general and Shaun Donovan, city housing commissioner, for the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Stock Market Tumbles and New York's Economy Follows

The effects of cascading failures in subprime mortgages and the ensuing credit crunch spread to Wall Street in September. Like dominos, a parade of major financial institutions began to lose money and even shut down, transforming Wall Street and New York's economy. Bear Stearns failed, Lehman Brothers collapsed, and Merrill Lynch was saved only after being swallowed up by Bank of American (which would face its own troubles down the road). To prevent more carnage, the federal government devised a $700 billion rescue package.

While much of New York (so far) avoided the worst effects of the housing foreclosure crisis, it bore the brunt of Wall Street's woes. By November unemployment in the city had reached its highest levels in nearly four years. The city comptroller predicted the five boroughs could lose 170,000 jobs by the end of 2010, with unemployment reaching 7.4 percent. The effects trickled downward, affecting the jobs of cabdrivers, restaurants and shops whose business came from the brokers and investors. With fewer financial companies -- and fewer employees at the ones that remained -- demand for office space waned, along with money to build it, putting the future of a number of high profile developments in doubt.

City, State Confront Billion Dollar Deficits

The economic turmoil also played havoc with city and state tax revenues. The mayor's office forecast that, money raised through the city's personal income tax would fall from $8.4 billion in fiscal year to $7.6 billion in the 2009 fiscal year before bottoming out at $6.6 billion in 2011. The state forecast rising revenue as well.

After a string of relatively flush years, deficits returned in 2008. And unlike the federal government, the city and state had no choice but to try to fill them.

In June, the mayor and the City Council approved a budget that kept spending virtually flat in contrast to the increases of recent years. Then as the nation's and city's economy deteriorated further, Bloomberg called for all city agencies to cut an additional 2.5 percent for this year and 5 percent for 2010. He also sought to block the $400 property tax rebate checks New Yorker property owners have come to expect and to increase property taxes by 7 percent.

The usually compliant council balked. After some fairly heated negotiation, the council and mayor agreed in late December to the 7 percent property tax increase and hiked the hotel tax. Bloomberg consented to mailing out the $400 rebate checks. With the city still a facing a more than billion dollar shortfall for next fiscal year and the economy continuing its nosedive, more cuts seem certain.

Things looked even grimmer in the state capital. There legislators refused Gov. David Paterson's request that they make cuts in the current fiscal year's budget, leaving the governor and the legislator to grapple with an anticipated $15 billion shortfall for the next 15 months. In response, Paterson in later December proposed a $121 billon state budget for next year featuring major cuts in education and Medicaid and an array of new and increased taxes. Among other things, Paterson would levy charges on sugary soft drinks and music downloads.

In Staggering Fall from Fortune, Spitzer Resigns After Night in D.C. Hotel

Gov. Eliot Spitzer's 15 months in office had been far from the triumph many predicted but no one expected such a spectacular crash. On March 12, the governor resigned, some 48 hours after it became publicly known that he had been the client of a high-priced prostitution ring. Even a public used to the foibles of the political leaders could only gasp at the downfall of Spitzer, who delighted in going after others suspected of wrongdoing and who as attorney general prosecuted several prostitution rings.

Lt. Gov. David Paterson succeeded Spitzer and, as a long-time -- and well-liked -- legislator quickly sought to try to end the sharp atmosphere in Albany that had characterized Spitzer's 14 months in office. Given the enormity of the state's problems though -- particularly its looming financial woes -- he faced a daunting task.

Council Extends Term Limits So Bloomberg Can Run Again

Bloomberg's search for his next job took an unexpected twist in October when he announced he would really like to hold on to the one he has now. Contending that the city needed his fiscal expertise in these tough financial times, Bloomberg set about reversing the law -- approved twice by voters at the ballot box -- limiting all city officials to two terms. As has often been the case, he enlisted as ally City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who also faced the loss of her job in 2009 because of term limits -- and whose mayoral hopes had faltered in the wake of a scandal involving City Council funds (see below). Members of the city's business establishment also backed the mayor's bid, while on the other side good government groups and the Working Families Party, among others, argued that, whatever the shortcomings of term limits, the mayor and council should not unilaterally overturn the will of the voters.

On Oct. 23, in one of its most divisive votes ever, the council approved the extension of term limits. Legal challenges continue. Meanwhile Bloomberg has promised to put the issue before a charter revisions commission -- but that will have to wait until after the billionaire mayor already has had his chance for his third term.

GOP Loses State Senate Majority But Now What?

After more than 40 years, the Republicans lost their majority in the State Senate, putting the body in Democratic hands -- or so it seemed on election night. Democrats won two GOP seats in November, getting at least a 32 to 30 edge.

But the party, which already held the governor's office and the Assembly majority, seemed unable to close the deal. Three renegade Democratic senators from New York City withheld support from the party's Senate leader, Malcolm Smith, trying to extract various concessions. The party leadership and the three reached a deal in early December, only to see it crumble. And so it remained with only days to go before the next legislative session begins. Stay tuned.

Congestion Pricing Falters But Tolls Get Another Look

Despite support -- albeit a bit grudging -- from the New York City Council, Gov. Paterson and then Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno, Mayor Bloomberg's plan to charge people to drive into Manhattan during the work week sputtered to a halt in early April. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver refused to bring the issue to a vote, effectively killing it and costing the city $354 million in federal aid in the process.

As the year ended, though, another more conventional plan to charge people to drive in Manhattan was getting a renewed look. A commission on transit finances headed by former Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chairman Richard Ravitch called for placing tolls on the East River and Harlem River bridges to raise funds to help plug the MTA's huge budget shortfall -- without drastically cutting service. The plan, though, seemed likely to encounter the obstacle that blocked congestion pricing: the opposition of many officials whose constituents would have to pay those tolls.

Investigators Target Council's Discretionary Funds

In April, the New York Post reported that, over a period of at least several years, millions of dollars in City Council "discretionary funds" were allocated to organizations that apparently did not exist. The weeks that followed saw a stream of questions and concerns about the council's so-called member items, or what John McCain would call "earmarks." In addition to the phantom groups, some funds were meted out to organizations run by relatives of council members or by people who gave heavily to their campaigns. Some of the organizations did not do the work they claimed to do or did political chores for elected officials. The mayor had his own pot of money that he gave outto his favorite council members to, in turn, dole out to their pet charities.

The revelation led to indictment of two aides to Brooklyn Councilmember Kendall Stewart and sparked a fight within Council about how to subject the process to greater scrutiny and transparency.

Nine Die in Construction Crane Accidents Prompting New Rules

Two construction crane accidents within two and a half months of each other, both in Manhattan, killed nine people, prompting concern about whether the city government had sacrificed public safety in its effort to building more, higher and faster. The accidents led to the resignation of the buildings inspector and tighter rules on crane regulation.

Clinton to State, Kennedy to Senate?

In a development it's safe to say no one foresaw a year ago, President-elect Barack Obama has selected Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. That creates a vacancy for her Senate seat -- though not in the way many expected.

As the jockeying began with all the usual suspects (Rep. Caroline Maloney, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, Nassau County, Executive Tom Suozzi, etc., etc.), Caroline Kennedy began making it clear that she would like the job. Just by wanting the job, the fundraiser for the city's schools and daughter of the late president, emerged as the odds-on favorite for the job. Her simply wanting the post seemed to create a juggernaut -- despite questions about her experience, stands on the issue, public support or lack thereof. As the year ended, though, some pundits began sensing an anti-Caroline backlash and bandying new names about.

Despite the barrage of press accounts, the race remained too close to call. There is only one voter -- Gov. Paterson -- and, so far, he's not talking.


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