Cuomo (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of the Governor)
Lawmakers returning to Albany this week to kick off the 2016 legislative session are faced with a litany of unresolved issues from last year and the spectre of the recent convictions of two former legislative leaders.
Add to that impending elections for all 213 legislative seats, some of which will be critical for the future of state Senate control and the prospect of future indictments hinted at by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara and you have a recipe for potential paralysis.
Familiar issues like raising the minimum wage, paid family leave, juvenile justice and criminal justice reforms are all on the table. Newer issues like regulating fantasy sports gambling and tweaks to the state's health insurance marketplace will also be up for discussion.
Complicating some issues will be Gov. Andrew Cuomo's repeated 2015 use of executive action, which irked some legislators and, according to some advocates, let the air out of pushes for major legislation. But the elephant in the room remains how to deal with the plague of corruption that has dogged the capitol for years.
There is a little extra motivation for the legislature to move on more comprehensive ethics fixes - when session ended in June, former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Majority Leader Dean Skelos had merely been indicted on federal corruption charges, six months later both men have been convicted and will soon face sentencing. Further, their trials exposed how major donors are able to exploit the state's campaign finance system and how both Silver and Skelos were able to use their influence to pressure entities with business before the state to provide them and their associates with financial benefit.
Cuomo has promised that ethics reform will be at the top of his 2016 agenda.
Aside from the unprecedented legislative scandal, both houses of the legislature will also be preparing for an election season that many see as do or die for control of the state Senate, currently led by Republicans. Upcoming electoral contests could motivate leaders from both houses to compromise, or it could create more strife, legislative paralysis, and a blame game that will play out in the elections.
Still, there are a variety of major policy issues at play as 2016 session begins, including:
A number of good government groups, as well as Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and even U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, have posited that a better paid, full-time legislature might reduce certain kinds of corruption. Better pay might reduce the temptation to take bribes and with outside income banned it would be much harder for legislators to hide any ill-gotten gains.
A number of Assembly Democrats say their conference has seriously discussed the possibility of advocating for a full-time legislative body. In a Dec. 7 interview with Gary Axelbank of BronxTalk, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said he wanted to see how stricter income disclosure rules passed last year work before he advocates a total ban on outside income.
Heastie told Axelbank a full-time legislature would have to be paid considerably more. "Is the public ready to pay legislators $150,000-$160,000 a year?" Heastie asked. "If you're going to have people go full time, there's going to have to be a hefty pay raise from $79,500." Legislators haven't had a raise in 15 years, though a new commission is examining the rates and will issue recommendations.
Majority Leader John Flanagan has repeatedly said he is steadfastly opposed to a full-time legislature. He said it on Wednesday's first session day, and last month he told reporters, "We are ostensibly supposed to have, or legally supposed to have, a citizen Legislature or a part-time Legislature. I want the people with a depth of background. I think it's useful to have people from varying walks of life."
Still, upon replacing Skelos, Flanagan gave up his second job, a move he explained Wednesday as important because of his time commitment as Senate leader, which comes with a stipend.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has noted that the constitution calls for a part-time legislature and Republican opposition to going full-time, but called the idea "something worth talking about." It's more likely that legislators compromise on a significant cap on outside income and additional rules.
The now-infamous LLC loophole was featured during the Silver and Skelos corruption trials, but has been a cause of consternation among reformers for quite some time. In practice, the loophole allows anyone to game the campaign finance system by setting up multiple LLCs, or limited liability corporations, from which to donate to candidates for office.
Cries to close the loophole reached fever pitch last session, but in the wake of the Silver and Skelos trials have become even louder. Glenwood Management, a Manhattan real estate firm at the center of the Silver and Skelos cases, used the loophole to subvert the state's campaign donation limits by creating a number of front companies. The firm has been the largest contributor in the state for years. The Assembly moved to close the loophole last year but the Senate refused to vote on the issue. The Assembly is poised to move again on the issue but it appears that they might face opposition not only from Senate Republicans but from Cuomo as well.
Speaking with reporters in Manhattan on Dec. 13, Cuomo said that closing the LLC Loophole was "a priority." However, on Dec. 21, Cuomo said in a WNYC radio interview that closing the loophole would be ineffective because of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which allows for independent expenditures on behalf of candidates.
"You need people in office who are going to use their best judgment in office," Cuomo said on WNYC, "because you're not going to change the campaign finance system because of Citizens United."
Cuomo also refused to return over a million dollars in donations from Glenwood Management. "If I believed that I could be influenced by a million dollars, or a thousand dollars, or fifty dollars, then I'm in the wrong place and I should resign immediately," he explained.
Minimum Wage Hike
Cuomo kicked off the rollout of his 2016 agenda with another rally for an eventual $15 hourly statewide minimum wage and by extending a path toward $15 per hour to 28,000 SUNY employees. Cuomo has promised to push the legislature to adopt his plan to get all workers across the state to at least $15 per hour over the next several years.
Cuomo rapidly evolved his position on the minimum wage last year after opposing a hike to $13 per hour proposed by Democratic legislators. But, he utilized the state's wage board provision to boost the minimum wage plan for fast food workers to an eventual $15 per hour and has rallied across the state to push the legislature to support the same figure.
The Assembly pushed for an eventual $15 minimum wage for New York City in its single-house budget last year and is expected to support Cuomo's push. There are some Democratic members from Upstate and Western New York who are concerned about backlash from business groups. Republican Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan has not written off the possibility of a path toward a $15 minimum wage and there are some who think he will look to compromise with Cuomo on the timeline for full implementation of the raise as a way to take the debate off the table before election season.
Cuomo has already begun outlining tax reform, especially to reduce the burden on small businesses, which many see as part of the plan to get the minimum wage hike passed. A heightened minimum wage is popular around the state and has endeared the governor with many of his erstwhile liberal friends.
Tax on the Rich
With one sentence of his remarks on the opening day of session, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie changed the expected dynamics of negotiations to come. "We will fight for a tax structure that promotes fairness, equity, common sense," Heastie said, adding that he wanted tax cuts for the working class and to ask "wealthy New Yorkers" to pay their "fair share."
Cuomo has repeatedly rejected calls for a tax on the highest earners over the last few years - especially when the calls came from Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2014. It isn't clear how hard Heastie will push on the issue but if it takes off it could eventually be used as leverage toward enacting a full minimum wage increase.
Criminal Justice Reform
Last month the Cuomo administration made good on a promised executive action when it unveiled a plan to move 16- and 17-year-old inmates with medium and minimum security classifications to a juvenile facility in Hudson. The move is expected to impact up to 100 inmates. However, advocates are not satisfied. New York is still one of two states to treat 16- and 17-year-olds as adults upon arrest.
Criminal justice experts want the entire process changed in state law, something Cuomo has backed and tried to enact last year to no avail.
While advocates plan to continue to push, and held a press conference on the first day of session to resume doing so, Cuomo's executive action may have reduced the legislature's appetite to act. A number of Senate Republicans were concerned about housing teens in adult prisons but are not convinced the entire criminal justice process should be altered. Meanwhile, Cuomo and Democrats from the Senate and Assembly have disagreed on exactly how the 16- and 17-year-olds should be processed by the courts.
Meanwhile, having failed to build a consensus with the legislature on how to revamp the criminal justice system to address concerns about how police shootings of citizens are investigated, Cuomo issued an executive order last summer allowing the Attorney General to name a special prosecutor in such cases.
The move angered some district attorneys and members of law enforcement but gave the governor a boost with progressive activists. However, Cuomo promised to evaluate how the order worked and return to the legislature with a plan to change the law.
Members of the Assembly Majority are anxious to tackle the issue but Senate Republicans are unlikely to want to touch it - especially in an election year. A good gauge of where the issue stands in the pecking order will be to see what kind of mention it gets, if any, in Cuomo's State of the State address. A number of legislators say they expect Cuomo to declare victory on both of these criminal justice issues by pointing to his executive actions and thereby avoid any major legislative battles.
Car Service Apps
In 2015, Mayor Bill de Blasio decided he wanted to limit the expansion of Uber, the most popular car-service app, citing concerns about congestion. It was as if the mayor stepped on a landmine. Uber quickly mobilized its drivers and users and rolled out an effective public relations campaign, even enlisting Cuomo - who may not have needed much prodding to contradict de Blasio.
The mayor walked away limping but with plans to return to the issue. Now the state has to decide how to handle Uber and Lyft's push to be allowed in New York, including in upstate cities. In late October, Cuomo indicated that he thinks the state should issue regulations as a whole. "You can't do Uber city by city," Cuomo said. Cuomo's former top advisor Matt Wing is now in charge of communications for Uber in the Northeast.
Localities would need to give up oversight of transportation insurance and allow Uber to pool insurance for its drivers. The taxi industry, which is steadfastly opposed to Uber, is currently regulated city by city.
Fantasy Sports Gambling
A number of Assembly Democrats are chomping at the bit to address the issue of fantasy sports betting sites like Draftkings and FanDuel, which were recently sued by AG Schneiderman for being illegal gambling in violation of New York law. Schneiderman then amended the suit to ask the companies to return all money it made from New Yorkers. Democratic Assemblymember Gary Pretlow told Gotham Gazette that he plans to come up with regulations, oversight, and consumer protections that could keep the sites alive should they be found illegal in the court battle.
Meanwhile, a number of Senate Republicans are interested in ending any ambiguity about the legality of the sites by passing a bill stating that it is a game of skill and not of chance. Sen. Michael Ranzenhofer introduced such a bill in December. He told The Buffalo News in November that he hadn't spoken to representatives of the sites but was motivated by what he saw as Schneiderman's "overreach."
"It's just once again. New York shouldn't have Uber, shouldn't have mixed martial arts, or sports betting. When all this commerce and activities is allowed in many other states, it just seems like one issue after another in New York," Ranzenhofer told the Buffalo News.
A Variety of Others
Expect a major push from both houses of the legislature to restore education funding cuts.
The Ultimate Fighting Championship is advancing a court case to force New York to allow them to hold events in the state and has even booked a spring date at Madison Square Garden to hold its mixed martial arts bouts (MMA). The legislature could intercede before the case is settled.
Cuomo has already revealed a number of infrastructure related plans. Senate Republicans are looking to increase investment in the state's roads and bridges upstate while a number of city-based Democrats want to see the governor better invest in the MTA and do more to relieve congestion.
A number of Assembly Democrats are looking for partners in the Senate Majority for bills that would encourage guns are stored safely. There are several other bills that address implementing employee training and stricter checks and balances for gun stores as well as ones that would allow police to take away guns belonging to perpetrators of domestic violence.
Cuomo has been focused on national solutions to gun violence as of late but some Assembly Democrats think there is room to pass smaller pieces of legislation this year.
The Gender Expression Non Discrimination Act, or GENDA, appears to have lost a great deal of momentum after Cuomo enacted a number of its tenets through executive order earlier this fall. The Empire State Pride Agenda, which had been backing the bill, announced it is closing its policy operations because it feels it has completed much of its work, but some advocates point out that Cuomo's GENDA order could quickly be undone by the next governor.
The DREAM Act is another long-standing Democratic priority that many are unsure of its place in this year's agenda, which may be determined by whether Cuomo features it in his State of the State and budget.
The Assembly and Senate majorities and the Independent Democratic Conference will have to settle their differences over how to implement paid family leave before they look to negotiate a final bill with the governor. "I'm always optimistic," IDC head Sen. Jeff Klein said of a resolution on paid family leave in November. "It is an extremely important issue resonates with residents across the state." Klein brought the policy up again in his opening remarks on the Senate floor, and Flanagan said a conversation would happen, but that the details must be determined. Heastie said the Assembly would again bass a paid family leave bill this year, as it has several years in a row.
Generally speaking, Flanagan succinctly summed up his conference's priorities with his opening remarks on Wednesday, saying its focus will be "jobs, jobs, and jobs."
by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette