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Website reveals plans of casinos

Albany Times/Union - 20 min 22 sec ago

Albany

On Thursday, upstate casino proposals appeared and disappeared on a state website.

Before they were taken down due to technical difficulties cited by the state Gaming Commission, information revealed that a high-end Sheraton hotel is planned in Schenectady, that an Amsterdam casino's backers put down $200,000 for the right to pay $5.25 million for 512 acres at Thruway Exit 27, and that many details in 17 proposals for gambling complexes statewide have been redacted.

Before the commission removed the applications, tens of thousands of pages of plans were available to inspect. The commission intends to return the redacted applications to the state website on Friday.

Details gleaned before the material went dark revealed Rush Street Gaming's plan for the Rivers Casino at Mohawk Harbor in Schenectady enlists BBL Hospitality of Albany to manage a 150-room Four Points by Sheraton.

The Schenectady project would create 1,070 casino jobs and 89 hotel jobs, according to Rush Street's application. The group said $222.5 million a year in gross gambling revenues would be produced from 2.5 million visitors a year (it compared that to 20 million visits a year at Crossgates Mall in Guilderland). That would result in $81.5 million in revenues sent to the state based on gambling taxes, $8.1 million of which would come back to Schenectady and Schenectady County, and millions more in property, sales and hotel taxes.

The gambling revenue estimates compare with $175.1 million projected by Clairvest and Great Canadian Gaming in Amsterdam — $30 million of which would come from the Saratoga racino's market, $23 million from Verona-based Turning Stone's market and $4.1 million from Vernon Downs, according to the Clairvest application.

The Amsterdam team's market study showed an Albany casino, once proposed for Thruway Exit 23, would have topped $250 million a year in gaming revenues. That project fizzled and its development team — which includes Flaum Management, the Chickasaw Nation, Hard Rock and Capital District Off-Track Betting — moved to Rensselaer.

The Clairvest study showed the Albany casino would have extracted $54.3 million from the Saratoga racino's market, $27.6 million from Turning Stone and $5.1 million from Vernon Downs.

jodato@timesunion.com518-454-5083@JamesMOdato51

Categories: State/Local

Met Opera in lockout drama

Albany Times/Union - 20 min 22 sec ago

New York

It's a drama worthy of the Metropolitan Opera: Frantic, last-minute labor negotiations aimed at averting a lockout that threatens an immediate halt to pay and benefits for thousands of singers, musicians, stagehands and other workers.

A federal mediator arrived Thursday to help make a deal between unions and general manager Peter Gelb, whose vow of a 12:01 a.m. Friday lockout threatens to disrupt the new opera season for the first time in three decades.

At issue are the Met's finances. Gelb has demanded that the unions accept salary cuts of about 17 percent, to cover a deficit of $2.8 million in the Met's $326 million annual budget.

But 15 unions representing about 2,500 chorus singers, orchestra musicians, stagehands, carpenters and others say they'll lose as much as 30 percent of their income through additional pension cuts and higher health care costs.

Union chorus members earn a base pay of $100,000 a year and as much as $200,000 with overtime. Orchestra musicians also earn base pay topping $100,000.

Gelb says the salaries of union members represent about two-thirds of company costs and that's where cuts should be made to balance shrinking ticket sales, a depleted endowment and rising operating costs.

The artists say any doubled income is due to Gelb's insistence on staging expensive new productions that got bad reviews but required a lot of overtime, such as Wagner's "Ring" cycle. They say they're bearing the brunt of his decisions.

"We're in at 10 a.m. and finish at midnight on many days," chorister Rebecca Carvin said. "You miss weddings, you miss family occasions and I haven't had Christmas with my family for 15 years."

Categories: State/Local

More on Moreland controversy on 'New York Now'

Albany Times/Union - 20 min 22 sec ago

More on Moreland controversy on 'New York Now'

Don't miss this week's episode of "New York Now," the award-winning coproduction of WMHT and the Times Union. This week's highlights include:

Times Union state editor Casey Seiler is joined at the Reporters Roundtable by Ken Lovett of the Daily News and Michael Gormley of Newsday to discuss the latest twists in the controversy surrounding the defunct Moreland Commission on public corruption and whether Gov. Andrew Cuomo can stop the bleeding.

Karen DeWitt of New York State Public Radio sits down with Democratic gubernatorial contender Zephyr Teachout, who is hoping to leverage the Moreland mess into support on primary day.

"New York Now" airs at 7:30 p.m. Friday, and 11 a.m. and 11 p.m. Sunday on WMHT Ch. 17.

Categories: State/Local

Teacher hopefuls hit hard by costs

Albany Times/Union - 20 min 22 sec ago

Becoming a teacher in New York state is getting more expensive.

The price of basic teacher certification exams has more than doubled this year and it's taking a toll, educators said.

State officials stress that it is costly to enter any number of professions. And they offer aid to potential teachers struggling with the cost of exams, including 1,800 vouchers that allow needy students to waive test fees. They also have $3 million to pay for retakes of the costliest assessments.

Still, college professors in teacher training programs say some of their students are holding off taking all the tests due to the cost.

"It was a hard hit for our students," said Tracy Peterson, director of student success for the education program at the State University of New York at Geneseo.

Essentially, the regimen of tests and assessments needed for a certification degree has gone from $317 to $652 this year.

That's on top of other costs that have been in place for a while such as fingerprinting and required background checks, not to mention tuition.

Peterson recalls asking one student what she had to eat lately and was told hamburger rolls. The student had been saving money for the new exams.

Geneseo then set up a food pantry, which was well-used Peterson said.

"They are having to delay taking the exams," said Julie Gorlewski, an assistant professor of education at SUNY New Paltz.

"I am being told that students have said they haven't submitted to the edTPA yet because they can't afford it," added Jamie Dangler, a professor at the State University of New York College at Cortland, and representative of United University Professions, the union representing SUNY teachers.

The edTPA, which is an acronym for an assessment that includes a video of a student-teacher's performance along with lengthy explanations of their lesson plans and other activities, is a new requirement this year and costs $300.

While touted as a real-world way to judge the promise of potential teachers, it's one of the biggest additional costs.

"The students are really being faced with a large increase in these fees," added Peter Brouwer, dean of education at SUNY Potsdam.

"The higher certification costs set up obstacles," added Carl Korn, spokesman for New York State United Teachers, the state's major teachers union.

The array of tests needed to become a certified teacher is complicated, but there used to be three core exams.

Those were Assessment of Teaching Skills-written, Liberal Arts and Science, and Content Specialty, according to state guidelines.

Each of those cost $119, although in years past some could be taken on paper rather than computer for $79. It wasn't clear why the price went up for the online version, which avoids printing and mailing costs.

Either way, the old package could cost as little as $317.

But starting this year, there are new tests: Educating All Students; Academic Literacy Skills and Content Specialty, which cost $102, $131 and $119 – and the $300 edTPA.

Most are written and administered by Pearson PLC, a global corporation that designs and sells tests as well as publish newspapers and books. They also score the edTPA.

Calls to Pearson were referred to Stanford University, which helped develop the edTPA.

Scoring the test is labor intensive, since it includes lengthy written commentaries by the teacher candidate as well as viewing the videos, said Ray Pecheone executive director of the Stanford Center for Assessment, Learning, and Equity which helped create the edTPA assessment.

Rather than old fill-in-the-blank multiple choice exams, the idea is to get a real-world picture of a teacher candidate's abilities.

"The edTPA is based on job-related skills," said Pecheone.

State Education Department spokesman Tom Dunn added that the new exams aim to create well-prepared teachers.

"Teachers are being better prepared than they have in the past and schools have a better idea of what teachers can do," he said. "It's expensive to become a nurse and an accountant and a doctor."

Also, the vouchers should make things easier for students who can't pay the test fees. The state is offering 1,200 vouchers to cover registration fees for the written tests and 600 for the edTPA. Additionally, the state has allocated $3 million to help people re-take the edTPA if they fail it on the first try.

rkarlin@timesunion.com • 518-454-5758 • @RickKarlinTU

Categories: State/Local

Backtracking on medical pot plan

Albany Times/Union - 20 min 22 sec ago

Albany

When Gov. Andrew Cuomo urged the state Health Department to look at expediting the rollout of New York's medical marijuana program, he could have directed attention to a section of the program's enacting legislation that he rejected in the final week of the legislative session.

That bill included emergency provisions for "patients whose serious condition is progressive and degenerative."

"In the final negotiations over the bill, the Executive Branch insisted that the emergency provisions be dropped," wrote bill sponsors Sen. Diane Savino and Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, with Sen. Mark Grisanti, in a letter sent to Cuomo on Monday.

Instead, Cuomo insisted on an 18-month implementation period — although that deadline could be pushed back at the health commissioner's discretion.

Gottfried later said the earlier bill would have allowed the health commissioner to make the product quickly available by allowing access to "existing producers and dispensers in other states that have tight regulations comparable to New York's."

After state officials met with advocates on Monday, Cuomo sent his letter to the Health Department asking DOH to examine a stepped-up timeline for implementation.

Savino declined to comment on Thursday.

Any attempt to quickly bring a medical marijuana program online is likely to encounter both state and federal hurdles.

"Traveling with marijuana is still a violation of federal law," said Matt Barden, a special agent with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. "And there are no waivers from the DEA for anyone."

On Monday, U.S. Rep. Scott Perry announced the Charlotte's Web Medical Hemp Act, which is named for a strain of marijuana oil that helps reduce seizures in children with epilepsy.

The Pennsylvania Republican's legislation — though far from being passed — would remove the marijuana oil from the federal list of banned drugs and allow it to be shipped from states (including Colorado) where it's legal to certified patients in states with medical marijuana programs.

Even if Perry's bill was law, New York would need legislative action to amend its program to allow emergency access to out-of-state medical marijuana.

Cuomo has insisted on a "seed-to-sale" model entirely sited in New York. Even if immediate action was taken, it's a program that would take at least five months to reach harvest.

State Health Department spokesman Bill Schwarz said that Acting State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker is looking for ways to get children suffering from epilepsy the forms of medical marijuana they need.

"The Commissioner will consider all options that may achieve this goal," said Schwartz.

Categories: State/Local

Cuomo aide urged spin

Albany Times/Union - 20 min 22 sec ago

Albany

Joseph Percoco, a longtime political aide to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, contacted several members of the state's now-shuttered anti-corruption commission in the past week and encouraged them to make public statements supporting the governor and affirming the panel's independence.

According to multiple people familiar with the matter, Percoco allegedly offered to provide draft statements to some of those he contacted, and in some cases encouraged them to communicate with him through private email messages rather than through their government email accounts.

The 25-member Moreland Commission, which Cuomo appointed last summer and abruptly disbanded nine months later, included 10 district attorneys.

Four members of the commission, including co-chairman William J. Fitzpatrick, the Onondaga County district attorney, issued public statements on Monday asserting their independence from the governor and, in some instances, defending Cuomo. The statements were made on the first day that Cuomo appeared in public and took questions from the media after a July 23 New York Times article that alleged people in the governor's office — including his chief of staff, Larry Schwartz — may have tried to block efforts by the corruption investigators to subpoena entities with ties to Cuomo.

Throughout Monday's news conference in Buffalo — where the governor had gone to trumpet an economic development initiative — he was peppered with questions about the Moreland Commission. Cuomo repeatedly referred to Fitzpatrick's three-page statement that the governor's office had not interfered with the commission's operation.

On Wednesday and Thursday, Fitzpatrick did not respond to written questions from the Times Union about any interactions he had with Cuomo's aides in connection with his public statement. The other Moreland Commission members who issued statements also did not immediately respond to requests for an interview, including Rockland County District Attorney Thomas P. Zugibe and Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III.

The contact with the commission members took place as U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara in Manhattan investigates whether Cuomo's administration interfered with the anti-corruption panel. Bharara publicly criticized Cuomo after the governor shut down the Moreland Commission on March 29, nine months after he appointed the panel with a directive to recommend campaign and ethics changes and to investigate potential criminal activity in state government. It was originally intended to continue its work through the end of 2014, but its unexpected closure came before it issued a final report.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Arlo Devlin-Brown, chief of the Public Corruption Unit of Bharara's office, on Tuesday told the Moreland Commission's attorney, Michael L. Koenig, that federal investigators were aware that aides to Cuomo were contacting commission members and soliciting them to make public statements refuting the Times story. Devlin-Brown warned Koenig that the Justice Department would be interested in interviewing any commissioners whose public statements might be contradicted by commission records and internal communications, according to information provided to the Times Union.

Devlin-Brown's telephone call to Koenig was followed up with a formal letter from the office on Wednesday that outlined the U.S. Attorney's concerns about possible interference with a federal investigation by Cuomo's office. The Times first reported on the letter on Thursday morning.

Koenig, an Albany attorney and former federal prosecutor hired to represent the Moreland Commission in connection with the federal investigation, declined to discuss any specifics of the probe.

Part of Koenig's job has been to collect all files, including emails and other records, from commission members and to turn them over to Bharara's office in response to federal grand jury subpoenas served on the members.

Percoco, who previously served as the governor's executive deputy secretary, has worked for Cuomo's re-election campaign committee for several months. A quiet but formidable lawyer, he has been a behind-the-scenes fixture in Cuomo's inner circle for many years, including during his four years as state attorney general and in his earlier role as U.S. housing secretary.

Attempts to reach Percoco were not successful.

"Joe Percoco is not available to be interviewed at this time," said Peter Kauffmann, a spokesman for Cuomo's campaign committee. When asked for comment on Percoco's involvement in contacting Moreland Commission members, Kauffmann, in an email, said: "Since this is a question directly related to the Moreland Commission, please contact the Governor's official press office for comment."

Late Thursday, Zugibe confirmed in an email response that he was contacted on Monday by "a representative of the governor" and asked whether he supported the statement made earlier that day by Fitzpatrick.

"This letter, indeed, accurately reflected my knowledge and understanding of the pertinent facts surrounding the Moreland Commission," Zugibe said. "At no time did I detect an effort to exert any pressure to issue a public statement."

Rich Azzopardi, a spokesman for Cuomo, declined comment on Percoco's involvement.

Earlier Thursday, Azzopardi issued a statement from Cuomo that left out any mention of interaction between Percoco or any other Cuomo aide with members of the Moreland Commission.

"We are aware of the letter sent by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District," Cuomo said in the statement. "The New York Times published a story last week that generated a wave of news reports across the state, some with numerous inaccuracies, and we wanted to correct them. We discussed these concerns with relevant parties. Several members of the commission (district attorneys and a law school dean) issued personal statements to correct the public record. These statements reiterated comments they had made over the past year.

"As I believe the U.S. Attorney has made it clear that ongoing public dialogue is not helpful to his investigation, we will have no additional comment on the matter," the governor said.

blyons@timesunion.com518-454-5547@blyonswriter

Categories: State/Local

Photos: Safe Act opponents protest handling of Moreland Commission

Albany Times/Union - 20 min 22 sec ago

Safe Act opponents conducted a walking tour of the Capitol to demand answers to questions about Gov. Andrew Cuomo's handling of the Moreland Commission on Wednesday in Albany.

Categories: State/Local

Racino part of Churchill Downs deal

Albany Times/Union - 20 min 22 sec ago

Albany

With an eye toward bigger things in New York, Churchill Downs Inc. has agreed to acquire a quarter of Saratoga Harness Racing, which includes the racino and standardbred track in Saratoga Springs.

The publicly traded Churchill, known to keep a keen eye on the bottom line, on Wednesday announced an agreement to purchase 25 percent of the group that is bidding for licenses to run casinos in East Greenbush and near Newburgh. Churchill is already a 50 percent partner on the Rensselaer County project to create Capital View Casino & Resort.

The deal gives the Louisville, Ky.-based Churchill, best known for hosting the Kentucky Derby, a beachhead in New York and moves it into the territory of its rival, the New York Racing Association, which runs the state's three major thoroughbred tracks.

Several people in the racing industry speculated Wednesday that Churchill is positioning itself to take a run at the exclusive state franchise NYRA has held for decades. It remains unclear what will become of the franchise when the temporary, publicly controlled NYRA board created by Gov. Andrew Cuomo releases the Association to return to private operation in the coming months. NYRA officials hired during the three-year public control period say they are hoping to unveil a reprivatization plan next year.

"If the NYRA franchise is going to be up for bid, you've got to figure Churchill is going to put up a bid," said Steve Bochnak, a gaming consultant who lives in Columbia County.

The deal with Saratoga Harness gives Churchill a five-year contract to take over management of the Saratoga racino. The company would also manage the East Greenbush casino, if a license is secured. "I think this makes clear we'll have a continuity of management, if we are successful, at the two sites," said James Featherstonhaugh, a principal of Saratoga Harness.

Churchill will assume a quarter of other Saratoga Harness holdings as well, including a casino in Black Hawk, Colo.; a management contract at the Gideon Putnam Hotel in Saratoga Springs; and a horse track in Henderson, Ky. Terms of the deal have not been disclosed, although a person familiar with the agreement said Saratoga Harness is receiving a payment of about $30 million.

Churchill President Bill Carstanjen said in a statement that the company was "excited to expand our operations into New York and Colorado and hope to become more involved in the Capital Region if we are fortunate enough to be awarded a license to build and operate Capital View Casino & Resort."

Bochnak and other gaming industry observers noted that Churchill has been aggressively expanding and diversifying its gaming operations beyond the Kentucky track for years. "Churchill is tough to deal with, but they're profitable and they keep expanding rapidly," he said. "They've insinuated themselves everywhere."

NYRA officials have been wary of Churchill for years. NYRA President Chris Kay sent the news release about Churchill's acquisition of Saratoga Harness to board members on Wednesday, according to a person working with NYRA.

Doug Reed, director of the University of Arizona's racetrack industry program, said Churchill's expansion into New York may be unrelated to the NYRA franchise. But if an opportunity to capture the franchise opens, he said, Churchill would undoubtedly be "in the mix of potential contenders."

Churchill spokeswoman Courtney Norris said the new deal has nothing to do with NYRA's future. It was announced prior to a second-quarter earnings report that showed Churchill reached $303.7 million in revenues and $57 million in profits, up 14 percent, in the three months that ended June 30. She was unable to say if the company might also have a motivation to avoid fees charged by New York on out-of-state companies, such as Churchill, that take in bets in New York.

Lee Park, a spokesman for the Gaming Commission, said he could not speculate on whether the deal will give Churchill leverage should it seek to discontinue paying account deposit wagering fees imposed on out-of-state firms — sums that have reached $800,000 a month in New York.

"The NYRA franchise has never been discussed," said Featherstonhaugh. "I think the franchise specifies that it has to be (run by) a not-for-profit; we're not in the not-for-profit business."

But the deal could enhance other opportunities for Churchill, which runs several casinos and tracks, if regulators give points to businesses that invest in New York. The transaction with Saratoga Harness would become effective once Churchill obtains necessary licenses and approvals in New York and Colorado.

jodato@timesunion.com • 518-454-5083 • @JamesMOdato

Categories: State/Local

Cuomo is pressured to expedite program's rollout

Albany Times/Union - 20 min 22 sec ago

Albany

Under pressure from advocates for those with epilepsy, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has asked acting state Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker to evaluate whether there's a way to speed up the rollout of the state's medical marijuana program.

"Striking the right balance to ensure public safety and public health are protected is crucial," Cuomo wrote in a letter released Wednesday. "That said, I ask that you review the 18-month implementation timeline to determine if there is any way to accelerate the process for this specific dire population."

On Monday, Cuomo's deputy secretary for civil rights, Alphonso David, joined Zucker and other Health Department officials for a meeting with 12 medical marijuana advocates.

One of the participants, Christine Emerson of Rochester, voiced cautious optimism about Cuomo's correspondence with Zucker.

"It's great if what (Cuomo) is saying is true," Emerson said Wednesday, "and not just another ploy."

East Greenbush resident Melissa Hilt, whose daughter suffers from seizures, is on the board of the Medical Cannabis Industry Alliance of New York. She says Cuomo's letter could mean her daughter will receive lifesaving medicine sooner.

"It's good to know New York state is serious in making sure our medical marijuana program does not stay in neutral," said Hilt in a statement. "There is too much at stake."

Over the past several weeks, three children in the Buffalo area have died from seizures. The main legislative sponsors of the push for medical marijuana sent the governor a letter earlier this week recommending several ways to expedite the program — including amending the new state law and having the federal government grant waivers that would allow New York patients to bring medicinal marijuana from other states.

Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, D-Manhattan, said in a statement Wednesday that the Health Department should rely on organizations with good track records in other states to subcontract with New York "grow houses."

"Even if the Health Department somehow approved 'registered organizations' tomorrow, it would be months before they could set up operations and grow seeds into mature plants to be processed," Gottfried said.

Others familiar with the development of medical marijuana in other states said New York's Health Department could simply speed up writing the regulations, or select one trusted and reputable grower to begin setting up facilities now.

boreskes@timesunion.com518-454-5087@boreskes

Categories: State/Local

Moreland panel was never ended

Albany Times/Union - 20 min 22 sec ago

Albany

Gov. Andrew Cuomo never rescinded the executive order that established the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption, leaving the panel in limbo and maintaining 23 of its 25 members as deputy attorneys general.

Richard Azzopardi, a spokesman for Cuomo, said the administration believes an official order is not required and that similar commissions, which also had subpoena authority, were never disbanded by executive orders.

"As with the Feerick Commission, which also had 63(8) authority, as well as the other two Moreland Commissions empaneled during this current administration, there was no executive order issued that disbanded it and one was not needed," he said. "This commission issued a report that made suggestions for changes in the law in the 2014 legislative session — the entire purpose of the commission."

Still, members of the anti-corruption panel have privately expressed concern about their status, or whether the governor's March 29 announcement disbanding the panel was tied to Cuomo's efforts to secure a deal on the state budget and legislative reforms, including campaign finance reforms.

The Moreland panel's status remains murky as U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara investigates the circumstances of the commission's unofficial disbanding, including whether Cuomo's office may have interfered with its efforts to subpoena entities with ties to the governor.

The governor's announcement that he was disbanding the commission came during a conference call with reporters a day after his office reached a budget agreement with the Legislature.

The governor's office has said the intent of the commission was to secure ethics reforms. Still, the July 2013 executive order establishing the commission also stated that if "in the course of its inquiry the commission obtains evidence of a violation of existing laws, such evidence shall promptly be communicated to the office of the attorney general and other appropriate law enforcement authorities ... to facilitate jurisdictional referrals where appropriate."

In addition, the panel was given subpoena authority and an investigative staff.

Two weeks before Cuomo's announcement, members of the Moreland Commission met in Albany to discuss potential criminal investigations of campaign spending. In the first meeting of the commission since December 2013, the panel weighed issuing subpoenas to the treasurers of several state Senate campaign committees, according to information shared with the Times Union. The panel also had issued subpoenas to verify the outside work of legislators employed by law firms, including Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

A spokesman for Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, whose office deputized 23 attorneys on the commission to give them subpoena powers, declined to comment.

According to people briefed on the matter, Bharara's office is investigating whether Cuomo's disbanding of the commission may have been a point of negotiation with members of the Legislature at a time when their campaign funds and outside business dealings were a focus of the Moreland panel's interest.

Michael L. Koenig, an Albany attorney hired to represent the commission in connection with Bharara's investigation, declined to discuss specifics of the U.S. Attorney's probe.

People familiar with the matter but not authorized to comment publicly said Koenig is gathering emails, reports and other Moreland-related records from the commissioners to turn over to Bharara's office, which issued subpoenas for the materials.

The commission's sputtering demise comes as some members have issued public statements defending their work or denying that Cuomo's office sought to block their efforts to investigate entities tied to the governor — allegations that were highlighted in a New York Times story last week.

Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III issued a statement Monday in which he said the governor's office "agreed not to interfere with our work."

Sedita, who did not respond to a request for comment, sidestepped the issue of the commission's current status in his statement, calling it "defunded."

Two of the commission's co-chairs, Onondoga County District Attorney William J. Fitzpatrick and Manhattan attorney Milton L. Williams, Jr., did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The third co-chair, Nassau County prosecutor Kathleen Rice, has refused to comment on the recent allegations, citing the federal investigation.

blyons@timesunion.com518-454-5547@blyonswriter

Categories: State/Local

Bill impasse puts state cash at risk

Albany Times/Union - 20 min 22 sec ago

Albany

Federal transportation spending is speeding toward a cliff, and Congress is behind the wheel.

The Democrat-controlled U.S. Senate on Tuesday passed a bill — a modified piece of House legislation — to keep the national Highway Trust Fund solvent, sending it to the Republican-led House, where Speaker John Boehner has said he won't agree to it.

While a political stalemate in Washington isn't uncommon, the stakes in this one are extremely high because without a stopgap solution by Friday, states including New York will be in dire straits. The federal Department of Transportation has said that without a resolution it will slow reimbursements to states before the end of August.

"We are seeing that infrastructure — which generally is a nonpartisan issue or had been for many, many decades — is now being so politicized," said Veronica Vanterpool, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a nonprofit group that pushes for smart transportation planning.

State officials are optimistic that a short-term proposal will be passed in some form. Ron Epstein, chief financial officer for the state Department of Transportation, said he expects the Senate to go along with a House bill that's stripped of provisions inserted by the upper chamber.

"What they pass is probably less important than the fact that they pass a bill," Epstein said. "They both will provide funding to keep the Highway Trust Fund solvent so that beginning on Aug. 1, the Federal Highway Administration won't have to implement cash management actions, which is essentially prorating of payments."

Like most states, keeping New York's roadways in good repair relies on a hefty chunk of federal dollars. DOT spokesman Beau Duffy said the capital construction program — a roughly $1.7 billion effort — is about 70 percent federally funded. Without the cash, communities could get squeezed. Rep. Paul D. Tonko, D-Amsterdam, said 51 percent of major roads are listed as being in mediocre or poor condition, and 32 percent of state-maintained bridges are in need of replacement or reconstruction.

Vanterpool said studies show that the Albany-Schenectady region could lose $19 million worth of transportation infrastructure money if the impasse persists.

"That's a lot for communities that have the population that they have," she said. "We're not talking about the same level of density as we see downstate. But this money goes a long way toward repairing potholes, toward repaving projects, to ensure even that there are new multi-modal options."

Tonko said the passage of the short-term solution would merely kick the can down the road. New York and other states have been seeking a six-year bill, something that hasn't been enacted since 2005.

Epstein expressed confidence — based on pragmatism — that lawmakers will pass a long-term solution by next May, when the House version of the bill would expire.

"Infrastructure is too important to the nation's commerce and everything we do every day," Epstein said. "The question will be what level and how do they fund it. They may punt it for another year, but they eventually have to make a deal."

mhamilton@timesunion.com • 518-454-5449 • @matt_hamilton10

Categories: State/Local

Fate of Saipan heroes at stake

Albany Times/Union - 20 min 22 sec ago

Saratoga Springs

Racing against time, members of a Japanese organization are combing a New York military museum's World War II records for information they hope will lead to the graves of American servicemen still listed as missing in action on Saipan.

The reason for the urgency: A developer plans to begin construction in the fall on a condominium near the beach where scores of Americans were killed during Japan's largest mass suicide attack of the war.

Kuentai-Japan, a nonprofit group that searches Pacific islands for Japan's war dead, found the remains of at least two American fighting men near the construction site in 2011 and 2013, and believes as many as 16 others are buried nearby.

The remains of the two men — identified as MIAs from the 105th Regiment — have been returned for burial in their home states.

Maj. Jamie Dobson, a spokeswoman for the Hawaii-based U.S. Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command, said that developers must follow Saipan's stringent historic preservation laws and that if a probable burial site is found to be in danger, the U.S. will send a recovery team.

Categories: State/Local

Photos: Candidate calls for cleaning

Albany Times/Union - 20 min 22 sec ago

Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob Astorino carried a bottle of bleach to a news conference outside the Capitol on Tuesday, where he spoke about the need to clean up Albany. He called for a state investigation into Gov. Andrew Cuomo's handling of the Moreland Commission.

Categories: State/Local

Feds: State owes $1.5B

Albany Times/Union - 20 min 22 sec ago

Albany

Two new federal audits of New York's massive Medicaid program have concluded that state government must refund $1.5 billion to Washington.

The biggest hit came from an audit by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) that was revealed Tuesday at a House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearing.

New York Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, a New York City Democrat, criticized a federal agent for targeting New York.

The new audit found that in the 2010-2011 fiscal year, New York took $1.26 billion more than it deserved to run the subsidized health care program at facilities operated by the state Office for People with Developmental Disabilities.

New York state will appeal, said William Schwarz, a state Department of Health spokesman.

CMS is demanding repayment of the money as it moves ahead with further reviews of Medicaid funding of New York's developmental centers and care facilities for the 2011 and 2012 fiscal years. Earlier reviews by the federal government determined that the facilities received $15 billion in excessive federal Medicaid resources over a 20-year period.

A separate new audit examining other programs in New York's $56 billion Medicaid program found that the state received $200 million in extra federal money in recent years. That audit, by the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, focused on several programs, in many cases faulting poor documentation and support for reimbursements provided.

During the hearing, John Hagg, director of Medicaid audits for the inspector general, was confronted by Maloney. She asked whether similar findings arose in other states and asked why New York is drawing so much attention.

Hagg said the panel asked his agency to study New York, and noted that excess payments have been found in other states. "New York must do a better job of monitoring providers to ensure that only allowable services are paid," he said.

Maloney said Gov. Andrew Cuomo has "taken seriously the long-term sustainability of the program" and created a committee to recommend reforms. As a result, she said, $2 billion is being saved in the state's Medicaid program.

The CMS review found the state's financial management of the program is lacking. The auditors said that the state has not adequately supported reported costs, didn't have the proper internal controls, did not comply with federal requirements for establishing a cost allocation plan, and had provided unreliable consolidated fiscal reports for 2010-2011. Auditors also found examples of what seemed to be excessive rates paid for services, particularly at two government-owned hospitals in New York City.

A spokesman for Cuomo did not respond to inquiries about the demands for repayments.

Schwarz, the Heath Department spokesman, would not take calls on the audits. He emailed a statement saying that the department will "vigorously appeal this unprecedented decision."

Schwarz said the federal government previously approved the funds, and giving them back "could have untold negative consequences on the state's health care system."

Like Maloney, he credited Cuomo with "proactively" redesigning New York's wasteful and inefficient Medicaid program, which had been sanctioned by the federal government and prior administrations.

"As a result, the federal government and New York taxpayers have saved billions while quality of care improved, per capita spending declined, and enrollment increased." he said.

jodato@timesunion.com • 518-454-5083 • @JamesMOdato

Categories: State/Local

Breaks go to existing companies

Albany Times/Union - 20 min 22 sec ago

Albany

START-UP NY might be a misnomer: Gov. Andrew Cuomo's signature job-creation initiative isn't really aimed at start-up companies.

Of the two dozen companies so far announced that will receive 10 years of tax breaks, more than half are actually expansions of companies that already operate in New York or elsewhere.

Economic development officials from the Cuomo administration stress that the program was designed from the beginning to give tax breaks to companies that would expand or relocate, not necessarily just those starting from scratch.

"It's an acronym," said one official from Empire State Development, which administers the program.

To be sure, the legislation creating the — take a deep breath — SUNY Tax-Free Areas to Revitalize and Transform UPstate NY program allows expansions as well as true start-ups so long as a business is not cutting employees somewhere else and moving them to a START-UP zone simply in order to get the tax break.

One of the early descriptions of the program, which Cuomo rolled out in May 2013, notes that "Eligible businesses include companies with a relationship to the academic mission of the university and companies creating new jobs, including new businesses, out-of-state businesses that relocate to New York and existing businesses that expand their New York operations while maintaining their existing jobs."

State officials noted that most true start-up companies take a while to make money — so they wouldn't have to pay taxes anyway, at least at first.

The latest round of START-UP participants was announced Monday in Buffalo, with companies that range from software developers for the legal profession and a biotech firm working on genetic markers for autism to a developer of brain injury drugs.

Some promise to bring many jobs. Liazon Corp., which provides online benefit exchanges, is expected to add 500 positions in five years. Others, such as Biologichem, which designs chemicals for the pharmaceutical industry, will add just four jobs at the outset.

As START-UP NY participants, the firms will pay no income or property taxes for a decade, and employees also get a 10-year break from income taxes. Those who make more than $250,000, though, get only a five year income tax break.

Still, some wonder how one can ensure that a firm isn't getting a tax break for expansions that they might have gotten whether the program existed or not.

"Did they leave their other office and open a new office?'' asked Ron Deutsch of New Yorkers for Fiscal Fairness, which has been critical of other Cuomo tax cuts.

While Cuomo has pitched the initiative as a special help for upstate, companies that are working with college campuses in New York City and Long Island are eligible as well. Spaces in those regions were added in order to gain support from downstate legislators.

Even those who have criticized Cuomo's tax cuts say START-UP — originally known as Tax-Free NY — appears to be an improvement on earlier programs such as the Empire Zones, which created geographic areas where tax breaks would be given. That allowed clever companies to simply move from one location to another to get the benefit.

Trying to find links with research in state universities makes sense, added Michael Kink of A Strong Economy for All, another group that has been critical of tax cuts for the impact they've had on schools and human services.

"That's something the state should be doing," Kink said of the work with colleges and universities.

rkarlin@timesunion.com • 518-454-5758 • @RickKarlinTU

Categories: State/Local

Odds slightly favor casinos in the region

Albany Times/Union - Fri, 08/01/2014 - 1:07am

Albany

Capital Region residents are split on casino development in the region — but if they build it, will they come?

Maybe not.

A Time Warner Cable News/Siena College poll released in two parts on Monday and Tuesday shows that Capital Region residents are divided, 49 percent to 40 percent, in favor of casino development in the area. But 63 percent of the same voters say they're not likely to visit a regional casino.

The results echo those recorded at the ballot nine months ago, when Capital Region voters narrowly voted no on Proposition 1, the constitutional amendment authorizing the state to issue seven new casino licenses in select regions. The measure passed.

In the Capital Region alone, five casino proposals are currently on the table, and other locations have been pitched.

Thirty-four percent said traffic problems would be the biggest negative impact from casinos, and 27 percent view a potential increase in crime as the top issue.

However, a majority of voters see casinos as a boon to state and local government revenues and job creation, the two largest positive impacts they anticipate.

While a majority of Capital Region voters (66 percent) said they wouldn't gamble at all at a new regional casino, they were more bullish on using a casino for other things. Sixty-one percent said they would at least be somewhat likely to attend a concert held at a gambling hall, and 54 percent said they'd be at least somewhat likely to patronize a casino restaurant.

The new data come from voters polled in the three regions — the Capital Region, Southern Tier/Finger Lakes and Catskills/Hudson Valley — where 17 casino developers are vying for up to four licenses.

Capital Region voters made up 39 percent of the statewide respondents.

mhamilton@timesunion.com 518-454-5449 @matt_hamilton10

Categories: State/Local

Around NY

Albany Times/Union - Fri, 08/01/2014 - 1:07am

$92M in debt relief over military lending

ALBANY — Thirteen states have settled an investigation into improper lending with a court agreement that is expected to provide $92 million in debt relief for 17,800 U.S. military personnel.

Deceptive practices by Rome Finance Co., more recently doing business as Colfax Capital Corp. and Culver Capital LLC, based in California and Georgia, included failing to accurately disclose charges and interest rates, state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said Tuesday. Authorities also alleged the lenders helped retailers inflate prices, with repayments taken from troops' paychecks.

Authorities say military personnel will keep financed merchandise like computers and gaming systems with debt forgiven, including $2.2 million for more than 550 state residents.

— Associated Press

Hudson Valley heroin sweep nets nine arrests

MIDDLETOWN — Nine suspects have been arrested in the second phase of a federal sweep targeting heroin trafficking in the Hudson Valley.

Authorities say all nine suspects in custody have Middletown addresses, but the arrests stretched as far as York, Pa.

All the arrests occurred about 6 a.m. Tuesday when a SWAT team was deployed. One suspect is still being sought.

The suspects face federal charges of conspiracy to distribute heroin. If convicted, they could face federal prison terms between 10 and 20 years.

In the first phase of the sweep last November, authorities arrested 12 men and two women. They were accused of running a large-scale, Middletown-based trafficking operation dating back to at least 2007.

— Associated Press

Categories: State/Local

Cuomo: Ethics panel a success

Albany Times/Union - Fri, 08/01/2014 - 1:07am

Albany

Gov. Andrew Cuomo was in Buffalo on Monday to talk about new jobs, the START-UP NY initiative and the comeback spirit that's palpable in upstate's largest city. The media had another subject in mind.

Cuomo spent most of his half-hour question-and-answer with reporters defending his administration's involvement in the work of the Moreland Commission, the watchdog entity set up by the governor a year ago to investigate public corruption. It was Cuomo's first appearance in public since the panel's troubled existence and early demise was the subject of a long report last Wednesday in The New York Times.

Cuomo didn't waver from two central points: that the commission was a success, and that his office did nothing more than advise its members.

"No one ever said they shouldn't be talking to people, or get advice or consultation from people. They should be independent," he said.

Two hours before his Buffalo appearance, commission Co-chair William Fitzpatrick, the Onondaga County district attorney, released a three-page statement defending the panel, his own role and the administration's involvement. "The governor announced in forming the commission that it would be an independent body. It was," Fitzpatrick wrote. If anyone had ordered it to take or not take an action, "we all would have resigned. That never happened."

Cuomo pointed to Fitzpatrick's statement throughout his news conference. "The co-chair today says, 'I was 100 percent independent. I made the decisions. Did I talk to people? Of course I talked to people. It would be unintelligent not to talk to people. But I made all the decisions,' " the governor said.

In separate statements released after Cuomo spoke, other commission members refuted past reports that they had threatened to resign from the commission over alleged executive-branch meddling. Only Erie County District Attorney Frank Sedita III acknowledged commissioners had at least discussed resigning if reports of administration pressure were borne out.

Cuomo said the best proof of the panel's independence was the commission's decision to move ahead with a subpoena sent to a media-buying firm that initially was withdrawn at the behest of the governor's office.

Cuomo's explanation of the panel's "independence" required some nuance: While he insisted the panel had the legal right to go wherever it wanted, the governor said that as a practical matter investigations of him or state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman would have created a conflict of interest because both men were involved in the commission's creation. (Schneiderman deputized some commission members as deputy attorneys general to enhance the panel's subpoena powers.)

The governor said the panel's work was directly responsible for the passage of an ethics package that included the creation of a new independent Board of Elections enforcement division, a ban on political involvement for any elected official convicted of corruption and a much-discussed public financing pilot program for this year's state comptroller's race.

Cuomo's gubernatorial opponents kept up their barrage on the issue. Democrat Zephyr Teachout called on Schneiderman to open an investigation into the Moreland meddling. Republican Rob Astorino, who released a Moreland-related TV ad Monday slamming the governor as a phony, took a different approach during a public appearance in Syracuse.

"To suggest that (Cuomo) was suggesting to the commission members where they should go with an investigation is like a mafia boss coming forward and saying that he wants to make a suggestion, an offer you can't refuse," said Astorino, who like the governor is Italian-American. "That clearly is intimidation."

That comment resulted in a flurry of denunciations from Democrats of Italian heritage.

Back in Buffalo, Cuomo was asked if he refuted the Times story that had put the Moreland Commission back in the spotlight. "Me, refute The New York Times front page?" he asked in a mocking tone. "What I'm saying is this: You have opinions and you have facts, and you have sources who know the facts."

"Was the Moreland Commission interfered with?" he continued. " ... The chairman of the commission is the best person to answer that question because only he would know. Read the chairman's statement. I think it speaks for itself. I'll say on top of the chairman's statement, the Moreland Commission was a success. It accomplished everything it set out to accomplish. It ended when it was supposed to end."

mhamilton@timesunion.com • 518-454-5449 • @matt_hamilton10

Categories: State/Local

Retiree benefits changing

Albany Times/Union - Fri, 08/01/2014 - 1:07am

Albany

Hundreds of retirees from a not-for-profit corporation affiliated with New York's government will no longer be covered by the state worker health insurance plan after August. Instead, the retired employees will go into a defined benefit program in which each retiree will be allocated a fixed amount of money to cover health care costs.

The change will be for those who have retired from Health Research Inc., which works mostly with the state Health Department and Buffalo's Roswell Park Cancer Institute. The company relies largely on federal grants to carry out research and public health programs.

Rather than relying on the New York State Health Insurance Plan used by public-sector retirees, HRI retirees will henceforth depend on a fixed amount of money maintained by a trust fund set up for their health care needs.

The change will affect about 300 people, about half of them in the Capital Region. That's a relatively small number — an estimated 62,000 retirees in the Capital Region alone use NYSHIP insurance — but some fear it could set the tone for future pullbacks affecting state and local government workers as well.

Facing the same kind of rising retiree health care costs confronting government agencies, HRI needed to control those expenses, said Executive Director Barbara Ryan.

"In order to look forward and remain competitive to survive in the grant world, we had to restructure how we are doing this," she said.

Grant applications typically include a "fringe rate" that shows how much of the money goes to fringe benefits such as health insurance for retirees. "That rate was creeping up," Ryan said.

In an earlier notice to employees, HRI referred to a growing unfunded liability stemming from retiree health costs. Many local governments face the same growth, but they have historically paid for those increases through raising taxes — which is not an option for HRI.

Under the new program to start at the end of August, retiree health expenses will be reimbursed from a $19.6 million trust fund, said Edward Farrell, executive director of the Retired Public Employees Association, which is critical of the plan.

With 300 people in the pool, that averages out to about $65,000 per person — although the precise amount will vary based on how long a retiree worked, and the amount of credits for unused sick time he or she may have.

That money will then reimburse retirees for costs like supplemental health insurance and other medical expenses. An individual allocation could last a lifetime, or it could be eaten up quickly by a major illness or catastrophic event.

The change is similar to the shift from a defined benefit pension, which provides a fixed amount for the rest of a retiree's life, to a 401(k), in which retirees build up individual nest eggs, said Stephen Madarasz, spokesman for the Civil Service Employees Association. The union represents about 1,500 HRI employees.

Madarasz stressed that the union doesn't represent retirees. Union members earlier in the month voted to approve creation of the trust, which would have been better than simply eliminating the benefit upon retirement.

Farrell said his group objects to the change for retirees, since they didn't expect to lose the insurance when they left their jobs.

And while he believes the company has the legal right to make the switch, he fears it could presage similar moves elsewhere in the public sector.

"If in fact what's going on at HRI is a trial balloon, it could have vast implications for current employees and other retirees," Farrell said.

Farrell's organization is currently in court fighting an earlier cost hike for retirees. That dispute stemmed from an increase in the portion of health insurance premiums that was agreed to in contract talks by CSEA under the threat of layoffs. The retirees group argued that the increase was improperly expanded to include retirees as well as non-union state workers.

CSEA has also pursued legal action regarding increases for retirees who had earlier worked under a union contract.

rkarlin@timesunion.com • 518-454-5758 • @RickKarlinTU

Categories: State/Local

A $200M Medicaid bill

Albany Times/Union - Fri, 08/01/2014 - 1:07am

The federal government overpaid New York's Medicaid program at least $200 million and the money should be refunded to Washington, according to findings of a new audit to be unveiled Tuesday.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services audit focused on the past three years of reimbursements for various services provided under New York's $56 billion Medicaid program.

In areas such as home health care, continuing day treatment, orthodontic and dental coverage, and traumatic brain injury programs, the federal agency's Office of Inspector General found millions of dollars in improper payments.

Many of them were for services that were not provided or were duplicative billings. Auditors found many of the services were covered without properly documenting need.

The findings are scheduled to be featured in testimony at a House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearing on state financing of Medicaid on Tuesday. The committee has been pressing New York to improve its operations in recent years.

Key findings reported by John Hagg, director of Medicaid Audits for HHS's inspector general's office, include overpayments to various providers. The report calls for a refund of more than $200 million.

Hagg's report, obtained by the Times Union, recommends that New York issue guidance to the providers on requirements for claiming Medicaid reimbursement and that monitoring be improved to help ensure that providers are in compliance with federal and state rules.

The audit is the most recent slap after a series of federal reviews of New York's program that have been sharply critical. The oversight committee has been urging audits of the New York program. In the past, the panel has insisted that New York make "appropriate" payback of $15 billion in overbilling found to have arisen over two decades that went to fund services at developmental centers.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo's administration has insisted that most of the problems identified by the committee came before he took office in 2011 and that most of the issues have been corrected.

However, the panel has criticized Cuomo's Office of Medicaid Inspector General and the new audit involves activities during Cuomo's tenure.

jodato@timesunion.com - 518-454-5083 - @JamesMOdato

Categories: State/Local
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